Blog entry by Lars Muhl from 11 July 2013
From a pilgrimage to Syria 2003.
The car jumped over the bumpy road. In front of us we could make out the impressive Convent of Our Lady Saydnaya emerge on the horizon. We were on our way there, to attend the annual celebration of the monastery famous Maria icon Shaghoura, which simply means ‘known’ or ‘unique’. The icon is a copy of one of the four icons, reputed to have been painted by Luke the Evangelist. The icon has miraculous properties. There are stories of pilgrims who have visited it and have been cured of their diseases. On the day of the annual celebration, it is said to have positive effects on women who can not have children. The women stay in the monastery overnight and 95 percent of them are reportedly fertile again. The monastery is according to the legend, located at the place where Noah planted his vines after the Flood.
When we arrived, it sure was swarming with people, the vast majority were women who had to stay overnight in the monastery. Every square meter of the long corridors were covered with mattresses and bedding. In one of the aisles, a bunch of Bedouin women were already engaged in the festivities and everyone who passed them, was drawn into their dance. An elderly woman grabbed me and swung me around in the air. It was a totally surprising act that must have looked pretty comical. She sat me down again, but maintained her firm grip on my hand, while she began a series of movements that most of all recalled a fertility ritual. The other women formed a ring around us, while the emitted a series of inarticulate howls. There was no way round it. It all went so fast that I did not get the opportunity to reflect on the situation. It was a veritable attack on my aloof and autonomous attitude. NOW I had to drop it, or appear as a self-righteous stiff stick that has enough of his own religiosity. It was a brief struggle before I surrendered unconditionally to the women dancing and whistling. That night I was dancing more than I had done for several years.
Thus freed from my rickety defense, I slipped into the stream of people who were on their way to the holy of holies. It is no coincidence that the entrance, to the small room where the Blessed Madonna hangs, is so low that you have to bend over to enter. The body attitude corresponds to the inner attitude, you must take when you stand in the room, where so many faithful pilgrims have prayed and surrendered themselves. The room is filled with lit candles, and you will not have to stay there very long,before a spark ignites a fire in the heart. Whichever faith you profess, you cannot fail to be moved by this place, where so many hopes are placed. Here, the Muslims and Jews are in line with the Christians. Here you are one for the Only One.
After a short meditation by the icon, I entered into the stream of people again that led through an opening, at the other end of the room. In a long hallway time between the icon room and the abbey church ,a few black-dressed sisters awaited, by whom the pilgrims was presented with a small envelope with a wick for candles. While the queue moved slowly, I found myself remaining in a contemplative state. My heart was completely open. A deep sense of unconditional acceptance bubbled up through me and imagined myself, in a state I can only describe with the trite term happiness.
Between the passage there was a bend, and I had just turned the corner and completed my Aramaic prayer, as an encouragement made me look to the left. There, in the shadow on the wall, hung a bashful red and golden icon depicting the Madonna and baby Jesus. For reasons which I am still not able to provide any plausible explanation, I stepped out of line to look at this icon more closely. It turned out to be what I call a vulgar icon, which just means that the icon is a reproduction. For three hours, I was standing in front of the icon. And suddenly I saw it. Suddenly I saw the symbolism that was so obvious, but nevertheless initially had been hidden from me. The picture was broken, and the broken line fell directly through Madonna solar plexus. Her left hand with which she was carrying the child, found itself under the line, while her right hand was the heart level, above the line.
‘You seem to like this madonna very much’. I turned around. It was the upper Sister Theodora of the monastery, and another sister who approached me. A short, intense moment, she looked at me. Then she lifted down the icon from its nail on the wall, kissed and blessed it, and then she handed it to me. That’s it. Without further do. I was completely speechless. Sister Theodora broke the silence:
‘We found the image in a corner here, fifty years ago. Someone must have lost it or thrown it here. A novice repaired it and made this beautiful icon, as a proof of its genuineness. The icon is named ‘Our Lady of The Broken Hearted’ (The Madonna of The Broken Heart). It has stayed in this spot for all these years. Take good care of her. Wherever you bring her over, she will take care of you.
Later, when I was accompagnied to the door by a younger nun, I could see that there was something she wanted to say. I stopped, to indicate that I was responsive. She cleared her throat shily. Then she said as she pointed to my icon, now duly wrapped in coarse paper, ‘I think you should know that the young novice who made the icon fifty years ago, was Sister Theodora herself, when she had just arrived here. Goodbye.’
She turned resolutely, and returned in a hurry. I stood and watched her disappear through the gate.