The sun was low on the horizon; translucent shadows fell along the track that led upward into barren lands. Small sharp sounds splintered like rock in the sand and swirled into the distance. Brother Symeon shifted the water bag to his other shoulder and started up the path to the cave. No one had ever used it but himself. Here he had been called to live out the rest of his life, lost in the silence, lost to be found in the emptiness. The way was narrow and winding, like words of a prayer.
During the first few years, he had a sense of deep satisfaction with the isolation, peace, and simplicity of life in a desert monastery. The silence was broken only by the round of liturgy, times of prayer, and quiet words of confession with the Abbot. Life in the community had eased the isolation he had always felt, and forged a belonging in him, a sense of oneness with others that slowly washed away his self-absorption and painful loneliness.
But there had come a hunger, a longing for a deeper silence, a need for a more intimate belonging to God, where life was utterly dependent on the Unfathomable wrapped in the mystery of life’s every moment and the movement of the sun and stars. A longing to live in the gratefulness of breath and the far reaches of the Silence.
This yearning had led him out into the Presence to find his place in the emptiness of God. Throughout the day and night, he listened for the Word in the desert’s vast spaces, and every Sabbath he would join the Brothers to break the Bread that was life.
As Brother Symeon grew under the loving gaze of the Father and the gentle persistence of the Spirit, his heart wakened more and more, filling him with consolation and a gratefulness that overflowed into all he did, and onto everyone he met. But there was a shadow in his happiness, and a mysterious unrest in his joy.
The more that love gained a place in him, the more vulnerable he became. The more God revealed himself as pure beauty, the more that the poverty of man’s choices caused him distress. To see others suffer caused a bitter pain in his heart and would bring tears to his eyes. He began waking at the Spirit’s urge, deep in the tides of night, to pray for the lost, the hungry, the broken, and the sick. He began to feel the weight of a burden he couldn’t describe, something not his own that mystified him.
This he lived with patiently, often feeling drawn between the image of Christ Pantokrat, the Mighty Immortal One, and the Icon in his grotto sanctuary of the Crucified, bleeding and dying on the Cross of Golgotha. Daily he prayed in the poverty of his own spirit as he walked alone through the blowing sands, listening for the whisper of the Voice.
And on that day, when he reached the cave, he stopped as always on the flat outcropping of rock at the entrance, to hear the sounds of the world living, and to see God moving on the wind. He had come to learn that there was an outer and an inner, a near and a far, but that these must be experienced as one. If you would truly love.
The first of the grotto’s chambers was high enough to stand in and broad enough for performing all the necessities of life- eating, sleeping, and studying the Holy Word. The walls were living rock that absorbed and reflected the man’s presence, just as the man had come to reflect the wisdom of the mountain’s own and patient heart.
Towards the end of the back wall, a narrow opening led into a small sanctuary. It was low, dark, and wide. At the end of the chamber, on a bare slab of rock, was a Cross he had carved from Acacia wood. Fastened by small chains to crevices in the ceiling, were four Icons, each with its own votive lamp that burned before the images of the Holy Mother, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and Elijah in his cave waiting for God to pass by.
Here Brother Symeon spent hours in contemplation, the Word echoing in the mountain’s memories of its birth, and the Icons imprinting the image of life onto his heart. Here he could feel the rock living, still carrying the fire of its birth. Here he could know himself as lover and beloved, One with life’s purpose. One with all. One with the Unfathomable. One with a Sweetness that was deeper than peace and greater than ecstasy.
It was three in the morning, the hour of Matins, the last hour of the day past, and the first hour of the day coming. All Creation lifted its voice to celebrate and praise God for that which had been and that which would come. Praise for the gift of knowing that the movement of day and night, living and dying, was in reality the Face of the Redeemer.
That night as usual, Brother Symeon prayed the Church’s prayer in a cleft of the rock above his cave that overlooked the long valley. His gaze wandered the desert’s far horizons that bent and bowed into the curve of the earth as if in prayer. He lost himself in the deep sky, listening for the song that sings as the planets and stars wheel and turn about one another blazing with Creations first light. He intoned the Invitatory, an invitation to all creatures- ‘Cry out to the Rock of our Salvation…’
At the conclusion of prayer, Brother Symeon sat in the dark, unmoving, breathing in the life of God, which held the heavens and brought life and sustenance to all creatures in their right time. He beheld the Kingdom of God entering into time’s flesh, drawing all of Creation and every heart to itself.
Slowly he became aware that a silence had fallen over the valley. Not the silence of the living, but a silence where all sound was absent. The rustlings of small night animals and the occasional hollow note of a rock falling from the heights above, all were missing. He shivered as though a tremor from afar touched his bones.
The mountains across the valley seemed to shimmer in the darkness as they did in the heat of the day. But there was no heat. Then out of this empty silence came a low keening sound as though and animal or bird were in great pain. It seemed to appear and disappear in the distance, and appear once again, every time closer. Symeon trembled and pulled the cowl of his habit over his head and hid his face.
The sounds now began to separate and form like clouds in the silence, wailing, and moaning, screaming and pleading. Now so close that Symeon had to look to see what great calamity was forming in the valley. He saw scenes in the wind of war, famine and flame, lifeless children in their mother’s arms, the dying and the dead, mouths that could no longer scream, the empty eyes of the starving, the broken and lost writhing in pain greater than any human can bear. Hundreds. Thousands.
Brother Symeon tried desperately to pray but his tongue was parched by the wailing that echoed off the cliffs into his mouth. The Spirit was leading him where no word could follow. His bones ached, his heartbeat was hollow and blood turned to lead in his veins as though death were upon him. Then a voice rose from the agony and spoke to him- These are my children. Bring them to me.
Symeon struggled down to the cave and crawled into the sanctuary. He fell prostate before the altar and clutched at the earth. The chains of the votive lamps quivered and the mountain began to tremble and shake. Symeon reached out to the Cross, commending his soul into the hands of God. He was struck to dumbness when he saw the Cross slowly begin to burn, then suddenly burst into flame. The whole grotto filled with its brilliant light; the Cross visible through intense, surging white flames. But the flames gave no heat, and the Cross was not consumed.
Symeon became aware that the same flames were darting along his body, and saw them blazing like shafts of light from the wounds of Christ on the Icon. And from the midst of the holocaust came the Voice that said- I am the Resurrection and the Life, the Now and the Ever.
When the blackness finally lifted, Brother Symeon raised his face from the dust. His arm still stretched out towards the altar. A small spider crawled delicately over the back of his hand as though to console him. The votive lamps hung silent and all was quiet. The mountain was still. Sunlight suddenly pierced through the last of the night that hid in the shadows of the gorges and barren ravines. A warm shaft of dawn-light moved softly over the cave’s wall. He could hear the gentle morning breeze rising up from the valley, and the birds of dawn singing the land’s first praises to God.
Symeon saw with wonder that the Cross was untouched, not a thing disturbed, not a thing out of place. He rose, still unsteady, and went out into the morning. Nothing had changed. Everything was as it had always been. Except that this was a new day.
Brother Symeon still prayed in the cleft of the rock, lost deep in the night’s sky, listening for the song that stars sing as they dance for God. His heart would sorrow with those who sorrowed, and sing with those who could, and for those who could not. He brought a peace to others that was beyond their despair, beyond the grave; for he could see a light burning like a surging white flame in their pain, saw every wound as mending the world, and knew that every broken heart was the Glory of God dwelling in the flesh. He saw weakness and sin, despair and guilt, turn in the Fire of this great Love and become the beauty of the Christ, and the blood of every heart. And there was a light behind his eyes that was his seeing.
In the moment night gives the earth to morning, Brother Symeon still intones the Invitatory to all creatures- ‘Cry out to the Rock of our Salvation…’ He would rest his hand on the stone of the mountain that stood with him watching the valley, and listen to all he could see from horizon to horizon singing its song to God- ‘Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; Praise Him in the heights! Praise Him, sun and moon; Praise Him, all stars of light! Amen, Amen.’
David Russell OFS Fyn