We start at the river Jordan near the place where our Lord Jesus Christ was baptized and before He went out into the wilderness to be tempted by the Evil one for 40 days.
I am always taken aback by how huge and momentous events in the Holy Land happened in places which, to our modern eye, look so small and modest. The river Jordan where late one afternoon as the sun was setting, we pilgrims immersed ourselves in memory of Christ’s baptism, is no wider than 10 metres. Wearing our white shrouds bought specially for the occasion and insisted upon by our Russian monastic guide Natasha we plunged into the muddy waters of the Jordan. It was a beautiful lush spot with palms waving in the soft evening breeze. On the opposite side a honey-coloured church with a gold dome shone in the sun. It was a surprise to find that the bottom of the river was soft with silty mud and that an invisible wooden fence had been constructed beneath the water lengthways to prevent keen pilgrims from swimming across the river which marked the frontier between Israel and Jordan! This was reinforced by two Israeli soldiers who looked on lackadaisically from some benches above us with their Kalashnikovs over their knees.
Within view was the hill from which Elijah traditionally ascended to heaven in a chariot. As we drove away in the dusk we passed the monastery of St John the Baptist, built on the spot where St Mary of Egypt is believed to have spent her first night after venerating the Cross at the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem which she had eventually managed to do after repenting her former way of life.
After Christ was baptized He is believed to have gone to the Mount of Temptation where he spent 40 days in prayer and fasting. A long steep climb took us half way up to the 19th century monastery which replaced a much earlier 4th century one (destroyed in the 7th century by the Persians) which was built over the cave where Christ is believed to have stayed. Beyond the catholicon dedicated to the Annunciation of the Mother of God is a small chapel with some very beautiful half-finished modern frescoes painted by a monk iconographer who had had to leave the monastery before finishing them perhaps because of the hardness of life in such an isolated place. At the time of our visit there was only one monk occupying the monastery.
After our visit Metropolitan Kallistos told a sinister story of something that had happened to him when he had visited the Mount of Temptation over 50 years before when there were no visitors or pilgrims at all. After a long and thirsty climb he reached the summit. He walked around, there was no one else there. However he had the distinct feeling someone was behind him. But upon turning to see who it was he saw no-one. Finally feeling the need for some sustenance he sat down on the edge of the cliff and opened a very small packet of sandwiches he had brought with him. At that moment a sharp gust of wind tore the sandwiches out of his hand and thrust them out into the abyss before him. He said there was no doubt in his mind who was responsible!
The Judean desert where we spent at least two days was spectacular. Our Saviour prayed and rested here many times. It was also the home of many Old Testament prophets such as St Elijah, St Elisha as well as St John the Baptist who bridges both Old and New Testaments. It was thrilling to learn that under the asphalt of the modern road along which we travelled to the Monastery of Chozeva was the road along which Jesus walked on from Jerusalem to Jericho and the deep gorge (the Wadi Kelt) running parallel to it would have been the backdrop to the parable of the Good Samaritan. A steep walk down into the gorge – and up the other side – brought us to this ancient and holy site.
One of the most ancient monasteries in Palestine, its primary founder was St John of Chozeva (mentioned by Evagrius and John Moscos in the 6th century and a contemporary of St Sabbas and St Theodosius whose monasteries we also visited) St John transformed the monastery from a few caves centered on a church built by Syrian hermits in the early 5th century into a lavra-cenobium with both cells for anchorites (caves honeycomb both sides of the Wadi) and communal living areas. It flourished from the end of the 5th century until the beginning of the 7th century and once numbered 5,000 monks! Persian invaders slew 4,000 but St George of Chozeva collected many of the monks who had dispersed after the Persian onslaught and the monastery survived until the 12th century when it was rebuilt by Emperor Manuel 1 Comnenus. Abandoned in the 13th century, restoration began in 1878.
Even as we approached one could see a ladder leading up the sheer cliff to a dwelling clinging like a bird’s nest to the face of the cliff near to the monastery building. Only 7 monks live in the monastery today while one lives as a solitary in the desert. Above the roof of the church, dedicated to the Nativity of the Virgin, and near the dome is the cave where St Elijah hid for two years fleeing the wrath of the king of Samaria, Ahab and Jezebel, fed by a raven twice a day and drinking from the brook below (1Kings 17:5-6) It was also in this cave that Joachim prayed to have a child while his wife Anne shut herself up at home in Jerusalem and also begged God for the same. An angel answered both their prayers and they became the parents of the Virgin Mary. Tradition has it that after the Mother of God was brought to the Temple St Anna lived in asceticism in the area of the ravine that bears her name.
The monastery contains not only the relics of St John and George the Chozevite but also the relics of St John the New (a Romanian monk) who lived in harsh asceticism in one of the caves in an area called the Skete of St Anne further along the ravine towards Jericho. He died at the age of 48 in 1960. His incorrupt relics were brought to the monastery in1980. The Abbot told us that a year before a woman with terrible back problems had come to pray at his relics and had been healed on the spot.
Equally wonderful was our visit to the Monastery of St Sabbas. Built on the steep slope of the Kedron Valley between Bethlehem and the Dead Sea the Great Lavra of St Sabbas is the most important monastery in the Judean desert and ranks with St Catherine’s Monastery on Sinai as one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world. Also known as Mar Saba, it influenced the development of the Orthodox Church services and Typicon . Founded in 485 by St Sabbas, a monk from Cappadocia, it has been almost constantly inhabited for over 1500 years and has been the home of many other important saints of the church including St John of Damascus.
Only the men in our party could enter the monastery precincts but we women were able to climb a tall hill to the side and look down into the monastery’s courtyards and admire the refurbishments carried out by the Greek Patriachate in a totally contemporary but excellent style. By tradition St Sabbas’s mother built the Women’s Tower nearby for just this purpose for she also was not allowed to enter the monastery! We were also able to see across the ravine to the cave where St Sabbas had lived alone for the first five years. An opening in the cave is marked by a grill with a white Cross set between the letters A and C (Abba Sabbas).
In need of water St Sabbas prayed to God from his cave and noticed a wild ass digging in the moonlight with its hooves. He saw the ass drink from the hole and realized God had sent him and his fellow monks water. This spring still exists and can be reached in a small chapel at the base of today’s monastery. Another night St Sabbas left his cave and while in prayer saw a pillar of fire on the western slope of the ravine where his tomb now stands between two churches. Thanking God he discovered a large cave in the shape of a church and held church services there. It is known as Theoktistos (God-built) and is now dedicated to St Nicholas.
During its heyday the monastery was home to over 300 monks. Today there are fewer than 20. The day we arrived there were celebrations taking place of the 50th anniversary of the return of the relics of St Sabbas himself. They had been taken to Venice by Crusaders in the 12th century and returned by Pope Paul VI in 1965 as a gesture of goodwill towards the Orthodox Church. Our party managed to venerate his incorrupt relics though sadly not those of St John of Damascus which are kept in the cave where he lived for 20 years writing in defence of Orthodoxy against heresy and Islam and composing many hymns including the Paschal Canon which begins ‘It is the day of Resurrection, let us be radiant O ye people…’
The last but one monastery we visited was the Monastery of St Theodosius, the Cenobiarch, in the desert near Bethlehem. From Cappadocia like St Sabbas St Theodosius with the blessing of St Simeon the Stylite who prophesied his many good works. After living under obedience to the elder Longinus he retired to a small cave where others wishing to become monks gathered around him and entreated him to build a monastery. He took a censer and placing in it unlit charcoal and incense he prayed to God to show him the site by igniting the charcoal and sending forth incense. As St Theodosius crossed the desert the coal lit itself near a cave which was later revealed by God to St Theodosius to be the cave where the Magi stopped on their way back to their own country after worshipping the Saviour in Bethlehem. The monastery was founded in 465 and became the centre for cenobitic monasticism just as St Sabbas’s was for anchorites.
At one time it was home to about 700 monks of different nationalities. St Theodosius was very compassionate, a model of asceticism and philanthropic to wards huge numbers of people. Once when there was a famine in Palestine he allowed everyone into the monastery enclosure. Some of his monks fearing there would not be enough food to feed everyone became annoyed but when they went to the bakery they saw that it was filled with bread. This miracle was repeated every time St Theodosius wanted to help the destitute. He also took in the mentally ill, built a home for strangers as well as separate infirmaries for monks and laymen and a hospice for the dying.
In the 7th century the monastery was decimated by the Persian invaders, and for 400 years it was uninhabited. Today however one can venerate the tombs of many well known saints including St Theodosius himself, St Sophronius, once an abbot of the monastery and later Patriarch of Jerusalem, St Eulogia mother of St Theodosius, St Sophia, mother of St Sabbas, St Theodote, mother of Sts Cosmas and Damian, and John Moscos, the author of the Spiritual Meadows. Today a few nuns occupy the monastery which is built out of the most lovely honey-coloured stone to the highest standard.
Finally we conclude this part of my pilgrimage account near where we began – a few metres from the place where our Lord was baptized in the Jordan – at the Monastery of St Gerasimos. Founded in the mid 5th century in the southeast of the Jericho Valley, and named after St Gerasimos (famed for his pet lion) it was also traditionally built over a cave where Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus sheltered in a cave while fleeing Herod the Great. The ground floor crypt beneath the Monastery church commemorates this with an icon of the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and a painting of Mary nursing Jesus at her breast. The Monastery is also known for being the home of St Zosimas who was to meet St Mary of Egypt on one of his customary retreats into the desert during Great Lent.
St Gerasimos, like St Theodosius and St Sabbas originated from present day Turkey. He was the first to combine both the hermit and cenobitic ways of life in one monastery by bringing together hermits from their surrounding caves on Saturdays and Sundays in order to worship together and meet each other. He is believed to have attended the Council of Chalcedon in 451 where the two natures of Christ – both truly God and truly man in one person – were established.
Destroyed by the Persians in 614 like so many others in the Judean desert, the monastery was restored and rebuilt several times until it was finally rebuilt in the 19th century. It stands alone fortress-like in the desert, a lush oasis compared with the barren desert. Outside is a fine bronze sculpture of St Gerasimos’s lion who, after having had a thorn extracted from his paw by the saint would not be separated from him. He was given the responsibility of tending the monastery’s donkey while it grazed and brought it to the river Jordan to bring water to the monks. A passing caravan stole the donkey while the lion slept who then returned in shame to the saint. St Gerasimos supposing the lion had eaten the donkey made him do all the tasks the donkey had done. When the caravan returned the lion recognized the donkey and taking the lead animal’s halter in his mouth led the whole caravan back to the monastery thus exonerating himself. When St Gerasimos died the lion was inconsolable and stayed at the saint’s grave mourning his loss. He died three days later.
The love of creatures is still apparent for inside the monastery a cacophony of cheerful bird song from the many cages of cockateels and other birds greeted us as we assuaged our thirst with Monastery wine!
We felt very privileged to have visited all these monasteries and only pray that the few monks who still inhabit them will survive the distressing exodus of Christians from the Holy Land. A Palestinian taxi driver informed us that less than 1% of the population of the West Bank is Christian. On an encouraging note however the standard of restoration of the monasteries and churches both by the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre and the Russian Patriarchate is extremely high and I look forward to sharing with you more of the sites we visited in future issues.
By Veronica Davies, 2016