I do not have high hopes for my visit to St. Anthony’s Monastery. I visited Sinai’s St. Catherine’s Monastery several days ago. I was only able to spend fifteen minutes in the actual monastery. I saw a purported cutting from the original “burning bush,” the well where Moses met his future wife Zipporah, and the church where I lit a candle in prayer. Father Justin, the American monk with the keys to the library was in Cairo. The museum was closed for repairs. I was quite disappointed with my fifteen-minute visit.
We left the Pyramids Hotel at 6:30 AM. It was a long drive back to the Red Sea and then inland for another forty-fifty kilometers. Mohammad, our driver, made good time as we arrived at 9:30AM. Before the heat built, we decided to hike to St. Anthony’s cave. While Mohammad parked the car, and probably slept, in the parking area behind the monastery, Mustafa and I began the hike. We were the only ones making the trek. We looked at each other as we saw our destination. Marked by three crosses, the cave was at least a mile away and probably five-hundred meters up the face of a cliff. Although we didn’t stop at several shaded rest areas, we did slow our pace as we made our way to the cave. Mustafa huffed and puffed as we ascend the hundreds of poured steps to the cave. He wasn’t in the best shape for this adventure.
Within an hour, we reached the cave. It was a narrow slit maybe two feet wide in the face of the cliff. Each of us walked sideways to a small chamber approximately ten feet wide and fifteen feet long. St. Anthony called this home for many years. Where did Anthony get food? Where did Anthony get water? I have no idea.
We stayed in the cave for only a few minutes. At one end of the cave was a small stone altar with icons of Jesus and St. Anthony. While I had questions about the cave and St. Anthony, I had no questions about the cave’s effect upon Mustafa and me. Mustafa, the Muslim, bowed in prayer. I, the Christian, bowed in prayer. In our own languages of Arabic and English, we prayed our separate prayers standing side-by-side in this quiet and lonely place.
Despite some basic differences, Mustafa and I spoke “religious talk” for two or three minutes on our descent. I said: “We share much despite our differences.” Mustafa responded: “Yes, who can’t feel that there is a Creator, a Provider, a Final Judge.” I said: “It would probably please God if Christians and Muslims saw some similarities about the God we worship rather than fighting each other because of differences.” Moments like those few minutes in prayer fuel my desire to overcome misunderstanding and hatred between Christians and Muslims.
We passed a chapel. Earlier nobody was there; now four monks and two lay people were there. The small chapel smelled of incense. A priest walked counterclockwise around the altar reciting a prayer. The two lay people took turns reading from the Bible. After ten minutes I stepped outside. One of the two men from Alexandria followed me. “This is a special Lenten service. I have come for years during Lent to hear the words and share in the Eucharist here. It will only last another hour. You are welcome to stay.” I said thank-you but I must decline to stay because of our limited time at the monastery. I guess I did have some hope of visiting the monastery.
It was now noon. After our hike, we had a quick lunch in the “Canteen of St. Anthony’s Monastery.” We were the only two eating. But it is a good, simple meal.
We finished our meal and walked toward the main entrance to St. Anthony’s Monastery. Mustafa spoke to the gateman. I could tell that Mustafa looked relieved. “He’ll take us to Father Ruwais Anthony. He’ll show us around the monastery.” Eventually we stopped at a cell. Father Anthony emerged. If he ever needed another vocation besides being a monk at Saint Anthony’s, he had a future as a Santa Claus. He had that perfect white beard and mustache, a “twinkle” in his eye, and a rather healthy stomach. Father Anthony, however, did have one problem. If he had already played the role of Santa Claus, he landed too hard after coming down a chimney. He walked with a definite limp. “I broke my leg a couple of months ago. My leg still isn’t completely well.” Holding onto the gatekeeper’s arm, Father Anthony moved to greet us and shake our hands.
He was a delightful and fun elder monk in his late 70’s. Speaking understandable English, he quickly let me know that he visited Seattle in 1981. He added: “The home of Microsoft and Starbucks.”
I quickly realized that he was going to be my “tour guide” but in an unusual manner. He explained the sites we were to visit, and then gave the keys to Mustafa to unlock the doors. We saw the guardroom above the monastery’s entrance; we saw the a small spring, the only source of water for this desert monastery; we saw the church where monks were conducting a Lenten service. Father Anthony said: “Usually our noon service is only an hour. During Lent, the noon service lasts three hours.” Outside the church, he explained that 1500 years ago all the monks sought safety in this church only to be slaughtered by Bedouins. In 1996, there was a small fire. The icons and the murals decorating the church were smoke-damaged. ”Due to the kindness of Italians and Americans, we were able to restore the church.”
As we moved towards the bookstore and the gate, he asked me where I am traveling next. “I’ll be in Jerusalem for about five or six weeks.” Without saying a word, he rolled up his robe’s right sleeve. Tattoed on his right forearm is a large cross tattoo. Written above the cross was “Jerusalem;” written below the cross was “2016.” He was as proud as one of my young students who has a new tattoo!
I asked him my usual question: “If you were to stand in front of my students what would you say?” He responded: “Be serious. Be serious in your studies; be serious in your work; be serious in your humor. Like Ecclesiastes 3, there is a time for everything. A time to laugh and a time to stop laughing. A time to sow and a time to reap.”
When he finished, he said: “I want to ask you a question. What is the difference between meditation and contemplation?” I was surprised. I paused and gave a rambling answer about the difference between meditation and prayer, not meditation and contemplation, from my point of view. When I paused to take a breath, he answers his own question. “Meditation is a more general pondering of God’s will in life; contemplation is a more focused seeking of God’s will.” With that he walked me to the gate. After leaving a donation, Mustafa and I left St. Anthony’s.
I was fortunate to spend five hours at St. Anthony’s Monastery. I was grateful for pausing in prayer with Mustafa, a Muslim, at the cave of a Christian saint. I was grateful for being asked a question by Father Ruwais Anthony, a man who has spent most of his entire life engaged in meditation, contemplation, and prayer. His question will remain with me.