Mar Saba: Vigilant in the Valley of Decision

text and photos by Gerald Ring

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For thousands of years the Judean wilderness has been a refuge for the oppressed as well as a haven for contemplatives. “O that I would wander far away, I would lodge in the desert. I would hasten to my place of refuge.” David’s psalm (55:7-8) expresses his feelings about this place where he hid from Saul’s anger. The prophet Elijah fled here from Queen Jezebel. Taking refuge in one of its many caves, he was fed by ravens for three years. This same wilderness saw Jesus fast for forty days and forty nights, and saw Satan tempt him.

Since the early years of their faith, Christians have also sought spiritual purity in this mystical desert. They found solitude in caves, but would still come together for communal liturgy. These colonies of monks, known as lauras, developed as the common form of Palestinian monasticism in the fourth century. Among those prayerful communities that survive today are the Greek Orthodox monasteries of St. George of Koziba, built on the traditional site of Elijah’s cave, and the Monastery of the Temptation, cut from the rock of a bare mountain-top overlooking Jericho.

The largest and most striking of the lauras in the vast wilderness of bare hills and peaks is Mar Saba. Founded in the fifth century by the sainted Sabas, it rests only twelve kilometers east of Bethlehem. Nonetheless, hidden by the rugged ranges of sand-colored peaks typical of this desert, it sits in perfect isolation from the world.

Mar Saba overhangs a deep ravine called Wadi en Nar, cut by the Kidron River, which is now merely a narrow stream running from Jerusalem through the Judean Desert to the Dead Sea. Muslims, Jews, and Christians identify the Kidron Valley with the Valley of Jehoshaphat, where the Book of Joel says the final judgment of the nations will take place. While many place this site nearer Jerusalem – thousands of Muslims and Jews are buried there in anticipation of that reckoning – the monks of Mar Saba believe Wadi en Nar is the place mentioned in Joel 4:1-2: “For behold, in those days and at that time when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. Then I will enter into judgment with them there.”

Wadi en Nor means Valley of Fire. Over the centuries hermits and monks have inhabited the caves which dot its sun-scorched slopes. Today Greek Orthodox monks in black tunics devote themselves to prayer for the salvation of all nations. Anchorites of Mar Saba would retreat to the caves of the Wadi en Nar during the week, but then come together in their compound on Sundays for communal prayer.

St. Sabas provided the model for the laura’s form of monasticism. Born in Cappadocia in Turkey in 439, he entered monastic life early. He pursued this vocation under the direction of St. Euthymius in Jerusalem in 457. This spiritual director encouraged the semieremitical life of the laura. He sent the young Sabas to Wadi Mukelik, where he followed the guidance of St. Theoctistus for seventeen years.

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Tags: Israel Orthodox Church Monastery Historical site/city