Interview with Archimandrite Justin, Librarian of Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai

2 November 2012 • On–Campus • Virginia Nieuwsma

Archimandrite Justin Sinaites, the librarian at the ancient Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai located on the Sinai Peninsula, arrived in New York to begin a lecture tour on the same weekend that Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the east coast. In the aftermath of Sandy, Fr. Justin left New York and found refuge at St. Vladimir's Seminary, where he stayed for a few days before traveling to a speaking engagement at the University of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

On his way back home to Mt. Sinai, Fr. Justin stopped at Villanova University in Pennsylvania to offer the lecture "The Beauty and Significance of Icons," as a part of the university's gallery exhibit, "Icons: The Way to the Kingdom." On Monday, November 19, Fr. Justin joined Michael B. Toth, the program manager of the Sinai Palimpsest Project, in a lecture at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., titled "Hyperspectral Imaging of Ancient Texts," which addressed how technology is enabling librarians and scholars to reveal, catalogue, and preserve ancient texts in the library at St. Catherine's Monastery.

During Fr. Justin's post-Sandy visit with the SVOTS community, SVOTS conversed with him about his unique role in preserving the treasures at the Monastery's library.

You certainly landed in New York during an eventful time!

(Laughter) Yes, I spoke in New York City and was following the progress of the hurricane. I knew it was coming so I hoped for the best and decided to keep to my plans. I arrived Sunday afternoon and was in my hotel at 6 p.m. They shut down transport at 7 p.m. so my Monday presentation was canceled, and then Monday night the power went out and the hurricane hit! The Metropolitan Museum could not open Tuesday of course, so that presentation was canceled. There I was, in the lower part of Manhattan, which was plunged in darkness.

So it was a joy to take the first train out of the city, and to come here to St. Vladimir's in Crestwood, to be with friends, and to make arrangements to keep to my original schedule. It was a time of great joy and great relief to be able to step out of that devastation and be on my way—I had not thought it would be possible.

Have you ever been to St. Vladimir's Seminary?

I was in New York in 2004, and visited campus three times in the course of supervising that exhibit in the city, but I haven't been back since then. I have many friends here so it was a joy to return. I've told people that St. Vladimir's Seminary and the Press have a witness beyond what you might expect. For instance, there are now many seminarians that come from countries in Africa, who travel to Alexandria to receive their theological education and return to their countries as Orthodox clergy. Since they come from so many language backgrounds, the one thing they have in common is English, and so the language of religious education has become English, and the materials from St. Vladimir's are used to help in this.

Ideally, these men could all learn Greek and have access to original patristic sources, but that becomes a high threshold that can't always be met. Here at St. Vladimir's, you are trying to meet people where they are, in order to give them opportunities to learn and prepare for leadership.

How long have you been at St. Catherine's and how did you, as the only American in the community, come to be there?

I first visited the monastery for two days in 1978 as a pilgrim; but even before that when I first thought about becoming a monk, I thought: "wouldn't it be wonderful to go to St. Catherine's monastery?" My friends said, "you can't go to Sinai because you're not Greek!" Nevertheless, I went there in February of 1996, and they did allow me to join the community, and I've been there since then.

Ancient text from the Monastery of St. CatherineAncient text from the Monastery of St. CatherineHow did you end up in your current role as the librarian?

I had worked with publications before. In fact, my parents worked for a publishing house, using linotype machines and presses; when I was in high school, they made the transition to photographs and offset printing. I learned many things that seemed obscure. One wonders when this knowledge and these skills will be useful, and then everything falls into place.

In my work with manuscripts, in previous days, I would mark up manuscripts, and then gradually I began to code text for computer typesetting, and then desktop publishing took over, so I had to master that when I went to Sinai. I never thought I would need that background!

Our bishop (Archbishop Damianos) had developed ambitious program to photograph old manuscripts with a high resolution camera, in order to preserve them for posterity. Six years ago I was elected librarian at Sinai and I've been busy with the project ever since.

In a real sense, we are protecting the manuscripts by this photography, and keeping those goals set forth by the monastery from ancient times. By photographing these priceless treasures, we make them accessible. It's a real joy to see a scholar who finds these works so essential to his own study and research, be able to access these materials. Also, people do certainly come to the Sinai St. Catherine's Monastery Library from all over the world, but many times a scholar can't come, because of the distance and other factors. In these cases, we can send him the digital images and he can study these without coming at all. This is both more convenient for the scholar, and also enables us to maintain the peace of the monastery.

My visits to the U.S. are an attempt to communicate with scholars, theologians, and the general public, to let them know what a special place Sinai is, and the opportunities for scholarship that the manuscripts continue to provide. My usual presentation is usually enriched with slides.

Father Justin, how did you discover the Orthodox faith?

I discovered the Church through my college studies in English literature and history. My interest in history led me to study medieval history, and through that door I stumbled onto Byzantine history, and then church history. Of course, through that, I came to learn about the Orthodox Church. At that time, I learned all through reading on my own—it was the most important thing to me. The most important books I read, and people I encountered, ending up being outside of the courses I was taking! In the early 1970s, there weren't many resources, but now it is different, everything is much more available.

At some point, the bishop decided to allow the monastery's treasures to be shared with the outside world. Can you tell us about that?"Holy Image, Hallowed Ground": Getty Museum exhibit, 2006"Holy Image, Hallowed Ground": Getty Museum exhibit, 2006

Archbishop Damianos came to Sinai in 1961, and became an archbishop in 1973. Next year, he will commemorate 40 years as the archbishop! He has told us it is a privilege to live at Sinai, and that we have an obligation to keep the heritage alive and to share it with others. Many people lament that Sinai's not isolated as it once was, but he says that people are looking for spiritual consolation and inspiration, and perhaps it is in the providence of God that no monastery is as isolated anymore. The ancient spirituality is now accessible when it is so needed.

In 1997, we prepared an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, titled "The Glory of Byzantium." It featured the 10th century, and was viewed by over 600,000 people. The exhibition was intended to show people how much we owe to Constantinople. It brought our Orthodox heritage to public notice and opened people's eyes to our shared Byzantine heritage.

The year 1997 was the first time anything had ever left Sinai for an exhibition outside the monastery. It was quite a change for our tradition! At first, the bishop said, "in 1600 years nothing has ever left the monastery. Why should we change now?" What convinced him was the opportunity to share the spiritual heritage that Sinai represents, with people who will never encounter this in a church context. One of the reasons these exhibitions have been so successful beyond what people expected is because the general public responds to this spiritual element.

Our subsequent Metropolitan Museum of Art 2004 exhibition, titled "Byzantium Faith and Power," featured the 13th–16th centuries. In 2006, we journeyed to the west coast for the exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles; for the first time, the subject matter was devoted exclusively to the Sinai icons. Each time we've done an exhibit, I have been part of the process. The latest exhibit this past March was of Byzantium and Islam from the 7th–9th centuries. This is another remarkable exhibit that opened people's eyes to an obscure time period—who knows that much about that period? This was the explosion in which the world took on its modern face.

The logistics for packing and moving these ancient documents and icons must be quite daunting!

Sinai is a place where the average humidity is 20%; by contrast, most museums are kept at 50% humidity, so that artifacts don't dry out. The great challenge is packing things securely so that they aren't damaged in transit. We have to remove these fragile items from their original home, and put them into a controlled climate case so they will be kept in a desert environment as they travel. It is a very expensive operation that not many museums can afford. Yet, the manuscripts and icons are so significant and breathtakingly beautiful. It is riveting for the general public to see them, and it is gratifying for us to hear the appreciation that is expressed.

What is your life like most of the time, when you aren't on the road?

When I'm at the monastery, the central focus is the services and prayer. We have common prayer three times a day, from 4–7 a.m., at noon, and at 4 p.m. We observe the complete cycle of daily services including the Divine Liturgy. It's quite remarkable to have a service in a church that has stood since 550 A.D. Of course, our common prayer is also balanced with private prayer in the morning and evening.

We also have responsibilities according to our abilities. It's been my task to photograph the manuscripts, and then for the last six years to be the librarian and to make them available to visiting scholars. We're open from 9–12 in the morning, and we can get 1000 visitors during those hours. People often don't realize how quiet the monastery is the rest of the time.

Monastery of St. Catherine, Mt. SinaiMonastery of St. Catherine, Mt. SinaiWho comes to St. Catherine?

People come from everywhere, but in particular, we've been hosting many Russians lately. Due to accessible direct flights, thousands fly to the international airport of Sharm el-Sheikh for vacation, and part of the package is to visit Sinai. We see this as another opportunity to remind Russians of their own spiritual heritage, and to help them recover that heritage. We have many treasures with Russian roots: a life size replica of St. Catherine made of silver given by the Grand Duchess Sophia, sister of St. Peter the Great, which was made in Moscow 1680. We have an ornate silver candelabra that was given to us by the empress Elizabeta, the daughter of Peter the Great. We have icons, vestments, and chalices, all given to us during the time of Imperial Russia. Russian pilgrims see these and realize that Sinai has been a site of pilgrimage for centuries.

You are a monastery with a Greek history, hosting many Russians—truly a pan–Orthodox experience!

Yes, only two monks at St. Catherine's aren't Greek—me, and a monk from England. We've been part of the Greek speaking world going back to the 3rd and 4th century. We have remained Greek even though we passed out of the Byzantine Empire by the 7th century. There is astonishing continuity, and we've maintained strong connections with Mt. Athos. We remind monks visiting from Athos that there were monks from Sinai for hundreds of years before Athos' founding, so our heritage is much older.

In addition to the manuscripts and icons, what does the monastery at Sinai have to offer the world?

Sinai has a long history of close collaboration with the Moslem bedoiuns who are our neighbors. Many of them work for the monastery and many of them say their daily prayers inside the monastery. Sometimes Athos monks say they should get out, but we remind our critics that St. Catherine's is a place of tolerance and respect. This has been our pattern of cohabitation, going back centuries.

Our archbishop has said that although we differ with them in so many ways—language, culture—there is a respect, the one for the other, since we have lived in peace and mutual support for so many centuries. When you see the news reporting all the conflicts you think, will there ever peace and resolution? Sinai emerges as an example of living side by side respectfully, despite many differences.

View a YouTube lecture by Fr. Justin, "An Ark in the Wilderness."
Download a lecture about Fr. Justin's work offered at the University of Oxford under the auspices of the Stelios Ioannou Centre for Classical Byzantine Studies: "St. Catherine's Monastery at Mt. Sinai: Its Manuscripts and Their Conservation."