But were the experiences of Smith and Hunter at Mar Saba that similar? Smith describes his first visit as a 'strange and beautiful experience', explicitly mentioning 'the silence of the desert' and the hours-long liturgy which was 'dazzling the mind and destroying its sense of reality' -- though he confessed that he required a certain amount of 'suspension of disbelief' to achieve the latter state of mind (Secret Gospel, 4-6). How did Hunter perceive the life of the monastery? A clue to his perspective can be gleaned from the pages of his novel, from one of its longest paragraphs.
Hunter begins by narrating the history of the monastery, but goes on to offer an opinion on its current state of affairs (on pages 229-230):
Such was the weird home of Christian men in past ages, now degenerated into a ghastly institution of superstitious formalism lacking soul and heart, of rites performed by monks whose honesty and mode of life left much to be desired.
That's some vicious thing to say. But once started on this track, Hunter gathers steam.
The life of the monastery was as empty as the burnt-out crater of a volcano. What religious life there was had deteriorated into a burden of prescribed, and ungraciously observed, devotions; of dreary ceremonies begun at midnight with weird chants and rites that make the blood of the casual visitor who stays overnight run cold. With nothing to occupy their time, it was easy to see that the monks had degenerated.
When on the roll, let it roll, I guess.
The older monks were crafty and seemed sub-normal; the younger ones for the most part had fled there to escape the penalty of some misdeed committed among the world of men. The effect of the life there was to reduce the anchorites to a state of deplorable baseness and wretchedness. There was nothing in the life of the monastery conducive to the development of either the body, the mind or the spirit.
Think it could not get any worse, would you?
The rankest of moral weeds could only grow in a corrupting atmosphere like this. In such a miasma, man became obsessed with his fellow-man. In their souls was hate instead of love, tumult where peace should have reigned, as they performed mechanical religious duties, and remained ignorant of the blessed Gospel of the Son of God and the transforming power of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The paragraph quoted above stands out even in a novel rife with xenophobia, uncontrollable orientalism and racism. The ending sentence reveals the purpose of this slander: a struggle between Hunter's evangelical Christianity and the Orthodox Christianity of the monks in Mar Saba. Still, one cannot but wonder why Hunter would choose to portray the monks in this manner? If he really journeyed to the monastery, if he really spent a night in there and attended the nocturnal liturgy, as could be concluded from the 'dreary ceremonies.. at midnight' above, and if he really conversed with the monks and heard their stories of transferred libraries and burned manuscripts that could emerge from secret places of hiding after a time, how could he describe them as such? The vitriol is all the more striking considering that Germans, communists, atheists, freethinkers and other bad people receive much, much less vile in the novel.
And if Hunter did journey to the monastery as his travel plans indicate, one has to wonder what events in fact took place amongst those 'sub-normal' monks who 'became obsessed with... fellow-man'.