The third of five blog posts about our recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land (see part 1 here)
Part 3 – Desert Christianity
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In the fourth century when the Egyptian bishop Saint Athanasius wrote “The Life of Saint Anthony” he helped to open a new era in Christianity. Christians around the Mediterranean were moved to emulate Saint Anthony’s complete dedication to the quest to know God, and leaving all behind they went into the deserts of Egypt, Sinai, and Palestine.
During our pilgrimage we had the opportunity to step back in time and visit four such monasteries in the Judean desert.
Most of the desert that begins east of Jerusalem and extends to the Dead Sea is utterly barren – not at all like the flowered desert in Borrego Springs, California where our monastery was located for nine years. There is certainly nothing to distract the mind here, other than the harshness of the surroundings. The scarcity of flora is matched by the scarcity of fauna. We saw a few goats being herded by some Bedouins, heard rumors of desert asps, and managed to spy what I would call a God-knows-what Monster Fly – a bristling grand-daddy of the flies most of us know, almost six inches long. (It is said that the desert father Saint Macarius died by allowing desert insects to bite him, rather than shooing them away. It’s easy to imagine these are the guys that could do the job.) And that was all.
Our first desert visit was to the Monastery of Saint George, which is a large complex of stone buildings built into a sheer rock wall on the side of a deep gorge. Some local people identify this area as “the Valley of the Shadow of Death”(!). Built in the fifth century by Egyptian and Syrian monks, Roman aqueducts bring water to the gorge even now.
The monks are hospitable and expect to be visited. We arrived in the middle of a discussion between one of the monks and group of Israelis who were making a study of monastic life in Palestine, along with some pilgrims from Russia. We and the other pilgrims venerated the incorrupt body of Saint John the Romanian, which rests in a glass casket in a dark chapel. The miracles during his life and after his death in 1960 led to his canonization by the Romanian Orthodox Church.
On another day trip from Jerusalem we went to Mar Saba Monastery, an even larger complex of stone buildings hanging from a cliff ledge over another gorge, closer to the Dead Sea. In its best days it was home to over three hundred monks – now about twenty monks, gathered from around the world. Our host Father Philaretos showed us the amazing frescoes on the walls of the various chapels, encompassing a wide range of iconographic styles by artists who had painted over each others’ work over the centuries.
We were also granted access to a side chapel not usually shown to visitors, in which we venerated the skulls of several monk-martyrs, and which we learned were only a few out of almost 300 skulls of other monk-martyrs kept in an adjoining room. Invading non-Christians (first Persians, then Moslems) rode in and slaughtered the monks, a monk or two survived and fled, then returned with more monks, and the invaders returned to kill. This cycle continued many times from the sixth to the twelfth centuries. One of the obvious lessons of our pilgrimage was how clearly history repeats itself, and continues to do so in our own times.
It was a disappointment to learn how externalized the monks’ prayer life is, with little opportunity for real interior prayer. They rise nightly just before midnight, have a short period of private prayer in which they repeat the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”) while accompanying each repetition by a full prostration (kneeling to the ground from a standing position). This is followed by several hours of external worship.
Travelling eastward towards the Dead Sea we went to Qasr el Yahud, the site on the Jordan River where Saint John the Baptist baptized Jesus. When we arrived, a Romanian Orthodox priest was leading a riverside service with his parishioners, while a short distance further up the river another group of pilgrims, all dressed in white, prayerfully immersed themselves at the holy site.
Numerous churches dot the landscape on both the Jordanian and Israeli sides of the river, but most of them are inaccessible because of thousands of mines and booby traps set during the Six-Day War in 1967. We recently learned that all the Christian denominations have united in support for the international organization HALO’s efforts to remove these mines, which should make the churches free to resume worship and welcome the public again in about two years.
After his baptism, Jesus retreated into the desert alone to fast and pray for forty days on what is known now as the Mount of Temptation or Mount Quarantania (“forty days”), whose steep cliffs tower above the city of Jericho. There Satan appeared to him to tempt him. This was our next stop.
Opting for the cable car ascent rather than the hike up the steep trail, we arrived at the Monastery of the Temptation, which seems to grow out of the side of the mountain near the top. It offers a spectacular view of the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea. Monks inhabited the mountain since the early centuries of Christianity, eventually converting the natural caves into cells. Abandoned when the Persians invaded in 614, the monastery was reconstructed in the 19th century and is a wonderful maze of stone-lined hallways and floors, and dark caves. A stairway leads up the side of the main chapel to a smaller chapel in which is displayed the rock on which, according to tradition, Jesus sat during one of his temptations.
The self-appointed host for our visit was Mohammed, the Muslim porter. He brought us to meet Father Gerasim, the elder of the monastery, and later gave us a private tour of some of the lesser frequented spots, including a cool and comfortable cave where Jesus rested after the temptations. At the conclusion of our visit he presented us with icons, gave us the key to the monastery for a photo op, and asked for our prayers for him and his wife Nabila.