Friday, July 1, 2011
Climbing Mt. Sinai, chapter 6 (and last)
About the Monastery
(yes, I am thinking six chapters is really truly enough rehashing of a 30 hour weekend tour, so I will wind down for now. In fact, no guarantee of blogs for a while, since for the next week I'll be trekking in the proverbial 'field' - that is, actually for once hanging out with the people my organisation serves! Hopefully this means there will be some great stories when I get back.)
I wanted to share some interesting facts about the Monastery of St. Catherine, which sits at the foot of Mt. Sinai and is a special pilgrimage destination for Eastern Orthodox. For me too.
The most important thing to know, I suppose, is that it feels like Disneyland. At least for the tourists - ahem, pilgrims - it does. It is open from 9 am until 12 noon every day. Only. There are brief prayers at quarter to 12 open to the public, but otherwise visitors are expected to do nothing but tour, see, photograph, look.
So the tour guides gather up their sleepy post-mountain little flocks between 8:15 and 8:50 to gather at the tiny entrance to the ancient concrete fortress, with a door that barely fits one-and-a-half people. At 9:00 the monk in charge of tourists - ahem, pilgrims - comes out and announces the rules, once in English and once in Russian (he doesn't bother with Arabic): don't talk too loud because this is a special place, please support the monastery by buying your souvenirs at the gift shop, consider lighting a candle in the church. That's about it. Then the crowds push their way through the doorway. (We went post-revolution when tourism is still low, in the heat of summer when hiking Mt. Sinai is not as desirable. I can only imagine the mayhem of entering this holy site, say, last December.)
In the monastery, there are four main features to see:
1. The Moses Well. Honestly, I never bothered to figure out what this is. I've been to the "Moses Spring" near Petra, where they say Moses hit the rock and made water come out. Is this a replica, or a competitor to that place? Or the original? Or something else? Dunno - it was an old-fashioned hand pump well with a explanatory sign in Greek and in Russian.
2. The church. It is Greek Orthodox and it is very Greek Orthodox. I have to admit I was a bit taken aback by all the chandeliers when I walked in. Barely a space in the air is free from silver chandeliers. I lit a candle and prayed for a prayer. "Mercy" is the word I felt God gave me. "Lord, have Mercy. Kyrie Eleison." So that is what I prayed. So much mercy is needed, it is true, in a world full of pain.
Also interesting in the church: Russian men wearing shorts had been asked to tie sarongs around their legs so they'd be decent in a holy place. Awesome. There was a monk in the church whose job was, it seemed, to identify the Orthodox visitors, presumably by their behaviour in church - that is, crossing themselves and kissing icons. He called them over to do some activity, I think to write out prayers. I wish I had faked it and been invited to write a prayer. Behind the divider (sorry, I forget the name for the place that separates the part of the church where only priests go with the rest of the church), to the side, we had a good view of St. Catherine's coffin. Also in the church on display was one of her fingers which I noticed many pilgrims kissing. I read somewhere that her fingers can allegedly be found in many churches, including Westminster Abbey.
3. The oldest manuscript of the Gospels. I didn't go in to the manuscripts museum area, as it cost extra and I didn't feel like I'd like it more than spending extra time in the church. But a friend went in and told me about it. It's full of some of the most amazing bits of church history imaginable including ancient texts in the languages of all of the ancient Christian traditions: Coptic, Greek, Aramaic, Syriac... A few items have been snatched away to other museums, to the great chagrin of the monks, but many are kept in the monastery. That monastery is worth a fortune, I'm sure.
And yes, among the items there is what is likely the oldest surviving manuscript of the Gospels. It was written on cloth and then erased, then something else was written over it. Over time, the initial inscriptions became visible again, due to the type of ink that had been used, and now you can see the old writing with the blind eye, apparently. This document dates to the 2nd century and matches newer manuscripts word-for-word! That and some other St. Catherines finds apparently went a long way to confirming the stability of Christian theological tradition.
4. THE BURNING BUSH. How did I not know to expect that?! There is a bush there that has survived for longer than the monastery has been around. That's about 1700 years. And the bush could be older. And if it's that old, who's to say it's not as old as Moses? And when you see that desert and see a verdant flourishing bush, you have GOT to wonder. They said they tried to replant parts of it elsewhere and it didn't survive, although they did move it over a couple of metres within the monastery courtyard. Apparently it produces some bright leaves which look a bit fiery, and so many people do believe this is the one and only and the same burning bush.
This is a real monastery, and when I say it's Disneyland-esque, I should clarify that I was only allowed to visit less than 1/4 of its property, as most of it is off-limits to the tourists - ahem, pilgrims. I heard one story of an American woman who was invited to stay there, which must be incredibly special and rare. If I had rated an invitation like that I don't imagine I could have said no!