December 24, 2004

From Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part Five: A Question of Degree, not of Kind

Read Part Four.

If I thought that by going to St Catherine’s I’d be escaping the tension I felt in Cairo between tradition and the realities of modern life, then I was in for a surprise. Never was that tension more evident than on Sinai. When I emerged from church with the monks after three hours of matins each morning, many of us would mount the steps to the parapet overlooking the monastery gate. From there it is possible to look down the valley at the vast desert plain it opens on to – so barren, only an almond tree here, a lone acacia there, to break the still monotone of golden rocks and sand. The Bedu with their camels, the stone huts of the Coptic workers, the monastery gardens, everything was peaceful and unspoilt, apposite to the serenity I felt inside myself from the morning service.

At least that is how things seemed before, like a pie to the face, the line of tourists below stretching around the monastery entered my field of vision. There they were again, the same guys from the Pyramids. Was St Catherine’s on their itinerary too? The monks to my left and right seemed to be of a different order of person from the hordes below. Is it too hasty and mean of me to say that the difference could even be seen in their faces? The gaze of the monks was collected and mindful, as opposed to the vague mental dispersion of the foreigners. And not only the monks, far from it. Their Bedu servants, some scurrying around with coffee or on errands, others (usually the older ones) simply reclining on some exposed stone or squatting in place, also had an aura of mental attention, at ease with silence – even, in a strange way, while talking – never bored or idle. Everything about both groups, the monks and the Bedu, from their similar robed dress to their exotic headwear to the gentle (but always heartfelt) clucking of their chatter, set them apart from the tourists.

Sometimes I would wander down to mingle with them after finishing my assigned task of working in the garden. Yet in all seven weeks of my stay at St Catherine’s, not one tourist struck up a conversation with me. Did my apron and beard make me stand out as belonging to the monastery, and did that make them feel that I was therefore out of bounds? They shouldn’t have felt so if they did, for many times I longed for the familiarity of their company. And as the monks say, perhaps to justify the disruption they cause, a man can arrive a tourist and depart a pilgrim.

That might be true, but it was hard not to leave my forays amongst them wishing they hadn’t come to disturb the place. One day a package tour of pensioners from Florida loudly asked their tour guide, ‘Is that Mount Sinai?’ pointing at an insignificant lesser peak on the side of the valley opposite the mountain of scripture. ‘Uh, why yes it is!’ the guide chimed back. Cue: all thirty of them turning as one to point and shoot away with their cameras. Maybe I should have disabused them of their guide’s callous fib, but I didn’t. Somewhere in Florida, blue-haired ladies are reverently oohing and aahing at photos of a pile of pebbles.

I am being too simplistic again. There isn’t really an unbridgeable chasm between the monks and Bedu on the one hand, and the tourists and/or pilgrims on the other. As in Cairo, it is rather a question of two contrary tendencies at work within individuals of both groups. Of the tourists, or at least of the vast majority of them, I think it safe to say that they have capitulated almost entirely to the ‘spirit of the world’, to all those ‘isms’ which one hears about less and less as they become more and more entrenched in society: materialism, consumerism, globalism, secularism. They are part of a vast global middle class (the world’s poor aren’t able to afford trips to Egypt’s historic gems, not even the poor of Egypt; and today’s fabulously rich didn’t get that way by being interested in the past) which has English as a common language, and has a shared value system and popular culture. For its members, nowhere is truly foreign any more because the artifacts of their worldwide cultural and economic imperium are close at hand wherever they go. I know because, as I said, I am one of them, and my own quest for the completely exotic is constantly being thwarted. The comforts of my civilization are always there in some form to lull me back into a postmodern malaise that is both deeply unsatisfying and almost impossible to resist. I am an outsider like the tourists, and the difference between my visit to Sinai and theirs is again one of degree, not of kind. I must believe the place touches them somewhere, that some of them at least leave a little transformed, awakened if just barely to the person inside them who remembers when the desert revealed profound mysteries, when virtue was paramount and miracles commonplace, and when the soul’s cravings left the body prostrate on the floor.

Similarly, the monks are not only gentle, peaceful sages. They are also torn in two by the pressures of modern life. They would have entered the monastery, ideally at any rate, in order to die completely to the world, to eradicate totally their egotistical selves, to struggle relentlessly against the passions and desires that distract and cloud one’s celestial vision. As it stands, however, the current situation at Sinai allows them only one foot in that metaphoric grave. A hundred years ago, the only way to St Catherine’s was by camel from Cairo, and so dire were the conditions en route that many pilgrims, then mainly poor but zealous Russians, died before they arrived. Now the monastery is a five-hour drive from the capital, and the international airport at Sharm-el-Sheikh makes getting there even easier. The seclusion which the monastery enjoyed in the past is hardly imaginable now, and today’s monks are forced to deal with everyone from the (still mostly Russian) pilgrims eager to venerate the martyr’s holy relics, to the mildly antagonistic Egyptian day-trippers, to documentary film-makers from UNESCO there to film a service of vespers.

So many distractions dilute their monastic resolve that it is not uncommon to see a monk at a nearby café mingling with tourists, or listening to the radio, or chatting on a cell phone; that is, falling short of the ideal he holds himself to. This can hardly be surprising, given the loftiness of those ideals; after all, it was precisely to forestall such otherwise unavoidable compromise that the rigors of the monastic routine and its seclusion from civilization were first imposed. And indeed their abbot encourages the monks to adopt an accommodating attitude towards the world beyond the monastery walls, to make dealing with the tourists psychologically easier. The monks are modern men, and if I can sympathize with their monastic aims – for I have harbored them myself – then I can certainly sympathize with their near powerlessness when pitted against the almost insurmountable barriers modernity puts in their way.

The difference between monks and people in the world is again only a question of degree, however great. For we are all on the same road, whatever our means of travel, and we are all confronted by the same bumps and potholes along it, however we choose to deal with them. It is the road of our common humanity, and it stands to reason that its obstacles are felt more keenly by the man who chooses to run down it and not merely walk. Yet, although his trip-ups are more severe when they happen, still as a runner his greater speed and agility perhaps make him especially fit to confront them.

Part Six: The Power of the Prophet's Word

Posted by djsmall at December 24, 2004 09:32 AM