The two items in the title today bear no relation to one another except for the day. In the end, it was a true Egyptian experience.
This past weekend the class I am with at the Coptic Bible Institute – its actual name is the Institute for Orthodox Doctrine and Spiritual Guidance – had its winter retreat at a former monastery turned conference center in Beni Suef, the first major city to the south of Cairo, about a two hour drive away. Julie and the girls were able to come, as did the families of other students in the class, which made for a nice atmosphere for all. We were put together in a single room in a typical dorm style residence facility, and while I participated in the activities Julie was free to roam around the grounds with the kids, not quite a babysitter, but not exactly comfortable with the hands-off attitude which prevailed. The retreat lasted three days and two nights, and was a nice break from the routine of the city.
The program of the conference focused on communication skills, body language, and the five love languages, which may be known to some readers of this blog as a popular study in many churches. It surprised me somewhat to see it in an Egyptian Orthodox retreat program, but much of American Christianity has come to Egypt through its Protestant churches, and then works its way as well into the greater Orthodox majority. Each day had two lectures and a study group, which I was able to ‘feel’ as normal retreat procedure, but the rest of the activity reminded me I was among those of a different tradition.
We did not necessarily wake early, but the day started with prayer, which was not the common ‘everyone give a request and talk to God’ procedure during Protestant sessions. Instead, we worked through the Orthodox prayer book. Traditionally, and still present in monastic practice, Christians would pray seven times daily. These prayers are scripted, though there seemed to be some variety in the selections. I was more confused than would ordinarily be expected, for instead of breaking for prayer seven times, we combined two prayer sessions into one, ending the day with the single, seventh prayer, and according to a pattern everyone knew except me, intermingled the selections from the two readings.
Within each session there consisted the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, a ‘Lord have mercy – Kyrie Elasion’ reading, a Psalm, a reading from a Gospel, and general other intercessions. It was all very scriptural, but it was very fast. In part this was because my Arabic reading is still slow, and I was trying to keep up with unfamiliar material, but it also seemed like readers rushed through the selection given them to read. Some seemed like they had memorized the portions, others were less confident, but some read in a sing-song that was very beautiful. We stood standing the whole time, about twenty to thirty minutes, and faced East. I would say that East is the direction of Jesus’ second coming, but that doesn’t sound exactly right, as early Christianity expanded in all directions around Jerusalem, and his return, though to be seen by the whole world, will be, according to his own word, on the Mount of Olives. Nevertheless, within the Orthodox liturgy is a directive to ‘Look to the East’; I will need to ask a bit more to find out why.
The other activity was also unfamiliar; following the prayer we learned a Coptic hymn. Though most of Coptic Orthodox liturgy is now conducted in Arabic, and has been for centuries, there is a conscious effort on the part of Orthodox Christians to maintain the use of their original tongue. It is only a liturgical language, but its study is mandatory for all priests and monks, though no one speaks it at home and only the learned would be able to follow along except for the known and familiar passages. At the Orthodox church we attend they put the words of the liturgy on a screen; on one side is the Arabic text, on the other is the Coptic language, written in Arabic script.
This hymn was being taught in preparation for the coming Easter fasting session, for it is used only near the end of Lent, if I understood correctly. It contained also an interesting theological twist. The opening lines praise Jesus for his fast, which he undertook for us. I had not heard this notion before. The question of why Jesus chose to fast forty days is a question not really answered definitively in the Bible, but the general answer that I have heard was that it was in preparation for his public ministry, which began immediately after he emerged from the desert. For Protestants who rarely fast, this is seen as a commendable but exceptional event, but one that is designed to draw one especially close to God, and as such, it is understood that Jesus did this for himself.
I am not yet sure of all the formulations, but Orthodox do fast regularly, almost half the year in varying levels of severity, and it has an element of repentance from sin. I may be wrong in this, but if I am not, they do have Biblical warrant. Yet since Jesus had no sin of which to repent, nor need to draw closer to God, the Orthodox may be more pressed in this understanding to figure out why Jesus fasted in the first place. The answer I received, as the hymn celebrates, is that he fasted for us. He undertook his fast to teach us to fast, and in some way, to perfect and complete the fasting required of his followers. Christians are said in the Bible to be ‘in Christ’; as such their lives are mixed with his, and his deeds also become theirs. I was nervous that this made Jesus’ life somewhat of a theater, in which he was playing a role rather than living his life in a real way. The Orthodox believe, of course, that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, and that during his fast he suffered greatly, as any human would. The motivation, however, seems peculiar. Again, I will have to ask more questions.
Less people were familiar with the hymn than with the prayers, and people seemed less eager to participate in the learning thereof. I thought it was fun in the beginning, but I tired of it as the retreat went on, realizing I was never going to memorize it, and even if I could, would I even recognize it during the few weeks it entered into the liturgy? Perhaps other people felt the same way.
As a note, I have by now memorized some of the more celebrated parts of the liturgy that are repeated every week. It is fun to be able to participate fully during these parts of the service, whereas so much else is still unfamiliar. I keep in the back of my mind, however, the traditional Protestant critique of liturgy. It may well be fine and Biblical, but does the eternal repetition lead to routine monotony? I would like to be inclined to believe it does not have to, but this is an answer I can only discover in time through experience. By the visible participation of many during the mass I can see they are engaged; by the visible participation of many others, there is little indication.
During the retreat, however, mass was the one thing we failed to participate in fully. Justifying ourselves that this was a retreat and thus a good time to catch up on some needed rest, we slept in, resisting the knock at our door which was given to all at around quarter to seven. We did arrive a good half an hour before it ended at 11:00, so who knows what type of credit we received if we were found in attendance following communion. I suppose for full disclosure we should also admit to not participating in the seventh late night prayer, performed at around 10:30pm. We may be striving for a sense of belonging, but we are not yet Egyptians, we need our sleep.
Following Sunday mass and a final group session we were due for lunch and then departure at 3:00pm. This is a key detail, for Sunday was also to be the final of the African Nations Cup. Egypt had defeated hated rival Algeria (see this post, from Julie, and this one, from Jayson) in the semifinal, 4-0, and the country was awash in excitement in advance of the final match against Ghana. In addition, having won the past two African Nation Cups, but missing out on qualification for the upcoming World Cup, this was a chance at national redemption. Our bus was scheduled to leave with plenty of time allotted to return to Cairo before the match began.
Of course, nothing in Egypt goes according to schedule. Lunch was prepared by a classmate’s family who lived in the area. Though delicious, it was an hour late. Then when we had finished, the bus to return had still not arrived. When it came, it was smaller than the one which brought us, causing extra delays in trying to fit everyone and their luggage (we did, somehow). Meanwhile, three of our group had gone into the city for some reason, and needed to be picked up along the way out, except that they were not where they were supposed to be, and we had to search for them. At long last we got on the road, and it was clear we would not make it home in time for the start of the match.
In vain we tried to find the match broadcast on the radio. The best we could do was find a station which gave updates every few minutes, but the frequency was not clear. Fortunately, we were in the first row, so we could hear the time pass with confirmation of the same result, no score. We had no indication of the time elapsed, however, but it seemed likely we could make it home before it ended, and certainly for the overtime which seemed likely.
Then, the bus had an accident. It was no real accident, but there was no reason for it, as best I could tell. We were so close to home and the driver pulled into what seemed like a strip mall. I think he was looking for a shortcut to get over to the main road to take us back to the church, realized he made a mistake, but then backed up into another car. Five or six of the men of our group got out with the driver to investigate, and another lengthy delay ensued. I let things be and stayed in my seat, otherwise I could fill in the details, but I have seen the confrontations that sometimes occur over fender benders, and thought the presence of a foreigner might not help things. In any case, about fifteen minutes later we were on our way again, as there seemed to be no complications from the accident.
During the final approach back to church we saw evidence of the result. People were slowly but increasingly swarming into the streets to celebrate. Those in cars began honking their horns incessantly, including what seemed to be a wedding party in convoy. Children were dancing while waving flags over their heads. Others were shooting off fireworks. Every club or café we passed was emptying. The nation was in euphoria.
We learned in the taxi ride on the way home that Egypt had scored in the final five minutes, and then held off the Ghanaian attack to win 1-0. The next several hours were filled with horn honking throughout the city. Egypt, seven times champion, three in a row. I am glad we attended the Coptic conference, wished we would have been able to watch the match, but at least witnessed the emergence of celebration. We witnessed true Egypt, from the first experience to the last.