Mother Alexandra's Pilgrimage to Syria and Lebanon
Recently, I returned from a pilgrimage to Syria and Lebanon. When embarking on such a journey, we often have expectations. My expectations were simple: I wanted to visit the holy Shrine of St. Thekla and monasteries, gleaning information and experience to provide consistency and to ensure the transmission of the Antiochian ethos within the life of the Convent of St. Thekla in Pennsylvania.
My first expectation was fulfilled immediately, as I had been blessed by the Abbess, Mother Pelagia, to stay at the Convent of St. Thekla in Maaloula, Syria. With the Convent as a base for my pilgrimage, I had monastic stability and a daily rhythm of prayer and community life. To my surprise, the first visit to the tomb of St. Thekla was private – no crowds of pilgrims who visit her tomb daily. I walked up the cascade of stone steps, anticipating what I had seen in photos of the Shrine, and received my first blessing of wide space transformed by the presence of the Saint. There was a depth beyond what any camera can capture. I took photos myself, but they do not communicate my impression. The actual tomb is a small room with a door for entry and a door to exit. Inside the entrance are reminders of miracles bestowed: crutches and walkers no longer needed. On the walls and in front of the tomb are memorial medals donated by people in thanksgiving for healing and answered prayers. I was touched by these and returned in my thoughts to St. Thekla and my purpose for visiting: prayers and blessings for the Convent of St. Thekla in Pennsylvania. My request was without words and her answer assured by her indescribable presence.
One of the highlights of my stay in Maaloula were the two days I spent with nuns harvesting olives in their orchards. In our Orthodox tradition, monastic work can take many forms, from agriculture and domestic work to hospitality and ministry. What is common in all of these forms of work is the prayer of the heart which accompanies the work of the hands. Sometimes the prayer is the Jesus prayer and at other times perhaps a recitation of the Holy Scriptures. I could not help but remember the passage from The Letter of St. James: “Can a fig tree yield olives, or a grapevine figs?” In context, St. James is referring to the fact that our words and actions must be consistent with our Christian being. That is, if God lives in us, then what is of God should come out of us. I thought of this as I picked olives with the nuns and the girls from the orphanage at the monastery. I thought, too, of the importance of the example each of us provides to others in our work and interactions, whether great or small, like picking olives. And I quickly found out that picking and shaking olives out of the trees, though a seemingly small task, is laborious, but of utmost importance for life in the Middle East, providing sustenance, oil, and health benefits.
The people I encountered are memorable. I was able to visit with His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius IV, and with metropolitans and bishops who all encourage the growth of Antiochian monasticism in the United States. Each offered practical and spiritual advice which I will remember as the life of the Convent progresses. His Beatitude in particular, by his energy and tenacity, inspired me to continue to run after the prize! Other Hierarchs recounted their experience as monastics, the necessity of addressing the needs of the faithful, and the meaning of being open to the will of God in all its manifestations – not just the ones we want!
Another memorable person was a farmer from Maaloula, Butros, who is able to speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. He provided me with many examples, first in Arabic and then in Aramaic so I could hear the difference. After his basic explanations, I engaged him in a conversation on Matthew 5–6, the Sermon on the Mount, and was delighted to hear the words of Our Lord in the original language. Butros knew many passages from the Gospel by heart and I was not able to exhaust his memory.
While traveling, I was reminded of other important lessons. I was in a foreign land with no transportation of my own and I relied on God, through other people, to help me. Not being fluent in Arabic, I was more in tune with the language of love, noticing how people say things or their actions – hospitality, assistance, the care they show for others, the places or things in their care. Nothing was taken for granted. I was mindful of the beauty of the buildings and what this tells me about the people who built them. I was also struck by the history of my surroundings, and the connection with others going back thousands of years.
This was certainly the case during my visit to Damascus, as I learned more of the history of the Patriarchate of Antioch and visited the sites associated with St. Paul. The Patriarchal Cathedral of the Dormition [al-Mariamiyeh] is breathtakingfrom the architecture, with a spacious layout and ceiling mirroring the heavenly, to the iconography and the stone and wood frames delicately presenting the holy icons. I left the Patriarchate, walking out the Street called Straight, and I could not speak for a moment. In all the years of reading and studying about St. Paul, I never thought I would be walking where he had walked. In my moments of quiet, I thought about St. Paul being led by Ananias and then I was at the House of Ananias. It is small. The stone walls give a good idea of how the house would have appeared even in the first century. I closed and opened my eyes, trying to imagine what St. Paul saw when the scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight (Acts 9:18). I wondered about the face of Ananias. From the House of Ananias, I traveled to the Church of St. Paul and saw the remnants of the ancient city wall where St. Paul was lowered in a basket (Acts 9.25). Finally, I traveled outside the city to the place where the light surrounded St. Paul and he heard the voice of Jesus say, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Today the Saint Paul Vision Patriarchal Monastery is built on the site and witnesses to this historic place. After visiting the Church, I walked around the grounds to fi nd the ruins of the Vision Convent, built to honor and preserve the sanctity of the site in ancient times.
History was to be found in all of the churches, sites and monasteries I visited, but in the end, it is the lived expression of the history, the visible and readily available connection with our past lived in daily life or tradition that is most important. In other words, these places are holy sites and live on because of the community of the faithful. Tradition is a way of life and, void of community, it does not exist. Thus, we are connected to these places. In my visits, I experienced this connection and was deeply aware of the place we all hold in the continuity of our Orthodox faith.
This expression of continuity, a translation of tradition into modernity, was boldly evident when I visited the Balamand Monastery and University. From the ancient ruins and buildings of the original Cistercian monastery to the new buildings, such as the Cultural Center, donated by the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, the message is clear: the Balamand University seeks this translation and right ordering of the relation between theology and the modern culture. If this sounds academic and apropos only for a university, then allow me to rephrase: we are all called to translate the theology, the words and revelation given to us by God, into everyday language and action.
Beyond my expectations, I received more than I could have imagined. This is how God works! I did not keep a written diary, but the experience is written on my heart. Thanks be to God for this wonderful pilgrimage.
Monastery of St. Thekla