Got your attention, did I? 😉
The spiritual playground of Lalibela has been one of our most anticipated sites to see on this trip, and it did not disappoint.
This collection of rock-hewn churches has been named an UNESCO World Heritage site, and for good reason. About 800 years ago, the churches were carved out of solid rock at the order of King Lalibela to represent the second Jerusalem. Can you imagine?
He was like, hey, let’s cut down into the ground until we have a giant rectangle big enough to be a building, then hollow out the inside. And let’s make a whole bunch of them, every one unique, complete with ornate archways, perfect domes, intricate carvings, reliefs, secret tunnels, beautiful windows, detailed frescos, and more. Oh, and since power tools haven’t been invented yet, we’ll just use what we have: chisels and axes and stuff like that. Also, mistakes are out of the question, because, like, you just get one chance.
There is almost nothing more incredible than walking into one of these churches and marveling at the ingenuity of how they were created. I say almost, because we just happened to be there on a Sunday, which means we got to see the churches in action.
One of the things we are discovering about the history of Ethiopia is that it is very much alive. People are still doing things much the way their ancestors have for hundreds of years. They are still arriving to the churches wrapped in their white netelas. They are still singing and dancing to the beat of the drums played by the priests and deacons.
They are still casting out demons with the cross and holy water (frighten our children much?), lighting candles, and reading holy books made out of goat skin. The mamas are still nursing their babies in the corners while older children dart in and out of giant doors made from olive trees, as old as the churches they’re hinged upon. They still touch and kiss the walls, the rock smoothed over time by oil from the hands of countless pilgrims.
It is a holy day in a sacred space and we are honored to share in it.
We’re also pretty sure we hit the jackpot with Mario, our guide for the day. He is extremely knowledgeable about the churches (indeed, he was baptized in one of them as a baby) but what struck me most about him were his joyful and exuberant spirit, a palpable excitement about Lalibela, and his unwavering patience with three tired children who simply could not listen to one more guide yammer on about history and kings and theology and bla bla bla.
Fact: one of our kids went completely nonverbal all day and pretended to be a dog, getting up on his hind legs to “paw” anyone in reach, and circling through poor Mario’s feet most of the day. “No problem!” Came Mario’s repeated and enthusiastic response to this child’s antics.
He is a saint.
Anyway, it wasn’t all lectures and history lessons. I called it a spiritual playground earlier for a reason. Whimsical and full of unexpected delight, it is a child’s dream of narrow walkways, steep staircases, tight archways, underground tunnels, roof top scrambles, and even some rock climbing. Mario used to play hide and seek with his friends in these places as a child and it’s easy to see why. Our kids had a blast and if I’m totally honest, so did Ben and I.
The only thing I was dreading was a long tunnel we had heard about (a 3-5 minute walk), intended to represent descending into hell and then entering into the salvation of heaven upon emerging out into the light on the other side. I am all well and good with tunnels whose other end I can see. But I’ve come down with a severe case of claustrophobia in recent years which has only worsened as I’ve gotten older. I could feel my throat closing off just thinking about walking into the dark hell tunnel. “Yeah, um, well Mario the kids are going to be scared to go in there,” I said, pawning my fear off on my kids. “Is there another way to the other side?”
Mario did not seem concerned with my protests in the slightest and was already heading into the black hole of death, beaming as though he was about to show us the greatest treasure on earth. “No problem! I have a trick!”
Like an Ethiopian McGyver, he calmed all our fears using only his phone and a water bottle. Turning on his phone flashlight, he plastered it to the side of the bottle, then shook it up, moving it in a circle, creating waves of light throughout the tunnel. “Look!” He exclaimed playfully, his eyes as wide as the kids.
The light continued to dance off the rock walls as Mario led the way. The kids followed him like Dory after the jellyfish in Finding Nemo. Even for me, a claustrophobic mess, it worked like magic. I couldn’t have done it without the light. I would still be standing on the front end of that tunnel, probably looking for my own chisel to carve a new house out of a nearby rock and wondering what zipcode to forward my mail to rather than be subjected to the terror of a tight dark space.
But instead, I focused on the light in the midst of the darkness and glory be! In what seemed like no time at all we had made our way to the light of day at the other side.
Most Ethiopians will tell you that we “did it wrong” since you are supposed to be scared out of your pants walking through the pitch black hell tube. But after our experience, I have a slightly different take. And, since it seems to me that things tend to get embellished a bit in the Orthodox Church, I don’t see why I can’t do a little embellishment myself.
What if the light Mario shined for us while we “walked through hell” isn’t representative of an easy out, but rather of the good grace and compassion of Jesus? Isn’t that what the cross is about after all? That while we are still sinners and fully deserving of the consequences of hell, Jesus says not so fast. These are my precious kids and I love them too much to let their stories end here. Kids, you are made for so much more than wandering aimlessly and scared in the dark. I am the light, so stay focused on me and I’ll get you out of here. If you think this dinky water bottle light is bright, just wait until you see what I have in store for you. Just a little longer and the bright noonday sun will soon shine down upon you, swallowing up the darkness for good.
At the end of our day I asked Mario if he ever tired of taking groups through the same churches day after day.”Never,” he said, his face full of wonder. “Every day I come here is a new day. Ever day is special and different.”
I admire Mario’s sense of joy and wonder. An inspiration to face the dark tunnels of life with light, faith, hope, and ridiculous amounts of jubilant love and joy.
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