How an ordinary person awakens to life as prayer.  Continued from yesterday . . .

Father Irenaeus stepped from the shade of the monastery’s little door, squinting against the sun’s glare, and greeted my Muslim drivers and me with a suspicion that only added to my heightened anxiety. This monastery does not welcome strangers without an invitation. And given the current state of politics in Egypt, and the fragile state of the Christian church under a regime increasingly pressured by hard-line Islamic fundamentalists, two Muslims bearing an American caused no small stir. The monk, dressed head to foot in black, his black beard salted generously with white, looked at Mohammed and Mahmoud, then at me, and finally at my bags. He looked long at my bags—too long, I thought. I handed him my email invitation from Father Johannas and waited nervously. Time stood still, the silence broken only by the buzzing of the flies.

Made desperate by the prospect of returning back through the desert to Alexandria or Cairo with two offended Muslim drivers, I looked at the monk, then at my bags, and said, “Father, Jesus said, ‘Take nothing for your journey.’ I often disobey him—that’s why I’m here.”

Irenaeus laughed, a new light in his eye, and said in impeccable English, “Then welcome, brother!”

At St. Macarius I prayed with the monks before dawn and again at dusk. I ate bread for breakfast, and a bowl of lentils for lunch and another for dinner. And I drank tea, lots of tea. The monks eyed this strange American who’d come among them—I was obviously not Coptic, not even Orthodox. But they were generous and warm, and those who spoke some English were eager to try it out on me.

My cell was a little cubicle adorned with nothing more than a lumpy mattress, a fan, and a spray can of Raid. “Enter your cell,” a desert father said long ago, “and your cell will teach you everything.”

More tomorrow . . .