After I left the coffee shop I wandered through town a bit before returning to my car. Dian had said to talk with Amelia, Father Davidson’s younger sister, if I wanted to learn more about his past; and I knew where to find her. She owned an art store and gallery just a short stroll away, and nothing stopped me from heading over there right now and talking with her. As I walked in that direction I went over in my mind what I might say to her. I’d never met her before and it seemed invasive, or rude, to just start asking her questions about her family history. It was no business of mine after all; and what craziness made me seek to pry into their affairs anyway? This activity people have of entering into the business of others, whether with good motives or bad, always annoyed me and I considered it to be a waste of time at best, and hurtful and destructive most of the time. However, in this case I wanted to know more, I felt an urgency to know the truth about Father Davidson’s past. So, as is often the case with these sorts of things, I corralled my reasons and lined them up behind my desires, in order to justify my actions, which otherwise I would have disavowed and found irksome in others.
With a mollified conscience, at least for the moment, I hastened to Amelia’s store. At the window however, I paused unable to enter. I glanced nonchalantly through the window and discerned a few ladies standing near the cash register towards the back of the building. I suspected one of them was Amelia and then I lost my nerve. Was it conscience, or embarrassment that stopped me? I’d like to think I decided to do the right thing for the good of all mankind, as a silent protest against the human habit of meddling. Perhaps. But I suspect it was simple vanity instead, an aversion to placing myself in an uncomfortable situation; one in which there was a high likelihood of looking foolish or boorish, or both.
Suddenly at ease, and with a subtle sense of having avoided a social catastrophe, I gently exhaled and walked slowly across the storefront while glancing at the things inside the windows. I couldn’t help but smile as I looked at the art supplies: paper, brushes, pens, paints, books teaching how-to draw this and that, and on an easel a schedule of classes by Amelia herself—drawing and painting landscapes, capturing the innocence and beauty of wildlife, techniques using pen and ink, and several other classes. I filed this away in my mind, and considered taking a class or two from her in the future. Further along, in the windows on the other side of the front door, gallery items were displayed; paintings by local artists including Amelia, a wide variety of pottery, abstract and animal sculptures, fused glass and some jewelry. Towards the back of the gallery was another small room, warmly lit and inviting, but I couldn’t see what was displayed in there. I decided definitely to return and take a look inside the store at another time.
Later, that evening I drove to the orchard to hear the Father continue his story. I took my place around the fire and as I waited for him to begin, I reflected on the uniqueness, at least for me, of having a daily story time like this. I remember telling stories around the campfire as a child, telling ghost stories and that sort of thing, but those were typically one-off things, reserved for summer vacations or something special, but never part of my daily run-of-the-mill routine. I briefly lamented living now in such a visual and digital culture. Not that I don’t enjoy a great television series or movie, but a story, told orally, or read from a book, allows one’s whole being to expand a little bit through the effort of one’s imagination. This mental, and emotional work draws us into direct relationship with the story itself in ways that we cannot do with visual storytelling. But hearing a story or reading a book takes a lot of time—time is what we’ve lost now—and time is what we cannot seem able to find again. These things were jostling around in my head, when Father Davidson sat down and began his story again:
“Let me ask you, is there anything to be gained from looking at a stone, do you think? Well, wait…I must first apologize to all of you. Last night, you asked how it is possible to commune with another person from many centuries ago; how Elder Lazarus could confide as a friend in John Damascene, who lived long before us, and I cryptically answered that time is a funny thing. I was foolish to be so flippant about such a mystery, please forgive me for my arrogance and my presumption. That question deserves a real answer and I’m sorry that I do not know.”
I noticed several of our group shift uncomfortably in our chairs, as the Father continued: “I know some of you hope that I am some special kind of saint, but I’m not. I know a little, but not a lot. I am only learning, and I can only hope to point you in His direction, if it is God’s will and by His grace, that we may together find that good way aiming squarely at Him. Now, this aim is the entire reason for the stillness of the desert which I want to share with you, for there is no other person, or purpose for which one could sanely give up the noise and purposes of this world. We don’t empty ourselves merely for the sake of emptying but for the sake of being filled by the Creator of all. This is the meaning of my story of the desert.”
“Now. The desert is filled with stone, walls of rock everywhere you turn. Mar Saba, the monastery I was blessed to call home, is built against the side of such a wall of rock. Its foundations rise up from rock, its walls merge with the cliff face, terraces of rooflines and walkways cascade down the cliff like so many layers of sediment—building built upon building over the centuries—windows punctuating the rock like little nests, and copper cupolas like little saucers turned upside-down, rising up from the jagged cliff, announcing that man has survived here, and is flourishing in this hostile place. Man came from the rock, from dirt, and man is merging with it once again. Man has built upon the rock, and man is being taught by it forevermore.”
“But what can a rock possibly teach us? It depends entirely on our heart and what our heart is prepared to receive. Most of the time, for most of us, our heart is entirely overwhelmed by our mind—a flurry of thoughts swirling incessantly, desires seeking endless activity and entertainment, ambitions that take us far from the truth of ourselves, countless lies and deceptions that we tell ourselves and others—and in these ways, and in other ways too, our mind obscures the working of our heart, covering it under layers and layers of psychological and emotional sediment, turning it to stone. The desert helps reverse this process, transforming our stony hearts back into flesh; it reveals a spring within us rising up from a still pool of sweetness. Finding that still pool, discovering that stillness, this is among the first things that contemplating the rock will teach us.”