The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 11

Father Davidson continued: “I was only a visitor at Mar Saba. I was given a glimpse at spiritual giants—just a child among men, really—allowed a brief sojourn amongst the angels.  At least that is how it felt to me. Elder Lazarus, and the other monks, illustrated how it is to live from the inside outward. What are we, all of us…what are you, when stripped of all artifice so that your inner life is revealed for all to see? Imagine if that inner self could be what you wished and hoped it would be…so that, what you see is what you get. No deception, no more hiding the truth of yourself behind a falsified personality.”

“Some look at the face of a monk and they see something stern, maybe even mean, because they may not be smiling, or laughing; but no, the monk that has achieved stillness and has found themselves is gentle like the deer, and warm like the risen sun.”

“Once, two of the brothers entered into an argument, each blaming the other. Tension and animosity grew between them but they were unwilling to make peace. Each prayed fervently before the altar of God, even acting as though they had forgiven, but in their hearts they still harbored anger. Elder Lazarus saw the danger they faced and eventually intervened.”

“One day the Elder was standing on the garden terrace. He appeared deep in thought, with his eyes closed; and his lips were moving. I thought he was singing a song so I listened for a while. A small dove was standing on the ground not far from the Elder, and it appeared to be listening as well. Soon, one of the fighting brothers came close and watched the dove; and not long afterwards the other brother, who had been fighting the first, also came near to watch the dove.”

“Each of the brothers stared intently at the small bird, seemingly transfixed by it, their faces tense. Suddenly, as if out of thin air, one of the monastery cats jumped on the bird, grabbed it violently by the neck, shaking it from side to side while running off with it. Both brothers gasped, horrified, and jumped backward, completely surprised by the cat. With mouths half opened they turned to watch the cat leap over a low wall with the bird still in its mouth.”

‘There you are,’ cried Elder Lazarus. ‘Each thinking that you are the dove, calling the other the cat. But each of you know in your heart, that you alone are the cat—attacking and destroying the innocence of the other.’

“The brothers turned to the Elder and fell to the ground sobbing, repenting. After that day everyone could see that peace had returned to their hearts.”

“When I first arrived at Mar Saba,” Father Davidson continued, “I stayed in a small cell adjoining another cell of the same size, connected by a smaller antechamber which led out to one of the many hallways of the monastery. I was very grateful for the presence of the monk in the other cell—though we hardly spoke to one another—because I often felt quite lonely, having left my home and country, my family and friends, and nearly all of my possessions behind.”

“I speculated that even if a loved one were to find Mar Saba itself, far out in the Judean desert, they likely still couldn’t find me, hidden away someplace within its labyrinth of hallways, staircases, terraces, rooms behind rooms, rooms below rooms, caverns, and caves. Often the only sounds one could hear all day were the wind as it whistled through a crack in the wall, or one’s own breathing.”

“As one dives deeper into the solitude of the desert, many divisions shed away. Time itself attains an eternal quality—the past, present and future merging together—a quality that affects material space in unexpected ways. One of the oldest monks, Father Elijah, had dwelled in the silence of the desert for most of his life; he appeared to be in his late nineties, perhaps older, but was still able to serve at the altar during the weekly Liturgy, and I often saw him walking the halls, or heard him praying late at night by candlelight in his cave near the monastery’s northern wall.”

“I first met him in a semi-darkened hallway as he silently made his way towards me; his black cassock concealing him nearly completely from view. As we passed each other I saw only his face in the fading light and to my worldly eyes he appeared almost as a ghost—pale and lifeless, expressionless, and his skin nearly translucent. His appearance was very unsettling and I felt the hairs on my neck stand on end. As I spent more time observing him however, I came to a different conclusion about him.”

“His uncanny appearance gradually changed as I observed him serve during Liturgies; he was not as one dead but incredibly alive. Physically he certainly appeared near the grave, or maybe returned from it, but deeper within his countenance a different energy radiated from him, a light that could not quite be called such, but appeared similar to light nonetheless. Sometimes as I watched him he seemed almost to fade from view, so that I had to look again, very intently, to bring him back into my vision. Sometimes it seemed as though he wasn’t there at all one moment, and then he appeared again briefly, before vanishing once again. At night he merged with the darkness, and in the daylight his face, the only visible part of him, merged with the sunlight and the surrounding desert rock so it appeared that his cassock was standing up on its own.”

“One evening during the apodipnon, or compline service, just before bed, I observed Father Elijah standing against a side wall of the nave as the service was concluding. As usual, by candlelight, I wasn’t at first sure if he was really there or was instead one of the icons painted upon the walls. I moved quietly towards him to get a closer look to confirm his presence in the room, and then focused once more on the final prayers to Jesus Christ. After the service, he was gone, though I hadn’t seen him leave, nor had I heard the doors of the church open or close, and they were notoriously squeaky doors.”

“I hurried to my room, and on the way I turned and climbed partially up the stairs leading to Father Elijah’s cave. At the top I could see his candlelight flowing out through the cave opening and I heard him saying his prayers. How this old man had vanished from the service, and had somehow managed to climb up to his cave before me I couldn’t comprehend.”

Adam interrupted Father Davidson: “So did he time travel? Is that what you are getting at? Or could he walk through walls or something?”

“It’s a mystery,” replied Father Davidson. “Like so many things in the desert, or in the spiritual life for that matter. But don’t mistake what I’m saying: mystery is not the defeat of reason, or a lazy resignation to what is unknown or unknowable. Mystery is not fantasy; it is the essential foundation for humility. And humility is what we all need in order to begin to understand these things. Without mystery, and without humility, we only think we understand, or we dismiss the possibilities; and our presumption and our pride hems us in, and causes us to become foolish. It is time for me to retire, let’s continue again tomorrow night.”

Father Davidson returned to his cabin, the others made their way back to their tent and RV, and I drove home pondering the Father’s story and his statement about mystery. Could I accept mystery? I come from a world that demands answers, and values the intellectual conquest of the unknown. Mystery is unsettling—fine in a story—but difficult to endure in real life.

 

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