By Joyce Palevitz
2:30 am. Dark. Dry desert air. We walked towards the yard where the camels were. I had been told that a Bedouin would take hold of my arm and use its circumference to select a camel that would be the right size for me. So I wasn’t surprised when the young Bedouin man did just that and led me to a camel that sat quietly on the ground. He motioned for me to get on this particular camel. I did so, and as I did, the camel lurched forward and stood up and I rose in the air some six or seven feet. It was surprisingly comfortable.
The camels began to assemble. It was dark, but I could recognize my fellow pilgrims, each of us plodding along, getting into line for the steep ascent to the top of Mt. Sinai. This was our destination and we hoped to arrive in time to see the sun rise over the desert. There was just enough starlight to see the mountain rising up to our right and the desert plain dropping below and away to our left. I could see that the trail was barely wide enough for one camel, and I had many opportunities to gaze down on the dramatic landscape below and hope that my camel was sure-footed.
I began to reflect on the fact that I was nearing the end of a 2-month stay in the Holy Land. My “pilgrimage” had actually begun 2 years earlier when I visited Israel/Palestine for the first time. I realized during that trip that I wanted to make some changes in my life. In the year that followed I did a lot of soul-searching (aided tremendously by the Benedictine monks at Holy Cross Monastery in New York). I eventually decided to leave my job and made arrangements to come back to Jerusalem to study at the Tantur Institute, just outside of Bethlehem. When I heard that we would be visiting St. Catherine’s Monastery and Mt. Sinai in Egypt, I was thrilled. I never in my wildest dreams expected to see this sacred site, with its icons and manuscripts that date from the Byzantine empire.
So, here I found myself on a narrow mountain path atop that camel. After about an hour or so, we reached a point where camels could go no further. The rest of the way, the next hour or so, would be on foot. Our Bedouin guide led us up steep stone steps, carved out of the rocks at irregular intervals. At times, it was hard to see more than a few feet ahead. We had only starlight and whatever light the Bedouin had from his small flashlight. It was arduous. It was such hard work. The ascent was so steep, it was impossible to see where we were relative to the top. At one point, I felt I could go no further. I was physically spent, and I thought I could not take another step. I said to one of my fellow pilgrims: “I don’t think I can make it.” They said to me, “But we’re there.”
And we were. I craned my neck forward and saw no more rock, only sky. We had reached the top of Mt. Sinai. We had arrived at a sort of rock platform that could accommodate about 2 dozen people. I could barely make out a small stone structure which was the chapel dedicated to St. Catherine. It was windy, dry, lonely, and desolate. In silence, we faced east where the sun slowly rose over a mountainous landscape, bereft of anything green or growing. Just rock. Miles and miles and miles and miles of pinkish rock as far as my eye could see. It was a holy sight to my eyes. It was a sight that I had waited a long time to see.
Most people left almost immediately. After all, the journey down was just as long as the journey up, and now that the sun was up, it was going to be a hot, dusty hike. A few of us stayed on the top of Mt. Sinai. We huddled together out of the wind and read a few verses from Scripture. I asked to read my favorite chapter from Isaiah: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters…”. On my first trip to the Holy Land, our group had read this chapter at the beginning of every day. In my church in New York, it was read every year at the sunrise Easter service. (In fact, I was often the person who read it.) I had carried its words in my heart for several years. “For you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace, and the mountains and hills before you shall burst into song…..” As we descended that morning, I can’t say that I heard the Sinai desert burst into song, but I did come down from that experience with a great sense of peace.
The next day as we rode out of the desert, I realized that I was no longer afraid of anything that might come my way. I had died to myself in some way that I can’t explain. I left my fear of dying on the top of that desert mountain. And into my heart came the song of the Psalmist as I realized that nothing would ever separate me from the Holy One: “I come to the end; I am still with you.”
Peace. Shalom. Salaam.