A night in a monastery ? a few thoughts?
A few months back I had occasion to visit Egypt ? Hurghada to be specific and thought what an opportunity even this brief visit offered to visit one of my favourite monasteries, the Monastery of Saint Paul by the Red Sea. I phoned a monk there that I knew but he turned out to be in Cairo and unable to return to the monastery that weekend ? nor had he been able to contact Bishop Daniel at the monastery to inform him of my intended visit but he assured me I should still go anyway. So I set off by taxi on Saturday afternoon, the drivers speaking Arabic and me English ? rather like the television credit card advert I once saw in which buyer and seller are both fluent but unfortunately not in the same language! Despite one wrong turning into some town or other where we were efficiently redirected from the attendant at the Church compound gate we arrived in a little over three hours with the arrangement that they would return at noon on the Sunday. Vespers had started so I joined at the back of the Church for the remaining time and lined up with the rest to receive the bishop?s blessing at the end. I was then taken by Fr Benjamin to the bishop?s study and there was no problem about me staying the night, indeed they seemed genuinely pleased and even delighted that I should travel so far to be with them for one night. Several people remembered me from our visit with Abba Seraphim the year before.
I snatched nearly two hours? sleep and joined them at 11 pm for the Midnight Office, the Midnight Praises, the Hours, Matins and Liturgy? finishing at five past four. Yes, of course, it was tiring, even demanding but I am glad I did it (even having to follow along with varying quality of translation, ably guided at times by Fr Benjamin). I was given one paragraph to pray from an English translation in the Liturgy. I did have to sit down a couple of times but then so did most there ? and I was one of those there from start to finish. They very much appreciated my efforts in being with them ? and I very much appreciated them allowing me to be with them.
But how to articulate something of the inner aspect, the spirituality, the inner essence of it all? I will and as I am able to articulate any of it, God Willing, offer these brief thoughts:
From Psalm 134 (Western notation): "Behold, bless ye the LORD, all ye servants of the LORD, which by night stand in the house of the LORD. Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, and bless the LORD." While the world slept or maybe partied or whatever else, through the hours of the night prayers and praises were offered up in monasteries across the deserts...
Then Isaiah 35:1 "The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose." Not for the first time I am aware of the garden of spirituality that ever blossoms in these deserts, of the beautiful flowers of praise and heavenly virtue that grow here unseen by the world but beautiful before the eyes of Him Who sees all things. I recall my first visit to this monastery in 2002 when on a Sunday evening I watched the hermit monks walking off into the desert in various directions, returning to their hermit caves for another week alone with God (before returning to the monastery the next Saturday for evening Vespers, then on Sunday the Liturgy and, as I have now shared, the all night prayers between) and sitting there the verse came to me "And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day" for it slowly dawned on me that this desert, if only I shifted my perspective, was really Paradise. That was when I first began to muse on that verse about the desert blossoming as a garden or as a rose...
And finally, from Hosea 14:5 "he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon." The image is of a beautiful flower, the pure lily, seen, visible, on the surface but sustained by deep and massive roots, unseen, invisible, below the surface, even roots as the cedars of Lebanon. This is true both for each one of us as persons even as it is true for the life of the Church - it is ever the unseen life of prayer that sustains and upholds the beautiful and saintly life at which we marvel. Would I live a life more like the saints? Then I have my answer - put down deep roots in secret, unseen by the world around me. "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly." (Matthew 5:6) That verse could be a commentary on the verse from Hosea. And with this I finish for now, I feel like some secret night time gardener who has been allowed to delicately dig and see something of the vast unseen roots below the beautiful flower on the surface... or maybe I was just a worm wriggling its way past those roots one night...
All I know is that those five hours in that monastery Church, from eleven o'clock through to four, were as precious as they were brief.