Past Perfect: Seclusion and Skulls at Mar Saba
American essayist and novelist Charles Dudley Warner (1829–1900) was raised on a farm, attended college, studied law and practiced law briefly. He was an activist for prison reform and other social improvements. An editor for Harper’s Magazine, he became the first president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Known for his humor, Warner is noted for the line, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” In 1873 he collaborated with Mark Twain to publish The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today.
He traveled extensively and wrote several books describing his adventures. The following excerpt is from In the Levant (1876), describing his visit to the Mar Saba Monastery overlooking the Kidron Valley.
So far as I can learn, this convent of Mar Saba is now the only retreat left on this broad earth for MAN; and it seems to me only reasonable that it should be respected by his generous and gentle, though inquisitive foe.
It is necessary to strictly guard the convent against women, who in these days of speculation, if not scientific curiosity, often knock impatiently and angrily at its gates, and who, if admitted, would in one gay and chatty hour destroy the spell of holy seclusion which has been unbroken for one thousand three hundred and ninety-two years. I know that sometimes it seems an unjust ordination of Providence that a woman cannot be a man, but I cannot join those who upbraid the monks of Mar Saba for inhospitality because they refuse to admit women under any circumstances into the precincts of the convent; if I do not sympathize with the brothers, I can understand their adhesion to the last shred of man’s independence, which is only to be maintained by absolute exclusion of the other sex. It is not necessary to revive the defamation of the early Christian ages, that the devil appeared oftener to the hermit in the form of a beautiful woman than any other; but we may not regret that there is still one spot on the face of the earth, if it is no bigger than the sod upon which Noah’s pioneer dove alighted, in which weak men may be safe from the temptation, the criticism, and the curiosity of the superior being. There is an airy tower on the rocks outside the walls which women may occupy if they cannot restrain their desire to lodge in this neighborhood, or if night overtakes them here on their way from the Dead Sea; there Madame Pfeiffer, Miss Martineau, and other famous travelers of their sex have found refuge, and I’m sorry to say abused their proximity to this retreat of shuddering man by estimating the piety of its inmates according to their hospitality to women.
The tomb of St. Sabas, the central worship of this hive, is a little plastered hut in the middle of the court; the interior is decorated with pictures in the Byzantine style, and a lamp is always burning there. As we stood at the tomb we heard voices chanting, and, turning towards the rock, we saw a door from which the sound came. Pushing it open, we were admitted into a large chapel, excavated in the rock. The service of vespers was in progress, and a band of Russian pilgrims were chanting in rich bass voices, producing more melody than I had ever heard in a Greek church. The excavation extends some distance into the hill; we were shown the cells of St. John of Damascus and other hermits, and at the end a charnel-house piled full of the bones of men. In the dim light their skulls grinned at us in a horrid familiarity; in that ghastly 071jocularity which a skull always puts on, with a kind of mocking commentary upon the strong chant of the pilgrims, which reverberated in all the recesses of the gloomy cave—fresh, hearty voices such as these skulls have heard (if they can hear) for many centuries. The pilgrims come, and chant, and depart, generation after generation; the bones and skulls of the fourteen thousand martyrs in this charnel-bin enjoy a sort of repulsive immortality. The monk, who was our guide, appeared to care no more for the remains of the martyrs than for the presence of the pilgrims. In visiting such storehouses one cannot but be struck by the light familiarity with the relics and insignia of death which the monks have acquired.
American essayist and novelist Charles Dudley Warner (1829–1900) was raised on a farm, attended college, studied law and practiced law briefly. He was an activist for prison reform and other social improvements. An editor for Harper’s Magazine, he became the first president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Known for his humor, Warner is noted for the line, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” In 1873 he collaborated with Mark Twain to publish The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. He traveled extensively and wrote several books describing his adventures. The following […]