As I said in my last article, sometimes we can find treasures of deep Christian wisdom hidden in the thoughts and writings of highly secularized and even anticlerical people. Today, I would like to present you one of the most beautiful Christian stories written by a Portuguese pen: the short tale “Soft miracle.”
It was written by Portuguese writer Eça de Queiroz. Just like Junqueiro (whom I cited on my last article), Queiroz was a product of the Enlightenment and nineteenth century Progressivism. His writings belonged to a literary style called Realism, in which the writer would try to describe reality as objectively and thoroughly and with as much detail as possible. In here we see a form of art profoundly influenced by the scientific positivism so pervasive in the intellectual elites of the time. Queiroz’s novels are also often anticlerical, portraying religion as a source of backwardness and the clergy as obscurantist, superstitious and corrupt.
Even so, how could someone who so eschewed supernatural thought write something like this? Queiroz was married to Countess of Resende, a very pious woman. It is said that she forced him to put his talents to good use, by using her feminine persuasion skills to make him write hagiographies of saints. If Queiroz wrote this under the influence of his wife, we may never know… but I think there is such depth in this short tale, that it could not have been written if there was not a grain of mustard of faith in his heart. Once more, the semina Verbi can be found in the strangest places, giving testimony to the complexity of each individual human’s situation and to the gradualness with which we arrive at the conclusions of the truths of faith.
Once again, I did my best to do justice to the story in my translation. I also tried to summarize it in order not to be too dull (as Realist prose tends to be.) The Portuguese original can be found here.
In those days, Jesus had not yet gone far from Galilee and from the sweet, luminous shores of the Tiberiades lake – but the news of his miracles had already gone as far as Enganim, a rich city of strong walls, built between olive trees and vineyards, on the country of Ishachar.
One day, a man with burning and dazzled eyes passed through the fresh valley and announced that a new Prophet, a famous Rabbi, was walking through the fields and villages of Galilee, foretelling the arrival of the Kingdom of God, healing all human ills. And as he rested next to the well, he told that the Rabbi had, in the road to Magdala, healed the leprosy of a Roman Decurion’s servant, only by extending the shadow of his hands over him; and another morning, crossing the lake in a bark, he had resurrected the daughter of Jaira, the most learned and important man in the Synagogue.
All around him, amazed, the farmers, the shepherds and the gleaning women with jugs on their shoulders, asked him if he was truly Judea’s Messiah, if he had a sword of fire next to him, and if he was flanked (as the shadows of two towers) by the shadows of God and Magog. The man caught his staff and departed, absorbed in thought, disappearing between the flourishing almond trees.
But a hope, delicious as the dew in the months when the cicada sings, had refreshed the simple souls: all over the fields, the plow seemed easier to bury, the stone mills seemed lighter; the children, picking flowers, would peek over the corners of the walls or over the tree branches, if they couldn’t catch a glimpse of his light; and in the stone benches, at the city’s door, the elderly would run their fingers through their beards, with wise certainty on the old prophecies.
At the time, there lived in Enganim an old man, named Obed, of a pontifical family of Samaria, lord of vast flocks and rich vineyards, and his heart as full of pride as his barn was full of wheat. But a wind, dry and hot, one of those desolation winds which the Lord orders to blow from the lands of Ashur, had killed his most fat oxen, and throughout the slopes his vineyards would curl up, withering. And Obed, crouching next to his door, would fumble the dust, lament his old age and murmur complaints against a cruel God.
Having heard of that Galilee Rabbi, who would feed crowds, cast away demons and mend all ills, Obed thought of Jesus as one of those sorcerers, so common in Palestine at the time, as a certain Simon Magus. If he would pay him, then certainly this Jesus of Galilee would stop the deaths among his cattle and make the vineyards green again. So, Obed ordered his servants to search Galilee for that new Rabbi, with promises of gold and gifts if he would come to Enganim.
The servants left and, crossing the Tiberiades lake, found a fisherman. “The Rabbi of Nazareth?” – they asked. “Oh, it was a month ago the Rabbi has come here, with his disciples, and gone in the direction of Jordan.” They went there and found an Essene, all clothed in white linen, and they greeted him and asked him whether he knew of the Galilean Rabbi, to which he replied he had crossed the Engaddi Oasis and moved over yonder, to the plain of Moab. On Jacob’s Well, where Obed’s servants sat down to rest, they found an Egyptian caravan, and heard of a marvelous Rabbi who had cast out seven demons out of the chest of a woman.
Hopeful, the servants went up to the pilgrim’s road of Gadara… but (so they heard) Jesus had moved back to the lake and embarked to Magdala. And Obed’s servants, disappointed, gone back to the Jordan river. With their sandals already worn out, they found on the way a somber Pharisee, riding a mule. With due reverence, they stopped the Doctor of the Law. Had he found that new Prophet of Galilee, who seeded miracles across the land just like God walking on earth? The Pharisee wrinkled his face and, with anger, clamored as a prideful cymbal: “Oh heathen pagans! Blasphemers! Have you ever heard of prophets or miracles outside Jerusalem? Jehovah’s power is contained within the Temple! What good has ever come from Galilee?”
And the servants, afraid, recoiled from his angered fist, covered with cloth with sacred symbols on it, as the furious Doctor leapt out of the mule, howling: Racca! Racca! And all ritual anathema. The servants fled back to Enganim. And great was Obed’s disappointment, for his flocks and his vineyards were dying – and yet, the divine promises of Jesus of Galilee kept growing beyond the hills.
At the time, a Roman Centurion named Publius Septimus, commanded the Cesarea fort, from the city to the sea. Publius, a rugged man, veteran in Tiberius’ campaign against the Parthians, had gone rich during the Samarian Revolt, with much plundering. He owned mines in Africa and had the friendship of the imperial legate in Syria. But a pain gnawed at his awesome property, like a worm on tender fruit. His only daughter, which he loved more than life and riches, was sick of a slow and subtle illness, incurable by the best doctors and magicians he had hired. Pale and sad as the moon over a graveyard, she smiled weakly to her father, and she withered, tiredly sitting on her father’s fort.
Septimus heard from some merchants of this admirable Rabbi, who healed the worst ills. He dispatched three centuries of his soldiers, that they may search for him in Galilee and all the Decapolis cities, from the shores to Ascalon.
The soldiers armed themselves and off they went, their sandals rumbling through the stone slabs of the roman roads. Their weapons glowed in the night, reflecting the blazing torches they had lit. In the day, they would raid the houses, search the fields, stabbing the straw heaps with their pointy spears. The women, scared, would try to appease them with honey cakes, figs and cups full of wine, which they would consume in an instant. Bored of their useless marches, suspecting that the Jews would be hiding the sorcerer so that his supreme magic would not befall in Roman hands, they would pour out wrath on the submissive land. They would stop the pilgrims on the bridges, screaming the name of the Rabbi, as they tarnished the virgins’ veils. And they would invade the streets, barging into the Synagogues, and sacrilegiously hitting the sacred armoires containing the Holy Scriptures. They would drag the hermits out of their caves to torture them, to make them confess where the Rabbi was. People would flee just by knowing they were nigh and fear was spread throughout the land.
But they never found Jesus.
One morning, near Cesarea, they sighted a long white-bearded man while they were marching. He was crowned with laurel leafs, wearing a saffron colored tunic and holding a three-string lyre. He awaited the rising of the sun and the soldiers went to him to ask if he knew the Prophet issuing from Galilee, so talented in miracle-making that he resurrected dead and changed water into wine. Serenely, raising his arms, the elder exclaimed: “Oh Romans, do you believe there are wizards performing miracles in Galilee or Judea? How can a barbarian change the order established by Zeus? These sorcerers are scammers, they utter hollow words, to get the money from the simple-minded! There are no prophets, nor miracles… only Apollo, the Oracle of Delphi, knows the secret of all things.”
Then, slowly, their heads laying low, as if they had suffered a military defeat, the soldiers gathered again on Cesarea’s fortress. And great was Septimus’ despair, as his daughter died silently, contemplating the sea of Tyre. But yet, the fame of Jesus, the healer of all ills, kept growing and growing, reassuring and fresh.
At the time, between Enganim and Cesarea, in a decayed shed, lost on a distant hill, there lived a widow, the poorest of all the women in Israel. Her only child was a crippled… he had been weaned from her skinny breasts unto the rags of a rotten bed, where he had wasted seven years, shriveling and wailing. The disease had also wrinkled her, inside clothes never changed, darker and more crooked than a cut down tree. Above both, misery had grown as a mold and even in the old lamp, the olive oil had dried up ages ago. In the pantry, not even a grain or slice of bread. The goat had died because of the Summer’s heat. Outside, the fig tree had died too. So far away they lived, no alms of bread and honey had ever got to them. Only weeds caught up in the rock’s crevices, boiled without salt, nourished these God’s creatures in the Promised Land, where even the birds in the sky were fed.
One day, a beggar entered the shed, shared his bread with the anguished mother and sat in the fireplace, scratching the wounds on his legs, recounting the hope of the sad ones, the Rabbi from Galilee, who was able to make seven baskets of bread out of one, and who loved all children, who consoled all weeping, who promised a glorious kingdom to the poor, more rich than Solomon’s court. The woman listened, with starving eyes. “And that sweet Rabbi, hope of the sad ones, where is he?”
The beggar sighed: “Ah, the sweet Rabbi, how many wished for him and were disappointed! His fame ran all over Judea, as the sunlight stretching everywhere! But to gaze at his face, is given only to the lucky ones touched by fate! Obed, so rich, sent his servants all over Galilee, so that they might entice him with great promises to Enganim. Septimus, so powerful, had deployed his soldiers to the distant shores of the sea, so that they might drive him to Cesarea.” The beggar had crossed paths, both with Obed’s servants and with Septimus’ soldiers. All had returned home, defeated, with torn sandals, without knowing where Jesus was hidden.
The evening was upon them. The beggar grabbed his staff and descended the rough road, between the heather and the rocks. And the mother returned to her corner, even more hunched, more abandoned. Her little son, in a whisper more soft than the rustle of a wing, asked his mother that she might bring to him that Rabbi who loved children, who loved the poor, who healed all ills. The mother squeezed her wrinkled face between her fingers:
“Oh son! And you want me to leave you, to go down the roads, searching for the Galilean Rabbi? Obed is rich and has lots of servants, and they searched in vain! Septimus is strong and he has soldiers, and they searched in vain! How could I abandon you? That Jesus is far away and our pain is quite near us, within these walls, imprisoning us here! Besides, even if I found him, how would I convince him to come here, when the rich and strong long for him? How could I sway him to come from the cities to this desert, to heal a crippled so poor, on a bed so rotten?”
The child, with two long tears running on his thin face, whispered:
“Aw mom! Jesus loves his little ones! What about me, so little and so sick?”
And the mother, sobbing: “Oh my son, I cannot leave you! Long are the roads and short is men’s pity! I’m so tattered, so weak, so sad, even the dogs would not stop barking at me! Who would attend me, who would get near me to point me to the Rabbi’s whereabouts? Oh son! Maybe he is dead, if the rich and powerful couldn’t find him. Heaven brought him, Heaven took him away! And with him, died the hope of the sad ones.”
From between the dark rags, raising up his poor, little, shivering hands, the child whispered:
“Mom, I wanted to see Jesus!”
Suddenly and slowly, the door opened and, with a smile, Jesus said to the child:
“Here I am.”
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.