Today, however, it is the place I am called to write about. I made a collage for that day the night before we climbed and this morning when I looked at that small piece, I heard in my soul, "It was hard AND there was Freedom." Each stone below my foot a reminder to pay attention. Heel, toe, heel, toe. Focusing on balance and presence to keep myself safe on the rocky terrain. Heel, toe, heel, toe. Each stone a reminder of those who go before me today, tomorrow, yesterday. Heel, toe, heel, toe. One foot in front of the other all the way up and all the way down for eight-plus hours. (An interesting side line - when I first wrote "heel, toe, etc.", it came out "heal, toe". I haven't quite decided which spelling is correct...)
Why do I recall the drudgery of this mountain? The Freedom looked different than I expected. So, what did I expect? A mountain top experience, of course! Silly me. Each day is a mountain top yet somehow I've managed to forget that regarding Mt. Sinai. Still, the words "Take off your shoes for you are standing on holy ground" come to my mind. Here is my journal entry from that evening:
"In you we are bound to one another, linked by threads seen and unseen, destined for love in eternity, when all that has been decayed is restored." J. Cotter
Today we pilgrims climbed the mountain - ten in reality and four in spirit with countless others around the world through space and time holding us in prayer. Our dear Sister J led the way as she mounted her camel before dawn (4:30 a.m.) to meet us @ Camelot for sunrise. Like a regal princess warrior in the moonlight, I dubbed her Queen of Sheba.
I didn't particularly like this day until I started connecting the threads through the eyes of my fellow pilgrims. The day started with laughter as my roommate's barking dog alarm sounded, followed quickly by my revving motorcycle @ 3:30 a.m. They were sharp sounds in this monastic environment and the silliness of it combined with the early hour and probably our own excitement sent us into giggling fits.
Our group met in the courtyard just before 4:00 a.m. The sun was still asleep, but the brilliant autumn moon glowed in the darkness. We were saddened to learn we would be two pilgrims short for the trek, however, comforted by the place they would hold for us at the foot of the mountain. Later as the pieces wove together, I knew their prayers were pivotal in our experience and they were with us every step of the way. Quietly, Dr. Rabia walked us to the edge of the monastery (which sits cradled at the base of the mountain) and then our guide, Hussein, took over.
With a waning moon of just over 1/2 full, our path was lit with no need for our flashlights and so the threads began. Our pace was slow - almost painfully so at first. I had to check in with myself and heed my inner voice that said, "Hurry up. Get going." Others must have been feeling the same thing, because one of our spiritual guides reminded us of how often excitement can get in our way and going at a steady pace would serve us well.
The serpentine of pilgrims slowly wound our way up and around the rocky paths and for what seemed like hours, we didn't even know which peak we were attempting to ascend. These mountains are layered upon each other, tucked together, making it impossible from the base to tell one from the other. They are unlike my home mountain of Rainier that stands like sentry for miles over the surrounding land.
There was a party of Greek pilgrims staying at St. Catherine's, too, who made the climb at midnight. They began to dribble by and pass us on their way down along with Bedouins and their camels offering rides to weary travelers. At times I considered taking a ride to break the dull monotony of walking so slowly on the dusty trail. We passed one ramshackle snack shack and then another until we met Sr. J in Camelot* @ Abraham's Tent for coffee, tea and the breakfast we carried in our backpacks. We had been climbing for just over two hours. (*Lest you miss the humor, Camelot is the highest place on the mountain that camels can ascend... thus this is their parking lot. It would be many more narrow steps before we reached the actual summit.)
As we sat on the worn Bedouin blankets, snacking on bread rolls, cheese, honey, apricot jam and hard-boiled eggs, the sun made its appearance over the horizon. Layers of color tinted the air as dawn turned into day and outlines of mountain peaks materialized before our eyes. The sounds of Bedouin chatter, belching camels and other pilgrims danced in the air, punctuated by the occasional whistle of a bird. More than once someone said aloud, "Can you believe it? We're here on Mt. Sinai watching the sunrise!"
On the not-so-romantic side, after breakfast we found ourselves making necessary treks to the WC (water closet sans water), where we thanked God for our strong thigh muscles and mothers who had taught us at an early age to squat and hold our nose all at the same time. After our "ablutions," we gathered inside the tent for our morning liturgy. This was one of my absolute favorite moments of the day. As we began to set the space, our host, Abraham, graciously offered a beautiful cloth and spread it on our altar of well-worn wood. It was a piece both stunning in its magical appearance and the contrast of the rich tapestry inside a makeshift teahouse. Our host's humble gesture taught us all much about hospitality and how beauty permeates the most unexpected places.
The threads of our journey continued as our sacristans lit one candle and generously offered it around the circle. From the small flame, we each inhaled and breathed its precious gifts. My mind drifted back to St. Bridget's well in Ireland and my holy time with another pilgrim where I then, as now, was overcome with emotion and blessings offered without words. Following the ritual of the fire, poetry, scripture and our song leader's voice filled the air. My heart burst with joy at the immensity of this simple gathering and the awareness we were meeting together in a Bedouin tent - pilgrims in the desert - much as it could have been in the time of Moses. We were united where thousands - perhaps millions - of others had gathered for centuries. "Take off your shoes for surely this is holy ground." Giggles escaped my throat as the camel's guttural noises punctuated the Holy silence. Amen. Blessed be.
Why is it not this moment that comes first to my mind when I think of Sinai? Perhaps it will be now. Perhaps I just needed to dust the sand off my memories and remember that this morning on Mt. Sinai I walked on holy ground.
This holy day, I invite you to consider what memories of your own may beckon to have the dust removed. Take off your shoes for surely this ground is holy. Amen. Blessed be.
- pre-climb collage/journal page
- Sr. J & her steady mount
- view from Camelot
- sunrise on Mt. Sinai
- pilgrim C & Hussein