by Christine Gilbert, senior
Not more than ten feet in front of me stands a Greek Orthodox priest blessing a bowlful of cheap, imitation silver rings while above my head spans a forest green sea and sprays of equidistantly spaced golden stars in the vestibule of St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt. Trying to figure out if I should cross myself starting from the left or the right once I get to the front, I take a few steps with the influx of the crowd towards Catherine’s relics.
Once at the front, I cross myself the wrong way, bow down and place my head on the contents of the first fur-line box in front of me.
Later, I discover the small spherical thing within the box encircled by Catherine’s silver necklace: her ancient, browned skull. I touched the skull with my face, and I’m not even Orthodox.
Growing up in a Baptist church in Texas, I was never taught to seek out holy relics, much less make bodily contact with them. My fumbled imitation of an Orthodox reverence ritual was due more to my sense of adventure, my obstinacy to obeying stupid rules, and a lack of activities in South Sinai.
The only two things to do in South Sinai are hike up Mount Sinai and visit the oldest working monastery in the world. On my first full day there, seeing as how I had already booked my ascent up the mount for later that evening, I decided to sojourn into the wilderness separating my campsite from the other wonder: St. Catherine’s.
Besides possessing Moses’ “Burning Bush” of the Torah’s Exodus and the well where Moses met his wife, St. Catherine’s proved to be a mixture of dust, pious Greek, Russian, and Armenian Orthodox followers, and church workers on par with the Internal Revenue Service in their attention to job minutia. This last observation was made apparent in my undertaking to see the most famous of the monastery’s treasures: the preserved, severed hand of St. Catherine.
Catherine lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries B.C. The morning after her conversion to Christianity, she awoke to find a golden ring had mysteriously appeared on her finger. After converting her household and neighbors, Catherine’s proselytizing encountered a formidable opponent: the Roman emperor, Maximinus. Scholars were sent to disprove her faith, but Catherine not only defended herself admirably but converted some of the scholars as well.
Undeterred by the emperor’s power and rage, Catherine converted his household and subjects alike which only served to royally tick him off further. Thus he made several attempts on her life, including his invention and employment of a particularly nasty spiked-wheel torture device before he was finally successful in killing her.
Fast forward five hundred years and Catherine’s body is found on the site where the monastery now stands. Those in the area claim angels delivered her to the spot. Catherine’s hand which bore the heaven sent ring has since been preserved resting in a glass encased box.
I and several others decided to inquire with one of the entrance worker’s what time the hand would be on view for the public. After some brief chit chat, he asked whether we were Orthodox.
“We are Christian,” one of my fellow camp group members, Sam, responded.
“Yes, but are you Orthodox? Greek? Armenian? Russian?”
“No, but we are Christian,” Sam reiterated.
“The hand is for Orthodox only. You cannot see the hand.”
Another tidbit we learned from the conversation was that the hand can only be viewed from 12:00-12:30 in the afternoon. Previously that morning, we had been advised by our Bedouin campsite hosts that we would either need to be orthodox or find a benevolent monastery worker to take pity on us and let us in. I am not Orthodox nor did the monastery have an ample supply of benevolent workers that day.
Acting decisively, I announced I would go find some other people from the Bedouin camp group still inside and mule the situation over.
Obviously, I could not miss Catherine’s severed pulpy brown and purple hand. I had already trekked the full length of the hill which her monastery was perched atop implicitly to see it. No, only one option remained: infiltration.
Thankfully, I had worn pants fully covering my legs and a bandana around my neck which could quickly double as a head scarf (Serendipitously selected garments since orthodox women cover themselves extensively). Shortly after my slight wardrobe change, I was able to find a mother and daughter from my Bedouin camp group inside the walled perimeter. The two agreed to accompany me in my devious ploy to breach the walls of the Orthodox sanctuary and glimpse the sacred phalanges.
This came in very handy later on, as the monks took directly to questioning and pulling the seemingly non-Orthodox out of the line even after they were already in the hand’s viewing sanctuary. At this point I had taken the little girl, Naomi, in my arms and was doing my best to appear innocent and heavily lost in thought. Actually, the later objective was not an act, as I was trying to figure out the correct way to cross myself and touch my head to the two boxes by the priest at the front of the room. Regardless, I never saw the monks kick any children out of monastery, and we made it to the front with little Naomi’s help.
I barely got to admire the hand from a distance much less in front of its glass case because I was so distracted with my ruse of trying to appear Orthodox. My observations were as follows: cross right side, left side, up, down. The woman in front of me and the guy before her had touched the brown spherical thing in the middle of the first box with their foreheads. Each continued on to place the tip of their nose to it. I followed suit as best I could. However, I had not observed what to do once I got to the second box which contained the hand.
The priest in front of me had taken a special interest in my lack of formalities at this point, and I decided the best course of action was a quick bob of the head toward the hand. Only, when I bowed my head down, I realized that a 1,700 year old hand was inches from my face, granted underneath glass, but an unpleasant realization none the less as I was in a self propelled hurdle towards it. This really just ruins the whole experience of trying to take in the features of Catherine’s ring and hand alike.
Perhaps Orthodox people bow more slowly, which would explain why the priest still seemed bemused by me. A faint smile hovered on the corners of his lips as he held out an imitation ring of Catherine’s golden one he had just blessed for me. Attempting a meek smile, I plucked the ring from his fingers and concentrated on walking, not bolting out of the sanctuary as I had now attracted the attention of a more portly and less amused looking monk. Mission accomplished.
A fellow mole of religious sites, the Christian missionary Amy Carmichael once said after sneaking into a Hindu temple: “Give me the Love that leads the way the faith that nothing can dismay the hope no disappointments tire the passion that’ll burn like fire.” Miss Carmichael’s quote, unlike those who oversee Catherine’s hand prohibits no denomination of Christ’s church from the joy, encouragement, and advancement of faith it can bring. It poignantly shows how faith is not a quest in which one seeks out a thing, but a journey to find God.
In the end, I think I’d rather have her words more available to the public than the severed pulpy hand anyway—but I’m going to keep the ring.