The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson:Chapter 45

“The snow continued to fall throughout Holy Week, and into Bright Week. One week, shrouding the entire earth, as if in its funeral garment; and the next week, glistening in the sunlight like a pure and radiant mantle.

After returning to the monastery I went to speak with Elder Lazarus: “Brother Seraphim! Welcome back! How was your Lenten journey?” The Elder asked with a smile, and a knowing look in his eyes. “Were you able to love, as our Lord loves? Could you put the old man—your love of self—to death within you?”

“No, I failed at that task. I’m sorry,” I replied to him shamefully. “But God showed me his love and mercy, and in the end, well…I believe that the men I met saw it as well.”

Elder Lazarus smiled again and nodded his head, “Good…that’s very good. Now, it’s almost time for you to leave us, and return to your home.” He opened a window behind him which allowed a tiny glimpse out into the gorge; and a sharp, cold breeze blew in, filling the room, and bringing a small cloud of snowflakes with it. “You made it back safely, in time for the snow, the most we’ve had in decades,” the Elder continued. “Come and see!” He motioned me to join him at the window. After watching the snow falling together for some time he asked me, “What do you see in this snow, Brother Seraphim? What does it say to you?”

After a moment’s reflection, I answered, “It is love…which covers a multitude of sins; this snow is forgiveness…a covering for us, and an offering of new life.”

Elder Lazarus took a deep breath of the cold air, and held it in his lungs for quite some time before exhaling. “We are awaiting new life, now, especially during Holy Week…expectantly awaiting our Lord’s resurrection, and all the hope that brings. Yet, you are speaking about something more than this; there is a new life awaiting you at home, when you return to the United States. A life that has incubated here in the desert, but will emerge and grow and reach fulfillment there. You know this already, of course…you are a prophet, so you are familiar with God’s will and his plans.”

“It is also purity and a hope, this snow is,” I continued. “It calls us to a better life, and is a sign of the life to come.”

“Interesting…and how is that?” Elder Lazarus asked.

“By softening the harshness of this world. Temporarily, for the brief time that the snow falls, it reveals a glimpse into a softer and quieter world, showing us momentarily what is possible, what can be, if we also will calm our soul—letting the cares of this world rest.”

Elder Lazarus added, “The desert and the snow are good for aiding us in this, and they can also be a needed and helpful protection—shielding us from the harshness that you spoke about just now…the crassness even…of this world. This place is a home for us, an oasis away from the spiritual desert which the world has become, and here at Mar Saba we can focus everything on the only one who truly matters to us, dedicating our life to our Lord. But for some…you for instance…you will take this peace—the beauty of this way—back with you out into the world. It is a treacherous calling, I fear, because it is so easy to lose the way out there. But by God’s grace…”

“I think I’ll visit Brother Bezalel once more before I leave,” I said. “Is he with the icon?” I asked.

Elder Lazarus answered, “I expect so; most of his time lately is in the blue room, with Saint John. You should find him there. Brother Bezalel has truly found his home here, you know. God brought him here to do an important work and to protect him. The world out there was always too harsh for him; yet, even out there, God protected him through you.”

“And Brother Bezalel showed me…he showed me how to find the beautiful way.”

“Yours is a silent and a solitary way, but lived out in the midst of a tumult…you are a calm within a stormy humanity. Their waves will break against you, but they won’t break you, Brother Seraphim. I believe this will be true.”

“May it be as you say, Elder Lazarus. God willing.”

“Mar Saba has been your home, for a short time. You are a sojourner, as we all are in this world. We have no true home here, but we are tenants in various locations, for limited seasons. But you will carry your home within you wherever you go; and may you also help others find their spiritual homes, until our Lord returns.”

“Thank you, Elder Lazarus,” I said, as I knelt before him and received his blessing for a final time.

I left his room and walked along the silent path to where my dear friend, Brother Bezalel was working. I walked down the dim hallways, lit by faint daylight from windows high in the walls, and also down old, half-crumbling staircases made of tiles and stone—broken away at the corners, and revealing ancient shells, and pebbles, embedded and held fast within the rough sockets of mortar underneath. I crossed the garden terrace—its stone surface hidden under layers of snow—and I left dark footprints behind me as I went, and these remained for a brief time, but then they faded, as the fresh, fallen flakes slowly filled them up again. Snow clung to the branches of the overhanging trees—then fell in clumps here and there, giving way under the gathering weight. I was in a somber mood, sensing this may be the last time I would see my friend in this lifetime. I had known Richard—Brother Bezalel—since I was young, and no one else in my life had made such a strong impression upon me. In fact, the mark he made upon me was indelible; and I took comfort in recognizing this, knowing that he would never fade from my memory, but would remain with me forever.

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The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 44

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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The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 43

The weather was beginning to turn, as summer gave way to fall; the last of the summer fruit was either harvested, or fell to the ground—left for animals to forage, or to return to the earth. Father Davidson was making plans for a quiet winter, and he let us know one evening, as we sat around the campfire together, that he would be wrapping up his story soon; we were welcome to stay at the orchard, and also to make fires in the evenings, but he wouldn’t be joining us any longer.

I was sad about this, as I had grown accustomed to our shared ritual—the evening story around the campfire—but as with everything in this life, insofar as it exists naturally, it isn’t meant to last, and its ending is always threatening to arrive sooner or later. I made my peace with this fact, as best I could—which was very imperfectly—and went to visit Amelia’s art store to distract myself from this disquieting reality.

As I entered, I was happy to see Father Seraphim, from the Orthodox Church north of town, standing inside, admiring the portrait of Amelia.

“Our discussion the other day reminded me of the unique beauty of this portrait,” he explained, as I came up beside him. “I had to come take another look, to refresh my memory!”

We admired it together for a moment before he exclaimed, “You know, there are more of Bezalel’s…Richard’s…icons here at the store. I showed you several that he had done, back at the church the other day, but there are some wonderful ones here…if Amelia hasn’t sold them. Come, take a look!”

He ushered me up the steps into the gallery portion of the store and then around to the back, to a small, well lit room. I remember having seen this room through the front windows, and had always intended to take a look inside it, but had never done so before. There were many icons lining the walls, and several more placed on a narrow table which ran around the perimeter of the small room. All were beautifully done, which didn’t surprise me, knowing Richard’s talent; however, about midway around the room there was a noticeable and sudden change in the icons—in the materials used, and in the quality of workmanship. “Are these done by a different artist?” I asked.

“No, they are all done by Richard,” answered Father Seraphim. “But I agree, there is a break between his earlier work, which you are seeing to the left, and his more recent work on the right.”

Just then Amelia joined us in the tiny room, and she added, “Those come from overseas…in fact, this one of St John of Damascus, just arrived yesterday.” She picked it up carefully and admiringly. I looked at it with curiosity and surprise. I was suddenly confused, “But…you say that Richard drew that?”

“Technically, he wrote it,” laughed Father Seraphim. “That’s the correct term.”

Amelia nodded, but rolled her eyes, “He painted it…that’s fine, you can say that. Yes, it’s Richard’s work…exquisite!” She placed it back on the table.

“But, well…I guess I thought,” I stammered, “…I guess I had assumed Richard died. I didn’t know he is still alive.”

Father Seraphim and Amelia both looked surprised, and she asked, “Why would you think that?!”

“Something you said a while back…something about him ‘being in a better place now’. You said that and I just assumed…well, people often say that when someone’s died, you know.”

She laughed. “Oh, of course! Well, that’s very funny. No, he is very alive. Maybe I shouldn’t have put it in that way.”

“But you can see, this is the reason for the change in his work,” interrupted Father Seraphim excitedly. “These here he did back while he lived and learned from me. They’re good…nothing wrong with them at all…in fact, they are very good. But he was learning…and the paints, well…”

“What is wrong with the paint?!” asked Amelia, with an air of feigned offence.

“Nothing at all, my dear,” replied Father Seraphim soothingly. “We bought the paints here, of course” he said conspiratorially, and then more emphatically, “But there is something extra…special about the paint in the old world. It is just…different. The raw materials they use…it gives it something…a quality. Anyway, he was good while he learned from me, but he exceeded my ability, and there was nothing more I could teach him. However, there is a master iconographer…a monk at the monastery of Mar Saba…in Palestine, east of Jerusalem…not far from it…and he could teach him a great deal more! He could teach him everything …there would be no limit to what Richard could do in his presence, I was sure of that! So, we sent him there…almost twenty years ago…he was reluctant at first, but he had nothing here…not really…to keep him. Well…Amelia, yes…and Josh also…so it was difficult for everyone, but it was for the best, I think.” He looked at Amelia questioningly. She nodded in agreement, yet with a trace of sadness in her eyes.

“We missed him, of course…we still do!” Father Seraphim continued, “Josh missed him so much in fact, that eventually he followed him all the way to the desert…half way around the world! But then…in time, Josh came back to us; but Richard…Bezalel…he found his home. His place is at Mar Saba, writing icons…creating beautiful things and dwelling with God there, and then showing us all the way…the beautiful way into that other, heavenly kingdom…through his work!”

“It almost makes me want to be Orthodox,” Amelia asserted. “Almost!”

“There is still time!” Father Seraphim replied joyfully. They both smiled, as if sharing a long-standing, inside joke.

“Yes, I can see it now, that it is the same hand that drew…wrote…all of these icons,” I interjected thoughtfully, as I squinted and leaned closer to the icon of St John which Amelia had just received. “They have that same quality…like his portrait of you, Amelia…it seems that he knows…intimately…the person he’s painting…and he brings out the depths of that person…it’s as if he shows us a private, profound glimpse into their soul…but at the same time, I feel as if I’m seeing myself…in some way too…it’s strange.”

“No, it is God…and the universality of man,” Father Seraphim quietly added. “That’s what you’re seeing. You see the individual, of course…but he has the ability to show us also…what unifies us all…the fact, that we are all brothers and sisters…the truth, that we all share the same Father. That is his brilliance…his genius!”

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The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 42

Father Davidson remained silent for some time before continuing his story. Someone threw a few more logs on the fire, and soon it was burning strong again. I had felt as though he might stop for the night, but with the added heat and light from the reawakened fire, he appeared to gain more energy and began once again; those of us listening around the campfire, settled happily into our chairs, for his next episode.

“You may have noticed,” the Father continued, “I’ve never named the three brothers. That is an interesting thing…I suppose kidnappers generally aren’t on a first name basis with their captives. Their grandfather had shared his name however…Ibrahim…the father of nations is its meaning. A good name…that is something that can make friends from enemies. So I took the grandfather’s inspiration, and shared my name with the youngest when he brought me food later that day.”

The boy placed the dish of food on the ground before me and turned to leave. “I’m Brother Seraphim!” I called out to him, before he left. He stopped and turned back to look at me, with a confused look on his face. He seemed to be startled that I confided this to him. “What’s your name?” I asked him. “Brother Seraphim,” I said again, tapping my chest, “…and your name?” I asked, pointing to him.

The young man looked sheepishly around himself, and back at the door, seemingly looking for permission to speak.

“Ibrahim, your grandfather, told me his name,” I reassured him, “…so I’m certain it is okay for you to tell me your name too.”

“Khalid.” He said flatly, before turning and hustling out of the shed.

Khalid, like many people, wanted to be known, so exchanging our names was the opening needed to allow a new kind of relationship; he and I were no longer strangers. But this was not the case with his older brother, who resented being known by someone like me—somebody he didn’t trust.

After sharing his name with me, Khalid returned often—for short spans of time at first, but then for longer periods, as we came to know each other better—and I taught him simple sentences, helping to improve his English. Several times he came also with his grandfather, and the three of us spent, sometimes, several hours talking, and laughing at our misunderstandings…or playing chess on a small and ancient board they brought with them.

But one evening the middle brother brought my meal, and as he turned to leave I called out his name—which Khalid had shared with me…”Qadir!” I called out.

He turned back towards me, wild eyed and angry, “What did you say?!”

“Qadir,” I repeated, more quietly this time. “I am Brother Seraphim. You are Qadir and I am glad to know you.”

But he was not glad to know me, and he yelled, “You don’t call me that! You don’t know me! Never!” He grabbed me, pulled me up, and then spit in my face, before throwing me back against the wall. “Never again!” He warned. He was insulting, but I wasn’t insulted.

“I am Brother Seraphim,” I repeated once again while assessing his expression, wondering if I could name him again and possibly break through his veneer of anger, or would it only antagonize him further. I decided to leave it alone; so I sat back down, wiping his spit from my face. He slammed the door shut and I heard him bolt it behind him.

I saw neither Qadir, nor his younger brother, or grandfather again for nearly a week. Only the oldest brother came to bring my meals. Aariz was his name—Khalid had also shared that with me. One afternoon I asked Aariz, finally, what their plan was for me. Lent was soon to be over and I hoped to return to the monastery for Holy Week, as Father Lazarus had instructed me. I suspected by now that they had no plan, and his hesitation to answer confirmed this to me.

“You know Aariz,” I said with kindness, “I want to help you. I want to return your father to you…but I don’t think you can force this. I don’t think there is a way forward…for you to manipulate, or demand his return.” It appeared that he agreed with me, but he said nothing.

He left quietly and slowly closed the door, locking it behind him.

Several days passed and then one evening Khalid opened the door and motioned to me to get up and follow him. We walked together through the sparse olive grove; he led me into their home, to a table in the kitchen, where his grandfather sat. The old man gestured to an empty chair to his right, and I sat down. Aariz and Qadir were standing in the kitchen nearby; I nodded to them, and Aariz nodded back, while Qadir frowned and looked away.

Ibrahim began, “First, I want to apologize on behalf of my entire family, from the bottom of my heart. All of my grandsons agree and apologize to you; we treated you poorly, almost like an animal, and we are ashamed. But you have acted perfectly, you did not return evil for evil. In fact, you gave us a gift in return…to me first, the gift of a memory, of something beautiful…my life before the suffering…which I had forgotten…and through this you returned a part of me that I had lost…that I didn’t know I had lost. You have not seen it, because we kept you in that wretched shed, but because of you…you have restored my grandsons to me…and I am restored to them. Resentment is a violent fire, and it burns in the heart of the unforgiving…unforgiveness divided our household for a long time…for generations, if I am being honest. But now, you…you have shown by your example…your being here showed me the way of forgiveness…how not to become resentful, even when you had every justification, every right to be…resentful…and vengeful…for the way we have treated you. This is a great lesson to me, and to my family. Don’t you agree, Qadir?!” The old man looked to the middle brother sternly, and then continued, “…some of us are still learning this lesson. My grandsons planned to capture someone, wanting to exchange them with the Israeli’s, to win their father’s freedom…my own son…you can understand a son’s desire to be with his father…to love his father, and be loved by him. They want their father back…and you offered yourself freely to help us, you gave yourself to be mistreated and you didn’t know what might become of you…I’m telling you now…you have already given them their father back! Our family tree broke long ago, but you have shown us the way to repair it, how to mend its broken branches…I promise you that we will follow your example, and when their father returns…which he will in only another year or so…we will graft him back into this family…we will show him what you have shown us…the grandfather will teach his son, and the grandsons will teach their father…and this family will be restored!”

The old man stopped his speech on this high point, with great emotion and tears welling up in his eyes. I looked around the room and the other men too had become caught up by the grandfather’s oration; Aariz and Khalid both smiled broadly, Aariz walking around the table and laying his hands warmly, with great affection, upon Ibrahim’s shoulders, and Kahlid dabbing at his eyes and wiping his cheek as he stared affectionately at his grandfather. Even Qadir betrayed a small smile, before turning to hide his face from his brothers. I thanked them all for this kindness and expressed my gratitude, grabbing Ibrahim’s forearm firmly—as he had done with me in the past—and I said a prayer of blessing over their home.

That was my last evening with them; we ate dinner together, and though they invited me to stay the night in a spare room, insisting that I sleep under their roof, I declined, and spent my final night in the small shed that I had grown accustomed to. The next morning as I prepared to leave, the skies opened and a torrential rain fell for several hours, delaying my departure.

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The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 41

Many days and nights passed after meeting Ibrahim; I spent this time mostly in solitude and prayer, with the occasional visit from one of the brothers, usually the youngest, who brought me food, water, or replaced a dirty bucket. But Ibrahim didn’t return, not for a long time, though I felt something change in the brothers’ visits with me, which I attributed to their grandfather; it was not quite a respect for me, but something more akin to an openness, or a willingness to see me for the first time.

It began as a faint smile during one visit, or an extra glance before shutting the door; a softening expression in their eyes, which admitted my humanity, that betrayed a dawning awareness I was more than a mere utility for their needs—that I was a being, apart from them, yet the same as they. Like the dawning of the sun on a new day, their awareness was opening in an equally surprising way; a recognition of something shared between us, that bridged apparent gaps between us, that revealed an expanded brotherhood—a shared humanity, of which we all belong.

I wondered to myself—could they put aside past pain and suffering, and follow the path opening up before them? Could they sacrifice their desire to add suffering to sufferings—their wish to return pain for pains—and discover a new desire, to heal the past divisions, and forge an expanded, and renewed community of man? I understood they felt oppressed, had been treated unfairly, and adding to these injuries, they had also lost the presence of their own beloved father—who they were now attempting to rescue in their own power, and to bring back home. But perhaps I was reading too much into these subtle changes I perceived in them; I didn’t really know what was in their hearts, since we are all masked from one another to a large degree.

When Ibrahim finally did return to see me, as I suspected he would, he was very serious and somber as he sat down beside me, and leaned back with a sigh, against the cool wall of the little shed. We sat side-by-side in silence for a while; and as I waited for him to begin I glanced through the open door at several chickens wandering beneath the olive trees searching for something to eat. He hadn’t bothered to close or lock the door behind him, knowing now I had no intention of attempting an escape.

He began by grasping my forearm firmly, and he smiled warmly, as I turned to face him and he confided, “I have to tell you some things…it was not easy for me to come back here. No, I did not want to come see you again. But…I have had a hard life…good enough, but difficult…fighting…many things to fight for, and against…and many things lost, just like anyone. But you reminded me that life was tender…and sweet…I forgot that sweetness…as a child, I knew it. And it pained me, to remember…and what I’ve wasted, by fighting…all these years, my entire life…but I’m old now, what do I have to fight for now?!…But what if I had fought for that sweetness!?! Why couldn’t I have fought for that tenderness?! That is what pains me now…I think, I fought the wrong things…the wrong people…I should have fought myself!”

Ibrahim tapped his own chest with his clenched fist, then grabbed my forearm again urgently, and repeated, “I should have fought against myself! Anger, vengeance…these things were right, they seemed right to me…but they were impossible…whatever it was I hoped for in these things…they were a mirage! Worse than a mirage…they were a cancer in me…they destroyed sweetness and beauty in me…do you understand?! No, I should have fought for what matters…that very thing…a peaceful soul…and good relations…we lost land, we lost our homes…but worse, we lost ourselves…I lost my son! No, he’s still alive, in prison now…but I lost him to the same cancer…to anger, unforgiveness…and these boys…” Ibrahim gestured and nodded towards the open door, “…they are doing the same as I did, the same as their father. It is not what I should have given them…it is not a good inheritance!”

“You’re free now, to give them something better,” I replied. “You still have time to give them…yourself, truly!…Although that can be a fearful thing.”

We sat for a few moments watching with amusement, as several chickens began to bicker over an empty bottle near the base of an olive tree.

“Do you remember any of the Bible stories your old church-man told you as a child?” I asked Ibrahim, “No?…I was thinking about the main story…the gift of love, given away at great cost…it cost the giver everything, giving his love to others, it cost him his own life…so love can be a fearful thing.”

Suddenly the chickens interrupted me with loud squawking as their argument over the empty bottle intensified.

I continued, “But it also surprisingly returned everything back to him…and also for those he loved, they gained everything they had previously lost…so that in the end, everything was gained…His was a beautiful life…and also a perfect death, if there can be such a thing…it was a beautiful thing, his gift of love…his sacrificial life…and it yielded an abundant and fruitful death.”

“Well, that is a very good inheritance!…Perhaps you are right, my friend…and maybe I can do something similar for my own son, and for those boys also…my grandsons,” remarked Ibrahim hopefully. “I must go,” he said, getting up and walking through the doorway.

He turned towards me and smiled once again, before walking around the corner and out of sight, leaving the door open behind him. The chickens had given up their fight over the empty bottle, and were now wandering beneath the olive trees.

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The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 40

Later, we approached the home of the three brothers; having left Yusef on the main road into town, we turned south and traveled a short distance, to a collection of homes situated within a small olive grove. Chickens and children ran back and forth across the path and in between the buildings, lending the scene a quality of happy chaos. I was taken past the houses to the far side of the grove, to a second collection of smaller buildings—presumably for animals and storage. Into one of these I was thrust, with the door shut and bolted behind me. It was a small room with a dirt floor, a pile of leafy branches lay in one corner, which I assumed was for sleeping; though I expected the dirt floor would be more comfortable. Several little openings covered with wire mesh were set high into one wall, just below corrugated steel roofing, and these provided some fresh air, and a bit of light in my otherwise dark and dreary accommodation.

The day passed slowly as I waited in my new home; eventually the light faded from the tiny apertures in the wall and the night enveloped me. Food was brought, and some water, along with a bucket for me to relieve myself. In most ways my circumstances were little changed here from my cell at the monastery, or the cave where I had planned to spend Lent; I was at peace with my new surroundings, and hopeful that my presence would be of some benefit to these troubled men—my captors. Though they intended to use me, like one might use a tool, to achieve some end or accomplish some purpose; I had offered myself freely with the hope that my utility would accomplish something greater, in addition to their limited plans for me.

Several days and nights passed in this same way, with little variation; and it dawned upon me that the brothers didn’t have a plan for how they would use me, or perhaps their plans were delayed, or they were also waiting, for some reason. I prayed for clarity, for myself in understanding how I could best serve the situation, and for the brothers, that they would discover a way through their difficulties—through their anger and unhappiness, and through their sorrows. I prayed for clarity for all of us—for the world—that we all may see through, to the other side of this world of tears.

It was sometime—about ten days into my stay in that shed—early in the morning, as the light was beginning to fill the darkness of my room, that a song came to mind; it was a hymn actually, one I remembered from my childhood, though I hadn’t sung it nor thought about for many years, but one of my father’s favorites. I began to sing: ‘For the beauty of each hour, of the day and of the night…hill and vale, and tree and flower…sun and moon and stars of light…Christ our God, to thee we raise…this our hymn of grateful praise!’ Unbeknownst to me at that moment, but outside my room, in the gathering light, the brothers’ grandfather, Ibrahim, had begun to water the nearby trees, and had stopped to listen to me sing. He would explain to me later, that he stood there listening and suddenly was overcome by some faint and distant memory…and he was confused…looking about him, he felt somehow disoriented…and then, as if in a trance he raised his eyes to the sky and felt a calm and a joy, mingled with sadness…a feeling from his childhood that had been removed entirely from his thoughts for nearly seventy years…and then tears had filled his eyes and he cried as he listened to this hymn…and then he fled back to his home, leaving the watering for a later time. He told no one about this, but the next morning he returned to begin watering the trees again, and hoped for something more…though he couldn’t say exactly what he hoped for.

The next morning, at about the same time, I too felt a yearning for something, and in my desire, I began to sing once again that long-forgotten, but newly remembered hymn: ‘For the beauty of the earth, for the beauty of the skies…for the love which from our birth, over and around us lies…Christ our God, to Thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise!’ This time, Ibrahim had pressed his ear against my door, and listened intently to the song, as memories began to clarify within his mind; he remembered an old man singing this song to him as a child, but he couldn’t remember why, or who the man was, nor how they knew each other. When I finished singing, he wandered back to his home, puzzled by these new revelations.

The following morning I began singing again, this time aware that someone was just outside the door, listening to me. ‘For the joy of human love…brother, sister, parent, child…friends on earth and friends above…for all gentle thoughts and mild…Christ our God, to Thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise!’ Suddenly the door burst open and Ibrahim stood staring at me with wide and tearful eyes…and with an expression of pain mingled with joy upon his face; he appeared incredulous, and hopeful. He walked slowly towards me, transfixed by the music…and I continued to sing as he sat down on the floor in front of me and stared deeply, inquisitively into my eyes.

“I remember now,” he began to say, as he continued looking at me with an expression turning to shock and surprise. “I remember it all now…I had forgotten for so long…I don’t know how I did forget. That song…I haven’t heard it since I was a young boy…a church man used to sing it to my brothers…he taught us all to speak English. It was before the war, before we had to fight for our land. He was very kind and brought us fruit…oranges from Jaffa. He taught us words from the Bible…which was forbidden for us…and dangerous for him I imagine. But we learned to speak…English, and learned about Jesus Christ…and I…I loved that song and how he sung it…he had love in his voice…like you do. You do too.” Ibrahim stopped and then nodded his head as he continued, “You have reminded me of all of that now…it was a good time, a lovely time…thank you for reminding me.”

*  *  *

The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 39

As the goats came close, they slowed and began milling about, some nibbling at newly sprouted grass along the sides of the road, others staring off in all directions while bleating opinions to one another. From the back of the herd called out a young boy of about ten, who eventually appeared from within their midst; who then made his way towards us, parting the animals skillfully as he came along. He waved joyfully when he saw me; and I recognized him and called out his name, “Yusef! Young man, it is so good to see you!”

As he came closer my captors quickly hid their guns, but the boy saw them do it, and he stopped suddenly, with an expression of fear falling across his face. Now is not a time for fear, not when the predator is ready to strike; so I quickly called out to him, hoping to reassure him, “Yusef, it is alright! These are my friends. They’ve joined me this morning and we are on our way to their house. They need my help!”

He looked warily at me, unsure, but wanting to trust me; and glancing cautiously at the two other men he quietly answered, “I don’t want trouble. I’m bringing the goats back down.”

“Yes! Wonderful!” I exclaimed. “We’d like to go with you, there’s a patrol just down the road, just around the corner, and another at the bridge. Could we walk with you—and your goats—until we get across the bridge? Please, Yusef?!”

“No guns! I don’t want trouble,” the boy insisted adamantly while shaking his head and looking warily at the brothers. I looked imploringly at them, and waited, while Yusef said the same to them in Arabic. The older brother turned to look down the road—appearing to be considering a new plan—and then said something to the youngest, who turned and ran back down the path from which we had just come, presumably to get their other brother to bring him up to us; and within a few minutes the two returned. Next, we prepared to leave; the brothers hid their firearms in a small fissure, under a pile of rocks. Yusef was now our guide, and our temporary leader—the youngest of our group, and the one calling the shots. He called to his goats and they began descending the dirt road once again, and we fell in line with the boy, mingling amidst the straggling goats at the back of the herd. We were a motley tribe: a Bedouin boy, three Palestinian men, an Orthodox monk, and one hundred goats, give or take a few.

As we rounded the bend in the road, and came into full view of the Israeli patrol, I felt apprehensive; but considering the previous plan was to attack with guns blazing, I liked our chances much better now. And the goats had a wonderful effect upon everyone. Have you ever walked in the midst of animals? Their genuine and simple spirit can rub off on you; helping one see life as they do, or at least as we imagine they might. This group of goats included a ridiculous and absurd collection of characters: some petulant, many eccentric, and most comedic. Take for example, one black and white goat with long hair, who attached itself to the middle brother’s trousers with great gusto; appalling the wearer, and instigating great bellows of complaint from him, to the enjoyment of everyone else, whereupon, eventually even that surly fellow gave up his surliness, allowing himself a faint smile, as he batted the persistent and hairy creature off his leg.

How fortunate we were to have met this travelling troupe of herbivores at such a time as this; for there is little that can so disarm mankind than laughter and a smile. The tension we had all been feeling, moments prior to Yusef and his hairy entourage’s arrival, had dissolved, without any of us appearing to have noticed how, or when exactly, it had left us. Our group was in light spirits as we met the Israeli patrol, and this in turn elicited a number of surreptitious smiles from the young men and women in uniform, as they began their perfunctory examination; questioning each of us briefly and with little concern, or suspicion.

However, our diverse and incongruous organization did arouse surprised expressions and inquisitive looks from the young Israelis. It was undoubtedly unusual to see a disparate group, such as ours, travelling together. There were questions about this, but our response seemed to be satisfying: that the three men were friends of mine, and I was on my way to help them with a problem they had back home, and we also all knew Yusef, and had met up with him along our way. Even so, I believe the goats provided our best cover, as they milled about us on the narrow, dirt road—getting in everyone’s way—raising a general commotion, and adding a tinge of preposterousness to the proceedings.

Finally, we were allowed to continue down the road to the bridge, and I was amazed at how easily and simply things had gone with the patrol, when I had anticipated something so much more difficult, or even deadly. As we walked down the dusty road, the landscape widened; the cliffs of the gorge gave way to more gradual slopes, and a widening valley—the Kidron valley—flanked by ancient hillsides, which were scarred by cuts of rough rock here and there, yet made softer now by the faint touch of green which covered them—newly aroused by the recent rains. The sun shone, glistening golden across the surrounding hills, with depths of shadow rolling across their surfaces. It was becoming a glorious morning; the perfect inspiration for a prayer, had I not already been inspired earlier, and begun praying hours ago. Still, it aroused in one the desire to pray even more fervently, and to express gratitude for life. The dirt road finally reached the river, and we followed its path, as it snaked around the slopes, meandering across the floor of the Judean wilderness.

Not far ahead we noticed a second, larger patrol waiting at the bridge. But it began disbanding as we approached, with men and women filing into several trucks, and then driving down the road and out of sight. Two men were mounting the remaining Jeep just as we began crossing the bridge, and I called to them asking what was going on.

One of the men answered, “We were looking for a missing person, from the Moshav near Avdat, supposedly kidnapped. But he came back late last night…it was a mistake, I guess. So, its okay. Time to go home!”

“Yes!” I thought to myself, “Time to go home, indeed.” I was glad to hear Avi had made it home again.

*  *  *

The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 38

Later, that same evening I drove to Father Davidson’s orchard, hoping to hear him continue his story about the kidnapping in the cave near the Mar Saba monastery. I walked up to the fire circle a bit late, and sat down as the Father was speaking: “…these memories that we all have, and the process of time, as it continually turns the future into the past, through the operation of the present moment…our future, which often seems to us to be unfolding so slowly, with one event plodding after another, in a linear progression…but then suddenly our future meets us, it falls upon us right now—all at once—and then just as suddenly it vanishes into the past…this ought to make us all consider the great importance of every moment! The future appears to be endless, but then it becomes the past, and is suddenly compressed into a single instant. Our entire lifespan here, in a sense, then becoming condensed as it were, into one extremely brief moment. And what will that moment represent—our life—when we view it all of a sudden, now surprisingly, as our past? Will our moment here in this life be just a mere vanity?…a moment of temporary selfishness?…of course this is too simplistic, and any life is a complexity of variations…but were it to be distilled to a single essence…would we declare it to be a moment of selflessness lived for others? It is only a moment after all…surely we can give a moment of our time?”

What the Father said made me think about the phenomena described by those who’ve had a near death experience, in which they see their ‘life flash before their eyes’—as if their entire life had been compressed into a single ‘flash’; very much the way Father Davidson was just explaining.

He continued: “With Avi now gone, having been released to return to his home, I was very cognizant that things had changed for me inside the cave. When Avi was present it was as though the men had difficulty knowing what to do, but now that I was alone with them, the older two brothers found more clarity, and became more aggressive towards me. Admittedly, I was afraid when they tied my hands and pushed me violently to the ground, where I was to wait throughout the night for daybreak—when we planned to return to their home together. It was during that long night I confronted the thoughts I have just shared with you about time, the importance of our present moment, and the way our past is compressed into a singular unity; I wanted the unity of my existence to be given to these men as an expression of God’s love, and I fought my fear in the darkness, a struggle unknown to them, in hopes of gaining the courage to live as Christ had—not motivated by this world’s treasures, but rather those of the coming kingdom; and not motivated by attempts to save my own life, but rather to save theirs.”

“We left the cave very early the next morning, about an hour or so before sunrise; it was dark still, but the gathering light in the east made travel possible across this rocky terrain. And though the gaping black mouth of the gorge upon our left made each step a high-stakes gamble, I had already laid down the value of my life during the previous night, and I was now at peace with any losses I might incur. The path was narrow, and we clung to the cliff-face, as we groped our way forward. Thankfully the men had untied me before we set out, for there would be little chance of my survival otherwise; I was still more useful to them alive than dead. After nearly an hour, we finally arrived at a slight widening in the path—a terrace which afforded a sheltered view of the path’s end up ahead, where it meets up with a dirt road that descends to the river, and crosses via a narrow bridge. In the morning light we could see a small patrol set up at this point; several men or women were talking together in a group near the front of their truck. We were outnumbered two or three to one, and outgunned—assault rifles to handguns—but we had the element of surprise; I watched my captors with interest, wondering at their next move.”

“I could see they didn’t want to give up their guns; but they also couldn’t be discovered with them either—they’d certainly be arrested. Attacking the patrol seemed foolhardy—at least to me—but they appeared to be giving it serious consideration. Their hand gestures implied they were discussing attacking from two directions, one would attack from the footpath we were on, shooting from the cover of the boulders which screened us from the patrol’s view, while the other two would go up and around to our right and attack from higher up the cliff. This plan was only made possible because, from where we were hiding, the footpath forked and a separate path climbed up through the cliff-face, connecting to the same dirt road a little farther up the hill, to the east of the patrol. It wasn’t clear to me what my role was supposed to be; but the day was breaking, and whatever their plan was, it would have to start right away, or they would lose any advantage of surprise. I still held out hope that they would come to their senses and realize the ridiculous odds against success; yet I didn’t feel any compulsion to try to stop them now, I was mostly curious to see what would happen, as if I were watching and not a participant.”

“But the eldest brother grabbed me and pulled me along as he and the youngest brother followed the path leading up through the cliff, leaving the middle brother—the unstable one—alone to attack from our current location. Within a few minutes we came out onto the dirt road, several hundred feet up the hill from the patrol, and around a bend in the road—so we were hidden and safe, for the moment. The eldest and youngest brothers conversed for a moment, and I could easily see the anxiety and stress in their faces and bodies; I doubt they had ever attempted anything like this before, and it showed. I suddenly felt a renewed anxiety—for their lives and safety—whereas just a moment before I had no interest in getting in their way, now I felt compelled to stop them. Fortunately, at that very moment, a loud sound arose from behind us and we turned to see the astonishing vision of tens—or possibly hundreds—of goats coming over the hill, trotting down the road towards us.”

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The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 37

We reached the end of the row, and Father Seraphim motioned to a bench a short distance to our right, “Let’s sit for a while, I need a rest.”

“I also wondered about Josh’s friend Richard. You said that he also was baptized as well…can you tell me what happened to him?”

“Richard…now there’s a gentle soul. Despite the violence of that night which landed them in so much trouble. I got to know Richard very well and grew to love him over the years, although I have to admit I would never have met him—nor taken much notice of him—were it not for Josh. He was a very good friend to Richard. He looked out for him, almost like a father, though he was only a few years older…maybe more like an older brother…but without the competitive angst. Even from prison Josh cared for Richard, and he asked me to visit him in his new home. It wasn’t easy though, getting in to see him…it was out of my jurisdiction…and they weren’t too interested in having a priest visit.” Father Seraphim let out a sigh and shook his head in disgust, “I guess we’re bad influences now! What a shame!”

“Did his own family ever visit him?” I asked.

“No. And I think that’s why they eventually relented and allowed me to visit Richard…since he had no other visitors….no, I take that back, Amelia sometimes visited…but no other adults. He was miserable in that place,” he shook his head indignantly and continued with an edge of anger in his voice, “I wonder if they really understand that those kids are human beings…I mean, I’m not sure they ever saw Richard as anything more than just a case…they gave him a case manager, medical staff…prescribed drugs for him…fed him—I’ll give them that much…and a bed—praise the Lord…but gave no effort to know him as a person. At least I never saw it.”

“What about the portrait of Amelia, did you see that? The one Richard drew…I think while he was there…” I interjected excitedly. “It is quite remarkable, I think.”

Father Seraphim’s eyes grew wide and he smiled broadly, “Yes! I’m glad you mentioned that! In fact, that portrait was very important. It gave me my first real insight into Richard…his talent of course…but his depth more importantly.”

I added hastily, “Exactly! It is so expressive and captures so much about…well, Amelia specifically…but more than just her…so much about the human condition, don’t you think?!”

“There is great range in that portrait, I agree…not only depth but breadth as well; there’s passion, and strength…vitality, and sadness…and beauty. So much beauty…and that’s very important, do you know why? Because beauty is not just the icing on the cake after all! It is the principal thing!” Father Seraphim declared with conviction. “I’m not just talking simply about a pretty face…although that’s something…but beauty is the essence of love, the result of all love…love produces beauty, and beauty is its symbol…beauty is the marker that points us back to love!”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” I admitted.

“And it points us in the direction of God, if you’re willing to accept that. Beauty is the language of love…of God’s love. And Richard knew this truth intimately…intuitively…without any formal training, he already had become a master in the art of beauty, and in portraying the love of God…at least that’s my opinion,” Father Seraphim concluded.

“Did you know he kept a photo of Amelia, but he lost it when he moved into the group home; before he drew that portrait of her?”

“Josh told me all about that. Yes. Let me tell you…Richard spoke very little, not much at all…but we spoke about that portrait. I asked him to explain it to me, if he would. And he said one thing in particular that always stood out to me, and I never forgot it—that he didn’t know Amelia until he drew her portrait. At first, he drew it to remember her, and to feel close to her…and as a remedy for his loneliness…and his grief…but what he hadn’t expected, and what he didn’t know would happen…as he drew her portrait he actually discovered her, and came to know her in ways he never had before.” Father Seraphim spoke quietly, almost reverently as he said this, and then more loudly once again, “perhaps the skeptic, or a cynic might say he only discovered his own illusions about her!…but I think it is a mystery…maybe a little magical too, if you’ll forgive me that word…art revealing the truth that was hidden from view! Is it objective?…subjective?…maybe a little of both…but the act of creation, done in love, is an act of discovery, and of genuine, authentic revelation, in my humble opinion!” Father Seraphim concluded again, this time triumphantly. “Our art, whether it is painting, or music, or literature, perhaps poetry…whatever it may be…it is no mere trifle, nor is it a superfluous thing…but it reveals the essence of who we are…we need it, even…to discover who we are! Art, beauty…without these things…I believe that we are lost!”

“Did Richard have to stay in that group home for very long?” I asked, after I had sat for a while silently reflecting upon the importance of beauty, and of art.

“About two years…about two years too long. They finally released him into his parent’s custody, but he came to live with me. He worked with me…learning to serve at the altar…and he became an Orthodox Christian, before Josh did, in fact. You would think that Richard would be the one to follow Josh, given their…well, who they are…at least based on how we typically see things in this world…but it was often the other way around…with Josh following after Richard, learning from Richard. They had a unique friendship those two…Josh was humble enough to follow and learn from…someone like Richard…and he gained a lot that otherwise would have been lost…or simply never discovered.”

“Interesting!” I exclaimed suddenly, as an insight came to me that seemed possibly true, “Perhaps Josh actually lives an artful life…like you were just saying about the act of creation…and somehow because of that…he is able to discover things about himself and about Richard that would otherwise be left undiscovered. Someone recently told me they think Josh’s life is like a poem, lived out on multiple levels of meaning simultaneously…it is as if his life is his art…not literally through painting or by writing…but through the way he lives, so beautifully even…and this leads him…and others around him…it leads us to love!”

“And I might add…in the direction towards God! Which is the point of this life, and our death, I believe,” Father Seraphim added. “And I was going to say something else about Richard…oh, what was it? Ah, Richard began to write…paint icons…yes, I taught him the basics myself while he was with me. As you can imagine he took to it very well. In fact, let’s walk back to the church and I’ll show you some of his work.”

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The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 36

Several days later, after my breakfast with Amelia, I made an appointment to see Father Seraphim again. The first time we spoke, he had mentioned meeting Josh when he was in prison, and I hoped to learn more about that time in his life.

I pulled up to the old, beautiful church in the late afternoon. It was mid-week, and Father Seraphim had been hearing Confessions; the last one of the day was just wrapping up as I entered the building and stood waiting under the large dome of Christ. Near the front of the church, just in front of the iconostasis screen—which separates the sanctuary and the altar—two men stood before a small stand, upon which was an icon of Jesus. I watched as one man knelt and bowed his head; and it appeared then that Father Seraphim said a blessing over this man. After this was done the two stood talking for a few minutes before turning and walking towards me. Father Seraphim belted out a greeting as he approached, and I was startled to suddenly recognize Father Davidson as he passed me, on his way out of the church. It was strange that I hadn’t realized it was him who had been giving his confession, but the light was dim, and I hadn’t expected to see him here.

He smiled as he walked past; and I felt glad to see him but also sheepish, since I was here to talk about him. I felt as though I had been caught red-handed, and I began to reconsider my mission here, now that the object of my inquiry had just looked me square in the eyes, seeming to know my innermost thoughts and motives. I felt exposed, and I questioned myself: was it ethical to inquire about another person in this way, or in the end is it all simply gossip?

As Father Davidson left the church building, Father Seraphim assured me, seeming to have read my mind, “Your friend apparently anticipated your visit today; and he told me you’d have some questions about his past.”

“Oh?!” I responded, feeling embarrassed, and even more exposed now.

“Relax!” Father Seraphim laughed. “Be at peace. It’s fine…he wants you to know his past. It’s interesting actually…you may find this interesting, I did…he said, and I’m quoting, ‘that you need to know’…so, what is it that you need to know about him?”

This took me off guard, and I felt a little defensive. “I don’t think I need to know anything,” I replied peevishly, “It’s not a compulsion or anything. I can’t imagine what the need would be.”

“Ha!” Father Seraphim laughed heartily; and I became annoyed. “Maybe it isn’t you that need it, maybe he needs it…or maybe the universe needs it, as people like to say…or others need to know, those whom you will tell his story to in the future, maybe you need to know…for them.”

I felt my defenses lower as he said this, and my embarrassment subsided—replaced by a new sense of purpose and importance. I answered, “Well…I do think his story is worth telling.”

“There we have it then! Let’s talk! Shall we take a walk outside? I’ve been cooped up inside here and need some fresh air anyway…and I’d like to check in with the tenants!” Father Seraphim said jovially as he ushered me out a side door. We crossed the parking lot and entered the church cemetery as my eyes adjusted to the bright light.

As we made our way between two rows of headstones, Father Seraphim quipped, “They’re always late with the rent, but we let them stay…we don’t evict anyone! In fact, their rent’s already been paid…for eternity!…They’ve got a good deal!” After a short belly laugh, he turned more serious, and stated dryly, “…death was a big topic between Josh and I, when we first met…while he was in prison. He said he felt as though he had already died, in a sense…sitting in his cell alone, away from his family, and his friends. That was a big transition for him.”

“It must have been horrible.”

“Not sure. He has always had a way of rolling with the punches, Josh has. I don’t think he liked it…no, but he learned from it. And when he said he felt as though he had already died…he didn’t mean that necessarily in a bad way either. He was very insightful for his age…at first he felt sad, but then he felt liberated…that’s what he said…and isn’t that perfectly paradoxical?…that he found freedom, while locked away in a prison cell? When he told me that, I thought to myself…now, here is a young man made for the Orthodox Church, the Orthodox way…willing and able to recognize life’s paradoxes, and to live his life square in the midst of them…not over-simplifying in one direction or its opposite!”

“That’s not always easy to do,” I agreed.

“I believe that it takes humility! In an ultimate sense…great humility…to face the unexpected and the unknown…and to say with your entire being in that moment, as you realize…I didn’t know…I don’t know!…Yes, that’s when the real discoveries are made!” Father Seraphim declared triumphantly, before continuing, “Is there anything more shameful to the mind of man, than to admit that it doesn’t know?!…But Josh didn’t have to know, doesn’t have to know…and that has always been his glory…his perfection, I believe…he embraces this death in every moment…he allows himself to die, in a sense…he allows his pride, his vanity, his idea of himself to die in every moment…so that he can live!” Father Seraphim looked around himself, and gestured towards several of the tombs, and continued, “What secrets do they now know?! We don’t really know! But they gave themselves in death…they relinquished control and authority over themselves…we know that for certain…like Jesus Christ, they gave up their will to the will of God…when they died…and what a perfect death is the death to one’s own will, and the relinquishing of one’s life to the will of God! Some wait until the end of their life to do this…while others, like Josh, learn to do it along the way.”

*  *  *