From Poverty to Riches

Note: This text was prepared recently but recalls a personal trip I took with my family to visit Maghagha during the Coptic Christmas holiday in January 2010. While there we visited Holy Family sites, but also a rapidly developing pilgrimage center focused on the memory of Fr. Abd al-Masih al-Manahari. Upon watching the film produced by the church commemorating his life, these two sources combined to inform this text, replete with personal reflection and photos.

The Coptic Orthodox Church possesses a strong monastic spirit which esteems abandoning the pleasures of this world in preference to those of the hereafter. Yet even in this world God is believed to compensate his servant with spiritual riches which satisfy far greater than any earthly lucre. Not all are called to this life; few can even imagine themselves in pursuit of it. Nearly all Copts, however, find in those who dedicate their lives entirely to God a source of spiritual proof of faith, for which glory is given to God, much of which flows through his servant. This human-directed commemoration is known as al-magd al-batil, or vainglory, which these servants spend their life escaping. Upon their death, however, they can no longer flee.

The Egyptian countryside is dotted with churches built upon or in proximity to the tombs of these saints. Most of these figures lived centuries ago, during the times of monastic establishment or widespread martyrdom. Certain saints have more modern origins, such as during the Islamic ages even through the colonial period. The sites have become places of pilgrimage to which Copts journey to remember their lives, seek their intercession, and receive their miracle-working power. In an earlier essay I wrote about our first encounter with such miracle stories, in which the bodies of many of these saints are preserved from decay. Westerners in general find it difficult to give credence to these stories, imagining them to be vestiges of a bygone era in which scientific inquiry was less developed. Even Western Christians, who are more inclined to believe in the possibility of the miraculous, find little similarity between this understood pre-modern faith and their own. Yet the saying is often repeated here: God never leaves himself without a witness.

The witness to faith through miracles is not understood as a foundational phenomenon only. The first Christians preached Jesus, “who was a man accredited by God to you by miracles” (Acts 2:22), and their own authority was established as “everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles” (Acts 2:43). Salvation, “first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him … testified by signs, wonders, and various miracles” (Heb. 2:3-4). Paul confirms that these miracles are, in fact, “the things that mark an apostle” (II Cor. 12:12). Copts celebrate their communion in “one holy, catholic, apostolic church”, and trace the succession of their leadership all the way back to Mark, through the ages in direct connection to this apostolic authority. Christianity was confirmed in the beginning through miracles, and its proof continues to be found in God’s concern exhibited through his saints, both living and dead. This witness elevates Christianity from a philosophy to a divine reality, incumbent for belief by all humanity. The level of witness may ebb and flow, but it never disappears.

Scanning the modern age in Egypt, however, may question this conviction. The tombs of the saints are testified to as places of miracle, drawing even Muslims to petition God through these Christian wonder-workers. Yet where are the living witnesses? At one time these saints were flesh and blood humans—devoted, no doubt, to the complete service of God, but no different than their common neighbor. That is not a fair claim, however, for they were different from most men in their voluntary poverty, and if the stories are to be believed, in their ability to petition God for direct and indubitable intervention in the lives of those around them.

This dependence upon the miraculous, coupled with a scarcity of living saints, has contributed to the growing popularity—and wealth—of locations surrounding the holy tombs. When one asks for intercession it is usually accompanied with a vow to be fulfilled sometime after the miracle has been received. This can be in the form of a service rendered, prayers offered, or money donated to the church housing the tomb. There is no scandal here; no one is getting rich off of these stories. Monies are applied to build and repair the church of the saint, with legitimate concern to accommodate the ever increasing number of pilgrims, as well as to assist the poor in the area. Yet the living saint would have cowered at the thought of receiving ‘compensation’ for his expression of grace, let alone the attention which would be afforded him. This is al-magd al-batil which kept most of these saints ever in search of obscurity. With their bodies in the ground, no matter how well preserved, the magd can finally accumulate.

During the season of Coptic Christmas we had opportunity to travel to Maghagha to stay with Fr. Yu’annis, a priest who introduced us to many of the Christian sites of the area. You can read about these accounts here. He also spoke with us about the best practices for church building as well as what Christians should do following the horrific events of Nag Hamadi, which you can read here and here. He also brought us to a modern day pilgrimage site, such as described above, located in the village of Manahara. The story which follows is an account of the life of Abd al-Masih al-Manahari, as depicted in a film, produced under the supervision of Bishop Mina of the diocese of Girga, who researched his life and recorded the stories attributed to this remarkable man.

Abd al-Masih al-Manahari was born in 1892 near the village of Mattai, in the governorate of Minia, located 150 miles south of Cairo. As the only son in a family with several daughters, he caused much consternation to his father for his preference to visit the local monastery over devotion to the family farm. Yet God blessed the production of the farm for his oversight, and whenever his father would limit his time in the monastery several cattle would die. As he grew older he wished himself to become a monk, but could not obtain his father’s permission. Though he loved his boy, he knew that monks neither married nor owned property, so the farm would pass to others, and who would care for him as he aged? In desperation the father brought him a young woman who offered herself to his son, but he refused, sending her away with great pain in her stomach until she publically repented in front of his father, at which point he prayed for her and she was cured. Angry with his father, but knowing also his fears, he asked if he could be released to the monastery if God granted his mother a son in his stead. When his father said yes, he declared it would be so, and shortly thereafter a second boy was born to the family.

Abd al-Masih, which translates into ‘Slave of the Messiah’, then traveled to the Monastery of Fr. Makarius, located in Wadi Natrun in the desert between Cairo and Alexandria. Here he studied from the established monks, serving them but also distinguishing himself as a man of spiritual insight. Here he learned the lesson of al-magd al-batil, which oddly enough drove him away from the monastery. Knowing the honor received by monks he sought to flee to become a hermit in the desert. Upon his return, however, he overheard people speaking about him as the great monk dedicated only to God. Paradoxically, he thought the only place to escape was the world, so he departed to live in the village of Manahara, dressing as a monk, but under the guise of tomfoolery.

Everywhere he went Abd al-Masih mentioned he wished to get married. For a monk this was akin to giving up his vows, so he presented the image of a man with worldly wishes. He always turned down any proposal received, but his reputation began to be established in the village. Furthermore, he would pay the children a small amount of money to dance around him and call him ‘the crazy monk’. Yet at the same time his concern for the people around him became known through small miracles he would work on their behalf. He would present an amount of money to a needy family, matching exactly their debt without any details being exchanged. He would restore a chicken to life when it died in advance of the holiday. He would even be witnessed praying through the night with holy lights surrounding him, once even being seen in communication with the Virgin Mary.

Some of his miracles were for his own benefit, as God enabled. On one occasion he knelt by the river bed and asked the fish to jump directly into his basket. Another time he demonstrated he was as the holy saints of the monastic establishment, able to traverse great distances in minimal time by transforming himself into a bird. To cap his life he gave two great prophesies, which established his recognition by God as a saint. In the first he was comforting a fellow monk who was overlooked for service, telling him he would be appointed a bishop when the otherwise unknown monk so-and-so became pope. No one believed him, but not long afterwards Pope Kyrillos VI was installed, and he appointed Bishop Mina, the very one mentioned above, to his post.

In the second Abd al-Masih received two visitors in approach of the Easter feast, each one vying to invite the monk to his home. Abd al-Masih refused them both, declaring he had a prior engagement, in that he was to be married on Easter, and in fact, one of the two was to join him that day. The colleague in question nodded solemnly, for by now it was well known that this was no crazy, deviant, marriage-bent monk, but a man fully dedicated to God. As predicted, Abd al-Masih’s desire was finally fulfilled, as on Easter, April 14, 1963, he was wedded to his beloved, joining the saints in communion as the bride of Christ. His friend died that same day.

While Abd al-Masih lived in Manahara he occupied only a small room in which he would sleep, eat, and pray. When we visited his now vast and grand pilgrimage site, this room is preserved in its original form, as a reminder of his poverty and humility. It is a stark contrast to the grandeur of the palatial church and complex now surrounding it, especially the bookstore which sells tacky trinkets with his face printed on mugs, ornaments, and pictures of remembrance.

According to local testimony, however, the place deserves its laud. Fr. Yu’annis told me the story of how this complex came to be. One day after Abd al-Masih’s death, the regionally unknown saint appeared in a vision to a local embroiderer named Mukhtar. He had been praying for a cure for his cancer, and in his moment of despair Abd al-Masih materialized before him, and handed over his shawl, telling him to lay it on his stomach and he would be healed.

In the film this shawl figured prominently in Abd al-Masih’s first miracle, which began cementing his reputation in the village. A young girl was suffering from a violent illness and was at the point of death. The family had brought doctors but each one left saying that the matter was now in God’s hands. The girl’s mother implored her husband to call upon the village monk, of whom it was said he was one of God’s saints, but he resisted knowing him only as the ‘crazy monk’. When her pressings finally caused him to yield Abd al-Masih came and knelt beside her, laying his shawl on her head, and prayed to God. Miraculously, the girl arose, and the two of them exited the room together to be met by the rejoicing parents.

With Mukhtar, however, Abd al-Masih gave not only a healing, but also a commission. Upon granting his shawl he spoke to Mukhtar, authorizing him to use it for the healing of all who needed help, accepting no money. At the end of his instructions he disappeared, but left the shawl behind. With this word Mukhtar began his thereafter daily practice of taking the shawl to Abd al-Masih’s grave, entrusting it to the religious authorities for application of healing according to their wisdom, returning at the end of the day to take it home with him again. It is said that upon his death, Mukhtar will bequeath the shawl to the bishop.

Over time Abd al-Masih became far more famous in death than he had ever been in life, and the miracles performed through his shawl outnumbered those performed during his days on earth. Fr. Yu’annis confirmed personally the miraculous healings. On one occasion he invited Mukhtar to come with him, with the shawl, to his village of Qufada. One woman there had been suffering from a steady hemorrhage, but upon being touched in faith by Abd al-Masih’s shawl she was healed, and remains in good health to this day. Furthermore, Fr. Yu’annis declared that the body of Abd al-Masih has been miraculously preserved by God from decay, and is displayed publically once a year on the anniversary of his death. In this manner God honors in perpetuity the glory of his saints.

Be it God’s intention or not, this process also contributes to the glory of their surroundings. Here is a picture of the residence in which Abd al-Masih spent his days:

Following the work of Mukhtar and Abd al-Masih’s shawl, in the late 1960s this church was built on the site:

By no means is this an ostentatious display, but it does depict a progression from the single room residence and decrepit church (no picture) in which Abd al-Masih worshipped. Consider, however, the most recent building project on the site of this mendicant holy man’s grave:

In addition, consider how this man, once ever on the run from al-magd al-batil, is now commemorated throughout the site. Here is his original photo compared with the iconic image by which Coptic Christians choose to remember him:

Other images from the pilgrimage site include:

Here are his relics, to which people come to seek his intercession. Behind the priest on the green board is the Arabic text of a song of praise to Abd al-Masih, which commemorates his virtues.

It is difficult to reconcile these images with the reality of his life. A man of simplicity, poverty, and humility becomes the focal point of a dazzling, luxurious, personal cultic center. Yet at the same time, the extraordinary nature of his life suggests the appropriateness of commemoration. Certain questions demand further study:

Did Abd al-Masih al-Manahari truly conduct the miracles attributed to him in the film? These are verified through the research of Bishop Mina, but how thorough were his methods? Such an account can be built only upon personal testimony; were the subjects of his inquiry predisposed to interpret events as miraculous? Could they have invented certain tales fitting within the known pattern of saintly powers? Is there any hint of duplicity, if not for personal benefit then for that of the church and the faith? Or was Abd al-Masih truly one of God’s witnesses?

Is the story of the apparition to Mukhtar to be believed? How did the shawl come into his possession? It existed previously somewhere after the death of Abd al-Masih; wherever that place was, presumably it is no longer there. What of the continuing miracles? In at least one case, there is a credible personal testimony, received by a friendly priest in whom no duplicity was noticed. Is there a power of belief that itself produces miraculous results? Once the history/legend is sufficiently produced, can the best examples of these accepted tales fuel a continuing mania? Is his body truly preserved? April 14, apparently, produces yearly verification.

Supposing these accounts to be true, what does it mean? If Abd al-Masih was a saint, commended by God in both life and death, is this for his memory, or for a greater purpose of establishing the veracity of Orthodox Christianity? To what does Abd al-Masih witness? Orthodox Christianity generally holds itself to be the true expression of God’s religion, as spoken before, attributed by miracles. Yet how should the miracles of other expressions of faith be considered? Is there a difference in degree between the Christian Protestant faith healers and the Islamic Sufi awliya’ salihiin (literally, good guardians, functioning in a role similar to that of Christian saints)? Are all non-Orthodox, or at least all non-Christian, miracles demonic? Does God need this witness at all, from anyone?

Finally, what interpretive light does this phenomena shed on the miraculous in historical religion? Firstly, is Abd al-Masih a verification of the stories of the centuries old saints, such as Anthony, George, Bishoy, and Abanoub? Or might he serve as a modern example of how their reputations were created and preserved? Secondly, does the comparison carry backwards even to the founding of the faith in the miraculous stories of Jesus and the Apostles? Historical and apologetic studies have dealt with the second question in depth; presumably anthropological and sociological studies have dealt with the first. What are the results?

Without having studied the modern disciplines of the first question, and with some previous reading in the theological and critical disciplines of the second, I see four possible answers. The first is that of complete verification; Abd al-Masih, like the apostolic witnesses before him, was used by God to demonstrate the ‘rightness’ of Christianity. The second is its opposite; though many involved may have been honestly duped, Abd al-Masih, or at least the religious leaders who co-opted his story, was a charlatan and a deceiver. The third returns to a religious response, but one less exclusivist. God has mercy on humanity through many paths; Abd al-Masih was his agent to serve the Orthodox Christians of Manahara and Upper Egypt, though other figures are equally his ‘witnesses’. The fourth seeks to preserve the sincerity of the stories with respect to scientific realities. Psychological and psychophysical studies are necessary to determine how such events can be unanimously testified but yet scientifically impossible; Abd al-Masih tapped into a power that is part of humanity but as of yet is alien to measurement.

For now evaluation of these results is not possible, as further study would be required. What is most interesting is the picture of Abd al-Masih as an example of Coptic spirituality. Celibate, mendicant, and sensitive to the divine, he represents the ideal Christian picture which most are not able to replicate. In return for his sacrifices he enjoyed special favor, which was used primarily to bless others, but from which he enjoyed extraordinary communion with God. Upon his death this favor continued, at which time his legend rapidly spreads. The Christians who are not able to follow his example signal their approval by visiting his grave, seeking his intercession, and donating to his remembrance. In a world lacking an abundance of saints (is it not always?), men like Abd al-Masih can receive the adulation of many. That this adulation results in a complete upheaval of the values they practiced while alive is simply one of the paradoxes of Coptic Christianity.

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