Leonard and I had been chatting about these extraordinary magical tales for around half an hour when he suddenly stood out of his chair and walked over to the shelving on the opposite side of the room and perused his books. He carefully scoured the titles, then pulled out an old battered volume and returned to his chair, holding it out at arm’s length to avoid covering himself in the thick layer of dust in which it was encased. The book was entitled Contra Celsum. He blew the top layer of dust off the book towards the window, opened it and, as he ran his index finger down the contents page, he explained that Celsus - a philosopher writing in the late second-century AD - called Jesus a sorcerer and he claimed that the Christians used magical invocations and the names of demons in order to perform their miracles. He said that we do not have Celsus’ original text, but the philosopher and theologian Origen (writing in the third-century AD) quotes generously from Celsus in his apologetic work Contra Celsum. Flicking speedily through the pages, he found his place and began to read a quotation from Celsus aloud:
‘After she [Mary] had been driven out by her husband and while she was wandering about in a disgraceful way she secretly gave birth to Jesus…because he was poor he [Jesus] hired himself out as a workman in Egypt, and there tried his hand at certain magical powers on which the Egyptians pride themselves; he returned full of conceit because of these powers, and on account of them gave himself the title of God.’
Taken aback by this bold claim, I commented that it ‘all sounds terribly blasphemous’, to which Leonard laughed. He then went on to quote from another passage in which Celsus compares Jesus to the Egyptian magicians ‘...who for a few obols make known their secret lore in the middle of the market-place and drive out demons and blow away diseases and invoke the souls of heroes, displaying expensive banquets and dining-tables and cakes and dishes which are non-existent, and who make things move as though they were alive although they are not really so, but only appear as such in the imagination…’. Then Leonard bent forward in his chair and continued to read from the book, only this time following the text with his finger and giving weight and deliberate attention to every word:
‘And he [Celsus] says: Since these men do these wonders, ought we to think them sons of God? Or ought we to say that they are the practices of wicked men possessed by an evil demon?’
He closed the book solemnly and stared at me in anticipation of a reaction. I thought seriously about Celsus’ statement for a moment and then a troubling question began to materialize in my mind. What if Celsus is right and there were other magicians in the ancient world who performed similar miracles to those attributed to Jesus in the Gospels? And if so, then how are we to separate the miracles of Jesus from the wonders produced by these magicians?
The question was like a tiny shard of glass lodging itself in my mind and I would have dearly loved to hear more, but our conversation was cut short by the gentle hum of my mobile phone vibrating in my bag and, although I apologised to Leonard and urged him to continue, he insisted that I checked my phone in case it was an urgent call. Searching through the clutter of pens, hairbrushes and keys in my bag, I eventually located my phone and found a text message from Alex asking when I would be returning home. Apologising once again, I told Leonard that I needed to leave to which he replied, in an equally gracious and apologetic manner, that he should not be so selfish to monopolise one more second of my time. As I quickly tapped a reply into my phone, I heard him rip a page out of his sketch pad, fold it carefully in half and sort through a pile of books behind his chair (I felt terribly guilty that I had distracted him from the purpose of my visit and that I had occupied so much of his time talking rather than drawing).
I thanked Leonard for his hospitality and said that I had found our discussion to be very interesting indeed, to which he laughed and suggested that I should dispense with my Alpha courses and try his alternative ‘Omega course’ instead. Then, as I stood to leave, he presented me with a large green book. The title was written in Russian and there were no illustrations on the cover, so I had no idea what the book was about or why he had handed it to me. Mindful that I was in a hurry, Leonard explained that it was a biography of the Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and, given that he could not read Russian, he had been waiting to meet a musician who would appreciate the photographs of the pianist and his music manuscripts that the book contained. It was a lovely gesture but I was beginning to grow concerned about where I would store all these donated books!
Since Christmas was almost upon us we agreed to postpone the next portrait session until the new year and Leonard promised that he would call me in mid-to-late January to arrange our next meeting. I gave him my phone number and home address when he asked for them, ensuring to deliberately point out that I live with my boyfriend and so he should not be surprised if a male voice answers the phone. Even though I was certain that Leonard’s intentions were entirely decent, the mention of a boyfriend usually suffices to deter any unwanted attention and I knew that this could possibly determine whether or not I received a phone call from him in the new year.
I placed the Rachmaninoff book on the hallway table when I arrived back at my flat and it was not until I passed by the book later that evening that I noticed the corner of a white envelope sticking out from between the pages. Opening the book, I took out the envelope and ripped it open to find a page from Leonard’s sketch book with three pencil sketches; one of my hands and two very detailed studies of my mouth. A scribbled note attached to the sketches read:
‘What can I say, except that they mutter for themselves. Love, L.’
I smiled to myself and somehow I knew that Leonard felt me smile. The pictures, our conversation, our friendship. I had certainly been given something very precious indeed.