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( E a r t h I )

On the Trail of St. Paul

Why is it that things brought about by ignorance and apparent casual circumstance are sometimes much more valuable than things planned with intelligence and forethought? At least that was the case of Prunella Prentice, who literally stumbled over a treasure at a point where she was staring at insolvency of the soul. Years after the cruise, she saw reason to believe the worst things are sometimes the best things that could possibly happen--if God-arranged, that is. Only then was one inextricably anchored in life, even facing death--which then carried no sting whatsoever.

Yet nothing really that good ever seems to be "God-arranged" in the beginning! At the onset, she was filled with doubt and bewilderment--hardly a certainty that brooked a bid on a winning horse. For what could possibly come, for good, of a cruise ship tour of the Middle East? She only agreed to it on the advice of a trusted friend, because she was too numb in mind to think clearly of an alternative. Once signed on, she had to go through with it or forfeit her large deposit--so she endured what seemed a big mistake from the first moment the gangplank in Bristol was drawn up.

What had she been thinking when she agreed to a tour to Petra called “On the Trail of St. Paul”? Petra, of all places! Though once called Sela, Petra, meaning something like Rock City in ancient times, was far the better name! Her feet hurt from the stones she was always treading as she carefully picked her way down the endless crack in the high rock cliffs in Jordan that formed the so-called “Gate to Petra, the Rose Red City”.

“Rose red?” she reflected, ruefully. She paused for a moment, though she needed to keep up with the others ahead of her in the brave troop of church-altar society matrons drawn from London, Birmingham, Bristol, and Worcester parishes--everybody else had opted to forgo the arduous excursion and stay on board the luxurious ship!

"It’s rose-red, for all the blood shed by feet like mine,” she cried inwardly. Seeing she was being left behind in a virtual howling wilderness, she was frightened. Then a tremendous wave of resignation came over her. “What did it matter if she walked alone the rest of the way?” she thought. She really didn’t care what happened to her. What did that old negro janitor say in a play she couldn’t recall the name of?” “When you’ve lost God, you might as well jump!”? “I heartily agree,” she thought as she glanced up at the cliff walls enclosing her. "But how can a person jump when she’s standing on the level ground? Must I jump upwards?” But she was being silly! She badly needed to catch up with the others.

Starting to walk, she finally found the Petra excursion group gathered at a tomb high above the ruins of Petra. It was a tremendous climb for her, and she was exhausted as a woman a little beyond the age of sixty would naturally be who had to fight a brisk wind all the way up. Dr. Parker, the religion and history authority on the tour staff, was holding forth. His orotund, good-natured tones carried quite a ways too, echoing among the cliffs.

“So good of you to drop what you were doing and join us, Prunella!” he quipped, winking in her direction. “We had almost given you up for lost and gone to call the wild and unlettered Bedouins of the area to go fetch you!”

Everyone laughed, of course, as the very idea of Arab nomads fetching her on the back of a camel was enough to make even Prunella, in her state, smile. Dr. Parker concluded his remarks. “Well, it’s not quite suitable lodgings for The modern seeker after truth and self-realization, but it proved more than adequate for the writer of the New Testament—-I think I can safely call St. Paul that.” Dr. Parker then waved his hand in take in the tomb before which they stood—which to Prunella’s eye looked most inauspicious for a co-Founder along with Peter and John of New Testament Christianity.

Dr. Parker then glanced at his watch. “Luncheon at the Treasury of Atreus in ten minutes,” he announced.

Happily chatting, everyone broke and began the descent, with Dr. Parker in the forefront with the Tour director and founder, Miss Jill Arborgast. All-—excepting the cow’s tail, footsore Prunella.

She wasn’t in a hurry, despite the strong wind that threw grit into her face. She sat down on a rock St. Paul might have used two thousand years before her. Tears almost ran out of her eyes, she was so frustrated. “To think I spend all those pounds and came all this way so I could endure that pompous, old windbag Parker making tasteless jokes about me!” She felt totally justified, as she looked about her. “What should I care about this dusty, poky old Nabatean tomb?”

She felt so pointless and out of sorts at the moment, she couldn’t help the wave of self-pity. “Let them go and go and stuff on brown bag sandwiches and American soft drinks! I could as well have a heart attack or stroke, as go back with them to—“ The thought of her cheerless home-—no husband now for four long years, and not even—“ The pain flooded back then, and she had to check herself. If she didn’t, the nightmare vision would return. She gritted her teeth, Forcing a storming blackness into her mind that usually succeeded, at least in her waking Hours, to keep the vision away. Sleeping hours were another matter. She was sorely tormented then—seeing the same thing repeated endlessly. It was enough to drive a person mad—but maybe it already had? She rose from the stone, it was too hard to sit on any longer. She took a few steps toward the path leading down, but stopped. She recalled she hadn’t taken a peek inside the tomb. Should she? What would she miss if she didn’t? Did St. Paul really come to this forlorn place to seek the visions of God that formed most of The New Testament? Had he really ascended to heaven, in a vision or actuality, from this spot? Some eminent authorities, Dr. Parker had assured them on the tour ship, thought there was A good case for believing it was so.

It was more the repugnance of listening to aimless tourist chitchat as people munched on sandwiches she had no appetite for that turned her to the tomb entrance. How unfinished it looked, even to her untutored eye. It appeared as it it had been abandoned before The artisan had completed his work. Yet a step inside the tomb dooryard told her immediately, despite the gloom, that this was a rich man’s final resting place. Eight tall pillars stood, cut from the solid rock, though no pillars were needed in a rock-hewn tomb, she realized. “Why eight?” she wondering, knowing that the ancients always seemed to attach significance to numbers. She had heard of the classic “Seven pillars of wisdom,” referring to Proverbs in the Bible as the source— Made famous much later by Lawrence of Arabia’s book on his Arabian adventures in World War I. But here there were eight. Perhaps, she thought, Dr. Parker could explain it. Seven, she knew, was the number of perfection. Was seven plus one Christ? Otherwise, it was simply the number carved, with no religious or symbolic significance.

When her eyes adjusted, she found the tomb empty of any sepulcher or casket and, thankfully, no sign of human bones. Stones fallen from the walls In past earthquakes littered the floor with rubble along with sand flung in by some desert windstorm. She saw signs of campfires, no doubt from passing Bedouin traders or shepherds. It gave her a chill to think of camping in a tomb. That made her want to leave, and she stepped outside into the open air and light. Her eyes were blinded for a few moments. As they cleared, a curious thing happened. She saw what she had stepped over again at the entrance was an altar. It was rude, a makeshift affair, but there was no mistake, it was formed like a cross.

How old was it? Was it Pauline? Was St. Paul, the temporary seeker and visionary, the most famous anchorite of Christianity, its maker?

Impressed not by the eight-pillared tomb but by the crude cross altar, she sank to her knees and gently, hesitantly, touched the stones. Something at that moment reached out and touched her in turn-—right to the quick of her soul. She felt as if a sword had gone right in—and she gasped. Her tears, held back so long, flooded right out. Her hands in her face, she shuddered And shook. “What is happening to me?” she thought. “What is happening?” “Is this a nervous break-down?”

Truly frightened, she staggered up and away, to rejoin the tour.

When she reached the gathering at the Treasury of Atreus, the most famous of the edifices of Petra, Dr. Parker was speaking, and she couldn’t do anything but listen, despite Here ragged emotions.

“—quite some views about this, regarding the End-Time Events, as Evangelicals like to call them. I wouldn’t venture to put my stock into them, but they are interesting and we should at least find them imaginative and entertaining. As I was saying, this and other such places at Petra are said to be the future refuges of Jews during the so-called Tribulation Period, a seven year nightmare of world catastrophes that occurs just before the Millennial Reign of Christ, in their eschatological system. Can you imagine the Jews, fleeing the occupying armies of an “Antichrist” installed in the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, filling these august chambers? “

The good man shook his head. He pointed his walking stick toward the same hole in the cliffs that had Gained them entrance to Petra’s hidden valley. “Well, time to start walking! We’re due back on board the Sea Quest at 3 pm, just in time for high tea, are we not, Miss Arborgast?”

As Prunella followed them back between the cliffs, while seeing how the ample Miss Arborgast barely negotiated the narrow portions, her thoughts grew even more disarranged.

She couldn’t seem to keep her nightmare out of her daytime anymore. The strangeness of the cliff tomb and particularly the little altar might have unhinged her, she thought. Now she was leaving the place, but why had she come? She wondered. What was happening to her? Was she just a leaf being blown from place to place, willy nilly, without reason?

The cliffs of old Edom and Nabataea closed in on her too as she walked. Depending on the light or shadow, they were coloured all shades of red or orange or pink. They were scarcely two arms width at points, and the effect was almost claustrophobic—-like a walk down an endless tunnel How every sound was magnified! Her footfalls seemed to be the thunderclaps of hooves and clanging swords and shields of besieging armies straining to force their way in. Suddenly, the thunderclaps resolved into a very real Jordanian army helicopter flying directly overhead.

It was so deafening, she held her ears to endure it. When she regained her senses, she felt as if she couldn’t go on. Everything had turned so strange and alien. The gloomy defile in the cliffs that led to Petra and From thence to the outer world had perhaps heard St. Paul’s footsteps once upon a time. Now it heard hers For the last time. He too had come and gone, no doubt, that very way-—since this was the only known way to gain entrance to Petra. What was he thinking when he departed What was she thinking? He was thinking probably of grace and freedom in Christ and the splendors of the Third Heaven to which he was given a special preview. And she was thinking of a cable car and a collision with an aircraft.

It was packed with holiday trippers—-including Joni her daughter on break from the university-—and they were plunging, the cable sheared through by the wing of an American jet in a training exercise as it flew low in the same Swiss valley crossed by the cable car.

On hearing the reports, and being notified by authorities, she had chosen to remain home, waiting for the funeral. She hadn’t gone to Switzerland to identify her daughter as requested—-her son had done that for her, mercifully.

“Oh, God!” she thought, sinking down, her hands clutching the cliff walls. “I can’t go on!”

Was that scream hers? It echoed off the ramparts high above. Or was it a passing eagle’s? It startled her from her grief, and she somehow got her footing. Her bag was missing, but going back a bit she found it, the contents half spilled. What was that? She saw a postcard from a resort in Switzerland, with her daughter’s handwriting. What? It was come after her death in the post—and she hadn’t read it—the thought was unbearable at the time—-so she had pushed it far down in her purse and forgotten it till now.

“Remember our arrangements to meet me at Gatwick when I return? Let me call you instead. I may not be coming after all. That’s all I can say now. I believe God is calling me. He says He will meet you too, in a “desert place” of storm and wind, a place like a tomb far away and forgotten by the world for a long, long time. He’s waiting for me now. I love you, Mummy. Be strong for me!”

Prunella could make no sense of the postcard. Instead, the tour came to her mind. “Dr. Parker and Jill will be quite upset if I keep them waiting for me again!”

“Maybe I should take advice and sign up for a grief management class,” she thought as she stuffed the card into her purse with a bit of sand. “I shall lose my mind otherwise at this rate.”

When she reached the donkey cart, it was the last one sent to take them to the ship.

Jolted badly on the two hour trip to the seaside, she found plenty of time to renew her determination never to torture herself again by taking a friend’s suggestion that “she needed a change of scene to renew her spirits.” “You’ll find the foreign views of the tour healing to the mind, dear,” she was assured by her old friend in the altar guild of her church. Actually, she had found them altogether upsetting! It was here she had become most unhinged! She could not imagine a bigger mistake than coming along with the others. But she was now close to the end of the trial, and she must stick it out the best she could, she decided.

When her cart screeched to a halt, she was helped down by the Arab driver, and tried not to stagger as she made her way up the gangplank. On board, she ignored the dinner bell and slept. When she arose, it was time for evening “Inspiration Hour” with Dr. Parker in charge. Should she go? She wondered, as she tidied her hair and freshened her face at the mirror. Wouldn’t they talk all the more about her if she stayed away?

Of course, they would! So she went.

She stepped into the library and found a stranger, not Dr. Parker, leading the Inspiration Hour.

The replacement was a silver-haired, dignified lady who wore a Salvation Army uniform, but Prunella thought she recognized her as one of those who had not gone ashore in the excursion--though perhaps for health reasons. Seeing Prunella, the woman smiled. “Please come in and join us! As I was saying, Dr. Parker called me to speak to you all, as he has gout and his feet hurt from our trek today and need to be elevated. I am sure he will be his old self tomorrow..”

Prunella listened without any interest as the woman went on, telling about her own life instead of The usual historical and theological implications Dr. Parker was so fond of drawing from the famous sights and localities featured on the tour. She was saying something about her sudden cancer, the loss of her job, then her husband dying in a train that left the rails somewhere in India. Prunella’s mind wasn’t able to take it all in, and she felt numb—-as if half-drugged—-where she sat. Phrases of the speaker’s talk drifted In and out of her mind. “Can it be true? “ “Catastrophes—for this I have Jesus?” “For this I have Jesus? For hospital diagnosis…for redundancy...for the death of a loved one?”

Prunella almost cried out, she felt so stabbed by the last phrase.

She wanted to escape from the room, but how? She glanced wildly around, searching for the doors she had forgotten. But the terrible woman was not through. “Would you now kindly join me in a simple chorus I jotted down in hospital after the operation for a throat malignancy that saved my life but prevented me from ever returning to my former career?” She handed out the printed lyrics and Prunella reluctantly took hers. “I am not a lyricist, as you will see, and left off the rhymes for the most part, but this little chorus gave me so much comfort—-well, somehow I feel sure it will minister to some of you who may have experienced similar upsets in life.”

Leading off without the piano, she began in a creditable, but somewhat scratchy voice that Prunella thought she recognized from some long ago radio symphony broadcast.

“Seek Me in the desert, beloved,

I will be waiting there.

Seek Me in storm and wind,

Under My wing find care.

“Though sleep flies away

And tears flow in secret,

Though fears crowd

Amidst your crushed dreams,

I am waiting there,

I am waiting there.

“Your body is weak

And cannot bear the burden.

The sorrows of the worst of times

I will make the best of joys,

I am waiting there, I am waiting there…”

Prunella was thunderstruck. How could this woman be repeating what her daughter had written? It was preposterous. Fortuitous incidents could be taken too far, she thought in a fury. Prunella could not bear any more of the chorus and the speaker and human company of any kind. She tore out of the room with eyes staring at her back and went to the rail of the ship where she thought of climbing over and throwing herself into the waves far below.

Wind swept her hair back from her face. The enormous white cruise ship was sailing like a gigantic seabird toward the gates of a new world, for there was nothing to be seen but huge continental masses merging with enormous expanses of sky and cloud.

But it was only the Red Sea, approaching the Suez Canal—-that was what she knew from the itinerary. The approach to a stunning, bright “new world” with splendid possibilities not even dreamt of was only an illusion of water and sky. Or was it? She wondered, as she recalled the Salvation Army speaker and her daughter’s last words.

She was still standing there when the sunset turned the whole seascape to unspeakable golden fire. It was akin to what the artist Turner had accomplished in some of his great seascapes. “I am waiting there…” drifted into her tangled thoughts, and the blazing red and gold all around her seemed to burn the words into her heart and soul.

She walked back to her cabin. She opened the door slowly. She went inside.

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