Monday, July 25, 2005


Viewed from the top of Sarantaporos monastery, the mountain upon which Satan tempted Christ with temporal mastery of the entire world, Jericho spreads out flat like a woven green carpet thrown over the harshness of the stony Judean desert. This is monk country and it is no wonder that Sarantaporos mountain looms harsh and stark against the blinding midday sun as it rises high above the plain in an attempt to return to its maker. This is also the land of the hunted and of refugees. The mountains are dotted with caverns, hollowed out by monks who weary of the world and its temptations, sought refuge from it in times past, in the extreme nullity of the desert.
One of these, occupying pride of place in the monastery of St John the Hozevite, is the cavern of the prophet Elias, who sought refuge from the persecution of the depraved Israelite queen Jezebel. This monastery is situated in a miniscule model of the Grand Canyon. The endless course of an ancient river has carved deep incisions into the surrounding wilderness, providing not only a place of refuge but life itself. The disparity between the deathly yellow stone surrounding the valley and the verdant oasis surrounding the river, punctuated by solemn cypress trees is almost as equal to the expectation that the pilgrim has of meeting quiet contemplative monks, only to find at least one of them speaking English with a broad American accent and gesticulating wildly under a map of Greece, proudly displayed in the middle of the monastery's foyer. "You know," he says, "the world is full of heretics. Take for instance what happened to me today. These two Suryani women, journalists from Sweden came into the church and started to pray. 'What the hell are you doing?' I told them. 'This is my church, not yours.' But the devil tempts us, he fights us, he lies and tries to tell us that we are all one. With who? With the heretics and our robber Patriarch. Don't let the other monks tell you otherwise. The Patriarch must be removed. The other day, these men came from Hamas and told us that if he doesn’t go they will start bombing the monasteries…" His face emaciated by fasting and his beard prematurely gray from his quest to retire from the world, he bids us farewell: "See you all in heaven."
Jericho is the oldest city in the world. It is said to have been inhabited as a city five thousand years ago and this city, whose name is derived from a Semitic root word Yerihu meaning moon, is aptly named so for it is the moon and nothing else that dominates the night sky of this most ancient witness of human habitation, lust and savagery. Home to the Cannanites, it was one of the first cities to fall to the Israelites led by Joshua and a symbol of divine favour towards them. For all they had to do was blow their horns and the walls of Jericho came crashing down. What followed is best described by the primary source, the Old Testament: "And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword, "and they bunt the city with all that was in it…but all the silver, and gold, and vessels of brass and iron are consecrated unto the Lord: they shall come into the treasury of the Lord…"
There are no longer any walls in Jericho, though Jericho has changed hands many times since their destruction. Given as a present by Anthony to Cleopatra, Jericho eventually fell under the sway of the Caliphs and their descendants, the kings of Jordan, until the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967. Interestingly enough, Jericho was the first city to be handed back to the Palestinian Authority after the 1994 Oslo Peace Accord. Jericho is a vibrant, bustling town though its inhabitants rail at the erection of walls through other areas of Palestinian habitation in the West Bank by the Israelis, walls erected in mutual fear and hatred that will never be thrown down by the trumpet or the hand grenade but a concerted effort for peaceful co-existence.
The monastery of St Gerasimos, just outside of Jericho is also surrounded by walls, from which Greek, Byzantine and Jerusalem Patriarchate flags disturb the ultimate sky blue. This most ancient of monasteries, founded in 450 AD commemorates the desert hermit Gerasimos who unlike his antecedents in the region today, was able to transcend the wall dividing man and beast, healing a wounded lion called Jordanes, taming it and living with it and teaching it right from wrong. The abbot of the monastery, Abba Chrysostomos is also a modern day Gerasimos. His lion is the lion of hatred and indifference and he tames it through kindness, outspokeness and utter devotion to the monastic life.
St Gerasimos monastery is no ordinary monastery of comtemplation. It encloses expansive grounds which house a large array of farm animals and a great many crops, most of which are tended by the Abbott himself. These grounds exist solely for the benefit of the Palestinian community. Every year, hundreds are fed through the efforts of the Abbott, either with spiritual advice or food. For this reason, he is particularly beloved of them.
Proving that though the walls are nowhere to be seen there can always be walls within walls, the same cannot be said for the Jewish community. Militants from a nearby kibbutz, eager to acquire the monastery's land holdings have in past invaded it, beaten up the Abbott and otherwise subjected him to extreme harassment. When questioned about this he shrugs: "It's the will of God and with the will of God we are staying here, a beacon of peace and Hellenism."
With his hooked nose, rugged cheeks that are as eroded as the mountains of the Judean wilderness, black, close fitting skull-cap and large blue eyes, Abba Chrysostomos looks like a pirate. His eyes look deep into the pilgrims' souls and immediately gauges their heart. Then, his eyes never leaving you he speaks, touching exactly that point which has been burdening the pilgrims' hearts: "You may have heard much from monks and laity here in this land and seen things you may not have swished to see. All this will go once you return to your homelands and you will remember only how blessed you are to have been able to tread on the ground that Christ once trod during your lifetimes." Turning to one lady, who died only two weeks ago, two months after the event, he adds: "Especially you."
It is common knowledge that the monastery of Abba Gerasimos is a place of miracles. As Abba speaks, we glance up at the icon of St Gerasimos painted on the wall opposite the iconostasis, and gasp. The eyes are moving! Our mouths open in wonderment, we turn to the smiling Abba Chrysostomos who explains: "Abba Gerasimos is here, with us in this monastery and he protects us." At the end of his sermon, we are told that the icon of Christ crucified behind the altar sheds blood. There is no time to verify this, but in this place of wonders, anything is possible.
I sneak up to view the old church, rendered useless by the earthquakes that torment this troubled region and with a friend who is staying at the monastery, enter the monastic dining hall. On the far wall is an icon of Christ, a picture of President Stephanopoulos and the now deposed Patriarch Eirenaios. The glass on that last picture was shattered. "He was so infuriated with what is going on that he took the picture from the wall and smashed it over his knee," my friend tells me. "They have offered him the throne, should Eirenaios be deposed, but he refuses to take it. He feels his place is here."
As we leave, all the while Abba Chrysostomos exhorting us to retain our ethnic and religious identity in Australia, I turn to him and ask: "Abba, pray for my mother's health." He looks at me silently and pulls out a piece of paper from his cassock and writes "Υπέπ υγείας Ελένης." "No, don’t look at me like that," he smiles as I shudder. "St Gerasimos knows everything."
We leave the walls of the monastery as the sun sets and the Arab workers down tools and prepare to eat their meal with the Abbott. As our bus winds its way through the sinuous paths of the Judean desert, we reach a new set of walls, the concrete enclosures of the West Bank, hemming in so much frustration, dashed hope and despondency and I remember that it is no coincidence that some of our walls can even be seen from the moon, whether this be the celestial orb or its earthly counterpart, Yerihu.
First published in NKEE on 25 July 2005