The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 4

The Father began: “The desert teaches how to be hungry; and how to be thirsty. And it teaches that these things are not as bad as we fear….of course, if we become too hungry, and especially if we become too thirsty, then we’ll die….so the desert also teaches us moderation. If we can learn it, then the desert teaches us how to live wisely.”

“I first entered the desert like most do—proud, and arrogant—sure of myself and wrapped in many layers of deceit. I was bloated, but ready to shed these skins. I came to the desert to thin down, whether I knew that or not at the time, to come clean and be made anew. My first experience of the desert was at night, I had come to the monastery of Mar Saba, east of Bethlehem, and for a time I made my home there. I arrived there at night during a hamsin, when the wind blows ferociously, and stirs the dust and sand into great billows. The moon was full that night, though it was mostly hidden, but when it did shine through, it appeared red as blood, and it lit the night sky like a furnace.”

“I can’t imagine a more appropriate welcome to the desert, for there was a hamsin also raging within me—passions blowing violently, desires swirling mercilessly in my mind, stirring up dust and sand which blinded me, causing me to lose my way. The desert was dangerous that night but I knew that I needed it, and I had to face it. During a hamsin the winds can blow so fiercely that I’ve seen palm trees with their tops bent over, parallel to the ground—their fronds whipping about frantically, as torrents of sand flow past them, tearing and ripping them to shreds. Similarly, I bent under the strain of those winds that night, and felt the sand pummel my skin, ripping at it, scouring it, until I couldn’t take it any longer; then I turned my face towards the stone cliffs that I had sheltered against, with my lungs aching, gasping for a breath of clean air. When the hamsin passed, several hours later, I was shattered and broken, close to death, but not dead; rather I had begun a journey of rebirth. Then, I knew I needed the desert, it was my only hope, because even after that night of great pain, even after that hamsin had subsided, my inner hamsin was still stirring within me, weaker yet still unbeaten.”

“I looked up at the night sky, fresh and vibrant after its vigorous washing. I was exhausted—a feeling I would soon grow very accustomed to in the desert—yet I was exhilarated too, and expectant…perhaps delirious as well. I was lying on a ledge not far from the monastery, and I could hear the waters of the Kidron gurgling at the base of the gorge below me. I smiled at the sound of the water as I drifted off to sleep.”

“The next morning, as sunlight brightened the rim of the gorge, and cast deeper shadows into its depths by contrast, I awoke to the pleasant sensation of warmth on my cheeks, though they were still raw from their cleansing the night before. The air smelled fresh and fragrant; and small birds darted across the emptiness, suspended between the cliff faces on both sides of the brook. I watched them fly, carried by warm currents rising up from below, bobbing along, upon these invisible waves; telling me that my own soul would soon be flying like they were, prophesying to my heart that their freedom would soon be mine, and my own spirit would be let loose to dance upon the wind.”

Father Davidson stopped for a moment, and in the silence I glanced around the fire at the others. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the Father, waiting to hear what he would say next. The fire cast a warm glow on the faces all around; and sparks rose and drifted off into the darkened sky. I followed one with my eyes as it lifted up and up, eventually merging with the stars; becoming one, I imagine, with some far-off galaxy. Father Davidson’s voice brought my mind back to earth as he continued with his desert story:

“The morning brought with it an incredible thirst. It came upon me very quickly, and suddenly I felt that I needed water desperately, with every fiber of my being. The dust and sand had covered me throughout, and had dried my skin, filling my ears, and nose, and my mouth; fine grit lodged in my molars and between my teeth. The sound of the stream down below once again reached my ears and called out to me. I rose from where I had slept, and clambered over to a nearby footpath, which led down the cliff-face to the stream.”

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