Women covered head to toe in white cotton pressed their entire bodies full-frontal into the red rock wall. They kissed it, chanted, and stood. I was trying to weave past their bodies and a cloud of more mobile worshippers. Our passage to the church was a four and a half foot tall opening in the rock and over a small rock bridge with a 3 meter drop to a passage below, and get inside the Church of St. Michael, one of the 11 churches at Lalibela.
It was the celebration of St. Michael, an annual holiday for devotees of the Orthodox Christian church, which is most of Ethiopians. The day before, I had asked if it was was possible to see a service inside one of the rock churches. Sam had come out of the tourist office with good news. It was possible and we were here on a holy day. The service would start at 2 a.m. the next day, but we could arrive at 7 a.m., towards the end of the service.
The next morning, before the sun was hot over the granite mountain, we got out of the car at the base of the hill. It was covered with figures draped in white. Sam led me through the crouching crowd. The worshippers faced towards a red and gold robed priest chanting passages from the Bible in Amharic over a loud speaker. There were the very old, brown faces wrinkled like the cotton fabric. They were attended by their families. There were the new mothers whose babies were wrapped with scarves like bandages around their bodies. Their heads, little brown orbs, poked through the white cloth.
Those who stood leaned on prayer sticks – staffs about shoulder high with a T on the top – that were specifically made for the church goers to lean on as services often lasted three to four hours. Every person had the ubiquitous yellow gallon-sized jug (formerly filled with cooking oil from Dubai) or the liter water bottle filled with water. The priests chants were blessing the water.
Standing there, I couldn’t help but move my hands in the cross formation – in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. I grew up Catholic, the hand gesture was ingrained in my muscle memory from mass attendance every Sunday. I hadn’t been to church since Christmas with my family. At this service, it was like puppet strings pulling my hands into action: head, heart, and shoulders – the shape of the cross. It felt like the only appropriate thing to do.
After about 20 minutes, the service ended and Sam led me to the tunnel that would take us inside St. Michael’s Church. There was no order, just a stream of people. I made small steps forward on my healing ankle. The crowd was mostly women, we were entering the right side of the church, the women’s side. What could have been very claustrophobic was not, there was enough space for movement, if just slow.
We came to the small rock bridge to enter the church – straight out of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. On the other side of the narrow path was the church entrance, people coming in and out like ants through a crack in the wall. The only way in was to push through. I was wobbly, unsure of my stance since my fall in the Simien Mountains. Sam held my hand and we moved forward, inch by inch. I felt worshippers trying to edge past my back, making me lean a little bit too much over my equilibrium. I grabbed a hold of the wall on the other side and pulled myself through.
Inside a space of about 10 meters wide by 6 meters long were about 50 worshippers in various stages of prostration along the rim of the interior. In the center of church were four sitting priests chanting and shaking sisterns, holy rattles that clang when shook. Three deacons, teenage boys sat in the center with long, large drums – wide on the top to symbolize the entrance to hell via temptation and narrow on the bottom to symbolize the entrance to heaven. All had been there, shaking and banging away, since 2 a.m. Boom, clang, chant, boom, clang, chant. They pulsed with a syncopated pace, fatigued from five hours of the service, but still going at a regular rhythm.
After five minutes, the harmony stopped, and the instruments cleared. Three priests in red and gold robes who had been leading the service outside came into the center and started to chant from the Bible – the miracles of St. Michael. One of the priests offered me a prayer stick to lean on. The other worshippers had no respite if they did not bring their own. I could tell from the way Sam grabbed it from my hand when I was pause to take pictures that this loan from the priest was an honor.
I don’t understand Amharic and I had to look up the Miracles of St. Michael for this post (He’s the archangel of protection). I’m not religious any more, but what I can tell you is that standing in that ancient church, watching and feeling this service, seeing women kissing rocks and men folded forward in prostrations, witnessing fatigued arms beat one more pound on a drum, and the priest offering me a respite with a stick – it was witnessing pure devotion. It’s where when one says, I forsake everything else and believe. Where one empties out their heart to fill it only with that faith that there is something else, something besides themselves in that room and they are taken care of. There was God in that stone room. No one was alone.
The priests ended the celebration after about 20 minutes and believers came forward to be blessed by one of them. Sam said, “you can go and get blessed.” I didn’t hesitate and maneuvered on through. My chatty mind was off – I leaned right in, felt his palm on my face and kissed it. I was blessed.
I followed Sam back out through the entrance and to the bridge. Everyone was leaving and my footing was still unsure, but I felt several hands on me and moved with the grace and strength of the crowd across the divide.