One of the benefits of being on Sabbatical is having the opportunity to expand my reading list. As mentioned in a previous post, I truly enjoyed having the chance to read through The Brothers Karamazov whilst in Peru. As I prepare to travel in the Middle East, The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels (Knopf, 2009) by Janet Soskice has captured my attention.
In 1892 a pair of identical twin sisters from Scotland, middle-aged widows, with no university degree or formal training, undertook a pilgrimage to the Sinai Peninsula looking for ancient manuscripts. As they combed the library of St. Catherine’s Monastery, they found a sheaf that contained a set of biographies of notable women of early Christianity. When they examined the writing, however, they noticed shadows underneath, and determined that the “Lives of the Saints” had been overwritten on a previously used vellum (who says recycling is new?). Underneath the mundane stories of the saints was a copy – the copy – of the earliest known version of the Gospels, written in ancient Syriac (the language presumably spoken by Jesus). These incredible women uncovered the ancient text and translated it, bringing a remarkable religious treasure to the world.
The story of Agnes and Margaret Smith is at once a travelogue, as it narrates the adventures of Westerners to a strange & mysterious land; a pilgrimage of faith, as the sisters face challenges to assumptions long held by people of faith in an era of scientific and archaeological discovery; and an intellectual sojourn as these women continued to educate themselves and their world in the linguistic and historical tradition.
One of the things that occurred to me as I read this was that these women have shown me a prime purpose of Sabbatical – freeing oneself for new challenges and for the opportunity to wander and to wonder in new and amazing places (whether those places be geographical locales or ideas or conversations.
The quote from the book that has resonated within my heart for a few days deals with the sisters’ ability to integrate new thoughts and ideas into their own lives. At first, as they left their staunch Presbyterianism and encountered the Orthodox and Catholic churches, the sisters sneered with religious elitism. However, as they came to know the men and women with whom they interacted, they began to see things differently:
“For all their confidence in the superiority of their own forms of worship, Agnes and Margaret were touched by what they had found at Sinai. For Victorian Protestants, to hear the Word of God was to be called to proclaim, preach, and convert. This meant missions, Sunday School, and the handing out of Bibles and religious tracts. For the monks [at St. Catherine’s] to hear the Word of God was to be called to a way of perfection – prayer and thanksgiving, fasting and abstinence. The brethren, it is true, did not fan out to convert the Bedouin, but made their presence a center of hospitality on the understanding that God brings whom He will to Sinai and God speaks to each one as He wills.” [page 132]
Already on this journey I have had my eyes filled with astonishing sights, my heart and my head challenged with new ideas, and my spirit refreshed with new insights. All of this comes, of course, at a time in my life when I am free to be anchored in the time to reflect on the ways that God has spoken to me in the past.
When we first went to Malawi in 1995, Sharon and I were blessed by the hospitality and graciousness of our African hosts. I could identify with the joy shared by the Smith sisters as they received that hospitality from the monks at Sinai; my hope is that my life might be more and more shaped by the ability to offer similar hospitality, whether that is on Cumberland St., on the trail, on a houseboat, or wherever I may be.