Guide Azazeel

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He has been serving the monastery church since the old monastic priest passed away some years ago, pending the ordination of another priest from among the monks. The ordination would take place in the Antioch church, to which this monastery is subordinate. The ordinary priests have wives in whose arms they sleep, while we monks sleep alone and on most nights we sleep seated, or do not sleep at all because we are busy with prayers and singing long hymns of praise. The abbot lives in a separate room, which has at the corners four old Roman columns which used to stand in the large courtyard in front of the large monastery church.

When they joined up the columns with thin walls, the columns became the corners of the large room.

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Next to his room is the small church where we usually pray. The big church has two doors, one on the monastery side and the other overlooking the hill outside the wall, as though it were two churches, one for the monks on most days and the other for the faithful and the parishioners who come on Sundays and holy days to attend mass. Those who come later do not find space inside and have to squeeze in outside the dilapidated wall, around the outer door. My room is the little circle of my tangible world, surrounded by a bigger circle which is this monastery, which I have loved from the first day I came inside years ago, where I have stayed ever since and where I was blessed with the peace of mind which I had long sought before coming here, until the events that I will relate took place.

Many names has this holy city borne, this city surrounded by wilderness on all sides. I lived there several years before I came here, fulfilling the will of the Lord and following the guidance and advice of Nestorius, although he, God help him today, had first invited me to go with him to Antioch and live there till the end of my life.

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Then something came up and instead he urged me to come here. In his own hand he wrote me a letter of recommendation to the abbot, and destiny led me into events which I have witnessed or suffered, events which I would never have expected. Under my rough pillow I still keep the letter Nestorius sent with me to the abbot.

The abbot gave it back to me when I asked him for it, a year after I came here from Jerusalem. Jerusalem, how far away you seem now, how my days there seem like a dream that shone in the firmament of my dull life and then went out. Why has everything gone dark? The light of faith which used to shine inside me, the peace of mind which kept me company in my loneliness, like a candle in the night, my serenity within the walls of this gentle room, even the daylight sun, I see them today extinguished and abandoned.

Will these cares depart my soul? Will joyful news come to me after that which came to us from Ephesus, where the priests and bishops beleaguered the blessed Bishop Nestorius and toiled until they brought him down? Time has brought me down, care and anxiety have overcome me. What will become of deposed Bishop Nestorius, whom I knew in the days when he was a priest? We met in Jerusalem when he came on pilgrimage with the delegation from Antioch, four years before he was consecrated Bishop of Constantinople. We met at a time which now seems distant, after long years have passed, and in the meantime the places, the cities have come to seem remote, impossibly remote.

I well remember how in the middle of the day I entered Jerusalem from the dilapidated part of its high walls, the part which in former times included the great gate known as the Zion Gate, and set down my travelling stick there, after long wanderings among the villages of Judaea and Samaria. I entered Jerusalem at about the age of thirty, my body and soul exhausted by travel on earth and in the heavens and by roaming through the pages of books. I entered it with unsteady steps, close to collapse, in the dog days of Abib July , and at the door to the great church I fell in a swoon. Some of the pilgrims carried me inside for the priest of the Church of the Resurrection to attend to me.

I spent days in Jerusalem as a pilgrim after three years touring the Holy Places, in line with the advice of St Chariton the Monk, who worshipped incessantly in a desolate cave near the Dead Sea. Enter only when your heart is ready for pilgrimage and your spirit is prepared, because pilgrimage is just a journey of preparation, and travel is just a revelation of the sacred element hidden in the essence of the spirit.

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On my wanderings I had passed by the places where the disciples of Jesus the Messiah once lived and where the Apostles began their mission. I spent months following in the footsteps of Jesus, as described in the Gospels and other books, starting with the town of Cana near Nazareth, where the Messiah performed the first of his miracles, when he changed water into wine for the wedding guests to drink, as it says in the Gospels.

In Nazareth I found no vestige of his presence and no building left to speak of his time.

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I was puzzled, and I went out of my way to the other villages mentioned in the Torah, the Gospels, the canonical holy books and the non-canonical books which we have recently come to call the Apocrypha. On my journeys many doubts plagued me and I suffered terrors in my sleep, until three years of wandering had passed and that clear night came when I saw Jesus the Messiah in a vivid dream. At dawn, the day after this annunciation, I set off straight towards Jerusalem.

My heart rejoiced along the way, as I asked the Lord to purge me of the effects of drowning in seas of doubt, to bring tranquillity to my soul through his bounteous grace and to bestow upon my heart sound faith and the light of certitude. From the environs of Sidon, where the annunciation came to me, except for two hours in the dead of night when I tried to sleep under a tree, I did not stop until I reached Jerusalem, where I intended to settle for the rest of my life. But under the tree successive visions kept me awake: the Saviour suffering on the Cross of Redemption, the lamentation of the Holy Virgin Mother, the cries of John the Baptist in the wilderness, and what happened to me when I was in Alexandria.

I could not sleep that night. I entered Jerusalem from the Samaria road in the heat of the day, and I was gripped by those feelings of alienation that overwhelm me in large cities. The heat was fierce and the tumult great. On my way to the Church of the Resurrection I passed by markets and many houses, monks and merchants and people of every kind — Arabs, Syriacs, Greeks, Persians and those of other nations whose languages I could not make out when they spoke amongst themselves.

I had forgotten the tumult of big cities during my long wandering through the villages of Palestine, and I fled from the crowd to the walls of the church and its big open door. I had hardly arrived when I was overcome by my hunger and exhaustion and from assiduously glorifying the Lord. My bag, laden with books and papyrus scrolls, weighed heavy on me, and then I fainted that faint for which the priest of the church treated me. I spent days among the monks as a pilgrim and they were kind to me, although they often asked me about the lands I had passed through and the hardships, and about the saints I had met or the martyrs whose tombs I had visited. They were insistent in asking about Alexandria and I answered them to the extent that the time, place and circumstance demanded, enough to satisfy the curiosity of the monks and priests who were asking.

In my first days in Jerusalem, I thought about the secret of pilgrimage and asked myself what drove me out of my native country and brought me to this holy spot. Could I not have touched the essence of holiness in my soul while secluded in the desert close to my homeland? If a place can reveal what is inside us, and travel can bring that to light from the depths of our being, is it not possible that humility, chastity, the monastic life, and constant prayer and glorification of the Lord can bring to light divine grace and the saintliness that is latent within us?

Where then lies the aura of places? Is the aura a secret inside us that pervades places when we reach them after travelling with impatient zeal? The awe I felt when I reached the walls of the Church of the Resurrection, did it arise from my sense of the imposing building, or was it from the meaning implicit in the event of the resurrection itself? Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

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As God, how could he die at the hands of men? Is man able to kill and torment God, and nail him to a cross? No one chooses, but rather it is the will of Heaven, which permeates things and words until it mysteriously reaches us. I said that to him and he smiled in satisfaction.

I mean that room which is on the right as you go out through the main gateway. You can stay there, and be with us and with the people at the same time. The room has been closed since the monk went to his resting place two years ago, God have mercy on him. He was a saint. I realized then that they were wary of me, and not yet comfortable with this Egyptian monk who had descended on them without a letter of recommendation and without any explanation.

If I had stayed inside the church, they would have accepted me among the monks only after years of observation. If I had stayed in the city, the tumult would have killed me.

The place suggested was right, halfway between the city and the church, neither here nor there, like me: betwixt and between. I saw that as a good sign and a refuge for my troubled soul.

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Here right by me was the Church of the Resurrection, to which I had been called, and from my only window I could see the groups of believers and lay people who came to the church on pilgrimage and on visits throughout the year. The monks and priests who serve the Church of the Resurrection are good and simple, and most of them warmed to me when they learnt that I practise medicine and the art of healing.

They were not interested that I was a poet.

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The servitors of the church, the deacons and the young priests were friendly towards me and often dropped in, seeking treatment. As for the old priests and the senior monks, I would go to them inside the church when they summoned me. Most of the diseases among the people in Jerusalem arose from the arid climate and the lack of diversity in their diet.

The people of Jerusalem have a rough life. The weather is mild most days in summer, but bitterly cold at night and in winter. When I had settled in somewhat, months after moving in, and my doubts had abated with so many believers around me, I started to compose hymns in Syriac, drawing inspiration from the heavenly spirit which glorified the place and filled it with awe.