There is a tradition that in the latter half of the 5th century AD, a group of Christian exiles arrived in Ethiopia from Byzantium, led by an elderly monk named Abuno Aregawi. Among their many achievements, they are credited with establishing a monastic system that survives in the country to this day. Known simply as “The Nine Saints”, they were regarded in such high regard on account of their sanctity, that three of them were said to have been spared the ordeal of physical death. Instead, (so it is said) they grew ever more frail and translucent until, finally, nothing was left of them but the odour of their sanctity. Of these three, Abba Likanos was the least well-known. And it was to his monastery in northern Ethiopia that I travelled in the early days of January 2014, drawn by some irrational force that had haunted my sleep for months.
Having arrived, I found myself entering my own image of heaven: a high finger of rock with a tiny church on the summit. Beside it, a stone bench, bowls of nuts and fruit, a loaf of bread, wine and a fiery Ethiopian companion to argue with about paradise. Does a man need anything more?
It was here, high on this narrow pinnacle of rock above the city of Axum, that the saint finally lost his hold on the world and vanished like camphor into the breeze: into the scent of the eucalyptus trees and the odour of the church incense. Legend says that he disappeared forever from human sight, and was assumed “bodily into heaven”.
Less picturesque than the monastery of St Pantaleon a few hundred metres away, Likanos’s monastery sits concealed among euphorbia cacti and groves of eucalyptus trees so that it cannot be easily seen from a distance. The pillar of rock is populated by all manner of wild animals. A leopard was rescued after falling into a well near the summit just a few days before my visit . Although it can be reached in barely forty minutes on foot, the change of atmosphere is as dramatic as if one were entering some parallel dimension of light and levity, one that is heady and intoxicating.
No women are allowed anywhere near its precincts, and its doors are closed to all men except those who are deemed “pure”.
Built on the site of an earlier pagan temple, the modest square church was damaged during the time of Mengistu (1986/7) when it was bombarded by government troops trying to dislodge members of the Liberation Front who had taken refuge inside. Even today, kalashnikov rifles can still be seen strapped to the backs of a large percentage of men in the Tigre area of Ethiopia.
In religious iconography, Abba Likanos is usually portrayed with flames issuing from his fingers. For he was always threatening to be consumed by the light he felt within him. But almost nothing for certain is known about him . No written account of his life survives. He left no books behind him, performed no feats of magic, heroism or “miracles”. (He was my kind of saint). Church tradition merely remembers that he was born in Constantinople and that he was active in what is now Eritrea in the late 5th century. .
One of my companions, Raphael, a young poet with black pleated hair and wild eyes, resembles an angel in human form. Everything about him is intense, serious and majestic. In his youth he had longed to be monk, he tells me. But it was destined not to be. He now lives happily with his wife and baby daughter in Axum, where he works as a teacher. His entire life has been spent here in Axum. And he has no wish ever to leave it.
Raphael guides me around the back of the church to a wizzened old olive tree. It is more than two thousand years old, he says. Abba Likanos would have known it. Beside it he shows me an upright slab of stone at which the saint used to pray. He would pray for hours here on the upright slab, he tells me. He would forget what time it was. The tears would run down his face onto the stone and be collected into a bowl at the bottom. People would come to drink the water and were cured of many ailments. He shows me a deep groove in the rock formed by the tears of the weeping saint. I slide my finger along it gently, as if touching a child’s skin. It is warm in the afternoon sun.
I ask him how old the church is. He looks at me in silence for a while. Then he says: It dates from the 6th century. But it was always here.
I ask him what he means. How could the church always have been here?
The first churches in Ethiopia were carved out of living rock he says; so they were always there, hidden from sight in the rock. It took someone with a lot faith to see them a visionary, or a saint. But once perceived, a mason needed only to chip away the stone around it to “release” the church. Then everyone could see it. This church first “appeared” in the 5th century. Other churches in Ethiopia still waiting to appear, he adds.
I think over what he has said . His way of reasoning was a key to unlock many of the strange stories I had heard on my many trips to Ethiopia. And St Likanos was one of these visionaries Raphael talked about. He dared to dream an outsized reality. He did not want a little God, small enough to fit into the human understanding. What he imagined was something so alive, so mobile, so spontaneous that it could never be pinned down or written down in a book.
But he was so hard on himself, I thought. All that prayer, penance and fasting. He had pity on everyone but his own body. I shared these concerns with Raphael, who (as always) thought for a time before answering.
What is the body but a lump of lard, he answered. Its function is to burn like a candle: to become a flame, a soul. Life is purgatory. We burn and are we changed into fire. That is all. The soul is a carnivorous fire consuming everything it touches. That is what happened to Abba Likanos, and Abba Geryma. Their bodies burned away in ecstasy.
But doesn’t God want us to have beauty, I protested? Didn’t he make the forests and the lakes and human bodies for us to enjoy. He made your beautiful daughter Maria. Surely he didn’t want us just to suffer?
And what kind of life would that be: without light, without passion, he answers me with a stern stare? Meaningless. Barren. Remember, when God created the world, he didn’t complete it. He rested on the Sabbath. He left the completion to us. Our duty is to set the world alight: to turn it into flames. Otherwise, it will just rot. From within.
He fell silent. Before us the fairytale outline of the Adwa Mountains stretched into the indefinite distance. Those famous mountains were the place where, in 1896, the Ethiopians had defeated the invading colonial might of the Italian army. And to our right lay the vast dusty plain of the city of Axum, home of the Ark of the Covenant. It was a truly beautiful sight.
And I thought of St Likanos, who worked to release himself from all this beauty, as well as from the turgid current of words that ran along the surface of the earth with their predictable phrases. Words are not reality. Words alight on reality as lightly as grazing geese. They seduce and orchestrate our thoughts towards one thing or another. And sometimes we mistake the words for what they signify and fall down before them in worship.
Likanos was like the moon, I decided. He kept silent, but could not be ignored. He lived up here on his pinnacle of rock, becoming a source of fascination and wonder to all who visited him. Until one day the light, which he felt within him, burst from his breast and consumed him wholly. Why not? Life is occasionally lit by a flash of wonder which does not bear questioning: it is its own light.
So I, too, said nothing. And in that silence the leaves of the eucalyptus trees trembled around us as if alive, swaying with emotion. And I felt the light of the sun about to flood those areas of my Reason where even now it was as bright as noon. And for the slightest moment I thought I felt a warmth in my fingertips rising through my body to the very top of my burning head.
It was time, I thought, to come back down from the mountain.