Monastery of St Gerasimos in the verdant oasis of the arid Jordan Valley-Article by Sofia Kioroglou
One of the most beautiful monasteries in the Judean desert is the Monastery of St Gerasimus named in honour of Saint Gerasimus who is always depicted with a pet lion. The emblematic gold-domed Monastery is the cradle of spirituality and asceticism.
Located on the east side of highway 90, just north of the Beit-Ha’aravah junction, about 7 kilometres southeast of Jericho, the two-storey monastery commemorates an earlier event in Jesus’ life.
According to an old tradition, the monastery was built where Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus took shelter in a cave while fleeing from Herod the Great.
This event is commemorated in the beautiful ground-floor crypt beneath the monastery church. There is an icon illustrating the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and a large icon depicting a contented Jesus being nursed at the breast by his mother Mary.
The upper-floor church contains many holy icons and frescoes, including paintings of Saint Gerasimus and his lion. The cabinets in the crypt store innumerable bones of monks killed during the Persian invasion of 614.
Hospitality is the middle name of the Monastery
This is one of the most hospitable monasteries where the weary pilgrim can rest for a while and have a refreshment to the accompaniment of birdsong, an otherwise sharp contrast to the hot and barren environment of the Judean wilderness.
Founded in the fifth century, it was originally dedicated to Our Lady of Kalamon (Greek for reeds), but was later renamed in honour of St. Gerasimus, the founder of a nearby monastery that had been abandoned.
It was destroyed in 614, rebuilt by the Crusaders, abandoned after the Crusader period, restored in the 12th century, rebuilt in 1588, destroyed around 1734 and re-established in 1885.
In Arabic it is known as Deir Hajla, meaning the monastery of the partridge, a bird common to the area, a name referring to our Panagia who had the bearing of a dignified partridge.
The life of Saint Gerasimos
Like many who founded Judaean monasteries, Gerasimus (also spelt Gerassimos or Gerasimos) came from outside the Holy Land — from a wealthy family in Lycia, in present-day Turkey.
Already a monk when he came to Palestine, he followed the monastic leader Euthymius into the desert and became renowned for his piety and asceticism.
Because of the similarity of names, Gerasimus is sometimes confused with St Jerome, the Bible translator who lived in Bethlehem.
Saint Gerasimus is credited with a new development in monastic life. Previously desert monks lived either in caves or in monasteries. He was the first to fuse the solitude of a wilderness hermit with the communal aspect of a monastery by bringing hermits together on Saturdays and Sundays for worship and fellowship.
The lion depicted in icons of Saint Gerasimus is traced back to the time when he found an animal wandering in the desert, in sharp pain suffering from a thorn goring a paw. The saint gently removed the thorn and tended to the wound.
The lion thereafter devoted himself to the Saint, serving him and the monastery and retrieving the monastery’s donkey when it was stolen by thieves.
The story has it that when Abba Gerasimus died in 475 the lion lay on his grave and died of grief.
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