Thursday, February 10, 2011

From Ethiopia - Post 4 - Debre Libanos

As we got closer and closer to the monastery, the number of beggars lining the streets increased.  I don't know if it was because of the monastery and possible charity coming from it, or if it was because the roads got more and more windy and hilly the closer we got.  It seemed that all along the way, the worse parts of the roads, the places where vehicles would be forced to slow down, were the places where the beggars tended to gather.  There were also a lot of people out -- carrying sticks to sell, selling hand-carved marble crosses, displaying marble candle holders and crosses on small tables along the road.

The monastery was gated with a small, simple stone marking the place.  After we parked and entered the gated area, we were asked to "read the rules" that were posted outside a tiny little shack-like building.  We all wanted to take a picture of the rules but refrained for fear that it would be considered too irreverent.  But, we did laugh about them later.  I can't remember the exact wording now, but basically, the rules that caught our attention were:
1) No woman who is currently menstruating is allowed to enter the sanctuary or the prayer cave.
2) No man or woman who has had intercourse within the last 48 hours is allowed to enter the sanctuary or the prayer cave.
3) No shoes will be worn in the monastery or the prayer cave.
I can't remember the rest, but Eric about had me in stitches joking about how he wanted to start counting out hours on his fingers....."hmmm...let's is Thursday....45, 46, 47, 48...oh, yay.  We're good, honey!"  At the time, I was more focused on rule #1 and thinking how embarrassing it would have been if Stephanie and/or I weren't in the clear!  Regardless, I am glad that I worship in the post-Jesus era and in a church where sacrifices and "cleanliness" are no longer issues and I can "come as I am to worship".

Another interesting thing was after we all read and agreed to the rules, we were ushered into this tiny little room, the door was closed, and there was a priest sitting behind a desk.  It was there that we had to pay our admittance fee.  And, we still don't know for certain, but we think he actually offered to "exchange money" for us.  We were really confused because from all that we had been told, it is illegal in Ethiopia to exchange money anywhere but at the banks.  Another thing we chuckled know, keeping money changers out of the church and all that.... we're guessing that's why we were closed into a tiny room that wasn't attached to the church.

Debre Libanos Monastery
Tile art over the doors to the monastery

After removing our shoes, we all entered the main sanctuary.  On each side, there were large stained glass windows.  The windows on the right were pictures from Old Testament Bible stories.  Those on the left were pictures of the Apostles.  There were only 10 though.  Judas wasn't there, but we never did figure out who else was missing.  It was hard to understand at times due to the priest's English (as a second language). 

Old Testament windows

Old Testament windows
As you moved forward toward the front of the sanctuary, there were separate areas in the sanctuary.  There was a completely off-limits area in the front -- the Holy of Holies where no one is allowed; a curtained off area in the center for the priests where the altar sits; and then on each side of the curtained off area, there was a woman's area on one side and a man's area on the other side for singing and worship.  There were more stained glass windows to the sides of these areas and a beautiful stained glass window above the Holy of Holies of Jesus on the cross.

I was a little surprised that they allowed Stephanie and I on the men's side and they allowed Eric and Mike on the women's side.  I was also surprised that they not only allowed us to take pictures, but the priest kept actually encouraging us to, "take picture".  They also allowed us to go down to the basement area where the chanters were chanting.  We stood down there and listened for a while.  I felt a bit intrusive being there, definitely felt strange snapping flash photos, but again, the priest kept insisting. 

front of the sanctuary

Chanters in the basement
After we toured the sanctuary, we toured the museum next door.  It was interesting.  It was a strange mix of politics and religion there.  Displays of past Emperors' clothing, Bibles, portraits, chairs, etc. were plenty.  There was a case of swords that the priest proudly told us how the various owners of the swords killed the Italians when they invaded Ethiopia and reportedly massacred inhabitants at the monastery.  The surviving parchment paper Bibles and prayer books were amazing to me - that they have survived for so long.  There were loads of hand crosses and even a "fly swatter".  It looked like a bunch of hair tied onto the end of a stick.

The monastery's museum
After the tour of the museum, the priest asked if we had time to "walk to the prayer cave".  We said "sure" (little did we know!).  He explained that the monastery was founded by the 13th century mystic, Saint Teklehaimanotsome.  He had reportedly stood in the cave and prayed for 7 years.  At that point, his other leg wasted away and fell off.  He then stood on the remaining leg for some number of years until he died in the cave.  There is a natural spring in the cave and people think that the water has healing powers so they collect it and use it for healing.

The trek up to the cave was quite a hike!!  A little warning might have been nice.  Although, when the priest said, "I will get you a guide to go with you to the top." and said guide happened to be a man with a machine gun strapped on his shoulder, we probably should have wondered.  The path was rocky, with not nice little rocks, but BIG, uneven, unstable rocks.  Also, some of the steps that you had to take were NOT small for someone like me with little short legs!  (Seriously, my thighs hurt like I had done a stair stepper for hours the next day!)  We finally reached the cave and were able to enter.  The priest who was at the cave would not allow any pictures inside, but you're not missing much.  It was a cave.  A large cave with water dripping all over the place and large plastic drums sitting around catching the water.  We were required to remove our shoes to enter the cave. Eric and a few others stepped in water in their socks.  Again, Eric irreverantly joked about his "blessed wet socks" and his "Holy socks" for the rest of the day.  Of course, he also surmised that IF the saint stood in the cave praying with the healing water dripping on him and his leg fell off and then he died, then maybe it wasn't so Holy & healing after all.  ;-)

Looking out from the monastery courtyard towards the Prayer Cave

The entrance to the path leading up to the Prayer Cave (notice sweet Workineh carrying Stephanie's backpack & our guide with the automatic weapon leading the way)

Eric on one of the more easily navigable parts of the path

I didn't really want a picture, I just needed to catch my breath!  ;-)

"Thank God!  We made it!" That was my prayer at the Prayer Cave

The priest unlocking the door to the cave

Oh joy, now we get to go back down the path.

My sweet hubby helping me with a big step.  (BTW, one way to keep the sweet men in ET from insisting on carrying your bag is to carry a large purse instead of a backpack. Next time, I'm taking a backpack!)  ;-)
This would normally have been the time to celebrate the fact that we made it back to the monastery, except that, unfortunately, it was about where the location of the outhouse was and it was truly one of the most horrendous smells that I have EVER smelled.  We all had to pee, but decided that we could hold it for another hour or so if we had to.
It was an interesting place.  It was a beautiful place.  It was neat to hear the history and see the artifacts.  We enjoyed it.  We laughed....possibly more than we should have, but YOU climb to that cave in the extremely high altitude and see what it does to you!

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