I came into Galilee on foot, feeling my way through the rocks and crevices with my staff. On the outskirts of a town, I came to a small shack sitting alone in a clearing, the ground parched and cracked all around it. There was a young man up on the top of this house, working on the peak of the roof, hammering long nails into the boards there. I stopped before the door and looked up at him and waited. He looked down from his work and saw me standing there. He wiped the sweat from his brow and shaded his eyes with his arm. I called up to him, asking for lodging, and he nodded, and the arrangements were made as simply as that.
In the evening, when the young man was done with his work on the roof, he made a fire in the yard in front of the house and he cooked some stew over the fire. We sat in the yard eating the stew as the sun went down behind the house and a breeze blew in, cooling the sweat of the day. Two men approached out of the gathering darkness. They were friends of the young man. They introduced themselves to me as Peter and John. The one named Peter asked the young man if he was ready to go to Jerusalem, but the young man shook his head as he scraped the last of his stew from the bottom of his bowl. He told Peter that he had to stay to finish the house. He told both of the men to go on to Jerusalem without him. He told them that he would meet them there when he was done.
The two men walked off, grumbling to themselves. Peter glanced back a few times with a scowl on his face. But eventually they receded back into the darkness and we were alone again before the fire. The young man said nothing for a long time. He just stared thoughtfully into the flames. When the sun was almost completely set, I began to notice some lights far across the plains. I tapped the young man on the shoulder and I nodded in the direction of the lights and asked, “Jerusalem?” He looked that way and nodded slowly. I could see that it was something that he didn’t want to talk about. I could see the lights reflected in his eyes and I knew that it was some dream that he had. He sat gazing at it out there, just beyond his reach.
But he stayed there, working on the house, making a little more progress with each passing day. Other men came, other friends, one named Andrew, others named James and Bartholomew. They came in the mornings and the evenings and at midday. They found the young man pounding the nails into the boards on the roof or mixing the pitch and the tar over a fire in the yard. The conversation was always the same. The men would tell him that they were headed on to Jerusalem. They would ask him if he was coming with them. He would tell them that he had to stay and finish the house and that he would meet them there when he was done. And they would stomp away, grumbling and leaving dust in their wake.
Time went by, and eventually the friends stopped coming. The last of them had moved on to Jerusalem years ago. They had settled into their lives there, and they had probably long since forgotten about the young man, and they had probably taken jobs and gotten married and given up waiting for him. The young man explained the situation to me many times, many evenings beside the fire, as though he had read my thoughts and was answering some persistent question that I had never asked out loud. The house had been left to him by his father. It was the only thing of value that he had in the world. He had to make sure that it was fixed up properly, and he had to find new owners to sell it to. He couldn’t leave until this was taken care of. I never said anything in response to this explanation, but I grew more frustrated every time I heard it.
As the young man grew older, his beard grew fuller and his brown hair grew longer. One morning I woke up and I saw him washing his face in the clay basin across the room. The water dripped from his beard as he lifted his head and wiped his face with a towel, and then, with that sudden fresh clarity that sometimes occurs upon waking, I realized for the first time exactly who he was. I understood the whole thing. These were the silent years, the ones the Gospels had never mentioned. I knew the whole story. I knew what was ahead. And yet, at the same time, this future seemed so precious and unset. There was no certainty that things would happen as they were supposed to. My frustration got the better of me, and I started yelling at the young man, “How can you just stay here working on this house!? You know who you are! You know what’s going to happen, what needs to happen! How can you waste all this time!?” But he said nothing. He just followed his eyes to a support beam across the room, feeling its unsteadiness with his hand. Another thing he’d have to fix.
I stopped talking to him for a long time after that. I would stare sullenly at the fire in the evenings and I would snatch the bowl of stew from his hand when he offered it. I knew I wasn’t being fair. I knew I wasn’t being a thankful and respectful guest in his home. I didn’t care. I couldn’t stand to sit there while history was put on hold, maybe even jeopardized, just for the sake of some ramshackle house. I felt like my skin was crawling with aggravation. I thought of a thousand angry words to say, but I swallowed each one. I shuddered at every pounding of the hammer. I clenched my fist whenever I caught a whiff of tar in the air.
By the time the house was done, we were strangers. We never even said goodbye to one another. I just woke up in my bed one morning and the house was quiet, and I knew he was gone. There was a headstone set in the ground beside the front door with a simple epitaph which read, “Gone to Jerusalem”, and there were a couple of bright desert flowers planted around the stone. I understood that he had left the house with me and he trusted me to take care of it. I stood over the stone for a long time. I felt the flower petals with the tips of my fingers. I walked around the house, inside and out, feeling the solid craftsmanship of the joints and the boards. I sat on the edge of my bed, smoothing the blankets and situating the pillow. I waited for the tears, but they never came.
That night I had a dream that rolled down through the ages. I dreamt that I sat by the fire in the yard and watched as the lights of Jerusalem went out one by one. Wars and nations came and went. Travellers passed by, asking the way, their clothes and modes of transportation changing with every generation. Soldiers passed, wearing different uniforms, belonging to different armies, pushing ever more sophisticated machines of war among their ranks. And all the while the house stood, weathering every storm that swirled around it, rooted firm against every tide of time and fortune, until finally I woke up, and I knew that I was somewhere else now, adrift in human history. I went to the door and looked out on this new world. It still looked like the same desert, but I knew everything was different out there beyond what I could see.