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Lucius watched the remainder of the atheists’ service in a daze of wordless longing. He hadn’t come here expecting anything like this. He had wanted to get away from Ariston, to get away from his own past, but nothing would have suggested to him that the atheists or their solitary God had the answers he was seeking. But there he stood, watching them pray together, watching them sing of mercy and love and the triumph of God over evil and suffering and sin, and it felt like he had just walked to the edge of a chasm in his heart that he hadn’t even known was there. But now it stretched out before him, gaping and immense, a deep, raw, endlessly echoing cry, shouting out from the recesses of his heart. Pain and anger and loneliness crashed through his mind in great breathless waves, like the rush of breakers against a rocky coast. And he was overwhelmed.
He listened to the service, but could only half-hear it now, so dumbstruck was he by his own longings. The prayers and the songs continued, and then Polycarp stepped forward to give a reading from the scroll. It had to do with the man they had been singing about, the one they called God’s Son—Iesous Christos—and a dispute that he had had with a contrarian group of religious teachers. Lucius didn’t really understand it. Then the first elder instructed the assembly for awhile, expanding on the mysterious story that Polycarp had read. But Lucius still didn’t really understand the story, except that Iesous Christos apparently had the matter right, and the contrarian teachers had it wrong.
The service returned to songs and prayers for a time, and then both of the elders, together with Polycarp, administered an odd ritual with the bread and the cup. It had something to do with Iesous Christos yet again, something about blood and flesh, but Lucius wasn’t quite sure what. Each member of the assembly went up and ate a portion of the bread and drank a sip from the cup.
Lucius watched, not daring to participate. It reminded him of some whispered rumors that he had heard about the atheists—how they were actually cannibals who feasted on human flesh and drank human blood—but that was clearly not what was going on here. The reverence and joy with which these people treated the bread and the cup startled him. Even in temples where he had seen his fellow Romans eating sacred foods and participating in sacrifices in order to become mystically united to their gods, there was usually either a sense of rote boredom, of frantic, manufactured joy, or of stoic reverence—but never more than one such reaction in any person’s response. Here, though, there was a sincere joy and reverence, united in a way that Lucius had never seen before.
And once again the chasm of longing in his heart burst out in resounding peals of wounded desire. He had to know this peaceable joy. If he knew nothing else for the rest of his life, he had to know this.
A few more minutes of prayers and songs ensued, and then the service was over. Some of the atheists came up to Lucius and tried, in their oddly friendly way, to engage him in conversation, but he didn’t really have any words for them. He answered their questions politely, but added nothing of his own.
The crowd began to file out, under the archway of the courtyard and down the little track that would lead them back out to the main avenue of Smyrna. A few of the atheists remained, talking with one another quietly, smiles on their faces. Lucius found the smiles annoying. It wasn’t that he found them insincere; no, he knew that they were truly sincere. They really were happy in their bizarre faith to the solitary God. But for Lucius, who felt nothing but a wordless ache, a broken hunger to find some meaning, some rest, some mercy—the smiles felt like mockery.
He was about to shrug it off and go back out to the street when he saw the ancient elder hobbling straight toward him with reckless speed. Lucius’ first instinct was to rush toward the man, because he was moving so fast that it seemed a certainty that he would keel over headfirst and die right there if Lucius didn’t catch him. But the ancient man proved spryer than he looked, and he sidled right up in front of Lucius without the slightest stumble.
“Do you know the Way?” he asked, in a voice thick with age and foreign accents.
Lucius raised a questioning brow. “The way to what?”
“The Way, good man, the Way!” the ancient elder smiled. “There is only one way. Do you know Yeshua—my old friend, my Lord? Iesous Christos, of whom we just spoke: do you know him?”
There were so many strange names strung together in this old man’s thick accent that it took Lucius a moment to make sense of the question.
“No,” he answered. “I don’t. Not really. I’ve met Polycarp up there before. So I know a little bit about you atheists. Only one God, and so on.”
“Atheists!” the old man chuckled. “We are only atheists of make-believe gods, my friend. We are the people of the Way. Some of you Greeks call us Christians, because we follow Christos—the Christ of God.”
“I see. I’m not actually Greek, though. I’m a Roman.”
“Ah!” said the old man. “Aren’t we all! Romans, all of us, and most of us wish we weren’t!”
Lucius smiled at the old man’s joke, and shook his head. “I actually am a real Roman—born and raised in the great city itself.”
“Oh, I see! So it’s you we’ve to blame for the way the world is, eh? Ha! No, my friend, in truth I have great love for the Romans, if not always for their empire. I didn’t always love them, no. There was a time when I would have given anything to grab a sword, have Yeshua ride out as king, and eviscerate your armies.”
He smiled and shook his head, as if it were a fond memory of peaceful times at the old family hearth. Lucius listened to all this and couldn’t help but grin. There was a selfless delight in the way this old man talked, and despite the wavering focus of his remarks, Lucius could tell that there was a keen intelligence behind them all.
“Oh, but I’m rambling all over, aren’t I?” the old man continued. “That’s me, old Yohanan, always going too fast, saying things I shouldn’t, too angry and then too happy and then too sad. Can you believe that the Lord actually chose me to do even just a small portion of his work for him?” He shook his head again. “It baffles me still. I was supposed to be a fisherman… And look, there I go again, talking around in circles, while you don’t know what on earth to make of me. Did I tell you my name yet?”
“I think you said it was Yohanan,” Lucius ventured.
“Quite right. But you’re Roman, right? What would it be in Latin? ‘Yohananus Imperius’? A bit of a mouthful, no? Joannes! I think perhaps that’s what they call me in your wild and wretched city. You can call me Joannes, or John for short, if you like. And you, Roman stranger, what’s your name, and how do you come to Smyrna?”
“I’m Lucius Horatius Tiro,” he replied. “I’m the son of a freedman. I’m here to start a new life, apart from my family.”
“A new life,” mused John the elder. “Beloved son, you don’t know how right you are.”
“What do you mean?” asked Lucius.
“I saw you. During the liturgy. I saw the longing in your bowels—no, wait, wait, that’s not the word you Gentiles use… Heart! That’s it.” John grinned and shook his head. “Allow me to begin that sentence again,” he said. “Speaking in Greek—ah, it still catches me sometimes. No, I saw the longing in your heart. I could see it on your face, in your eyes.”
Lucius tried to wrestle down his emotions, tried to fill in the chasm of his heart before this strange old man saw just how deep it really was. But his eyes welled up with tears despite his best efforts.
“Yes, Tiro. Yes, beloved son,” said John, with such heartfelt compassion in his voice that it seemed to amplify the echoing cry from Lucius’ heart. All the great stonework of honor and decorum and Stoic control that he had built into a dam over the swelling tide of his soul—it was all about to burst.
Lucius closed his eyes for a moment and drew a deep breath. “I…I heard the prayers for mercy. And that’s what I need. Mercy from the gods. Please, tell me how to get it. I can make any required sacrifice, or do any act of penitence that your God might want. Just tell me how to get it.”
John’s hoary old face beamed with the light of gentleness. “You don’t need to make any sacrifices or do any act of penitence. Lucius Tiro, there is one God alone, and whether you know it or not, he made you, just as surely as he made the world, and he loves you, just as surely as he loves the world. It’s because of that great love that he is calling to you. It’s not your heart crying out to him right now; rather, your heart is hearing the great call of your everlasting Maker, the Lover of your soul. It is straining to answer that call, to rise up and follow the voice that calls it.”
“So what do I do?” asked Lucius. “How do I do that?”
John smiled and held out his hand. “Come and see.”