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St. Katherine's monastery

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monastery walls

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at the monastery
  Sheri Holman: An Author's Pilgrimage

I've come on a public bus that has bounced past the black husks of tanks from the Six Day War, and sped by mud shacks fitted with television antennae that have steadily replaced Bedouin tents. Thirty three centuries ago the children of Israel spent forty years wandering this wilderness; I have only two miles to walk from where the bus drops me off, but still, by the time I reach the monastery I am dripping with sweat and groaning under my backpack. I've come half way around the world, from Brooklyn, New York to Saint Katherine's monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, to follow a medieval monk's book of pilgrimage. His obsession with the saint whose bones lie in state here, has become my obsession.

In the entire world, there is no Christian monastery in continuous use older than the fortress before me. The church was erected by Empress Helena in 330 A.D. to house Moses' Burning Bush; the fortifying sandstone walls came two hundred years later during the reign of Justinian and Theodora. Two hundred years after that, a young girl's skeleton was discovered atop Mount Sinai and declared to be the body of an archaic martyr, St. Katherine of Alexandria, translated by angels to this holy place. The monks brought her down, and over time, St. Katherine's name has eclipsed the monastery's earlier one -- the Church of the Transfiguration. The Burning Bush remains, though; the only shrub of its species, according to the monks, in the entire desert.

The fortress is the same dry yellow stone as the mountain behind it, set off by a deep green olive garden and a line of cypress trees. It is penetrable by a single iron door, and I knock on it, looking up at the medieval lift that used to hoist pilgrims and provisions up in a palm basket. I am let into the complex, a maze of dormitories, chapels, even an Islamic minaret, built to appease the Turkish Sultan when he had dominion over this land; and shown to a covered well, where I drink and splash my face, learning later that this is venerated as the well at which Moses watered Jethro's sheep. It is 2:00 on a sweltering July afternoon. There are no tourists, I see no sign of the handful of monks who still worship here. To my dismay, while the outside doors are open, the massive wooden inner doors to the church are locked. I've come all this way only to find the church closed.

With no one in sight, I set down my bag and walk the length of the long icon gallery outside. Because of its isolation, St. Katherine's Monastery escaped the iconoclasts, and preserved some of the rarest and oldest painted icons on earth. I am drawn to a rare Christ Pancrator, executed in the encaustic (wax painting) technique. Dating from the sixth century, it depicts a gentle, wall-eyed Christ holding a jeweled book. The monastery, I knew had once possessed one of the oldest and most complete bible manuscripts, the Codex Sinaiticus, but had loaned it to a German scholar in 1845, who sold it to the Russian Czar. Rather than returning it, after World War II, the Russians sold it to the British Museum for 100,000 pounds. I am staring at Christ Pancrator, marveling at his book, when a woman, dressed in a faded black nun's habit, approaches and speaks to me in a language I don't understand.

"Oh, excuse me," she says in lightly accented English, when she sees my confusion. "I thought you were the Polish icon painter we were expecting."

Apologizing for not being the icon painter, I tell her I am a writer, researching a book on Friar Felix Fabri, a German monk whose devotion to Saint Katherine lured him across the desert to this place. I learn she is Sister Maria Magdelena, an orthodox nun who until a few weeks ago, had lived the last twenty years of her life in a cave outside of Jerusalem. Her visa expired, the government would not renew it, and she has come to Sinai to petition the Archbishop for a room here -- not inside the monastery walls, she wouldn't dare presume, but in a little run down shack that is just past the garden. She has prayed to God to send her a like-minded woman, a soul friend, to share her life in the desert, but so far, He has not seen fit to do it. She has been rejected from Israel, and she may be rejected here, but most of God's saints were rejected, she says, and there is holiness in that state.

"I am not surprised your friar came here. So many people seek out the wilderness," she says. "I know a very old story about a couple who took a vow of asceticism, but due to forces beyond their control were separated. The husband stayed in this monastery for some time, but feeling spiritually unfulfilled, asked his Elder if he might go into the desert and lead an even more ascetic life. He went and found an old ascetic living in a cave. In this hermit, thought the man, I have found my spiritual teacher; and he studied with that old man for seventeen years, gaining much knowledge. One day, the old hermit became very ill, and the husband rushed back to his former Elder for help. When they returned to the cave, the old hermit was dead. But pinned to his cloak was a note: I am your wife."

I listen to the sister's story, and I don't know if it is the exhaustion or the disappointment of finding the church closed, or her simple affecting way of talking, but I find myself in tears. She, too, is crying, and she laughs. "Look at us, two grown women crying over a story!" Wait here, she tells me, she will find someone to help me.

Through her auspices, at four o'clock, I am granted an audience with the Archbishop of Sinai, Father Paolo. He is an elderly but powerful man, with a long white beard and thick, wiry eyebrows. Young, energetic Father Angelos translates for us. I ask him many questions about the church's history, the running of the pilgrim's hostel, the day to day working of the church. When at last I ask him to explain the power of the contemplative life, he says merely, "If you express what's on the inside, you lose what's on the inside." He sits quietly, and I too am still, wondering how to square that with the life I've chosen as a writer. Father Angelos suggests they take me to view the relics.

I am led into the darkened sacristy behind the altar, where Father Paolo reaches into a box and takes out a small silver ring. Then he moves slowly to a square silver and jeweled box, unlocks it, and holds it out to me. Inside, lying on a bed of silk is a narrow skeletal hand, dark brown and oily looking. Each finger is circled up to the knuckle with diamond rings, even the thumb. This is it, I realize. This is what Friar Felix Fabri traveled months to see, what he, like many pilgrims before him, risked attack, disease, loss of life to venerate. This bit of bone and skin, like other bits of bone and skin in churches the world over, has the power to summon us across seas and over deserts, can command mass migration of men; and yet here it lies, vulnerable and isolated, contained inside a modest box. I lean down to kiss the relic and breathe in the sweetest scent, something like sandalwood and jasmine; faint, but unmistakable. I asked Father Angelos what it is, but he merely smiles and says, "The grace of God."

Father Paolo touches the silver ring to Saint Katherine's hand, and carefully replaces the box. He moves on to another jeweled container, revealing a small brown disc, again laid upon silk, again circled by diamonds, but this time braced by a necklace certainly worth millions. It is all that remains of St. Katherine's head, just the very top of her skull. Over the centuries, pilgrims have stolen her in bits and pieces, pulled off an ear under the guise of a kiss, slipped a leg bone into a pocket. The perfume -- what the faithful call myrrh -- rises from this relic, too.

"We are absolutely forbidden to rub anything into the relics," says Father Angelos, seriously. "Or to scent it in any way. This is it's natural property."

Father Paolo touches the ring to the skull as well, blesses it, and slips it on my finger. I have been reading a book about crowds, and how religions gain power not through doctrine, but through the bringing together of masses of men, that we might lie down our burdensome individuality for a few hours and be part of a collective consciousness. Alone in this church, with only two Orthodox priests and a few skeletal remains, I feel for the first time, that sense of holy crowding. I feel pressing against me every pilgrim who has traveled to this place, every monk who has sung his angelus in the dark. I feel myself part of that great historical tide, that is for me, faith; seeing clearly my infinitesimal place in it as it rushes past to include all those who will come after -- and for that brief instant I understand. Then it is gone, and I am left staring at a silver ring I know I will never take off, inscribed with the name: Ag. Aikaterina, St. Katherine, bound by a silver heart containing a "K" and a cross, intertwined.

Later that night I will hear a knock on my door, summoning me to the mountain. I will join a group of Greek pilgrims, led by Father Christos, to climb Mount Sinai by starlight, reaching the top just as the sun rises over the desert. The next day I will look for Sister Maria Magdelena to tell her goodbye, but I will find her nowhere. She could not be allowed to stay here, Father Angelos will tell me, no woman may. She has gone back into the desert, I imagine, to seek her soul friend. She told me one other story that day we waited for my audience with the Archbishop. A family, she said, had come not long ago to see the Burning Bush. Their two-year-old baby loved fire, and had delighted in trying to blow out the votive candles that burned throughout the chapel and beneath the hundreds of icons in the gallery. But, said Sister Maria Magdelena, when he got to the Bush, his eyes grew wide and his entire body shook. He was sitting on his father's shoulders when all of the sudden he reared back and blew with all his might. He was trying to blow out the Burning Bush! Sister Maria Magdelena laughed until tears ran down her cheeks. Innocence sees things, she said, that we have become too sinful to see.

The book about Felix Fabri I set out to write has since been published, and I have moved on to the next novel, set in a very different time and place. I continue to wear St. Katherine's ring, however, even though I've put St. Katherine's story to rest. I am superstitious about this ring and try never to take it off. It is my connection, my relic, if you will, of the afternoon I spent with Sister Maria Magdelena, the day I breathed in myrrh, the night I climbed a holy mountain in the dark. It is my tenuous connection to that moment when I realized there are people in this world who can see what I, back in New York, have become too sinful to see.
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    Copyright © 1998 Sheri Holman.