I agreed to drive his wife and daughter to the orphanage, while the five younger children took care of him. His wife introduced me to Rebeka, who looked every bit the nun in her black and grey habit, quietly reading the breviary. “I’ve always wanted to help lonely children,” Rebeka told me. “And I love quiet and I love prayer.”
Her mother Sara wore the sturdy frame of a woman who had coped with nearly everything. She chattered away as though words kept the world in its place—which perhaps they do.
Rebeka got in back and Sara sat beside me. The road jarred my teeth. Archaeologists get used to that, but I had to apologize to my passengers every few minutes during our two-hour drive. I wondered about the wisdom of siting an orphanage out in this dry landscape.
The dell with the orphanage turned out to have spots of green in a little garden. I guessed they must have a spring inside the compound. Walls of 20 feet of windowless brown stonework protected the nuns and children inside.
I parked next to a decrepit Accord and wondered who the other visitor might be. We left the windows down. It might invite flies, but at least we wouldn’t roast on the return trip. You haven’t a choice about windows in the city.
As we walked to the door, a bell rang somewhere and the sound of children’s voices spread. The words in blue above the door were Greek: “IDOU SOU METER,” “behold your mother.” That’s a nice motto for an orphanage.
Sara swung the weathered knocker with loud bangs. The doorkeeper arrived. We identified ourselves to her, and she opened the heavy old slab. The walls were nearly three feet thick, and some of the masonry was seventh century. On the inside the words above the door read “IDOU SOU HUIOS,” “behold your son.”
About 20 children from three to fourteen ran around the courtyard as two nuns watched them from the shade. The doorkeeper guided us to a pair of worn wooden benches, and then ushered Rebeka into a room by the chapel. Her mother fell silent. The smell of clean water from the brick wellspring by the wall was delightful.
We waited and watched the children play. The doors were arched high, with a cross on the left top and an empty tomb on the right. I wanted to get a closer look at the arch for one of the doors, and at the painting over the chapel door, but I didn’t want to disturb the children’s play. The littlest ones ran about shrieking, and the older ones played some complicated game of catch with two balls.
A bell rang twice, and the nuns retrieved the balls and shepherded the youngsters into the classrooms, singing a catchy song in Arabic about addition facts. A middle-aged nun came out to us with a tray and teacups.
By the time we finished the tea Father Jacob and a surprisingly spritely old nun came out of the chapel. I hadn’t expected to see Jacob here. He is Orthodox and the nuns are Catholic.
Sara and I rose, and the old nun quickly made for us and introduced “This is my son Jacob. And this is my son …” she looked at me expectantly.
Father Jacob broke in: “I know your son Steven already, and this must be your daughter Sara, Rebeka’s mother.”
“I know you must leave now,” the old nun said to Father Jakob, “But can you give them your blessing first?”
I’m Methodist, and had never received an Orthodox blessing before. Neither had Sara, who didn’t understand Greek. But her suspicion faded and she smiled. At the end of it the nun turned and startled us with “Your turn.” I helped Sara start off and she remembered the words from there. The nun hugged Father Jakob and he left.
The old nun, whose name turned out to be Miriam, invited us to visit a classroom. The ceilings were high and decorated with scenes from the Gospels, and the rooms were kept cool and well-lit by their tall windows. (The curious feature of the arch turned out to be merely an 18’th century repair.) Rebeka sat in the corner with one of the children, facing away from the door, quietly re-explaining the lesson.
We waited while Miriam watched her intently for a minute, and then motioned us on. Before I knew what was happening the three of us were in the orphanage’s crowded kitchen, chopping vegetables. A nun kneading dough suggested that I chop a bit finer, but applauded Sara’s work.
One nun stirred a large kettle with one hand and fingered a rosary with the other. We were close enough that I could hear that she wasn’t reciting the usual prayers. Each bead took a long time. I looked at Miriam, who spoke before I asked: “We use the old style here. Each bead is a psalm.”
Sara looked askance at that, but I explained that this really did predate the modern usage. She replied that she, for one, would keep on saying “Hail Mary.” Miriam seemed amused. I couldn’t quite hear the prayers she was whispering.
The doorkeeper of the day came in with the news that “Father Benedict is here with the new boy.”
Miriam set down her knife and left, and, after filling the pot with the vegetables, so did we. The cooks thanked us, and asked us to take a tray of tea to the guest. Helping prepare food has always felt satisfying.
I stared over my shoulder as we walked out of the kitchen. The image over the chapel door turned out to be Jesus with sheep. The figure of Jesus was unusually lifelike.
Miriam and another nun sat beside the young boy on a bench by the chapel. He squeezed a red ball as he answered their questions. We took the tray across the courtyard to Father Benedict. He is the priest of Sara’s parish.
“How do you like being called “Son,” Father?” Sara asked
Benedict laughed. “It never bothers me. She says it and it is true. She’s old enough to be my mother—no, my grandmother. But everybody she meets is her son or daughter.”
“Did the bishop give the order dispensation to use the old prayers?” I asked.
“They’ve been doing things their way time out of mind,” he said. “She says the Emperor Mauritius was too much of an innovator. Besides, I don’t think the Bishop could tell his mother “no.” And the bishop before him was her son too, you know.”
“And so is Father Jakob.”
Benedict shrugged. “Of course.”
Sara looked puzzled. “Mauritius? Who?”
“He was fifth century. They don’t celebrate the Feast of the Dormition here. Their rites are very old,” Benedict explained. “The bishop told us that when we’re here, we do things their way.”
Across the courtyard the new boy seemed to have lost his shyness and bounced on his toes with excitement. The nuns stood, and the boy raced to the kitchen, followed by the younger nun. Miriam went to the classroom where Rebeka sat and beckoned to her. Rebeka came out and followed Miriam to where we were sitting. We rose for them, and I dragged the benches to face each other.
When we all sat down again, Miriam faced Rebeka and said “Dear daughter, God has a hard job for you.”
“Yes, mother, I understand. Protecting and teaching orphans will be hard, and they are not always grateful.”
“No, dear child, harder than that. You will have to serve and learn to be holy in the world, not the convent. You will still take care of strangers, but also your own children too.”
“But mother,” Rebeka protested, “This is what I’ve wanted, and felt called to, and vowed—how can I be pure in the middle of an unholy world? It’s impossible! Do you know what it’s like out there?”
Father Benedict wore a wry smile, but did not interrupt.
“Daughter, _I_ did. I had a husband once. And a son.”
Father Benedict started. “I didn’t know you were married!”
“Yes, son.” She kept her eyes on Rebeka. “My husband died long, long ago. My son is alive.”
Rebeka ventured, “I can be like you—even with feuding families whose boys pull knives on each other? And who say such things to Christians?”
“I had to endure just as bad as that, and more. It is hard, but that is what Christ wants of you. I’ve had to run for my life many times, and only the help of angels keeps this shelter safe from the serpent.”
Rebeka bent her head and started to cry.
Miriam lifted Rebeka’s chin up with a finger. “Save the tears for the real heartaches, daughter,” she said softly.
Rebeka wiped her face and said “I … I obey.”
“Good. There are joys too, don’t forget, and a crown. God bless you, daughter.”
We stood. Sara hugged her daughter.
Benedict looked at Miriam with an eyebrow cocked to silently ask “How could you tell that quickly?” Miriam just smiled—a very young smile with very old joy.
The doorkeeper let us out through the tunnel in the wall. I turned back and asked Miriam a question that had exercised some of us for a while. “Did you know?”
“Did not our hearts burn within us?” she answered. “You are in my prayers.” The ancient door softly closed as we left.