Wadi Naturn is a depression in the desert that lies below sea level, so there is water is at or close to the surface in many places. Although never settled by them, this area was important to the ancient Egyptians because of it was a source of natron, a salt used in the mummification process.We are here today, however, because this area has also been a center of monasticism since the earliest days of Christianity. Of the perhaps twenty or more monasteries once located in this area, four remain active today. These are what have brought us here.
We begin at the most private of the active monasteries, the Monastery of St. Macarius, which traces its history to the establishment of a retreat here by Macarius the Great around the year 330. Upon his death the formerly isolated monks living in this area began to come together to form one of the earliest monastic communities.
We pass through the gates and drive maybe a mile or so through carefully maintained orchards and olive groves before reaching the entrance of the main complex.
This area is new, mostly constructed within the past 30 some years. It includes the monk’s cells, guest rooms, the refractory, a tiny gift shop, the infirmary, and various offices. The building style is modern, but the proportions and balance exude peace. At the edge of this area a broad stairway leads down through a portion of the old monastery wall and to the restored churches, fortress, and monk’s cells that remain from the old monastery.
Like many monasteries here, St. Macarius has experienced periods of growth, decline, and near abandonment. Today this thriving community consists of over 100 monks, mostly well-educated professionals who bring a wealth of expertise to their community. These monks are aided by hundreds of other Egyptians, both Muslim and Christian, who do much of the day-to-day work needed to maintain the day-to-day operation of the monastery and its agricultural activities.
Our guide is Father Areanous, who reminds us to be quite (a frequent, futile plea that our rather rambunctious group tries, but fails, to observe) and leads us down the stairs and into the old part of the monastery.
We start our tour in the restored church of St. Macarius. It is simple and lovely, with the three alters so typical of Coptic churches, a mix of beautiful icons old and new, and the wonderful brick dome of St. John the Baptist floating above.
Our next stop is the Church of the 49 Martyrs, which dates to the 5th century and contains the relics of monks murdered by desert nomads in the year 444.
It is in this quiet and holy place that we have the one and only bad (truly dreadful) experience of the entire trip.
Standing inside by the chapel dedicated to the martyred monks, Father Areanous asks us to offer a prayer in exchange for the prayer he sang for us in the church of St. Macarius.
There is utter silence.
I am in a group of 31 people, several of who I know have served as Protestant ministers. Can’t anyone come up with a prayer? Although I strongly believe that one of these retired ministers should take on this duty, I wrack my brain for prayers, psalms, or songs that might suffice – not that I could sing anything in tune if my life depended on it, but someone needs to come up with something. As I dreg up fragments of Lutheran liturgy and Bible camp prayers, I deeply regret my lax church attendance in recent years.
It is still deathly quiet in the chapel.
It is clear no one is going to offer anything and now it is only a matter of time until Father Areanous gives up on us. I direct a longing look at the candles laid neatly to the side of a small alter in the chapel. I wonder what the protocol is for lighting one here. Is anyone allowed to light a candle, kneel, and pray here in this sacred space – or is that reserved for the monks? Where is Romani? I need him to tell me what to do! It feels right to offer a prayer for the faithful who lived and died here. . . May I? Should I? Would my silent prayer help offset the silence of our group?
Father Areanous breaks the silence with a simple “come with me” and the moment is gone.
I take a last look at the simple church as I leave. The simple ceiling has a design that predates the Coptic cross. Here the two lobes on each arm of the cross above reach out to me from a time before the triune nature of God became doctrine — a time when Christians recognized only the Father and the Son.
Outside, Father Areanous closes the door and turns the lock. Now it really is too late to ask to light a candle and offer a prayer. For once, even warm sunshine does little to lift my spirits. We have been given a wonderful gift and when asked to offer a gift in return, we were too self-conscious and stupid to do so. Now it is too late.
The last church we visit here is the Church of Abba Skhieron (St. Apaskhiron), with it’s 13th century quadrangular dome, relics, and wonderful icons.
Back outside we walk around the formidable ancient fortress, through the old part of the monastery, and up again to the entrance.
Before leaving, we have the pleasure of sharing a light lunch of bread, olives, and tea in the airy refractory. The olives, mostly fat green ones from the monastery’s own groves, are absolutely delicious. (And that is from someone who generally dislikes green olives!)
And then it is time to leave this beautiful, soulful place.