Celebrating Saint Mary of Egypt in the Deep Desert of Sinai
My dear Fathers and Mothers, and brothers and sisters, in the Faith,
Greetings to you from the God-trodden Mount of Sinai!
Belated greetings for the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt and Feast of the Annunciation (Julian Calendar)! The drama and challenges of life in the wilderness manifested in new ways this week, the details of which I learned from a news correspondent who works here at the monastery, so there could be errors or omissions in my second-hand account. We were without any telecommunications most of past week when some of the Bedouin in nearby Pharan cut the buried telecom wires in protest to policies of the current government. Immediately after they were fixed they were cut again, although in an unrelated incident I believe, in retaliation to a successful police drug raid of cultivation fields also in the area of Pharan. Because the repair technicians and police were both being shot at, secondary repair efforts were delayed until the situation stabilized.
The monastery was in no way threatened or effected by this, except for the loss of all telecommunications effecting the entire province of St. Katherine. It was more destabilizing to daily commerce and public services, such as healthcare and emergency response, who reply upon telecommunications to operate. We are now without Internet service again due to unknown causes, so my apologies for the delay in this update and any worries or concerns that were caused by the blackout. Once again it is a vivid reminder of how fragile modern conveniences and technology can be, as well as, to be thankful for the opportunities they provide, especially to connect with you all from this remote part of the world. To be honest it was nice to embrace the silence, stillness and remoteness of the desert again, focusing on the final days of Great Lent in preparation for Holy Week and Pascha!
To commemorate the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, a small group of us journeyed to celebrate the Liturgy at Arselo (today known in Arabic as Deir Antush), one of the monastery’s remote anchoritic settlements established in the early to mid 6th century. It sits at the head of the Wadi Zeriqiya, at the feet of Jebel Umm Shomer, the second highest peak in Sinai. Snow still survives, hiding in the cool of the shadows!
Our route followed the blue southerly route from St. Catherine’s Monastery as charted here.
Arselo is most well known for being the place of the ascetic struggles of St. George Arselaites, who lived a total of 70 years in Sinai, braving scorching heat, freezing nights, wild beasts, bandits, and intense spiritual warfare! After years of solitude in the desert as a hermit, he served as abbot of St. Catherine’s Monastery, reposing in 552, and was succeeded by his brother, St. John Climacus.
The two most notable and verifiable miracles of St. George Arselaites which pass down to us through the “Saying of the Elders of Sinai” (Sinaitis Gerontikon) occurred during his abbacy. Once when the monastery was running out of oil, which is a serious issue since it’s used not only for cooking, but also in the church for all of the oil lamps, he exhorted all of the monks to pray to God. He likewise entered into deep prayer beseeching the Lord to provide for their need, and it wasn’t long before oil started to fill the jars miraculously of their own accord. A chapel was dedicated to this miracle and still contains one of the jars with remains of that miraculous gift of oil. I’ve seen this myself, but haven’t been able to photograph it yet.
The second, and even more amazing miracle (documented in the monastery’s archives of official correspondence), occurred the Pascha before the end of his life when he was forewarned of his approaching death and wanted dearly to go venerate the holy places in Jerusalem one last time and receive the Patriarch’s blessing. Although he neither had the time nor the release from the monastery to make the journey, God answered his prayer and miraculously “translated” him there for the Pascha (Easter) services where he was seen by many of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, and even Patriarch Peter himself. When they went searching for their esteemed guest, the abbot of St. Catherine’s Monastery, after the Paschal celebration and couldn’t find him amongst the crowd, Patriarch Peter wrote a reprimanding letter asking why Abbot George behaved disrespectfully and didn’t greet him nor receive his Paschal blessing? To this the fathers at St. Catherine’s replied that he was with them on Pascha, for he hadn’t left nor had time to make the outward nor return journey. St. George disclosed the miracle to his disciple at his repose, that God had indeed granted him to attend the Paschal services at the Holy Sepulchre one last time before his death…a miracle either of bi-location or transportation by the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:39-40). He had tried to keep this hidden in his humility, except for he had been recognized by several monks and the Patriarch of Jerusalem.
We embarked upon our journey at 4am. In the still of the night, we were rewarded with catching glimpses of the desert fox and mouse along the way. It took 1.5 hrs in a 4×4 Toyota Hilux truck crawling off-road over rough, uneven terrain composed of large rocks, at speeds averaging 7 miles per hour. By the end we had been bounced around and popped like popcorn!
After the “road” terminated, we trekked 2 hours on goat and donkey paths over shoulders of the low mountains and at the bottom of the wadi (valley) to reach Arselo. We were all amazed by how lush the desert was in this area, after the heavier rains this season, turning the typical red granite desert green! The scale and grandeur of the topography can be assessed by locating the hikers in each photo.
We encountered an even greater variety and quantity of flora in this area than near the monastery, even though we’re at roughly the same altitude, between 5-6,000 feet, largely due to the abundance of natural springs in the area. I was fascinated by the intricacy of the floral patterns and survival mechanisms of such tiny flowers! Nature’s witness to God’s eternal power and divinity, evidenced in it’s unique and magnificent beauty. (Romans 1:19-20) My apologies for not having had the ability to track down the names of all these interesting desert plants before sending this to you.
The hermits who originally settled here chose this spot for that very reason, being able to cultivate vegetable gardens to sustain themselves and a small vineyard with a winepress to support their needs financially.
Arselo lies about midway, along the old donkey and camel route, between St. Catherine’s Monastery and the old monastery and port of Raithu (known today as Et-Tur) on the Gulf of Suez. In those times, it took about 10 hours, or a day’s journey, to trek to this point, making it a rest stop along the way. It was originally established about 1500 years ago in Byzantine times and renovated in medieval times, inhabited up until the 17th century. Today the earlier structures are mainly in ruins and tended by a Bedouin custodian, as is customary for the monastery’s outlying hermitages and properties.
There were a handful of cells to support 6-8 hermits, built far enough away and using the natural topography to be out of sight from one another. There’s only one still completely intact (on the left side of the first photo below), which I ducked into (interior appears in the second photo below). Below you’ll also see a panoramic of the complex viewed from its location (third photo below). Half were built with line of sight to the Chapel, near each garden plot, half further away on the slopes of the mountains.
Recently a new chapel was built, in the 1990s, next to the original one, by the monks of St. Catherine’s, where services are held a few times a year. Seen here are the original and the new sitting side by side, as viewed from the remaining, intact cell.
After the Divine Liturgy, we shared a humble, monastic Agape meal, composed mainly of canned foods we brought (squid, octopus, stuffed grape leaves, tomato and avocado salad, walnut cake and traditional Egyptian date-stuffed cookies for dessert). It was quite a feast! Considering the remoteness of the hermitage and its infrequent use, all necessities for the services and meal provisions have to be carried in and back out, including service books, holy vessels/objects, food/water, and dishes/utensils. It is very basic and rustic, reminiscent of camping, making the journey all the more enjoyable, capturing the romance of the desert and old nomadic way of life.
It was very appropriate and rather inspiring to go there on the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt and reflect on how she fled into the desert wilderness, living in solitude and repentance for so many years, away from the sight of others. Surveying the entire hermitage complex brought many of the stories of the desert fathers to life, giving an example and vivid context for their daily physical and spiritual labors. St. Mary of Egypt fled to the Judaean desert, beyond the Monastery of St. Gerasimus, near the Jordan River. According to local tradition she dwelled in these caves, and probably wandered to avoid contact with others, sheltering in several different caves.
In closing, I want to share a personal experience of mine I meditate upon every time St. Mary of Egypt is commemorated. For those who don’t know about her life and her tremendous conversion from sin to righteousness, her life is very inspiring and an example of repentance to us, which is why she’s remembered on the 5th Sunday of Great Lent.
I often have wondered what it must have been like to witness the miracle outside of the Holy Sepulchre, convicting her of her sinfulness and inspiring her to repent, as she was invisibly barred entry to venerate the True Cross until she prayed with all her being and committed to change her life. In my first years in the Orthodox Church, while visiting the San Francisco Bay area to tour the wine country, I met an old childhood friend from the Methodist Church. On our adventures we had many long talks and debates about religion, philosophy, and the differences between my ancient, eastern, Apostolic faith and her contemporary, individualistic, a la carte (self-defined amalgamation) New Age beliefs.
Before leaving town I suggested we visit the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Virgin Mary “Joy of All Who Sorrow”, since it was right across the street from where we were meeting friends for dinner, to put an end to the tireless debates, allow me to venerate the incorrupt relics of St. John Maximovitch (which have not decayed or decomposed since his repose in 1966), and allow her to witness the power of God’s grace for herself. I reassured her in advance that she was absolutely welcome but by no means obliged to come in or participate in anything, so I waited patiently to see what she would do… As they were serving a Moleben (supplicatory service), I went in to pray and venerate, and she took her time getting her bearings before entering into this new and foreign world.
After praying a considerable time for my family, friends, and especially her, I glanced back towards the narthex occasionally, finally realizing she was too intimidated to come in after all, so we left for dinner and never spoke about what happened. Roughly two years later she converted on her own, Glory to God! While we were catching up one day after church, she sat me down and related to me what happened to her that evening in the narthex at the Cathedral in San Francisco. She confessed that although she was ready to confidently “walk right in and see for herself what all the fuss was about,” planning to debunk it, she was unable to pass from the narthex to the nave, being prevented from doing so by an invisible force. She said she tried several times, getting frustrated, and started to ponder what was going on. As her emotions calmed, a quiet yet certain realization was growing within her, convicting her that she was barred entry into this holy place due to her sinfulness and wretched life. THIS was her moment of clarity, the seed of repentance which blossomed into conversion, her return to Christianity and entry into the Orthodox Church…it was her life-changing miracle like St. Mary of Egypt!
Our most merciful Father, who calls us all to enter His Heavenly Kingdom by the narrow door of repentance, was faithful in answering both of my prayers through this contemporary miracle story. He tenderly, lovingly, and patiently shepherded my lost and searching childhood friend back to the sheepfold, and provided me vicarious insight from her testimony as to what St. Mary of Egypt’s experience might have been like over 1500 years ago in Jerusalem. St. Mary of Egypt, thou art a great model of resolute and fervent repentance, pray to God for us!
Thank you for letting me share. I humbly request your prayers for health and safety. The monks also humbly request your prayers during these difficult times and trials due to instability in Egypt.
God bless your spiritual struggle and journey, now that the Great Fast is culminating in the beginning of the Great Holy Week!
Justin “Hadji” Daniel