I bought the icon of St John of Damascus. I’m not completely certain why, other than wanting more time with it. Something in the way Richard made it, made me want to know more: more about that saint and also more about something inexpressible—or at least I couldn’t express it—behind, or beyond the image of the saint. I wanted to know what he knew. Something in his eyes made me feel uncomfortable, yet not in a bad way, but rather in a way which caused me to yearn for something—or someone—I didn’t know yet. I desired to see what I imagined St John was seeing.
It was similar to how I often felt around Father Davidson; I had a feeling, a sense, that he could see something—many things—that I couldn’t quite perceive. And yet, he made these things feel very attainable, in no way exclusive, or beyond my capability, nor beyond any of us; but rather, he brought them very close, as if these things were dwelling within us actually, and it were only up to us to pursue them—to discover them.
Father Seraphim interrupted my reflections as I contemplated the icon, as he pointed at my new purchase, “You know, that saint…Richard grew very close to him many years ago, in a certain sense…the saint died of course…he fell asleep in the Lord centuries ago, however Richard was one of only two monks, he and his mentor, who helped uncover and restore one of the greatest discoveries of the past several decades…right there at Mar Saba…where the saint lived and died. It was said by many, that the saint often visited the two monks, as they worked tirelessly for many months, to bring the icon of St John back to glory. I believe it was a revelation of the glory of God!”
“Yes, I know a little about that,” I replied, and as I looked at the icon, something suddenly came clearer to me. “He found himself in the desert, didn’t he?! Both of them did…Richard, and Josh…Father Davidson often talks about the desert stillness revealing the truth of ourselves…if we will listen.”
“We don’t often stop and listen do we?” Father Seraphim added.
I continued, “He once said that we’re all like the sediment…like layers of dust and rock—hardened, and hiding our hearts…but, in the stillness, we can discover ourselves…the layers of dust can slough off, revealing our true selves underneath…similar to what happened with that icon of St John: stillness, like water, washing over us…and exposing our glory once again.”
“Is there anything more difficult for us though, than to be still inside?” Father Seraphim asked. “Perhaps there is, but few things can be more beneficial, I think.”
“That must be why it’s so difficult,” I quipped.
“Yes! Exactly so!” Father Seraphim slapped my back affectionately, before leaving me and exiting the store.
I took my new purchase home, and then went to hear Father Davidson conclude his story of the desert. He began, where he previously left off: preparing to leave the home of the three brothers and their grandfather, waiting for a sudden rainstorm to subside.
“By early afternoon the rain turned to hail. My hosts tried to persuade me to stay another night and leave the following morning, but I politely refused, hoping to make it back to the monastery that day, for the celebration of the raising of Lazarus. Walking back the way I had come, along the gorge, would be very wet and dangerous, but there is another, paved road leading up out of the town of Ubeidiya, up to the monastery, which I planned to take instead. The hail subsided by mid-afternoon and the skies partially cleared; so I prepared to leave. As a final gesture of our new friendship, Khalid gave me his bicycle to speed my journey. This was a significant gift, which I wanted to refuse, knowing that the bicycle was very necessary to him; but I also understood that it was very important to him to make this offer. So I accepted it gratefully, and began my ride back to Mar Saba.
Along the way it began to snow; it was a late snow, falling towards the end of March. It began lightly and dusted the road; the wind blowing it in small swirls across the empty street, collecting it amongst the rocks. I was alone in the desert—the bicycle creaking under the strain—as I slowly climbed towards the monastery. Small flakes landed on my cassock and stayed there; soon creating constellations of white, wet stars scattered across the black fabric. A small bird darted past me through the air, diving and swerving erratically to avoid the tiny, falling stars; and finally finding a safe perch in the branches of a nearby acacia tree. She let out a song of triumph, or of pleasure; her notes falling softly, muted against the surrounding landscape, now blanketed in snow.
The crisp air stung me, deep within my chest, as I breathed it in; and its sting at that moment, more than other things, awoke me to the glorious joy of being alive. And it alerted me to a power within me: as I breathed in that cold, seemingly impersonal air, from the world outside, and then transformed it—warming it—and then giving it back to the world again…the very breath of life—an act of creation—and an illustration of our constant, unbroken union with all of life.
With Mar Saba coming into view, as I crested one final, small hill, the snow fell more heavily. My spinning tires dug shallow furrows into the soft white snow, and gently slowed my progress. I coasted the final distance, down a long, steep slope, to the stone wall that protected the monastery, and then walked along the wall, to the little door which allowed one inside.
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