Dawn at Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Egypt

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(Last Updated On: March 16, 2019)

I hear the others leave at 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. to begin the trek up Mt. Sinai. I am awake just enough to realize what woke me and to be glad that I am still in bed.It is hard enough to wake up at 5:30 when the alarm goes off. It is still dark and my bed is warm and cozy. It is too early!

But I do get up, dress hastily, and hurry out into the chilly morning. Beyond the mountains, the sky is the palest lavender, but the monastery is still steeped in hazy shadow.

Those of us who chose not to tackle the summit of Mount Sinai have been invited to join the monks at morning prayer. What I was not given is clear directions for entering the monastery gates (it won’t yet be open to the public) and locating the church once I have passed through the gates.

The location of the church is easy to figure out. From outside, the walls make clear that the Monastery of St. Catherine has served as both a center of religious contemplation and piety and fortress. The walls tower above me with the top of the church peeking out above.

A small opening in those formidable walls takes me into the monastery proper. A guard sits inside the doorway keeping watch. When I tell him my errand, he wishes me well and sends me on my way with a wave of his hand.

Beyond, the monastery is perfectly silent, shrouded in the dim stillness of early morning. There is no one else here.

I quickly find the church. Now, where do I enter?

I listen again. There is no sign or sound to guide me.

I pace back and forth, wondering which of the seemingly tightly closed doors I should try. I am about to give up and ask the guard for directions (again), when I hear voices mingled with the steady clomp, clomp, clomp of a large animal on cobbles. I listen more carefully to the voices floating toward me. Nancy.

I turn toward the sound and almost immediately come face-to-face with two camels, their drivers, and Nancy and Velda as they round the corner of the church. Nancy and Velda sound in good spirits, but they lean against each other, hobbling together up the cobbled pathway like a single wounded creature.

They are delighted to see me. The camel trip was wonderful, but they are sore! And it was dark, so they don’t have any pictures to prove they did this. Now that it is light, will I take their pictures? Quickly, before the camel drivers leave.

We chat awhile before the camel drivers turn to their long trek home and Nancy and Velda head back to their rooms in search of hot showers.

I am, once again, alone.

I still don’t know where to enter the church and the sky is rapidly brightening.

At this point, Terry comes into view. She is also looking for the prayer service, so we hurry on together.

We spot a security officer of some sort and ask him for directions. He puts his arm around me and quickly feels me up a bit while he answers. I want to slap him, but at least he actually gives me the directions I need. I quickly move away, figuring he has already collected his baksheesh, and hurry back to Terry and the entrance to the church.

The ancient wooden doorway that leads into the church is partially ajar now, as other late-comers have entered. We slide through and find ourselves standing at the back of another world, a world where the air is filled with incense and chanted prayers in a language I do not know.

We stand at the side of a large doorway between the nave and the interior of the church itself. The room we are looking into is ornate and filled with icons. Only muted light slips in through the high windows, but elaborate scones and chandeliers throw an uneven warm light that makes the room glitter with silver and gold. It is not a large space, but the worshipers in it seem to be performing a holy ballet. Each appears completely enveloped within their own world, standing, kneeling, and bowing independently of the others in a pattern understand only by themselves. They move around the small space without interfering with each other or even seeming to notice the others.

Occasionally a new worshiper joins in, entering the church, touching various icons, and then finding a space from which to join this mysterious dance.

At the front of the room I can see bits of another, equally mysterious, ballet, as those leading the service move about in front of and behind the iconostasis.

I feel transported back in time. This ritual feels ancient, holy, and completely unknowable – until I realize they appear to be blessing the host. The sudden recognition of a familiar rite in the midst of a mystical scene seems like an almost magical link between the ancient past (from whence this service comes) and my own world. Time and space bending and merging.

We sense it is time to leave, slide out the door, and enter back into a more familiar world.

Wow.

I am completely overwhelmed, wanting to understand more and wishing the experience could go on. Can I spend a week here watching the monks at prayer? Would it destroy the sense of wonder and holiness – would the magic and mystery vanish – if I understood what I was seeing and hearing?

I am SO glad I did not go to the top of Mount Sinai. It could not have been more incredible than this!

I should go back to my room now to shower and pack before breakfast, but the morning is too lovely.

dawn over the monastery

It is beautiful and peaceful here, even as the community slowly begins to awaken for the day. I try to capture the feel of it, but of course I can’t.

view behind the monastery

cherry blossoms and mountains

stone building

camels

fruit trees

stone buildings and garden

lamp

I meet Romani by the coffee shop. He is trying (futilely) to pet the monastery’s skittish cats.

Romani and cat

cat

As we talk, the plaza begins to fill and then overflow with pilgrims from around the world who are now returning from Mount Sinai. A young lady in a long mink coat looks both out of place and perfectly attired for this adventure. Around here, some nearly glow, transformed in some way by their experience. Others are loud, giddy with excitement and, perhaps, lack of sleep. Most seem drained and exhausted, while a few poor souls appear desperately cold and completely miserable.

I leave them and head into the relative peace of the cool white dining hall where a simple, lovely breakfast awaits.

Next Post: A Tour of the Monastery

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