How I wish words could accurately describe this unique retreat center in the desert that has provided peace, safety, rest, council, and retreat for so many years!
We arrive at night traveling the Cairo-Alexandria Road at dusk. A starry sky with no light pollution is the only light as we drive into the compound. Night comes quickly in the desert, the bright sun replaced by a cloudless night sky, billions of stars light years away are a reminder of how small I am in this big universe.
My room is simple and charming, domed ceilings, stone floors covered by bright colored rugs, and a bed covered by mosquito netting welcome me. I haven’t slept in a bed with mosquito netting since Pakistan, and I have always loved the feeling of being protected so completely with the gossamer mesh. Dinner is by candlelight in the large communal dining room, sitting on rattan chairs covered by bright blue and white patterned cushions,
A candle lights my room, creating shadows on the whitewashed walls and I read by its light. Within minutes, my shrunken heart weighed down with fear, worry, anxiety, and anger is made larger. “How fortunate I am to be here!” was the only thought on my mind.
Before I fall asleep I whisper a prayer “Thank you O Lord, Thank you. Let me not waste this precious, precious time. Instead, let me observe it with gratitude.”
I wake up early the next morning, the circled sky lights in the ceiling providing multicolored light that fills the room. I look out at the arched door that leads to a patio. My room looks out on date palms and olive groves that stretch as far as my eye can see. For the millionth time in my life, I wish I was an artist and could capture my surroundings. Palm trees wave at me past the peach-colored stucco archway and wall. There are multiple shades of desert green, none of them the bright of my New England home, all of them perfect for this setting. A round table less than a foot off the ground sits to my right with a chair of cushions to the side of it for comfort from the hard stone floor. It is quite simply, perfect.
I quickly realize that my distractions follow me. As much as I want to quiet my mind and take every advantage of this desert gem, a phone, my thoughts, and my circumstances all follow me, begging me to pick them up and fret. I know it will take effort to release them. But I have time, that beautiful and sometimes fleeting commodity. The concrete walls and stone floors are a comfort to my distracted thoughts, the date palms outside my door spreading their dates all over the ground are a reminder of a past life in Pakistan, a reminder of a God who has never let me go, who has always been there since my earliest days.
Anafora is a Greek word that means “to lift up.” The community was formed under the leadership of Bishop Thomas, a man that I was able to meet on my second to last day. His desire is to see people come to this place and be refreshed, be lifted up, and meet God. Through the years the community has grown to be a vibrant multicultural space with a constant flow of worldwide visitors intersecting with those who live and work at Anafora. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are communal meals served in the large dining hall. Dinners are served by candlelight, adding to the rest that the entire space cultivates. Food is served in beautiful pottery pots, and the silverware is arranged in beautiful patterns every meal. Large bottles of olive oil, and jars of olives are ever present, as are different kinds of loose leaf tea – mint, karkade (hibiscus) and chamomile to name a few – that can be accessed any hour of the day. I am quickly aware of the many hands and hours of work that go into making sure everyone who stays at Anafora feels welcome. Coptic services are held daily as well as evening vespers. Evening vespers are particularly beautiful, the large church lit with candles in alcoves around the room. While the service is primarily in Arabic, the Gospel reading of the day is read in every language present – English, Greek, Swedish, Finnish, and Norwegian.
My purpose is primarily a solitary retreat, but it is a perfect mixture of solitude and people. From my patio I hear laughter and voices chatting away in Arabic, but I can’t see anybody and it feels completely private.
The grounds are simple and lovely. Low buildings with domed ceilings are connected and I am told by my friend Marty that the block of rooms where I am staying are in the shape of a question mark with the dot at the end of the question mark being a prayer chapel “Because at the end of every question is prayer” – she quotes Bishop Thomas as she tells me. Pools and fountains of turquoise and blue run alongside paths, small bridges linking parallel paths. It is easy to find one’s way around in the daylight. What felt like a maze the night before quickly becomes familiar. The date palms are ever present, squishy sticky dates left over from the harvest fall over the ground. It is clearly date season! Pottery with desert plants of bright-colored bougainvillea and other species that I don’t recognize are the only décor and it is perfect. I am so grateful for the simplicity and beauty, a welcome respite from my overcrowded world.
As I sit on the patio, journal in hand, thoughts finally resting, a pesky fly begins to bother me. I laugh, amused at how perfectly imperfect life always ends up being. My husband and I have this theory we call “Ants in Paradise.” We thought it up on a family vacation. Everything was perfect. The most perfect beach, warm water, amazing food, great room – and suddenly we were bothered by a line of ants. We had no idea where they came from – we certainly had not invited them to come. But there they were. In that moment, we had the laughing realization that no matter how perfect our circumstances on earth, there will be ants, flies, or worse that remind us we don’t live in a perfect world. Instead of letting this depress us, we instead laughed it off, vowing to remind each other of this on a regular basis. There I was in the perfect setting of beauty and simplicity, but a fly kept on buzzing around me, annoying in its persistence. I decided to go brush my teeth and wash my hands with hopes that the smell of clean would annoy them and they’d find another victim.
Fly gone, I begin writing and reflecting. I have five days here and because I fail so often at stopping and being present at the moment, I am already planning my next trip and know that it will be longer. I stop and breathe, reminding myself that all I have is this moment.
This moment for rest, for retreat, for Anafora.