Promise of Mercy Monastery

This morning (Tuesday) I was awakened with the beautiful chanting of morning prayer broadcasted from the local church. I was thrilled because the whole city of Bahir Dar was being inspired to open their lips in the praise of the Lord.

This morning began with a boat trip on Lake Tana.

To visit the 16th century Monastery of the Promise of Mercy. The local guide theologically briefed me for the tourist attraction of the city.

He explained the three forms of Ethiopian church architecture: the round church of Gonder, the rectangular church of Axum and the basilica church of Lalibela. All share a common feature of square structure called the Mekides, the Holy of Holies which houses the 10 Commandments and the altar and reserved Sacrament.

He then asked: Do you know about the ostrich egg? He read the puzzlement on my face so he explained. The mother lays her eggs and flies away for nourishment however the father must keep his eyes fixed on the eggs. He must not for a moment lose focus or the eggs will be harmed. So too Our Lord keeps his eyes focused on each one of us with a particular providential love. Thus on the roof there is a cross with seven ostrich eggs also symbolizing the seven days of creation. All the tourist sites in Ethiopia are theology lessons!

Before our conversation turned to fasting, he stated I would find the architecture of the church cosmological.

Then proceeded to tell me there are two types of monks: the virgin monk and the non virgin monk. Virgin monks are men who have never married and may impart blessings whereas non virgin monks are men who once were married and whose wives are deceased and while they may join the monastery they there to assists the monks but may not impart the blessing.

Then he said: did you know there are 15 extra days to the 40 day fast because the weekend are not fast days but days to abstain from meat and all dairy products. Fasting means no food not even water until mid afternoon. I can abstain which is easy with all these wonderfully spiced vegetables in abundance, but no food or water until mid afternoon would be a challenge. By the way Ethiopian orthodox christians do not eat pork.

When we arrived at the peninsula another guide, Mengistu welcomed us to this monastery of several hundred monks.

He pointed out the organic coffee and said that is the major cash crop in addition to papaya and other fruits.

As we approached the church I immediately notice the circular church with the seven eggs representing the seven days of creation and the seven sacraments.

My driver demonstrated the wooden bell that invites people to worship.

The symbolism of the round church is more profound than I realized. Alpha, the first letter of the alphabet and Omega, the last letter of the alphabet, join, that is the beginning and end join in a circle without end but is eternal.

Although originally it had a thatched roof today it has been replaced with a metal roof to protect this Ura Kidane Meret church. There are twelve doors on the outer ring symbolizing the twelve apostles. We took off our shoes and entered the first ambulatory, then passed onto the second ambulatory through the original fig tree wooden doors and begain to walk around the maqdas, the Holy of Holies.

The Maqdas is a square structure that houses the altar, the Holy Sacrament and the ark, that is the 10 Commandments. There is a set of double doors on the north, the west and the south however since the priest faces east when says the mass there are three windows that are open only during mass.

Everyone faces east with the priest which delighted me since they have preserved this ancient posture of early Christian prayer.

On this pilgrimage I am coming to realize that the Ethiopian church is thick with symbolism. In the Ethiopian church men do not sit with women: men on the north, women on the south and children on the west. This at first appeared to be a social convention however I am coming to realize its profound theological significance.

The north side is dedicated to the martyrs since all the martyrs came from the north and must have the courage of martyrs to witness to the faith. My thoughts turn to the Coptic Christians recently martyred by ISIS on February 15. They demonstrated courage.
Notice in the north soldier saints slaying enemies. Believers are shown full-face. Non-believers are shown in profile.

The north door is also called the Bethlehem door since Jesus was born in the northeast and so the bread for consecration is transferred from the Bethlehem door to the altar.

The south of the Maqdas is dedicated to the Virgin Mary since she fled to Egypt in a southwest direction. And so women are given the honor to stand close to the Mother of God.


And children may stand directly facing the east and in front of the priest who
proclaims the scriptures facing the west.

The east side has three windows that are closed but are opened during Mass so the priest may face east. The orientation of the entire structure is heavily laden wirh cosmic symbolism.

The drums on the west side are higly symbolic as well. Inside the drum is a rock symbolizing the tomb and a piece of cloth symbolizing the shroud. The wood of the drum symbolizes the body of Christ, the cloth on the drum his shroud, the straps on the drum the stripes by which we are healed, the large skin or the drum the New Testament while the smaller, the Old Testament.

Mengistu then explained reception of Holy Communion. The priest places his hand above your mouth so the sacrament is hidden from your eyes then immediately you place your hand over your mouth until after Mass the deacon gives you blessed water to drink.

Now to the south door on which is an image of the Virgin Mary that gives the church its name: Church of the Promise of Mercy.

The Virgin Mary is seen placing her hands over the scale held by Saint Michael who holds the scales of justice in judgement of a man guilty of the most heinous crime against humanity: cannibalism. Then to the left that same man works one act of mercy when he acts with charity to a leper. So on account of that act of mercy the Virgin’s hand lightens the weight of the multitude of these heinous sins and tips the scales of justice in favor of the man on account of this act of charity.

Mengistu and I spend time walking around the Maqdas savoring the beauty of its theological insight and I prayed the ancient Coptic prayer to the Virgin at the south door: “Never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection was left unaided.” Mengistu hopes to study theology in Addis. We walked back to the boat and proceeded to the next monastery.



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