The next morning, I got up early. Uncle Kalogeros was still on my mind. Have I ever mentioned my Uncle Kalogeros? Probably not. He does not pop in my head all that often. My sister and I call him Uncle Kalo. He does not live with us. In fact, he is the only member of my family that doesn’t live in our extended family house on the east side of Receding. I don’t think there was an argument or anything between him and my father, but I do know he left some years ago to discover the world. He has not been back. I don’t know much about him, but I do know where he lives. He lives in The Encampment of Mercy east of the Pond. At least that is what I have overheard in the past few years.

I went down for breakfast and had decided in my heart what I would do.

“Father,” I announced as I stood at the table before I even sat down, “I have decided to pursue answers to my spiritual questions. I think I am going to try and find Uncle Kalo and see if he can help me. I need to be released from my responsibilities for a while.” I spoke in the firmest and most respectful voice I could muster. I sat slowly.

“What took you so long?” my mother questioned as she sipped her tea without even looking up.

“What?” I asked in complete surprise. The look on my face must have been on one of complete shock as my sister snickered in her usual way.

“Son,” my father spoke in a kind voice, “you have been exploring Receding and not finding the answers you seek. We can see the restlessness in your heart for spiritual things. It is not a restlessness we share, but we recognize it in you. Go and seek the answers. We will be here when you return.”

“If you return,” my sister blurted out; obviously not sharing my parents’ confidence in me.

With that, my mother scowled at my sister and began to shed a few tears. My sister looked down in defeat. My father rose from his seat and placed comforting hands on my mother’s shoulders. “Please ignore your sister,” he said, “Your mother and I have been expecting this because we know you. In fact, we have purchased a pack and some small supplies for your journey. We don’t know exactly how far The Encampment is from Receding.”

“We think it is two days away,” my mother said as she dabbed her tears.
We shared that breakfast meal. Afterward, I collected what I thought I would need for the journey. The pack purchased for me was perfect. It held a bedroll and a shovel. I packed clothes and food. I also packed this journal I am writing in. We shared hugs and tears, and I set off. It was not over emotional for my mother’s sake. Except for the one doubt expressed by my sister, we all believed we would see each other again even though Uncle Kalo had never been back.

I walked out from my neighborhood in east Receding and felt a lightness on my shoulders even though I was carrying a pack of supplies. This was indeed the right decision because I felt spiritual things calling me in my waking hours and in my dreams. It was time to find real answers about the Ancient of Days or the Traveler or the Map or anything that would set my heart at ease.

My heart was uneasy with regret.
As I was walking my mind cycled through my recent wrong actions.
I thought of stealing the pie.
I thought of oogling beautiful girls.
I thought of inhaling intoxicating drugs.
I thought of liking gambling.
I thought of lying.
My heart definitely felt wrong.

I walked up the east side of Receding until I came to the outskirts of the town. I went out of the gate I had been through before (when going to the Pond), but instead of heading north, I set my sights east. As I left Receding, the ground was rock mixed with sand. Soon, it was only sand. I had not gone very far from Receding along what seemed to be some kind of path when a trio of men came from the east riding three alogos packed for desert travel. The three men were wearing bright red uniforms with a familiar patch on each left sleeve. They each wore cloth headdresses which sloped into a mask around their mouths with goggles protecting their eyes.

“Lo!” one of them said as he dismounted and raised his hands to stop my travel.

“Are you heading out towards the Valley of Hunger?” another one asked from his mount. I could not believe it, but it was the three men from the Patrol I had met months ago in the Market. It seemed so long ago. This was where those brazen drunken men did their work. I had never heard of the Valley of Hunger, so I had no idea what to say. Before any words came out, one of the men recognized me.

“Hey it is the young lad from the Market,” the one still on his mount yelled out. He pulled the reins and dismounted to join his other two compatriots. All three men moved towards me with deserved swagger and looks of concern. He continued with a questioning point east, “You aren’t thinking of going out there, are you? Out there is the Valley of Hunger! After that is the Sand Pit of Serpent Winds! And then even past that is the Abode of Vision!”

“I am. I am seeking out the Monks of the Encampment of Mercy. I think I have an uncle there whom I plan to visit. I am pretty sure the Encampment is east of Receding, so I am heading out that way. Am I on the right path?” I found it fortunate that I ran into these desert hardened men as I was only guessing as to the direction of my destination. As the three men removed their goggles and cloth masks, I could see from their eyes and looks on their faces that the men of the Patrol were not thrilled with my travel plans. In fact, each of them took turns with well-reasoned arguments to try and dissuade me from taking my journey.

“Don’t go that way past the Encampment,” one of them began. “You will first go through the Valley of Hunger. It is called that because it is a valley three days journey across and many do not make it. Also, something in the air makes a man, hungry beyond belief. It starts as a low growl and then you are famished. Most eat their rations on the first day and turn back because of hunger. Don’t go!”

“Don’t go that way past the Encampment,” the other of the men continued. “You will find yourself, if you make it that far, in the Sand Pit of Serpent Winds.” I must have had a strange look on my face because he continued to explain. “The Serpent Winds are biting desert winds that blow through the sands like serpents. What is so sinister about them is that they carry the scent of water which draw people further into the Desert. There is no water. Furthest in are the ‘Nachash Winds’ because they give off a glow and the scent of a garden yet they lead nowhere. Some even say the ‘Nachash Winds’ speak to you. Don’t go!”

“Don’t go that way past the Encampment,” the last of the brazen men said as he came up and put his hands on my shoulders. “You will find yourself eventually, if you do not die, in the Abode of Vision. We know about the Abode of Vision the least. Some from the Map Society have even made it that far and claim that they have had visions that offer their deepest desires. The Monks of the Encampment of Mercy know the most about that area. Some say that is where the Pond Lords met and joined Prince-Nachash. So many legends. So much death. Don’t go!”
I, however, was resolute and after each of them attempted to verbally and gently physically turn me back to Receding, they gave up their efforts. “You are on the right path,” one of them said with sadness in his voice as he realized there was no changing my mind. “The Encampment of Mercy is not due east, but rather northeast of here. If you set out now,” he said, pausing to look at the sky, “then you should make it to the Encampment tomorrow. You need to follow the Monk’s Star.” He pointed to a bright star on the horizon.

“You will need to keep the Monk’s Star always in front of you, and you will reach your destination,” another one said with an instructional tone. With that, he gave me his head dressing and goggles.

Another of the three men tossed me a skin of some kind of drink. He said it would be helpful towards the end of my life. He laughed. I did not find it funny but slung the skin of drink over my shoulder.

The third man placed two stones in my pack as explained their function. “Tonight, when you are cold and alone, bang these two rocks together, and you will find warmth.” He buckled my pack tight and rapped his hands on my shoulders for good measure. I dressed my head in the gift of cloth matching how the men of the Patrol wore theirs.

I thanked the men profusely and set my face to the northeast and began my trek. Their tales of what lay beyond the Encampment seemed fantastical, but they would know of all the people what might lay beyond the Encampment. I, of course, had no plans to go past the Encampment. The answers that would ring true in my heart were bound to be with Uncle Kalos in the Encampment.
I walked.
I walked.
I walked.

I walked the entire day northeast away from Receding keeping the Monk’s Star always in front of me. I stopped at a place that seemed as good as any other. Winds were beginning to pick up and with the wind came a chill. I unpacked my bedroll and realized I had nothing to make a fire with. I looked around. All that I saw was sand. No trees. No bushes of any kind. I then remembered the two stones the Patrol had given me. I lightly tapped the rocks together, but nothing happened. I then hit them together as hard as I could. Both stones seemed to come to life. They glowed orange with warmth. I placed the stones in my bedroll and was thankful.

To be honest, I do not remember falling asleep. I do not remember anything from that night. I do, however, remember quite clearly, waking up early in the morning to find a one-eyed man staring down at me. He was the oddest-looking man I had ever seen. His head boasted long gray stringy hair with bits of twigs and nature all in his hair. His beard was just as bushy and most likely had a bird’s nest in it. He was missing most of his teeth. One eye was covered in a patch. The other was wild and blue.

“You be there awake!” the strange man shouted in the early morning air. He raised his hands in triumph as if he had done something amazing. He started to dance around all the while holding his hip with one hand and a walking stick in the other.

I jumped up startled as I asked his identity.

“Me be the Brother Pede. I be here and there on my way to the Encampment of Mercy. Is that where you be going from here to there?” The man stopped dancing and questioned me all the while crazily looking at me with his good eye. It seemed as though he was examining my very soul with that one good eye.

“It is!” I said with as much excitement as I could find. “Are you a monk there?”

“Oh yes!” he said shaking his head affirmatively over and over. “I am of the monks most of my time.” He pointed his walking stick at me and said, “You be with me to go from here to there.” With that, he set off towards the northeast holding his hip in one hand and working his walking stick in the other. He was moving at quite a good pace which surprised me. I packed up my bedroll and packed away the rocks. He had gotten quite a distance from me, so I ran to catch up to Brother Pede.

As I reached him, he was humming. It was not a general hum, but he was humming a particular tune. I asked him if it was a monk-type song. He nodded his head. “You want to hear the tune from me to you?” he asked as we walked along.

“Sure,” I said. We had the whole day to walk, and I did not know anything about this man other than his obvious strangeness and the slightly odd speech cadence with which he spoke. It was a song unlike I had ever heard. It was also strange that Brother Pede did not sound like Brother Pede as he sang, but sounded different somehow. His voice got lower. The song seemed to come from deep in his soul.
Brother Pede sang:

Beneath the quiet dwells life’s breath
A river current compelling the path
Water refreshing a thirsty soul
A narrow gate’s exposed.
Within the prayers of steadfast saints
Lies a spirit so humble, yet so great
The root of hope driving out doubt’s hold
Water’s free to all who will fold

So, lay me down
And let the river flow through me.

Beneath the quiet I can hear the past
A tired wife and a dad who did his best
Time rambles on, and it carries you away,
But a quiet whisper seems to stay.

Within the prayers of steadfast saints
Lies a spirit so humble, yet so great
The root of hope driving out doubt’s hold
Water’s free to all who will fold.

So, lay me down
And let the river flow through me.
Where it don’t matter when it rains
The water’s in your veins
Lay me down
And let the river flow through me.
Where the air’s so soft and sweet
Don’t even need to breathe.

Day keeps on coming, and it makes me stay
Until the tones and flashing lights send me away
But after the buzz dies in an empty home
I’m face to face with a man I hardly know.

Tired of life’s weary road
Tired of relationships grown old
Where light is rare, and fear runs free
Until the night returns, and I set my mind off to sleep.

Within the prayers of steadfast saints
Lies a spirit so humble, yet so great
The root of hope driving out doubt’s hold
Water’s free to all who will fold.

So, lay me down
And let the river flow through me
Where it don’t matter when it rains
The water’s in your veins
Lay me down
And let the river flow through me
Where the air’s so soft and sweet
Don’t even need to breathe.1

To be honest, I asked Brother Pede to keep singing what he later told me was called “Fold.” He sang it once. He sang it twice. By the third time he sang it, I was singing along with him with the words I could remember. The words were beautiful. The melody was easy to learn. He commented that sometimes it is called the “River Song.” The people that call it that want the river of the Highlands to flow through them. I spent the day walking and singing with Brother Pede. He sang other songs. He even sang the “Water Hymn” which was on my wall at home. I knew those words from seeing them my whole life but now knew the correct melody to go with it.

We walked and kept the Monk’s Star in front of us. I got the sense that Brother Pede knew the way even without the bright star. I was grateful for the company. I barely saw the Encampment some distance off. I heard a horn sound out over the air.

“The horn over there says that we are coming close from here,” Brother Pede said matter-of-factly. “The horn over there says Brother Pede is coming home with extra in tow and we are both walking good to go. The horn over there says welcome to the place over here.”

I marveled at the monks and their communication skills. The horn sounded just like a horn to me, but they had communicated with Brother Pede over a good distance. “You got all that from the horn?” I asked in amazement.

“No,” Brother Pede said with wild laughter, “From me to you that was a joke. That is the dinner horn for all in the camp. We will arrive just in time for the evening meal which from me to you is Brother Pede’s favorite time of day.” The man continued to laugh hysterically. I realized he had played on my ignorance about the monks and I began to laugh as well.

We walked into the camp. The camp consisted of a circular waist-high wall made from mud bricks. This meant that the encampment blended in with the desert until one was right upon it. There was the entrance we walked into and another break in the wall on the opposite side of the circular structure. Littered throughout the camp were tents and lean-tos and places for campfires.

On one side of the Encampment was a series of boats. There were many boats. All of them were being maintained by the monks. I had no idea why there were boats in the Desert. The closest water that I knew of was in Receding, and no one there had a boat like these. As we were walking, I asked Brother Pede about the boats.

“They be here so many can go from here to wherever when the Living Water flows. We will take many to the Highlands or wherever the water flows. The water will come from the Ancient of Days one day. We stand ready.” Brother Pede said each word with absolute confidence. Where would water come from in this place? Flowing water? Living Water?

In the center of the encampment, most noticeable, was a large green tree with many branches. The tree was encircled by huge vines, and I could barely see any tree bark. I assumed, based on what I had already learned, that this was the Mercy Tree which bloomed once a year. The Mercy Tree, had under it, a large round table made of dark wood. The round wooden table could seat 24 people comfortably. I know 24 because as soon as I sat down (in the last seat available), all of the monks sounded off and numbered themselves around the table one seat after another. Each called out… “one” “two” “three” and so on. My number was 24.

Once I called out my number most hesitantly, a monk with plain tan robes stood. He removed his hood. It was my Uncle Kalo! His hair was as fiery red and slicked back. His face was mostly clean-shaven full of freckles, and his sideburns were wide and thick. “This is my day to offer the thanks,” he called out with his hands raised. I wish to speak today about what has been on my heart since the last time I offered thanks.” All the monks, including Brother Pede, nodded their heads in silent agreement.

My Uncle Kalo cleared his voice and stated, “The Ancient of Days is majestic. We do not use that word lightly. What does that mean for the Ancient of Days? He is Holy. He is Holy above all creation and complete in Himself. The place He dwells is thereby Holy separate from common creation. To be honest, we are common. Thus, when we deny self we invite the Holy to be part of us and to make us like Him. To deny self, does not mean that we withhold from ourselves, but empty ourselves of self. This is no easy feat. Even though we live a simple life here, that is not what is required. The denying that the Ancient of Days commands for us is about receiving from Him rather than through creation and things. The Host tells us, ‘This is the work of the Ancient of Days that you believe in Him whom He sent.’ The majestic Ancient of Days longs to dwell in us, but only the holy can dwell with Him. We enter the holy by denying self and filling up with Him.”

All of the monks nodded, and a few of them rapped their cups on the table signaling their approval. After the noise had died down, my uncle spoke again. “I am pleased that the traveler from the road who returned with Brother Pede was my nephew. I look forward to catching up with him after our meal.” The monks again nodded, and all rapped their cups on the table. I was surprised that he knew it was me and had recognized me. It made me smile on the outside and on the inside.

With that, the meal began. It was some kind of stew I had never had before. To be honest, it could have tasted like rocks, but I would have eaten it with gusto anyway. I was the first finished. I took my cup in hand and drank the water in one large gulp. As it went down, I almost fainted due to its purity. Never had I drunk such water! The water ran from my mouth to the depths of my soul. It felt as much like breathing as drinking. My eyes grew large as I caught my balance. Brother Pede, sitting next to me, laughed loudly and placed his hand on my back to help me.

“I was so hungry and thirsty,” I said to him.

Brother Pede looked at me with an inquiring eye. He talked while eating his stew. “Brother Pede will ask from me to you, and you will answer from you to me. What do you desire? I am asking from me to you what is it at your core that you long for?”

I thought for a moment. Then I said as I looked at Brother Pede directly, “I don’t honestly know.”
“Think on it,” he said as he ate more of his stew.

I started to think about my journey that brought me here from the time I started taking orders to the Market until I left home to find the Encampment of Mercy. I must have looked like I had come upon an answer for Brother Pede indicated with his spoon for me to answer. “I am seeking the Ancient of Days. I am seeking the Traveler who is the Host who bears His Name, and the destination of the Map. I hunger for it and thirst for it like I did this meal. I guess in the end I want to know what life is all about and what the Ancient of Days has to do with it. I also am finding that my heart is burdened by some of my attitudes and actions and the guilt which is digging into me because of what I have done.”

Brother Pede nodded his head as did some other monks that were seated near us and could hear my words. Brother Pede continued, “You are hungering and thirsting for righteousness. You know the One as the Traveler. Some in Receding have heard of Him. Some have not. He is known as the Host here by us and in the Highlands. He is called the Host because He has the source of life in Him, is sovereign over the Highlands and is the only way to know the Ancient of Days. The Host said to us that if we hunger and thirst for righteousness that we will be filled by the Ancient of Days. Accordingly, as we hunger and thirst for righteousness, we find it and grow in righteousness and away from the things that cause us guilt. Consequently, from me to you, if you are not growing in righteousness, it is because you do not want it.”

“Also,” the monk sitting on the other side of me piped in (I would find out later his name was Brother Sofos), “All of us have core needs as people. All people have deep desires for meaning which drive us. You have felt that or you would not be here. Pede felt it. Your uncle felt it. All of us have natural needs, like food and water, but there are deeper needs as well. It matters where you go looking for meaning. Not all paths lead to the Ancient of Days. In Receding, we are taught to look to Lake Receding or Wells for our water, but all of that is tainted. Even the water you drank growing up was tainted which is why you about fainted earlier on our water. The purest water in Receding is still quite impure. All of the water in Receding is controlled by those who wish to control others and is tainted by the desires of Prince-Nachash. The whole of Receding is dying and does not admit it. I think you know it or you wouldn’t be here.”

“So, the first step,” I said as a question and as a statement confirming what I was hearing, “Is to desire the Ancient of Days and seek Him out? I have to have a deep hunger and thirst for Him?”

“Indeed,” both monks said in unison.
There were other words exchanged by the two monks that I did not quite understand. Both men finished eating, and all of the monks again rapped their cups on the large wooden table. My uncle spoke up once more, “Time for the sharing of knowledge.” All of the monks nodded and again rapped their cups on the table. Once it died down, there was silence. Every so often, one of the monks would speak a simple sentence, and the others would listen. I just held my breath. I cannot remember them all, but the ones I can recall I have transcribed here for you:

“A man must cut away his passions as long as it attacks him.”

“The thoughts suggested to us by evil go away with patience.”

“Prayer may be long discourses, but also a short ‘Ancient of Days help!’”

“Ancient of Days has mercy according to unfailing kindness and love.”

“Saints all bear different fruit, but all are guided by the Ancient of Days.”

“The Ancient of Days alone knows what is good.”

“We cannot guard our heart if our tongue leaves the door of the fortress open.”

“Obedience has the promise of humility.”

“Pursue whatever the Ancient of Days reveals to your heart.”2

Once all of the men had offered one or two thoughts the table was once again filled with silence. After a few moments, Uncle Kalo got up from his seat and left the table. This must have been the signal that the meal was over because the other monks got up and went their separate ways. Some to tend fires. Some into a small building behind us. Some for what looked like chores or preparations for tomorrow.

As I sat there, I noticed that as the table was being cleared, that a sentence was etched into the top of the table. I had not noticed it with food and plates and cups atop it. As the items were cleared, a sentence emerged. The sentence, in a burn-carved beautiful cursive script said: “Depart to find the Highlands and Discover Him.” I was reading the sentence when Bother Pede grabbed my attention with his walking stick by smacking it on the table. Brother Pede indicated the direction of my uncle’s tent and said that he would be expecting me. I rushed to his tent with a full stomach and a heart full of excitement.
My Uncle Kalo was standing at the open flap of his tent and greeted me with a large smile and a hug that enveloped my whole being. His smile and pleasantries invited me into his tent. We sat. I shared news of home. He listened intently and did not interrupt. I told him of my experiences in the Market. I told him of the play at the Lake Amphitheater. I shared about Puella and the Pond Lords (but not all of it). I shared about my experiences in the Wellstone Neighborhood and North Wellstone. My frustration must have come out in my voice.

“I can see that you are frustrated. I overheard you tell Brother Pede and Brother Sofos that you are seeking the Ancient of Days and the Host. We here at the Encampment of Mercy have been there to the Highlands and met the Host and His people and taken in the pure water of the Ancient of Days. We have been to the Highlands and have returned. It is not an easy journey across the Desert of Serpent Winds and beyond. You should stay here awhile, prepare yourself, and decide if you should go.”

“I thought my answers would be here,” I responded in my ignorance. “If my answers are not here then I am going! That wasn’t my plan, but I am going! I have already discovered that the first step is a deep desire to know the Ancient of Days. I have that. I am going. What else do I need?”

Uncle Kalo looked at me with knowing eyes and explained, “After the deep desire to go, one must prepare physically, emotionally, and spiritually. You can do all those things here for that is the purpose of the Encampment of Mercy. The journey across the Desert is not an easy one physically. Also, as you are here, you will see some changes in yourself. The journey to the Highlands also is very emotional and is a spiritual journey as well. We who seek the Ancient of Days must seek Him with all our bodies, minds, and hearts.”

I nodded. My mind was jumping from topic to topic as I was taking the whole day in. “I do have a question about something I just read.” My uncle nodded his head and I continued. “On the table was carved a saying… ‘Depart to find the Highlands and Discover Him.’ What does that mean?”

My uncle had a small glint of joy in his eyes and answered, “You have an observant eye nephew. That will serve you well as you prepare here. Our whole purpose here at the Encampment is to prepare ourselves and to prepare others to strike out across the deathly Desert and reach the Highlands far beyond. Once in the Highlands, one can discover who the Ancient of Days is and how we can be like Him. This is our whole purpose. The Mercy Tree is at the center of our camp to remind us of our purpose.”
“Have you been to the Highlands?”

“Indeed,” he answered with a half-smile and a nod of his head. “I actually have recently returned to share what I learned with others. By providence, I hope to fully share it with you as you seem hungry for such things! Unlike my brother and dear sister-in-law. They are not spiritual seekers and could care less about such things. It does my heart good that you are seeking after the truth.” He leaned over and tapped my shoulders. With that, Uncle Kalo chuckled with joy, and he shared with me about the history of the Encampment of Mercy and some of the men and women who had come before. He shared about strange sights in the Desert. We talked for a little while, and then a small bell rang out all over the Encampment. With that, Uncle Kalo dimmed his lantern down and invited me to pray with him before sleeping. I was not sure what he meant by praying, but I agreed.

Uncle Kalo got on the ground on his knees and stretched his hands into the air. I followed his example and got on my knees. I closed my eyes because he did. I did sort of peek out to watch him. He spoke softly like he was having a conversation with someone in the room:
“Ancient of Days, Eternal Father of us all, I praise you as One who is full of Grace and Love and Holiness and Goodness and Eternal Life. You are the Giver of Living Water. I confess my sins. I confess my sin of pride. I confess my anger this morning and the harsh words I had with Brother Blakas. May he forgive me as I have forgiven him. I thank you for my nephew and his safe travels. Thank you that he met Brother Pede to guide him here to me and to us that we might prepare him for the journey. Thank you that we have connected and that he is seeking You. Please bless his searching heart. In the Name of the Host in Whom I place my faith and life, Amen.”

I just listened. I knew for the first time with no doubts that I was in the right place.

The next day I found myself in the company of Brother Veru. He was a very tall and lanky man with brown hair tinged with grey. He had a full bushy beard that contained even more grey hairs. The grey made him seem older than he actually was. He said he was “everyone’s first friend at the Encampment.” He showed me around and described the various jobs each of the monks had.

After the tour, he sat me down and explained some truths that I just soaked up. We sat, only the two of us, at the large round table in the middle of the camp. “If you would,” he said as he started, “please forget all that you think you know about Lake Receding and other-worldly things.”

I nodded my head in agreement. I didn’t know what I was supposed to forget, but I wanted to be obedient.

“In the very beginning, the Ancient of Days, who is all-powerful and all-knowing, created all life with His thought and word. He created all things by Himself and for His good pleasure. He set up a place for all people to live which was a land saturated with water. There was also a waterfall which had mist that traveled into the whole land. The mist filled the air, and all the people breathed it in. It was by way of the mist that the Host directed them and touched their spirits through deep hydration. People say everyone knew of the Ancient of Days back then. Creation was picture-perfect and good. He is perfect and good.

Creation, what you see around you, did not stay picture-perfect and good. Over time, the people moved away from the Ancient of Days and got lost as was their choice; for He allowed it. The foundations of the whole of the world were shaken at the ‘Great Quake’ and the land split. Those that had traveled quite a distance from the waterfall got cut off (he pointed to the west towards Receding). The Desert was formed between the Highlands and us (he pointed to the east).

The great lake that formed in the west was named Receding. They called it Lake Receding because its waters shrank in size a little each day. The town of Receding was founded in that time in an effort to pull together and survive in the days after the Great Quake. To be honest, survival is what Receding is all about, but not living. People there drink impure water. Some are addicted to Shine Root. Some follow after Prince-Nachash, his false ideas of knowledge and creation. He has set himself up as their hero. Some gather in communities around wells with tainted water which lead a soul nowhere.”

I nodded. I was actively listening to everything Brother Veru was saying. My worldview was shifting by leaps and bounds. As I listened, my desire to go to the Highlands to learn about the Ancient of Days and become like Him grew. It felt like a pot boiling over on a stove. Each word from Brother Veru felt like a log being thrown into the fire of my heart.

“Why do people in Receding not believe this? Why do we tell stories of Sophia?” I had so many questions, but those would do for now.

Brother Veru nodded. “Good questions. I am not completely sure, but the lie Prince-Nachash has been telling since the early days is powerful. The shine root is addicting. Together that makes for a powerful delusion. Over time people get led away from Truth. It seems to be in our nature… to drift from Truth.”

“What is with the Map Society and the Traveler and all that?”

“People drifted, but the Ancient of Days loves us dearly. He did not want us to stay drifted. He still does not. He sent His Son, the Host who bears the Name, to Receding. When He arrived, they called Him the Traveler because they did not know where He came from. He tried to show us the way back to the Ancient of Days. He came that we might have living water and be under His care and the command of the loving Name. He was rejected by many, and that rejection brought forth His death. Yet, the Name remains in Him forever. He rose up with life-giving mercy and reveals true love. He left the Map to show us the way, not forcefully, but as a free offer.” Brother Veru explained more about life around Lake Receding but framed it in terms of the Ancient of Days and the reclamation of His people.

We talked until the evening meal was to be set up. Since I was there, I helped the brothers assigned that duty by setting up the meal. The horn sounded out all over the camp. I laughed and remembered Brother Pede’s jest when I arrived. Just a dinner horn. Nothing else. As the brothers arrived, I saw Brother Pede.

“From me to you,” he said in his strange speech a looked at me joyfully with his one eye, “it is my turn to offer the thanks from me to everyone. From me to you, you take my turn. You say thanks from you to everyone.” A sudden spike of nerve grabbed my throat, but I understood. A few minutes later all the brothers were seated. Brother Pede nodded. I stood.

“I am not sure what to say, but my heart is full of thanks. Thank you for safe travels. Thank you for a place to seek out the Ancient of Days. Thank you for being faithful. Thank you for taking me in. I know that even if my Uncle Kalo were not here, you all would have taken me in. So thank you. My heart is full of thanks.”
The brothers rapped their cups on the table, and we ate.

I spent many months with the Monks of the Encampment of Mercy. I honestly have no idea how long I was there. I am guessing it was months. It may have been close to a whole year. Every single monk who had been to the Highlands told me that the journey to the Highlands was perilous to my life because of Prince-Nachash and the dangers of the Desert. The Encampment was a place dedicated to the Ancient of Days and His Son, the Host and helping people find the fresh living water of the Highlands.

As the days wore on, I realized my body began to change. I recall choking down water my first day because of its purity. The water even made my stomach feel unsettled for some reason. I was worried. My Uncle Kalo told me that my body would begin to withdraw from the shine root that was present in all the water in Receding. He said the root would come out in my pores as I worked and would eventually work its way all out of my body. It was not a pleasant process. My sweat had a peculiar smell which was quite noticeable and embarrassing as I worked among the brothers. All had been through the process so no one made me feel odd. I also noticed that I craved water less and less. Brother Pede told me that the shine root makes the water addicting and most people in Receding drink and drink and drink more than they need. My body was changing in its appetites. The water at the Encampment got easier to drink and warred against my digestion less and less.

The most challenging thing to deal with was the sores. To be honest, I thought about skipping this part, but it happened to me, so I share it with you. My skin began to grow very pale. The color seemed to be draining away from all my skin. I looked like some sort of ghost or as though I was made from paper. That was not the worst part. To my horror, round red, crusty sores began to break out on my body. Small ones at first. Some I noticed and some I did not. Then some larger ones. The largest sores were on my forearms and on my back. Worry set in and I tried to hide the sores. They itched with pain, and some began to fill with a liquid that I shall not describe here. My uncle spotted a few of my sores one day and explained with kindness and compassion that it was a part of the withdrawal from water from Receding and only the water in the Highlands could heal me completely. He told me that for him, it was worse. He had spent time with the Pond Lords. The more heavily addicted to the water in Receding you are the more painful the sores.

As I spent time in the Encampment, my inner life also began to change. I realized that as I listened and talked with the brothers, that a battle was going on within me. My emotions went from bravery to fear to confidence to uncertainty. Brother Pia noticed my face one day and guessed at my miserable state of mind. He pulled me aside and said, “You are more blessed than you realize! Your timing in coming to the Encampment is remarkable. Most likely the Host is behind the timing. For in just a few days, the Mercy Tree will bring forth its bloom, and we will have its fruit. We will in a tangible way remember the power of the Living One.”

“The Living One?” I questioned. This was not a title or a description I had heard before. I agreed with him about the timing of my arrival, but as always, one conversation spawned in me two or more questions.

Brother Pia, smiled and said, “The Living One is the High Host of course. Then it dawned on me that he meant the Mercy Tree. It was the Dying Tree that came to life because of the mercy of the Traveler.

I agreed with him, “When the time comes, you are right, I must see the tree.”

“Patience will be rewarded,” Brother Pia said with a smile, “we gather tonight.” Brother Pia then left to prepare for time with the other brothers. The rest of the afternoon when on forever. I tried to busy myself by doing various chores, but I just kept staring at the Mercy Tree in the middle of the camp. It looked the same to me, but Brother Pia said it would bloom soon.
A little while before sunset Brother Pia came for me. He found me trying to repair some flaps on one of the tents. He told me to put down my tools and made a motion with his hand that I was to not speak. It was time! Just then, my uncle walked up, and we all three walked to the middle of the camp. We walked in silence. No one spoke. Early on this spring day, the whole camp was walking in silence to the tree.

I must say it didn’t seem special to me. It was a tree. It had brown bark covered in many vines. It had several branches, green and yellow leaves, and looked like… a tree. It was just a normal living tree. It did have some buds that I had not noticed before, but it all looked mundane. As I stood there, I did think that it was odd to have such an alive tree in the middle of the Desert.
Was this really the tree from the story?
Was this really the tree on which the Traveler was hung?
How was there life in this tree after all this time?
Doubt started to creep into my mind as to the origin of this particular tree.

I decided that keeping a tree alive in the Desert was not a miracle, but an exercise in farming. The Monks had water. They must devote some of it to this tree. Yet, I had never seen anyone water it… had I? I am sure in all my time here I would have had the task of watering the tree as I had done all tasks in the Encampment at least once. I quieted my doubting mind. I listened.

Once everyone had arrived, my Uncle Kalogeros stood:
“Brothers we wish to go back to basics and remind our hearts of our foundations. This will be good for us and for our inner life. This will be good for he who is the newest among us and searching.” He nodded at me.

“We have all come from Receding. That is the place where men gathered after the Great Quake. That is the domain of Prince-Nachash who is Lord of Receding. That is his domain. His domain is full of water tainted by shine root. Everyone in Receding is a slave to it whether they know it or not. Some sell it and gain power. Some give it away and gain followers. Some use it as medicine, and all the while are slaves to it. All of them are led away from the Ancient of Days.

Long ago, One who was called the Traveler entered Receding and left the Map. The Map leads to the Highlands where the people of the Ancient of Days live. It is the place of pure water and the River Perpetual. All of us believe in the sacrifice the Traveler made for all of us. He could have left us all in Receding to die.
He revealed mercy to us.
He revealed living water to us.
He revealed mercy to us and water to us, and many called Him a liar.”

Uncle Kalo sat. Brother Sofos stood and spoke:
“The Mercy Tree reveals that He told the Truth. Today is our yearly reminder. Today the flowers of the tree give off their scent of mercy. Today the fruit that falls from the tree gives us a taste of mercy.
Both remind us that we are loved by the Ancient of Days.
Both remind us that the Map is the true guide to Living Water.
Both remind us there is a way through the Valley of Hunger and then the Serpent Winds and then the Abode of Vision.”

Brother Sofos sat. Brother Veru stood and spoke:
“Yes, He is High Host and the Name is in Him.”

All the brothers cried out, “He is!” and Brother Veru sat.

Brother Pia stood and continued:
“All of us battle ourselves. To make it to the Highlands, you must battle yourself and win. Our battle with self does go away when we arrive in the Highlands. We all suffer from guilt or addictions or plaguing temptations. The Host may deliver you immediately once in the Highlands, but more often than not, addictive behavior and misguided pursuits in our lives must be battled. For the Ancient of Days to truly mold us, the Host must be King. We must no longer think of ourselves as our own.”

I was listening to Brother Pia and appreciated much of what he had to say. I had felt myself battling in my emotions and my heart.
My heart felt wrong.
I thought of stealing the pie.
I thought of oogling beautiful girls.
I thought of inhaling intoxicating drugs.
I thought of liking gambling.
I thought of lying.
My heart definitely felt wrong.

Part of me was excited and wanted to move ahead to the Highlands. Part of me wanted to go back to Receding. Brother Pia mentioned, as my mind was wandering, that we must surrender our whole selves to the Ancient of Days and we cannot go back. We must move forward towards Him and not go back. The last words he said were “The battle belongs to the Ancient of Days.” He sat.

Uncle Kalo again stood and spoke:
“We remember His mercy. The tree is said to have once been the site of many deaths which is why it was called the Dying Tree. That tree was an ominous reminder of what was coming to all Receding. The Traveler was charged with lying about water. Indeed, THIS tree is the place where the Traveler was put to death. He submitted to a sentence of death to offer living water to all in Receding… to us. He died. Yet, He did not stay dead but came alive again. He lives. This tree also still lives.”

Uncle Kalo sat. Brother Pia stood and spoke:
“The tree is no longer called the Dying Tree for no one else has been killed on it since. It is now called the Mercy Tree because it was at this place that mercy was given to us. To all of us.”

Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the tree. My eyes were fixed on the tree. I could not take my eyes off of this mundane tree. As these good men were speaking, the buds began to move ever so slightly. Some of the buds opened to reveal beautiful purple flowers. Other buds opened to reveal some kind of purple and yellow fruit which dropped to the ground. No one moved. I followed their lead.

Bother Pia noticed the fruit falling and concluded the ceremony:
“We monks live at the place of mercy. We were here when the Mercy Tree brought forth its first fruit. The first monks were there to eat from the tree. The Host established us at the place of mercy where He died. This tree is a gift from the Ancient of Days to bring light to how anyone can enter the Highlands.”

Pia then looked at me and continued:
“The Mercy Tree is a real promise of living water to all who trust the True Vine. The True Vine is the One in whom the Name dwells. The Name is the presence of the source of living water.”

Brother Pia finished and about an hour passed with all in silent prayer. As we prayed, a new scent filled the air from the flowers on the tree. I cannot even describe the sweet smell. It filled my nostrils as I prayed with the brothers. We all opened our eyes to the Mercy Tree in full bloom.

Uncle Kalo stood and motioned with his hand.
All the monks breathed deeply and smiled. In unison, they all said, “We will never forget Your mercy.” After that, all of us bent down and picked up the fruit that had fallen from the tree. They began to eat. I could tell from their faces the taste of the fruit matched the sweet smell that was in the air. I did not partake that day but watched. Even though I did not partake, I felt a peace come over me. I felt secure in my heart that I would partake one day in the Highlands.

That was a great day. It was a phenomenal day. I remember leaving the gathering knowing that my journey to the Highlands was coming close. I was not sure if I needed anyone’s permission or if I should just announce it or if someone would tell me when I was ready. I would keep my ears open, and perhaps the answer would present itself.
Another day, I was helping Brother Sef in the galley cook the evening meal. I had no formal job as a guest, but I rotated each day helping a different monk with their community chores. Now that I think about it, I never did finish fixing the tent flap the day of the blooming. I was still thinking over what Brother Pia and the others had said some days before and realized that perhaps the battle would never cease inside me. I began to think on spiritual preparations as I looked towards the east to the Desert. I asked him, “How do I prepare my spirit for the battle that will come?”

He stirred the meal in the large pot and thought for a few minutes. Brother Sef was a very soft-spoken man. He had told me a little about himself. His family was an old one from Receding as mine was. He said his family built the Amphitheater and still maintained it. He said he left all the influence and wealth behind to find the Ancient of Days. He said he had found true peace and wealth with the Ancient of Days. The most noticeable thing about Brother Sef was the huge tattoo on his neck. I had seen it before. Pond Lords. Judging by his size, though I did not ask, I figured Brother Sef must have been at one time one of those guards that I had seen at the Pond or in North Wellstone Neighborhood.

As he stirred the crock, he looked at me and said, “I think spiritual preparation has at its center forgiveness. Many of us get stuck in life with the idea that we must forgive ourselves. If what is usually meant by that statement is that we must let go of the wrong we have done and then move on, fine. However, if you really think you must forgive yourself, I think you are missing the point of forgiveness. The problem with this idea is that it is never described by the Ancient of Days or the Host. At least I can’t find a text or a story where He says to forgive self. Through it is very true that we must repent and put our sinful life behind us. Self is involved in the repenting, but not the forgiving. Self has no authority to forgive one’s own sin. Only the Name has the authority to forgive sin.

I even say that you are not denying self if you try to forgive yourself. If you cannot let go, that is, to let the Host forgive and wash away shame and guilt from sinning, then forgiveness will not find its fullness. You very well can miss out on the potential of a closer relationship in peace with the Name because you are bound in your mind with shame. Forgiveness means you have been unbound. Your hands and feet are liberated, and you are free to do as you please. It is possible however to be unbound knowing the restraints have been cut off and you think you are free, but your mind is still enslaved to shame. You must believe you are entirely free based solely on the forgiveness of the Ancient of Days and not you forgiving yourself or else you will remain in mental enslavement. I have personally battled this much.”

He continued to stir the dinner in the pot letting me ponder his words as he stirred with a rhythm.

“Do I need to be spiritually forgiven before I go to the Highlands?” I asked. This was a serious question for the serious topic. Did I need to get my whole life in order before I got there? Was I supposed to stay in the Encampment until I was perfect? Can I only leave if my insides and outsides are approved by someone?

“No,” he said thoughtfully, “But as you enter the Highlands you will go through the Gate of Baptism which is where you must have faith and repent of all your old life. Do you know what plagues you?” He was not asking to be nosy, but to be helpful.

I nodded and said the words slowly one at a time:

Brother Sef did not reprimand me or look surprised or give an eye of judgment but continued to try and answer my question: “You must believe that the Host will do a work in you and cleanse your heart. That commitment and change must happen for you to be able to enter the Highlands. You do not have to be perfect… that is important to understand. You must accept the Host and what He does inside of us. For most, the journey through the Desert prepares them if they are not prepared here.”

To be honest, my conversation with Brother Sef gave me quite a bit to think about. Knowing the Ancient of Days meant I had to believe in the Host. It meant I had to repent of my wrongs. I meant I had to accept that the Ancient of Days through the Host would forgive me through the Gate of Baptism. After the Gate, I would begin life anew and discover Him. These are the basics I had learned in the past weeks and months. Faith was on me, so it seems, but the rest is done by the Ancient of Days.

Then it happened about two weeks later.
“Since the day he arrived with Brother Pede,” Uncle Kalo said with more pride than he should have had, “my nephew has prepared himself as much as he could physically, emotionally, and spiritually.”

All of us sat at the round table in the middle of the camp.

“We have all helped and talked and prayed for him,” my uncle continued. “He and I spoke last evening at length. It is his desire to leave us and strike out east into the Desert to find the Highlands. It is his desire. He chooses.” At this, the monks stood at the table and rapped their cups on the table. A hoot and cheer went up as I had never heard from these men. Brother Pede hopped around as only he could and shook his cane in the air.

The men at the table left their places and formed a path of people from the table to the exit of the camp. At the far end of the camp, I could see the exit. It was a gate formed with large white rocks. Above the gap in the wall was an iron frame which bore the words “Exodus Gate” on it. This was happening now. My uncle took his place right at the exit. I stood at the table.

“Come forth my nephew!” he said in a loud voice.

I slowly began to walk to him. As I did, the men on either side of me were praying. They were praying to the Ancient of Days in the Name of the Host for me! I could hear their whispers as I passed.

As I walked, one brother put a tan weathered leather cloak on me.
The next brother put sand goggles around my neck.
Brother Veru put a pack on my back.
Brother Pia put provisions in my pack.
Another brother slung a large skin of water around my shoulder.
As I walked, Brother Pede put his copy of the Map in my pack.
Brother Sef handed me a walking staff.
Another flipped the hood over my head for protection from the sun.
As I walked, Brother Sofos put the stones the Patrol had given me in my pack.
Another brother tightened up my pack.
I arrived at my Uncle Kalogeros at the Exodus Gate.

“You are ready to leave us,” Uncle Kalo told me. He looked at me and placed his hands on my shoulders. “I pray over you a most ancient blessing and one of my favorites:

As you leave today,
may the strength of the Ancient of Days pilot you,
the power of the Ancient of Days uphold you,
the wisdom of the Ancient of Days guide you.
May the Eye of Ancient of Days look before you,
the Ear of Ancient of Days hear you,
the word of Ancient of Days speak to you.
May the Hand of Ancient of Days protect you,
the way of Ancient of Days lie before you,
the shield of Ancient of Days defend you,
the Host of Ancient of Days save you.
May The Host shield you today.
The Host with you,
The Host before you,
The Host behind you,
The Host in you,
The Host beneath you,
The Host above you,
The Host on your right,
The Host on your left,
The Host when you lie down,
The Host when you sit,
The Host when you stand,
The Host in the heart of everyone who thinks of you,
The Host in the mouth of everyone who speaks of you,
The Host in every eye that sees you,
The Host in every ear that hears you.

And with that, I walked through the Exodus Gate and into the Desert.

A little way out I began to pray. It seemed fitting:

Ancient of Days,

My time with Your people has changed me. I feel like a large veil has been lifted from me. I see the lie of Receding and the lie of Prince-Nachash for what it is… a debilitating lie. Ancient of Days, You are the Author of Life and the Giver of Water and the Sender of the Traveler. I know that now. I believe that in my heart.

Thank you for Brother Pede.
Thank you for Uncle Kalo.
How can I thank You for putting them in my life? I was led to them by You.
Thank you.

I am now heading into the Desert. I suppose You know that already. I face danger. I face… something. I have no idea what I actually face. I know that I will find You because I seek You with all my heart and when people seek You, the brothers tell me, they find You.

Oh, Ancient of Days please be with my parents and my sister. Keep them safe until I can get back to them. I want to find the Highlands and you and go back to them. I want them to see what I see. I want the veil lifted off of them. Puella will know she is loved by You and by me. Even be with Tarpetto.

Ancient of Days, please help me lay down and let the river flow through me. I know those words, but I don’t really know what they mean. Help me do this. It is all unknown to me, and I feel fear’s resistance.

Ancient of Days, please guide my path. Guide every step and every intent of my heart.


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