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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Two Weeks in Sebata

A friend’s impressions of a recent stay at an Ethiopian Orthodox monastery for women.

Since I arrived in Ethiopia in the fall of 1982, I have been amazed by the spirituality of the Christians and, in a special way, by the Orthodox. I felt – and I still feel – the contrast between the secular society I come from and this sacral society. I have always had the desire to understand the Ethiopians’ religious values and traditions, rites and conceptions of religious life.

I find monastic life in this country particularly attractive. I have had the opportunity to visit a few monasteries: Debre Libanos, Sebata, Zukuala. The monasteries in Ethiopia have influenced greatly the religious life of the people and I believe the monks and nuns try to live the Gospel in a radical way.

Although I have read plenty of books, attended seminars and lived in Ethiopia all these years, my desire to know better the life of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians had been unfulfilled until recently. I work as a doctor at the Bushulo Major Health Center, a 75-bed hospital in southern Ethiopia. The majority of the rural population are Muslim, with some indigenous religionists or newly converted Catholics and Protestants. Most Ethiopian Orthodox Christians are found in urban areas.

With these “noises” in my head, I decided to spend two weeks of my vacation in an Orthodox monastery. I was given permission by Abuna Paulos, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, to stay at Sebata Monastery, which is located about 30 miles west of Addis Ababa.

I was a bit anxious when I arrived at the monastery. For the first time I was going to be in a completely Ethiopian environment. I would speak only Amharic, eat injera (a spongy bread) and wat (curried sauce), take part in the liturgy and share the life of the nuns with their understanding of prayer, fasting and work.

I was kindly received by the superior of the monastery, Ememnet (superior in Ge’ez, the classical language used in the liturgy) Fekerte, who expressed some concern during our first meeting – I was the first foreigner and Catholic to live with them. The Ememnet asked about the purpose of my stay. I explained to her that I wanted to share their life, to follow their regime of prayer and work. Twice I asked her for the order of the day and twice she hesitated to give it to me. After two weeks in Sebata I understood the Ememnet’s hesitation – every day was different.

Instead Ememnet Fekerte assigned a nun, Emahoy (a Ge’ez term to address a nun) Tsigue Denguel as my companion and guide. She informed me about prayer time, days of fasting, where our work assignments were and if and when there was a divine liturgy.

The first seven days of the Ethiopian month the sisters enhance their already intense prayer schedules, asking God to bless them in the new month.

On most days the bells rang at 4 A.M. On fasting days, which take up more than half the year and nine of the 14 days I spent at the monastery, no food or drink was taken until early in the afternoon. Very often the divine liturgy was at noon followed by lunch around 2 P.M. On days of fasting and abstinence, the nuns abstained from all meat and dairy products.

Generally the day was as follows:
• 4 A.M. to 7:30 A.M., prayer and Kidan (morning prayer).
• 8 A.M., breakfast.
• 9 A.M. to noon, work in the fields, mill, primary school or workshop.
• Noon to 3 P.M., liturgy or common prayer, followed by lunch and rest.
• 3 P.M. to 5 P.M., work.
• 5 P.M. to 6:30 P.M., Bible study and Ge’ez.
• 6:30 P.M., Mehela (evening prayer).
• 8 P.M., supper and rest.

As I look at this schedule, it appears as if there was a structured regime. In reality there were many variations.

There are 65 nuns in the monastery (45 professed and 20 in formation), but I never saw more than 30 at a time. There are many reasons for this: the breaking of fasting regulations or periods of purification (women may not enter a church for seven days during their menstruation).

The Ememnet gave me some information about the criteria for a candidate to enter the monastery and the formation and probation periods. After seven years in probation and formation, the candidate can profess vows and receive the kob, a symbolic cap worn by an Ethiopian nun as a sign of her consecration to God.

The kob is a very important symbol and while working in the fields the nuns would ask about my kob:

“If you are a consecrated woman, why don’t you wear a kob? Why don’t you cover your hair?”

I gave them my reasons but they kept asking. So one day I answered, “I wear the kob in my heart.” They burst into laughter and never asked again.

The nuns of Sebata do not live in a single building, but in the small houses, huts and little rooms that dot the monastery’s vast properties. Many of the older women live by themselves in a simple room with a bare floor, a rustic bed and a floor mat in front of a wall covered with icons.

Behind the monastery church, in a small fenced compound, lives a hermit. She is admired greatly by the nuns because she lives an ascetical life of prayer and fasting.

The younger nuns live and work with the orphaned children who also call Sebata “home.” There is a common kitchen to make injera and wat, but many nuns choose to eat in their own rooms or huts.

To my understanding Sebata is not a traditional Ethiopian monastery. I found that these nuns have incorporated a new element into the routine of Ethiopian monastic life, based on prayer, fasting and manual labor. Sebata is oriented toward a more apostolic life with a variety of ministries within the compound, including a primary school, an orphanage with over 200 children and a small clinic.

It is a great challenge to combine the rhythm of prayer and fasting with the demands of apostolic work. Yet Young Ethiopian women are responding to this challenge and are entering religious life.

How did I feel in the midst of this? At first it was very difficult to get up at 4 A.M. The liturgy was in Ge’ez and I understood very little. I chose to work with the nuns in the fields and as a result I now have a backache. And I am not used to working and praying on an empty stomach.

Yet I experienced joy and peace living with this community of women and children. There was great respect for one another; when two people met in the compound, a reverent greeting was given. The children, from 2 to 18 years of age, were cared for in a special way – they were happy, playful and obviously well cared for. Each day I went for a walk with some of them to practice my Amharic.

Somehow the bells, the repetitive chanting of the liturgy and its climactic moments, the deep prostrations, the fasting, the beautiful grounds and the physical labor became reminders of God’s presence in myself and in others.

I feel I have made friends in Sebata among the nuns and the girls. I am grateful to Emahoy Welete Tsadik, who was in charge of hospitality and made sure I had more than enough to eat. I am especially grateful to Ememnet Fekerte who spent some time with me each day, looking out for me, answering my many questions as well as sharing her dreams and hopes for future ministries in the monastery. Hopefully one day I can reciprocate and invite her and a few of her sisters to spend a few days with the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Bushulo.

I would like to conclude this story of my days in Sebata with a Gospel passage:

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength and with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself.

(Lk 10:27)

With these thoughts I return to my community and my healing ministry in Bushulo.

Sister Isabel Arbide, F.M.M., is a doctor at the Bushulo Major Health Center.

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