The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 7

The next day I was in town to get a few things and I stopped in at the coffee shop—not the franchise on the way out of town, but the locally-owned one just off the square. It’s the place you go if you want to hear spurious stories and scandalous hearsay. I’m not typically in the market for either of these, but it is also the place one can find grains of truth and elements of fact if one is willing to sift through the outrage and the intrigue of the storytellers.

The storytellers were: the couple who owned the place, Lilian and Apollo, and their long-time friend and co-worker Dian. Outside of their constant barrage of conversation, often shouted to one another from one end of the shop to the other, it is hard to imagine when they had time to work. But they were maestros in their own way, experts able to do the daily activities of running their business with little thought or effort, while simultaneously focusing on what really mattered to them, and where they placed all their dedication and pride: gossiping.

The shop had been in this same location for several decades, but before that it had been located in another building a few streets over, which had burnt down in the late 1980’s. Back then it was a café where most of the locals congregated each morning to get a quick coffee or bite to eat, or sit and have a heartier full breakfast, and to share stories from the local paper. More recently, Lilian and Apollo had scaled back the menu and now served only simple baked goods and coffees; but the gathering of locals and the sharing of stories was still an honored tradition.

As I entered, the three were engaged in what appeared to be a heated debate:

“I don’t care what they say,” exclaimed Lilian. “I know it isn’t true, I can tell these things. I’m not perfect, but God knows…why, I would even give the shirt off my own back if it had been me.”

“First of all, why bring God into it?!” Asked Dian. “What’s your point? You aren’t making any sense.”

“You’re not making any sense!” Apollo jumped in as he handed another customer their bill. “You aren’t listening at all!”

“I’m not listening!?” Dian yelled back. “Oh! That’s rich! Ha! Who’s the one that doesn’t listen?!” She laughed as she looked around the coffee-shop nodding to the customers for approval. Several nodded in agreement while others looked at Apollo and shrugged.

“I’m just saying,” continued Lilian. “There’s a lot more to it than we think, that’s all.”

The three agreed on that last point. And for a moment there was silence in the coffee shop while Apollo gave a customer some change, Dian went to change the coffee pot, and Lilian cleared a table. I stood in the doorway hesitating, debating with myself really, on whether or not I should go through with my plan. I knew there was no turning back if I lobbed a topic out there to this group. They were certain to run with it, and no telling where we’d end up. But I was curious, I had heard rumors about Father Davidson and wondered what truth there was to these; this probably wasn’t the best place to come for truth, but it likely was the only place where someone might have had first-hand knowledge of the facts behind the rumors. I felt dirty though, and I despised myself a little for coming here to dig up dirt about the Father. But was that really what I was doing? Maybe I wanted to prove to myself the rumors weren’t true. Maybe I was only here to vindicate him in my own mind. Or was I just wanting to throw mud on a good man; trying to bring someone else down a peg to make myself feel better? I couldn’t decide what my motive for coming was—I tried to turn and walk back out the door. I tried to hold my tongue, but instead I said: “And what about Father Davidson?!”

All eyes turned towards me, and the three oracles of the coffee-shop looked genuinely surprised. There was another moment of silence, the kind the settles on a place just before a sudden storm.

“Oh! That man!” Lilian gasped in exasperation.

“That do-gooder?!” Apollo added.

“Good for nothing is more like it!” Dian chimed in.

“He burnt our café down, I can tell you that much,” Lilian snorted. “And he ain’t what he appears, I’ll tell you that too! He’s a thief the way I see it. Robin Hood my ass. And a murderer!”

“He does seem to think he’s something special now,” Apollo continued. “Always was a vain young man, and proud. You couldn’t tell him nothing he didn’t think that he already knew. Always thinking he knows more than you.”

“That’s the truth! Staring off into the distance, cocking his head like a little dog, acting all cute, and squinting at you with those eyes of his…so damn annoying. Well he got what he deserved.”

“No he didn’t. Hardly! Three years? If that?! What was it…parole or something after that?” fumed Lilian.

I interjected cautiously: “Well, I was wondering if everyone thought that he really did it? This is why I brought it up actually.”

Dian briefly looked at me, and then out one of the windows. “Oh, the old conspiracy that it was the kid instead? Is that what you’re getting at? The strange one that was always hanging around in the shadows? What was his name?”

“Richard.” Apollo answered. “He was autistic I think. Fairly severe case as I remember. They put him away too…I think he’s still locked up.”

“Probably for the best,” said Dian. “What kind of life could he have anyway? Sad situation all around. If you want to know more ask Amelia, the Father’s younger sister. The whole thing is her fault anyway.”

I got my coffee and left the shop as the conversation veered to a different topic. I felt dejected, I got what I came for—intrigue and vitriol—and I knew it was my own fault for broaching the subject, but I felt dirty and as though I had betrayed Father Davidson’s confidence. I chastised myself for asking about him in there. I knew it wouldn’t amount to anything good, although I did learn something new about Richard, and the Father’s sister Amelia. So there was more to the story than just that Father Davidson went to prison for arson and manslaughter, perhaps a lot more.

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The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 6

Later that evening we gathered around the fire once more, and Father Davidson continued his story:

“Elder Lazarus was abbot of Mar Saba back then, and it was he that I met as I lay floating along the edges of the stream. He regarded me silently, betraying little emotion. He motioned for me to follow him, and then turned and climbed the steps to a small gate at the lowest corner of the monastery wall. I gathered my things and ran up to meet him. I spent the next two years with him, and the other inhabitants of that holy, miraculous place. I experienced many things while I was there, but most of all I experienced how sacred-stillness slowly makes its home within a human being; and then how this stillness opens a man to wonders beyond his imagination.”

“At first it comes to one as a terrifying menace—a stillness that is the destruction of everything we think is joyful about life in this world—and for what can be a long time, or a short time, depending on the person, it remains a menace and a terror while it shows us the emptiness and the loneliness which permeate our inner life. We struggle to avoid this; some run back to the world, others create fantasies to hide us, while others resist it with every passion of their body. But eventually, for the one who remains long enough in the presence of stillness—it becomes a friend, then a beloved brother, then a teacher and an ever-loving father.”

Just then an owl screeched from a nearby tree and Adam commented, “So much for stillness!” We laughed, as Father Davidson continued:

“But genuine inner stillness does not depend upon silence. At first it may, but in time it is no longer dictated to by silence, or by noise, or by the outer environment in any way; but instead stillness takes hold and transforms the environment. Most people can only resemble their environment—even those who supposedly influence the culture, even they are merely taking the pieces, and rearranging them in apparently new and titillating ways. But for the few people who learn stillness, they no longer simply mirror their environment, but instead they are able to mold their outer environment in ways that resemble their inner life.”

“Ah, well this is easy to misunderstand. There is really much more to it but this is an introduction at least…there is also the gift of God, the grace of God, and giving up our lives to gain true life, and loving God of course—and doing His will above all else—but this is a start. Saint Seraphim once said, I’m guessing you may have heard it before: ‘Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.’ This is what I mean; this is the way one who has found stillness causes the environment around him to mirror his own inner life.”

“Peace on Earth,” Tara said with emphasis, “I want it!”

“But first peace in heart,” answered Father Davidson. “Without peace in heart, no chance of peace on earth.”

“Tell us more about Elder Lazarus,” I interjected.

“Elder Lazarus spoke a little English, but not a great deal; and I spoke almost no Greek. But still we communicated effectively, as did all of us who lived in the monastery. Life there revolved around the Liturgy, and the other daily services, and work. An abundance of words were not required. But he was a man of knowledge, Elder Lazarus was a scholar of St. John of Damascus, who had lived and wrote in the very same monastery some fourteen-hundred years earlier. Elder Lazarus loved St. John as a dear brother, and talked with him often, confiding with him and ‘sharing the sweetness of life’ he would say.”

“Wait,” Adam stopped Father Davidson. “I think I missed something, did I miss something? Didn’t you say John of Damascus lived fourteen-hundred years ago?” He shifted uncomfortably in his chair while looking inquisitively at Father Davidson.

“That’s correct,” he said and smiled back at Adam. “Time is a funny thing.”

“Well, how did he talk…I don’t get it. What do you mean he confided in him?”

Father Davidson continued to smile at Adam, and simply said again, “Time is a funny thing, isn’t it?” He looked up at the starry sky for a moment and then said, “And time is getting late for tonight. Shall I continue tomorrow, would you like me?”

“Yes,” we all agreed.

“One final thing I will leave you with tonight. After the tempest, after the earthquake, and after the fire that rages within you; then there is a still, small voice. It is a rare and beautiful voice. Stand firm against the tempest, don’t run away from the earthquake, be certain to endure the fire and outlast it.”

Father Davidson got up, said goodnight and walked back to his cabin.

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The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 5

“I bathed that morning in the waters of renewal. Layers of dust and sand sloughed off of me, and I tasted a hint of the freedom that those birds up above had spoken to me moments earlier. I remember that moment as vividly as if it were happening right now. Yes, it was refreshing, as you can imagine, but it was also terrible…why terrible?! I was overcome with sorrow for my life, how I had lived it up until now. These were also waters of repentance. An oppressive weariness rose up within me even as I drank of the fresh water, and even as I felt my body revive. Spiritually, I was exhausted and wanted to be done with my life. The water tasted so good as I swallowed it…I considered breathing it deeply into my lungs and flying away for good; my soul raising up to the heavens and leaving this poor world. I leaned back and floated for a time, and more time, until time left me suspended between earth and heaven, sometime within eternity. Who knows how long I floated like that but when I finally did open my eyes and return to myself, I was looking up into the face of another. His kind eyes smiling down upon me.”

Father Davidson looked up from the fire where he had been gazing. It struck me that his own eyes reflected this kindness of which he had been speaking.

“Well, I can speak more about him another time. If you are interested.”

Yes, we all nodded and agreed that we wanted to hear more of his story.

“Okay, tomorrow then. Good night.” Father Davidson got up from the fire, turned and walked into the darkness towards his cabin.

Eventually the rest of our group wandered off to their various places as well; Tara and Adam went to their tent, the others to their RV, and then I realized I was stuck with nowhere to go. I had come to the orchard on the back of Father Davidson’s bicycle and had no means to return home. “I suppose I could take his bike and bring it back in the morning, but he may need it,” I thought to myself. “I could walk, but my home was on the other side of town, a long walk to be sure, not less than an hour by foot.” I glanced around me at the emptiness, smoke rising from the dying embers. I shivered, more from a feeling of sudden loneliness than from the night air, which happened to be pleasantly warm. Out of curiosity I wandered off in the direction of the Father’s cabin.

Walking from the clearing, the land sloped gradually down to the east. Rows of fruit and nut trees lined my path as I made my way through the tall, fragrant grasses which swayed softly in the breeze. Nearing the eastern limits of the property the slope steepens and drops off, offering vistas towards the conifer-covered hills below, and the ocean beyond. I could hear the distant crash of the surf, and the occasional hoots of owls from the surrounding trees as I approached Father Davidson’s cabin which was situated in another clearing where the rows of trees ended, and before the native trees just beyond the property fence began.

He seemed to have anticipated my arrival as I noticed a blanket and pillow placed at the top of the steps leading to his front door. I saw the flicker of candlelight through the drawn drapes covering the window to the left of the door. I considered knocking as I picked up the blanket and pillow but then thought better of it as I peered through the opening between the drapes and could see the Father praying in the corner near his bed. Looking around me I noticed a hammock strung from the wide-set branches of what appeared through the darkness to be a cherry tree. Quietly I walked over to the hammock and made my bed and lay down. Swinging gently, looking up through the branches I fell off to sleep.

As I slept, I found myself somehow within a tempest, lost amidst crashing waves, all breaking around me and over me. I was sinking beneath the waves, afraid for my life, when someone reached out and pulled me into a boat. It was raining very hard and I could hear the sails above me, shaking and whipping about in the wind, the cables rattling and slapping against the mast. As I looked outside the boat the waves became people, all arguing and blaming one another, pointing fingers and yelling—horrible, smug faces with bulging eyes, accusing each other of anything that came to mind.  And then the rain turned to hail, and fell upon us all, those in the ocean were hit very hard, but those of us inside the safety of the boat weren’t hurt in any way, though I could feel the pieces of hail, the size of golf balls, landing upon me.

I awoke from this strange scene, and noticed my blanket littered with…cherries. I looked up into the day-lit tree and saw Father Davidson sprawled out above me, with arms and legs anchored into the crooks of various limbs, shaking the tree and causing cherries to fall all about, onto the ground below. He smiled as he looked down through the branches at me. It was a bright morning with the sun already high in the sky above us.

“You looked like you were sinking there for a moment,” said the Father. “I had to grab you or you might have been a goner.”

“What?! How could you know?” I stammered and looked up at him inquisitively. “It was a dream.”

“You were about to fall out of your hammock, that’s all,” he replied and smiled simply. “It looked like you were going to fall.”

“Oh, I see.” I thought for a moment about how he phrased it. “That’s a strange way to put it though…’sinking’.”

“Yes,” the Father replied as he climbed down out of the tree. “It is always, and only, a sinking feeling when we accuse, and judge and point fingers at one another.”

He walked back to his cabin, and left me alone to ponder this last statement. I sat up in the hammock. “Again! How could he know? It was a dream.” I said to myself as I watched him enter his cabin and close the door behind him.

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