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An icon? He’ll leave that image for others

Times Staff Writer

With his long black robes and salt-and-pepper beard and ponytail, Father Justin Sinaites hardly looks the part of rock star. But when the tall, lean monk walks through the exhibition of Byzantine icons and manuscripts on display through March 4 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, visitors descend on him like so many grown-up groupies.

“I recognized you from the video,” said Heidi Singh, a Buddhist minister who rushed to Father Justin’s side as he stood one recent morning before a 6th century icon of St. Peter. Later, a group of visitors crowded around him to ask about St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, Egypt, where he lives with 24 other Greek Orthodox monks and serves as librarian.

Call Father Justin the icon of the icons.

Because he speaks English and knows the exhibition’s 43 icons, six manuscripts and four liturgical objects intimately, Father Justin was tapped as a “courier” to monitor their care on a rare trip outside their desert home, 8,000 miles away. So far, more than 171,000 people have toured the exhibition, “Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons From Sinai.”

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It is an unlikely role for a man who grew up in a Baptist household in Texas and came to Greek Orthodoxy as a college student. Like the icons themselves, Father Justin’s path to St. Catherine’s, at the foot of the mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments, speaks of faith, humility and love.

Born in 1949, Father Justin grew up in El Paso with three siblings. While studying at the University of Texas in Austin, he became fascinated by history, first medieval and then Byzantine. He read voraciously about the early church and began attending the Greek Orthodox church in San Antonio (because Austin did not yet have one). He was drawn by the church’s “continuity and the perfect balance of doctrines.”

“The Orthodox church became the most important thing for me,” Father Justin said in a recent interview at the Getty.

His parents “didn’t understand anything about the Orthodox church,” he said. “I tried to explain it to them, but that only made them more confused.”

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He graduated in 1971 with majors in English and history. While continuing to study Orthodox history and theology, he marked time by building traditional pipe organs in Austin and then counseling delinquent boys in Houston.

On Lazarus Saturday (a celebration of Christ’s raising of Lazarus from the dead, held on the day before Palm Sunday) in 1974, his 25th birthday, he entered the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, Mass., as a novice.

In 1978, Father Justin spent two days at the Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai -- known more familiarly as the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine, Sinai (still a mouthful), or, simply, St. Catherine’s Monastery.

“I had already read a tremendous amount and had a tremendous love for the place,” Father Justin said, adding that he had known since before he became a novice that it was the place he wanted to be. But in 1978 it was out of the question for an American to join the monks’ community there.

On a pilgrimage in 1995, Father Justin again spent two days at the monastery. After living for more than 20 years in the Brookline monastery, Father Justin knew the Greek language and the monks’ way of life.

By then, Damianos, archbishop of Sinai, and the Holy Council of the Fathers were willing to make an exception to the general rule that St. Catherine’s monks had to be of Greek descent. In February 1996, Father Justin moved to Sinai, where he was greeted by almond trees bursting into bloom, an auspicious sign. He immediately felt at home.

“Sinai is such an astonishing place,” he said. “The continuity that first attracted me [to Greek Orthodoxy] is something you experience to an intense degree at Sinai.”

Sinai is not the most hospitable of environments. Blisteringly hot in summer, numbingly cold in winter, the peninsula retains much of the wildness that the ancient Israelites beheld after Moses led them out of Egypt and across the parted Red Sea. Today the area is home to Bedouins and few others.

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A typical day at the monastery for Father Justin and the other monks starts with a service from 4 to 7:30 am. There is another service at noon and vespers at 4 p.m. The monks dine together, do chores and study.

Once an enigmatic place at the edge of the world, reachable only by dirt roads, St. Catherine’s, for better or worse, has seen the modern world move much closer. Nearby luxury hotels accommodate tourists, many of whom -- sometimes 1,000 a day -- find the paved road that now leads most of the way to St. Catherine’s. (Among the visitors in 1998 were Father Justin’s parents, who, he said, “were impressed and became at ease with my being there.”)

An American businessman set up a computer and modem and introduced e-mail to the ancient fortress, built in the 6th century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.

The technology “has caused the whole world to shrink,” Father Justin said. “Many feel the end of isolation at Sinai is a great tragedy. But the archbishop believes that people need to experience the ancient traditions.”

Months ago, an e-mail request from a young man in Southern California prompted Father Justin to carry with him to Los Angeles leaves he had cut from the plant that purportedly is the “burning bush” where Moses heard the voice of God, as described in the book of Exodus. The man’s friend, John Valadez, accepted the leaves after Father Justin’s recent lecture at the Getty. “It was a wonderful blessing,” Valadez said.

For years, the monastery’s thick walls and remote location protected the monks and the precious icons, candlesticks and ancient vestments. The arid climate also helped.

Father Justin praised the Getty’s care in constructing airtight shipping crates for the fragile objects, most of which had never left Sinai -- where, he said, the maximum humidity is 30%, about as low as a museum could maintain. To avoid exposure to excessive humidity, each object was unloaded and installed, under Father Justin’s watchful eye, in a quick 15 minutes.

Father Justin and a colleague, Father Porphyrios, typically spend their days in Los Angeles shuttling between a Getty-owned apartment in Brentwood and the hilltop Getty, where Father Justin spends hours doing research in the library. He has also visited the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens and given lectures, using a Mac laptop, at the Getty and elsewhere about the icons and manuscripts and the effort he is leading to digitally photograph the manuscript collection.

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Father Justin has also seen a sister and plans to visit his parents later this month.

On Sundays when he’s not traveling, he and Father Porphyrios assist with services at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral on South Normandie Avenue.

Father John Bakas, the dean of St. Sophia, will join Father Justin and Father Porphyrios and other Orthodox clergy on Saturday evening for a highly unusual service celebrating the restoration of the icons at the Getty.

The clergy will then lead a procession through the gallery, observing icons that survived what is known as iconoclasm, a period in the 8th century when many icons were destroyed.

Father John said he has been impressed by Father Justin’s devotion.

“You don’t think of El Paso, Texas, being the home of ascetic Sinai monks,” he said. “He’s a very humble, understated individual who typifies the ancient model of the ascetic desert father.”

Father Justin appears eager for the “rock star” days to end so that he can return to Sinai.

“Some people think coming here would be a break, and it is,” he said. “But there are different responsibilities. You look forward to going back because that’s where your spiritual center is.”

martha.groves@latimes.com


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