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Voices from the East
Documents on the Present State and Working of the Oriental Church

By the Rev. J. M. Neale, M.A.

London: Joseph Masters, 1859.

Chapter V. Letters from Palestine

I WRITE to you, madam, from the deepest part of the desert, from the solitary monastery of S. Sabas, which lies above the dry bed of the Cedron, in the Valley of Tears, so called because it is prophetical of the Last Day. If you descend the path, you pass by the most horrible abysses, and come down to the Dead Sea. If you ascend the stream, you will come to Jerusalem. Is not this the image of our life? He who in this true Valley of Tears, allows himself to be carried away by the troubled stream of temptation, descends from abyss to abyss even to eternal death; he on the contrary who fights vigorously against the torrent of his passions, will in the end arrive, not at the earthly, but the celestial Jerusalem, the true Vision of Peace.

This horrible valley was chosen by the holy Anchorite Sabas, in the sixth century. In a very little while, five hundred hermits came to partake his solitude; you may still see their cells like birds' nests in the clefts of the rocks.

It must have required great courage to shut oneself up in those lonely rocks; I climbed up into three of the cells, and was too tired to proceed further; but the reason is, that those men were of a different nature from us; they only saw heaven; and earth did not exist for them; thus they did things which are out of our reach, and yet they were perfectly natural to them, though far beyond us.

S. Sabas began by chasing a lion out of its den preparatory to establishing himself there. He said to him, "We are both creatures of the same Creator; but since I am the reasonable being, it is but just that you should cede your place to me." And the lion obeyed. Do not go and cry a miracle; consider the thing logically, and you will see that it is more natural than ifs. Sabas had fled before the lion. GOD created man lord of nature and of all animals; man by his fall lost this high position, though still retaining dominion over some; but man regenerated by the birth of our SAVIOUR, and arrived like Sabas at the height of human innocence before the fall, retakes his dominion, and it is natural that lions should obey him, and that, as David says, "He should tread upon the lion and the adder." It is thus, madam, that many things in religion which surprise us till we analyse them with the spirit of faith and holy reason, become more than natural, and it is the contrary which would be unnatural.

Among these caves there are three very striking ones; the stream just there makes a bend, so that they are all close together, and are yet separate for ever. There lived three hermits of the sixth century, Xenophon, and his two sons, Arcadius and John. Every day they saluted each other from the threshold of their caves, not being able to speak because of the distance. Oh what an immense sacrifice of all that is most dear to the heart!

We came here from Jerusalem, for the feast of S. John Damascene, a. famous hermit and writer, who lived in this convent about the eighth century; it is not very long since they discovered his tomb in the tower which he inhabited. It is to him that the Church owes all her most beautiful chants, and particularly those for Easter morning. The abbat of the convent knowing his great talent, forbade him to write, as a trial of his humility. The hermit humbly obeyed the order, but a monk having lost his brother, implored the saint to write some funeral canticles to console him, and it is to this we owe the magnificent office which the Church still chants at every burial. The abbat having learnt this, would have expelled the famous poet from his convent, but as all the monks opposed him in this matter, he told S. John that if he would stay, he must perform the most menial offices in the convent. But what was the abbat's astonishment, when he found that the holy hermit readily obeyed this order. Then the superior throwing himself at his feet, implored him to compose for the church all the hymns which she sings to this day on her feasts. It is this great and humble anchoret, whose feast we are come to spend at his tomb; the day after to-morrow is the festival of the founder S. Sabas: then we shall return to Jerusalem for the feast of S. Nicholas: the church and patriarchs of the holy city having ordained to keep it in the holy sepulchre. There is a magnificent office at which I shall assist to-morrow, and then go to Bethlehem and the Jordan.

You will wish to know how I came to Jerusalem. A strong sea brought me to Beyrouth; from there accompanied by the worst weather, I went through Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon; I have visited the imposing ruins of Baalbek; and Damascus, buried in gardens, is like a vision of the thousand and one nights. It might be called the Granada of the East, from its water and the extent of its grounds, but its buildings are not equal to that city.

There I found the late patriarch of Antioch, who gave me the most touching welcome, and though almost dying, would say mass for me, supported by his deacons, for he trembled at each step. I was very much struck by this act of charity on his part, which I did not deserve.

From Damascus I went to the Lake of Tiberias, and I enjoyed all the scenes of which the Evangelists speak. I have ascended the Mountain of the Beatitudes, where CHRIST preached "Blessed are the poor in spirit," &c. I have sat down near the stone where He fed the five thousand men. I have seen Cana of Galilee, of which I have so often heard in the Gospel at marriages. At Nazareth, I even heard mass in the Grotto of the Annunciation; and I have been to the pillar which stands where the archangel appeared to the Blessed Virgin. I have gone down into Samaria, into the prison where S. John the Baptist was beheaded, and at Sychar I saw the well where our LORD talked with the woman of Samaria. I have seen Bethel, where Jacob had his mystical vision. Finally, on the eve of my Patron Saint's day, I entered into the Holy City, and having received the absolution of my sins at the holy sepulchre itself, I have had the happiness of communicating in the very place where JESUS CHRIST shed His blood for our sins.

I write to you, madam, still from the Holy City, because I did not wish to leave Jerusalem without letting you hear from me. Since my letter to you from S. Sabas, I have twice visited Bethlehem, both at the Latin and Greek Feasts of the Nativity of CHRIST, and I have had the happiness of communicating in the cave where He was born. If they chanted on that day, "Glory to GOD in the highest," men must be silent, the better to hear, both in the depths of the cave, and of their own hearts, the cry of the Divine Child which calls them to salvation. I have also had the happiness of communicating on the tomb of the Blessed Virgin, at Jerusalem, and I thought of you, knowing the particular devotion you pay to the Mother of our LORD. There is nothing I like so much as mass at Gethsemane. We go there every morning at the dawn of day, as soon as the gates of Jerusalem are opened; you are immediately in the vast cavern, in the middle of which is the rock of the Tomb, like a cave within a cave, and then after having prayed in the bottom of this subterranean sanctuary, you go all at once out into the valley of Jehoshaphat. We take the air on the mount of Olives, which raises itself up majestically before you, in front of the Temple of Solomon, and then near the dry bed of the Cedron, you may go and adore in the garden of Olives the first traces of the Passion of our SAVIOUR. To-morrow I shall go there again, as last night I spent in the Holy Sepulchre; it was very cold and damp; but we must forget all for the sake of prayer which exalts us. I shall not long enjoy this privilege; for I leave in ten days: but I shall have the consolation of going there many times first, and communicating there on the eve of my departure. I have already seen all the holy places: I have visited in the desert on the road to Jericho, the abandoned cells of the ancient hermits. I have gone up the mountain of temptation, and into the cave where our LORD gave us the first example of the fast of forty days, and I have kissed the stone on which He was seated.

This cave has been changed into a church, which is suspended over the abyss: it was formerly a large monastery of Anchorites; all the mountain is pierced with their cells.

We have passed a very edifying morning on the banks of the Jordan. Before the sun was risen, we quitted Jericho to visit the ruins of the famous convent of S. John, in the place where our LORD was baptised. I only found a piece of wall, with a Greek inscription on a roll, which a hand (all that was left of the sculpture) held. It was the figure of S. Andrew. I knew it by the inscription (words spoken in the same place:) "We have found the MESSIAH." Is it not touching to find these significant words spoken by my Patron Saint in the midst of the rubbish! It calls us still to CHRIST, showing Him to us as always the MESSIAH. See I this is the healthful effect of an image after so many centuries.

Arrived at the Jordan, we constructed a rustic altar, with the branches of trees cut down on the spot, and after having ornamented it with the frontals and vases we brought from Jerusalem, the abbat of S. Sabas, a holy man in the hill sense of the word, said mass in Slavonic, and we, Russian pilgrims, made the choir. The sky was clear, the Jordan running at the foot of the altar, made a pleasant murmur; the birds sang in the trees round us; it was a true paradise. Then We entered the holy river, and the benediction of the waters was accomplished as solemnly as if it had been the 6th of January at S. Petersburg.

It was a magnificent day; the remembrance of it will always remain with me. I filled two great pitchers in the Jordan, which I shall try to bring with me. While waiting I found an old vial covered with fleurs-de-lys, in the treasury of the Holy Sepulchre: I have had it surmounted by the Russian eagle, and in that I shall bring the water of the Jordan home, if GOD prospers my voyage. I expect to embark on the 24th at Beyrouth, and stop a fortnight at Rhodes, so as to visit the tomb of S. Nicholas, at Myra in Anatolia. I shall be very glad to find myself at Constantinople, and still more when I am in my native land. I shall carry away with me a very precious and vivid remembrance of all the shrines I have visited. They are the friends of the soul, as there are friends of the heart!

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