St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai claims to have THE burning bush. Well, actually, a shoot from THE burning bush that has grown its own foliage very nicely. The support for their belief? It’s the only bush of its kind on the whole Sinai Peninsula. The kind Orthodox monk, Father Nilus, who escorted us around the monastery whenever we pestered him, seemed to really believe that this was the real thing, no questions asked. I guess most of the monks I’ve met in my life have been American Jesuits or Benedictines, who are much less interested in relics.
Western Protestants that we are, K, Red Bull and I had a hard time grasping what relics are all about. Especially when we visited the monastery’s charnel house.
St. Catherine’s is in the middle of a big desert, and thus the ground is hard, dry, and generally not conducive to digging. So the monastery has a very small graveyard that can hold about six bodies at a time. They bury the dead monks for a couple of years, wait for them to decay (or not), then dig them up again and place their bones in the charnel house.
The first thing that struck us when we entered the charnel house was the smell. It didn’t smell like dead, rotting animals—it was sickeningly sweet. Father Nilus told us that it was the odor of holiness, and we nodded and smiled, thinking to ourselves, “Ack! Smells like death!” For once, we were actually relieved by the smell of incense when a pilgrim began to burn some.
Then there were the bones: skulls piled on the left, body bones piled on the right, each stack contained by a ceiling-to-floor cage of chicken wire. On both sides, they rose higher than my head. On the right, the monk skeletons were placed mostly with feet towards us. On some of the feet, you could see bits of yellow-gray skin.
Father Nilus must have noticed us looking at the fleshy bits, and he explained to us that remnants of uncorrupted flesh were a sign of the monk’s special sanctity. More nodding and smiling from us.
I should probably explain a bit here about the Orthodox theology of the human body. While at Sinai, I was reading from Timothy (or Kallistos) Ware’s book The Orthodox Church, so almost everything I know about Orthodoxy comes from there. So. The Orthodox emphasize “deification,” by which they mean humans coming to reflect more and more the image of God, both spiritually and physically. Full deification and transfiguration of the body happens at the Last Day, but, in this life, “some saints have experienced the firstfruits of this visible and bodily glorification.” Ware further explains, “Because Orthodox are convinced that the body is sanctified and transfigured together with the soul, they have an immense reverence for the relics of the saints.”
Ware’s explanation helped me to appreciate the Orthodox theology of the body intellectually—much of it accords with my own emphasis on Christ’s Incarnation and what that means for human bodies. I just have a hard time reconciling it with stinky bones.
Byzantine art actually expressed the Orthodox idea of deification in a way I could better appreciate. K had already explained the common artistic motif of the “Deisis” to me: when you see an image of Christ in the middle, with Mary on one side and John the Baptist on the other, that’s a Deisis. Father Nilus told us that John and Mary represent the highest perfection non-divine humanity could attain, male and female. As such, they are a reminder of what we are created to be. They are a kind of new Adam and Eve. The choice of John the Baptist for this symbol comes from Matthew 11:11, in which Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen none greater than John the Baptist.” Then Jesus adds, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” There you go. Deification: redeemed humanity returning to our created selves, reflecting God’s image.
(As a completely random side note, the next verse, Matthew 12:12, is the source for Flannery O’Connor’s novel title The Violent Bear It Away, which everyone should read at least twice in his or her life. Just had to put in a plug for my favorite peacock-lovin’ author there.)
Another powerful motif was the image of Mary, with a small Christ inside her, within the burning bush. Why this pairing, you may very well ask? The burning bush was seen as a forerunner to the Incarnation, a type showing how God could enter creation without destroying it (the bush was burned but not consumed, etc.). Similarly, God became incarnate in Mary’s womb without destroying her. (Some interpretations focus on Mary’s virginity, i.e., she became pregnant without her hymen being ruptured, but this seems pretty narrow to me. If you really think of a powerful God whose face was so awe-inspiring that it couldn’t be revealed to Moses without killing him, it’s really amazing—and much more interesting, say I—to think of how God could dwell within a human body at all.)
These symbols were what I carried away from Sinai (along with probably a lot of camel dung on my shoes).
But, to end on a lighter note, Father Nilus also lent us a translation of “Various Narrations of Anastasios the humble monk concerning the holy fathers in Sinai.” Yes! Most of you know that reading early hagiography is one of my favorite pastimes (I know I’m weird, but they’re really delightful). Here’s one of my favorites, which I copied down by hand (like a monk!):
A few years ago there occurred through the permission of the Lord an epidemic in our desert and a certain virtuous blessed father, coming to his end, was buried in the cemetery of the fathers. The next day one of the careless brothers died and was buried on top of the body of the blessed man. When after one day another of the fathers came to his end, coming to deposit his relics, they found that the blessed man had thrown out the body of the careless brother. Thinking that it had happened by accident and not that it was something miraculous, they took him again and buried the brother on top of the body. And arriving the next day, they found again that the father had cast out the brother.
Learning of this, the hegumenos [abbot] of the monastery arrived and, coming to the tomb, spoke to the one who had died: “Abba [Father] John, in your life you were meek and slow to anger and supported all, and now do you cast out the brother?” And taking the relics of the brother with his own hands, he placed them on the elder’s. And he said to him again, “Bear with the brother, Abba John, just as God bears with the sins of the world.” And for that day the elder did not cast out the body of the brother.
Makes me feel better about the charnel house, to think of all those bones in there, squabbling and then forgiving each other.
Add comment September 28th, 2006