Spiritual guidance from an ancient Christian monastery
Continuing Orthodox monasticism’s oldest unbroken tradition, Sinai monks still liturgize, shoeless, over the roots of the Burning Bush. On the holy ground where Moses was commanded to remove his sandals—together with all earthly logic—monks turn diversity’s polarizing forces to unity: some of the ways St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai (Egypt) brings Byzantium’s patristic spirit into the modern era as living tradition.
“The great and difficult journey into the desert is something desired by all who value inner peace…who reach this wilderness hoping to experience the stillness that exists between the soul and God amidst such beauty sanctified by the divine Presence—where the voice of God may still be heard.”
–His Eminence Archbishop Damianos of Sinai
One need look no further than the Monastery’s name for evidence of its universal relevance: no one really knows how or when the “Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-trodden Mountain of Sinai” became popularly known as St. Catherine’s—just that the change took hold as the Saint’s renown escalated throughout Europe and Russia. This transpired after her miracle-working relics were brought from the Monastery to Rouen in the eleventh century.
As magnet to pilgrims from every corner of the globe, the Greek Orthodox monastery embodies a past steeped not in its own reflection, but in the purity of Christ’s message. In the words of Sinai elder Father Pavlos, “Authentic love is to preserve the truth as we received it, so we may hand it on, unblemished, to those who come after us.”
At the heart of this discipline beats the Sinaite love for simplicity of soul. With freedom from sin as its object, simplicity accepts nothing man-made in place of the freedom granted humankind in Genesis—freedom not to choose between right and wrong, but from the constant necessity of doing so. Before shedding the divine likeness by failing to return God’s love, the simplicity of human nature was afflicted by none of subsequent humanity’s drift toward the destructive passions.
And the heart of simplicity of soul? The elder’s answer again betrays the clarity of an ascetic lifetime devoted to prayer: “Love God first, above all else.”
Monks at the Burning Bush devoted their first chapel to the Annunciation, the announcement by Archangel Gabriel to the All-holy Theotokos1 that she was selected by God to bestow human nature upon His Son. He who was begotten before all ages without a mother, would now be born without a father—if the Virgin agreed. Without her free consent the Incarnation could not take place—but what human logic could process such tidings? The Holy Virgin did not stop even to contemplate the censure, and worse, that greeted unwedded motherhood in her society. With her heartfelt “yes,” the living “ark of the covenant” is overlaid with gold, not by human hands to contain the words of the Law given to Moses on Sinai—but by the Holy Spirit, to contain the uncontainable Word Himself. Loving God before herself, a simple Maiden becomes the inexhaustible Treasury of life for mankind, and in the shadow of Mount Sinai, the First Commandment does not just precede the Second, it renders it possible.2 Only by loving God above all else can we hope to love our neighbor, according to Father Pavlos:
“Love begins in God. First we love God above everything and everybody. Then ourselves, for Christ said to love your neighbor as yourself. Love then goes out from us to other people, and finally, to all of Creation. (Saints have exceeded this by loving others more than themselves, but Christ does not ask this.)”
Saint Paul notes that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Lacking the simplicity of the divine likeness, our own love does not so generously tolerate our neighbor’s foibles. But in loving God first, beyond all else, we surpass our limits through union with the Source of love. When God comes to abide, to energize within us according to His perfect will, empowering our human energies with His divine ones, the inexhaustible stores of that love become our own. In the nuanced idiom of Saint Isaac the Syrian:
Love incited by something external is like a small lamp
whose flame is fed with oil, or like a stream fed by rains
where flow stops when the rains cease. But love whose object is God is like a fountain gushing forth from the earth.
Its flow never ceases, for He Himself is the source of this love
and also its food which never
Consistent with the imagery of the Burning Bush whose branches are illumined, but never consumed, by the fire of divinity, Despite the Monastery’the ascetic theology of the Sinai school unifies in an incorruptible way, for it neither supports the characterization of peoples, nor their homogenization. Both monks and their Bedouin neighbors attest to bonds of cooperation that predate the dawn of Islam. And when the Sinai was administered by the Israeli government from 1967-1979, things were very much the same. It is through our brother after all, that Christ wishes to reach us. As a result, without condescension to the passion of “people-pleasing” (cultivating others’ good opinion), a Sinai monastic soon learns to protect the inner peace of others, in order to enjoy his own.
The earliest literature attests to the operation of an infirmary by the Monastery for the benefit of its desert neighbors, a custom modernized by today’s monks with donated state-of-the-art equipment, and assistance with medicines and basic provisions. But the currents of mutual peace in this environment run much deeper than the superficialities of economic philanthropy: The Sinai tradition is rooted in profound respect for the freedom of others—the philanthropy of the Holy Trinity.
The granite wilderness is a soft and beautiful one, of many hues. But the lack of greenery starves the soul for the consolation of foliage. One turns inward for shade, to the only refuge available, the shelter of the will of God, for as the mountains suspended all about gently confide, there is no other.
Accepting and accepted by all, without sensing any need to blur the distinctions that characterize its own confession of faith, it is a question how the Sinai community retained its Greek identity under the political pressures of so extended a timeline, in a far-flung outpost of the empire, and indeed, so many centuries after its fall. Or, more to the point, how did the community’s Greek identity absorb successive influences into a “unity of diversity,” rather than the opposite—the diverse “unity” that eats away from within at the civilizations of the so-called “Enlightenment”? Having never bowed to demands that replaced the glorification of God with that of man, the eternal present of Mount Sinai spans untold ages as night yet hands its glory to day, and day to night, in the incandescent liturgies of the Burning Bush chapel. Illumined only by the flicker of candlelight on golden mosaic, enigmatic mysteries locked within early antiquity’s sacred masterworks emerge into relief with each approaching dawn, only to recede once more into the shadows of midnight vigils, as subdued tones of ancient Byzantine chant suggest that the sixth century simply never ended in Sinai.
Of course, the Byzantine identity that yet typifies the community has always extended beyond the Greek one, in the modern sense at least, if it reflected the collective consciousness of what was then considered the civilized world. Does it suffice then, to note that Byzantium’s culture always transcended provincial limits, in that, following Roman precedent, the empire united the plethora of cultures surrounding the Mediterranean under a commonality of shared values?
Shared values however are not moribund ones. The momentum of classical philosophy’s relentless search for truth fueled the tension between Greek Christianity and Platonist schools that innervated the intellectual life of late antiquity well into the Byzantine era.3 Tracing the influence of Hellenistic and Judaic thought upon one another through the evolution of classical concepts like divine energeia, as the first monastics sought union with God in the Uncreated Light of the Burning Bush, it quickly emerges how dynamic were the prevailing forces that preserved the Sinaite worldview from the idiosyncrasies of self-absorption. The visions that shaped it were too disparate; their sources too deep in the ancient world.
Despite the Monastery’s location on the remote frontier of the empire, the literature proves Sinai’s early monks to have been surprisingly tuned in to the currents of their times. The prolific Anastasios of Sinai for one, is noted for his writings on the monothelite controversies of the seventh century; before him, John Klimakos demonstrates fluency with theological concerns throughout his Ladder of Divine Ascent, remarking at the outset that following Christ is contingent upon accurate belief in the Holy Trinity. Reading Monastery history by the light of its own legacy, Sinai Librarian Father Justin cites the complexity of Sinai’s vast manuscript collection as evidence of a world “more interconnected than scholars have often been willing to grant.”
It is said that a society disgorges both its least and most innovative personalities to distant shores. If so, those who landed on the Sinai’s presumably populated the creative end of the spectrum; unable to assimilate and adapt, who could have survived such a harsh environment? More to the point, who could have met the challenge of its granite silence? “If God has not first seized hold of a man’s heart,” says Father Pavlos, “it is impossible for him to endure stillness.” Anyone who has tried it knows that solitude is not for the faint-hearted, for as manifested by the immaterial fire of the Burning Bush, God is beyond everything we know. In order to find Him, one must be willing to eclipse the limits of his own understanding, for God is describable only by what He is not—unlimited, inconceivable, ineffable, boundless. Orthodox theology thus looks beyond intellectual contemplation to experiential knowledge of God, the personal experience of His divine energies. Outside human logic, this is the essence of the life of the monk—indeed of all Christian life—and where unity exists, it can only start here.
Christ Himself gives the example when, demonstrating love for His Father’s will above His own, he joins His human will to His Father’s divine one. Noting that Christ “recoils from death, but does not tremble at it,” John Klimakos points out that Christ has not only a divine will but a human one; not only divine energies, but human as well.4 Praying let not my will, but yours be done, He teaches His followers “with the sermon of His own life,” as Father Pavlos says, how they may be one, as we are one.5 Pursuing peace without embracing such realities would be tantamount to treading water in order to cross the English Channel.
LOVING GOD FIRST MEANS NOT JUDGING OTHERSMonasteries therefore are devoted not to ideas but to their practical application. Continuing a timeline reaching back nearly into the Apostolic age, the Sinai Monastery’s focus on the First Commandment brings it into the modern era as a globally recognized paradigm of tolerance—tolerance based not on enduring one’s neighbor, but on not judging him. As a monastery treasurer shared one day from his own spiritual treasury, “Criticize someone, and you’ve lost him…”
Loving God does not take place in the emotions, but by trying to know Him. And the path to knowledge of God? As man is made in the image and likeness of God—deeper knowledge of self, says Saint Anastasios of Sinai. Self-knowledge, in turn, is won through the struggle to keep the Commandments, such as Judge not, that you not be judged. Much differently, as God reserves judgment to Himself, the one who usurps this prerogative makes of himself a false god, say the patristic saints. And what has ever been more destructive to this planet than the worship of its false gods?
Refraining from judging, one is free to love. A little known spiritual law says that such love inspires our neighbor’s repentance, for while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. But the opposite holds equally true: our judgment obstructs another’s repentance. Thus, having uttered nothing more than a spontaneous “Ouph!” over a brother’s failing, Sinai’s John the Sabbaite suddenly found himself transported in a vision to Golgotha, cast out from the presence of the crucified Lord as an antichrist. Not one, but seven years of repentance ensued before the Saint understood himself once again admitted to the monastic ranks.
Citing the accounts of John Klimakos and other Sinai saints, Father Pavlos calls the refusal to judge others the quintessential Sinaite virtue. “God has a gift for each one of us,” he says, “but when we condemn others, the grace of God abandons us.” The elder is unequivocal, lack of peace with our neighbor is the symptom of something much more egregious: our own lack of love—for God, first.
With little to rely on in this harsh desert, one instinctively understands that the great equalizer is not death or taxes, but fidelity to the word of God. Truth, as the ancients had already discerned centuries before the Incarnation of Christ, is not a matter of what one knows, but what he does. From the moment the Sun of Righteousness shines forth upon all Creation from the Burning “Bush of the Holy Virgin,”6 there are no longer any shadows on the path to divine ascent.
A ROYAL PRIESTHOODAs the spiritual ladder by which God descended in order to transport those on earth to heaven, the simplicity of the Holy Theotokos is humanity’s bridge from the idea of God, to the reality. If the Son of Man had not come to dwell amongst us as the ineffable union of His divine and human natures, who could undertake to worship the one God in three Persons? Much less to participate in the unity of the triune God through union with the divine energies?
Moses had to remove his sandals in order to approach God with “the footstep of his mind bare, completely free from any human trains of thought,”7 and on the holy ground of Sinai where all were called to become members of the royal priesthood, divine logic engenders true equality. Contrary to the West’s philosophical theology in which personality diminishes with contemplation of the divine essence, participation in God for the Orthodox East means the fulfillment of personhood; creativity is not diminished but enhanced when the will, no longer deceived into according substance to the nothingness of evil, is filled with light. The ineffable fire of the Bush proves to Moses that the unknowable God is knowable—not in His essence but in His fiery divine energies—by anyone who strives for purity of soul. With such a prospect within reach, open dialog and initiative weave a monastic obedience in Sinai of which freedom is soul. No one is held back by linguistic differences for instance; monastics need nothing but the Jesus Prayer to embrace Christ with their heart in any language. If the archaic liturgical prayers are understandable, they follow them simultaneously. If not, undistracted by the intricate metaphor of Byzantium’s lyrical poetry, one enters the heart that much sooner.8 The ethos is anything but insular, even if inspired by the mystical theology of early Christianity—or rather, because it is….
“The wish for heavenly prosperity is not owned by Christians but belongs to peoples of all backgrounds,” noted Archbishop Damianos. “May we all remember not to remain enclosed within the confines of our own faith, but to operate outside it as well to the betterment of all those in need.”
Only by discovering the image of God in every other person does one discover the image in his own self, say the Eastern saints, to become by grace what God is by nature. Thus, equality for a monk is to see himself lower than all Creation.
Logistically then, when the Sinai monks join the Monastery’s Bedouin workers to bake their shared bread ration for the week, the combined forces traditionally include the personage of the Archbishop and Abbot of Sinai, who travels on a diplomatic passport and routinely hosts heads of Church and state. Asked why “all hands on deck” includes the captain of the ship, Father Pavlos replied with characteristic economy, “The great of this world participate in its great works.”
Or, as His Eminence once warned one of his monastics with uncharacteristic severity: “When you become head of a monastery, make no mistake—you will be the servant of all!”
Like the Sinaite antipathy for condemnation of others, such equality derives not from a fabricated, cosmetic unity, but from the simplicity inherent in loving God first—the virtue which incites the grace of the Holy Trinity to dwell within those who undertake to worship Christ in spirit and truth—that they may be one.
“A recent Greek politician pointed out that all political problems are solvable within democracy,” noted Archbishop Damianos, “and it can equally be said that all spiritual problems are solvable within Orthodoxy.”
As though sensing the monks’ regard for simplicity as the link between human freedom and divine grace, the global community is drawn to the sublime sunrises and sunsets of the Sinai wilderness as to a luminous force for stability in a world gone awry. If the timeless wisdom of Orthodox Christianity preserves the solutions to all spiritual problems, St. Catherine’s living paradigm of a peace that links late antiquity with the twenty-first century sheds light on the reason why:
Reverencing the free choice granted mankind by the Holy Trinity, the Sinai tradition values the inner peace of one’s neighbor as one’s own. Just as God Himself is “simple and uncompounded,” so does He wish the souls who approach Him to be simple and guileless, wrote Saint John Klimakos in his Ladder.9 But the disposition to apply one’s narrow logic to the judgment of others is not so easily replaced by the disposition to apply Christ’s logic to their salvation! And yet, as members of the royal priesthood, we are called to become vehicles of grace toward the peace of our neighbor.
Fortunately however, grace is contingent not upon success, but effort, the effort to return the soul from a synthetic state to one uncompounded by the passions; to the likeness of God, according to the prototype of simplicity offered humanity at the Annunciation to the Holy Theotokos—to whom not only the Burning Bush Chapel, but the Sinai monastery itself is dedicated.
Loving God’s will above its own, simplicity supports the freedom, thus the peace of others, for freedom from the passions embitters none with their importunate desires. According to the image of the divine Persons of the Holy Trinity who are not three gods, but three Persons in one essence, simplicity thus renders the diversity of human nature the means of its unity, for peace returns upon itself. All things are possible in union with God’s divine logic, including unity in diversity, for the Son of Man is true to His promise:
I have said these things to you,
that in me you may have peace.
In the world you will have tribulation.
But take courage, I have overcome
the world. ♦
1 “Birth-giver of God”.
2 Mark 12.28-31
3 Propelled by the teachings of such prominent figures as Philo of Alexandria and Plotinus.
4 Step 6, PG 88: 793BC
5 John 17.11,22
6 Andrew Louth, tr., Maximus the Confessor, Difficulty 10 (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 121. (PG 91: 1148D).
8 “Let us toil like David, crying the ‘Lord Jesus Christ’; may our throat not become hoarse and may our spiritual eyes not become tired of hoping in the Lord our God, constantly bearing in mind the parable of the unjust judge, which the Lord related in order to show us that we ought always to pray and not lose heart… (cf. Luke 18:1-8). Just as he who gazes toward the sun cannot fail to suffuse his countenance in light, thusly he who bends down constantly into the spiritual world of his heart cannot fail to be illumined.” In this text from his treatise On Watchfulness and Holiness (PG Migne 93: 1513A), Saint Hesychios of Sinai cites a shortened form of the ancient prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”
9 Step 24, PG 88: 984B
For more information about Mt. Sinai, please visit mountsinaimonastery.org