The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 20

After Father Davidson completed his story, he retired to his cabin for the night. A short time later, Tara and Adam walked off to their tent, and then the trio made their way back to their RV, leaving me alone at the campfire. I pondered the Father’s amazing and surprising story for a while as I watched the embers cool. Everything he shared about his time in the Judean desert intrigued me, and I looked forward to learning more about that, but right now, as I thought back to what he said at the beginning of the evening, I was preoccupied by the fact that he confirmed he had been in prison. It was only a brief mention as he described the priest he met there, and how this priest had first brought the Father to faith in Christ. I wondered who this priest was, and if he was still alive. And if he was, I wondered where he lived now, and if I could find him. Perhaps I could talk with him, and learn the reason Father Davidson had been in prison.

The next morning I decided to return to Amelia’s store to see if I could learn anything more from her; maybe she knew the priest and could tell me where to find him. It struck me, as I walked through town on my way to Amelia’s, that I had lost my reservations about looking into the Father’s past. I no longer questioned my motives as I sought to learn more about him. I was convinced of his goodness by now, and believed there would be a reasonable explanation for his trouble with the law. I wanted to learn everything I could about that time in his life. In fact, I wanted to know more about his entire life, whatever I could discover, because I felt now that I was in the presence of a singular, and remarkable human being, and everything about him had become intriguing to me.

As I entered her store, I considered how best to bring up the topic of the Father’s past with Amelia. I had witnessed in my previous visit to her shop, how she defended her brother against attack, and I didn’t want her to perceive my interest as antagonistic, or my questions as criticism. She obviously was sensitive about her brother and how he was viewed by others; she also was clearly perceptive about other people and would sense if I was false or hiding something. I decided my best tactic would be honesty and simplicity, hiding nothing, imitating the way her brother himself lived his life.

“I was at the campfire again last night, with your brother. He was talking about his time in the monastery, and he mentioned the priest he met when he was younger, the one who brought him to Christ. Your brother’s had an interesting life.”

“Father Seraphim. Yes, he has.” Amelia answered. “Are you enjoying the campfire stories?”

“Very much. They’re fascinating to me. Has he always done them?”

“No, not for a long time. Well, yes the campfires, but no, not stories about his past. You must be bringing it out of him. He ordinarily doesn’t talk all that much,” she said, smiling.

I almost asked her then about his time in prison, but it didn’t quite feel like the right timing. So I asked about the priest instead: “The priest, Father Seraphim was it? Yes, is he still alive, do you know?”

“Of course. His church is just north of town. I haven’t seen him in a while, but Josh goes to services there every week. He became Orthodox, but I didn’t. Father Seraphim’s a good guy, though, you’d like him,” she smiled again.

“Maybe I’ll try it out sometime,” I said nonchalantly. “What’s it called?”

“St. Silouan’s. It’s a bit hidden in the woods but not too hard to find, just google it. Beautiful church, if you’re an artist you’ll love it.”

“Sounds great, thank you,” I replied, as my eyes scanned the store. On the wall to my right, was hanging a beautifully drawn portrait of a young woman, which I hadn’t noticed before. I walked over to get a closer look. It was a simple pen and ink drawing, technically unsophisticated, and yet immensely expressive. The artist had captured such a profound depth in the girl’s eyes: longing, sadness, innocence and love. And upon her face was presented an inner strength and passion that was startling, and which contrasted vividly with the lightness and vivacity of her hair, which seemed to swirl about her playfully. She was beautiful, and the artist had masterfully represented an amazingly broad range of her character; this wasn’t merely a documenting of a person’s appearance, but rather a revelation of a being’s soul. I was dumbstruck, and gazed at the portrait as if in a trance, for who knows how long—until I heard Amelia’s voice.

“Do you like it?” she asked.

“Well, yes, of course! It’s very good. Did you do it?”

“Oh, no! A friend of mine. He’s much better than me,” she laughed.

“He clearly loved her,” I said as I looked back again at the portrait. “He knew her so well, it seems, maybe better even than she knew herself. I wonder…” and then it struck me, “is this you, this is you isn’t it?” I turned to look at Amelia, who was also staring at the portrait as if in a trance.

She smiled and nodded, “Yes, it is, about thirty years ago. You’re right, he did, does…did love me. And you’re probably also right, he might have known me better than I knew myself, at least back then.”

We stood for a few moments together in silence, both reveling in the portrait and the window it provided into our shared human experience. For me, it was a window into the depths of a human soul, but in a general way, yet in a way which I could relate with; yet for Amelia it was a window into her own particular soul, a mirror that she could gaze into and see herself more clearly.

“It is a wonderful drawing,” I said. “It really is, I can see why you kept it all these years and why you have it displayed…and the artist is quite a talent.”

“Yes, he is,” she replied.

*  *  *

The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 19

“Later that day the abbot asked, ‘what do you want to be good at?’ Many things passed through my thoughts, but I wasn’t certain exactly how to answer,” Father Davidson continued. “The abbot then asked a different but similar question, ‘to what do you want to devote your life, to be the best that you can be?’ I thought this was a strange question, it seemed so worldly, and something my father or a career counselor might have asked in my youth.”

“I suppose to be a monk, that’s why I came here to Mar Saba,” I replied.

“Yes, but I’m really asking what are you serving? Some people want to be good at making money, so they learn how to do that: learning from a wealthy relative perhaps, or studying how to do it, leveraging their natural gifts in ways that will help them win money. Many people want attention or fame, to be liked and admired, so they focus their efforts and abilities towards that goal: they imitate others that are famous, or well-liked and popular, and they do the things that these people have done, in hopes of gaining the attention they need…but what do you want to be good at—fame, money, sex…pride? Are any of these your goal? Do you want to dedicate your life to one of these? Because these are the foundation of most human activity, and the basis of most careers.”

“I don’t want any of those,” I replied with disdain.

“Really? But some people become monks, or nuns, with the goal of becoming admired. There are plenty of vain brothers, having given up the world, but in actuality, having brought the world with them into the monastery.” Elder Lazarus didn’t wait for a reply, “this is your work now, say this short prayer day and night: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. You will try to say it at every moment, awake and asleep, and if you catch yourself forgetting, simply begin again. Become very good at this prayer. Flood your thoughts with Christ, and still your mind in Christ.”

I worked at this task from that moment forward at the monastery. I must have reminded myself hundreds, if not thousands, of times each day, to take up the prayer again after it had slipped my mind. When I went to bed I said it, and it brought me deep sleep, when I woke I said it and my days became joyful. Saying it while working or doing any other task proved particularly difficult, and as I got better at remembering to say the prayer, I grew worse at my other tasks: forgetting to gather the vegetables needed for meals, cutting the end of my finger off while preparing the vegetables one afternoon, and tripping down a staircase, landing on a fellow monk one evening. The prayer was making me look foolish in the eyes of the other monks, but it was also bringing me deep peace and satisfaction.

I found myself at a crossroads more than once because of this prayer; on one hand I feared becoming useless in the eyes of others, or worse, becoming a liability. Yet, I also feared losing the prayer, and losing what I was gaining from it. I didn’t want to go back to my former life—the life I lived before the prayer—but I worried that I was becoming an idiot to my companions. I expressed these concerns to Elder Lazarus one day and he simply replied, “Is it such a bad thing to become a fool for Christ’s sake?”

Some of the other monks didn’t think it was such a good thing and they told me so on several occasions as we worked together. One such time happened like this: water is a vital resource in the desert so we conserved it, storing it in cisterns. From the kitchen we saved water that had been used for cleaning vegetables and fruits. A small pipe ran from the kitchen to an outdoor terrace near the garden, which emptied into a large clay container; we stored water in this for use in irrigating the garden plants. One afternoon I was saying my prayer, collecting water from this container, and watering the plants and trees. I filled a small bucket and saturated the earth around each tree and plant, taking many trips back and forth in the hot sun. While I did this task, one brother trained vines along a trellis and another harvested some peppers.

My prayer often made me very courageous, and I easily lost concern about other’s opinions as I focused on saying the words: ‘Lord Jesus Christ…’ and I also believed saying the prayer gave lucidity to my perception—I felt as though I floated in the arms of the Lord and He directed my steps. I had just completed watering one of the date palms, and was refilling my bucket, when I noticed a collection of old pots in the corner of the terrace near a wall; one tall, narrow clay container stood out to me, it was broken at its base, and stood about three feet tall. I suddenly felt a strong impulse to pour my bucket into the old, empty container—so I did it.

What an outcry erupted from the two monks—incredulous, scandalized, outraged—who berated me for wasting water. I could see their point, but nevertheless I felt clear that I had done the right thing. I felt for them, and was sorry they were so upset, but what could I do? I shrugged—and this upset them even further, as their voices raised in pitch and they began gesticulating in an urgent and frenzied manner.

The next day all was quiet again between us as we did our work under the bright sun. Until I emptied my bucket into the old container again, and the water seeped out along the jagged seams at the base of its ancient clay, and vanished into the thirsty earth.  I poured a second bucket into the container’s gaping mouth, and a third, and several more until the water overflowed and ran down the sides. This time the other monks took their complaint directly to Elder Lazarus and revealed to him how ‘this fool’ was wasting precious water, explaining how unfair it was to the community, and how it must be stopped.

To his credit, the abbot didn’t stop it, but suggested that I water only the living plants. For several days he came to see for himself what was occurring between us during our work in the garden, and soon several others joined him to watch, as I poured buckets of water into the broken container. Eventually the other monks lost interest and left the three of us to our work, I was given additional tongue-lashings by the other two monks, but in the end, I was allowed to continue to pour buckets into the old pot.

It was the following month that we first noticed several bright green leaves peeking up through the mouth of the container; and for the first time since I had begun to pour water into it, the three of us shared a smile and a laugh together. We looked joyfully at the new life arising out of that broken pot and we gave God thanks for the surprise. In time the little fig tree grew, until it was large enough to move it, and so we transplanted it to a more permanent location in the garden.

But the fig tree wasn’t the biggest surprise from this seemingly foolish enterprise. About a week after we transplanted the little volunteer, while we were all in the trapeza eating our evening meal, one of the monks hurried in, calling out excitedly for Elder Lazarus: “Elder, hurry, hurry, it’s a miracle, hurry, come, you must see!”

“What is it?” the abbot asked.

“I was in the blue room just now, it’s…on the wall…it’s incredible! You must see for yourself, hurry!” the monk replied breathlessly, and he turned and ran back in the direction he had come.

The rest of us quickly got up and followed. The blue room was located on a floor below the garden terrace, on the far side of the garden. It had been used as a storage room for many years, but recently wasn’t in use at all. Nobody had occasion to enter, and it was unusual that anyone would. However, this monk had thought he heard a cat inside the room and went in to rescue the trapped feline when he made his discovery. On the near wall, just to the right of the door, it appeared, in the dim light, that there had been some kind of water damage, and at the base of the wall was a mess of old clay and paint. The excited monk lit a candle and held it up to the wall and everyone gasped. The wall was streaked from top to bottom, and layers of the old surface had come loose, revealing what appeared to be an old painting. Elder Lazarus took the candle and examined the painting more closely. We held our breath as the old man scanned the wall, squinting to examine a detail more closely, commenting under his breath, chuckling now and then, and shaking his head seemingly in disbelief. Eventually he turned to us triumphantly and said: ‘this is undoubtedly an icon of our dear St John Damascene, may his memory be eternal, written well over five-hundred years ago! We will have to clean this up and get a better look, but this is a tremendous discovery!’

At that proclamation, there was a general tumult among the monks and smiles all around, even a number of cheers. Later, as several of the brothers who were skilled in iconography and restorations worked on the wall, it was discovered that there was a drainpipe in the ceiling above the wall that appeared to have been broken for decades, if not longer. At first, it was unclear why water had recently been in the pipe, until the following day when I poured my daily bucket into the old broken container on the terrace above, and water gushed out of the pipe and down over the newly discovered icon. Out of curiosity, one of the monks lifted the cracked pot and found that it had been placed over an unused drainpipe protruding up from the terrace floor; apparently someone had placed the old thing over the pipe to keep water from getting into it, never suspecting that someday someone would intentionally fill the jug itself with water, allowing it to finally reveal the magnificent icon that had been hidden for centuries.

*  *  *

The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 18

As the Father began his story again that evening, the warm glow of the fire illuminating his face, I reflected on the mystery that is a human being. So much about each of us is unknown; is it also unknowable? We may know well the needs and desires of the body. Our strengths, abilities and limitations will define us in the eyes of others; and our visible attributes mainly constrain us, even in our own eyes.  Yet, there is also the dimension of our soul which eludes perception. Though the soul’s realm is related to our physical being, and we can see it emerging through our relationships, and in the roles we accept and play. The meaning of our life deriving from its interplay with others—our loved ones, family, friends, and also our enemies—and we discover ourselves through these relationships.

But what else are we? We feel somehow, deep inside, that there is much more to us than meets the eye, even more than what emerges in our relations with others. We sense there is still an essential self that exists after the party is over—metaphorically speaking—after the guests have all gone away, the noise and clatter has abated, and we are left alone without any distractions; a self that can be found even deeper within us, once the fears and desires inside of us are put aside. When we experience only silence, after we’ve rejected sorrow or anxiety or whatever else may assault us in the stillness, then, I imagine, there we are; then we can get our first glimpse of our essential self.

I mused about these things as I began to listen to the Father speak again; these things that his life and his story had raised in my mind. If I never received anything further from Father Davidson than this introduction into stillness and self-exploration, I would consider myself far richer already because of him.

“Why flee the world with all of its joys and pleasures, and dwell in the desert, in a monastery?” the Father began. “The belief that there is something more, and the faith that man can discover it; and the hope that I in particular will find it! Yes!! This is the faith and hope that calls us to solitary places, to do battle with ourselves, and to endure and persevere until we discover it!”

Father Davidson looked radiant and joyful as he began to talk this evening, and his enthusiasm filled all of us with excitement and anticipation. “And how does one endure and persevere? They love…they love God more than they love themselves! But what am I saying? We are human, mere humans, and we love ourselves, typically more than others, and nearly always more than God. Until we meet God…and if we meet God then we know…we feel His love…for us, and for the world. And we want to love Him back.”

“Once, a long time ago, I spent some years in prison. That is a story for another time, but there I met a priest, and through him I discovered God’s love; I met the Christ, and that meeting eventually led me to the desert—to Mar Saba. We all know love! Of course, it is planted in our hearts—natural love—love so natural, parents for children, spouses for one another, this is not so remarkable, though still wonderful and a gift! Yet, the love of God for us…our love for God…is transcendent and life-changing!”

Father Davidson beamed—a broad and open smile, like that of a small child whose wishes have just come true. “Love involves sacrifice; how much can we sacrifice? That is how much we can love.”

“Now, I came to Mar Saba believing that I knew how to love God and man, but I was deceiving myself. Fortunately Elder Lazarus, the wise abbot, discerned my self-deception and over the ensuing years planned numerous traps for me which exposed my dishonorable lies and allowed me to come clean. I arrived there very prideful of my self-sacrifices; I could cite numerous examples from my life which showed my ability to give myself in love toward others. However, there was no merit to any of these selfless acts because their root was actually in vanity and self-love. In fact, if I had been honest, I would have admitted that I fancied myself as more loving than God Himself. That is how deceived I had allowed myself to become.”

“One of my first responsibilities in the monastery was caring for an elderly monk who had fallen ill. I was given complete charge over his recovery: feeding him, taking him on daily walks, ensuring he got rest, reading psalms and praying for him, and catering to his other needs. Elder Lazarus publicly praised my efforts at mealtimes and whenever he encountered us walking about the monastery grounds. However, it was clear to everyone, including myself, that the elderly monk’s health was deteriorating. Nevertheless, Elder Lazarus continued to praise me loudly and with great ceremony, bringing attention to my efforts, and applauding all of the time I spent helping the old man. He seemed not to notice that the elderly monk was getting worse every day, but instead acted as though I was single-handedly restoring him to health. Soon I grew very embarrassed by all of the attention the abbot was giving me. And the greater the contrast grew between the actual declining state of the old man’s health, and the undeserved praise that the abbot showered upon me, the worse I felt. The old man was near death, everyone could see it, and nothing I had done, or could do, was changing this fact, or slowing its inevitability. But Elder Lazarus acted as though I was healing him and giving him new life; even calling upon the brothers to literally applaud my efforts after dinner one evening. Finally, I couldn’t take any more of his praise, and I appealed to him to stop, pointing out that the old man was in horrible health and was certain to die soon. In fact, the old man died later that night as I was praying for him. I broke down crying for the newly departed, but also for myself because I was completely ineffective helping him in his final days.”

“Early the next morning Elder Lazarus entered my cell to console me, ‘Remember we can do nothing in our own power. God alone has the power of life over death. Our dear departed brother is in the arms of the Lord now; you didn’t put him there, nor could you keep him from God’s embrace. You gave him care and support, but expecting more than that from yourself is simply foolish vanity. And pride always loves praise, even when praise isn’t warranted.’ The abbot left my room and I wept again, this time for my stupidity.”

* * *

The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 17

Father Davidson walked through the orchard with bare feet; he had given his shoes to the man on the bench earlier in the day and didn’t have another pair. “Though it doesn’t seem to make any difference,” I thought to myself, as I watched him climb a ladder to harvest some apples; he worked and walked as though he were still wearing shoes. I wasn’t surprised by this observation, for even when he stepped squarely into a patch of nettles he didn’t flinch; I was beginning to understand that he lived unaffected by minor pains and annoyances that most people live preoccupied by—in the short time I’d known him he appeared to be coolly detached from mental turmoil, emotional entanglements as well as physical suffering. I was musing about the Father’s unique relationship with suffering, when one of the men who lived in the RV called to me and invited me into their home to have a beer. I happily accepted and sat down at the small table with the three occupants of the motorhome; they were a middle-aged woman, and two men—most likely a couple, with their young adult son.

“The Father is something different,” the elder of the two men began. “You’ll not meet many like that.” All of us nodded in agreement and chuckled.

“I was just watching him walk barefoot through a patch of nettles,” I responded.

“Trust me, there’s more to it than you imagine,” the younger man interjected. “I’m not saying I know what it is, but there is always more going on with him than just what you see. There’s some kind of poetry in his bare feet, I’ll promise you that.”

“Poetry? How do you mean?” I asked.

“There’s always multiple meanings with him, things happening on more than one level, like in a poem. There’s the obvious, just what is happening, or what is said—or written if it’s a poem—but then there’s the symbolic meaning, something else that is represented that goes beyond the obvious.”

“For instance…?” I inquired.

“Okay, so here’s one. A while back, we had just arrived here, the three of us. None of us had a job and we had run out of money. We were stressed, I’m not going to lie, and at each other’s throats. Right?” He looked at the other two, and they nodded in agreement. “We were arguing a lot between us, and driving each other crazy, on top of each other, in this tiny space. One afternoon my mom, sorry is it okay if I say it?” He glanced at the woman and she shrugged. “So one afternoon she lays into my dad, about getting a job, getting off his butt and doing something for us…it starts to get pretty heated.”

“And then all of a sudden we start hearing something up on the roof,” the older man interjected, “jumping around up there. I thought it was a bear or an eagle or something, really loud and big.”

“Made us shut our mouths right quick,” said the woman. “And we all stared up at the ceiling like what the heck is that?!”

The young man continued, “Yes, but don’t forget what you said right before that, mom. This is the part that’s poetic. Just before that, my mom tells my dad, ‘you gotta shake a leg and get out there’ and then…” he stops and laughs for a moment, “…’and, you can’t expect something is gonna just drop out of the sky from heaven for you’. That is exactly what she said, and then…that was right when the Father fell through the skylight, that one right there,” he pointed up at the small square plastic bubble in the ceiling. “Well it wasn’t that one—it was the old one—we had to get it repaired after he came through it, but it wasn’t all of him, just his right leg.” The three started laughing and I looked incredulously at them. “Yes, that’s right, just his leg, from heaven! And then the funniest part, he starts shaking it!”

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” said the woman. “We were all stunned. I couldn’t remember what I was saying.”

“None of us could,” said the older man. “The Father stopped us right in our tracks, which was a good thing, before we said anything more we might have regretted.”

“But then he just pulls his leg back out and leaves,” continued the woman. “He didn’t say a thing. Didn’t say sorry. He never said anything about it. Why was he up there in the first place? And why did he start hoppin’ around up there? And he never offered to buy a new skylight. I got a little upset about that.”

“Yeah, but dad tell him what happened. This is also poetic!” cried the younger man.

“It was something. I took the broken skylight down to the hardware store to see about getting another one, and got to talking with the owner, and one thing leads to another, and before I leave he offers me a job! Part-time, but anything helps! I’ve been working there ever since.”

“Dropped right from heaven!” cried the young man triumphantly, as he leaned back in his seat. “That’s what I’m talking about!”

We all sat silently and drank our beers; occasionally, each of us looking up at the skylight and smiling, or shaking a head, or pondering some secret thought. Eventually, the cans were emptied, and we agreed it was about time to head down to the campfire to hear the Father continue his story.

*  *  *

The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 16

After this first unexpected meeting, Richard began to trust Josh and welcomed him back to his home. Very little was spoken between them, but there was a friendship and comradery developing nonetheless. Josh always brought food with him to share, and this, more than anything else, proved his good intentions and sincerity, as far as Richard was concerned. Within a week, he felt confident to return to school again, this time with Josh at his side. They agreed to meet a block from the parking lot and walk together to Richard’s first class.

The morning was bright and already warm, and Richard took this as a good omen as he approached the agreed upon meeting place. He felt lighter and happier going to school this morning than he had before, and he believed his luck was turning for the better. Until he saw someone he didn’t recognize standing with Josh. He wanted to turn around and run, but Josh called out to him, “Richard! Come here, I have someone I want you to meet!”

He froze, unsure of what to do; he wished he hadn’t already been seen and wondered if he could just stand still—maybe they would go away. But they didn’t, and Josh called to him again, “Come on! It’s fine, don’t worry. It’s my sister, you’ll like her!” Reluctantly he walked over to them, and Josh introduced him to Amelia. Bashfully, he stared at the ground, appearing uninterested, but his mind and heart raced and he was actually incredibly interested. Amelia knew not to expect much conversation with Richard, Josh had forewarned her of this; and she understood very quickly that this was to be no ordinary friendship, and she was fine with that.

The three entered the school together, and it caused more disruption than any of them had expected. This was clearly a meaningful event, but what exactly was its meaning? Among the observers, their fellow students and teachers, its meaning was one of several possibilities: one; it was a display of irony on the part of Josh and Amelia and they were acting out a pseudo-friendship as a joke for the amusement of everyone, or two; it was an act of charity to fulfill some class requirement, or to bolster their applications to college, or three; they were being forced into it, perhaps as a punishment in lieu of detention or as some kind of community service. Interestingly, none of the witnesses in school that morning took the position that it was a sincere act, with nothing more than simple friendship as its source. This idea, while entertained briefly by some, seemed ludicrous and far-fetched to them; Josh and Amelia were both attractive and well-liked, and they had everything going for them, so there was no reason for them to befriend someone like Richard. They had nothing to gain from being seen with him, so the meaning of this surprising association clearly had to be one of the first three options. So as the three walked down the main hall of the school, the faces they met at first betrayed surprise, confusion, and disgust; and then, as time elapsed, an increasing sense of understanding, as each witness settled on the meaning that they liked the best.

For Richard, the meaning was something quite different; it meant he finally belonged. He had friends now and he wasn’t alone, which also meant he was safer now, and less vulnerable to attack. These things made him smile—and not merely smile—he positively beamed as he walked down the hallway. With Josh walking beside him on his right he felt now that nobody could harm him; but his mind and senses were totally preoccupied with Amelia who was beside him on his left. She smelled like flowers and cinnamon rolls—fresh and sweet—and this also made him feel safe, but in a different way. She wore a fuzzy sweater that looked very soft and though he didn’t dare touch it, he imagined how it might feel. Her face was too pretty to look at, but he allowed himself to watch her hair out of the corner of his eye; it bounced, and strands of it caught the wind, reflecting sunlight that erupted in something like golden, red and brown flames. Even her hair sometimes was almost too pretty to look at, so he looked at his feet instead.

Amelia could empathize with Richard and put herself in his position, and this motivated her to befriend him. She imagined what it was like to be him, and this put her in touch with her own sadness and anger at life, and with the world; so she believed she could put things right by being his friend and protecting him, and that this somehow would heal her own hurts. Hers was an aesthetic empathy, like a painter might have towards their subject, observing and focusing on details—exploring their object—and learning about themselves in the process.  Her empathy was also like that of an actor’s, who studies another person, trying to understand who they are, their motivations and underlying desires, their struggles and their sufferings, but at a safe distance. Of course, she was willing to immerse herself in her empathy towards Richard up to a point, and her desire to help him was genuine, yet she was also afraid to get too close, or perhaps it was a natural self-preservation that she didn’t want to lose herself in the process. An artist after all is not the painting they paint, nor is an actor actually the character they portray. They still want to recognize the person looking back at them when they look in the mirror; and take a bow after the performance is over.

Josh also felt what it was like to be Richard, yet there were many things about this that he didn’t yet fully understand. It would take years for him to consciously understand what he knew intuitively at a young age; that he could lose himself entirely as he opened himself to the experiences of another. He knew how to empty himself to such a degree that he no longer merely observed another, but actually came to know and believe that he was another. For Josh, there were no strangers, and no outcasts because everyone could potentially be as close as his own family, and known perhaps as fully as he knew himself. One can imagine this ability, or belief, is not without its dangers however, if one fails to recognize and remember important boundaries between themselves and others, or even the limits of their human nature. If one isn’t careful and experienced in this kind of empathy, one might lose themselves entirely, forgetting who they are, or what they are, even to the point of imagining that they are God.

For Josh, many, if not all, dangers of this kind sorted themselves out as he aged and as he gained experience. Although, to be honest, whether they truly did sort themselves out and whether he didn’t suffer some problems related to them, was a matter of debate between those who knew and loved him, and those who didn’t care much for him.

*  *  *

The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 15

The next morning Josh scoured the area, looking for a clue that would explain Richard’s surprising disappearance the previous night. But he could find nothing; there was definitely no path leading into the ravine that he could see. And there was no way up into the trees overhead. How had Richard vanished last night? He was certain this was the spot where he lost sight of him, there was no doubt about that. He sat at the base of a Big-Leaf Maple and looked up into the sky above—just windowed views of pale blue, dancing behind soft green foliage, which fluttered gently in the wind. A small bird jumped within the underbrush at the corner of his vision, and he turned to watch it hop from twig to vine, and then out of sight behind the tree.

The vegetation was very dense all along this stretch of the road, and it was forbidding of any passage into the ravine below: with nootka and rugosa roses—thorny and uninviting—intertwined with blackberry vines, mahonia and other native shrubs which formed a bulwark against any human entry. But then something rather strange, just behind the maple tree, woven into the fabric of these natural defenses; Josh noticed a very different pattern within the foliage here, imperceptible at first and easy to miss, but upon closer inspection it was clearly the work of human engineering. Blackberry vines had been woven into a rudimentary framework, with branches and twigs of neighboring shrubs forming a dense outer skin for some type of doorway—a flap really—like that of a tent, which Josh pulled up and towards him, revealing a small opening at ground level behind it. Again, the hole was difficult at first to perceive, and was the result of human manipulation of the native vegetation—vines woven to form the walls of a small tunnel, which ran into the underbrush, and vanished someplace farther down the ravine.

Josh smiled as he peered into the tunnel, “very clever, Richard, now I see what you’ve done.” He was impressed with the idea of the tunnel itself, but even more by the execution of it—so carefully made, and so skillfully hidden in plain sight. It suddenly occurred to Josh that he needed to be very respectful of Richard’s secret; he quickly lowered the flap over the tunnel entrance, and looked cautiously from side to side to make sure nobody saw him. He was well hidden behind the trunk of the large maple tree, so he lifted the flap again and climbed into the tunnel, letting the foliage close behind him.

Meanwhile, as Josh was discovering the secret of Richard’s disappearance, Richard himself was in his home at the other end of the tunnel. His morning had started out unpleasantly because he awoke with a pain in his stomach; he was very hungry. Unfortunately, his efforts to gather food the previous night had been interrupted, and he returned home empty-handed. His hunger was made worse by the memory of what could have been; he had found a box of donuts, and was just pulling it out of the garbage bag when Josh had startled him and made him drop the bag. In his haste to flee for home, he had forgotten to pick the box up again, and only remembered it after he had made it back to his scrape under the cedar trees. He pictured the donuts in his mind now, and groaned because of the gaping hole that image left in his stomach, only making his hunger more profound.

At first, Josh was excited by the aspect of crawling his way along this unusual tunnel, but then his excitement turned to claustrophobia as the daylight waned, and twigs and vines caught at his clothing. The grade began to get steeper too, and he felt the blood rush to his head, making him feel a little dizzy. He never did well in tight spaces, so an urgent panic began to take control of him. He tried to fight it down by concentrating on his breathing and by focusing on the sweet, loamy smell, and the cool sensation of the earth against his body. This helped; as he continued to inch his way forward, pulling himself slowly across the ground. Eventually the grade leveled off and he could see the tunnel brightening up ahead. His hopes rose, as he believed that he must be getting close to the end.

Richard rose from his bed. The birds had begun to make a racket; calling down from the trees, chirping from their places amongst the shrubs—and of those who had been huddling together in the open—scurrying for shelter. It was unusual. Richard glanced at his friends inquisitively, wondering what this all meant. He sat on a cedar stump and looked further down into the ravine where the stream flowed. Very seldom, one or two people might be seen walking through the water down there, and this could rouse his companions; but nobody ever tried to climb up to Richard’s location, the ravine was too steep between the water and him. It never occurred to him that someone might be approaching from the tunnel, so he was thoroughly startled once again by Josh, when he fell out of the brush into a heap on the ground, not far from where Richard was sitting.

Many things flitted through Richard’s mind in quick succession: fear that his home had been found, surprise that Josh found the tunnel and had made it all the way through, concern about what would happen next, and then humor that Josh was once again sprawled out upon the ground before him. Why did he always do that? Richard wondered, then he laughed. It worried him greatly that his secret home had been discovered, but the spectacle of Josh lying on the ground made him forget this for the moment. Josh hadn’t intended to make such an entrance, but he accepted the wisdom of it when he saw Richard’s reaction. Fate, or something, had willed it and had made provision for their meeting by thoroughly disarming Richard by this ridiculous impromptu entrance, and it allowed Josh to endear himself in a way that he never could have done intentionally.

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The Beautiful Life & Perfect Death of Father Davidson: Chapter 14

“What happened?” Amelia asked, as they watched Richard continue to shuffle down the sidewalk, periodically turning to see if anyone was in pursuit.

“Actually—he laughed at me. I think it helped him relax a little bit,” Josh answered.

“I bet he was relieved, to laugh at someone else for once,” said Amelia. “Not to be the butt of everyone else’s jokes for a change. That was horrible, Josh. Did you see the terror in his face, and the misery?”

“Yes I did. It was hard to watch. I felt it in my chest, like I couldn’t breathe.”

“I couldn’t look any longer, I had to turn away.”

“You’re right though, Aim, everyone is relieved to laugh at someone else. To take the pressure off themselves, and give the blame to someone else, to point the finger so they can hide in the shadows, even in plain sight and in broad daylight. Richard is their scapegoat. We’d all like one. I felt it, didn’t you feel the temptation?”

Amelia didn’t answer at first but stared painfully at her brother. “Yes…I did. For a moment I wanted to laugh a little bit too.”

“I did laugh, Amelia. I felt complete hatred for Richard over there, I felt it course through me and I could have accepted it. I easily could have said, alright, this guy deserves it and I’m going to give it to him, and it’s going to feel really good. And everyone else is doing it, so all the better, I won’t even look especially bad as I do it.”

Amelia looked with horror at Josh with her mouth slightly ajar. “What are you saying?!”

“Don’t worry. I didn’t feel that way for long, and besides I didn’t entertain those hideous thoughts or feelings, I’m just saying I noticed them. I’m no different than anyone else in that mob, I could easily have done what any of them did, other than that I chose not to. Why? Because I felt the pain and sadness of Richard too. I felt as if everyone was yelling and laughing at me, I really felt as though I was standing next to him in there, and everyone was doing that to me. I felt my humanity drain out of me and I began to believe what they were saying about me. I lost any sight of my worth, for a moment, and accepted that I was less than a human, but it made me angry. And it made me sad, incredibly sad.”

“He looked so sad, he must be very sad. And alone. I don’t suppose people would pick on him so much if he had friends. We should be his friends, Josh. Oh, God do we have to be his friends? I’m sorry, it’s just so much easier not to worry about him. What am I saying?”

“Aim, you’re right. He needs someone on his side. I’ve seen him, he’s always alone, and he has nobody. Nobody makes him laugh. I think we should try to be his friends.”

It was unspoken between them at that moment, but both Amelia and Josh weighed the cost of being Richard’s friend. Would they bring his status up among the other students, or would he drag their status down? Probably it would happen a little both ways; Richard would be more accepted and he’d be left alone, while at the same time they would get some ridicule from their peers. Amelia decided it was worth it, and screw anyone who doesn’t like it; Josh knew it would be better for Richard this way, and also figured some ridicule might actually do himself some good. He found the prospect of befriending Richard a little exciting and exhilarating; and decided that it might be an adventure they all would enjoy.

Later that afternoon they went out for a sail in Amelia’s boat and worked on a plan. They decided that Josh should try to become friends with Richard first, since he already made Richard laugh, and then if that worked, Amelia could join them and they all could spend time together. Since there were only a few weeks left in the school year they had to work fast before they lost track of Richard for the summer.

The rest of the week however, Richard was nowhere to be seen. Josh spent his breaks and lunches searching the school for him but without success. Meanwhile, Richard had retreated to his home in the trees following his ordeal that Monday morning and hadn’t come back out, except during the nights when he searched for food. The school trash cans were the most likely places to find discarded food, but he had to act quickly because they were emptied each evening by nine or ten. Since the days were growing longer this really only gave him about an hour, or a little more, of darkness for cover, to safely search the schools for his meals before they would be removed and dumped. In the event he was too late for the school garbage, there were both the dumpsters behind the grocery store and the café. But the one behind the grocery was often locked or difficult for him to climb into since it was so large. The one behind the café however was smaller and was never locked, so he found discarded pastries, burnt cakes, pieces of bacon and toast; plenty of edibles could be gathered there to stay alive.

It was the dumpster behind the café that Josh found Richard that Saturday night. Josh was riding his bike home from work, and he often cut through town past the alley which ran behind the café, when he noticed Richard sifting through a garbage bag. Richard hadn’t noticed Josh, as he quietly got off his bike and cautiously walked up the alley. He hoped to get close enough to talk, before Richard discovered him and ran away. They were only a few yards apart when Josh spoke quietly, “Richard.”

Richard was startled and dropped the bag and stared wildly at Josh, but froze, unsure whether to fight or run. Josh knew this was his chance, and since it had so worked well last time, he lowered himself again to the ground, kneeling and looking up at Richard. Inexplicably, Richard began to smile and started to giggle and then point at Josh.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Richard. Trust me. I think we can be friends. I want to be friends.”

Richard took a step closer, then glanced up and down the alley, squinting into the shadows and trying to discover the trap he was certain must be laid for him.

“My name is Josh. I think you and I are alike, we can be friends. Would you like that?” Josh asked hopefully.

Richard stopped smiling and looked intently at Josh, prostrate on the ground before him. He couldn’t understand why he was down there, or what it meant. It was funny though, and made him laugh, but what did he want? Why did he want to be his friend? It must be a trick. He stepped backwards and then turned and ran up the alley, away from this trap whatever it might be; he became very frightened as he ran and suddenly felt very alone. He left the alley and ran as fast as he could back to the ravine where he lived.

Meanwhile, Josh got on his bike and followed at a distance, keeping Richard in view but hiding in the shadows as he went. He hoped to discover Richard’s house; as he followed, he grew certain which neighborhood it must be, and he noted this so that he could remember where to find him in the daytime. But then suddenly he vanished. They had just crossed a small bridge and turned to the left, and Richard was only half a block ahead and easy to see under the street lights, but then, somewhere between one light and the next, in the shadows between them, he was gone.

Josh got off his bike and walked back and forth along this section of the road, glancing into the trees, trying to find a driveway or path, but there was nothing. He had just disappeared; could he be up in a tree? Josh looked up into the canopy overhead trying to find someone up there. But that was unlikely, it was doubtful Richard with his physical limitations could have climbed a tree that quickly, if at all. After a little more searching along the margins of the underbrush, Josh gave up for the night. He decided to return tomorrow in the daylight, and try again.

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