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September 28, 2016

A Pilgrim Visits Saint Chariton Monastery in the Judean Desert

St. Chariton’s Monastery is located inside the natural park and reserve of En Farrah (Peralt) in the heart of the expansive Judean desert. It was built in the 4th Century by a mild mannered monk, one of the earliest Desert Fathers, and is one of the first monasteries in the desert. As the story goes, St. Chariton was on his way to the Judean Desert to pray in order to establish a coenobium and monastery. He was assaulted and kidnapped by a band of thieves on the way. They gagged him and tied him up and took him to their desert hideout. They were going to kill him, but were called away to another big heist. In their absence, the holy man prayed for their souls and his. It so happened that a viper, a black one with a green under stripe on its belly, one of the current poisonous species of desert snake native to the region, entered into the vat where they kept their wine. Upon their return and full of thirst, they fell to drinking the wine without hesitation. The monk being gagged made motions to them to be careful that the wine might be dangerous to drink to no avail. It was the will of God that in the morning, following Father Chariton’s night of vigil, the entire band of thieves slept dead never to rob again. Attributing this to God’s providence, Father Chariton buried the dead men and in the process uncovered the cave where they kept their loot. With this money, he proceeded to build the monastery. He had so much left over that he erected several hospitals, senior citizen centers, and orphanages in the city of Jerusalem.

The monastery lies 800 feet above a ravine resplendent with wild tulips, purple heather, majestic pines, and overbearing sweet eucalyptus trees. Two or three natural springs gush through the cracks of the mountains of rock to supply the area with cool sparkling waters and serenely break the silence of the place with its soothing gurgling down the steep ravine. Black desert birds squawk like parrots as they zigzag their way into the crevices in the boulders high above where they tend their nests. In the early morning and early evening, mountain gazelles shy but sure of themselves scale the rock face to drink by the spring pools. Hyraxes, those strange little varmints with furry spiky bodies and long teeth, even stranger considering they are in the same family as the elephants, scurry under the shadows of rock. The mountains of the Judean desert are dry rock. They roll gently over the landscape; the winds have carved narrow terraces into their sides sloping in sinuous trails around their circumference. It is a place of awesome beauty.

It is hard enough to climb in the scorching sun and heat up to the top of the rock that leads into the cave which served as Saint Chariton’s cell. A mild-mannered monk, thin with piercing blue eyes, a pilgrim from Munich serves as the interpreter for the stouter Russian monk also named Father Chariton. “Attention here,” he says as he leads me up the iron ladder bolted into the sides of the rock mountain, completely straight up for 25 to 30 feet. How did these monks manage to climb to their cave cells back in the day where there were no ladders, at least not iron ones? “It is very slippery when the rain comes,” he says. I am out of breath after the first flight of “stairs,” terraced footholds carved from the jutting rocks. “Go slowly. We must pause more and more,” the monk stops on a landing. “This is the first lesson I learn in the desert. You must to go slowly.” This is perhaps the first law of the desert: Go slowly so that you might go quickly. There is no rushing time, wind, or God here.

As I hold my hand to my chest to catch my breath another mountain of rock serves as the view directly in front of us. It is crème golden with a few patches of thistle bush spotted with the dark spots of caves throughout its surface. “In the 4rd century there were thousands monks here,” the monk explains. Back in the 4th century, this was the place to come if you wanted to become a monk, to become closer to God, to live ascetically, reclusively, to listen to the wise counsel of “Geronta Chariton,” the spiritual center of the monastery that also housed a school and library of ancient sacred texts. Father Chariton was the first to build a coenobium in the desert. In fact he started three lavras, two in the desert and the one that is now at the top of Temptation Mountain in Jericho, the place where Satan tempted the Lord after He had fasted for 40 days and nights. Apparently Saint Chariton loved high, daredevil places, mountains high over valleys and unexplored caves, because all three of his monasteries have these same features. After the death of their beloved spiritual father, the monks of the three monasteries bickered about the proper burial place for him. After meeting in a synod, they decided the first where he was called and served would be his last, and so conjoined the three monastic communities into the one here.

Out of the thousand or so monks who chose to live the ascetic life in the hills of the Judean Desert, 700 followed in the example of their spiritual father and did not have their bodies rot after death. This is a sign of sainthood, if not heavenly grace. “Where are their bodies or the texts they left behind?” I ask. In 641 the Persians invaded and slaughtered all the monks who had continued the ascetic tradition; they burned their sacred manuscripts, they toppled the church and looted it of any valuable objects. Then the Crusaders arrived in the following century to take any of the bodies, including Saint Chariton’s, and transport them to Rome and scatter them into little pieces of relics throughout the European continent. All that remains of Saint Chariton now is a fragment of a piece of his relics, framed in a round golden glass bubble embedded in the central icon of the cave church dedicated to his memory.

The monastery fell into disuse for a long while afterwards until at the beginning of the 20th century, 15 monks from Mt. Athos came to the Holy Land, found out the desert monastery, purchased the land and tried to revive the monastic tradition by settling on it. As one by one each succumbed to his death, the monastery remained without a master until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 when it was purchased by the Russian Church Outside of Russia and where today a single, solitary monk bearing the name of its founder treats pilgrims to cool water, homemade iced tea, and different types of chocolate bonbons wrapped in different kinds of shiny red, green, and silver papers while recounting the history of the monastery. A cistern and water pump connected to ground water keeps the place alive with verdant plants, a vegetable garden and a collection of multi-colored flowering pots. Canaries in delicate wooden cages hang from the beams of the covered thatched roof underneath which lie long refractory tables with even longer benches. A female German shepherd, the hostess of the monastery, sleeps lazily under one unless a pilgrim haplessly drops a morsel of the cookies or chocolates brought out by the monk. A band of striped gray cats circulate under the tables and along the rocky ledges. The place breathes “Welcome” without a word. In such an unwelcome, harsh place, the welcome of hospitality is a relief as is the shade of the grape vine in the sweltering heat.

The mount up the steep iron ladder is dizzying. One slip and a body falls heavy onto uncushioned rock beds. How did the monks do this way back in the 4th century I wonder. How did they get their bread? Emerging from the ladder, we reach another rocky landing. Iron doors with bolts hide the entrance to three caves. “This is my cell,” the pilgrim monk says pointing to one of them. The view from here is spectacular. It is so high I see the tops of the open wings of the squawking desert birds under me. There is a wooden door hiding the entrance into the central cave church, the cell of Saint Chariton. The gentle monk opens the door revealing lace-embroidered curtains and woolen red Persian rugs covering the floor of the cave this way and that. The roof of the cave is covered in black smoke, probably from the smoke of the candles and oil lamps burning for centuries during late night vigils. The cave is wide but it is short. A tall person must huddle or at least bow on his or her knees to fit. It is serene. You feel a wave of serenity and peace settle over you. Your soul, whatever murmurings it has, breathes silently. The stubby iconostasis has the four traditional icons, Christ and the Mother of God holding Christ to the left, Saint Chariton to the right. Four gold-filigree vigil oil lamps hang lovingly in between the spaces of the four icons. The monk lovingly snips the black mangled tops of their wicks with a short scissor expressly for this purpose. A “window”, an open space overlooking the side of the opposite mountain, provides the only natural light. The walls of the cave-church are decorated with icons of this saint and that, some in the traditional Byzantine way, others in the neo-Classical Romanticized Russian way, the way that depicts the Virgin in pale white skin and turquoise blue eyes like a Russian tsarina.

I scribble the names of my relatives on two sheets of paper, one in red letters the other in black, signifying the living and the dead. They will be commemorated here I am sure more than other places of worship in the Holy Land. The monastery in En Peralt is not overrun with pilgrims and tourists such as the other churches are in Jerusalem. It is hard to get to, not many know about it, and plus, there is an entrance fee one must pay to enter the nature reserve in order to come, perhaps the greatest deterrent to visitors. This way I know, the names of my relatives will have first dibs on the lips of the reclusive monks.

In the center of the cave, on a wooden podium is the central icon of Saint Chariton, the one bearing the fragment of his relic. He is serene but austere, holding a book in his one hand, the other outstretched with the fore and middle fingers upright and the other three hugged together, a traditional gesture of benediction in the Orthodox tradition. Cyrillic inscriptions fill the empty spaces of the icon. “Love God above all else so that you will receive His glory,” the Russian monk translates.

The Persian and Crusader invasions left nothing of the sayings of this holy man save for this short but simple edict. St. Chariton placed the love of God above everything else. Loving God, the first and eternal commandment, becomes the penumbra under which all the rest of the laws of God and moral conduct follow. This should be our soul’s first priority. This is the purpose of our earthly journey—to become places of hospitality in a brutal unrelenting environment. For our earthly bodies to become pillars of heavenly grace so that the corruption of death will not eat them. For our deserts to become oases of love and verdant splendor—all in the love of God. So that our natural tendencies for anger, revenge, ill-will, greed, lust for power and for flesh be changed. So that instead of wanting our murderers dead, we would petition for their salvation. So that what we gain illegally we could offer as tokens of charity. All through the love of God.

Isn’t this just how the Spirit of God works? I meditate. He forces the soul to drive down deep into its depths and emerge with water. In a place of utter desolation, to batter the soul to wrench out of it life, and not just life but a life of beauty and serenity, order and goodness. In the secret place of my heart, I utter a prayer, “Lord, I am a desert, a lifeless, barren, dry nothingness on the surface. Help me to struggle, to struggle with the demons in me. Give me your grace, give me the spirit to love you and to pray to you.”

By giving full reign to the God-force in us, we will be led to a place of cool waters. A desert will be transformed into a life-giving sanctuary.But how deep we must drive ourselves to unearth the love that must be born from way beneath our depths. How deep we must dig to find the love that must be there in order for us to be transformed into the beings of beauty we must become in the name of God and through His love. If I could have just a crumb or a crumbling of that crumb of love for God that Saint Chariton did, I would be transformed. Love is the most transformational force in the universe. More than the harsh abrasive winds that relentlessly carve lines into the sides of soldering rock; more than the gushing waters that erode and crack solid ground into pebbles, rubble, and then sands. Love is what can turn a maurader into a saint. And I think into the workings of my everyday life. I think of the love I do not have that keeps me a dry dry barren place. How deep I must dig to find the place of living waters that can gush forth and show forth the beauty of a once unwelcome place.