“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.”
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