“The door creaked slightly as I entered the blue room, and Brother Bezalel turned toward me, smiling as he saw me approach. He placed his palette and brush down upon the table and waited, as I sat down beside him. Ours was never a friendship of many words, nor had it ever needed to be; and so we sat side-by-side, in silence, simply enjoying the presence of one another.
The icon of St John of Damascus painted upon the wall in front of us, was now fully revealed, cleaned, and mostly re-painted. Richard had done a masterful job restoring the old icon; it was clearly still the original work of a different artist, another master long-since gone, but it also had an undefined quality that was uniquely Richard’s, something personal from him, which gave it a new distinction. I’m not an artist, so I can’t say what exactly gave it this quality, for it certainly retained the hallmarks of another artist, looking nothing like one of Brother Bezalel’s original works, yet, even so, when looking at this restored icon, I clearly felt Richard in it—in the brushstrokes, or in the paint, or perhaps in the saint’s eyes themselves.
As we sat together I felt joy rise up within me, as has so often been the case in the past, when sitting silently in the presence of one another. Perhaps it is always there, latent and waiting to arise, yet unable to, because of the activity of life; but this joy arises from within our depths and then carries us into the presence of God. This is what I believe, based on my experience. Suddenly, a quote from the Saint came to my mind, and I sang it softly, its melodic notes carrying its meaning back and forth between us: ‘The beauty of the icons delight my vision, like a verdant meadow, and without my noticing it stirs my soul to praise God!’
I recalled then, how Elder Lazarus often described his time spent with St John of Damascus: how, whether through the depths of prayer, or by some other mysterious miracle, they would, in brotherly friendship and love, ‘share the sweetness of life’ as he would say. This same transcendent feeling of sweetness now filled the space between Richard, St John and me. And by some mystery of light, St John’s halo, that golden nimbus which illuminated his head, radiated outward, filling the small room and engulfing us in its brilliance.
That unspeakable brightness carried with it an ineffable experience of fulfillment, and a peace with many facets—too numerous to express in words. I suppose this is why it is called ‘a peace which surpasses understanding’; because it is a peace which encompasses a totality beyond what the mind can understand, or the emotions can feel.
I was disoriented—no longer knowing where I was, or in what epoch I was living. And I can’t say how long this experience lasted; only that it was an experience of absolute completion—it was the perfection of everything I knew or could imagine. I looked at Richard, and I could tell from his expression, that his experience was the same as mine. He was looking lovingly at St John, who was returning his gaze; and I was reminded briefly of another icon by Andrei Rublev entitled, The Holy Trinity. It now seems presumptuous of me to place myself at the table of the angels in that icon, as if I were a living part of that scene—or one of them even—but at the time it seemed fully appropriate. Perhaps this is what participation in the life of God can feel like, His grace raising us up—and fully beyond our deserving—allowing us to feel in some measure, like Him.
That was the last time I saw Richard, and I can’t imagine a better way to part—having participated together in, what felt to me like, a divine epiphany.
Several days later, I left Mar Saba and returned here, to the orchard…and, that concludes my story of the desert,” Father Davidson said, as he glanced around the fire, at each of us in turn. “Now I must retire to my cabin, as I have a few things to take care of,” he said, as he got up from his chair, nodded good night, and then left.
“Is it just me, or does that seem like an abrupt ending to his story?” Adam asked the group, after Father Davidson had left.
“How would you end it differently?” Tara asked. “I mean if that’s all there is, that’s it then…what more could he say?”
We sat for a while watching as the fire died down; and I imagine each of us was running through the events that Father Davidson had shared with us around the campfire the past several weeks. It was a brisk night, with the feel and smell of autumn in the air, and though I was feeling chilly, I had no desire to leave. The young man who lived in the RV with his parents got up, and added some branches to the fire; and within a few moments they erupted in a cloud of orange sparks and golden flames. Everyone smiled at the renewed warmth—though it was short lived—and as the branches were consumed, we began to disband, and return to our places to sleep for the night.
I had no interest in going home, I preferred to stay in the orchard for the night. The clear sky was filled with stars, and I excitedly anticipated falling asleep in the hammock while gazing up at this beautiful and mysterious night sky, and contemplating everything that Father Davidson had shared with us about his unique time in the desert.
He left several blankets and a pillow for me, in the usual spot at the top of his steps, just outside the door to his cabin. As I gathered them up, I gazed briefly through his window and could see him praying at the far corner of his tiny room, with his back to me, and hunched over as he knelt. I settled into the hammock, and gazed up through the cherry branches, with the stars appearing to me like little lit buds, adorning the lengths and edges of every branch. I fell quickly to sleep, with the impression of the tree’s silhouette in my mind; looking as if someone had taken an eraser to the night sky, and had rubbed out the stars in the shape of a tree.
I dreamt again of the ship at sea, although this time I couldn’t actually see the ship, so I had to assume that the ship was there, somewhere below the surface, submerged, with only its mast in view. But the mast had become a tree again, as it had been before, in my previous dream. And in the tree were numerous birds populating nests and singing magnificent songs. And then I saw a small photo or drawing in each nest, and as I looked closer, I saw that they were Amelia’s portrait placed into the nests. And the tree was ablaze with flames of gold and silver but it wasn’t consumed, and neither were the birds, or the nests, or the portraits. Finally, I saw an axe and the tree was chopped down, though I couldn’t see the one who did the chopping. But the tree, still on fire, fell into the sea and vanished beneath the waves. After this, my dream was over, and I slept the night without further remembrance.
* * *