We leave St. Catharine’s Monastery, begin our walk back down the hillside, pass a row of camels who sit waiting, perhaps for travellers who will hire them for explorations across the desert or up into the mountains. The camels have brightly woven rugs over their backs, modestly unaware of the fashion statement they make. Ahead of me on the steep downward climb, I hear Jean engage with Arthur in what sounds like a theological discussion. I catch up, join in.
“How did we get Yahweh so wrong?” I ask, telling Jean and Arthur about my conversation with Michael. Jean believes that the characterization of Yahweh is drawn in part from the fierce desert god, a god of wind and storm, who would have been known among the Israelites.
“And yet,” I say, “there is such great tenderness in Hosea and in Ezekiel. My favourite part of the Hebrew Scriptures is Ezekiel 16.”
“Recite it for us,” Jean asks.
I begin. I know this by heart, but nonetheless, the lines come out rather muddled.
I saw you in a field on the day you were born. You were lying in blood with no one to wash you, to rub you with salt. You were as unloved as that on the day you were born. I said to you, ‘Live and grow like the grass of the fields.’ Later I passed by again and saw that your time had come, the time for love. I wrapped my cloak around you. I made you my own…
The words, as always, stir me to delight. I spin around on the dusty road, my arms a windmill, saying, “What passionate love! There is nothing in the Gospels to touch it!”
“I like the funny parts,” Jean says. “My Dad was a comedy writer. Do you know that in the Beatitudes, the truer translation is not blessed are the poor in spirit but blessed are the debonair!”
Deidre has joined us, “But Jesus was so young,” she says. “He didn’t live long enough to get serious.”
“I’m glad we have lived long enough to live into joy!” I say.
We board the bus, now waiting for us after the return from the Bedouin market. I look back at a glorious view of the monastery, a garden nestled in the arms of the mountains.
We begin a seven hour journey across the Sinai to Cairo, still unaware of the border skirmishes, puzzled by our guide Samai’s unwillingness to make any stops. By late afternoon, we are hungry, thirsty. Samai relents, cautioning us to get something quickly in what looks like an Egyptian hamburger stand without the hamburgers, the food expensive and sparse. We continue on over mostly featureless land, driving through a tunnel that takes us under the Suez Canal.
When at last we reach Cairo, city lights pierce the darkness of full night. We enjoy a supper of char-broiled chicken at a comfortable, softly- lit restaurant. I am sitting near Suzanne, Rosemary and Marjorie, the woman who had led Chi-gong movements for us on the deck of the Moon Goddess. Our return to Cairo brings with it a sense of endings. “How do we talk about this when we return home?” The question hovers in the air above us, silencing us. How indeed…
It is Marjorie who responds, speaking with quiet assurance. “We come like Odysseus, like a beggar, listening to their stories of what went on in our absence, before we unfold our own stories.” There is a further silence as each of us recognizes the wisdom of Marjorie’s words, then imagines how that would be when we are home…
We return to the Mena House, whose marble halls welcomed us on our first night in Egypt. This time, the window of my room overlooks a busy Cairo street, a Mobil Oil station hovering protectively over its gas-thirsty cars and trucks. Egypt is already shedding itself of us, turning off some of its magic.
But not all of it. We’ll be up before dawn for a sunrise prayer between the paws of the Sphinx.
I waken at four, drawn into prayer, needing to prepare for this day, our visit to the Sphinx, our ritual in the Great Pyramid, our final day in Egypt. Time is running out for whatever miracles are still to happen. I catch myself getting caught in clock time, forgetting what I’ve learned of durative time. I remember that in the Gospel stories, people are sometimes only aware of a healing after they set out for home.
We are in the tour bus by 5:10, but Egyptian Security is still tight. After a long delay, we are given the necessary escort for the short journey.
The moon is a cup half full of golden wine in a sky that sings of night when we reach the Giza Plateau. We walk towards the Sphinx, full of awe, watch it grow larger as we draw near. Its great paws were deeply buried in sand for millennia. Cleopatra would not have seen them. This majestic storied presence is distant, even when we are at last standing beneath its chest, leaning against stones ancient beyond anyone’s reckoning. The face carved on the Sphinx, thirteen feet wide, is now thought to be that of a woman with Negroid features. Samai tells us that the face is more recent than the base, for it had to be realigned with the stars. The Giza Pyramids are oriented towards Orion. Over perhaps nine thousand years, the sky map has changed.
The Great Sphinx Egypt
I stand now in the generous space between stretched-out paws. I have to tilt my head back to see the face that looks out across the sands to a far horizon, unaware of me. There is no message that I can understand in the far-off gaze. Here there is no sense of presence, neither the gentle one of Isis, nor the joyous one of Hathor. Not even the fierce presence of Sekhmet.
But when I turn to look in the direction the Sphinx is facing, the sky is opening in mango and lemon. Ra the Sun appears.
At the moment of the sun god’s appearance, Jean invites us into a time of silence. I try to be present to this experience of no thing. Surreptitiously, I take two photos, but it feels like a desecration.
After our sunrise prayer, as I walk away, I hear Jean say, “How people can stand before a mystery and a wonder and just take photos amazes me!” I feel chastened, thinking of Eliot’s words. Have I also “had the experience but missed the meaning”? I decide that I was at least open to the wonder, to the mystery.
Later, I will discover that my photos are double-exposed, worthless.