The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 19

“Later that day the abbot asked, ‘what do you want to be good at?’ Many things passed through my thoughts, but I wasn’t certain exactly how to answer,” Father Davidson continued. “The abbot then asked a different but similar question, ‘to what do you want to devote your life, to be the best that you can be?’ I thought this was a strange question, it seemed so worldly, and something my father or a career counselor might have asked in my youth.”

“I suppose to be a monk, that’s why I came here to Mar Saba,” I replied.

“Yes, but I’m really asking what are you serving? Some people want to be good at making money, so they learn how to do that: learning from a wealthy relative perhaps, or studying how to do it, leveraging their natural gifts in ways that will help them win money. Many people want attention or fame, to be liked and admired, so they focus their efforts and abilities towards that goal: they imitate others that are famous, or well-liked and popular, and they do the things that these people have done, in hopes of gaining the attention they need…but what do you want to be good at—fame, money, sex…pride? Are any of these your goal? Do you want to dedicate your life to one of these? Because these are the foundation of most human activity, and the basis of most careers.”

“I don’t want any of those,” I replied with disdain.

“Really? But some people become monks, or nuns, with the goal of becoming admired. There are plenty of vain brothers, having given up the world, but in actuality, having brought the world with them into the monastery.” Elder Lazarus didn’t wait for a reply, “this is your work now, say this short prayer day and night: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. You will try to say it at every moment, awake and asleep, and if you catch yourself forgetting, simply begin again. Become very good at this prayer. Flood your thoughts with Christ, and still your mind in Christ.”

I worked at this task from that moment forward at the monastery. I must have reminded myself hundreds, if not thousands, of times each day, to take up the prayer again after it had slipped my mind. When I went to bed I said it, and it brought me deep sleep, when I woke I said it and my days became joyful. Saying it while working or doing any other task proved particularly difficult, and as I got better at remembering to say the prayer, I grew worse at my other tasks: forgetting to gather the vegetables needed for meals, cutting the end of my finger off while preparing the vegetables one afternoon, and tripping down a staircase, landing on a fellow monk one evening. The prayer was making me look foolish in the eyes of the other monks, but it was also bringing me deep peace and satisfaction.

I found myself at a crossroads more than once because of this prayer; on one hand I feared becoming useless in the eyes of others, or worse, becoming a liability. Yet, I also feared losing the prayer, and losing what I was gaining from it. I didn’t want to go back to my former life—the life I lived before the prayer—but I worried that I was becoming an idiot to my companions. I expressed these concerns to Elder Lazarus one day and he simply replied, “Is it such a bad thing to become a fool for Christ’s sake?”

Some of the other monks didn’t think it was such a good thing and they told me so on several occasions as we worked together. One such time happened like this: water is a vital resource in the desert so we conserved it, storing it in cisterns. From the kitchen we saved water that had been used for cleaning vegetables and fruits. A small pipe ran from the kitchen to an outdoor terrace near the garden, which emptied into a large clay container; we stored water in this for use in irrigating the garden plants. One afternoon I was saying my prayer, collecting water from this container, and watering the plants and trees. I filled a small bucket and saturated the earth around each tree and plant, taking many trips back and forth in the hot sun. While I did this task, one brother trained vines along a trellis and another harvested some peppers.

My prayer often made me very courageous, and I easily lost concern about other’s opinions as I focused on saying the words: ‘Lord Jesus Christ…’ and I also believed saying the prayer gave lucidity to my perception—I felt as though I floated in the arms of the Lord and He directed my steps. I had just completed watering one of the date palms, and was refilling my bucket, when I noticed a collection of old pots in the corner of the terrace near a wall; one tall, narrow clay container stood out to me, it was broken at its base, and stood about three feet tall. I suddenly felt a strong impulse to pour my bucket into the old, empty container—so I did it.

What an outcry erupted from the two monks—incredulous, scandalized, outraged—who berated me for wasting water. I could see their point, but nevertheless I felt clear that I had done the right thing. I felt for them, and was sorry they were so upset, but what could I do? I shrugged—and this upset them even further, as their voices raised in pitch and they began gesticulating in an urgent and frenzied manner.

The next day all was quiet again between us as we did our work under the bright sun. Until I emptied my bucket into the old container again, and the water seeped out along the jagged seams at the base of its ancient clay, and vanished into the thirsty earth.  I poured a second bucket into the container’s gaping mouth, and a third, and several more until the water overflowed and ran down the sides. This time the other monks took their complaint directly to Elder Lazarus and revealed to him how ‘this fool’ was wasting precious water, explaining how unfair it was to the community, and how it must be stopped.

To his credit, the abbot didn’t stop it, but suggested that I water only the living plants. For several days he came to see for himself what was occurring between us during our work in the garden, and soon several others joined him to watch, as I poured buckets of water into the broken container. Eventually the other monks lost interest and left the three of us to our work, I was given additional tongue-lashings by the other two monks, but in the end, I was allowed to continue to pour buckets into the old pot.

It was the following month that we first noticed several bright green leaves peeking up through the mouth of the container; and for the first time since I had begun to pour water into it, the three of us shared a smile and a laugh together. We looked joyfully at the new life arising out of that broken pot and we gave God thanks for the surprise. In time the little fig tree grew, until it was large enough to move it, and so we transplanted it to a more permanent location in the garden.

But the fig tree wasn’t the biggest surprise from this seemingly foolish enterprise. About a week after we transplanted the little volunteer, while we were all in the trapeza eating our evening meal, one of the monks hurried in, calling out excitedly for Elder Lazarus: “Elder, hurry, hurry, it’s a miracle, hurry, come, you must see!”

“What is it?” the abbot asked.

“I was in the blue room just now, it’s…on the wall…it’s incredible! You must see for yourself, hurry!” the monk replied breathlessly, and he turned and ran back in the direction he had come.

The rest of us quickly got up and followed. The blue room was located on a floor below the garden terrace, on the far side of the garden. It had been used as a storage room for many years, but recently wasn’t in use at all. Nobody had occasion to enter, and it was unusual that anyone would. However, this monk had thought he heard a cat inside the room and went in to rescue the trapped feline when he made his discovery. On the near wall, just to the right of the door, it appeared, in the dim light, that there had been some kind of water damage, and at the base of the wall was a mess of old clay and paint. The excited monk lit a candle and held it up to the wall and everyone gasped. The wall was streaked from top to bottom, and layers of the old surface had come loose, revealing what appeared to be an old painting. Elder Lazarus took the candle and examined the painting more closely. We held our breath as the old man scanned the wall, squinting to examine a detail more closely, commenting under his breath, chuckling now and then, and shaking his head seemingly in disbelief. Eventually he turned to us triumphantly and said: ‘this is undoubtedly an icon of our dear St John Damascene, may his memory be eternal, written well over five-hundred years ago! We will have to clean this up and get a better look, but this is a tremendous discovery!’

At that proclamation, there was a general tumult among the monks and smiles all around, even a number of cheers. Later, as several of the brothers who were skilled in iconography and restorations worked on the wall, it was discovered that there was a drainpipe in the ceiling above the wall that appeared to have been broken for decades, if not longer. At first, it was unclear why water had recently been in the pipe, until the following day when I poured my daily bucket into the old broken container on the terrace above, and water gushed out of the pipe and down over the newly discovered icon. Out of curiosity, one of the monks lifted the cracked pot and found that it had been placed over an unused drainpipe protruding up from the terrace floor; apparently someone had placed the old thing over the pipe to keep water from getting into it, never suspecting that someday someone would intentionally fill the jug itself with water, allowing it to finally reveal the magnificent icon that had been hidden for centuries.

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