Tag Archives: monks

The Studion

This monastery was the most important monastery in Constantinople. The monks were referred to as studites. The way of life in this monastery modeled the monastic discipline at Mount Athos.

The most famous monk was Theodore the Student who fostered academic study and spiritual reflection. The monastery was also a center for religious poetry and hymns written for the Orthodox. Unfortunately very little remains of this very important monastic complex.





From Crescent to Cross

This morning my tour guide began to explore Aksum with me as a great riddle to be solved or a mystery of lore to lead to truth. Was Aksum home of the Queen of Sheba? Could Aksum be the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant? So much is yet to be excavated. Will further excavation yield hidden treasures?

The exploration began at the northern stelae field. A stela is a monolithic monumental tombstone. The number of registers indicate the number of horizontal burial chambers. Notice the half moon, the crescent and under it a circular metal plate was placed facing the east. The sun and moon were gods worshiped at Aksum before the arrival of Christianity.





Notice the wild ibex motif.

In 340 Emperor Ezana  invited missionaries from Byzantium to preach the Gospel so the symbol changed from crescent moon to cross.

Underground burial chambers


The stelae field

Ethiopia-Axum-6 Ethiopia-Axum-5This can be called the Ethiopian Rosetta stone. This was discovered in 1980 when a farmer was plowing his field. It is a monolithic recording of the extent of his kingdom in three languages: Sabean (5-2 century BC), Geez (a language only used in the liturgy), and Greek.




Ethiopia-Axum-7 We continued to the palace to the tombs of Kings Kaleb and his son Gebre Meskel. As we approached you have a great view of Adwa where the battle was fought by Menelik against italian aggression.

A view of the way the dressed stone is set.

In Gebre Meskel there are crosses craved into the stone


And an elephant too!

And an elephant too!

Notice the beautiful stone.

Now for a personal experience. Two days ago after lunch when I stepped out of the car a man who was deaf requested alms. I did not have my wallet so I could not give alms. The next day his face haunted me and I prayed the Lord would send another person with a disability to me in Aksum requesting alms. The deaf man’s face and the door of the Promise of Mercy were haunting me. Today as I was ready to get in the car a little boy brought me a man who was blind and requested alms. Thank you Lord for sending him to me so I could offer a token of mercy and compassion.



(The bath is not at the palace).

Is this the bath of the Queen of Sheba? Most likely not since it is only 1000 years old.


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We went to the Dungar Palace that some allege is the palace of the Queen of Sheba. However it dates to the 6th century AD. The most intriguing is that they have excavated and there is a large palace complex from 1000 BC. What is your judgement?


Ethiopia-Axum-15Then on to the center of the Ethiopian religious world whose compound houses a church they claim houses the Ark of the Covenant. And it was the site of the first church built after Ezana’s conversion. We first visited the oldest church in Aksum built in 1665. I sat there and watched a procession that occurs after mass. They process three times around the church imploring the mercy of God. A deacon gave me a personal tour of the church. It contains beautiful icons and wall paintings. And next to the chapel housing the ark are the ruins of the first church built by emperor Ezana. In front of the church is the circular stone where the emperor was crowned before he was lead into the church. The last emperor to be crowned there was Haile Selassie.


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Ethiopia-Axum-18 Ethiopia-Axum-19This church is restricted to men because behind it is a hermitage of monks who are cloistered. They vote who will be the monk to approach the Ark of the Covenant housed in a shrine to the north of the church. It is a life long position. Each day he enters and prays while offering incense.

This is the photo of the shrine.

Then the procession moves to the modern church so the women can join the litany imploring the mercy of God. I sat there mesmerized by the beauty in an attitude of thanksgiving that the Lord answered my prayer and sent a blind man to me requesting alms.

As the afternoon moved on I lingered and was caught up in the fact I was really at the heart of Ethiopian orthodoxy. I looked and saw this man caught up in prayer as he moved his fingers over his rosary.

Ethiopia-Axum-25I went back into the courtyard in front of the church and there you the king was crowned before entry into the church.

And then saw this monk approaching the presence of God in order to pray. When I saw the monk walking to the church I knew I was at the heart and center of the Christian life: prayer. “Pray without ceasing.” [1 Thessalonians 5:17].

Worship at Debre Libanos

This morning (Sunday) was an early departure at 5 am to begin our way to Tigrey. Northern Ethiopia invites a tourist to share 2000 years of ancient monuments from the Pre-Christian Askumite obelisks to medieval Gonder and the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.
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We quickly ascended the mountain then entered into a terrain that was agricultural and punctuated by circular churches and circular homes with grass roofs.

We were invited into the home of a local farming family and immediately the mother of the house had fresh baked bread to offer me.


The children were eager to welcome us and all lined up at our jeep to say good bye.


We continued on to Debre Libanos monastery (map of the area) which is one of the holiest sites in Ethiopia. It was founded by Saint Tekla in the 10th century who spread the Gospel in the Highlands and established this monastery in the surronding mountains where hundreds of monks lived in caves. Today there are 350 nuns who live in a convent and about 500 monks who live here as well and some still in caves.

On the way I remarked that everything is closed. I guess I was taken by surprise since I have be accustomed to how at home Sunday is no different from any other day. My guide said today is church and family day. We passed many churches with Mass being broadcasted by loudspeakers. People in the church, people in the courtyard, people outside the courtyard, even on the road praying. A spiritual cacophany! As soon as the broadcasted singing would diminish, Mass from another church was increasing in intensity as we approached.  Then I noticed groups of 40 to 50 people gathered around the priest on the road instructing people. This so foreign to my experience at home that I was disoriented and puzzled in that people were praying everywhere.


We arrived at Debre Libanos which today is a modern church built by Haile Selassie. The first church was destroyed by the Muslims and the second by fire. Although disoriented I was intrigued by people praying outside the gate, within the gate while Mass is being broadcasted and holding rosaries and prayerbooks with outstretched hands, foreheads on the ground while chanting responses. EthiopiaDay4-3

After Mass another sermon began as they opened the gate. People were listening, people praying and people prostrate. It was very messy and hard to figure it all out.

A monk gave me a tour of the museum which contains ancient manuscripts, imperial crowns and imperial chalices given to the church.

The monk’s tour provoked a spiritual conversation as he pointed out artifacts. For example when we saw an icon of Saint George he said that is your patron, the patron of England to which I responded I am not British. Then he pointed to Saint Andrew and said that is your patron to which I responded I am not Scottish. Then he queried: Where are you from? America. And then he said: Who is your patron? I said: Saint Mary. He was elated because the Mother of God is the patron of Ethiopia.

The monk was very simple in his faith but profound in that simplicity. When he pointed out the sistrum I told him I celebrated Easter in Jerusalem with the Ethiopians. And I was stunned when everyone ululated. To which he added we ululate when we rejoice. He was delighted that I was in Jerusalem but quickly added “the true Holy Land is the soil of our hearts where Jesus can change our minds and transform our hearts in love.” So simple but profound.



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When we walked into the courtyard the sermon was concluding with final prayers. This was my opportunity to ask him to clear up for me what I found perplexing.  Why do some people pray outside the courtyard and some within with the gates locked and some within the church.

The monk said prayers begin at 9 pm on Saturday and continue on through the night and when Mass begins the gates are locked. Those who wish to receive communion go into the church, some choose to be in the courtyard and those who do not feel prepared remain outside the gate. But everyone makes that decision.  The  priest makes no judgement. If you come to communion or refrain that is between you and God. Everyone knows the discipline but the priests make no judgement.

I was quite blunt in my response and said Christianity is on the decline despite that we profess we are a Christian nation. That prompted him to say we have Muslims here and we live in mutual respect and we hope it remains that way. Because of the close Coptic Christian and Ethiopic connection I spoke of my sadness at the recent martyrdom of the Christians on the shores of Libya. He added yes but I rejoice in their courage. Then he pointed to a monument in the middle of the courtyard in memory of the hundreds of priests and deacons and innocent lay people who were slaughtered by the Italians on the order of Graziani who was later imprisoned by the Italians for crimes against humanity. He said we rejoice they are where we want to be: in heaven. The childlike simplicity of the monk evidenced such trust.

After the prayers we walked around the church and he pointed out tents and noted that some people come to Debro Libanos and spend all Lent in a tent preparing for Easter. We entered the church and the photos speak of how these Christian people have so captured my imagination.

I asked the monk what was the book some people were holding to which he responded: a prayerbook of the Psalms of David. And then asked me do you have prayerbooks in your country. I took out my Android and showed him my prayerbook and he said the Psalms of David in another language but the same Psalms. We had many conversations that made my Sunday a day of rest. What was a tour is becoming a pilgrimage!

We then continued to the Portuguese Bridge built in the 17th century by the Portuguese who came to help the Ethiopians defend themselves against Islamic aggression and thus they maintained their freedom as a Christian nation.  The walk to the bridge was somewhat precarious but a spectacular view.



EthiopiaDay4-12From there we proceeded on to the Blue Nile Gorge. On the serpentine descent to the bottom of the gorge there were multiple sightings of baboons. EthiopiaDay4-15It was spectacular and stimulated my interest to spend a few days in the Simien mountains.

We started very early on this long journey to the historic treasures of northern Ethiopia. However this journey is becoming a pilgrimage. Today was a wonderful prelude to tomorrow trip to medieval Gonder.

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Camino Day 27, The Feast of St. Matthew. Ribadiso de Baixo

Day 27. Sunday, September 21, 2014. The Feast of St. Matthew. Ribadiso de Baixo.
41K to Santiago.

We left a little later than usual, it being the sabbath and all, and joined the throng of pilgrims starting on the Way. It was early enough to be treated to a view of the sunrise. Since we travel west we always have to look behind us to see it.

We attended the weekend Mass last night in Portomarin. Evening Masses here are at 8:00 pm. This is Fr. John’s 25th anniversary of ordination and he concelebrated the Mass. It ended with the pilgrims’ blessing. Fr. Tom thought that the readings were particularly fitting. St. Paul wrote that his life was Christ and nothing else mattered. All of us face challenges along the Way, some people worse than others, but we want our lives, first and foremost to be Christ. When we arrive in Santiago it will be the completion of this Camino, but the completion of our desire that our lives be Christ will continue.

Today’s journey was a little bit of everything, through a number of villages, through pastures, up and down hills, across rivers, through wooded areas and a large town, Melide.

Melide is noted for its preparation of pulpo (octopus) so Fr. Tom and our Australian friend stopped for a midmorning snack of octopus and beer.

The town was bustling with traffic on a Sunday morning, and there was a Sunday market in the city plaza. Some people could have been in church but we couldn’t swear to it.

One of the interesting structures we see in every town is the cruciero. It is a cement cross on a cement base (see photo). Fr. Tom thinks this has possibilities at St. Olaf. What do you think?

More sights from along the way.




Treasures of Samos Monastery in Galicia

Samos, in Galicia, is home to a quaint city and a large, impressive Benedictine monastery. Fourteen monks are in residence there. More information about the history of Samos is here at Wikipedia. We took a tour of the monastery including the cloister, church and sacristy, and a hallway with murals depicting scenes from the life of St. Benedict. This was the highlight of the day. Enjoy this folio of pictures of the monastery. You can click the smaller pictures for larger versions. Here are exteriors, interiors, and some of the monastery’s treatures, including… musical mermaids.





Closer view of bell tower

Closer view of the clock tower.




Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica (praying) in the thunderstorm.

Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica (praying) in the thunderstorm. You can read about the thunderstorm incident here: http://saints.sqpn.com/saint-scholastica/




Detail of a manuscript page. Knotwork, flowers, and mermaids, each with a viola da gamba or some violin-like instrument.

Saint James

Saint James

Day 14, Carrion de los Condes

Day 14. September 8, 2014. Carrion de los Condes. We have now completed two weeks on the Camino, and not yet half the distance. That will be in two more days.

Another early morning start to reach Fromista and meet Fr. John Peck who had just arrived. Had to step around puddles from the prior night’s storm. We were treated to another beautiful sunrise. The way followed a man-made canal created to transport the crops. Trucks now transport the crops but the canal brings lovely views to an otherwise tedious walk. The canal also created a stunning entrance to Fromista.

Another day on the mesetta, the flat plain that is short on shade and heavy in the scorching sun. It was a flat journey though, for Fr. John’s first day and those suffering blisters.

The Way in this stage follows a busy highway, so we exercised the option for a quieter path along the river. Our Australia friend joined us for the day. You can see him in the photo of our rest break. Fr. John is the one with the biggest beard.

A fairly uneventful walk, except for another spectacular sky. Perhaps this is God’s way to lift our attention to the heavens rather than the journey on earth.

In Carrion all the albergues are run by religious orders. Wouldn’t you know we would pick the one with the nuns on vacation! There is a beautiful Romanesque church nearby aptly named for the Blessed Mother on the feast of her Nativity. We arrived too late for the village’s celebration of the feast but could hear the fireworks as we entered the town. The feast closed most businesses this afternoon making it hard to get supplies we need for tomorrow.

Mass this evening was followed by the pilgrim blessing and the Salve Regina. Many pilgrims were in attendance.

We are concerned that tomorrow’s journey will start off with 10 miles before we reach another town. Pray for us.

L-R: (an unnamed pilgrim), Fr. James Kauffmann, Fr. John Peck, OSB