Source: Friends of Mount Sinai Monastery
April 10, 2016
There is no conversation as the jeep moves through the darkness, down the long, dusty road to the monastery entrance, then onto the asphalt and past the slumbering hotels spawned by the 20th century’s surge in Sinai tourism. The driver turns right, and makes his way up an incline through a Bedouin settlement of cubic huts (furnished with satellite dish and color TV, if little else), and strains up the last stretch of access before it dwindles to a footpath trailing off into the mountains.
One of the newer monks, as attentive as an experienced Bedouin guide, steps back to accompany the valiant but slower pilgrim contingent. As daylight breaks, the remainder of the hour-long trek passes with uninterrupted wonder at the awe-inspiring solitude of the scenic gorge.
Approaching the cave of Saint John, the silence of ages seems refracted by the soaring massifs extending the passage into an almost tactile iridescence. Evanescent shades of pink, blue, purple, red, and black granite - everything but gray - succeed one another, blended by the softly charged atmosphere into an impressionistic rendering of light.
As the veteran monk in the lead, St. Catherine's Father Pavlos, reflected, "Here, in this stillness, you can hear your own heart beat. Of course the heart has first to be filled with the presence of God, because man is a social creature. If God has not first seized hold of a man's heart, it is impossible for him to endure stillness."
When the chapel at Saint John's cave suddenly comes into view this early morning, Father Pavlos calls a momentary rest by kindling a few dry brambles against the chill, observing, "Fire is a consolation in the desert." But the warmth dissipates as quickly as the flames, and within moments the chapel door has been unlocked, candles lit with pure olive oil replaced before their icons, and service books opened in readiness for the Liturgy.
The elder has disappeared into the altar. Communion bread and wine materialize in quick succession from his worn leather knapsack. As thick sheafs of names follow, monastics step forward to help commemorate them.
The byzantine Liturgy is introspective. Melodic prayer in evocative modalities awakens the heart. The absence of this world’s sentimental harmonies, and the harsh glare of its artificial light, rescue the soul from outer distraction.
Inner distraction recedes too, with the vision through the chapel windows of the “prism of eternity” without, this untouched primordial setting of holy endeavor. One cannot but wonder if saints concealed by its unwritten history are not invisibly present.
Many decades earlier, when John was tonsured on the Holy Summit of Sinai, the Monastery abbot Anastasios predicted the twenty year old monk would one day take his place. Not long after, the renowned John the Sabbaite washed John's feet instead of his elder’s when they visited him, declaring he didn't know who the young monk was, but that he had just washed the feet of the Abbot of Sinai.
The providential leather knapsack appears once more, this time dispensing treats like canned dolmathes and crusty peasant bread. As its owner happens to be the Monastery gardener, some of ‘the best apples anywhere' may be on offer, even hand-made spanakopita, should anyone be newly arrived from Greece (or if any daring monk has been in the kitchen recently).
This beautiful place has much to say of the freedom won by those who met its challenges with faith alone. Saint John’s biographer identifies his greatest acquisition as holy and precious humility, 'the queen of virtues'.
Exile is a separation from everything, in order that one may hold on totally to God. - Saint John Climacus
John himself describes indefinable humility as 'a nameless grace in the soul, nameable only to those who have tasted its experience' – one which brings the unspeakable wealth of God directly into the soul.
'For it is said,' John concludes, 'Learn not from an angel, not from man, and not from a book, but from Me, that is, from My indwelling and illumination and energy in you, for I am meek and humble in heart, and in thought, and in spirit, and you shall find rest from conflict, and relief in your souls from thoughts.'
Too soon, Geronta Pavlos announces departure; a new workday is beginning back at the Monastery. Unteachable secrets of blessed exile have stunned hearts on this immortal morning - now it's time to hold on, totally.