Two Weeks in Sebata

A friend’s impressions of a recent stay at an Ethiopian Orthodox monastery for women.

by Sister Isabel Arbide, F.M.M.

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Since I arrived in Ethiopia in the fall of 1982, I have been amazed by the spirituality of the Christians and, in a special way, by the Orthodox. I felt – and I still feel – the contrast between the secular society I come from and this sacral society. I have always had the desire to understand the Ethiopians’ religious values and traditions, rites and conceptions of religious life.

I find monastic life in this country particularly attractive. I have had the opportunity to visit a few monasteries: Debre Libanos, Sebata, Zukuala. The monasteries in Ethiopia have influenced greatly the religious life of the people and I believe the monks and nuns try to live the Gospel in a radical way.

Although I have read plenty of books, attended seminars and lived in Ethiopia all these years, my desire to know better the life of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians had been unfulfilled until recently. I work as a doctor at the Bushulo Major Health Center, a 75-bed hospital in southern Ethiopia. The majority of the rural population are Muslim, with some indigenous religionists or newly converted Catholics and Protestants. Most Ethiopian Orthodox Christians are found in urban areas.

With these “noises” in my head, I decided to spend two weeks of my vacation in an Orthodox monastery. I was given permission by Abuna Paulos, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, to stay at Sebata Monastery, which is located about 30 miles west of Addis Ababa.

I was a bit anxious when I arrived at the monastery. For the first time I was going to be in a completely Ethiopian environment. I would speak only Amharic, eat injera (a spongy bread) and wat (curried sauce), take part in the liturgy and share the life of the nuns with their understanding of prayer, fasting and work.

I was kindly received by the superior of the monastery, Ememnet (superior in Ge’ez, the classical language used in the liturgy) Fekerte, who expressed some concern during our first meeting – I was the first foreigner and Catholic to live with them. The Ememnet asked about the purpose of my stay. I explained to her that I wanted to share their life, to follow their regime of prayer and work. Twice I asked her for the order of the day and twice she hesitated to give it to me. After two weeks in Sebata I understood the Ememnet’s hesitation – every day was different.

Instead Ememnet Fekerte assigned a nun, Emahoy (a Ge’ez term to address a nun) Tsigue Denguel as my companion and guide. She informed me about prayer time, days of fasting, where our work assignments were and if and when there was a divine liturgy.

The first seven days of the Ethiopian month the sisters enhance their already intense prayer schedules, asking God to bless them in the new month.

On most days the bells rang at 4 A.M. On fasting days, which take up more than half the year and nine of the 14 days I spent at the monastery, no food or drink was taken until early in the afternoon. Very often the divine liturgy was at noon followed by lunch around 2 P.M. On days of fasting and abstinence, the nuns abstained from all meat and dairy products.

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