The Monks

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While packing for my trip to Ethiopia, I felt an inner motivation to take some items, that before now, I had not thought to put into my suitcase. I added a pair of surgical gloves, sterile gauze pads, cotton balls, a tube of antibacterial ointment, duct tape, cleansing solution, and fifteen pair of drugstore reading glasses in different strengths. Soon I would know why I felt the need to include them.

After our pilgrimage to Axum for the Timkat celebration, our group of eight left for Lake Tana to visit one of its islands, Daga Estefanos (Stafann), where Coptic monks live, but women are not allowed. It was still dark and cold at 5:30 a.m. as we left our hotel, and loaded our luggage onto a small boat. The lake was as smooth as glass. Soon the sun peeked over the horizon, appearing in a pale peach glow.

After several hours in the boat we arrived at the island. The captain slipped the vessel alongside the broken-down pier, and secured the boat with a rope tied to a piling. The five men in our group disembarked, and gave a gentle reminder to us three women that we were not allowed on the island. They said they would return in about fifteen minutes. We wondered what we would do while we were waiting. It didn’t take long for us to find out. As soon as the men were out of sight, a monk from the monastery came toward us, saying something we could not understand. Although as he drew closer, we heard him say it was okay to come to the shoreline, but we could not go to the upper part of the island. We climbed out of the boat and walked carefully along the broken planks of the pier, until we stood on the shore. Sitting in the shade of some huge trees was an elderly gentleman. He was wrapped in a bright blue monks robe with a matching knitted cloche hat. Through an interpreter I asked him, “How old are you?” The answer was that he was 105 years old. As I looked into his weathered face, I saw a large whitish cataract in his right eye. I asked him if he needed reading glasses. He nodded his head. I thought perhaps he might be able to see with his left eye, if he had glasses. I hurried back to the boat, and grabbed several pairs of the glasses that I had brought. He tried on all of them until he found a pair having the right strength. With glasses on, he looked down realizing that he could see the hairs on his arm. His eyes filled with tears of gratitude. He reached out his hand and touched me on my head. He blessed me and my family as he wiped away tears with his soiled prayer shawl.

At the same time, another monk came down the rocky path to the water’s edge. He was dressed in a saffron-colored robe with a matching cloche hat. His heavily-wrinkled face with its large smile and coffee-stained teeth was fascinating to me. He told us he was 84 years old. I thought that anyone of that age probably needed glasses, so I asked him if he needed a pair.

He said, “Yes.” Quickly he tried on the ones that were left. After that he showed me his deeply-infected shin. Pus was oozing and running down his leg from a contaminated wound. A strap on his worn leather sandals had broken, causing him to fall onto the rocks. One of the ladies and I went back to the boat to retrieve the rest of the items that I had been inspired to bring. As we returned, I saw the monk again. This time he was sitting on a large rock wearing his new glasses and reading his small Bible. I put on the gloves, poured Betadine onto his wound, and cleaned it. Then I dabbed on the antibiotic salve, and covered it with a gauze pad. I bound the bandage to his leg with duct tape.

Remembering the amazing encounter with those two monks, I reread Matthew 25:31-40. The passage spoke to my heart. The point JESUS was making when He said, (paraphrased): When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was thirsty, you gave me water to drink. When I was naked, you clothed me. When I was in prison, you visited me.

Puzzled, the disciples asked JESUS, (paraphrased): When did we do these things for you?

Then JESUS said, (paraphrased): When you did these kind acts to one of the least of my brethren, you did it unto me.

After reading that passage, I knew I had completed the assignment that I had been sent to do. I also thought about Proverbs 19:17 which reads, “He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the LORD; and that which he had given will he pay him again.” (KJV)


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