Saint Catherine's Monastery has had a special significance for the world community, not only in present times, but ever since its earliest beginnings. Over the centuries, the Sinai brotherhood has been entwined with broader society in many ways, whether spiritual, cultural, socio-economic, or academic. The many different facets of this illustrious history continue to draw persons of differing interests and background to discover inspiration for their own lives in its unique heritage.
Saint Catherine's Monastery: From Yesterday to Today
Most are drawn by the Monastery's location on Mount Sinai, or Horeb, which was retained in local memory as the site of the miraculous events of the Book of Exodus, where the holy Prophet Moses encountered God at the Burning Bush and then received the Ten Commandments. The Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai, as St. Catherine’s is officially named, also houses the world’s greatest collection of Byzantine icons, as well as a famous collection of ancient manuscripts second only to that of the Vatican.
For the student of religion or spiritual seeker, the Sinai Monastery stands at the apex of revelation where the New and Old Testaments meet, for the brilliant radiance of Moses’ countenance upon his descent from Sinai prefigures the way of divine Grace to come in the New Testament.
As seen through the prism of Sinai’s ancient spiritual tradition, the ultimate significance of the events of Exodus emerges in the New Testament era. Given their own experiences of the purified soul’s participation in God, the Fathers of the early Church were able to discern essential aspects of Christian theology in Moses' experiences of God, first at the Burning Bush and then on the Holy Summit of Sinai. Thus, the tradition of the Law and Prophets of the Old Testament revealed on Sinai finds its fulfillment in the way of love taught by Christ, the journey whose stages are clearly set out in Saint John Climacus of Sinai’s Ladder of Divine Ascent and reflected in the life of the Great-martyr Catherine of Alexandria, whose relics are preserved in the Holy Monastery.
Saint John Climacus, the Monastery’s sixth/seventh century abbot and revered “second Moses,” also experienced the vision of God--but in the formative period of the New Testament era. Thus, instead of the Law, he brought down from on high a spiritual manual, the Ladder of Divine Ascent. This famous work delineates the Orthodox Christian path to the soul’s union with God through its pursuit of authentic love. The book is considered by many as the most important spiritual work after the Bible and, to this day, serves as a guide to those both within and without monastic life.
Many also journey to Sinai to venerate the popular Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the fourth century All-wise Great-martyr and Bride of Christ whose relics were discovered atop the highest peak of the Sinai range. Saint Catherine was a brilliant and well-educated young aristocrat noted for her great beauty and discernment. Inspired by her incisive exposition of the veracity of Christian faith versus idolatry and the radiance of her sanctity, many present at her martyrdom were moved to embrace Christ and ensuing martyrdom themselves. Along with many other holy martyrs from the Sinai Monastery, the Saint exemplifies another important dimension of traditional Christianity: the defense of the faith up to the point of willingness to sacrifice one's life for the truth, without violence to others. And the many intriguing facets of the Saint’s life, like flowers, soften the stark facts of her martyrdom and add luminous color to the arid desert setting of Sinai’s granite universe.
Saint Catherine’s application of education to the service of God resonates in yet another way with the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, the Monastery’s vast collection of manuscripts, and Saint John Climacus' expert exposition of the spiritual ascent to union with God. While the ascent ultimately depends on illumination from God in response to nothing more than one’s struggle to fulfill the commandments in humility of soul, learning and knowledge do not contradict and indeed inform divine ascent, if rightly applied. And as seen in the example of St. Catherine, they also serve as a means of demonstrating the path to the uninitiated by exposing the falsity of worldly preconceptions.
Finally, the Monastery's tradition of peace with those of other faiths, as well as its charity to pilgrims and the surrounding community, demonstrate love in action, the natural outcome of the pursuit of God. This is another dimension to the light of revelation, whose luminescence is reflected in the tradition of the Sinai Monastery as in a mirror, and continues to profit contemporary civilization in many ways.