As I have to host the Southwark gathering of Friends of Cathedral Music in two weeks, I attend Evensong to familiarise myself with the choir. They sing a new piece, War in Heaven by Neil Cox, which rattles the windows. The organ introduction has a stuttering motif like intermittent gunfire. The choir's loud entry silences the pipes. They resume later with the low voices alone and stealthily as if to ambush the innocent boys and falsettists. Phrases are repeated in godly trinities, growing increasingly distant. Words are mostly indistinct, but 'testimony' stands out in frequent repeats, bouncing on four equal quavers like a wagging finger. Conductor Peter Wright urges the singers to exciting speeds and bold dynamics. He interprets Cox's language as that of a hellfire testifier pounding the edge of the pulpit.
It suits the sermon which is based on the first lesson's account of Moses climbing Mount Sinai to meet God. Dean Andrew Nunn ascends the pulpit as if he himself were about to collect the tablets. He recalls his own trip to Sinai in 2010 which lacked the hardship of the Children of Israel's visit 4000 years ago, or indeed of mine in 1985. I went with Dolly, a friend, and we thought we were going to die on the little propellor plane there from the Egyptian mainland. The pilot gave his six passengers a thrill by leaving open the cockpit door so that we could see the rocks rushing towards us before he found an updraft at the last minute to clear each cliff. The mountains were huge, red-brown, peaked and forbidding, strething further than the eye could see. They looked entirely hostile, but among them were Bedouin-and-camel-made tracks, running for many miles between invisible destinations. The plane was mercilessly buffeted by circling winds whistling round the dry valleys and we gripped hard and unconsciously the arm rests, our hands wettening with rivulets of sweat.
Running in along the tarmac at St Catherine's airport, furious crosswinds caught the tailplane and knocked the aircraft dangerously from side to side. We emerged at last, vowing to take the coach to Cairo for the return journey. When the wind dropped, a profound silence surrounded us. The airport lay in a circus of grim, red mountains, dumb and domineering. The place where Moses had met God seemed utterly godforsaken. Only the hollow rattle of an empty can of mango juice as it blew across the concrete disturbed the awesome quiet. The travellers spoke to each other in hushed voices which somehow seemed appropriate.
The sun beat down and we decided to climb the mountain that afternoon. For a bribe, a gatekeeper at St Catherine's monastery allowed us to leave our bags in the office under a bench so that the monk in charge would not see. Officially it was not open until the evening. With just a single rucksack containing the few things we thought we would need for the night we circled the 1400 year old monastery until we found some shabby tin signs pointing us to the path up Moses Mountain.
At first the gradient was gentle and we strolled at a leisurely pace along a meandering path that had been clearly well used by pilgrims over the ages. The rocks rose steeply on both sides towards peaks a couple of thousand feet above us. Close to, the rocks were not sharp and craggy as they had appeared from afar but worn and rounded by the interminable swirling winds that had dried and eroded them ever since they first rose out of the sea. In places the surfaces were full of holes, as if eaten by giant moths, where the strains of rock strata were weakest and would turn to sand and dust more wuickly. House-sized boulders lay strewn about the valey. They had fallen once from great heights after supporting layers had been worn away. Pilgrims had carved their memorials on them.
Soon the way began to rise more steeply and the path had to zigzag its ascent. At each turning, short cuts had been taken by fitter visitors. On either side, small, tufted plants grew, pale green, dry and widely spaced so as not to compete for each other's moisture. It seemed a miracle that anything grew here at all. We followed a prominent path always indicated by the tin signs, but there were other paths too, following different courses to locations in myriad valleys. Once we saw a collection of houses, a Bedouin village. One of the houses was painted yellow and picked out by the fading sun as if fluoresent. From afar it looked incongruously like a telephone kiosk.
A great flat wall of rock was now before us. It rose to a peak and at its summit we could see a tiny edifice, the Moses chapel. The rocky path entered a short gorge and, emerged on the western side, with the sun sinking fast, to overlook St Catherine's monastery far below set in a tiny oasis of poplars and other vegetation. The steep, final section of of the three thousand two hundred and seventy steps to the top was hard work and included many false summits on the way. Having reached what looked like the peak, it always made way for another. The top, when it came, was an anti-climax. We were last to arrive of some forty fellow experience-seekers who were already spreading out their ground-sheets, sleeping bags and blankets in preparation for a night under the stars. We had missed by some minutes the going down of the sun, but were nevertheless rewarded by a western sky glowing by turns red, orange, pink and blue over the long jagged outline of the Sinai range. The desert changed colour like a chameleon. The night grew cold and we realised how ill-prepared we were. We looked enviously at the duck-down quilted bags which the Germans had brought and wondered whether we had not been a little hasty racing up a seven thousand foot mountain with only a sleeveless sweater, a borrowed sweatshirt and three small towels for protection against unpredictable weather. The Germans occupied a trough sheltered on three sides by an ever-strengthening wind. We found ourselves a position in the lee of a low wall beside the Moses chapel which seemed warm enough and we spread out our towels on the sand and donned the meagre over-garments. We ate half a packet of biscuits, some bread rolls and some mints and gazed at the stars which came out in countless millions. The sages who mapped the constellations must have linked them by intensity rather than proximity, we surmised, but we were only trying not to admit that our bodies were now shivering as the temperature dropped rapidly.
We put the towels on top of us and lay on the bare sand, which proved acceptable for a while and we continued our desperate ruminations. What possessed Moses to come up here, we wondered, and did he bring extra sheepskins like the Germans? We tried to remember what was written on the tablets: Thous shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart et cetera and Him only shalt thou serve; remember to keep the Sabbath day holy - six days only shalt thou labour and on the seventh, rest - or go to church; honour thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee; thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant nor anything that is thy neighbour's. I can never remember how many exactly the coveting sins constitute and do not think I have ever correctly made them add up to ten. Perhaps the cold had frozen my memory for by now we were shivering so much that we even contemplated going back down. But it was far too dark; we were stuck on top of Mount Sinai with nowhere to hide. The church was locked and there were Moslems praying in the tiny mosque. They too thought highly of Moses. We considered knocking on their door, but could not bring ourselves to do so. Yet the serious fear of exposure now crossed our minds. A German came by with a torch and prepared to go down to his sheltered encampment. I approached him and asked whether he thought it warmer down in his part than up where we were. Yes of course, he replied and pointed to a spare patch of sand between some bearded Teutons. He recognised us; it was Juergen, one of two Germans on the scary, morning plane ride. this morning. We laughed about it and the fear we had known and we knew we'd found a friend. It was certainly wamer in the dip, but the coldness became more and more severe as the night wore on and the wind crept round and blew into the small enclosure. Again, we asked for help, Would it be possible, perhaps, for us to lie between Juergen and his friend in their warm bags? Juergen did more than that. Without saying anything, he lent us his jumper, trousers and thick scouting anorak, which gave us at least enough warmth to half-sleep through the long night hours until the sky grew light again in the east.