The Holy Father has said that we are right to use our imaginations on the mysteries of Our Lord's life; and certainly that is consistent with the meditative traditions of the Church.
I have some concerns about the particular way in which he did that recently, on the subject of the Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple, to which I may return in a later post.
But it reminded me that I have an unfinished book on the back-burner: one in which a modern teenager has a series of visions, under the tutelage of St Michael, of the joyful mysteries of the rosary.
Here is an extract from chapter ten. To understand it, you need to realise that St Joseph is beside him, as his teacher, watching the mystery unfold, which (of course) also included St Joseph as a protagonist (in the context of the preceding chapters, that is much clearer).
The book (if I ever finish it) is intended for children approaching confirmation age: I would value any feedback.
And that evening St Michael did come. He hardly said a thing, except that it was time for the final mystery, and that I needed to meet St Joseph to understand it.
“It would be wrong to say that this part of the story belongs to me,” Joseph tells me. “But still, it is my role to tell you. And in a way that sums up the strangeness of my life: I have a leading role in a story where I am the least important.
“You can’t imagine, and I can’t really explain, what it is to be husband to Mary and foster father to the child Jesus. I knew that I wasn’t up to the job once I had learned the secret of her pregnancy, and it was only when the angel told me not to be afraid that I dared to marry her. And all those years, I had to lead the family, to rule and govern and guide and teach, when my wife was so far above me in holiness, and the boy was the Son of the Lord. Of course, I didn’t fully know what that meant...”
“And then, I lost him! Can you imagine it? My over-riding responsibility - and my joy - was to be trusted to look after them, and I lost him. Come with me, and I’ll show you how it was.”
It’s hot and it’s tiring. We are walking away from Jerusalem in a large group. Joseph is carrying bags both for his family and for others: he is a strong man. Mary is listening: another young woman is pouring her heart out to her. All around us, the crowd is constantly breaking into smaller groups and reforming. Children are running ahead and trailing behind. Teenagers are walking in small huddles, some earnest and some exuberant. Overall there is a carnival atmosphere, tinged with tiredness. I long to be able to tell Mary and Joseph that Jesus isn’t with us: I can’t bear the thought of their distress when they realise. And I know that there is nothing I can do, that it will be terrible for them, and also that it will all come right in the end.
And the Joseph beside me, as invisible as I know myself to be, understands: “Yes, you are right. And one of the many things I learned as I looked back on this time was that one of the reasons for our losing him was that I still had lessons to learn. You see everything he does, he does for everyone...” And he falls silent, leaving me wondering what lessons he still had to learn, but afraid to ask. It would seem like prying into a private place.
Looking back towards Jerusalem, I can see an almost continuous stream of people leaving the city after the great feast. A long line of pilgrims, snaking down the hill. And suddenly it takes me back to Walsingham - I too have been a pilgrim. I too know what it is to be part of a family so large that it is easy to lose touch with my immediate family. The continuity of that idea of pilgrimage struck me for the first time: at Walsingham we had been doing what the Holy Family had done two thousand years before - and according to St Joseph, one of the reasons Christ had gone on that pilgrimage was specifically for me: ‘everything he does, he does for everyone...’
I am jolted from my day-dreaming by a sudden change in the tempo of the walk. We are stopping for the night. Everyone is moving into new clusters to settle down. Rough circles are formed, bread and wine are produced from bags. Children are called to eat with their families. Mary is still listening to her young friend. It occurs to me how little I have ever heard her say - and how much I want to hear her talk again. Joseph finds the people whose bags he has been carrying. A lad of about twelve passes, looking for his family. Joseph greets him:
“Benjamin, I think your people are up ahead. I was speaking with your father earlier.”
“Thank you,” mumbles Benjamin and makes to move on, not sure what to say.
“Benjamin, was Jesus walking with you? I’ve not seen him for hours.”
“No, he’s not been with us. We were surprised, but guessed he was with you. He’s probably carrying for someone further back.” And he’s off. I know exactly how he feels: I’m never comfortable talking with grown ups I don’t know too well.
Joseph glances at his wife, who looks up immediately. Her friend senses that, and pauses in her talk.
“Sorry, Ruth,” says Joseph. “Mary, is Jesus ahead of us?”
She looks at his face with an openness of soul - that’s the only way I can describe it - that feels shocking. The mixture of tenderness and strength, of vulnerability and courage... but I would need to be an artist to convey her expression. And she shakes her head gently. I experience a huge disappointment, and it takes me a moment to realise why: I had been so hoping that she would speak.
“Then he must be further back. I’ll go and find him.” Mary smiles, gives the faintest of nods, and turns her attention back to Ruth.
So Joseph starts to re-trace his steps. And I follow, with another Joseph beside me (I still can’t convey quite how strange that was....) Every now and then, Joseph stops, waits for someone to break off their conversation and give him their attention, and then asks after the boy. And every time the reply is the same: “No, he has not been walking with us.” Many of them know Joseph and Jesus, and some of these add, “And we haven’t seen him today.”
The further back he goes, the faster Joseph is walking. He is still unfailingly courteous to everyone, but his voice is getting crisper - he is speaking more quickly and with a higher pitch. Part of me wonders how high his voice will go: it started very low, the voice of a strong man, but is now more in the tenor range.
And then he pauses. And Joseph beside me says; “A tough decision - to go and fetch Mary - and worry her about the boy, when he might be with the next group - or to go on, leaving her further behind, knowing that the longer I leave it to fetch her, the less time we will have together to look.”
But the hesitation is brief. He turns around and makes his way back up the road. As he approaches, Mary lifts her face and sees that he is alone. She is on her feet almost at once, saying goodbye to Ruth. Joseph picks up their bags, and they are off again. Although this is all done very calmly and quietly, a few friends notice and realise the implications: Joseph has been asking after Jesus, and now he and Mary, without the boy, are heading back the way they have come. They call out words of encouragement: “He won’t be far... He’s a good boy, Joseph... He can look after himself - he’s a tough lad...” Joseph acknowledges their kindness and concern with a nod as he passes, but neither he nor Mary pauses.
We are almost running now, and I am surprised at how quickly Mary can go, after the long day’s march. They reach the place where Joseph had turned round, and they slow down. It is starting to get dark, and a number of families are lighting fires by the roadside. These beacons tell us that we are nearly at the back of the marching line. And still nobody has seen the boy Jesus all day. By now we have passed many of his friends, the boys of a similar age, and all echo what Benjamin had said.
Now we are past the last of the travellers, and heading along the empty road back towards the town. The darkness is closing in. I realise that Mary and Joseph have not said a word to each other since realising the boy is lost.
“No”, says Joseph beside me, “she said very little. And never a word of blame. But I could feel her distress, and it redoubled my own. But listen.”
And then I hear that Mary and Joseph were talking - or rather praying. Mary starts: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me.”
After a pause, Joseph says: “How long, O Lord? Wilt thou forget me for ever? How long wilt thou hide thy face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all the day? But I have trusted in thy steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” At the last words, his voice almost cracks, and I see Mary reach out and touch his hand gently, but their pace never falters.
There is a house set back from the road a little way out of the city. There are lights and the sound of music and conversation. They glance at each other and then approach the door. At Joseph’s call it is opened at once.
“Shalom - may peace be upon you!” a tall cheerful man with dark hair and a long dark beard greets them.
“And upon you and your household,” replies Joseph. “And I am sorry to trouble you at this late hour, but we are looking for a boy...”
“You have lost your son! That is terrible, how old is he - a little one?” He turns without waiting for an answer: “Rebecca, have you seen a boy? These people have lost their little boy. About six.” He turns back: “Am I right?” but still doesn’t wait for a reply. “He ran off with some friends on the way back from the pilgrimage - they were playing a game - he was hiding - but he hasn’t turned up!” Again he turns back to Joseph: “You must be distracted with worry - a child that young and the night already dark! But trust in the Lord, for He is truly to be trusted.” At last he pauses for breath.
“Actually, Jesus is twelve. But we are certainly worried.”
“Rebecca, he’s twelve not six.” then he drops his voice to what he imagines to be a whisper, but which is all too clear: “You see how distressed they are - they can’t even remember the boy’s age!”
Then back to Joseph and Mary: “Come in, come in. We will certainly help.”
“Thank you, you are very kind. But we must go back to Jerusalem to find Jesus.”
“But the gates are closed. The road is dark. You will not find him tonight. Be sure that he is safe - you have friends in Jerusalem - he will be staying with them. Perhaps when he realised he was lost he ran back to their house. That is certainly the case. And we have dinner ready - we can assuredly feed you and give you a bed.”
“And that was another difficult decision,” says the Joseph beside me. “He was right: the gates were shut, Jesus was not on the road. Mary was tired - as was I. There was nothing more we could do that night but pray - and accept the blessing of the man’s hospitality - which at least meant we would be near the gates when they opened in the morning.”
Mary and Joseph go in, and the door is closed. We do not follow. “No,” said Joseph beside me. “We passed a terrible night there. You must appreciate, this was wholly new. Never before had Jesus disappeared. We did not know what to make of it. Had he met with an accident? Had he been the victim of a crime? Or was he absent of his own will? That last was hard to contemplate: never before had he shown what seemed to be such disrespect for his mother and me. Yet how could he have had an accident or fallen victim to others if he had stayed with the pilgrimage. Someone would have noticed. I did not sleep that night.
“But I must tell you,” he adds with a chuckle, “that as we left, our bearded host called after us: “And when you find this tearaway, give him a beating. As the psalm says: ‘Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. If you beat him with the rod you will save his life from Sheol!’
“So I replied: ‘Thank you once more, we will remember what you have said.’
“And you need not witness the whole of the next day, when we went from house to house of everyone we knew in Jerusalem, and everyone who any of them knew. And we went to the temple - to pray. We did not see him there. A friend let us stay that night, and before she went to the bed they had made for her to sleep, Mary said something to me, so quietly and gently that I did not really hear it. It sounded like: ‘Tomorrow, Abraham.’ And she turned over and went to sleep.
“You must not think her callous: she had suffered all day, hoping every moment to find the boy. Yet she has the strongest trust in God, and she went to sleep knowing that she had done all she could, and trusting the rest to the Lord.
“I however, could not sleep. I do not have faith like hers. And I paced the room, wondering whether she had really said ‘Tomorrow Abraham,’ and if so why. And I thought of Abraham, the father of our people, and was pleased. She still trusted me to be father. And then I thought how Abraham was asked to give up his son. And I was scared. Finally, I made the link with ‘tomorrow.’ Isaac was lost to Abraham, (that is sentenced to die) for three days. It was on the third day that the angel told Abraham not to strike him - and tomorrow would be the third day since Jesus’ disappearance. So I was comforted at last, and finally got some sleep in a chair by the window. I never asked Mary if she had really said that... by the end of the next day it didn’t seem to matter - and we had plenty more to think about.”
And suddenly it is morning. Once more we are making our way into the Temple precincts. As we pass through the gate, Joseph starts towards the court of Women, but Mary pauses, and, ever sensitive to her, Joseph stops too. Then she turns to our right, and we go towards the arches inside the wall at the southern end of the temple. There is a rabbi standing, teaching, there are men and boys sat around, and as we approach a large, strong lad gets up and comes towards Mary. I do not realise at first - I think it is a friend. He looks far too big for twelve. But he embraces his mother, and Joseph, and I... I just turn aside; I can’t watch. Though nothing is said, my eyes are streaming with tears.
At last Mary speaks: “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.”
Joseph beside me comments: “I should have spoken. It was my role as father in the family to ask that question - to discipline the boy. But I could not; and as I hesitated, Mary spoke, And she was right to do so. I recognised immediately that this was something different, something between him and her particularly. And even in that moment I was delighted at her courtesy - putting me before herself (which is not done in our language) and using the title ‘father’ of me at the time I felt I least deserved it. But then Jesus...”
And then Jesus speaks, in a firm and unapologetic voice: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?”
At that moment, the rabbi and several of his followers join us. Joseph and Mary greet the rabbi with respect, but his eyes are shining: “Your son!” he says. “Never before have I had such questions; never before have I heard such answers to my questions. Give thanks to the Lord for this great gift he has entrusted to you.” And as the rabbi finishes, others join in; “Are you not from Nazareth? Who is the teacher there that has taught such wisdom to this boy? You must be very proud of him!”
Joseph beside me says: “You must not misunderstand our astonishment.” For indeed, Mary and the Joseph in front of me look amazed. “We knew his wisdom, of course. We had got used to the speed with which he learned the Law and the Prophets. But never before had he displayed it to others in that way. And we did not understand why he had done so then. But there was more. My pride in Mary’s use of the word ‘father’ was quickly put in its place. For Jesus had called the Lord his Father; something never before done. I had grown used to thinking of him as the Son of the Lord - yet still this shocked me... Suddenly it felt as though everything had changed - but then we went back to Nazareth, Jesus was once more the most loving and dutiful son. He learned my trade and was there at my deathbed...”
As the Joseph beside me talks, the rabbi and his followers go back to their makeshift school, the Holy Family turns towards the sanctuary of the temple. Jesus is in the middle, one arm around his mother, the other around Joseph, and they walk in silence together, giving thanks to the Lord.