Thursday, March 19, 2020

Mary Is With Us: The Maryam Monastery of Lake Tana, Tigray, Ethiopia

During this difficult time of Coronavirus, I will be sharing excerpts from the book, Magnificat: Mama Mary’s Pilgrim Sites, a collection of 24 testimonies by people whose lives were changed by Mama Mary. I hope that these articles remind us that Mary is with us during this difficult time. May you find solace in these personal testimonials. ~ Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, editor of Magnificat.

ETHIOPIA – The Maryam Monastery of Lake Tana, Tigray

The following article presents an extant and almost unheard of story of Joseph, Mary, and the Child Jesus, except in the African Christian country of Ethiopia. The Holy Family returned to Nazareth but it took them awhile to travel back. They stayed in the premises of Lake Tana, Tigray province of Ethiopia, where a body of apocryphal gospel stories document the miracles associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary raising Jesus from infancy to early childhood. Ancient trade routes show Tigray, Ethiopia as the natural crossing point for traders on their way to the land of Israel by way of the narrow straits of Aden and then following the south-north trade routes to Jordan and thence to Galilee. The effect of participating on this one-of-a-lifetime pilgrimage is a real revelation!


Penélope V. Flores


THE BIBLE doesn’t tell me anything. Why do we have such a lacunae of materials concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus? Why do we get only a Bible picture of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on the Flight to Egypt? And after that, the next Bible incidence we hear is an almost adult 13-year-old Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple discussing theology among the learned priests. What happened during the infancy years up to his being a teen? The big black hole seems to have swallowed Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus in his infancy and childhood days.

Why? Is it because, we Catholics are unfamiliar with the other canons of faith that reside in the ancient Christian communities of the Armenians, Coptics, Chaldeans, and Byzantians, who were in fact the Early Christians before Rome’s Vatican?

I was able to get some pieces of Mama Mary’s life by following the footsteps of the Holy Family in Egypt, which led me to Ethiopia, where local legend says Jesus lived as a child.

I was in Ethiopia, 2002 to 2003 as a United Nation Development Project’s consultant to the Ministry of Education. I had to visit schools in Tigray where Lake Tana is located. Lake Tana is a sacred and holy place. “What makes it holy?” I asked.

Dr. Chalchisa, one of my colleagues at Haile Selassie University, answered: “It is the place where the Virgin Mary with St. Joseph raised their child, the Infant Jesus.”

I was surprised. I never heard this story before. He brought me a telephone book and pointed to Ethiopian family names: Maryam (Mary), Gebre (Gabriel), Hossein (Joseph), Hesu (Jesus). He declared, “Those are old Ethiopian Coptic Christian names.” Then he referred me to the Bible. Look at Genesis, he ordered. The country Ethiopia is mentioned eight times! That river Gihon over there, he pointed, was part of the four rivers mentioned in the Bible that went through the Garden of Eden.

I picked up my Bible right away. There it was, Genesis 2:10: “A river watering the garden flowed from Eden: from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon: it winds through the entire land of Havilah. The name of the second river is the Gihon, it winds through the entire land of Cush.”

Dr. Chalchisa, who said he and his tribal people in Ethiopia are called Cushites, continued: The third river is the Tigris; the fourth river is the Euphrates. Ethiopia, he declared, is an old and ancient Christian country. In fact, he said with a flourish, what country besides Egypt can pride itself with having the Holy Family reside within its borders?

I could hardly contain myself. How did this happen?

The story goes back to the evangelist Matthew and his story of the Flight to Egypt. In the Bible story, Matthew 2: the Three Magi came to Bethlehem to adore the new King, born Jesus in Bethlehem. The ruler at that time was Herod who, when he heard this birth of the King of the Jews, was disturbed. “Who’s this king who will usurp my throne,” he asked? He then ordered the death of all those born in that period. In today’s calendar, December 28th is remembered as the “Niños Inocentes,” the day when innocent newborn males were put to the sword.

The Bible story continues: “However, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the mother and child and escape to Egypt.” This Flight to Egypt has been depicted in many icons and paintings, and is an enduring memory of that event.

Why Egypt? Why not Damascus or Constantinople?

Egypt is where Jacob and the 12 tribes lived when Joseph became the vizier of the Pharaohs. Moses started his ministry in Egypt. It’s also in the scriptures that during Jesus’s Way of the Cross, when Jesus fell, a bystander, Simon of Cyrene helped him carry the Cross. In the Coptic Bible, Simon is a Cairene, (from Cairo). In other words, lingering past memories of the Holy Land are embedded within the culture of Ancient Egypt, Cairo being also the seat of the Coptic Christian religion.

The Blessed Virgin Mary and Miracles

So far so good. So, the Holy Family went to Egypt. From Bethlehem, they joined some caravanserai to Gaza, who went on to the Mediterranean and landed on the delta near Alexandria, Egypt. Within a vast system of canals that crisscrossed the delta and the Nile, legends abound of the miracles associated with the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus. The Holy Family resided in Cairo. In what is now Old Cairo, I joined a pilgrimage to the Suspended Church, the oldest Christian church in Egypt, known as Al Muallaqah. It was here, I was told, that the Blessed Virgin Mary stopped to nurse the Baby Jesus. There’s a fountain nearby with milky white water gushing out. I said, this water must have collected the calcified mineral silts of the Nile, that’s why it is whitish. I got cold stares from the crowd. “I’m a natural skeptic,” I apologized to no one in particular.

I visited the Coptic Synaxarium to examine an ancient Bible displayed at the Alexandria Museum, Egypt. There I got an intricate map of how the Holy Family traveled from one place to another. It seems they were moving a lot. They left a path now marked by dots of Christian churches all within Muslim Egypt. Joseph the carpenter had to find work in the villages where his skill was in demand. It also told of Mary and baby Jesus performing feats and miracles, of palm trees bowing when the Holy Family passed the road, and of the nail clippings from baby Jesus. Where they were thrown, medicinal herbs with miraculous properties reportedly grew. I inspected the herbs. Believe me, they were “cilantro” in my un-orthodox and sacrilegious mindset.

But I’m getting ahead of my story.

The Holy Family’s Return Trip to Israel

Let’s get back to the Bible story. When Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared again in a dream to Joseph in Egypt saying, “Arise and take the young child and his mother and go back into the land of Israel. For they are dead which sought the young child’s life.” And he arose and took the young child and his mother and came into the land of Israel” (Matthew 2, 19-21).

However, if we look at the Holy Family map, we get a sense of what is really happening. They were already far beyond the boundaries of Cairo and were trekking their way with their itinerant caravan group along the Upper Nile approaching the uplands of Lake Tana in Ethiopia.

In a bookshop in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, I found a tiny book depicting the miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or St. Maryam, according to the locals. I was told that angels were present in Lake Tana and remain the guardians of the holy site to this day. The next thing I did was get to the North Eastern province of Ethiopia, to Tigray. In the company of Mr. Mekkonen, Mr. Gebre, and Dr. Chalsisa of the Ministry of Education’s Research and Development Department, we sallied forth, to visit elementary schools but for me after the educational mission, to make a pilgrimage to Lake Tana.

I will now describe what I actually felt during that momentous trip, what my observations were, and what significance it made on my spiritual quest for the meaning of Mama Mary and of her sacred life.

Factors Contributing to the Power of Lake Tana.

Lake Tana’s geophysical characteristics of the sacred site bears witness to its isolated and serene location. It is a quiet and calm environment, accessible only by a small canoe made of papyrus reeds as a fisherman/ boatman paddles expertly with his wooden oar. The Holy Family domicile is now a monastery for Ethiopian Orthodox monks, who have many antiquarian rules. Their fasting practices are very elaborate. Besides observing regular fasting days, they include special fasting just for St. Mary every Wednesday.

This lake is one of the sources of the river Nile. Lake Tana becomes the “Blue Nile” of Ethiopia. Later it “merges into the “White Nile” of Sudan and goes down straight to Egypt as the “Gift of the Nile.” The Holy Family followed this Nile reaches up to Ethiopia.

The sacred geometry of the Maryam monastery is circular with double doors facing East and West. Entrance doors have meanings. Not knowing where to enter, I followed the flow of the crowd mostly men and acolytes. The building materials of the circular building are of local papyrus reeds, mud, and spittle. Local stones are soft tuff, a characteristic of a carved-in church in nearby Lalibela, a Christian Orthodox Church dug deep into the soil. It was believed angels helped in its construction and finished it overnight.

The Ethiopian influence of light and color is surreal because of the absence of pollution. When I arrived, the sound and music of birds, the drones of chants, the whining of the local stringed instrument and cymbals gave the ceremonial atmosphere just the perfect setting for meditation. In addition, I realized that the use of spices, myrrh, frankincense, and beeswax candles carry meaning when imbued with aromatic food, including cardamom mixed in our Ethiopian coffee and the herb “chat” that reduces stress and tense muscles. This drink was offered to me at the vestibule.

The influence of visual scriptures establishes the shrine as a Coptic church. Illuminated manuscripts filled the walls of the Mary Monastery as paintings of icons served as space holders for stray thoughts. No seats were seen, and standing endurance prevailed during long sermons.

The presence of accumulated energy from centuries of ceremonial activity is an old ancient ritual. I guess it’s a mixture of Armenian Orthodox rites and Ethiopian Orthodox rites. I saw little resemblance to the Catholic rites I had known in my childhood years.

In addition, the presence of ephemeral spiritual energy for the large number of pilgrims who have visited the sacred place had invaded the heightened effect of religious practices performed at this St. Mary’s sacred site. I felt it.

This influence resulted from a cultural collective belief in the power of miracles and of ideals enshrined in a Blessed Virgin pilgrimage center. Child Jesus apocryphal stories were related to me. What I liked most was that Mama Mary would bathe the child Jesus in a tub basin. The bath water was collected and distributed to sick village children. They all miraculously got better after using the bath water.

I could feel the power of change emanating from the relics and ceremonial objects, including miraculous icons. I fingered the Gihon Bible, written in Tigray script. I also touched the score for a hymnal song, believed to be the first church musical scores used in this monastery in Ethiopia.

I felt a celestial influence in this sacred place. I was connecting with the power of the place through meditation. I said a prayer, and with the rest of the pilgrimage followed the required circumambulation going counterclockwise three times. This is why old ancient Christian church buildings are in the round topped by a dome--in order to make a pilgrimage walk around it — an ancient practice now lost. Outside the St. Maryam monastery I retraced the circumambulation path.

I followed the rest of the crowd kissing the church door thrice. In fact doing religious activities in Ethiopia must be done thrice, like kissing and hugging when meeting a friend, in symbolic representation of the Holy Family. Handshaking as a greeting required three shakes Cups of coffee are offered thrice and it’s considered rude to refuse the offers.

Did I experience a payback from my pilgrimage to Lake Tana? You bet I did. It was the feast of the Epiphany when I went. Every monk, deacon and nun in every monastery on Lake Tana came out en masse. What happens when a congregation of multicolored monks, priests, and acolytes dressed in gold trims and carrying aloft dazzling umbrellas over their sainted heads appears in a procession? It’s overwhelming! The tableau of the Holy Family and the Blessed Virgin Mary is always enacted because it has a local historical point of view. They are proud that St. Maryam, as they call her, stayed on Ethiopian soil, performed many miracles and shared the Baby Jesus with them.

All during my pilgrimage to Lake Tana, I felt imbued with something that I could not explain. Being a natural skeptic, I thought the stress of my work with the Ministry, (crunching statistical data and analyzing its effect on the schooling patterns) made a great toll on my daily routine. But after my St. Maryam trip, I was confronted directly with one of the miracles. Legend says that she picked a twig branch and with it brushed Baby Jesus teeth. Nowadays, if you go to the open public market place, they are still selling this twig as a homemade toothbrush… just like Jesus’ toothbrush. (Just so I would remember, I kept a small twig to present to my San Francisco orthodontist).

However what caught my fancy was an artist painting with the local twig. I gingerly took hold of a twig brush, shaved it into a paintbrush, dipped it in fresh oil paint, applied it on paper and voila, a miracle! The result was amazing! I did not realize that I could paint.

I returned to my hotel room heavily imbued with a certain power. It was not an outward manifestation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The change was within me. For the first time, the creative surge appeared in my persona. I took a brush and with three oil colors, I painted Lake Tana. It was as if Mama Mary told me, “Lose yourself. Paint my Lake Tana emanation and your canvasses will show feelings.”

The next day, that local twig paintbrush wouldn’t stop acting up. In about half a day in my feverish state, I finished 24 canvasses. Unbelievable!!! Me, a feisty old professor, who never before held a brush, was now an artist. This was an incredible revelation.

That was 2003. Subsequently, where I could apply oil paint on canvas with my brush, I have done so. The psychological change in me is not only spiritual, but also richly emotional, creative, and transformative. Moreover painting has becalmed my spirit as if I’m once again entering the sacred miraculous place of Lake Tana and the pristine Maryam Monastery.

The miracles attributed to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus was, for me, not an outside occult happening. Unlike other miracles where a certain image attracts miraculous attention, my experience in Ethiopia was the exact opposite. The miracle happened within me.

BIO of Author:

PENẺLOPE V. FLORES is a Professor of Education, Emeritus, at San Francisco State University. She is the author of several non-fiction books, and editor of several anthologies. She was an original founder of the Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc. (PAWA) and was its past president from 2000 to 2007. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, a Masters at the University of Pennsylvania and a Bachelors and teaching credential from the Philippine Normal University, Manila. Penelope paints still lifes and landscapes. Currently she’s working on her latest project: José Rizal’s landmark apartments in Spain and Germany. Her Rizal painting has been exhibited at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center for the 150th Rizal birthday anniversary celebration, June 2011.


Book: Magnificat: Mama Mary’s Pilgrim Sites

Collected and Edited by Cecila Manguerra Brainard

Anvil, 2012, softcover, 168 pages, ISBN 9789712727115

Hard copies available from Philippine Expressions Bookshop: 1–310–548‑8148 or 1–310–514‑9139

Available from Amazon Kindle

Contributors are: Lucy Adao McGinley, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Angelita Caluag Cruz, Maria Ciocon, Celeste, Ma. Ceres P. Doyo, Millicent Dypiangco, Ma. Milagros T. Dumdum, Penelope V. Flores, Almira Astudillo Gilles, Ma. Teresita Herrera-Tan, Fe Aida Lacsamana-Reyes, Jaime C. Laya, Guia Lim, Linda Nietes-Little, Ma. Teresa Z. Lopez, Aimee Gaboya Ortega Lucero, Lynley Salome R. Ocampo, Ma. Cristina Padilla-Sendin, Marsha C. Paras, Rev. Dr. Sebastian Periannan, Brian Ascalon Roley, Julia H. Wolski, and Linda Yamamoto.
Praise for Magnificat

“This is another outstanding book by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard. Profoundly Marian and beautifully written by the contributors as these are their personal experiences! To our fellow devotees and would-be devotees of the Blessed Virgin Mary, you will surely fall in love with Magnificat: Mama Mary’s Pilgrim Sites and love Our Blessed Mother even more.” (Bishop Leopoldo C. Jaucian, SVD, DD, Bishop of Bangued, Philippines)

“The devotion to Mama Mary is strong in the hearts of every Filipino.” (Father James B. Reuter, SJ)

“The Magnificat has always been a testament to God’s paradoxical dealings with his people. This book assembles a tableau of witnesses to how a fleeting visit with Mary can turn into a life-changing introduction to her Son. Through their stories the author offers their readers the distinct possibility of setting the stage for a personal, if vicarious, epiphany.” (Father Dionisio M. Miranda, SVD, President, University of San Carlos in Cebu)

“Running as a leitmotif in all the essays in this book is the writers’ palpable love for Mama Mary. Each writer has undergone a change in his or her life or outlook following a visit to a Marian site. Some may have experienced a “miracle,” or felt consoled and renewed; others a deepening of spirituality, or an epiphany, an insight into the divine. Although we know that Jesus is the only Way to the Father, it is our belief in the power of Mary’s intercession to her Son, borne out of the Bible’s Cana story, that makes us all turn to Her, whom Her divine Son will never refuse. Kudos to Cecilia Manguerra Brainard for putting together an engaging collection of stories that magnify the humble handmaid of the Lord.” (Erlinda E. Panlilio, Writer and Editor)

This blog is also published in Cecilia’s official site:

Tags: book review, Marian, Mama Mary, Catholic, religion, Christianity, anthology, Medugorje, Coronavirus, Covid 19, Lake Tana, Ethiopia

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