“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.”
* * *