Romani has a hard time gathering everyone together, so we are a bit late beginning our tour. Indeed, we finally start out without the full group accounted for, as keeping a monk waiting is apparently not acceptable behavior.
We start in the Church of the Transfiguration, where I had witnessed morning prayers just a short time before.
The change in the church is dramatic. It is still and empty inside now, lit only by the morning light streaming through the windows. It looks like the pictures. However, while still beautiful, it lacks the movement and life that made this space so compelling during worship. Now it feels more like a museum, frozen and preserved in time.
While it would be nice to have time to more closely examine the icons, we are given little time to linger. We are quickly lead back outside, where we wind through the monastery and up to the library.
The Monastery of St. Catherine has one of the world’s oldest and most important libraries, with thousands of ancient manuscripts, documents, and printed books. Documents that are both informative and beautiful. The quiet air smells of stillness, with a hint of dusty leather and paper. I am glad to be here.
The monk who usually would be our guide is traveling in the US, so instead we have Fr. Niles, a soft-spoken monk from Great Britain. He is erudite and funny and, while he apologizes several times for his lack of expertise, he displays a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the library and its contents.
I love listening to him, but there is so much information to absorb. Too much. After awhile I let my attention drift and begin to get lost in the intricate images in the illuminated books and manuscripts on display. (I’ve always had a week spot for illumination.) I could spend the whole day here.
Instead, Fr. Niles leads us back outside and up to the roof.
Yes, to the roof.
The sun is already hot in the morning sky, but the view is wonderful.
We learn more about the history of this place, but I’m distracted by the sight of the monastery and the barren landscape surrounding it. I am amazed and delighted to be in this place that is both of the world and beyond the world. A place that delicately tips the balance between the ordinary and the sacred.
And then it is time to go. We are led us back down through the private area of the monastery and into the public portion with the church and museum.
As the last of our group passes through the gate that separates the casual visitors from the rest of the monastery, a couple tries to slip past us to enter. Larry and Romani are at the end of our group and they block the gate, telling the couple they cannot enter. The couple argues with them, insisting that if we have been allowed inside then they also should be. They stand their ground, clearly trying to figure out how to maneuver around Romani, who remains blocking in the narrow entry. Finally, clearly exasperated, Romani bluntly explains that our group has paid for a guided tour that includes entrance to this portion of the monastery — if they want to enter, they can book a guided tour themselves! At that he moves forward, almost into them, firmly closing and locking the gate.
I can still hear them griping and complaining as I scurry on into the crowd below, where this morning’s pilgrims are making a quick visit to the monastery before continuing on their journey. (As we too will do shortly.) The peacefulness of this place is restricted to the private areas at this time of day – the rest of the monastery is packed with visitors.
The area around the burning bush is so packed that it is almost impossible to get close enough to this supposedly miraculous bush to determine what sort of plant it might be. (The horticulturist in me needs to know, of course 🙂
From the burning bush we are ushered to the head of the line and into the monastery’s museum, where a fabulous collection of icons, textiles, documents, and other religious items is on display. Lovely, lovely things.
And then we are back out in the sunshine, our formal tour at its end.