During my pilgrimage to the Holy Land in September, I had the opportunity to spend time at the Monastery of St. Saba in the Judaean Desert. Clinging to cliffs overlooking the Valley of Jezreel, it is the oldest continually-functioning monastery in the Orthodox world. It is hot (particularly in the summer), and even the caves give little relief during the day.
There have been many great monastics and martyrs who have lived in this monastery of the centuries. It’s founder, St. Sava, is among the greatest of the desert dwellers. It was in this monastery that the original “typicon” (book directing the details of services and feasts, etc.) was written and still has dominance in much of the Orthodox Church.
Among its many famous inhabitants was the great Church Father, St. John of Damascus. Today is his feastday. I had the privilege while at St. Saba’s to visit in the cave of St. John, to ask his prayers, and to consider his way of life.
There is not much to be done to make a cave comfortable. It is, after all, a cave. There was a ledge of rock upon which he slept. I do not know what he may have used for a “mattress.” Some monastics at the time used nothing more than a mat of reeds. There was a small niche in the wall for a candle and his icons. There was another niche to serve as a desk, for it was here that he did his greatest writing.
Perhaps the most complete summary of the Orthodox faith (as of the 8th century) is St. John’s Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. He had earlier wrote one of the major works defending the making and veneration of icons – still one of the finest treatises on the subject. He was a major writer of hymns for the Church, including a large body of hymnography that is used today at funerals.
It would be easy to write a detail treatise of his life. For more information, I suggest the following site.
Of greater interest to me is sitting in the cave. St. John was not alone at the monastery. There were hundreds of monks in his day (today there are 15, though it is growing). The cliff opposite the present monastery, is pock-marked with the earliest caves of these desert dwellers.
Sitting in a cave is not at all like sitting in my office, or driving my car, or watching television, or sitting around my dinner table. It is not about comfort, but about self-denial and prayer. I could easily see how a cave would induce prayer, though my first thought of prayer would have been, “Get me out of this cave!”
On the other hand, I know how difficult it is to pray in my office or my car or with a television beckoning, etc. Comfort is not always conducive to prayer. We have designed our lives around our comfort and not around our prayers.
I am also aware that my heart looks more like my living room than it does St. John’s cave. It is full of distractions. Thus when the admonition comes to “enter the heart,” it is all too often an entering of just another room, just another place not to pray. Caves are hard to find in our world.
The emptiest room I can find in my world is the existential emptiness of my own being. It is the hollow sound of death that stalks my body and the meaninglessness of contemporary consumerism. It is the fear of failure and the non-being of lies. It is the ugliness of my judgments and silliness of my pride.
These make a fine cave – at least a cave in which there is no substance – nothing of true existence. It is, if you will, a cave within Hades (or it will be). But from there you can pray. From there it may be possible to pray very well and honestly. I think there is more honesty and prayer possible in such a cave than in any of the comfort zones that populate my life. From there one can say:
I cried unto the LORD with my voice; with my voice unto the LORD did I make my supplication. I poured out my complaint before him; I shewed before him my trouble. When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, then thou knewest my path. In the way wherein I walked have they privily laid a snare for me. I looked on my right hand, and beheld, but there was no man that would know me: refuge failed me; no man cared for my soul. I cried unto thee, O LORD: I said, Thou art my refuge and my portion in the land of the living. Attend unto my cry; for I am brought very low: deliver me from my persecutors; for they are stronger than I. Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise thy name: the righteous shall compass me about; for thou shalt deal bountifully with me.
Hear my prayer, O LORD, give ear to my supplications: in thy faithfulness answer me, and in thy righteousness. And enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified. For the enemy hath persecuted my soul; he hath smitten my life down to the ground; he hath made me to dwell in darkness, as those that have been long dead. Therefore is my spirit overwhelmed within me; my heart within me is desolate. I remember the days of old; I meditate on all thy works; I muse on the work of thy hands. I stretch forth my hands unto thee: my soul thirsteth after thee, as a thirsty land. Selah. Hear me speedily, O LORD: my spirit faileth: hide not thy face from me, lest I be like unto them that go down into the pit. Cause me to hear thy lovingkindness in the morning; for in thee do I trust: cause me to know the way wherein I should walk; for I lift up my soul unto thee. Deliver me, O LORD, from mine enemies: I flee unto thee to hide me. Teach me to do thy will; for thou art my God: thy spirit is good; lead me into the land of uprightness. Quicken me, O LORD, for thy name’s sake: for thy righteousness’ sake bring my soul out of trouble. And of thy mercy cut off mine enemies, and destroy all them that afflict my soul: for I am thy servant.