Chapter 6: The Mission

They climbed the narrow stairs to the small apartment above the shop, lit candles and lamps, and talked through the night.  Aquila and Saul talked.  Prisca watched and listened, holding on to her distrust like a sword raised in self-defense.  Only the sword grew heavier as the night progressed and, in the end, she found that she no longer had the strength to ward off this stranger and keep him at a safe distance.

Aquila told the story of Rome, where he and Prisca first met followers of the Way and heard about Jesus.  He talked about the Christians there and the heated, heart-rending conflicts between church and synagogue. 

Saul listened with nods that said, I’ve fought that battle as well, Aquila.  I carry the scars of it still.  But he did not interrupt.  He simply soaked up the story and let his eyes communicate that he understood. 

And, somehow, the understanding allowed Aquila to talk about those times in ways Prisca had not heard before.  About wounds she had not seen.  About fears and struggles he’d kept to himself, perhaps kept from himself, until this unburdening. 

It was the understanding that began to thaw Prisca toward Saul.  She was grateful it encouraged Aquila to talk about festering hurts that might now heal.  And she was moved when she read in Saul’s wordless listening the possibility that he had suffered also, perhaps more. 

The story poured out, like water from a breached dam. The resentments of the Hebrews towards those who confessed faith in the Christ. The expulsion from the synagogue. The unraveling of families and businesses and long friendships. The shouting and violence that eventually erupted into riots on the streets. 

“But the worst time,” the husband glanced at his wife, “was after Claudius issued his decree.  He banished all Jews from Rome—or at least the ones who were causing trouble and disturbing the peace.  Only who could supply the list? Who knew the names of the trouble-makers?  The synagogue, of course.  The decree was their chance.  The boldest and most outspoken disciples were targeted first.  Their names were given to the authorities.  They were arrested. Their property confiscated. Then, whole house-churches were taken.  Entire families imprisoned or exiled.”  Aquila stopped and ran his hand through his hair, the memories of those days suddenly vivid and tender once more.

“And the worst of the worst,” Prisca took up the story softly, “was the waiting. Soldiers came knocking at the doors of our friends.  One day they’re there, and the next they’re not. We began every morning wondering if this would be the day the soldiers came for us, wondering who would betray us.” The husband and wife glanced at each other, remembering.

“We sold what we could, while we could,” Aquila continued. “One of the first people we met in Rome bought out our supplies and the lease on the shop. A great-hearted Jew who could never bring himself to believe in a crucified Messiah.  He paid a very generous price.  I guess he felt sorry for us.”  He smiled, the memory of that kindness still fresh for him.

Prisca reached out a hand to her husband.  “We learned later that his wife was so angry about it, she marched to the synagogue and turned us in herself.”  They looked at each other for a long moment and then laughed.  Prisca glanced at Saul and shrugged.  “We didn’t like her very much anyway.”

“We got out one step ahead of the soldiers. Ran for the coast and caught the first boat leaving Italia.” Aquila was ready to change the subject. “Wound up here in Corinth where it turns out they need tents and tarpaulins as much as in Rome!”

And though Saul could see there was more to the story and though he could guess it involved hiding and loss and goodbyes and cold nights on the side of dangerous roads, he nodded his thanks for what they’d shared and spoke a prayer of healing over them.

“And what about you, Saul?” Prisca asked, lowering her eyes from God.  Unable to sustain her distrust, a more characteristic trait bubbled to the surface.  Curiosity.  “What’s your story?”

“Ah, my story.  So we don’t plan to sleep tonight?” But he knew the story was more important than rest, that the need to tell it was more urgent than the weariness that scratched behind his eyes. 

So he began.

“My story will be difficult to hear, especially after what you suffered in Rome. Once upon a time, I would have been the one arresting your friends and trying to stamp out the Jesus heresy. There is a great deal of my past to regret … and to forgive.” 

Prisca swallowed hard and stared down at her hands.

He sighed and studied the floor.  “You should call me ‘Paul’ to begin with.  It’s the name I go by now. The only people who call me ‘Saul’ knew me a long time ago, when I was a different man.”  

He told his story as if it were his regular penance, a confession more than a tale. He spoke of betrayals committed out of conviction, of brutalities born from a sense of duty. He talked about the excuses he used to justify inexcusable deeds, of murder done in the name of God, of a cold determination to wipe out the cult of this crucified criminal. His voice was steady as he visited the past, but the tears ran down his face on occasion. 

He chose each word carefully, as though he were swimming in a pond of memory made dangerous by submerged hazards, as though something might rise from the depths to devour him if he did not maintain a fierce concentration.

Prisca could see it was a story he told often, though she suspected he never found the telling easy.  It wasn’t easy to hear either. She tried. Tried to take each betrayal, each act of violence, without flinching. Tried to hide the horror from her face, thinking all the while of her friends in Rome and the pitiless men who hounded them for God’s sake. Paul had been one of those men: pitiless; relentless; consumed. Persecuting other believers with other names in other places. Putting other Priscas on dark roads with only fear for comfort.

She knew she could forgive him all this, if only she could keep listening. He was a different man now. She felt it in the way he told the story. So naked and honest. So broken. There was a point in the telling when Prisca wanted to touch his hand, to say Enough. You don’t have to do this to yourself.  Yet somehow she knew Paul needed these memories, that she had no power, no right, to ease them with her sympathy.

At last, deep in the night, the story got better. He told them of the vision.  He told of the blindness.  He told of the days spent in darkness and in a sorrow so profound, it felt like fever. He told of Ananias and the offer of  grace, a forgiveness that took him three wandering years to get his arms around.  And he told them, with a passion that bordered on ecstasy, of discovering a God in his wanderings who was greater than the sum of his laws … a God who cared more for his creatures than they could imagine … a God who would go to the cross to rescue a man as lost, as proud, as blind as Saul of Tarsus, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews.

And still he talked, weaving a spell with his story, binding his listeners to himself. Distant cities. Crowds in the agora. Battles in synagogues. Churches springing up in unlikely places. Beatings. Storms at sea. People named Barnabas and Timothy and Lydia and Clement. Miracles. Changed lives. Second chances.

Twelve years worth of stories. Twelve years of disappointments and victories. Right up to the time he stumbled across their shop and saw so clearly what God wanted of him next. 

The candles on the table were guttering, burned down to the quick.  But a muted glow was already lightening the sky outside. They sat quietly as day broke, reluctant to end the time together, too burdened by the stories to stand up and stumble to bed.

Prisca didn’t know what to feel. She was so tired. She thought perhaps she was sad for Paul. For the pain he’d endured or the pain he’d caused. But that wasn’t it.

She did know—with a firm, clear conviction—that this Paul was a special man, a great man. Great in his failings, perhaps. But greater in his calling.  Of that she was certain. 

She looked over at him, leaning on the table with his head in his hands. His tunic had slipped from his neck and one shoulder. In the gathering light, she noticed scars peeking out, the lattice lines of past sufferings.  A cold hand closed over her heart. She realized—suddenly and certainly—that Paul was what she’d suspected from the first, a dangerous man to be around.

There is no moderation in him. A man like this, driven by the demons of memory and the call of God, he will risk anything, everything. He’ll never shut up until they kill him. And to be with him, to be near him, means … what? She knew well enough.

Rome. All over again. Maybe worse.

She groaned, overcome by the old panic, the familiar fears, and grasped the table to steady herself.  The two men looked up in alarm, at the white of her knuckles, at her brimming eyes, and half-rose to help.  But she waved them away. “I’m just tired,” she told them. 

Tired, she thought, suddenly angry with herself, wanting to shout out “Stop!” again. I’m tired alright.  I’m tired of looking over my shoulder, tired of being afraid. I’m tired of bad dreams and hiding away.  I can’t keep on like this, living in fear that something worse than Rome might happen to us.

In that moment, she made her decision. They would just have to handle whatever came. It was one thing to be afraid. It was another to live small because of it. God had brought this strange man into their lives. Who was she to turn him away? She moved around the table and pulled the Apostle to his feet, wrapping him in her arms. 

“Welcome to Corinth, Paul.”

She broke the embrace and stepped away to see he was flustered—a preacher of grace who experienced precious little of it from others, she suspected.  She laughed and took her husband’s arm.  “For years now, I’ve been praying for God to give me a child.  Us a child.” She squeezed Aquila’s arm.  “But in his wisdom, he has done something better.  He has given us you.”  Her eyes were shining now. 

“You need a mother,” she announced.  “You need a safe place to come home to.  Well,” and she beamed first at Aquila and then back at Paul, “Consider yourself adopted, Paul. This is your safe place now and for as long as you need it.  We will take care of you.”

Paul started to speak, to protest that old men don’t need mothers.  But then he thought of how few safe places he had known in his life, how few were the people courageous enough offer him sanctuary.  And he knew suddenly that he’d come to Corinth wounded and weary and in desperate need of simple kindness. He felt something give way inside him, a small relaxing of the rigid control that kept him going.  Paul turned away for a moment, embarrassed to be so needy, embarrassed that the two of them should see it.

Maybe he needed a mother after all. 

So he turned back to Prisca, smiling, and asked, “Will you bake me cakes?”  

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.