A priest exiting the cliff church of Tigray in Northern Ethiopia.
The ascent to Abuna Yemata Guh is less than inviting it is down right treacherous. This 15th century sanctuary is chiseled into the side of a two thousand foot spire of rock in Northern Ethiopia. The entire journey is far from tourist friend which makes this experience feel unique and exciting. There is not another person for miles, no lines, venders, no signs marking the way to go. Trust in your guide is the only direction that you can follow here.
After an hour approach on foot we reached the base of the spire formation. Abuna Yemata Guh is still an active church and considered a holy place by the surrounding villages thus you can only walk on this holy ground with the guidance of the local priest.
Our group consisted of five people. Red (Houston Goddard), Miura (Will Alexander), Gideon (guide), Alex (not really sure), myself and the priest. The priest arrived while Gideon was describing the route of foot holds and hand grips to the top. The appearance of the 70 year old priest in jelly shower shoes brought a needed confidence to the group because if he regularly climbs these walls surely it would not be a problem for us.
This is what makes the journey to Guh so unique. In order to visit this place of faith you must exhibit faith in the ones that are leading you up. There are no ropes or signs. No safety precautions. There is only simple instructions like place your foot here. Move your hand there. Put all your weight on your left leg, trust the hold. Don’t look down.
As I listen to Gideon call out commands I am reminded that not following the simplest of instructions can lead to catastrophic consequences of hurt and pain. Is this not true in life? It is usually the simplest of decisions that lead us in a good direction or in a bad direction. Like to be selfish or unselfish. To lie or to be honest. To hate or to love. These are very basic choices that once made can lead to very different places. It is possible this is a reason why people love to climb. Climbing lets you see the immediate consequences of making simple decisions. You either continue to the precipice or you fall to your death. Climbing is spiritual in that sense. Your decisions matter on a life and death level. Can you image if in the moment of choice could see the ripple effects it would have on others. The joy or hurt it would cause others. This is the role of the Holy Spirit who can see those ripples. That is why the Spirit is called the Great Counselor. The Counselor is calling out, put your worries here, place your heart there, trust me now, don’t look back, look up. It sounds very cheesy and warm n fuzzy but that is because we can not see the cliff below as you can when climbing. It is far from cheesy when small decisions over a long period of time can cause massive divides between people, countries, and you and God.
Back to Guh…once passed the first set of walls a small path leads you up to the next challenge and on that path is a set of rock bells the priest uses to communicate to the valley below. Hit hard enough the chimes echo far below. Further up and a few foot holds later you come to a small saddle where the baptismal is located. It is here adults come to be baptized as an exhibit of faith. It must be a monumental experience to be baptism in this place at these heights. From here we are instructed to take off our shoes and socks as the ground ahead is holy. The ground up above is also totally exposed to a 200 meter (650 ft.) drop off on either side. The priest leads followed by Miura, then Red and finally me. There is not enough room for all of us so we are strung out along the beginning of a ledge that disappears around the left side of the mountain wall. The ledge is about two 1/2 feet wide with a foot of that slanting down towards the cliff. It is both exciting and terrifying at the same time. But it is only about twenty five or thirty feet long so it is over pretty quick. The ledge dead ends into a wall with a cave opening to your right. Once you have ducked in you feel secure again. In this cave is an old wooden door that leads to the church chamber. It is sunning. The walls and ceiling are covered with paintings. Rugs adorn the dirt floors and the priest sits in silence. From time to time I could hear the priest singing Hallelujah in a quiet voice.
I brought the ashes of my father to Africa in a small 35mm film container in the hopes of finding a place of meaning where I could spread them. I wanted to find a place that would have excited and moved my dad. So perched barefoot on the ledge with the priest singing I let the canister release his ashes off the side of this holy place. In an instant they disappeared in the rush and noise of a strong wind whipping by this high point. So far our family has only spread Pop’s ashes in two places. A mountain side church in Northern Ethiopia and the 16th green at the Masters in Augusta. That would make him laugh. Pretty good stuff.
The wind was really picking up so the priest said we needed to head down as this would add unwanted danger to the exposed areas. So we headed down and hiked back out.