Saturday 22 August 2015

A New Life of St Mark for Youth - The Last Blessing - Part 1

This is the first chapter of a Life of St Mark which I am writing with the youth in mind. I hope to be able to describe the lives of our great saints in language which is accessible to many and which communicates the rich history of our Church in a memorable manner.

I am still waiting patiently for my service to the Church to be defined by His Holiness, and for permission to serve the spiritual children God has placed in my care, and to discover how the Church might choose to provide for the needs of my family while I commit myself to the Gospel. This time of obedient  anticipation has been a blessing since I have been able to spend much time in study and in writing, and I offer this first chapter of this Life of St Mark as the fruit of some of that effort. Please remember me in your prayers and support. Your encouragement sustains me.


I had taken my brother on an errand down to the harbour. I think we had been sent by my mother to fetch some fish for the family meal that day. It was a long time ago and I am remembering as best I can. We had run all the way down to where the fishermen landed their catches, on the furthest quays. Far enough away from the great palaces of the rich and noble that the harvest of the sea did not disturb their refined sensibilities. Far enough away from the fortress on the sea wall that the little boats were no obstruction to the passage of the galleys that would often be seen transporting troops and imperial officials.

Even before the fisherman's quarter could be seen it assaulted the senses. A screaming riot of gulls was always overhead, following the boats in from the sea, hoping to catch an easy meal of scraps of discarded fish. And of course there was the smell, depending on the direction of the breeze, which either struck you a mile away, or drew you into its embrace before you noticed and then suddenly took your breath away. Fresh fish, cooking fish, rotting fish, all combining into one fishy miasma that clung to your clothes and skin for hours.

That day we ran barefoot out of the Harbour Gate, kicking up the dust as we chased each other, then through the coolness of the covered fish market and down to the waterside itself. The tide was full and we sat, as we often did, on one of the wooden piers with our legs hanging over the lapping water a few feet below us. There was already a small fleet of fishing boats and other craft riding the moorings. Hundreds of men and women were busy unloading baskets of fish and sorting the produce. The important traders from the market had been waiting with slaves and servants to make sure they purchased the best stocks before their competitors, while the smaller stall-holders and shop keepers held back to purchase what was left, or bartered with the smallest fishing boats at the most distant jetties.

A trading vessel was being tied up to the quay where we sat, and young as we were then, our attention was drawn to a figure standing on deck, with a small sack made of some coarse, cheap material at his feet. There were always a few pence to be made carrying baggage for travelers, especially those who didn’t have the means or the desire to spend money with the official porters. But you had to be quick, or some other entrepreneurial child would snatch the opportunity for profit away, or one of the porters would cuff you around the ears and threaten violence for taking their custom.

There was nothing striking about his dress. But he seemed to be someone who was at once serious and gentle in his manner. There was a frantic business all around him on the little ship that had brought him to us. Sailors and slaves responding urgently to the orders being barked out by the captain. But he stood calm and quiet, while men pushed and shouted, as if he was waiting patiently for matters to take their course. He was slight of build, not so tall. A young man still, with a shock of dark hair and a decent beard. My brother and I had seen him at the same time, and had the same idea of making a little income from him. We scrambled from our perch on the pier, dusting ourselves down to look as respectable as possible, and scampered over to the mooring where the trading vessel was now secured.

I was older than my brother by a couple of years, though still no more than in my tenth year, so I had intended to take charge of the business transaction. But the traveler noticed us even before I had opened my mouth to offer our services. He had a warm and generous smile and guessed what we were about.

“Will you carry my bag into the city?”, he asked. “It’s not too heavy, and I can give you a penny each”

We jumped at the chance. Perhaps it was our youthfulness, but it seemed that a penny each could open a world of opportunities to us when we were able to spend it in one of the bazaars near our home. His bag was a little heavier than it had appeared. He passed it over the side of the boat to us, and we sank a little under the weight, both of us having to hold it awkwardly to keep it from dragging along the quayside in the dust and dirt. Then he turned and shouted something to the captain, waved his farewell, and jumped from the deck to stand beside us.

“Lead onward, my friends”, he invited us warmly with a beaming smile. There was a slight accent in the way he spoke. It was a little like the way the people from down the coast in the Pentapolis spoke, but not quite the same. There was something else in the way he pronounced his Greek. I wasn’t sure at the time. Later on, as I grew older and grew to know him very well, I learned about his family and his travels. But that first day, on the quayside, he was not so much different from all the other travelers that came to our great city.

It took us a while longer to get back to the Harbour Gate. The bag grew heavier on our young shoulders, and we were no longer running and chasing each other. We made some rather idle conversation as we went along. He said he had come a few days down the coast from Cyrene, but that it was not his home. With rather labored breath I asked the young man if he was wanting to go far into the city. I didn’t know if we would manage to carry his possessions much farther.

“I’m looking for somewhere to stay, not too expensive. I don’t yet know how long I will be staying in the city. If you can recommend a lodging I’d appreciate it.”

“One of my mother’s sisters keep such a place. It is clean and might suit a traveler such as yourself”, I ventured. It also had the advantage of being no more than a few hundred paces inside the Harbour Gate which we were fast approaching. The wall of the city was rising up before us and the dusty path we had been following became a paved road crowded with people, animals, carts and carriages. There were soldiers on duty here, and customs officials at tables, but we were permitted to pass into the city without any objection.

Our new friend was looking all around at the impressive architecture found even in this working quarter, and the gateway certainly seemed to have been built to withstand an army. Two massive towers flanked the main passageway, and there were soldiers far above our heads keeping watch, both out to sea, and over the multitude flowing in and out of the entrance. “Welcome to the great city of Alexandria”, I said, expressing my pride in the place of my birth.

“May the blessing of God be upon her and all her people”, he replied. I did not think much of this unusual speech at the time, but later, much later, I came to see that indeed this prayer had been heard. My brother and I dropped the sack to the floor. It had become just too much of a burden to our young shoulders. Its owner smiled and put his hands on our shoulders. “Don’t worry my young friends”, he said with gentleness. “I will carry this burden myself, and you shall still keep your reward. But first you must lead me on to the lodgings you suggested”.

Here inside the Harbour Gate there was an open space with streets running off in several directions. This was our home. Within a few hundred paces of where we were standing we had spent almost all of our lives. Many of the small craftsmen and women, sitting at their stalls outside their humble homes, were known to us, and were even members of our extended family. A little way down the street over there was our own home, and our father would be sitting in the workshop even now making some beautiful leather goods, each one crafted ingeniously with care and much skill. Just over there, on the other side of the main road towards the center of the city, were the lodgings that our aunt kept. Even from here we could see the sign of the dolphin that was painted on the front of the house and advertised her business. She had done well for herself, even though she was a widow, and kept two servants who worked hard for her.

And over here, and over there, were others we knew as family and friends. How wonderful it was, especially as a child, to feel such comfort in the surroundings and society in which we grew up. Was there a greater city than Alexandria in all the world. It seemed hardly possible.

“Master, my aunt keeps a lodging just over the road there”, I said, tugging at his cloak to get his attention. “Then let’s finish our journey and I will pay you as I promised”, he replied. But as he threw his sack over his shoulder and stepped forward to follow us, he made an exasperated sound, and laughed. “How many hundreds of leagues have these sandals carried me, and yet just a few paces from the end of my journey one of them has ripped and the strap has broken. I shall have to complete my journey barefoot!”

“There is no need”, I quickly responded, ever aware of the possibilities for trade and profit. My uncle sits only there at the corner of these two paths and is a cobbler of the highest quality and reputation. He will surely be able to fix your sandal in a moment”.

Indeed our uncle Anianus had a booth just a few paces away from us, most conveniently as it turned out.  He was sitting on the floor working on some boots as we approached him. He looked up and smiled when he saw us. “Ah, my favourite nephews. What are you up to today? Mischief or business?” He was a good man. He always had time for us, and for any of the family. “Dear uncle, we have been to the harbor and have carried the baggage of this gentleman. And now, see, his sandal strap is broken and we have said that you are the best cobbler in all of Alexandria and will surely fix it for him, say that you can”, I urged him.

“Most certainly, kind sir, It will be a pleasure to fix your sandal, please be seated here while I mend what has broken”. He gestured towards a bench set up against the wall beside him. Our visitor put his bag on the ground, and sitting on the bench removed the broken sandal and passed it to our uncle. “This is a small job, sir”, he said, “Allow me to fix the strap at no cost”. With that he immediately began to unstitch the remaining broken piece of the strap so that he could fit another length of leather. He was a good cobbler, and he did indeed have a high reputation for the quality of his work, but for some reason, distracted perhaps by our picking through his tools and scraps of material, the awl with which he was working slipped and cut him deeply in his hand. 

He cried out in pain, “God is one!”. There was blood dripping from the wound, and of course a cobbler needs to have the use of his hands to be able to earn a living. It was serious matter. But that was not what made this day, above all others, remain impressed forever in my memory. It was rather because of this. As soon as our uncle Anianus had cried out as he did, the traveler stood up, raised his hands towards the east and said, “O my Lord Jesus, it is you who make my way easy in every place”.

That would have been a strange enough thing to have seen. But there was more. He spat on the ground, and mixing the dust and spittle together he made a muddy paste which he applied to the wound in our uncle’s hand, saying, “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the One living and eternal God, may the hand of this man be healed at this moment, that your holy name may be glorified”. At that same moment our uncle cried out again. Not in pain, but in surprise. The blood had ceased to flow from the wound, but more than that, there was no sign at all that there had ever been a wound.

The wonder worker sat down again, leaning tenderly towards uncle Anianus, who was almost at a loss for words. He said, “If you know that God is one, why do you serve all these other gods?”. Uncle Anianus replied, and I can still remember his words, “We mention God with our mouths, but that is all, for we do not know who he is”.

I had never seen uncle Anianus so serious. He would always have something amusing to say. But still astonished, as we all were, by what had happened, he continued, “I entreat you, O man of God, to come to the house of your servant, to rest and eat bread, for I to-day you have given me a great blessing”. And so it was, on the first day that we met him, our visitor performed a miracle before our very eyes, and more than that, he touched something deep in the heart of our uncle. He agreed to stay there, in the house of Anianus, and with a face filled with joy he stood up again and raised his hands exclaiming, “May the Lord give you the bread of life in heaven!”

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