As the Father began his story again that evening, the warm glow of the fire illuminating his face, I reflected on the mystery that is a human being. So much about each of us is unknown; is it also unknowable? We may know well the needs and desires of the body. Our strengths, abilities and limitations will define us in the eyes of others; and our visible attributes mainly constrain us, even in our own eyes. Yet, there is also the dimension of our soul which eludes perception. Though the soul’s realm is related to our physical being, and we can see it emerging through our relationships, and in the roles we accept and play. The meaning of our life deriving from its interplay with others—our loved ones, family, friends, and also our enemies—and we discover ourselves through these relationships.
But what else are we? We feel somehow, deep inside, that there is much more to us than meets the eye, even more than what emerges in our relations with others. We sense there is still an essential self that exists after the party is over—metaphorically speaking—after the guests have all gone away, the noise and clatter has abated, and we are left alone without any distractions; a self that can be found even deeper within us, once the fears and desires inside of us are put aside. When we experience only silence, after we’ve rejected sorrow or anxiety or whatever else may assault us in the stillness, then, I imagine, there we are; then we can get our first glimpse of our essential self.
I mused about these things as I began to listen to the Father speak again; these things that his life and his story had raised in my mind. If I never received anything further from Father Davidson than this introduction into stillness and self-exploration, I would consider myself far richer already because of him.
“Why flee the world with all of its joys and pleasures, and dwell in the desert, in a monastery?” the Father began. “The belief that there is something more, and the faith that man can discover it; and the hope that I in particular will find it! Yes!! This is the faith and hope that calls us to solitary places, to do battle with ourselves, and to endure and persevere until we discover it!”
Father Davidson looked radiant and joyful as he began to talk this evening, and his enthusiasm filled all of us with excitement and anticipation. “And how does one endure and persevere? They love…they love God more than they love themselves! But what am I saying? We are human, mere humans, and we love ourselves, typically more than others, and nearly always more than God. Until we meet God…and if we meet God then we know…we feel His love…for us, and for the world. And we want to love Him back.”
“Once, a long time ago, I spent some years in prison. That is a story for another time, but there I met a priest, and through him I discovered God’s love; I met the Christ, and that meeting eventually led me to the desert—to Mar Saba. We all know love! Of course, it is planted in our hearts—natural love—love so natural, parents for children, spouses for one another, this is not so remarkable, though still wonderful and a gift! Yet, the love of God for us…our love for God…is transcendent and life-changing!”
Father Davidson beamed—a broad and open smile, like that of a small child whose wishes have just come true. “Love involves sacrifice; how much can we sacrifice? That is how much we can love.”
“Now, I came to Mar Saba believing that I knew how to love God and man, but I was deceiving myself. Fortunately Elder Lazarus, the wise abbot, discerned my self-deception and over the ensuing years planned numerous traps for me which exposed my dishonorable lies and allowed me to come clean. I arrived there very prideful of my self-sacrifices; I could cite numerous examples from my life which showed my ability to give myself in love toward others. However, there was no merit to any of these selfless acts because their root was actually in vanity and self-love. In fact, if I had been honest, I would have admitted that I fancied myself as more loving than God Himself. That is how deceived I had allowed myself to become.”
“One of my first responsibilities in the monastery was caring for an elderly monk who had fallen ill. I was given complete charge over his recovery: feeding him, taking him on daily walks, ensuring he got rest, reading psalms and praying for him, and catering to his other needs. Elder Lazarus publicly praised my efforts at mealtimes and whenever he encountered us walking about the monastery grounds. However, it was clear to everyone, including myself, that the elderly monk’s health was deteriorating. Nevertheless, Elder Lazarus continued to praise me loudly and with great ceremony, bringing attention to my efforts, and applauding all of the time I spent helping the old man. He seemed not to notice that the elderly monk was getting worse every day, but instead acted as though I was single-handedly restoring him to health. Soon I grew very embarrassed by all of the attention the abbot was giving me. And the greater the contrast grew between the actual declining state of the old man’s health, and the undeserved praise that the abbot showered upon me, the worse I felt. The old man was near death, everyone could see it, and nothing I had done, or could do, was changing this fact, or slowing its inevitability. But Elder Lazarus acted as though I was healing him and giving him new life; even calling upon the brothers to literally applaud my efforts after dinner one evening. Finally, I couldn’t take any more of his praise, and I appealed to him to stop, pointing out that the old man was in horrible health and was certain to die soon. In fact, the old man died later that night as I was praying for him. I broke down crying for the newly departed, but also for myself because I was completely ineffective helping him in his final days.”
“Early the next morning Elder Lazarus entered my cell to console me, ‘Remember we can do nothing in our own power. God alone has the power of life over death. Our dear departed brother is in the arms of the Lord now; you didn’t put him there, nor could you keep him from God’s embrace. You gave him care and support, but expecting more than that from yourself is simply foolish vanity. And pride always loves praise, even when praise isn’t warranted.’ The abbot left my room and I wept again, this time for my stupidity.”
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