It is pitch black. He is unaware that more than fourteen kilometres lay before him, in his mind there are only six. He begins to walk. In the distance he sees a semi-globe of light, and decides that it is the monastery. Since he could not see anything around him, he decides that walking in that direction is the wisest choice. In the darkness, he feels a presence; he is certain that he is not walking alone.
Lessons: Never fear, always be the lesser, God is good.
Tired from a long day’s journey, a lone youth finds himself in front of the “mada’”, the “trail”, to St. Paul the Anchorite monastery, Red Sea Governorate, Egypt. It is 9:00 p.m. – the journey began at 5:00 a.m. that day and should have been done by early afternoon. The intended destination, in fact, was actually St. Antony’s monastery. Mass confusion at the bus depot, and a confused driver and stewardess made that plan impossible – he had two choices: it was St. Paul’s, or Hurghada. Since the objective was retreat, Hurghada was out of the question.
It is pitch black. He is unaware that more than fourteen kilometres lay before him, in his mind there are only six. He begins to walk. In the distance he sees a semi-globe of light, and decides that it is the monastery. Since he could not see anything around him, he decides that walking in that direction is the wisest choice. In the darkness, he feels a presence; he is certain that he is not walking alone. With the added hesitance about lack of direction, he is afflicted by at least a brief moment of fear.
“Don’t be silly!” He says to himself. “St. Paul never leaves those coming to him alone! He won’t let his kids get lost or hurt in his desert.”
Indeed, he had heard the stories of St. Paul’s raven coaxing lost soldiers and wanderers to the famous anchorite’s abode. The boy begins veneration, and loses his fear. One by one he sings for the saints he loves, St. Mary, then his intercessor, St. Antony. St. Paul the Anchorite, St. Pishoy and St. Paul of Tammoh are sung, along with St. Athanasius – and do not forget our teacher, St. Dioscorus! The youth is enjoying his sweet dialogue with the saints, and hardly feels that more than an hour has gone by – and the light in the distance does not look much closer at all. He continues, but then realizes that if he gets there too late, there might not be anyone at the door of the monastery to let him in. He smiles. Would it be better to turn around and start again?
He trudges on, but not for long. Approaching from behind is the unmistakable headlights of an old white Fiat. It pulls over.
“St. Paul sent me.” The driver says right away.
“Really? Thanks a lot.” The Youth answers.
“There’s still a good three hours walk ahead of you!” The man introduces himself, “I am Amgad, by the way. You have been walking for long?”
“Welcome! I am not sure – at least an hour or so!” Is the reply.
“Really, St. Paul sent me. My intercessor is actually St. Antony, but I’ve never been to his monastery. I was almost there, at his monastery for the first time, when I felt like I just had to turn around and go to St. Paul’s. I couldn’t fight it, it was an unspoken order. If I had not, you would be here until the morning hours, and nobody would open for you! Were you scared?”
The Youth smiles. “I was worried at first,” He begins, “But when I remembered the stories of those who had become lost, but that were found because of St. Paul sending a raven, I was comforted. I was certain God would take care of me.”
“Glory be to God!” Amgad says. There is a man beside him in the front who has not spoken. “You see, Hassan, this is something we have. We sense these things, they are normal occurrences for us, but we cannot explain them. Our saints work among us.”
Hassan is silent, but smiling.
“It’s funny –” Says Amgad to Hassan, “you guys do not know anything about us, but we know everything about you. It’s not that we’re secretive or anything, but there’s no place for you to learn about us. We learn about you on the buses, in taxis, on television, and even in school! We know your beliefs, but you have no idea about ours!”
“You’re right.” Hassan says.
“You see,” Amgad is cut off in the middle of his sentence. On the side road, there are four people walking together. The car really only has physical room for two more.
“God bless you!” The only woman among them exclaims. “I am tired, and my child is very tired too. We have been walking for four hours, which has been too much for him.”
The Youth smiles to himself as the woman, a small child, and two young men approach the car. The two young men are travelling together, but joined up with the woman and child and had been taking turns carrying the little boy. In every direction are great mountains, towering over proudly, reducing everything beneath it to the size of the dates growing in its fertile areas.
“We knew someone was coming.” The lady says. “It was very nice of these young men to sing venerations the whole way! It kept us cheerful, and made us feel the presence of the saints.”
The small group wondered at the Glory of God, the works wrought through His saints and the surety of their presence and work among them. Surely, Saint Paul was not doing wonders for his own glory, but for the glory of his Lord, who protects His children – all those who love Him.
The Youth and the two young men – George and Girguis – argue over who will sacrifice their seat in the car. At last, the Youth and Girguis ride on the trunk, clutching to the sides of the vehicle.
When the car has stopped, they thank Amgad, who refuses any money or tip, and run to the church immediately, to take the blessings of the great Saint. The monastery is full of life, even in the silence. As they leave, they run into a monk who knows Girguis.
“Agape, father!” Girguis says to Abouna Ishak.
“Agape, Girguis. Agape.” He nods to the Youth and to George and asks their names and where they are from.
George and Girguis see another monk they love and run off to speak with him. The Youth is alone with Abouna Ishak. He tells him of his journey here, and that he intends to go to St. Antony’s the next day. He tells him that he was here for a few days the year before, and would like to spend more time at St. Antony’s.
“You do not like it here?” Abouna Ishak asks.
“I like it, but St. Antony is my intercessor. St. Paul is also very dear to me, he did something with my mom before…” The Youth answers, recalling a great miracle of healing.
“Oh is your mom the one…”
“Yes, that’s her.”
Abouna already knows who the Youth’s mother is.
Later on, the three travellers lie outside the guest house, as the retreat house does not accept people so late in the night. Girguis starts singing. The Youth listens and lies down on the cement bench. Cool air making his grey galabaya flap, and cooling his head after such a hot day. He was here just a year before, feeling the same breeze.
“I do not know this hymn. Do you know it?”
“Yes, I do.” The Youth sits up.
“Please, can you teach me?”
Hymn by hymn, the two review the Liturgical hymns to be sung in only four hours. The Youth notices that the other is trying to memorize them.
“Did you bring your tunic?” The Youth asks.
“I’m not a deacon. I’m trying to learn the hymns, but I can’t be consecrated until I learn the hymns. I can’t go to the lessons though because I have to work. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready for consecration.” Girguis is at least four years older than the Youth, but got his diploma, a certificate meant specifically for physical labour, years ago.
“I have a small cassette player. I play hymns while I work, trying to memorize them by hearing them while I do my job.”
Together, they stay up an hour more, solidifying the hymns of intercession as a starting point.
“Will you stay here then, and teach me more tomorrow?” Girguis asks.
The fact that Girguis is talking to a younger brother as his teacher was enough to make the Youth cry.
“I will be going to St. Antony’s tomorrow. If I don’t get there, I will stay with you and teach you.”
The two wake up George, who had fallen asleep on the bench, and sleep on the dirty, blanket-less mattresses. They would only have two hours of sleep before the Midnight Praises would begin. This is a retreat, after all.
The Youth removes his tunic after the Liturgy, and runs to the parking lot to secure a ride. He is determined to get to St. Antony’s, and does not rest or eat until he has found a bus that can take him to the nearest town, from which he can ride a small microbus. He finds one, and waits for them to eat breakfast and board.
Before he leaves, he remembers something and runs to the bookstore. Then, he searches out Girguis in the now crowded guesthouse.
“Girguis, take this tape, and learn it. I may see you again.”
They embrace, and the Youth leaves.
When recounting the story to the monk in charge of the retreat house at St. Antony’s, a grin lights Abouna Yaqoub’s face, “My beloved, there is no light that can be seen from the monastery from the beginning of the trail, and electricity is cut by 10:00 p.m..”
“But it was there.” The Youth affirms.
“It was there.” Abouna agreed. “The light of God was there.”