Monday, April 7, 2008

St. Catherine's Monastery and Mt. Sinai

Greetings from Egypt! I was privileged to join with many of the students of the seminary to visit St. Catherine's monastery, which stands at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the mountain where Moses led the people of Israel during the Exodus. The monastery was built by the first Christian emperor, Constantine I, in 333 C.E. to honor the woman who was martyred in Alexandria during the years of persecution, before the empire became Christian in the early 4th cenury. It became and has been since that time a place of pilgrimage. You can see the heavy walls which surround the church and cloister, which still is home for about 45 monks. These were built during turbulent times to protect them and the religious treasures and manuscripts housed there, which are on display to the public for about 3 hours daily.

I am learning that not only was monasticism a very significant movement and development in the life of the ancient church, but has continued to be a place where people come away from the world for a short time or for the rest of their lives. The number of people entering monasteries in Egypt is increasing. Today, monasteries are also important in the life of the Egyptian Coptic Church, for "men" from these cloistered environments are chosen to be bishops and the new Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church when necessary. The people have continued to appeal to these "holy men", who seek quiet and solitude away from the world to move closer to God, so that these "spiritual" persons may lead them in religious matters, and also serve as administrators of the church, and in its interaction with the Muslim society and the government of Egypt. Not an easy task.

This is a copy of a painting I purchased at the monastery, by the Spanish artist "El Greco". The monastery is small in comparison to the mountains which surround it, the center one being Mt. Sinai. Together with the students and faculty of the seminary, I arose early one morning (about 2:00 a.m.) and ascended the four and one half miles to the top (about 4,000 feet above), to watch the sun come up. We were not alone. Many others came, (probably a few thousand) from all parts of the world to be there, some making part of the ascent by camel. It is truly an example of a "multitude of saints" from many nations, gathered in one place. (It was also quite a traffic jam, particularly on the way down as people, tired from lack of sleep and the exertion, vied for space on the narrow, steep pathways. Fortunately, everyone arrived at the bottom safely.

I very much enjoyed sharing this informal time with the students and some faculty, and we reflected on the significance of these places. I shared that El Greco had added what seem to be faces on the mountains, and also crafted these to resemble human forms to remind us of those who had also been in this place, and appear to be watching over us, and that the same God who was present before in this place is present with us on our journeys through life.

Peace and Justice, Roger

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