The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 27

“Instead of being shot right then, I felt the barrel pulled away from my head and then used to strike me hard, a crossing blow from right to left that knocked me to the ground. Again, the man spoke to me, in a deep voice full of menace, a disembodied voice from somewhere in the darkness that surrounded me—though lit here and there now, by tiny stars which circled my eyes—asking me something, in a language I couldn’t understand. I replied using the only Arabic word that I knew, “Salaam. Salaam.”

“From out of the darkness I heard one or two gasps of surprise, and then laughter. The voice closest to me asked, ‘American? American, you?’ And I answered that I was. This created a commotion inside the cave and for several minutes the voices conferred, and argued, and then fell silent. I waited in the pitch black, considering my fate, wondering if they would kill me and throw me over the precipice into the raging waters below, or might they let me go?”

“Moments later I was picked up and dragged to the back of the cave, and made to sit down against the wall, next to another body. I understood this is all I was to them, just a body, not a person, but merely a thing that either had value and could be used, or didn’t and would be discarded. But then isn’t this how many of us view one another? Weighing each other’s value on the scales of our own wants and needs? So I couldn’t fault these men any more than I faulted myself for the same failing. And as I sat in the dark that night, waiting for the day to break, I considered Elder Lazarus and my own prayers, and I came to the realization that this was my answer to prayer, and the abbot, I think, knew the journey I would be taking when I left the monastery walls earlier that night. The rain fell on these men the same as it did on me; God gave them life and love, and this was my opportunity to love them as well.”

‘Hey,’ the body sitting next to me whispered: ‘I speak English, little bit. I’m Avi.’ I told him my name, and he proceeded to tell me what was happening: ‘These guys kidnap me, take me from Avdat…where I am working. I think they are taking me to Ubeidiya, I think they live there. I think their father is in prison in Israel, they want to use me to get him released.’ Periodically this sort of thing would happen in our area, it was a familiar story, and sometimes it worked. So I had stumbled into the middle of a crime; a desperate measure taken by several young men in hopes of winning their loved one back again. And there was Avi—the bait—and sometimes the bait died in these situations. No doubt, soon there would also be Israeli patrols visiting our cave, not long after daybreak, and that is often the point in the story when the captors also lose their lives; the whole thing turning to tragedy.

“As I waited for the sun to rise I considered my role in this drama. I couldn’t return the father to the sons—that was beyond my ability— but I could possibly protect the sons from themselves, and return Avi to his own father. I whispered to Avi, ‘Can you speak Arabic? If you can, would you tell these guys something for me?’ He called out to the men in Arabic and after some convincing they came closer and I began to tell them my plan, which Avi translated: ‘Look, you know as well as I do that the Israelis will be here in the morning, almost as early as the sun. They will find you, they are already on their way, don’t doubt it. You don’t need to die here, let me help you so nobody has to lose their lives today. I am a monk at the monastery, Mar Saba, this is lent, and I am spending lent alone in this cave. Let me tell the soldiers this, and I will convince them to move along, they won’t come into the cave and we’ll be safe. Nobody will catch you.’ I heard the men conversing and arguing again, then they told Avi to tell me: ‘they say, are we fools!? You’ll betray us!’ ‘No, tell them this, Avi, it makes no sense to betray you, we’ll all die if I betray you because you will shoot us. Trust me, let me try this first with the soldiers, if it works then we’re safe; and if it doesn’t work then you can shoot, which you’d have to do anyway if we didn’t do my plan, so you have nothing to lose.'”

“Of course the men had other options—fleeing with us now in the dark, or planning to ambush the soldiers, or throwing us over the ledge and pretending to have no connection with the recent kidnapping—but I phrased the situation as one of only two options, hoping to steer their thinking, and it worked. They agreed to try my plan. So as the morning broke and light entered the mouth of the cave, I stood alone looking out across the Judean desert—freshly watered and alive—while the men and Avi hid deep within the cave, in the dark, silently waiting; we all waited for the inevitable visit from Avi’s rescuers.”

“They arrived shortly after sunrise, twelve young men and women, each with gun in hand. I greeted them as they came up the trail. ‘Shalom, shalom. Boker tov (which is to say, good morning). Ma nishma?’ (which is to say, what’s up?) They greeted me and began asking questions in Hebrew, and I confessed, in English, that I had already exhausted my knowledge of their language. To which they began speaking in English. They explained they were looking for men, most likely Palestinian Arabs who had abducted a worker yesterday, from a moshav (a cooperative farm) near the mouth of the Kidron River, where it meets the Dead Sea. I explained that I had been ‘up all night praying and making vigil to the Lord Jesus Christ, inside my cave,’ and that ‘with the heavy rains I hadn’t heard anyone pass by’. I then explained that we at the monastery have also been troubled by the local youth, and finally I said that I hoped they ‘found who they were looking for’—meaning their messiah—not the men they were currently tracking (though I didn’t clarify my meaning to them).

Standing in the mouth of the cave I prayed that this explanation would suffice and they would continue on their way. The Israeli military is highly competent, well-trained, and thorough, so it was likely my explanation wouldn’t be enough, and they would still ask to check inside the cave. The leaders of their expedition conferred quietly among themselves and I sensed that I was about to lose this battle, and that all might be lost, including our lives, when I called out to them: ‘Shalom, shalom! Bevakasha! (which is to say, Please!) If we are finished here I would like to go back to my prayers, my Lord is waiting for me inside!’ I gestured into the cave. This seemed to do the trick: they shrugged and nodded, waved as they passed by, and then continued hiking up the trail.”

*  *  *

The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 26

“Well, the season of lent was soon upon us,” Father Davidson continued. “I had been praying in my cell for several months, praying for forgiveness, and also praying to love as God loves. Lessons in God’s love are endless, without limit, as God is Himself; so I will only share the sliver of understanding that I was given at that time, making no attempt, or pretense, of apprehending this love in its totality. In my prayers, I saw revealed something so simple, so self-evident about the manner in which God loves—it is a love that is impartial, abundant, and always present. It was revealed in this way: as the image of rain falling upon the desert—giving life to plants and animals and humans, regardless of who or what they are—without divisions, without prerequisites, without merit.”

“Nowhere in this image did I see life deserving of God’s love; the acacia tree did not have life in the desert because it was entitled to live there, the rock badger wasn’t sustained in that harsh environment because it was worthy, nor the sheep loved by God because they are lovable—even if the rock badgers are worthy, and the sheep are lovable.  The sun rises upon them all, gracing each with its warmth; and God gives abundant love to all of His creation.”

“So how was I to do the same? Me, just a creature myself. Well, as I said, we were entering lent, a special time of heightened awareness, when we empty ourselves of ourselves—repenting of ourselves—and seeking with greater urgency the spirit of God. I say, it is this Spirit that opens the door, the only door through which we can hope to manifest this sort of love; the door is the power of Jesus Christ, and the power is God’s grace which enlivens us.”

“I welcomed lent as I had done the previous year, saying: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’ though this year I added: ‘…teach me to love as You love.’ and I was standing in my cell saying these very things, when Elder Lazarus entered and quietly interjected, ‘Brother Seraphim, it is time for you to go.’

“I stopped my prayers and turned to see the Elder’s face, confused as to his meaning, and searching him for clues. He spoke again, quietly and with a voice filled with kindness, ‘Not forever, not yet, but I will ask you to leave Mar Saba now. Or tomorrow, but you will leave for the duration of lent, you will spend it alone outside the walls of the monastery in the desert, and then return for Holy Week, Holy Saturday and Pascha. Then we will celebrate together the risen Christ, and your return from the wilderness—the return of us all from our prodigal lives back into the arms of our Father.'”

“After the abbot turned and left my cell, I gathered my things and left the monastery. Why wait until morning? It is best not to wait when acting upon direction, because doubts can enter, and thoughts of procrastination, and then feelings of fear invade; no, it is best to act immediately upon spiritual direction, thereby severing these thoughts and fears before they can grow stronger.”

“It was night, and night is not typically the best time to travel alone through the desert, though it is cooler than in the day, but it can grow very dark and be very difficult to find one’s way, especially when the sky is clouded, and the stars and moon are obscured, which was the case as I closed the monastery gate behind me, and walked down the steps towards the Kidron, flowing along the floor of the gorge. I knew that rain was coming soon, I had seen the dark clouds accumulating throughout the latter part of the afternoon, and could feel it in the air.”

“Rain is dangerous in the desert, even a light rain, because it does many unexpected things: it quickly flows across the open earth, accumulating into great volumes and gathering into gorges—such as the one I was entering—and flowing with great ferocity and power, washing away even boulders of tremendous size and weight as if they were merely feathers. But this is not its only danger, it also mixes with the surface clay, wetting it but not absorbing any deeper than the uppermost layers, creating a slick and sliding, ever-shifting path upon which to journey. It is not uncommon for a wayward traveler to begin slipping, and as they attempt to cling to something stable—only to find nothing stable—they slide out and over the cliff-face, cascading into the depths below, and are then washed away, only to be found some days later, after the waters have subsided, their body broken and twisted, and stuffed mercilessly into some crevice further downstream.”

“My goal was to cross the stream soon, and quickly before the rain began, and then climb the path up the north side of the gorge, which then turns to the east near the top. There are a number of caves further to the east on the way to the Dead Sea, and I planned to stay in one of those for the night. I reached the bank of the Kidron, and could tell by the sound of it that it was still relatively low, though I could barely see it. I knew this crossing well, having made it many times in the past—in the daylight—and felt confident passing through the water now, even though I couldn’t exactly see where I was going.”

“I crossed through its cold waters, in darkness now, at the uttermost depths of the gorge, the waters waist deep and gathering strength; they pulled at me, pushing me, coaxing me to let go, and to let them carry me away. I felt my way forward, searching with each step for a stable foothold, and groping in the dark for something to hold onto, though finding only moving water. A rock suddenly shifted under my weight and I fell beneath the surface, submerged; the cool, rushing water flowed over me, and urged me to open my mouth and drink, to finally forget this life. But I pushed forward instead, found solid rock and pulled myself onto the other bank.”

“I was tired, but the rain began to fall and I knew I had little time to climb out of the gorge and find safety for the night, before the path might become too slick, making passage too difficult. I felt my way up and out of the depths, and walked cautiously along the ridge towards the caves. There are a series of three caves here, where the trail dips partially down over the lip of the gorge, the cliff-face widening to create a large shelf, with ledges and terraces providing safety for a weary traveler, like myself. Two of the caves are very shallow and offer little shelter in a driving rain, slanting and whipped up by the wind as it was now. So I entered the larger cave and sat just inside its mouth gazing at the gathering torrent, already hearing the crashing of water tumbling here and there over the cliffs and thundering far below; the Kidron was no longer a brook but a raging river.”

“Hardly had I time to catch my breath, when from the depths of the darkened cave I heard the stirrings of others further in, and a deep, guttural voice, quiet and ominous, call out to me in Arabic, something I couldn’t understand. Before I could react, I heard the unmistakable sound of several pistols being cocked, and felt the end of one pressed firmly against the back of my skull.”

*  *  *

The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 25

“Discovering the icon of St John of Damascus was a blessing for the monastery, but it was a challenge for me personally,” began Father Davidson at the campfire later that evening. The flames of the fire leapt high into the sky, illuminating the fruit trees behind the Father as he spoke.

“Monks congratulated me on the discovery, and I began to get a reputation of having special knowledge, because of the manner in which it had been miraculously revealed. All of this was not good for me, of course, since I had come to the desert to find victory over vanity and pride. I went to speak with the abbot about this. Elder Lazarus was spending a great deal of time overseeing the restoration of the icon during the day, and he often kept vigil in front of it throughout the night so it was difficult to get his attention.  But I visited the Elder in the blue room, where the icon was discovered and asked him if I might be allowed to spend some days, or longer, alone in my cell, until the novelty of the discovery blew over.”

He denied my request, saying: “It is better for you to do battle with your vanity in the daylight, reserve your prayers about it until night, except your prayer rule of course, you must never stop saying the Jesus Prayer, but during the day go about your business as you normally would. If you are praised, immediately fall to the ground, prostrating yourself, and yell out loud the first crime that comes to mind, for which you are ashamed, confessing it before your admirers, and then get up and continue with your work.”

Almost immediately I was given the opportunity to practice this new discipline. As I left the room a monk was entering; he smiled and said, “Well done!” I immediately dropped to the ground, as Elder Lazarus had instructed me to do, banging my knee on the threshold of the door as I prostrated myself, and I yelled out, “I was just now angry at the Elder for not allowing me to do what I want to do!” I stood up and walked away as the monk stared at me with a mix of confusion and surprise. Other monks throughout the day were equally taken aback when, after offering congratulations to me, I plunged myself to the ground and cried out my various offenses: “I ate without thought of God, have mercy on me!, I avoided my work, and went on a walk instead, please forgive me!, I thought how fortunate you are to know me!,” and then I stood up and continued on my way. At night, I stood in prayer in my cell, asking the Lord to forgive my vanity, and all of these various ways that I put myself before others, and before Him. For that is the entirety of our problem; we are made to love God, but instead we love ourselves and our will, more than Him, and because of this we have alienated ourselves from Him, our loving Father, making ourselves orphans and homeless. We are all wasteful and extravagant, squandering our soul’s wealth on the body’s pleasures, losing the real treasure that was given us from the beginning of time—loving communion with our Creator and the Source of all good things.

Father Davidson fell silent and tended the fire which had begun to die out. He added wood, shifted some embers, and then blew on them, bringing them back to life. The new wood caught, and the fire crackled, and flames thrust up into the night sky. He continued, “Loving God is like tending a fire, requiring your constant attention, fanning the flames and keeping them hot, fighting back the cold in your heart, and allowing the flames to warm you, and then consume you.”

For several weeks I continued my impromptu confessions, dropping to the ground and crying out my failings by day, and praying to God for forgiveness by night; meanwhile, attempting to focus on praying continually: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.” This regime left little of my attention for anything else and so, it wasn’t long before the other monks grew tired of me once again; my success with the icon discovery, fading from memory, as I enacted more ordinary, and humdrum, improprieties.

Elder Lazarus finally approached me and granted my wish to remain in my cell, praying throughout the day and night. He arranged for someone to bring my meals, and I was relieved of my other daily tasks. The only time I left my cell was for services, and to use the bathroom. Without the distractions of my other work, I found it much easier to remember to say the Jesus Prayer, and I made progress in this. However, as time wore on I found that the words to the prayer changed; I shared this with the Elder, and at first he encouraged me to stick to the original prayer, but in time he instructed me to go with the changes. However, he stressed that I should always keep the name of Christ in the prayer, but the rest I could change as I felt led. So for a long time I began to pray it on behalf of myself and others: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners” rather than only for myself. And then eventually, after several months I began to pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, teach me to love as You love.”

I shared this change with Elder Lazarus and he approved, smiling one evening, and saying: “You know the familiar caution, be careful what you ask for, do you not? To love as God loves is not an easy path for us. But go ahead and practice that, and pray for that, and we’ll see what you are able to do.”

*  *  *

The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 24

I didn’t stay for Vespers, I had other things I wanted to do, but I filed the idea away in my mind as something I would definitely try at some point in the future. There was still some time before I needed to make my way back to Father Davidson’s orchard for the evening around the fire, so I drove the long way around to town and came up from the south. It was a pleasant afternoon—the clouds rolled on by at a brisk pace, allowing for moments of sunshine and warmth. I rolled the window down and stuck my head out as I drove, enjoying the wind rushing through my hair and the sun’s warmth on my face.

As I approached town the road rose up out of the woods and I recognized this as the place I first met Father Davidson. Up ahead on the left was the long, tall stone wall that he had been dancing along the first day we met. I smiled as I remembered him twisting and turning up there, his arms flapping wildly, always looking to be on the verge of falling. As I passed the large chestnut tree where the Father and I had shared that first meal, my view opened up to the entire length of wall, I was surprised to see someone once again atop it. I slowed to get a closer look and when I realized that it was Father Davidson I pulled my car over and parked, to see what he would do. He was sitting on the wall, with legs crossed, facing in towards the property on the other side. He was hunched over and had his face buried in his hands. His entire body shook; he appeared to be crying. “I wonder what is wrong.” I thought to myself. “It’s strange to see him so sad.” I leaned forward in my seat, and then out the side window straining to get a better look at him.

Just then he looked up at the sky, stretching his arms upward, as if pleading with God Himself. And he shook his hands, shaking, shaking them, while keeping his gaze up towards the clouds. His face glistened and his eyes were puffy and red—I could just barely discern these details from my car—he was definitely crying and in great sorrow. I wanted to get out and console him but something held me back.  So I just sat and watched.

A moment later I heard an angry voice coming from behind the wall, directed up at the Father. “I’ve told you again and again to get down from there! I’m calling the police, I mean it this time!”

“Please forgive me, my benefactor! Please, have mercy on me! Forgive!” the Father cried out.

“Are you crazy?!” The voice cried back at him. And then there was silence for a few moments, and I wondered if the person had gone to call the police. Father Davidson continued to cry, looking up at the sky, and then back down into the property on the other side of the wall. “Look,” the voice said shakily, “I don’t want you here. Please, just…go…away.”

“I need your forgiveness!” the Father wailed. “Please, my benefactor! Forgive! I am a slug, squash me or forgive me!”

“That’s it! I’m calling the cops! I’m done with you!” the voice behind the wall screamed; I heard the person rush off, and then a door slammed shut. Seconds later, the Father stood up, walked along the top of the wall to the far northern end—without any difficulty at all—and then let himself down to the ground. He got on his bicycle and rode up the road towards town.

I was sure that I saw him smiling as he mounted his bike, and I think he was even giggling a bit. He certainly no longer seemed to be in the anguish he had been in just moments before, and as he rode up the street he wove back and forth from side to side, and kicked his feet out to the sides as he rode—not the demeanor of one burdened with sorrows. I remembered what the young man in the RV said of the father: that his life is poetry, and everything he does has multiple meaning, the literal and also the figurative, or a metaphorical meaning on top of that. If this was true, then what was the meaning of his tears just now on top of the wall…and what was the meaning of his dancing on the wall before that? Was he just a fraud and a liar as the folks in the café said; was he just looking for attention, perhaps simply a narcissist, or even crazy, like the woman on the other side of the wall called him just now? How could someone cry one moment, appearing to be in the throes of utter despair, and then smile and laugh a moment later, when out of the view of the person to whom they were crying? It seems crazy, or at least insincere; so I could understand why some people felt that way about him. But I didn’t feel that way, not at all, because I had seen the results of many of his antics and the results were good. Doesn’t it say somewhere, “you will know them by their fruits”? A good tree produces good fruit. I was convinced that Father Davidson was a “good tree”, and it was up to all of us, well, to me at least, to discover the good meaning of the things he did. I smiled to myself as I had my next thought: “Father Davidson is like one of those old Rorschach tests, where his meaning is subjective, and varies with each individual, depending on who they are and what they need. And he exposes the inner lives of those around him, for better or for worse.” I’m no psychologist but he did seem to fit this role, and I think he was fully conscious of his role, as he tried to expose people to the truth. But some people don’t want to know the truth. I suspected those were the ones who didn’t like him very much.

I turned slightly in my seat and scanned the large stone wall. “I wonder who lives behind that wall?” It was a bit like a fortification, or a castle wall—so long and so tall, not a typical residential wall. “Whoever she is, she has put a lot of effort into keeping people out, or keeping herself in…what is Father Davidson’s meaning with her? What is he up to here?”

*  *  *

The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 23

After I left Amelia’s art store, realizing I still had most of the afternoon ahead of me, and plenty of time before Father Davidson’s campfire later that evening, I decided to visit the church north of town, where she said I could find Father Seraphim, the priest who he had met in prison so many years ago.

St. Silouan’s Orthodox Church is a short drive north of town, in a densely forested section of the county. It is only a few hundred feet off the main road, nestled against a backdrop of tall conifers, with a wide expanse of grass flanking it on both sides as you approach. At first it appears fairly small, and it blends in with the surrounding trees, but as you get closer the land falls away exposing the lower level, and one is immediately struck by the height of the structure, the elegance of its rooflines, and its shimmering onion domes, which seem to gather sunlight and to glow, even on a cloudy day, which this was.

I parked, and walked across the gravel parking lot to the front doors of the church. From the outside the walls looked like a log cabin—old tree trunks stacked one upon the other and reaching to the sky—broken here and there as they ascend, by angular panels of wood shingled roofs, the ridges of which are each capped by horizontal rows of wood beams, ornately carved and painted in swirling and knotty patterns with crosses interspersed. The lowest roofs spread widely, extending far beyond the first level walls, creating overhangs held up by thick wood posts. Roofs further up grew steeper, and sloped at sharp angles to the sky, drawing the eye up to the pinnacles of the church, where a series of wood cupolas capped with copper onion domes pierced the heavens. Here and there small windows punctured the walls, and dormer windows accented the roofs in rhythmic patterns.  It was a complicated structure, yet harmonious, and very exciting.

I opened one of the heavy wood doors and entered this foreign-looking marvel. It was as if I had entered another time and another world. The narthex was dark but for the light of two oil lamps, which illuminated icons on either side of the next set of doors which led into the church nave. These doors were open, so I walked through towards the heart of the church. It appeared that I was alone. Small windows in the side walls here allowed light into this section of the nave, but it was still quite dark. Oil lamps shone upon more icons which lined the interior walls. These were all intriguing and beautiful, but the eye was drawn forward into the church by the abundance of light streaming down into its center from the cavernous space above the crossing. I stood at the very center and looked up, and was greeting by an enormous painting of Jesus Christ looking back at me. He was far above, nestled amongst a forest of wood posts and beams and set into a large dome. Warm incandescent light shone on the multiple layers of bare wood which rose to greet Him; and the natural light, which streamed in and down from several series of windows set into the sloped ceilings, gave the feeling that heaven was descending upon me. The entire effect was captivating and I stood mesmerized for quite a long time, I think, though I lost track of the time.

My reverie was disrupted by a sonorous voice, which filled the church: “Welcome! I see you’ve met the head of the household,” he laughed deeply while gesturing up at the dome. “I am Father Seraphim, how can I help you?” he said, his voice still booming as he approached me from behind the altar.

I introduced myself and told him my connection to Amelia and Father Davidson and that I came to visit at the suggestion of Amelia.

“Are you Orthodox?” he asked me.

“Oh, no. I’m American, I mean, I’m not Greek, or Russian or anything like that. I mean I’m Irish, but I’m, well I grew up Methodist.” I fumbled my reply.

He laughed a large laugh, and beamed at me. “Same here! Although I’m Native American. Not Greek or Russian, a little Irish believe it or not, and Orthodox all my life. But most of the folks here are converts, some from the Methodists like you.”

“I didn’t know.” I replied.

“In fact,” he continued. “This church originally was Lutheran, built by Norwegian immigrants, but is now Orthodox, so even this building is a convert!” Father Seraphim let out a huge belly laugh and slapped me on the back. “So, how can I help you?”

“Speaking of converts, Amelia told me that you were responsible for converting Father Davidson.”

“Yes, it’s true. That was a long time ago now. He was baptized right here, almost exactly in this spot where we’re standing now. Good boys. They will always be boys to me.”

“Can you tell me how that came about? I’m very curious about the Father’s conversion.”

“Yes, well he was a Presbyterian if I remember right. Nice family, I don’t think they attended church much, but they raised their kids well. Meg, the oldest, Amelia, and Josh, well Seraphim.”

“What do you mean, Seraphim?” I asked.

“That was his given name, when he entered the Orthodox Church. I gave him the name Seraphim, same as mine. Seraphim are angels, like ministers of fire. I think it fits him well. It also was fitting since a fire is why we met, and how he came to become Orthodox.”

“How is that?” I asked.

“They started a fire, he and Richard—Bezalel—that was his given name, he converted also, that’s a very unusual name. Can’t think of anyone else with that name. But that’s another story. They were boys, well Seraphim was nineteen, so he was tried as an adult, but Richard was only seventeen, maybe sixteen, anyway, he went to juvenile hall instead of the adult prison. Horrible for that boy, just horrible. But they came to Christ. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, isn’t that right? Yes, it is right! And very Orthodox too. And what kills you makes you stronger as well! But that’s a harder saying. But also very Orthodox, I think! Bezalel, do you know what that means? It means “under the protection of God”. Isn’t that wonderful? Yes, he suffered, but he was protected too. Seraphim protected him then, and God protects him now, as He always has.”

“A fire, how did that happen? Why?” I asked.

“That’s a long story, maybe another time. I have many things to do still, and it is close to Vespers. Let’s talk again. Please stay for vespers though, you are welcome to join us.”

*  *  *

The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 22

Genuine friendship is a shared space; or perhaps it is more accurate to call it a shared life. Each friendship has a life of its own—born from the union of friends—with a spirit forged by this union, and a body composed of the elements which each willingly gives to the other. Friendship germinates in the soil of commonality, with sacrifice as its sustenance, and love as the breath of life which animates it. Dedication, perseverance and forgiveness are true friendship’s nurture.

Amelia and Josh gave Richard acceptance. The world saw Richard as an uncomfortable problem; he was, to most people, something broken to be discarded. His value was hidden from view, too deep to be seen, and too quiet to be heard.  But to Amelia and Josh, he would become an inspiration, and a revelation; because they gave him the attention he needed.

After several lunches together it became clear that Richard had very little to eat, so Amelia began to bring lunch for him. One lunchtime, quite near the end of the school year, the three friends were eating together in their usual place, on the benches near the back of the main building, under the shelter of a large sycamore tree. Richard was eating a peanut butter sandwich as he sat just beyond the reach of the tree’s branches. He was exposed to the sky above, and, unfortunately, to the open second-story windows of the nearby building. Suddenly, something fell from one of the windows and struck him on his back, exploding onto the ground behind him, while simultaneously someone up there yelled: “Look out!” and then laughter rang out. It was no accident.

Amelia was horrified and leapt up, screaming at the open windows, “Screw you! Assholes! Cowards! What is wrong with you?!” She then turned to help clean up the mess from Richard’s back. It was a disgusting concoction—milk, or milkshake? Probably, and mixed with soda pop?  Smelled like it. Along with something else that smelled hideously. Better not to think too hard about what that might have been. Josh also helped to clean Richard up, and he was deeply saddened by the whole event, but what made it infinitely more pathetic were the sobs emanating from Richard’s contorted face. He was almost too difficult to watch in this moment, his pain and suffering reaching such a high pitch, over such a stupid and demeaning occurrence.

After they got Richard reasonably cleaned up and consoled, the three sat for a while in silence. Amelia was fuming and incredulous at what had occurred; and Josh was accepting of it, but saddened nonetheless, but he was also engrossed by the waves, and variety, of feelings passing within him. He observed rage, and then shame—and humiliation—vengeance and then despair within himself. And yet, none of these feelings were him, he was just an observer of them as they rose and fell, appeared and then vanished. Only if he chose to hold one long enough could they be claimed by him—and then possibly be called his own—but to what end, he wondered, “and if I choose to ignore these entirely and focus on something completely apart, who’s to stop me, and what compels me to anger, or sorrow, or any other feeling I might have, if I am free, and not a slave to these things? Or have I become a slave to these things?”

As Josh considered these things, something surprising and remarkable happened. In place of the utter anguish of moments before, Richard now carried an enormous smile upon his face. He was looking down at the cup, which had been thrown at him, as it lay on the ground between his feet. The toe of his twisted right foot was partially inside the cup and he kicked at it gently, and then giggled. Amelia and Josh looked at each other with surprise and expectant pleasure, anticipating something unusual and good was about to transpire. They watched Richard pick the cup up, and then stand and walk over to a nearby drinking fountain. He cleaned the cup and then filled it with water, returned and sat on the bench.

Amelia was worried he might start drinking from it, “Richard, that had something gross in it, don’t drink from it. It’s not good for you.”

He smiled, but continued what he was doing. He looked up into the sycamore tree, searching for something, and then pulled a little knife out of his pocket. He made three incisions in the paper cup, near the bottom, and then held the cup up towards the tree. He then hummed deeply. A moment later Josh felt something vibrate past him, and barely a second later something also hummed past Amelia. The cup was draining water from the three incisions; three little streams cascading to the ground. Richard had a joyful and serene look on his face as he watched two hummingbirds drink from the falling water.

“This is exactly it,” Josh thought to himself. “Exactly what I was getting at, choices and freedom in how we react. Richard isn’t a slave.” Amelia also considered what she was seeing. “He took something horrible and made it beautiful. He forgave those idiots so quickly and he forgot about them.”

The little birds flew away, and back again several times, refreshing themselves in the water that was streaming from the cup which Richard held. For Amelia, this moment was about forgiveness—Richard, the birds, the play of shadow, and the cast of light through the tree branches, her own thrill at seeing all of this, and the lightness she felt from the making of something joyful out of something sorrowful. For Josh, the moment was an embodiment of freedom—a living illustration of the spirit of true life, this life as it moved through Richard, unobstructed, and he, able to relate with all of creation immediately and without thought or inhibition. It was as if Richard had blown his mind; Josh was awestruck by the implications of this, and what it could mean for his own future. If he could learn to live so responsive to the moments of creation, purely aware of the needs and possibilities of each one, and if he could have the courage to meet each with his whole being—then he could live the life he felt was possible: a life of beauty and of relative perfection.

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The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 21

You may have already guessed that the portrait artist was none other than Richard. If you hadn’t, then perhaps this comes as quite a surprise. How did their friendship blossom? And how did he come to draw such an exquisite portrait of Amelia? To answer these questions, we first need to return to their high school years, and to that first morning when Amelia, and her older brother Josh, escorted Richard into the high school and created such an uproar.

Amelia had been nervous that morning because she knew the risks of befriending Richard; she knew it would likely lower her status with her friends, and with the rest of the student body. But she also didn’t care, because she knew in her heart it was the right thing to do, and she was a strong-willed and determined girl, who was willing to fight injustice, especially if it meant bringing happiness to someone like Richard, who reminded her of a wounded bird. Besides, her best friend, who also happened to be her brother, was on her side, so she had all the support she needed to stand up against everyone else.

At the time, Amelia didn’t recognize the significance this new friendship with Richard would have, because as the morning progressed, she was preoccupied with the emotions that she was having, and couldn’t imagine anything beyond her own feelings. She felt excited and powerful as the morning wore on; and as her prior fears evaporated in the heat of her own self-righteousness, she grew more confident and joyful at the prospect of living free from the anxiety of always trying to fit in. She was elated at having risked her self-image and having survived. The future pitfalls of this new-found freedom—the risk of someday becoming a bully herself—this potential overcompensation, where the victim becomes the oppressor and lays down a new law that others must follow, this risk was not yet even conceived of in her mind. She was just happy to be free in this moment, to care for someone like Richard, and to be no longer bothered by what others might think.

The three sat together for lunch. This was the first time in his entire school career that Richard ate lunch with someone; he couldn’t keep from smiling. Josh was also happy but for a different reason. He had been observing Richard now for quite some time and had grown curious by his manner of living; he appeared to live so simply, in many ways like a wild animal, or perhaps even a plant. He meant no disrespect by this observation but rather meant it in a very complimentary way; and he was enjoying now just watching Richard eat in this unusual, and completely un-self-conscious way. While he watched his new friend with interest and admiration, Amelia felt compelled to speak.

“How is your lunch Richard? Would you like some of mine?” she asked, more concerned about the silence between them, than about the meal.

He shook his head violently, as if shaking off a fly, or a mosquito. It appeared almost as if her words hurt or annoyed him, merely the sounds themselves, not their meaning. Then he looked up at Amelia and Josh with an enormous grin—his entire face aglow—and he began to laugh. Josh and Amelia quickly looked at each other quizzically, and then smiled widely as they looked back at Richard; and all three broke out in laughter.

Some moments in life have a profound meaning, one that transcends the mere event itself; a moment imbued with significance, maybe only partially understood at the time, possibly not understood at all and only unfolding in our understanding years later. This was one of those moments. A beautiful silence—purity, innocence and an absence of shame—only attainable when trust and honesty exist between people, this was the immediate meaning of that moment for both Amelia and Josh. They had shared this special silence between themselves for most of their lives, especially on the water when they sailed, but they had never shared this silence with a third person before. They looked at each other and knew that each had comprehended this meaning, and they knew that Richard also had this special quality which would allow this kind of silence; and that he would not run or hide from it. In fact, he preferred it, because silence was a home to him, and he was naturally attuned to silence.

One could even say that Richard embodied silence, and that his entire being was a manifestation of life lived within the essence of stillness. This is a difficult thing for most of us to understand since we live our lives predominantly ruled by activity, noise and motion. How could one really dwell in the antithesis of these things, things which seem to most of us as the very essence of life itself? What is life if it isn’t our activities, our thoughts, and the noise we make? And for Josh, life, true life, was to be found beyond the activity and the noise of this world, in a place where one stilled these distractions and dove into a deeper conscious experience of life, deeper than words or concepts, but in a state of simplicity and unity. For Josh this silence was a place to be sought and fought for, but for Richard it was simply the place he had always lived. For Amelia, silence was a relief from the pressures of life, and the doorway to discovering beauty. Silence allowed her to ignore the world’s problems and enjoy the beauty of nature, and to bring peace to her beleaguered emotions.

When their laughter subsided the three friends sat quietly on their benches under the trees. Amelia would later write in her journal about this moment: “It’s incredible what can happen when everyone doesn’t have to be constantly talking all the time. There is a drama occurring all around us all the time and we can’t see it because we’re too busy. Richard, Josh and I are enjoying the drama forever, and we’ll never look back!”

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