The Feast of the Dormition carries extra joy at St. Catherine’s Monastery, as Sinai monastics converge on the Monastery from all directions, drawn home for the celebrations from their assigned posts in near or far flung hermitages throughout the Mediterranean world.
Juggling the demands of a 24-hour workday in characteristic style, the Archbishop of Sinai and Abbot of St. Catherine’s is likely to arrive at the Feast via a last minute flight from Greece. Collecting his monastics along the way from the airport, the journey by van through the desert will last five hours. Finally entering the basilica as the agrypnia, the all-night Liturgy in honor of the Feast is about to start, all savor the reality noted by a monk one year as the arrivals began, “Panagia gathers us all in to her Feast.”
Like families anywhere, monastic communities have their public and private challenges, and turn their best face to the world. With respect to their desert beginnings, the Sinai monks thus have a long-standing tradition of not seeking charity, true to an ethic that says it is better to give than to receive.
Thus, even in face of profound economic pressures on the ancient Monastery caused by the ongoing disturbances of the wider region, the monks have made no appeal for help. As a result, “Friends of Mount Sinai Monastery,” an IRS approved not-for-profit 501(c)(3) charity, was recently formed to underscore their efforts to keep the holy tradition of the ancient Greek Orthodox Monastery alive, and accessible to visitors.
St. Catherine’s visitors are typically categorized as either “pilgrim,” or “tourist.” But, knowing that mankind’s deepest quest is for the love of God, monastics understand the fallacy of such distinctions. All arrive here “hoping to experience something of the stillness that exists between the soul and God,” whether this is actually expressed by exuberant hoots in the middle of the night on the steps leading to the Holy Summit, or by anxiously searching for the entrance to the Monastery church in the same black night – hoping to arrive before the service begins, when the angels do.
Much has been made of the Sinai Monastery’s preservation of the precious artifacts of ancient Christianity, and also of the unbroken ages of its peaceful co-existence with neighbors in a non-Christian world.
Less noted is that the Sinai represents the only center of ancient ascetic spirituality open to women – tourist, pilgrim, or monastic. In a sphere where women have often had to struggle to prove themselves much as in civilian life, female monasticism in Sinai dates from the third century, apparently to the inceptions of the current monastic community itself.
Naturally isolated by remote desert, ascetics seeking stillness of soul never needed to fabricate a barrier to worldly civilization by sealing the Monastery off from visits by families. Of course such a step would never have been contemplated anyway by the guardians of a holy pilgrimage site of literally Biblical proportions. By the time the world resolutely landed on their doorstep with the construction of asphalt roads and tourist infrastructure, Sinai monks had long accustomed themselves to a double burden: combining the rigors of eremitic life with hospitality to those seeking deeper knowledge of God.
After all, the Holy Mountain of Sinai is the mountain of the knowledge of God. And the Burning Bush, which still thrives in the Monastery courtyard, the path to that knowledge – for it burned with the same fire of divine Wisdom that later shone forth upon all creation from the “Bush of the Holy Virgin.”
Let us ever applaud and praise the Lord God
Who was seen of old on the holy mount in glory,
Who by the fiery bush revealed the great mystery of the Ever-virgin and undefiled Maiden unto the Prophet Moses.
Aflame but not consumed by the fire of divinity just like the Bush itself, the Holy Virgin is the fiery pillar guiding the faithful through the granite desert of this worldly sojourn. As the Israelites were led through the Sinai by fire at night and a cloud by day, the Holy Virgin spreads a shelter over the world broader than any cloud. Under it, her love gathers together not only the monastics of Sinai, but all the faithful who glorify her Son, the Sun of Righteousness who saves the world from sin as He saved His All-holy Mother from the corruption of death at her Dormition.
Thus the monks’ first chapel in the shadow of Mount Sinai was dedicated to the Annunciation of the Mother of God, the living “Ark of the Covenant” who contained the uncontainable Word of God within her womb.
Containing the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments, the gold-plated Ark of the Covenant was carried from Sinai to God’s dwelling place in Jerusalem according to the instructions given to Moses on the Holy Mountain.
Carrying a miraculous icon of “the Ark that was gilt by the Spirit,” to her dwelling place in the Kingdom of her Son, monastics process In double lines through the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem each year, during solemnities marking the Dormition of the Holy Theotokos.
The great bell of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre tolls in the depths of one’s soul as, commemorating the procession of the Holy Apostles who carried the body of the Virgin to her tomb in Gethsemane, monks escort the icon to the now-empty tomb – for the All-holy one ascended to heaven with her body. Pilgrims following behind the monks and nuns on the narrow passages are unable even to see the steps under their feet for the crush of the faithful, but one has no need to see underfoot anyway, prevented from falling as though by the sheer force of the corporate reverence.
The celebrations in Sinai are less dramatic, yet equally suffused with devotion during the agrypnia which lasts until dawn. As the Archbishop processes through double lines of monks awaiting his entrance just inside the darkened basilica’s massive cedar doors, myriads of oil candles flicker green, blue, and pink hues from their crystals far above, twinkling like stars clandestinely participating in the festival about to begin – the monastic “party” of all night prayer.
A monk expert in the obscurities of ancient liturgical practice, understood perfectly perhaps only to himself, lights and snuffs thick candles at appointed times in the services. Held aloft by enormous candelabra whose pedestals rest on the brass backs of lion figurines in roguish attitudes, the alternating light and darkness add their own mystery to the unearthly services.
Midnight long diminished, the same monk lights first one tier, then the next, of tall beeswax tapers set into majestic silver chandeliers. And when he spins each one in a different direction while antiphonal chants blend their dissonance with fragrant incense, time and space having eclipsed their own existence, one no longer comprehends whether he is in heaven or on earth.
The heavens were astonished and stood in awe,
and the ends of the earth, Maid, were sore amazed,
for God appeared bodily to mankind as very man.
And behold, your womb has proved to be vaster
and more spacious than heaven’s heights.
For this, O Theotokos, the choirs and
assemblies of men and angels
magnify your name.
(Quoted texts from the Dormition services’ 13th century
Great Supplicatory Canon to the Most Holy Theotokos )
To join in the efforts to assist the monastery join the Facebook group, Friends of Mount Sinai