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Chapter Five (continued)
Lucius tried to assume an air of casual comfort, as if he had expected to find himself in just that spot and felt entirely at home there. After a few moments, the others in the courtyard stopped glancing at them, and all attention focused again on Polycarp and the elders, at the head of the assembly. It only took Lucius a moment to realize that, for all his attempts to look comfortable, he had stepped into the midst of a wholly foreign world.
The building itself was unremarkable, but what was going on inside it was strikingly new. He had worshiped at his family’s shrine in the Caelius house, and he had duly attended festivals and sacrifices at the various temples of Rome, but none of the familiar markers of piety that he was so accustomed to there were here. He was used to seeing a regimented array of idols, or at least one grand one in the center of it all, but there was no such thing here. He was also used to seeing an altar for the offering of sacrifices, but that was absent too. Instead, there were one or two lightly-sketched images on the wall behind the elders, but the stories described there were foreign to him. And instead of an altar, there was a table around which Polycarp and the elders stood, with just a few rustic items present: a scroll, a loaf of bread, and a ceramic jar with a matching cup. The faintest hint of incense filled the air, but nothing near the mind-fogging clouds that exhaled from the doorways of Roman temples.
One of the elders up front appeared to be at the center of the unfolding ritual—a gray-haired man of about fifty. The other elder was far older, perhaps as old a man as Lucius had ever seen. He was thin and bent over with the twisting malformations of age, and his bronzed skin had the look of fragile softness amid all its sags and wrinkles. But beneath a set of unruly brows flashed a gaze of warm intelligence, and Lucius felt the ancient man’s eyes burning on him more than once. Polycarp, for his part, stood meekly by the side, apparently ready to assist in the actions of the ritual when his time came.
The first elder was chanting something, and every so often all the people standing in the courtyard would chant something in response. It was a wavering, Eastern sort of chant, in which all the words toward the end of each line ran together in a seamless stream. Lucius was still adjusting his ear to the Ionian dialect of Greek, and having to listen to the words in chant-form made it all the more difficult. Eventually, though, he began to make sense of some of it. It was clear that the chanting was mostly one long prayer, addressed to an unseen God. There were other characters invoked, too, beside the main God—a reference to his son, who had a strangely Eastern-sounding name, and to a sacred spirit.
He stood there for quite some time, noting all these things. He had practically forgotten that he had ducked into that courtyard just to get away from Ariston. He cast a quick glance over his shoulder, and saw that the young Greek was still there, his face an alternating picture of boredom and suspicion.
Ariston caught Lucius’ glance and raised his brow in question. “Are you really staying here?” he whispered.
Lucius shrugged. He didn’t really want to stay, but if it succeeded in dislodging Ariston from his company, it was worth the cost.
“You know that there’s a decent chance the magistrates will come and shut down their meeting, right?”
Lucius shrugged again.
Ariston smirked. “Choose your friends carefully, Tiro,” he winked, stepping back toward the archway that led toward the street. “I’ll be watching.”
Lucius turned his attention back to the atheists’ ritual. He hoped to be able to return to the street soon enough, but he wanted to leave enough time to make sure that Ariston had disappeared again. The Greek’s accusations had shocked him to the point of desperation, and he wanted nothing more to do with him. If that meant throwing in his lot with the atheists, then so be it.
He listened to the cadence of the prayers, gentle in their rhythm, rising and falling like whispered breaths of wind. And the more he listened, the more entranced that he became. He wasn’t trying to think about the prayer, much less to join into it, but it tugged at him with calm persistence, the way that one’s feet may be slowly pulled into the soft, wet sand by each retreating wave. There was a remarkable tone about these prayers that he had never heard before—not the resigned, rote litany of lauds to pamper divine pride, nor the wishful pleading for blessings. No, here was a profound confidence, a delighted assurance that the God they addressed heard them, cared about them, and would answer their pleas and praises. In short, there was joy here, and it startled him.
He began to listen more closely to the prayer, to its celebratory exclamations, to its peace and its pauses. And in the midst of the prayer, chanted forth by the elder, answered by the people, he heard a common refrain: Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
Lucius had heard similar words prayed in fear in Roman temples, prayed to avert the wrath of a capricious god, but here it sounded different. Here it was prayed in a tone of knowledge and of rest, as if the answer was already known. It felt to Lucius as if these people knew already that their God would grant them mercy, not because of their prayers or deeds, but because he himself was the Lord of mercy. There was power, radiant power, in that oft-repeated cry.
And, to his great shock, Lucius felt himself begin to cry.
Mercy. Mercy. Mercy.
It pounded against the crumbling walls of his heart like the hammer-blows of a galley drum. It’s what he longed for, but knew he couldn’t get—mercy from the Roman magistrates, mercy from his father, mercy from the gods. He needed it—he didn’t deserve it, but he needed it.
And there, in the midst of all those strange, world-defying atheists, the hard edges of Lucius’ soul began to be ground down, cut back by the incessant pressure of this rampant, free-flowing, untiring mercy. And as he vainly tried to wipe away the tears that were spilling down his cheeks, he saw again the eyes of the ancient elder, fastened firm on him.