Chapter 41: The Mission

Prisca and Stauria knocked on the door of Gaius’s house. They knocked repeatedly. The house was so cavernous, it took Paul a while to hear and make his way to the entrance.  

“Ladies,” he said when he opened the door, bowing in a courtly manner. “Welcome to my humble abode.”

He ushered them into the villa and let them stand gawking at the costly tiles, the rich colors on the walls, the solid beams that ran the length of the room. “Poor Paul,” Prisca said finally, putting down the basket of food she carried. “To think that you gave up your mat at the shop for a hovel like this.”

“Yes, it is noble of me. But we must all sacrifice for the cause.” He grinned broadly. “There’s a real, honest-to-goodness bed upstairs with my name on it. I was just thinking about getting to know it better. Until you interrupted, that is.”

“We can come back after, if you want,” Stauria said softly.

He noted that she looked better, more rested.

“Oh, tush! Don’t mind him one bit, my dear,” Prisca patted her hand and pushed by Paul with a glare. “He probably pulls the mattress off the bed and sleeps on the floor anyway. I’m not even sure he’s house-broken.”

Stauria blinked uncertainly until she saw Paul’s face. They’re joshin’, she realized with a sort of wonder. Humor had been a brutal thing for so long—a tool for torture used at her expense—she’d forgotten it could also express affection. She smiled weakly just to join in. 

“What’s in the basket, Prisca?” Paul bent over to pick it up, peeling back the cloth to look inside.

“A house-warming gift,” she called over her shoulder as she dragged Stauria around the room to have a closer look at the murals. “A loaf of bread, some salt, a jar of wine.” She made a circuit of the hall and returned to stand in front of Paul. “May the Lord bless this house and all who enter it.” She poked at the basket. “Bread for plenty. Salt for spice. And wine for happiness.” She laughed then and swept a hand around the room. “This will do just fine, don’t you think?”

“I do. I do indeed. Are you hungry?”

He led them back into the kitchen, placing the basket on the table and pulling up stools for each of them. He unpacked Prisca’s gifts while he thought about Stauria, about what he could say.

He poured the wine into a bowl, mixing in a double measure of water. He set a jar of olives on the table and broke the bread into three portions, handing one to each of the women. Prisca dipped the cups he handed her into the wine-bowl and set them on the table.

Stauria took her cup and did what she’d done all her life—held it over the floor to pour a libation. But Paul closed his hand around hers and guided the cup back to the table. It was time to begin her education.

“No, Stauria. Not like that. Like this.” He raised his eyes. “We thank you, God of heaven and earth, for food and drink and the company of friends. We share this meal and remember that you are the source of all good blessings. Amen.”

Prisca echoed the Amen. Stauria, a quick study, did the same.

Paul tossed an olive into his mouth, peeled off the meat, and spat the seed into his hand. Prisca bit into her bread. Stauria went straight for the wine.

“So tell me, Stauria,” Paul asked casually, “what’s the worst thing you’ve ever done.”

She almost sprayed the wine over the table. Prisca choked on her bread. Paul took another olive and munched on it calmly, waiting.

The silence stretched out, Stauria looking from Paul to Prisca and then down at the table. “I done too many worst things,” she whispered finally.

“Really?” he said, as if they were discussing the price of fish in the agora. He broke off a piece of bread and chewed it slowly. “What’s the worst? The absolute worst?”

She looked at Prisca, ashamed. Paul felt a sharp kick under the table and ignored it. They sat in silence again—Paul eating, Stauria cringing, and Prisca dying a thousand deaths.

“Have you ever murdered anyone?” he asked at last.

She looked up with wide eyes. “Me? Never!”

“I have,” he said, reaching for another olive. “Oh, I didn’t sneak up behind them and stick a knife in, of course. It was all very legal. But it was murder just the same.” He took a drink while she stared at him in shock.

“Have you ever tampered with evidence, inflated charges, just to make sure that someone was convicted and given the harshest penalty?” He wiped a hand across his mouth and belched softly.

“Never did,” she said, confused.

“I have,” he said, and broke off another piece of bread. “I did it to a kid, no more than seventeen, who was a blasphemer and a heretic. I knew he was. But I didn’t have the hard evidence. So I planted a witness to say he’d seen the boy in bad company and heard him speak blasphemies. His mother came to plead for the boy. I laughed at her and sent her away.”

He put the bread in his mouth and crunched its hard crust. “Have you ever been so arrogant that you thought you could do no wrong, that God measured all others by the impossible standard of your own virtuous life?” He reached for his wine cup to wash down the food.

The question hung there for a moment. Stauria didn’t know what to say. “They beat you if you get too uppity, where I come from,” she answered.

Paul placed his cup slowly on the table and spread his hands out flat. “I wish someone had beaten me back then, back when it might have done some good.” It was his turn to whisper. He shook himself finally and pushed her untouched bread towards her. “Eat, Stauria. We have much to talk about today. But I wanted us to begin on level ground. We are the same, you and I.” She looked up to stare at him with cautious eyes. He nodded at her. “That’s right. Both of us scarred. Both of us failed. Both of us with too many worsts in our past.”

He took her hand. “If God could give someone like me another chance, he can give you one too. There is nothing you’ve done he can’t forgive. If you trust him. If you’ll let him. Do you believe that?”

“I’ll work on it,” was all she could say.

He smiled. “That’s enough for now. The two of you eat. And when you’re done, we can do our business with God.”

He left them at the kitchen table and went to the latrine. He’d never been in a house with indoor facilities. Even after several days in Gaius’s villa, it was still a source of wonder to him. He could hear the water splashing below the toilet, carrying the sewage away from the house, away from the city. He admired the smooth marble of the seat, the sponge stick in its ornate holder.

He poured water into a basin and washed his face, cupping the water into his mouth to purge the taste of bile from his tongue and teeth and lips. He leaned over and spat into the commode. It was always like this whenever he relived those dark days—the sour taste, the thrumming regret.

He wondered if he would ever be able to tell his story without wanting to vomit.


II

They talked through the afternoon and into the night, Paul walking the women from room to room, giving them a tour of the villa while he spoke to Stauria of God and life and the world.

Prisca watched him carefully. In fact, her eyes could not leave his face. She’d never seen him like this, so … alive … so fully engaged. Oh, she’d seen him in top form in the synagogue debates and she’d felt the heat of his concentrated attention herself. But this was different. It was magical somehow, like when a child tumbles to the idea that those are not just random letters on a page—those are words! They have meaning! That’s how she felt watching him with Stauria—as though she’d only seen pieces of him before, as though she were seeing the pieces come together now to form a Paul she had not known.

This was Paul in his element. This was what Paul was made to do.

Before, when he’d left the kitchen, Prisca thought hard about taking Stauria’s hand and running from the house. She’d been so angry with Paul, for bullying the poor woman and undressing himself before her. You’re going too fast, Paul, she’d screamed in her head. She’s too fragile.

But she’d been wrong. Stauria could handle it. Somehow, Paul’s going right to the point, putting his finger on her sense of being spoiled for any good purpose and baring himself so brutally, opened her up quick and deep. It was like Paul had prized up the lid on her tight-locked, carefully-guarded heart with a few well-chosen words over lunch so that, afterwards, he could reach in and rummage around in its depths.

He wanted to hear her story again—all of it—and she told it willingly, with candor. She talked about her home in Dacia and the early, good years of her life. About a gentle father and a mother whose laugh she could still recall. She remembered the day the soldiers came, burning and killing and raping their way through the countryside—teaching a lesson, they’d said, to some distant potentate whose name she’d never heard. They killed her parents in front of her. She talked about the horrors of those first weeks in the soldiers’ camp, of being so terrified of dying that she’d do anything, let anything be done to her, for the chance at just another day.

Prisca tried to take it without flinching or groaning audibly. But it was hard, almost too hard.

As the rest of the story unraveled—every cruel and sordid part of it—Prisca realized it wasn’t the shame of the story that made it so difficult for Stauria to recount. It was the sense of hopelessness she’d wrapped around her life—a bitter, resigned, abandoned sense that she was irrevocably ruined, that the slope of her life ran only one direction, always downhill. It dawned on Prisca what Paul had done in telling of his own failure, in letting the few raw facts of his former life stand in mute contrast to the way he lived now. There is no such thing as ruined, he was saying. Anyone can change. It was an undared dream Stauria wrapped her arms around now, a diamond stumbled over in the mud of her wasted life. It gave her the courage to tell her story and to ask the question she had long ago put aside for the sake of survival and sanity.

“So, Paul, there be any hope for folk like me?”

He smiled, but postponed his answer for a while. Instead, he went back to the beginning, to the story of a God who created the world in clean and bright perfection. He spoke of dust gathered and shaped, and of a breath that brought life and God’s image to the first man, the father of all men. He talked about the breaking of that image, the twisting and scarring, that man in all his inventive ways, through all the sad years, brought on himself and others—a hand reaching for forbidden fruit, a hand raised in anger, the neighbor’s wife, the malicious word, the lie, the greed that is fed and then turns to devour. He told her about the God-given image stunned, then perverted, then dormant and almost dead. Almost. But not quite. Never completely.

“Nothing from the hand of God dies easily,” he promised her.

He talked of times when the image struggled to wakefulness through all the terrible years, when something God-like would stand up in the world and throw off the darkness for a brief moment. A man who heard God’s voice and built a boat. A murderer, grown old, who returned to the scene of his crime with a staff and a mission. A mother who brought her only son to serve at the altar of the God she loved. A boy-king who read God’s Book and felt the image stir strong inside him.

But not very often, he told her sadly. And not very many. Enough, though, so those watching could take note and remember that, somewhere deep inside each of them, lay the seed to something noble.

It was then he told her about the man from Nazareth, a man who went by many names—Immanuel, Anointed, Yeshua, Teacher—but was known best not by a name, but by a quality. He was the man in whom the image of God was fully awake, fully alive. In fact—and Paul smiled when he said it—Jesus was not a man with the image of God inside. He was the image of God wrapped in the skin of a man. The image filled him. It lit him up inside. It poured out of him and spilled on anyone who came near.

And it made him live in ways the world had not seen since the beginning, maybe not even then. His life was blinding, so bright and clean and true that people flocked to see it and bask in its glow. It made people gasp and cry and laugh and shout, “That’s it!” It made them dream of a different world, of a healthy, holy world. It made them ashamed of themselves. It made them thirsty to be better. It sent them scrambling to find the image in themselves, eager to live shining lives like his.

“I’ve told you this, Stauria,” Paul said as the shadows lengthened and the calm of late afternoon fell across the city, “because I want you to understand two things.” The women were fixed on him in a trance-like stare. Their eyes did not waver, hardly blinked … the way mothers gaze at newborns and cannot look away. Prisca was as caught as Stauria. She’d heard the story before, of course. Often. But not like this. Not stripped to such a beautiful essence.

“First, I want you to know that you have the image of God inside you. You were born with it. It is the gift God bestows on every child he brings into the world.” Stauria’s hand wandered unbidden to her chest, her palm pushing against the fabric of her tunic, as if to ask, Here? There be a part of God here?

“It’s asleep, of course; buried under all the wounds and sins and bad choices that have piled up over the years. You’re not responsible for all the dirt. Plenty of people have thrown garbage on your heart. But you’re responsible for enough of it. Some of the dirt is yours.”

A single tear slid down her cheek. “Yes. I reckon that’s true enough.”

“But it’s the other thing that’s most important. It’s the part of the story that touches you, where you are right now.” Paul stopped for a moment and thought how to put it. “Jesus didn’t come just to show us what the image of God looked like in him. If that were all of it, his story wouldn’t be good news. It would leave us ashamed and frustrated that our lives look so broken in comparison. His life would be a kind of judgment, you see, a forest fire that dwarfed our feeble candles.”

Now both of the women nodded. Both of them whispered, “Yes. That’s right.”

“The real reason Jesus came was to wake up the image in us. He wants to reach into us and dig up that buried image, bring it back to life and make it shine again. In you, Stauria. In you, Prisca. And even in someone like me.”

“But how?” Stauria asked, an urgency in her voice born of desperation. “How can he do that?”

His eyes lit up. Paul loved to tell this part of the story. “Well, it started with the cross. You heard me tell about the cross, Stauria—the other day, in the agora.” She nodded. She remembered the story. “I couldn’t say much then, just the bare facts of what happened. But now, let me tell you why it happened.”

Paul’s voice took on an edge. The story flared up in him, like fat poured on a fire, and the heat of his words was so intense, the women could feel their faces warm. “Of all the shining times in his life, the cross was when God’s image burned brightest in Jesus, so bright that Jesus couldn’t contain it. It’s as if God split Jesus open on the cross and stepped out to say, ‘This is who I am. This is my true heart and character.’” Paul took a breath, praying for words. How can you explain a mystery? he wondered and then plunged on.

“Jesus died to show us God. But he also died to share God with us, Stauria … to make God available to us. Don’t you see? The cross opens us up to God. The cross is God’s way of breaking our hearts so he can slip in. The cross is when Jesus stops being just ‘God-with-us’ and becomes ‘God-in-us.’ Do you understand?”

“No,” she said at once. “No, I can’t see it.”

He sighed and tried again. “At the cross, God took Jesus and broke him into a thousand pieces, like a clay pot shattered into a thousand shards. And now God takes those pieces and thrusts them into dead hearts and broken lives. The shards are sharp. They cut and convict. But they’re also powerful. They wake up the sleeping image. They straighten what’s been bent and bind up what’s been wounded. They set the image upright in our lives and breathe God’s breath into us once again.”

Paul rubbed at his eyes, trying to wipe away some of the wonder that had welled up, at least enough so he could see his way clearly. “That’s what’s happening to you right now, Stauria. God is cutting your heart with a piece of Jesus he took from the cross. We call that the Spirit of God. And that Spirit is knocking at your heart saying, ‘If you will let me in, I will wake you up. I will teach you the way. I will breathe new life into you. I will give you the power to live like Jesus.’”

She was crying in earnest now, the dark places of her life leaking out of her eyes, dripping from her nose, falling in gray circles on her tunic and wet splotches on the hands that lay in upturned surrender on her lap. She made little sound, except for a small keening in the back of her throat. But her shoulders shook with the effort of the tears and a tremor ran through her whenever she tried to take a breath.

Prisca rose to go to her, but Paul motioned her back. For it wasn’t comfort Stauria needed now, it was release … a few moments left alone to scour the bottom of the pot and wash out the leavings of past years. He knew there would be other tears, other scourings. It had taken him three years to dredge up the worst of his own regrets. But this was the beginning. This was how it had to start.

He looked out of the window, at the darkening sky. And, somehow, it seemed fitting that Stauria should mourn her old life, lay it to rest, as the sun set into the Corinthian Gulf and the glooming deepened in the courtyard outside. Night was death’s season. Stauria had died so many times in the night, piece by piece, stranger by stranger. But never like this. Never once for all.

And never with the certainty that after tonight, there would dawn a day that night could never banish.


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[Beginning of the novel]

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