I took a moment to survey the trail before me. I was prepared for the steepness of the climb; however, the predawn chill in the desert air caught me slightly off guard. I counted the series of steps ahead that were crudely carved out of the granite mountainside. The monks that carved these steps refer to them as the “Steps of Penitence.” I can’t verify the authenticity, but according to legend, these steps were originally created by a monk named Stephen who felt led to make recompense for a past sin by hand carving a path to the summit of Mt. Sinai…the mountain which is believed to be where God handed down the 10 Commandments to Moses. Glancing up, I could see that we were nearly to the summit. I knew that if we hoped to arrive before sunrise, we needed to forge ahead. I offered Jess a drink of water and took a moment to stretch my tight hamstrings. Then, one foot after the other, we continued the steep ascent.
We were completing our first year of serving as bivocational missionaries and working at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, Kenya. Since we were living relatively close to Egypt, at least closer than we ever had, we decided to take the opportunity to visit during our Spring Break. We excitedly planned our itinerary that included stops at all of the popular sites. A friend of ours encouraged us to include a midnight trek up Mt. Sinai to see the sunrise. We’re always up for an adventure and hiking is one of our passions. We didn’t need much convincing. Knowing we had the opportunity to see the sunrise from the peak where Moses may have stood was enough for us.
After spending a few days in Cairo, we made our way across the Suez Canal and then down the Sinai Peninsula. As we drove, the Red Sea was shimmering on our right while arid and rocky desert mountains rose to our left. After a few hours, we turned inland and drove into the desert, leaving the Red Sea behind us. Granite cliffs towered around us as we navigated through the rugged terrain. Eventually we made our way into an arid valley that was one of the most unique and beautiful places we had ever scene. It was Breathtaking.
Knowing that we had a long night ahead of us, we ate an early dinner and called it a night. I awoke at 1:00am, unsure if I had even slept. We stepped outside and were immediately greeted by a strong, cold wind. It was difficult to comprehend the extreme drop in temperature compared to earlier in the day. We met our guides, Ahmed and Mustafa, at the van and made our way to the base of the mountain. When we arrived at the trailhead, Ahmed introduced us to Ishmael, the Bedouin guide that would be leading us up the mountain. Ishmael nodded, lit the first of many cigarettes, and motioned for us to follow him. I looked back at Ahmed and Mustafa, and noted that both seemed relieved to be heading back to their warm beds. I turned around to find Ishmael already well ahead, and so, we began our ascent.
The hike up was quaint and peaceful. Constant views of the moonlit valley and the occasional camel passing made for a serene and unique experience. After several hours of climbing, Ishmael motioned for us to stop. He pointed up and I could see that the summit loomed just above. We still had a couple of hours before sunrise, so we entered a Bedouin tent just off the path. Inside there were warm padded benches, hot tea and coffee, as well as camel wool blankets for rent. While he lit another cigarette, Ishmael motioned for us to sit and rest and have a warm cup of mint tea or water. We were soon joined by dozens of other hikers. Following a brief respite, and renting a camel wool blanket, Jess and I decided to continue our trek. Ishmael was standing outside the tent, talking with a few of the other guides. I told him that we were ready to press on, but soon learned that he would remain behind. We were to finish the last section on our own.
After a half hour climb, we arrived at the summit. We were instantly greeted by a stone chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity. I scanned the area and was surprised, and to be honest a bit disappointed, to see the number of people already present. Several different groups consisting of dozens of people crowded the mountaintop. Jess and I quickly moved toward the edge in order to find a private spot to await the sun. There was a small precipice facing east that was slightly removed from the crowd. It offered the perfect vantage point of the valley below and the surrounding mountains. We wrapped ourselves in the rented camel wool blanket and leaned back against a smooth boulder that felt as if it had been created specifically for this moment. Then we waited. We chatted occasionally. We admired the pristine view. We tried to not be annoyed by the group of noisy teenagers nearby. We listened to the iPod in an attempt to block out the noise. But eventually we feel silent.
The stillness settled in around us. My thoughts turned to the Father, the creator and sustainer of all things, the Son whose grace and mercy beckons us to follow Him, and to the Spirit, who restores us and guides us towards all that is good. As the warm glow of the rising sun began to peak over the horizon bringing life to the valley below, something began to rise within me stirring something fresh and new. Prayers began to fill my heart and praises flowed from my lips in response to the awareness of the incredible presence of God. His presence was not only evident in the movement within me, but also in the beauty of life and creation around us. I glanced at Jess and was not surprised to see that she was having a similar experience. We lost ourselves in reflective worship as tears of joy, peace, repentance, and awe mingled together and freely flowed down our faces.
Some time later, I stood to stretch my legs. I scanned the surrounding area and was surprised to find that we were nearly alone on the mountaintop. The sun was well into its’ journey across the sky. It was time for us to make our descent. As I made my way down the steps, with feet much lighter than they should have been, I reflected on the beautiful spiritual experience of the morning. What had made this encounter so powerful? Was it possible that this truly was the mountain where God had interacted directly with Moses, making it a holy place? Had the thousands of prayers and worship offered at this site over the centuries created a unique and sacred space? Or was it simply that we had chosen to intentionally pause and make ourselves aware of the powerful presence of God around us?
In the book, Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius teaches that as followers of Christ we should be contemplatives in action, always seeking to find God in all things. Often we are so focused on our activities, responsibilities, ministries, and general pace of life, that we forget to pause. We forget to be aware of the presence of God around us. We fail to recognize that, according to Paul in Romans 1:20, the eternal power and divine nature of God can clearly be seen in the things that He has made. The Psalmist shares a parallel truth by stating, “The heavens proclaim the glory of God, the skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make Him known.” That morning on a mountaintop in Sinai I learned a valuable truth, one that has been echoed in my life many times since. You and I encounter the glory of God in every moment of every day, but we must pause and choose to be aware. It is our responsibility to take advantage of this unique privilege we have been given.