Post #4: Get Thee to a Monastery
The past two days have furthered our ever-expanding knowledge of Egypt. Antiquity and Egypt are words that often flow together easily, especially in the context of Pharaohs, pyramids, massive temples, the ebbs and flows of ancient dynasties and empires. Less well known is Egypt’s history as a “holy land”, starting, as we all know from Genesis, long before Christ, and even before the exodus story of Israel (Egyptians still refer to Egypt as “Masr” derived from one of the descendants of Ham called Mishraim – check out Genesis 6, I think) , but then both during and after the life of Christ as part of the early Christian church that came out of Jerusalem and found its own local roots, initially together with other early churches in North Africa and the Middle East, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. After Chalcedon, the church in Egypt went its own way, partly at least due to a disagreement over the nature of Christ. For six hundred years after Christ, the Christian church in Egypt thrived (despite persecutions especially from the Romans until 325) and remained the dominant religion of the area until it was overrun by Arab-based Islam after 650. Cut off from the main body of the Christian church in Europe and Constantinople, Coptic (as Egyptian Christianity became known) Christianity has followed a unique, and often difficult, path of survival until the present day in a land that only reluctantly accepts that there should be any religious alternative to Islam. Today, Christians of all kinds form about 10-15% of the Egyptian population, the overwhelming majority of who belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Whatever my pre-conceived ideas of Orthodoxy were, they have come under serious scrutiny in the past weeks, and especially in the last couple of days. As Jane and I visited the monasteries of St. Anthony and St. Paul in the Eastern desert of Egypt, we learned many new things, some of which, dear reader, I hope to convey to you in a way that opens your own mind to new appreciations of Orthodoxy.
Our whole MCC Egypt team packed itself into a 12 passenger van and headed east out of Cairo towards the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Sinai. We proceeded south along the Gulf road for about 100 kms and then back west away from the Gulf into the desert. Aside of being rocky and mountainous, the land was completely devoid of vegetation. I mean completely. Nada. Unrelentingly barren. It is a compelling image. (For you BCers who think that Osoyoos is desert, I have news for you.) We came to the monastery of St. Anthony located against a mountainside that miraculously stored and provided water for the monastery during very infrequent rains. The monastery is built out of a mixture of stone, cement block and sand-based type of plaster or daub (depending on when the addition was built). It was initially constructed more than 1700 years ago as part of a very significant monastic movement which had its origins in Egypt. We were accompanied through the churches, caves and other buildings by an elderly, knowledgeable, articulate (and somewhat curmudgeonly) monk (abuna or father). Far from being uneducated or ignorant about both Eastern and Western ways, this monk seemed (and many others, it seems) to have had a professional life and then made a conscious, voluntary decision to forsake the ways of the world to follow Christ…away from the hustle and bustle of society. I also noted that we were far from being the first to develop sophisticated disaster preparedness plans. We were surprised to find that these monasteries had devised very interesting contingency survival plans to ward off intruders like Bedouins, Romans, and others who might try and take advantage of their peaceful way of life.
By far the most important part of the visits to both monasteries was the reverence that was shown to the founders, the relics and icons that were the repositories of a profound spiritual heritage going back many hundreds of years. We as Canadian Mennonites know nothing about history by comparison. I was given the impression that this heritage was both a foundation on which spiritual development was built, and a cross to be borne. These monks were instructed by their forebears, but also felt the weight and responsibility of carrying the stories, beliefs and practices of their many predecessors. This was no small responsibility. While the monastery of St. Anthony was the more traditional in outward appearance, the monastery of St. Paul, located much closer to the Gulf of Sinai seemed to be somewhat more ready to accept modernization. While it maintained and revered its ancient beginnings, it also included a brand new cathedral (by ANY measure, a cathedral), a cafeteria capable of serving all visitors and an ambitious garden growing all kinds of vegetables.
Despite these differences in appearance, the lasting images of the visit to both monasteries included:
- Monks that were deeply committed to their faith and to their heritage, were articulate in expressing their beliefs in English, had an experiential knowledge of the world “out there”, not only in Egypt, but beyond, and appeared to be far more willing to engage in conversations of faith and practice beyond their own religious confines than I imagined. Their appearance and dress was initially misleading…
- They paid rightful homage and respect to the modest, but moving, beginnings. The first church structures, going back more than 1500 years still remained. We were allowed to see and take pictures of wall paintings and other sacred places and things…an openness that, for me, was unexpected.
- Mystery and miracles form part of the everyday belief of Coptic Christians. Water flowing out of the mountain was a miracle, St. Mary showing herself recently to people in Cairo is a miracle…Egyptian Christians will enthusiastically talk to you about many miracles. No need to explain, analyze or debate. Egyptians readily embrace mystery.
- There seems to be relatively little division between body/soul/spirit. They are all there, but as a whole. This informs the theology—all are ministered to simultaneously. There is no division (read MCC and mission boards); it forms one package.
- We, as those who have come down from the radical reformation, know of our own past of persecutions in Europe. If one were to add an additional millennium of the same, we would understand better the importance of Orthodoxy and we would also marvel at the commitment of Coptic Christians today and through the ages.
- It was possible for me to move beyond the simple notion that icons and relics were meaningless objects (or worse), and that they represented a respect for those who had gone before and shown the way.
- The monasteries we saw were working monasteries and, in the past, aimed at being as self-sufficient as possible, including their own grinding mills for flour and oil. Today, monks bring with them skills that serve the monastery in a more modern way, including IT.
These are just a few of our very early impressions of the church in Egypt. Maybe most important for us was the visual and experiential. We saw and walked on ground that spoke of the life of Christ and his followers for well over 1000 years. We saw the reverence that Egyptians paid to their Christian forebears. We even sensed that Christians in Egypt wanted to visit monasteries to remind themselves what others endured for the sake of their beliefs (we saw quite a number of tour buses). Hmmmm…