November 19, 2009

The Red amazing Escape (Part One St. Anthony)

Life was closing in!! I had to research my 12-20 page paper due in two weeks...and write it, read two novels, read numerous articles for my classes, and keep up with learning Arabic...and that was just school. My relationship with my lover and best friend was hanging in limbo...I was 6 weeks away from coming home, missing my family, my friends, and just needed a break. When the school proposed a trip to St. Anthony's Monastery (Which I REALLY REALLY REALLY wanted to see!) I jumped on it! Plus I would get the added bonus of a day at the sea to lay out in the sun! WHY NOT?!

I payed my 120 Egyptian pounds (about 25 dollars!! AWESOME DEAL) 3 days before the cut off date and made myself get through the end of me week of classes. The night before we left, although I REALLY should have slept, I went out for my friend Sean's birthday. I met up with my friends at Harry's Pub downtown after they had sushi for dinner...our goal for the evening...karaoke. Little did the unsuspecting patrons of Harry's Pub that night realize that they were in for complete and utter chaos. The birthday boy Sean and his friends had planned a choreographed version of Backstreet Boys...for video footage of this event check out the videos I am tagged in on was wonderful. Harry's was faced with a problem I don't know if they had had in the past, a flood of college students wanting to sing Journey so badly that we had to bribe them at the end of the evening to let us sing "Don't Stop Believing". It. Was. Glorious. I will have to say though the best part of the evening was having a Saudi man walk into the bar...complete in traditional Saudi garb...and prayer beads....dancing with us on the dance floor....with prayer beads in hand. Guess Allah can't see Cairo, Egypt!

We got back to the University at 4 am...hurried to our rooms to collect our bags then met out in the front of the school for the 5am pick up time. 5:15 rolled around and no one was there....not even an RA. We (Raina, Kelli and I) walked back to our rooms and checked to make sure that we were leaving at 5am. All our e-mails confirmed that that was when we were leaving. We sat out front in the cold until 5:45 when a women from the Residence Life office walked up and said, "OH MY GOSH I AM SO SOORY I FORGOT TO CALL YOU ALL AND TELL YOU THE TIME CHANGED TO 6!!" (I then got a sinus infection from sitting outside...but oh well) The bus eventually came and we were off to the red sea.

We attempted to sleep on the way to St. Anthony's Monastery...not much sleep was accomplished. But it did give me the perfect opportunity to see more of this beautiful country! When you are driving across miles and miles of desert in the morning light and you can see the rising sun reflected in the Red Sea, nothing feels oppressive any more. It is a big shock to realize that you really are nothing in this BIG world. Your cares and problems are nothing compared to what some people go through of a daily bases. And I would like to think that living here has taught me to be more self aware, especially after this trip.

We got to the Monastery at 9 am and piled out of the van. I have studied ascetics, people who remove themselves from society at large, live in caves, holes, trees, and on tops of poles, in an effort to bring themselves closer to God and combat their earthly needs and desires. But never in my life would I have imagined Anthony living where he did. I always pictured him living in a cave slightly outside of an oasis town, close enough for someone to bring him a half a loaf of bread each day, but still far out enough not to be bothered. But this place was FAR from EVERYTHING! I was so shocked! It was beautiful....but it really made me re-think asceticism and what it means to be an ascetic.

We were given a tour of the monastery by one of the monks. He was wonderful and loved the fact that one of the first phrases I learned in Arabic was, "I have fish, and everything is good." (Iendy samack, meshi) (I don't even like fish...that's the ironic part) So he proceeded to point out all the fish motifs in the carvings for me! The monastery is beautiful and is currently being restored. It was filled with paintings dating back to the 9th century and makes some of the most amazing bread I have ever had. St. Anthony, according to church doctrine, is buried under the monastery. I also had the opportunity to drink holy water from a spring that flows to the monastery. 

After exploring the monastery we climbed the mountain to the cave where St. Anthony lived out the last of his days. To get to the cave you have to climb up 1200 steps...doesn't sound too bad right?...WRONG lol The first 900 steps, easy, but then you start feeling the exhaustion. Running on maybe 2 hours of sleep, a juice box, and some really start feeling the tiredness. The group took a rest stop in the shade by a chapel  marking 2/3rds of the way up. But I had to keep going. If I took a break I knew it was going to be a lot harder getting started again. 

I started walking again, making sure I stepped on every step, not wanting to miss a single layer of my journey. All the while thinking to myself, creating my new mantra, "There are things in life that I cannot control, but this does not make me a bad; sister, daughter, lover, or friend." Every step repeat, "There are things in life that I cannot control, but this does not make me a bad; sister, daughter, lover, or friend." "There are things in life that I cannot control, but this does not make me a bad; sister, daughter, lover, or friend." My brain turned off, all it could think was my mantra, all I could afford to think was my mantra. I had to push my body, my brain took a back seat finally and my body came first. One more step, "There are things in life that I cannot control, but this does not make me a bad; sister, daughter, lover, or friend." I could feel myself going higher and higher up the mountain. The ground receding behind me and painting a picture you only see in fantasies; pure desert, stretching for as long as you can see, no roads, no trees, no buildings, no people. All you hear is the crunch of sand under your feet, your breath in your ears and the repetition of your mantra in your head. "There are things in life that I cannot control, but this does not make me a bad; sister, daughter, lover, or friend." I made myself loose control of myself. No it was more like I let myself succumb to the world around me. (Which I always thought would be terrifying because then I am not in control) But. It. Was. Amazing. 

Never in my life have I felt so much relief when I reached the mountain plateau where St. Anthony's cave is. Not wanting to sit yet, I removed my scarf from my head, finally feeling the cool air created by the mountains shade, I removed my shoes and entered St. Anthony's cave. It was nothing like I pictured it to be during my studies. The path into the cave was only big enough to fit one foot in front of the other and even I had to crouch down to get in. The cave was in two tiers. The first one is only about 2 feet by 4 feet by 5 feet and leads down to the main part of the cave where the Saint would have lived. The "Main Part" of the cave is only 3 feet by 6 feet by 7 feet there was a small shrine at the bottom, and kids were sitting down there with flashlights lighting the path. I touched the shrine, repeated my mantra, contemplated taking a picture but then realized that I would be violating what had become my sanctuary. So I turned and left the cave. 

I finally sat down on the side of the mountain, opened my bottle of water, drank, laid down, closed my eyes, and breathed. It was all gone. All that was left was me. Breathing. Repeating. Breathing. The cool mountain was chilling my body. The people around me were all rejoicing at their success at making it up the mountain. Parents carried their children to the cave. Couples climbing up the steps, one by one, holding hands. Some climbed with cd players repeating Coptic hymns. Others climbed in prayer. A few climbed with their extended families. Some climbed in grief, and some in great joy. We all exchanged our energies, releasing everything we had bottled up inside us out into the world. We were all free. Sitting at the top of a mountain. In the middle of the desert. All alone. Yet all bound together for eternity.

Pictures from the trip at 

Part Two The Red Sea coming after my trip to Alexandria! 

1 comment:

  1. Oh Sarah, how I wish I could have been there with you to share in your experience at St Anthony's. You shared your experience so beautifully. I LOVE YOU!