Friday, December 02, 2016

Prester John, Chapter 9

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Chapter 9           

           They had long since said their goodbyes: John and Polycarp went off by a southern trail, skirting the ridge-lines of the highlands toward where the great Aegean rolled into the Ephesian bay; Justus and Lucius, meanwhile, took the same hard road to Smyrna that had earlier led them out. Polycarp pledged to be back to Smyrna in due course, as soon as John was safely settled back with friends in Ephesus.
            Lucius followed behind Justus’ plodding frame, and let the silence of their march lead him off into vales of reflection. What would he have thought, just a few weeks ago, if he had known that the life he lived in Rome—the polished, gold-plated life of a noble scion—would be replaced with this, the strange joy of a criminal refugee, trudging through a barren Asian wilderness behind a Jewish man, cut off from family but suddenly embraced by a passionate new network of religious believers? It was as if he had stepped into an entirely new life. The radical break with his old story, his old identity, made him feel more at ease with the new identity he had taken. He truly felt now that his old life, that of Lucius Caelius Pius, was dead and gone, and he was in fact a different man, Lucius Horatius Tiro, a freedman by name and a freed man in Christ.
            The rough footpath led them back down from the dusty headlands and toward the Smyrnaean basin. Though it had only been his hometown for a very short time, Lucius looked down on the city with fondness. It seemed to him now the theater of his fondest memories and his highest hopes.
            They took a longer time for their return trip, taking an outlying spur down into the valley some distance behind the great city. Justus had wanted to visit several of the small churches in the outlying settlements before they returned home to Smyrna. So they paced slowly down the declining slope, coming to a village built of brick and stone.
            “This is a new congregation,” said Justus as they approached. “We began a mission here just last year, and haven’t yet been able to ordain a prepared elder among them. So one or the other of us pastoral elders from Smyrna comes out here every now and then to teach them and lead services. It’s been some time since I’ve seen them, though.”
            Lucius took in this introduction without comment, simply following behind Justus as he spoke. This village was noticeably wealthier than the one they had visited in the hills—here, just past the outskirts of Smyrna, the residents spoke Greek and accounted themselves cultured members of the great tradition of Ionian Hellenism. The buildings took on a more customary appearance, with pillars and arches and engraved civic monuments.
            They approached the large house where Justus indicated that Christian meetings were held, and as they approached they could hear the familiar sound of a worship service—the call and response of antiphonal prayer.
            “An evening prayer service,” Justus commented aloud. “I wouldn’t have expected them to be meeting tonight. Come, let’s go in.”
            They stepped inside the building and through a short hallway, into the wide anteroom where the meeting was being held. There were about thirty people there, of all ages, standing and repeating the refrains of their litanies. At the head of the assembly were two men. One was a middle-aged man with a balding dome, who was leading the prayers; but the second man was partially obscured from Lucius’ view.
            “Ah, our deacon Stephanos,” said Justus, as they took their places quietly in the back of the room.
            Just then, the antiphonal litany came to its end, and the deacon stepped to the side. The second man strode forward into the light.
            It was Ariston.
            Lucius stared hard at him for a moment, half-believing he was mistaken. Maybe, in the dim light of the room, it just looked like Ariston. Maybe it was a relative of his, a cousin who had converted to Christianity in this outlying town. But then he began to speak, and all doubt fled away. It really was Ariston.
            He was talking in the manner of a Christian preacher—reading a bit of Scripture, and then explaining it to the assembly. Lucius shook his head slowly. Could this be real? Could Ariston have found Christ, just as Lucius had? No, the coincidence was too great—surely Ariston had been struck by how easy it had been to frame Polycarp aboard the ship, and had been struck by the sincere goodness of the Christians. To a predator of human nature, they would look like an easy mark.
            Lucius listened intently. Ariston was a good speaker, and in his voice there was a strain of warm affection, of wisdom, and of peace. He not only sounded like a Christian preacher, he looked the part. To an outsider, a stranger to Ariston’s true nature, he would have appeared a model of kind-hearted sincerity.
            Lucius leaned over and whispered to Justus. “Do you know who this man is?”
            “No,” replied the elder softly. “It’s a bit irregular. Normally, I would have heard of a new teacher in the area. Perhaps he’s a prophet or teacher who came in from somewhere else. He speaks like a Smyrnaean, though.”
            “He is a Smyrnaean,” said Lucius. “I know him, and I don’t trust him.”
            “No? Why not?”
            “He’s a trickster. He robbed the city’s temple treasuries, and had to plead his case before Caesar. He’s the one who stole from the ship’s captain and had Polycarp framed for the crime. The last I spoke to him, he was working on another scheme, and he certainly had no love for Christians.”
            Justus received this with a troubled brow, but with a motion of his hand indicated that he wanted to be silent, to hear what Ariston was saying.
            The more Ariston talked, the deeper grew the wrinkles in Justus’ brow. And Lucius could tell why. Though Ariston’s rhetoric sounded good, and was filled with tender, heart-lifting thoughts, it lacked substance. Compared to the deep, life-transforming, experience-grounded testimony of the elder John, these words rang hollow. It was clear, after a few minutes’ listening, that Ariston did not know Christ—or, if he knew of him, did not know him as the living, vibrant, personal reality that Lucius had experienced.
            Having heard enough, Justus set a steely gaze on the speaker and stepped forward. He marched to the front and held up his arms. Ariston stopped talking.
            “Leave this place,” said Justus firmly. “The churches do not know you, and you do not preach the truth that was once for all delivered to God’s saints.”
            The air hung heavy with awkward silence for a few moments, and Ariston shuffled his feet.
            “And who are you?” he asked.
            “Justus, elder and pastor of the church of God that sojourns in Smyrna. And you—I may not know your name, but I have heard your reputation, and your words today have led me to believe that you are playing on the graces of these good Christians.”
            Ariston’s eyes locked onto Lucius, at the back of the room. There was a moment of dawning recognition.
            “Was it him?” he growled. “What did he tell you?”
            “Leave this place now,” Justus commanded again, ignoring Ariston’s question.
            “Did you know he’s not what he seems?” Ariston shouted, pointing at Lucius. “You have a great sinner in your midst!”
            But Justus had stopped listening. He was speaking over Ariston’s shouts, asking the deacon Stephanos to remove him.
            Lucius stood rooted to his spot, uncertain what to do. Ariston was thrust out of the room, but all the while shouting out blasphemies on Christ and the ‘atheists.’ He locked eyes on Lucius as he was strong-armed out the door, and the fire that burned there was unmistakable. It was the blaze of anger, anger so intense that it would kindle revenge. Lucius had revealed his deceit, and so Ariston was going to reveal his.
            All of the sudden, the fear and pain of Lucius’ long flight from the reality of Domitian’s murder came rushing back in over his head, and he knew he had to stop this before it went any further. Justus was standing up front, speaking in calm tones to the assembly, explaining to them what had just happened. And Lucius, choking down his fear, ducked out of the door after Ariston. He had wanted to be rid of that man, never to see him again, but now, with the possibility hanging out there that Ariston would reveal his deceit to his new family, the Christians that had suddenly become the center of his whole world—that possibility forced him to pursue the one man he wished would simply go away.
            He slipped out of the house, into the falling twilight of the street, and there he saw the broad back of Ariston before him, stalking away in rage.
            “Don’t tell them,” said Lucius, and Ariston whirled. There was murder in his eyes.
            “Why not? You felt free to tell them about me!”
            Lucius sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “It wasn’t out of antagonism toward you, Ariston, believe me! It was for them—I...I’m one of them now. They’re my family. I can’t let you hurt them!”
            “What do you care? There’s too many of them these days as it is. And they’re so eager, so open to believing that the goodness of their God can be seen in the smile of any passerby!”
            Lucius shook his head. “Come now, Ariston, what could your plan have been? Fleece them of a few offerings, and then move on? How much could you really get from the poverty of simple people like these?”
            Ariston glowered at him. “Maybe it’s all I had left. Maybe my father has disowned me completely, and cast me out of the city. Maybe I would have been reduced to a poverty far greater than these simple people whom you so treasure! But you wouldn’t know, Lucius, would you? You wouldn’t know any of that, because you’ve always thrust aside my every call for friendship! Tell me, am I the only one who has deceived them? Am I the only one working under a false guise here? No? I thought not! I may have been fleecing them for money, as you say, but you have been fleecing them for love and compassion that is simply not your due! Would their feelings toward you be unchanged if they knew who you really were? If they knew of Lucius Pius, the murderer being hunted down across the Empire?”
            “Ariston, you can’t tell them.”
            “But oh, I will. If you betray me, you can bet to all the gods that I’ll betray you back, and a thousand times worse.”
            “Please, Ariston, don’t. If you even believe a fraction of those things you just said in there—about goodness, mercy, and love—then don’t.”
            “It’s too late, Tiro. You’re mine. I can spread this word through all the atheists of Smyrna before tomorrow’s sun will set.”
            Lucius felt the cold grasp of desperation closing around him. He couldn’t face the shame, the rejection, the loss that he felt sure would follow from that revelation. He would lose his Christian family—the second family he had lost, or even the third, if one counted the family he had longed for with Flavia, but which was gone from him forever. He couldn’t bear to lose like that again.
            “Ariston…the last time we spoke, you hinted that you might need my help at some point in the future. Do you have anything I could help you with? I won’t even ask what your scheme is; it doesn’t matter. I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever you need me to do, just promise that you won’t tell them anything.”
            Ariston stood there silently for a long moment, glaring hard into Lucius’ eyes. Then his lips began to turn in a slow, terrifying smile.
            “Tiro—you have my word. I’ll be speaking to you shortly about the job that awaits us.”
            Then he turned on his heel and walked into the gathering dusk, back down the road to Smyrna. Lucius watched him until his white toga disappeared into the gloom.
            “God, make haste to help me,” he groaned.

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