My dear Fathers and Mothers, and brothers and sisters, in the Faith,
Greetings to you from the God-trodden Mount of Sinai!
I cannot believe that Great Lent is half-way over and we are already at the Sunday of the Adoration of the Holy Cross! God-willing you will not receive this update too tardy. Internet and power service has continued to be inconsistent, with no explicit causation, so I guess by now it is something I have to accept as a way of life in the wilderness. Next week I hope to have something special for the Sunday of St. John of the Ladder (Climacus), since I’m here at his monastery and near his famous cave of asceticism.
This week I wanted to take the opportunity to tell you a little more about the life of the monastery and some highlights of its history, since it is so important to Christianity and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site is sacred to both Christianity and Islam, whereas, modern Jewish scholarship is still in debate amongst themselves as to the location of Mounts Horeb and Sinai. Although the monastery is commonly known today as St. Catherine’s, its formal name is Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai. Its patronal feast is the Transfiguration of our Lord on Mt. Tabor (August 6), although it equally celebrates the feast of St. Catherine the Great Martyr of Alexandria (November 25) as well, ever since the monks discovered her holy relics on a neighboring peak to Mt. Sinai revealed by angels around the 9th Century (see below, icon depicting scenes from her life; pics of the peak of St. Catherine and her relics are in prior updates).
The Orthodox Church of Mount Sinai is the smallest autonomous church community in all of Orthodoxy, granted originally by Emperor Justinian I, pre-dating Stavropegic classification. They are supported by dependencies (metochia) in other parts of Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Greece, Cyprus and Constantinople. It is affiliated with the Jerusalem Patriarchate, who consecrates the community’s abbot as archbishop, but he does not have representation in its Synod, nor does Jerusalem attempt to interfere in the life or governance of the monastery. It is the oldest AND continuous working Christian monastery in the world. St. Anthony’s Monastery (Coptic Orthodox) across the Red Sea in eastern Egypt, built near the cave of St. Anthony the Great’s ascetic struggles (considered to be the “patriarch” of monasticism), likes to assert that it is older, but there are historical accounts of monastic ascetics living in this area before the end of the 3rd Century, predating St. Anthony’s flight to the desert. Their monastery’s life was also interrupted for at least 80 years when the Bedouin took over and occupied it.
The original ascetics and hermits that came to this area of Sinai were seeking the Holy Ground God proclaimed to Moses, aspiring to ascend the spiritual heights, just as pilgrims do today. Empress Helen arrived and built the first foundations of a monastery with the Chapel of the Burning Bush in the year 330, and enclosure of the nearby well where Moses met his future wife Zipporah, stopping to rest and refresh himself when he fled from Pharaoh after murdering in Egyptian (below, Burning Bush Chapel pics in prior updates). (Exodus 2:15-21).
Emperor Justinian I expanded the communal establishment, between the years 548-565, endowing it richly with sacred vessels, liturgical items, icons and provisions (below, #1047, Justinian Liturgical Cross). Today we can still see the large, block, granite walls and main church (katholikon) he built (#s165 & 293), as well as observe the dedicatory inscriptions on the trusses of the roof (which are the oldest known surviving king post trusses in the world), hidden today by the later installed ceiling. The mosaic which adorns the apse over the altar is very unique, depicting the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, and is to be finally unveiled by Pascha after years of cleaning and restoration (#s2933 & 3239). All of the daily services are held in this very same basilica almost 1,500 years old (#”Sinai 1″)!
Their library boasts over 3,300 early manuscripts and codices containing Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, Hebrew, Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, and Coptic texts, the second largest collection in the world, surpassed only by the Vatican, not counting modern/contemporary printed books (below, #945, an illuminated Gospel written in gold!). One of the oldest nearly complete manuscripts of the Bible was discovered here in the 19th Century, the Codex Sinaiticus, dating from the 4th Century (#1043, pictured here is a folio that was discovered later at the monastery, after the bulk of it made its way to the British Library under dubious circumstances). Before the end of the 19th Century, an even older Bible manuscript was discovered in the language of Jesus, the Codex Syriac Sinaiticus (#1128), which has shed critical light on our understanding of the history of the New Testament. Their icon and mosaic assemblage is equally, if not more impressive, totaling over 2,000 pieces, containing the best collection of early icons and encaustics and more than half of the Byzantine icons known in existence (#1096, a precious mini-mosaic). For example, the famous icon of Jesus Christ (Pantocrator of Sinai) I sent out in my first update, is the oldest known. All of their treasures have been secured due to the remoteness of the monasteries location, for example saving it from the Iconoclast period in Byzantium, as well as from marauders, and well preserved from the ravages of climate and time due to the consistent aridity. Whenever pieces have left the monastery, which never happened until the recent exhibitions at the Metropolitan and Getty museums, they travel and are exhibited in special climate control cases designed to maintain the Sinai climate consistently.
Today the brotherhood consists of about 25 members with a handful of novices. They live the communal (cenobitic) style of monastic life, sharing common meals and worshipping together, led by the abbot (the archbishop) and the elder priest-monks of the community as spiritual fathers (below, pictured here is Archbishop Damianos and Priest-monk Paul).
The daily schedule (typikon) is relatively unchanged during and outside of Great Lent, although what I outline here is their Lenten organization of services, begins with morning church services at 4am comprising Orthos/Matins including Midnight Office through Sixth Hour, immediately followed by a communal tea and refreshment in the salon. The work period is from 8am-noon, during the same hours that the monastery is open to pilgrims and tourists. During the high season (winter/spring), the monastery would get thousands of visitors a day, but after the recent political upheavals, they average a couple of hundred a day at the most. At noon, they conduct Ninth Hour and Vespers, with Pre-Sanctified Liturgies on Wednesdays and Fridays, immediately followed by the only formal meal (trapeza) of the day (#s1141 & 1139, detail of Last Judgment fresco).
The customary daily rest/free time is observed afterwards until 4pm (aligning with the traditional Greek midday rest or siesta). Evening services or Great Compline starts at 4pm, again followed by a communal tea with refreshment, or one can obtain leftovers from the midday meal in the refectory if necessary. The formal daily schedule is officially over at this point, around 5:30pm, leaving a little free time in the evening for unfinished work, private study, nature walks, socializing, etc. The monks conduct their personal prayer and spiritual disciplines (cell rule) either before sleep or in the middle of the night before the morning services. On Fridays during Great Lent, special memorial services for the reposed are held, before evening services, in the cemetery chapel above the ossuary.
As you can see, it is a rigorous schedule with an average of 6-7 hours of communal worship/prayer, 4 hours of work, private prayer/study, and approximately 6 hours of rest/sleep, all on only one meal a day. They maintain the spirit and traditions of the desert ascetic in their communal life as much as possible. But I’ve found that it is not impossible…that it is actually better to eat much less in the desert, so as not to overly burden the body with digestion, robbing it of much needed water in the process.
For my part, I’ve been fully participating in the daily life. My current work contribution while I am here is to assist Priest-monk Justin, the Librarian, with the ancient manuscript digitization project. We are currently using a rather unique, custom-built rig for photographing ancient, fragile codexes (above, #s1248 & 1249 detail of manuscript cradle and camera). We have set up a different apparatus and process for photographing the ancient scrolls. Since I started, we have been digitizing several Arabic manuscripts about the lives of Sts. Barlaam and Ioasaph, the oldest dated to 1236. This is the same device, albeit with a different camera and light apparatus, that is being used with new spectral imaging techniques to analyze the palimpsest manuscripts to reveal their earlier hidden or erased text, beneath the later, current surface text. Of the more than 100 palimpsest manuscripts, there have been some very important and critical finds amongst them recently.
As often as possible, monks will go to conduct services in one of the chapels or hermitages outside of the monastery on its patronal feast day. This week on Saturday, the Holy 40 Martyrs of Sebaste were commemorated (March 9 Old Calendar), so we traveled around the mountain ridge and hiked an hour from the village of St. Catherine to a remote hermitage dedicated to their memory (#s1800 & 1497 chapel altar). Local Bedouin also keep this tradition for the Holy 40 Martyrs of Sebaste and come to the hermitage after services to receive blessings of food and provisions from the monks (#s1659 & 1786). Enclosed in the gardens of this hermitage is the 5th Century ascetic cave of St. Onouphrios the Great (#s7340 & 1699, celebrated June 12). Nearby, on the way to the hermitage, is also the rock at Rephidim which Moses struck to draw water for the Israelites as they wandered in the desert (#1811, notice the 12 strange indentations). (Exodus 17:1-7) It was a very special experience to visit these holy places and share in fellowship with members of the Gabalia Bedouin tribe, who live around and help serve the monastery. There’s more to say about the local Bedouin and their special, symbiotic relationship to the monastery, but it will be forthcoming since there is SO much to “show and tell.”
This monastery is very unique, in that it exemplifies both a living Byzantine tradition and desert, ascetic monastic ideal, making a life and culture from the distant past accessible today. As I meditated upon this Sunday’s theme of the Holy Cross, I felt steeped in that living tradition, realizing that the original builder here, Empress Helen, was also responsible for finding the Precious and Life-giving Cross in Jerusalem (#1235, above). The spiritual and cultural legacy that has been passed down to us is being conserved and protected as an inheritance for the generations to come, under the vigilant care of the brotherhood of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai.
Thank you for letting me share. I humbly request your prayers for health and safety.
God bless your continued journey to the celebration of the Resurrection!
Justin “Hadji” Daniel