An interview with the librarian of the Monastery of St Catherine, Mount Sinai, Archimandrite Justin Sinaites, on the history and mission of the monastery, the Ladder of St John, and the fear of death.
Priest Antoniy Borisov: Father, thank you very much for agreeing to give us this interview. I’d like to start with a question about your presentation. You started your paper with some ideas about the Ladder of Saint John, hegumen of Sinai Monastery. This book for centuries has helped many Christians. How can Christians – how can we – understand it in the right way? And can you tell us about some special tradition of reading, of learning the Ladder in your Monastery?
Archimandrite Justin Sinaites: Saint John came to Sinai when he was only 16 years old. When he was 19, he was tonsured a monk at the peak of Sinai. When his elder passed away, he lived in a cave, and we know the location of the cave to this day. He lived there for 40 years, and then he became an abbot of Sinai when he was already an old man. So here is someone who had passed his whole life at Sinai.
There are many important books written at Sinai that have been the inspiration of Christians, but the most important is the Ladder. It came at a critical time; because it was in the following century that the Sinai passed outside of the Byzantine Empire, and became part of the world of Islam. The Ladder is a summary of all of the wisdom of the Desert Fathers up to that time.
St. John says about one passage, “I didn’t want to put it this way, but I was forced to,” and so it showed that it was not just his work, but that it was a collaboration with others as well, who sometimes overruled his own opinion. The genius of the work is that it is born from practical experience and practical observations. So even though it was written for monks in community – and I would say it’s still the paramount guide for monks living in community – it has been read and treasured by married Christians with families from the time it was written until our own day. It is read in every Orthodox monastery during the holy Fast in preparation for Holy Week and Pascha, and that is why in many monasteries it is depicted on the walls of the trapeza.
Human nature never changes. Technology changes quite rapidly, but human nature doesn’t change. So the advice he gave in the 6th and 7th centuries for humility, for peace with others, for love for God – all of these are as important today as they were in the 6th century.
A.B.: Your monastery, Sinai Monastery, is one of the most famous in the Orthodox world. What is the modern situation of your monastery? How many monks are there now? And what is the nationality of these monks who live now in Sinai monastery?
J.S.: We call St Catherine’s Monastery the oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the world. We can trace a Christian and a monastic presence there to the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 4th centuries, and for 1700 years it has never been destroyed, it has never been abandoned.
It was the poor monastery at the edge of the inhabitable world. The great monasteries in Constantinople were imperial foundations with splendid treasures, many monks, and many monks who reached great heights of sanctity. Sinai was always remote. It was the most difficult to reach of all the pilgrim shrines. Up until the 18th-19th century it took 10 days on a camel to reach the monastery from Suez, the nearest port. So it was a remarkable feat to say “I have been to Sinai”. That meant that you had tremendous zeal, you had resources, you had time, you had patience to make such an arduous trek. With the advent of automobiles it became possible to travel there in 1 or 2 days. And then the present highways were built in the late 60s and early 70s. But you have to remember how recent all of these changes are. Sinai only became accessible 40 years ago. So when you go there today and you see the highways, the hotels, the restaurants and shops which were built to support the visitors who come there – that is a very recent development.
In ancient times it was difficult to find food and water to support life. But given that, you were living in isolation, in vast silence, and the monks there reached very great spiritual heights. Today it is not a question of finding food or water for the day, because transportation is so easy now. The challenge facing the monastery is keeping the ancient heritage, the spiritual heritage we have, as a living tradition, when so much around the monastery has now changed.
There are 23 monks in the community. It is a small community, compared to the great monasteries of Athens, compared to the great monasteries here in Russia. But it has always been the small monastery at the edge of the world. Twenty-three is not very many, but 40 years ago there were only seven monks there. The famous Greek author Kazantzakis visited Sinai. He said: “These seven old men are going to die; that’s going to be the end of all these centuries of heritage”. But we have more monks now that we did then.
There is a rule that you must be of Greek descent to join the monastery, because it was a part of the Greek-speaking world going back to the 4th century, and the monks there were very very eager to preserve the Greek heritage. But although it has been predominantly Greek throughout its history, there also have been monks from other nations and other peoples throughout its history as well. By exception to that rule there is a monk from England, and myself.
It has been a place of pilgrimage for Christians from all around the world, and I think it has a special relationship to Russia. We have a remarkable collection of manuscripts in Slavonic, even in Glagolitic, so these are witness to Christian pilgrims coming from Russia centuries ago. We have a silver reliquary for the relics of St Catherine given by Sofia, the sister of Peter the Great. We have a candelabra given by the empress Elizaveta. We have many gifts from Russian sovereigns, from Russian hierarchs, from the pilgrims.
Today it is Russians who are the predominant ethnic group visiting Sinai, because now there are direct flights from Moscow to Sharm-el-Sheikh, and Russians go there for vacations. But as a result, especially in winter we have 300 to 400, sometimes 500 Russians coming there every single day. The monastery has many publications in Russian, and the Bedouin in the area are learning Russian to be able to sell their things to the visitors. So it has a special relationship with Russia today, and with Russian pilgrims. Many come not knowing anything about the monastery, and then they see the donations that have been given by Russian pilgrims and Russian benefactors through the years and they become enthused that this is a part of their heritage, and then we say they arrive as tourists and they leave as pilgrims.
A.B.: What is the regime, the timetable of a monk of Sinai Monastery? How does a monk of your monastery live from day to day?
J.S.: It says in the Psalms, ‘Seven times a day have I prayed unto Thee’, and because of that, the full canonical office is seven services plus the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. But at Sinai we group the services together. At 4 o’clock in the morning we have the midnight service, the morning service and the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, which ends at about 7:30 on a weekday, and at 8:30 or 9 on feast days and Sundays. When you go to church at 4 o’clock in the morning all the stars are out, and by the end of the service the sun is up. So we experience the transition from dark to light in the course of the services. At noon we have the reading of the third hour and the sixth hour, and then at 4 in the afternoon we have the celebration of the ninth hour, vespers and compline. So in these three time periods we have the full canonical office.
The monastery is open to visitors from 9 until 12, and anyone who comes can visit the church, can visit the adjacent museum, can see the place with the burning bush. In the wintertime sometimes a thousand people a day come and see the Church during that time, so it can be very very crowded. Summer is, by comparison, the peaceful time. After the noon service we have the one meal where everyone sits down together and we have the readings from of the Lives of the Saints and from the writings of the Fathers. Then there is a quiet time in the afternoon in anticipation of vespers. There is again a work period after the evening service and again quiet time in the evening and the night in preparation for the morning service. So it is an alternation between private prayer, common prayer and also between times of work and times of rest.
A.B.: Nowadays your monastery is situated on a territory with a very difficult political situation, and your monastery is surrounded by Muslims. How can the monks and your monastery live in this situation? Does this conflict have any influence on the monastery?
J.S.: Before the 7th century the whole peninsular was Christian, and that is why there is a Bishop of Sinai. The Bishop of Sinai was the signator of some of the early Church Councils. With the coming of Islam the Christians there either left or converted to Islam. So there was the end of the Christians’ presence at Sinai from the 7th and 8th centuries except for the monastery and the churches and chapels connected with the monastery.
From the 7th century, with the coming of Islam, the monastery became a place for the resident monks and for pilgrims, but it was no longer a centre for large numbers of Christians who dwelt in the area. The Bedouin who work for the monastery and live in the area trace their descent to the soldiers who built the monastery in the 6th century, so they have been affiliated with the monastery since that time. We have been told by anthropologists that they are the oldest separate ethnic group in the Middle East, second only to the Samaritans, so they have a remarkable history of their own. They are called the Jebaliyya, from the Arabic word “jebel”, – ‘mountain’ – which is ‘the people of the mountain’, in reference to Mount Sinai.
In ancient times there were just a few monks living in the monastery, and a few Bedouin in the area, and they supported each other. The Bedouin would help the monastery in their many tasks, and the monks would bake bread for the Bedouin in the area and support them in turn. It was a remarkable symbiosis between the monks and the Bedouin that is especially remarkable today, because the monks are Christians, Greek-speaking monastics, and Bedouin in the area are Muslims, Arabic-speaking with families, so we differ by culture, by language, by religion, by all the things that make for conflicts. But instead of having conflict we had and still have a remarkable relationship of peace and support. The Archbishop has said that one of the great problems facing the whole world today is the tension between the world of Islam and the Christian world, the world of the West. Sinai is the emblem of fervent Christians and fervent Muslims who yet have found a way to live in harmony and respect, and it is the emblem of the peace that is possible and that becomes our hope for the world at large.
A.B.: In your paper you talked about the strong connection between prayer and the fear of death. But there is a question. If a man is afraid of death, and this fear is so strong that he forgets about salvation, this fear is like a wall, and the man cannot see paradise because of this wall. How can modern Christianity explain to a man that this fear can be a servant on the way to salvation?
J.S.: St John has a Step in the Ladder, Step Six, ‘On the Rumours of Death’, and he says something that is very striking, and that puzzled me. He said: ‘Christ fears death, but he does not tremble at death’, to show that he is of two natures. Many times St. John says something, but he doesn’t expand it, he doesn’t explain it. He was writing for people who lived in close contact with each other, who shared the same foundations. He only needed to make the brief gestures, as it were, and people would understand. But many of these things are confusing and they need to be explained. So I myself begin to read the writings of other Fathers to try to understand this more clearly, because how can it say that Christ feared death?
It is St Maximus who provides such beautiful insights into this passage. He mentioned that Christ had a perfect Divine nature, but he also had a perfect human nature. He feared death in that he had taken upon himself the fullness of our human nature, and he experienced within himself all of the temptations, all of the conflicts and all of the fears that we experience as human beings, but without sin. But having triumphed over these, then he gives us hope and consolation. So the fear of death, that is an inherit part of our human nature, is no longer something to be feared, because Christ has conquered death. Death for the Christian is a time of sleep, and it is a passing from the world of temptations and tribulations into the hope of eternal life. So it is become a passage now from death into life.
A.B.: Christian history, the history of the Christian Church, shows us that sometimes theological discussions have become the reason for some conflicts. Sometimes modern theologians don’t feel responsible for their books, for their theological views. How can modern theologians feel this responsibility for what they say? And can some theological ideas and views nowadays become a reason for social or political conflicts?
J.S.: I grew up in the West, and I know the West as one who grew up there. In the West, especially today, you find academics who are familiar with the Scriptures, with the early texts. They can speak about the early texts with great authority, but they have no faith commitment themselves. Sometimes they even despise people who have a faith commitment, even though they are so proficient in speaking about the early texts and Scriptures themselves. That is a divide that the Orthodox Church has avoided. I was very impressed at the opening of the conference, when Patriarch Kyrill spoke about this very dilemma, that when theologians write their monographs on the history and the analysis and the observations about the Fathers, the early texts of the Church, the Scriptures themselves, they must have a responsibility for these in the Christian life so that they do not diverge as they have in the West. The theologians should be, par excellence, the ones who reflect the life of prayer and the life of dedication for Christians at large. I am very pleased to see that this is the case here in Russia, where it is not only a cerebral academic activity, but becomes a manifestation of a dedicated life.
A.B.: Our Holy Fathers very often tell us that every Christian, theologian or not, needs to be on the King’s Way, on the golden mean. But sometimes we want to be liberal, and sometimes we want to be conservative. What is the main problem for modern theology, for modern theologians, to stay on this golden mean? How can we stay there and not go to the right or to the left?
J.S.: The study of theology has a very very important place. So we should not disparage this as an academic field. But the theologian, par excellence, is one who prays, one who knows God and above all one who has experienced God. We should never think of this as a purely academic exercise, but remember the heritage that we have from the Fathers and our need, not only to become familiar with these in an academic sense, but to be the very embodiment of these texts. I think that is especially important in our days.
We had one visitor to the monastery and he said: “Anyone can read a book; I want to see the living example”. That was remainder for us that we not only live in such a special place, and we have an opportunity to attend the services and to know the lives of the saints, but that we must become the example of this heritage in a living sense.
It is not the statements of doctrine only, or the arguments about doctrine only that attract people to Christianity. It is lives that have been transformed and that become luminous examples of Christian piety that reflect Christ into the world. This is something we can never forget in our own dedication as Christians, that we must become not only familiar with the texts, but we must become luminous examples of the sanctification that these texts present us.
A.B.: The last question. Many theologians and scientists today speak about the crisis in the world. Many of them tell us about a religious crisis. This crisis is a part of secular society that is very strong nowadays. In these conditions what can the Orthodox Church offer to the society which doesn’t know who God is, and which sometimes doesn’t need God at all?
J.S.: The hallmark of our times is secularism, consumerism and the pursuit of personal goals and personal enjoyment without regard for other people. This is an age of information technology when it is so easy to connect with people around the world. But instead of this becoming a means of sympathy for other people, many times the internet is an isolating experience, and we become more removed from the people at a distance and even from the people around us, compared to previous generations.
Many people do not have a hostility to the Church, but they see the Church as something that is irrelevant to their needs. But there is planted in us a remembrance of God, and a longing for God, that is part of our human nature. We can find substitutes and gratifications in many other ways, but we cannot find profound peace and true enjoyment until we come to know God, and God gives the peace that passes all understanding.
It is a temptation for the Church to accommodate itself to the world in a way that compromises its own heritage. Certainly we need to communicate with the world, to reach out to the world, but the world expects the Church to retain its integrity and its witness and it is because of that integrity and that witness that they return to the Church. And this becomes the answer to the challenges of the modern world, that the Church does not change; it retains the same witness it had over the centuries, and as it gave people hope, consolation and profound joy in past centuries, so can it do so even today.
A.B.: Father, thank you very much for this interview. Your ideas were really great and very important for us. Thank you very much.
J.S.: Thank you.
Interviewer: priest Antoniy Borisov