Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

The Golgotha

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The Place of the Skull

As I sat next to the elderly monk for a word of benefit he began by saying: Once when I was ill one of the brother monks came to my cell and he entered my cell to sit next to me and I was resting at that time.

Usually as you know the monks cell is divided into two parts, the first is a place where he welcomes guests, and the second is an inner cell where he locks himself up whether it be to pray, to read, to contemplate, to do the metanias, and to sleep although the monks rarely think of it as sleep but rather as a brief moment of rest, for the time of the monk is continuous work, which is interrupted by moments of rest.

The cell contains all the secrets of the monk, his thoughts, his discipline and his spiritual warfare. He might sleep on the floor rather than on the bed, or even sleep by leaning against a wall. He might place verses from the Holy Bible or sayings of the fathers on the wall corresponding to his spiritual needs and to support him in his spiritual struggles.

Perhaps what was strange in all of this was that my guest had noticed that on a shelf I had placed a human skull. Do not be disturbed by this for monks often came across human skulls in the desert and they would often spend time contemplating on the skull.

I wonder who its owner was? How were they and what happened to them? How did they use to live? Were they a saint or did they live their lives recklessly? How long did they live on this earth and when did they depart from it leaving us this skull? What thoughts and desires use to swirl around in it? Truly this life is short and one day I will be like this skull what labours have I done in this life so that I might inherit the eternal life.

The monk then asked me, when and how I got this skull. As for when I got it, this was many years ago when I was young, as for how, I had not revealed that to a soul, but now there is no reason not to tell its story.

It was during one of the summer nights and the moon shone in the sky, as was my habit I went out of the monastery at nine oclock to the wilderness to pray and to contemplate and then to return at around midnight. The desert stretched out far before me and the evening sky was my roof decorated with stars and this reminded me of the eternal life as it went on forever as the scene before me. It was calm and beautiful nothing moving but the gentle breeze in the air. It was these few hours I spent that strengthened me during the day.

On this night I had come back from my spiritual time at around one oclock in the morning and as I entered the monastery I felt something strange. I rested my staff behind the tree and I carried on towards my cell which was near to the crypt of the monastery where they buried all the monks who had departed.

As I walked near it I suddenly realized that there was someone in front of the crypt. I knew that many monks often visited the crypt to pray before it and to ask for the blessings of the fathers buried inside, so I decided to turn aside and go to see who was there and I saw three monks standing tall, and I felt no fear but complete peace.

I walked towards them calmly and I realized that I did not know them, but their faces appeared to be so gentle and calm. They were three of the saintly monks of the monastery who had departed many years ago from the previous generation and I recognized them from the pictures in the monastery, but why had they come now and what did they want?

They spoke softly with one another, and when I came to them I greeted them with the peace of the Lord. They answered gently and I felt a great joy and peace in their presence and their fatherly love embraced me. I had long desired to see one of the saints or the departed fathers and found myself now standing amongst them.

One of them asked me, What is your name? I answered, You know my name. My name is but what are your names? Another one of them answered, This is and this is and I am and the names he mentioned were well known to me and many of their sayings and their stories which had been told to us then as youngsters by the elders of the monastery.

What were you doing in the wilderness?
I was praying and contemplating For I love the desert and enjoy the peace and the site of the heavens at night. This is my way since I have come here.
You also kill all the insects and lizards that you come across
What is the harm in that? Is it not harmful and it could hurt me? Besides I dont like them.
It is also Gods creation. It did not harm you or hurt you, and it is not your enemy, be gentle with it and do not harm it anymore.
I was surprised by this, for how did they know what I had done in that very night? Another then asked:-
Are you happy with your life here?
Of course, but tell me are you happy?
Absolutely, for we have heard from the mouth of the Lord the sound of happiness, and He has wiped away all our tears, and we now wait for you to join us.
Why have you come now?
At this they fell quiet and did not answer, and as a child I begged them saying:-
I wish to come with you. Can you possibly ask for me that I might join you?
Your time has not yet come.
But I desire to be with you and everyday I pray that I may depart from this body to be with God.
You have done nothing as yet and you have not struggled and fought as need be so why do you rush to come to us.
What should I do and I fear that my sins might increase the more I live.

So one of them answered, Why then dont you struggle and fight that these years might be turned to fruit and joy and comfort, and repeat always, For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
The wars are many and you see that I struggle, and I go out to the wilderness and repent for the wrongs I have done during the day.
How long have you been in this monastery?
This is my ninth year.
You count that as a lot, and you are already bored of the struggle? Each of us lived in this monastery over fifty years.
I began making excuses, But your days were different.
Then the people were different in your days.
Also no
But what then was the difference?

At this they fell silent and then the last of them spoke who had not spoken before said, We are amazed at you all. He then fell silent once more.
I felt a great joy at their presence and I did not want them to stop speaking to me, and I asked them to come with me to bless my cell but they smiled at me silently. I then insisted that if they did not come with me and to explain why they were amazed at us all that I would not listen to one word of advice they had to offer me for my life. At this point one of them answered:-
You live in this life as if you have not yet died.

At this point I felt that they were about to depart so I asked them, What will you give me fathers as a blessing so that I can remember you by?

They looked at me then to each other, and then one of them put his hands to his head and handed me his head. I stood there amazed and looked up to see how this person was headless, but all three had disappeared and I looked back down and in my hands I held a skull.

He then pointed to the shelf and said, this is the story of the skull on the shelf, and every morning it has become my habit to head straight to the crypt and to pray the litany of the departed ask for the blessing of those three saints.

As for the skull it sits on the shelf with a small sign underneath it which reads:-


Baramous Monastery

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