In December of 1978, on a lonely stretch of the Sharm al Sheck to Suez highway, the driver of a passing car attacked the van I was in. An object came through the windshield, slammed into the rear door and ricocheted around the floor. I thought it was a grenade. I said: “we are dead.”
Four months before I had flown from New York to London. I didn’t have an itinerary, but had the idea to visit Jerusalem and the Sinai. I made my way through eleven European countries, then east across Turkey, south through Syria and Jordan, west across the Allenby Bridge to the West Bank and into Israel, and then south to the Sinai, then under Israeli occupation.
In my knapsack I had a letter from the chairman of the Department of Religion at Swarthmore College. The letter, addressed to no one in particular, said that I was a student enrolled in the department and to please extend all curtesy to me. I had asked the chairman to write the letter because I had thought I might visit Mount Athos in Greece, Santa Caterina in the Sinai or some other place of worship I came across.
I kept the letter in an envelope in a plastic bag in an interior pocket of my knapsack. By the time I got to the Sinai, after over 5,000 miles of trains and busses and ferries and hitchhiking the letter was intact and in good condition.
That I got to the Sinai at all was a miracle. I had hitchhiked south from Jerusalem wearing Israeli army fatigues given me by a rabbinical student who was dismayed by the rags my two changes of clothing had become in 3 plus months and 5,000 miles on the road.
An unarmed Israeli soldier, hitchhiking alone on desolate stretches of the Dead Sea highway at the time was, and undoubtedly still is, a sitting target for abduction or death. I had no issues and found the hitchhiking so reliable that, when the road passed a pretty spot next to the Dead Sea, I asked the driver to stop so that I could take a swim.
The fact that my attire made me a target had occurred to me as I stood on the side of the highway so, after my swim, I flagged a bus and took it to the terminal in Ber Sheba. From there I caught a bus to Eilat.
Two weeks out of Jerusalem I was living in my pup tent on the beach in Dahab, a tiny town on the east side of the Sinai peninsula across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia. The beach had several hundred young travelers from all over the world living in rented huts. I spent my days snorkeling the coral reef and my nights with women I invited to share my tent.
A spot like Dahab attracts a steady flow of vacationing kids who appear for a few days or a week and then leave, as well as a contingent of road people who settle-in for a few months of easy living.
Among the road people who had settled-in were two members of an outlaw European motorcycle club who were jumping bail.
These fellows had a van which made them a notable anomaly. Everyone else on the beach had arrived by bus and carrying a knapsack.
The snack bar in Dahab had very little on offer: yogurt, coffee, falafel. There was a small market in a town some miles away, and the guys with the van made runs to it for supplies. They did this simply and generously not as a business. They only asked for some help with the gas money. Their generosity won them notoriety and friendship on the beach.
In time the guys with the van began a small business. They shuttled some beach people, including me, back and forth to various sites including a whaddi–a dry river bed–that led to a hidden and remote oasis 4 miles from a dirt track barely passable by car. The walk over the river bed back and forth to the oasis was breathtakingly beautiful and, for me, other worldly.
We had agreed to finish the hike at nightfall, and so watched the time and got to the dirt road at the appointed time.
The van was late and so we had to wait. In the desert, once the sun sets, the temperature drops quickly. That night in late November or early December the temperature went from pleasant to shivering-cold in less than half an hour.
First Miracle: Insight
All around us there were leafless spherically-shaped bushes filled with needle-sharp thorns about an inch long.
The branches of these bushes were thin and densely packed, but the thorns made any attempt to break them into firewood unthinkable.
One fellow in our hiking party knelt down and lit a bush near its root.
The bush was like a ball of kindling, and in a few moments the entire bush was engulfed in flames that reached maybe 7 feet into the air. We gathered around the fire to warm ourselves but, as quickly as the fire had engulfed the bush, it had consumed the fuel and was out, leaving only a scorched root.
We moved on to the next bush, lit it, and warmed ourselves for a couple of minutes. In about twenty minutes we had burned five or six bushes, leaving a trail of black stumps.
And then someone said: “I wish these bushes wouldn’t go out.” I froze where I was standing. “Oh my God,” I said. Then, “Guys, I just realized something: this is the origin of the story of Moses and the burning bush.” Most ignored me, but a few gave me quizzical looks. “People have been freezing in this desert for thousands of years. And for thousands of years the only available wood has been these bushes. What would a miracle be here in this desert? A miracle would be a bush that burns but is not consumed by burning. Everybody who has spent time in this desert–the wilderness of Moab–has wished for a bush that burns but is not consumed.
A few days after the hike to the oasis I asked the guys with the van if they would be game to drive across the Sinai to The Monastery of Santa Caterina at the base of Mount Sinai. Their reply was immediate: “Sure, if you can fill the van.”
A few days later 10 of us piled into the van and headed to Mount Sinai.
We headed south to Sharma-al Shiek and from there north on the Sharm to Suez highway. Our idea was to turn onto a rutted dirt road across the desert to Mount Sinai that teed into the coast road about 50 kilometers north of Sharm-al-Shek.
Second Miracle: Survival
About 30 kilometers north of Sharm we were cruising at 120 km per hour (70 MPH). I was sitting in the back on a pile of knapsacks and watching the road through the windshield. In the distance I saw a Mercedes approach in the opposite lane. I had never seen a car approach so fast and consequently I focused on it. With my experiences since I now know the approaching car was going at least 100 MPH (160 km/h).
As it approached a hand reached-out the driver’s window and flipped something in front of us. The driver’s aim was perfect, the object smashed through the windshield and slammed into the back door of the van. The object was going so fast relative to the van that I do not remember separate sounds from the twin impacts, I remember just one big smashing sound.
I saw the fist-size object whizzing around the floor of the van like a supercharged pool ball. I thought it was a grenade and said: “we’re dead.”
It was a rock.
The relative speed of the rock to the van, and the people in it, was at least 170 MPH. Had it hit anyone’s head squarely they would have been killed.
There were three people sitting in the front seat and seven scattered about the back and sitting on knapsacks.
Somehow the rock went between the driver and the person next to him, slammed the rear door–destroying the latch we learned later–and spent its energy whizzing around the floor. Aside from a few superficial cuts on one if the driver’s hands, no one was hurt. Had the rock hit the driver he certainly would have lost control at high speed and would have likely rolled the van. The seven people in the back including me, together with the luggage tossed in willy-nilly, would have bounced around like ping pong balls. Some us would have been killed or maimed and the survivors would have waited hours for medical help, or the bullets of the rock-thrower, on that lonely stretch of highway.
The driver slowed the van and stopped. But, before we could all get out, the driver’s partner and I came to the same thought. “Don’t let that son of a bitch get a second shot at us. Keep going. Fast.”
We pulled back on to the road and continued north to the dirt road that crosses the desert and leads to Santa Caterina at the base of Mount Sinai.
The road was a deeply rutted washboard and we made very slow going. We stopped at a village and purchased food. The owner of the van removed the remaining shards of glass from the windshield.
We camped a few miles east of the village and arrived at Santa Caterina the some time the next day and made camp a few hundred yards from the Monastery’s walls.
The next day I took my letter and walked to the monastery built, legend has it, on the spot where God spoke to Moses from the burning bush.
Third Miracle: New Understanding
I went directly to the monastery’s office and presented myself to the Abbot who, it turned-out, spoke excellent English.
I gave him the letter. He read it, looked at me directly, and asked: “what do you want?”
I explained that I was a student of religion and wanted to see more than what the tourists see on their tours of the ossuary and library which features a framed letter written and signed by the prophet Mohammed himself stating that the Monastery of Santa Caterina is a holy place and that no Muslim shall ever raise his hand against it.
He told me to take the tour and return.
In the courtyard I had an unforgettable encounter with a monk. I can’t say exactly why the encounter was extraordinary, but I can describe my impression. A monk, in his late twenties or early thirties, and I walked past each other in the courtyard. I felt–how to describe this?–a quality of presence in this man. I said “good morning” in Greek, and in Greek he responded “good morning.” That was the entire exchange but, as I write these words almost 40 years later, I can almost see this monk’s face in my mind and feel his energy.
I toured the monastery and returned to the abbot’s office.
The abbot was not at his desk but was sitting in a chair next to a small end table. On the table was a large bowl of olives, a small dish for pits and the letter. The abbot sat deathly still. He ate one olive after another, moving only his arm and mouth.
I stood in front of him, waiting for him to speak. He said nothing and just ate olive after olive.
Many years later I realized that he had been weighing me; but at that moment I had no idea why he was silent nor why he didn’t offer me an olive.
Unable to bear the silence I finally said: “well?”
He looked at me and said: “When you meet Philip Metzidakis give him my regards.”
I responded immediately “I am Philip Metzidakis.”
“Oh?” He said. Then, after a pause, “You don’t speak Greek?”
“No. My father is Greek. My mother is Armenian. I grew-up in the United States. We spoke English in my home.”
“You were baptized?”
“Yes. Greek Orthodox.
“Come back when you speak Greek. I am a monk. I will say nothing.” He handed me the letter. I took it and left.
I walked back to our camp unable to make sense of what had happened. As I turned the encounter over in my memory many thoughts and emotions came-up. I had the sense that I was trying on reactions as you would try on a new coat. Anger? Should I get angry? No, anger didn’t seem to fit. Dismissal? Deem the abbot–was he in fact the abbot–to be a pompous jerk? No, that didn’t fit either. Frustration? Sure, I was frustrated, but that amounted to nothing. The fact was I had been given a task–learn Greek and return–by a man I didn’t know but whose presence and self-possession even then I knew was rare. And, beyond his presence, this man spoke excellent English. This was an educated man. I found the entire exchange utterly inscrutable and impossible to label.
I imagine, but don’t know, that there are turning points in everyone’s life. For me being told by a monk in a remote monastery that I had not met myself was a life-changing event. I can say without any fear of exaggeration that my spiritual search–real already for over a decade–took a new direction that day. I learned that self-study, not the study of a teaching or the passion of others, is where spiritual search moves from theory to practice.
Not many years later I understood what the abbot had said. I realized that he had seen that I was not actually related to myself, that in fact I was a young man without a self.
In time I came to understand the truth of the abbot’s measure of me as a man, not as a theory, but as an experienced fact. I’ve since come to understand that this realization of having no self is the first step in all serious spiritual search; and that this realization comes only after a long preparation.
Somehow the abbot, in an audience that lasted fewer than 5 minutes, redirected my spiritual search from an outward pursuit for objective answers and a glimpse of universal meaning to an inward search to meet myself. I see this redirection of my attention and orientation as a kind of miracle.
Twenty years after my visit to Santa Caterina I visited Mount Athos. Through a series of odd coincidences I was led to, met and made friends with an extraordinary and near solitary monk who lives in a very modest house in a remote high valley on the Athonite peninsula.
Our friendship blossomed and over the next fifteen years I made several trips trips to visit him. In time I learned that he had been at Santa Caterina when I had visited in 1978. On my fourth trip to Mount Athos, while sipping coffee with my friend, I realized he was the monk with whom I had crossed paths in the courtyard of the monastery of Santa Caterina and with whom I had exchanged “good mornings” more than thirty years prior.