Saturday, September 01, 2012


"Sit in thy cell and thy cell will teach thee all." Abba Moses.

The first thing that you notice when you meet Father Theophilos, is his eyes, and immediately, you enter a paradox. Possessed of a honeyed hue, they gaze at your countenance serenely yet at the same time with an intensity so piercing, that you can feel the layers of your flesh and all the pretence, self-justification, delusion and complacency woven about it by the vicissitudes of modern life being stripped away, leaving in their wake, nothing else than the uncompromisingly unadulterated inner self, in all of its stark insufficiency. He blinks and your self-consciousness vanishes. All that can be perceived now is an immense self-emptiness of an echoing eternity. For in Father Theophilos' eyes, one can see the desert, especially if they have seen such a desert before. His gaze, is as full as it is empty.

Father Theophilos speaks and a further paradox ensues. The words, succinct, unadorned and unaffected emerge crisply from his mouth and cascade down his long reddish beard. He speaks in Greek of simple things, in low, soft tones, his eyes constantly scanning and probing his audience, without however, permitting them to cease emanating a sense of innate stillness, even for a moment. Dressed in his cassock, a komboschoini wrapped around his wrist and his feet disconcertingly ensandled, despite the severity of Melbourne's winter, he looks every inch a monk, that is, until his mobile begins to ring and he answers its call with an unmistakably Australian nasal drawl: "How ya goin?"

Greek-born but Canberra-raised Father Theophilos, who is currently visiting Australia, is that inordinately rare thing: a young, Australian monk, engaged in the monastic struggle in perhaps the most famous and venerable monastery of entire Christendom, that of Saint Catherine's in the Sinai Peninsula. And here then is another paradox: a young man raised in a thoroughly modern country, one of the world's relatively younger nations, chooses to abandon it for a place shrouded in the mists of antiquity (Saint Catherine's monastery was constructed circa 530AD), and for a way of life that, developed in Egypt by the fathers of the Nitrian desert to the east of Sinai, has remained unchanged for two thousand years. The contrast becomes ever so more startling when Father Theophilos puts down his phone and begins to wrestle with a particularly recalcitrant power point presentation, whose aim is to convey pictorially to our lazy imaginations, those aspects of life in the Sinai Desert that the understated yet omnipresent fervour of Father Theophilos' voice has already more than adequately conveyed to us. Struggling with the complexities of co-ordinating sound with vision, he comments: "This is the way of the world now. We have the iphone, the ipad.." "And the imonk," I offer, watching as his lips tighten into a smile.

Having at last been defeated by the wiles of technology, Father Theophilos sits down and begins to speak. He paints a picture of a monastery that defies stereotypes. Rather than living in a rarefied atmosphere of solitude and contemplation as a refuge from the world, as many would have us believe, the monks of Mount Sinai are confronted with the necessity of ministering to people on a daily basis. This is in a large way due to the fact that they are custodians of an archaeological and religious tradition that stems back to the time of the Emperor Justinian. Father Theophilos points out with pride that the monastery's library, in the process of being digitised by a monk from Texas, houses the largest collection of early codices and manuscripts in the world, after the Vatican and was home to the Codex Sinaiticus, the most ancient copy of the New Testament in existence. Further, the monastery is the home of the Achtiname, a charter of protection and rights granted to the monastery by Muhammad and which presumably could and has in the past been cited as a precedent for religious harmony and toleration in the Middle East.

Also a witness to the Justinianic tradition and the necessity of maintaining equilibrium between religions, is the way in which the monks of Mount Sinai minister to the Gebeliya, the Bedouins of the region, who are descended from Pontic soldiers despatched to Sinai to guard the monastery by Justinian. Long ago converted to Islam, they still perch precariously between protecting the monastery, as they admirably did so during the internecine strife and religious intolerance that has blighted Egypt in the post-Mubarak era, and seeking assistance from it. The Gebeliya are poor and modern ecomonics, coupled with a failure to reconcile contemporary life with their Bedouin traditions ensures that the monastery still plays a most important part in their lives, as a source of employment, advice and welfare. Even its venerable archbishop, whose place is an honoured one within the Orthodox Church's hierarchy, has been called upon not only to mediate tribal disputes but also to deliver infants in childbirth for this is a land where medical facilities are scarce.

Father Theophilos speaks fervently of the life of Saint Catherine, tortured upon the wheel of martyrdom and beheaded, only to have been miraculously found in the vicinity of Mount Sinai. He paints a picture with his words of the oldest surviving encaustic icon in the Orthodox iconographic tradition - that of Christ Pantokrator, each side if his face artfully depicting a different aspect to the Deity - that of stern judge and of loving father, so skilfully, that it is as if he is applying the final brush strokes to this remarkable work of devotion.

After mentioning that the well where Moses watered his flocks according to the Old Testament can be found on the monastery grounds, along with the burning bush, an enduring image of God's presence, Father Theophilos is asked about the existence of miracles at the monastery. Suddenly, he veers into the modern world. "Did you know," he relates, "in my early years at the monastery, a 'gerontissa' from Jerusalem came to visit and we set about making prosphora for the liturgy. It was our first time and we didn't know that we needed to include yeast in order for it to rise. The gerontissa told us not to worry. She took a leaf from the burning bush outside and placed it on the prosphora and prayed. And do you know what? The prosphora rose! And this, through the fervour and the purity of her belief! Little miracles like this occur continuously."

To my question as to how we should relate to monks such as him, living a life completely alien to the demands and conceits of the modern capitalist world, he responds simply: "We are one big family. We can't exist without you, your prayers or your love and nor can you exist without our prayers. We depend upon each other."

Despite my probings, I find it extraordinarily difficult to extract information of a personal nature from Father Theophilos. In my endeavour to elucidate the path through which he determined to become a monk, all I am able to glean is that it was a long process, not without pain. He is invariably more forthcoming about why he chose the ascetic struggle at Mount Sinai. Almost immediately, he launches into an enraptured narration as to the immensity of its silences, the eternity of its mountains. "When you ascend to the top of the mountain," he confides, "and you sit there alone, there is utter silence. And in that silence, you can truly feel the presence of God." I nod my head, finally understanding what I see in his eyes. For I too have felt that long, brooding, pregnant silence on a solitary moment upon Mount Sinai, that complete emptiness that compels introspection and quietitude. It is an experience that I have never been able to divest myself of and to which I return every day of my life.

Yet Father Theophilos skirts past such grandiose sentiments, even after describing the magic of gazing upon the desert night sky while praying on the roof of the monastery, to relate how a monk used to dwell near the peak of Mount Sinai in order to confess pilgrims before they trod its holy ground. He then relates the story of a visiting hierarch who requested he be vested in some of the monastery's ancient vestments, in order to celebrate the liturgy. Vested accordingly and possibly preening himself all the while, he was accosted by one of the simpler elderly monks of Saint Catherine's. He looked him up and down and burst out laughing, leaving the preening prelate not a little humbled.

It is then, and then during the following Sunday 's liturgy when I have the privilege of chanting along with Father Theophilos, watching him intone the kathismata with his eyes half-closed yet in a state of absolute attentiveness, and later, when he tells me how much he misses the monastery and yearns to return there that I realise why Father Theophilos does not talk about himself. He has become one with his monastery, an organic and intrinsic member of the brotherhood to which he belongs. This is underlain by the fact that he became inordinately uneasy when I revealed to him that I wanted to write about him and only consented to this after first having asked and received, the consent of his Archbishop. Then there is the photograph accompanying this article, a picture that caused Father Theophilos a good deal of disquiet. Here he is, his eyes staring not at the camera, but at the inner self, in a stance of quietitude and self-searching, that characterises the ascetic struggle of the true monk, as an individual casting aside the petty demands of this world, his heart focused on the glory of the world to be. Of this product of our church in Australia, continuing the tradition of Mount Sinai, we can only remain in awe, exhorting him, in the words of Abba Pambo: "Your skill is not in what you do, but how you do it."


First published in NKEE on Saturday 1 September 2012