St. Catherine Monastery: A History of Pluralism…

As I was reading the above HuffPost article, as I love reading about
adventurous roads throughout the world in hopes to someday traverse
them on my KTM 990 motorbike, I came across the road that travels to
St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Egypt. Now I’m sure the road to the
monastery boasts compelling vistas (the Sinai looks more like a lunar
landscape perfect for many outdoor activities), but the real adventure
lies within the walls of the monastery and on the journey to the
summit of Moses Mountain (what the Muslim bedouins call Mt. Sinai).

When I was in seminary in 2006, I had the privilege to tag along with
my brother’s undergraduate study abroad class to Greece, Turkey, and
Egypt. The class was called Sacred Byzaniutm. We studied Byzantine
Christianity, but also the other world religions of the region like
Egyptian and Greco-Roman traditions, as well as Islam. Our last
destination was St. Catherine Monastery.

St. Catherine’s has its origins in the 3rd or 4th century as a Greek
Orthodox monastic community. It is built on the site of the burning
bush through which YHWH appeared to Moses, and the bush is living to
this day inside the monastery walls.  Visitors, pilgrims have created
a custom to place written prayers among the vines of this rather
sizeable bush growing in the midst of an absolutely barren landscape.
And not only is the burning bush there, but the monastery sits at the
base of the famous Mt. Sinai where Moses received the tablets upon
which the ten commandments were written (he actually received them
twice if you remember the story, the first set were shattered in the
golden calf fiasco).

But for me, the most amazing aspect of the monastery at Moses Mountain
is its history of participation in the interfaith movement. The
monastery contains one of the world’s most important and extensive
religious libraries. Ancient manuscripts abound, some of which are
the oldest translations of Christian sacred scriptures. As the
resident librarian monk, who hailed from El Paso, energetically told
stories relating to the manuscripts, one story really caught my
attention. The library had an original letter written by the Prophet
Mohammad, SAW. During the rise of the Prophet, SAW, and his followers
in the Arab world, as the area including Egypt became (pre)Islamic,
Mohammad, SAW, had written a letter to give to the Christian monks of
St. Catherine. The letter was a peace offering to the monks, outlining
Mohammad’s, SAW, respect for their tradition, assertion of their value
as friends of Islam, and the letter finally charged the Bedouin
Muslims that lived around the monastery to protect the monastery from
intruders, and to live in harmony with them as people of different
faith in one community. That began what is now a 1500 year old
interfaith community of cooperation. The bedouins still live in
harmony with the monks, sharing resources, meals, and small business
in the area.offers of the interfaith business ventures offers a camel
caravan for pilgrims to ride up to the summit of Moses Mountain.

My brother, myself, and our friend Joe Aziz decided to pass on the
camels and ascend the mountain by foot. They have preserved the Path
of Moses, which is also called the path of repentance, which ascends
3700 steps to an elevation of 7500. We decided to try that pilgrim
path, the same path of many monks and pilgrims who followed in the
footsteps of Moses.…

But the most striking part of the journey was at the summit, where I
found 3 religious sites, commemorating YHWH’s conversation with Moses.
There was a Jewish, Christian, and Muslim site. All three faiths
sharing the story, the wonder, the mystery of this great event. I
remember sitting at the top, not thinking of my Christisn identity,
per se, but how I felt so connected to both Judaism and Islam. I
wondered how our how our relationships with each other can be
sometimes so strained and divisive, when we have a tradition of being
a community of cooperation, love, and respect, in places like Sinai, a
most holy and miraculous place, for hundreds of years. I hope, in a
time of religious turmoil, in a time when advocating for religious
pluralism may be our most pressing task as a community, I hope that
the interfaith history, the interfaith story of Mt. Sinai, written by
our most revered prophets and characters shared by our shared
Abrahamic faiths, can serve as a beacon of hope, a movement of the
spirit of God, that can guide us along the Path of Moses, the path of
repentance, the path of interfaith cooperation.

Jake Hofmeister


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