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Muslims Care for the Heart of a Monk

A spiritual man, Fr. Mercurious knows the only guarantee is from the hand of God. At the same time, his surgery to prevent a heart attack was in the hands of Muslims.

A few weeks ago the forty year old monk in the Monastery of St. Makarious in Wadi Natrun had open heart surgery. Suffering from high cholesterol, his doctor advised this course of action at the earliest date possible.

With genetic propensity from his father, and narrow arteries from his mother, the simple diet of a monk was not enough to guarantee health.

Fr. Mercurious did not intend it to be so originally, though this had nothing to do with religious preference. Like many Egyptians, he inquired first if he could travel to the US or UK for surgery. When embassy procedures did not go anywhere, his doctor recommended a specialist hospital in 6 October City, a new development outside of Cairo.

The surgery went well. Muslim Egyptian doctors grafted veins from his arms and legs to bypass his arteries, which were blocked at 95%. They even gave him special deference due to his clerical disposition.

It is not a remarkable thing, really. Well trained doctors demonstrate their skills on a human being. Unfortunately, it is often not the sort of story heard about Egypt.

Fr. Mercurious related his operation in the context of the changing religious climate of Egypt. While admitting his isolation from the world, he keeps up with events through visitors to the monastery and their tales of political and social developments.

Before entering the monastery after university studies, Fr. Mercurious stated he had only the best of relations with all Muslims he knew. Yet in the past several years he had the impression that the number of ‘extremists’ was increasing.

Is this a function of real change in the character of Muslims, or of real change in the perceptions of his Christian visitors? Surely the two must be somewhat related.

Dr. Mohamed el-Menissy is a Muslim doctor who volunteered at the field hospital in Kasr el-Dobara Evangelical Church near Tahrir Square during clashes in November. In asking him about his experience – not his faith – he insisted over and over again that Muslims and Christians love each other in Egypt. He was near desperate to get this message across to the West. He even gave me the phone number of his Christian doctor colleague so as to confirm their friendship.

Of course Dr. Menissy is telling the truth of his experience, but does such single-mindedness betray a deeper reality frantically denied? Is he hoping the world to be right, if only by insisting it is?

Perhaps it is as simple as rightful offense at media – both Western and Arab – which focuses on problems to such degree it obscures reality, perhaps even to the extent of transforming it. Speaking to media, perhaps Dr. Menissy wanted to transform it back.

What purpose does this story serve, then? In highlighting a non-news event of a Muslim doctor operating successfully on a Coptic monk, do I help stem the tide of negative reporting? Or do I play into the narrative of distinction between Muslim and Christian?

Fortunately, I carry no such burden. I tell the story of the monk because he is my friend and it is interesting. I tell the story of Dr. Menissy because it fits in this context and honors his desire. Both show a slice of life that is worthy to be known more widely.

As for what these stories say about Muslim-Christian relationships in Egypt: They say the truth. It is not the whole truth, but it is an essential truth.

The next time a church burns, it is important to acknowledge this as the truth also. One story balances another.

Such complexity marks our own lives – we chafe at being reduced, simplified, or misunderstood. Let us grant the same grace to Egypt.

After all, as these stories show, she shows much grace to her own.

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The Shrine to Pope Shenouda

Yesterday, in a third attempt, I was able to see the final resting place of Pope Shenouda.

All efforts were arranged by my friend Rashad, who I met through studies at a Coptic Orthodox theological institute, and who regularly organizes group trips to the various monasteries of Egypt. One such ordinary trip was to the Fayyoum region, where I had a daddy-daughter date with my firstborn.

The first attempt was canceled before it started. Rashad realized half the Coptic world was on its way to St. Bishoy Monastery in Wadi Natrun where Pope Shenouda was interred. Though he called around to solicit fellow pilgrims, he called it off later that same day.

The second attempt was a week later, and my second-born and I made our way to Wadi Natrun before realizing the other half of the Coptic world preceded us. Rashad wavered in continuing on hearing reports of the great traffic; when he heard of several deaths as Copts crushed against each other, he redirected us to the nearby Makarious Monastery instead. I had hoped to write comparing the shrine of Shenouda to that of his predecessor Pope Kyrillos, which I visited just before Shenouda’s death. Instead, I simply reflected on the effort to do so, focusing also on the shrine of the martyrs from the 2010 bombing in an Alexandrian church.

The third attempt succeeded. The trip was relatively uneventful, save for a flat tire on the way. Once again the monastery was packed – the visiting communion attendees filled half of the massive cathedral built on its grounds.

Afterwards we delayed and had breakfast in the monastery cafeteria, allowing everyone else to jostle their way into the shrine. An hour later, we were able to walk through briskly.

Briskly it was. There were attendants inside asking people to keep to their orderly lines and move quickly through the building. People threw prayers written on scraps of paper onto Pope Shenouda’s above-ground tomb, seeking his intercession. As they circled they touched their hands to the marble, seeking his blessing.

If either were to be had, they were had quickly. Within two minutes we were outside again. By now the crowds were low, and I returned for a second circumambulation in order to take the following video.

Click here for the four minute tour, with accompanying commentary.

It was both surprising and impressive to see the guardrails and organization at the pope’s tomb. Thinking back to the news of the deaths by crushing, my curiosity wondered if they were present that day. Unfortunately, I failed to discover an answer. Either way seems possible – the area was very tightly constructed.

St. Bishoy Monastery was Pope Shenouda’s choice for his remains. In 1981 he was banished here by President Sadat. After President Mubarak restored him to the papal throne in 1985, he established a practice of returning regularly for prayer and contemplation.

To close, here are a few pictures of the monastery, including other shrines housed therein.

Inside the ancient church of the monastery, which was founded in the 4th Century. These icons likely date back a few centuries.
The shrine of St. Bishoy, which the sign claims contains his uncorrupted remains.
The remains of Pope Benjamin the 8th, 82nd patriarch of the church.
With Rashad, whose living remains are a frequent source of blessing.


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Reflecting on the Papal Shrines

My daughter, not a pope

Five people were killed yesterday at St. Bishoy Monastery, crushed to death visiting the shrine of Pope Shenouda. I was nearly there, along with my three year old daughter.

It was meant to be part two of my visits to the shrines of the most recent popes. The second leg was not planned with the first; a day before Pope Shenouda’s death I was with Coptic Orthodox friends on a trip to St. Mina Monastery near Alexandria, to visit the shrine of Pope Kyrillos (Cyril VI).

These same friends then organized a trip the first weekend after Pope Shenouda’s burial, but postponed it out of fear of the expected massive crowds. Instead we set off on the second weekend, but ran into similar trouble.

Feeling semi-guilty for disappearing for the second time over three weekends, I volunteered to take my daughter with me. I had done so earlier with the oldest child, and we had an enjoyable outing. Of course, the country wasn’t exploding at the time.

To avoid the early morning rush my organizing friend decided to first stop at the nearby Baramous Monastery for breakfast. This monastery celebrates two Roman Christian brothers born into a wealthy family who left all and went to live in the desert. As per her custom, my daughter enjoyed playing in the dirt after mass, and then we enjoyed our shared meal of fried bean sandwiches, French fry sandwiches, and lentil dip.

Making a monastery of her own
With friends from our group

It was then we sat and waited, and waited. Monastery trips with Copts are usually festive times of visiting ancient sites, buying lots of religious trinkets, and taking blessing from the monks while seeking their intercession. On this occasion, understandably more somber due to the pope’s death, there was simply a discontented confusion.

Our organizer was incessantly on the phone with someone from St. Bishoy Monastery where we were headed. As the minutes ticked by he received more and more encouragement to stay away. At first it was simply too crowded. Eventually we learned they had closed off the area. Finally he was informed that several pilgrims had been killed.

Even so, it was difficult to convince our group not to continue on. The whole point of this trip was to visit the pope’s final resting place, and for many this meant securing a great blessing. The organizer sought to convince them God would reward them according to their intention, and that even Pope Shenouda himself would be displeased if we continued. Should we contribute to the chaos and disruption of his sanctuary, simply for our personal blessing?

Eventually we left to seek blessing from another nearby monastery, St. Makarios. This 4th Century saint lived celibate with his wife (who was forced upon him by his family) until her death, when he was finally free to devote himself to God. He was the first monk to settle in the Wadi Natrun desert, where four historical monasteries now continue.

The line of buses, after half an hour of waiting to get in

It turns out, however, nearly every other would-be St. Bishoy Monastery visitor had the same idea. We sat in our bus for an hour simply waiting to be processed at the gate. After eventually getting inside, we joined the dispirited crowds milling about the premises for about half an hour, until the monks reclaimed their silence and had everyone leave. From here we had our final meal together, and began the trek back home.

Though disappointed to not see the pope’s burial grounds – the whole reason for the trip – I was pleased to go to St. Makarious where I had resided three days in a monk’s cell and had a few friends. But even this hope failed, as one elderly monk told me there was no way he was leaving his quarters to wade through the masses who would surround him looking for blessing. Then I learned a younger monk I knew also could not greet me, as he was recovering from open heart surgery.

The day was not supposed to be like this, and I am glad I had my daughter with me to pass the time and enjoy her company. She was blissfully unaware of everything but the dirt, happily making her own mini-monasteries wherever she could.

It was supposed to me more like part one of the papal shrine tour, only amplified in both numbers and grief. Two weeks earlier I was among a similar crowd of pilgrims, brought to St. Mina’s Monastery the weekend after the celebration of Pope Kyrillos’ death. St. Mina was a Roman Christian soldier who left the army to practice monasticism, and was later martyred. Pope Kyrillos adopted him as his patron saint.

The grounds were packed, the crowds were in revelry.

Here are some photos of his shrine:

And here is the scene around his tomb:

A Coptic priest seeking the pope's intercession
Ordinary Copts, taking blessing from his tomb

Finally, here is a crowd gathered around his ‘hymn of praise’, chanting his virtues and extolling his life. Click here to watch a video of this scene.

It is difficult to know what to make of such devotion. To provide snide evidence of the backwardness of Coptic spirituality, consider this picture:

At the Baramous Monastery this garden scene has water flowing continually from the ceramic pitcher. Without exploring further, I assumed it was a simple hydraulic function common in many suburban fountains. The assumption of several passers-by, overhearing their conversation, was that this was a miracle of the monastery.

Yet to provide sympathetic evidence of the suffering depths of Coptic spirituality, consider these pictures:

Translation: The martyr Mina Wagdy Fakhry
Our group leader, in contemplation
Translation: The martyr Peter Sami
Translation: Verse from Ps. 65:4; the martyr Sabri Fawzi Wissa
Translation: The righteous shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father (Mt. 13:43)

St. Mina’s Monastery hosts also the remains of Christians killed on New Year’s Eve 2010, when a bomb exploded outside the Two Saints Church in Alexandria. I have written earlier about the shrine dedicated to these martyrs inside the church, but I had never seen such a memorial previously.

In the United States one can often see a small cross erected on the side of the road where a loved one was killed in a traffic accident. There are memorials for those killed in war, during 9-11, or in other national tragedies. Yet America, best I know, has no religious martyrs.

Egypt, on the other hand, is full of them. The Coptic calendar dates from 284 AD, when Diocletian became Roman emperor and ushered in the bloodiest period of Christian persecution.

Popes Kryillos and Shenouda died natural deaths, but they provided historical leadership for the church of martyrs. Celebrated saints have interceded through miracles for countless Copts through the centuries. Pope Kyrillos has done the same, and now Pope Shenouda is poised as well.

Perhaps the cynic points out: Could he not then have prevented the deaths of three Copts in Cairo, and five at the monastery – all who were there out of love for him?

As I mentioned, it is difficult to know what to make of such devotion.

For those who share in Christian faith, these are your brothers and sisters. As much as they stand to benefit from Western experience in hydraulics, we stand to benefit from Coptic experience in spiritual immanence.

As Pope Shenouda has placed on the lips of every Egyptian Christian: God is present.

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Pictures, Video, and Observations from Pope Shenouda’s Funeral

The atmosphere at Pope Shenouda’s funeral today was not what I expected. At first it was dull, and then sympathetically chaotic.

Entrance to the church itself could only be secured with a personal invitation, so I made my way early to the courtyard of the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral to witness the swelling throngs. Over the past few days since his death thousands upon thousands of Copts gathered to collectively mourn both outside and inside the church, where Shenouda’s body was sitting-in-rest, perched upon his papal throne.

The only issue: The crowds did not come.

The inside of the church was packed with dignitaries, as was visible from the giant movie screen set up both in the courtyard and in the garden below. I maneuvered to a platform by the side of the stairs, to try to capture a picture of when the whole area would lurch with mourners.

As the sun beat down and I tired from standing as the funeral service proceeded, it became apparent the crowds were not coming. The upper level of the courtyard at the entrance to the church was packed, but with hundreds, not thousands. This entryway was shut to seal off the proceedings, while dignitaries entered from a smaller door to the side.

I walked around wondering. The entrance I came through amid tight security had now been shut, as had the other gates to the cathedral. Temporary cloth walls cordoned off other areas.

Apparently, authorities wanted to keep the official funeral as peaceful and ordered as possible. The day before three Copts died and dozens were injured as a semi-stampede erupted among those trying to pay their last respects.

At this point I wondered what would happen if all the doors remained closed. Despite the fewer numbers there were still over a thousand people outside the church, not including the several thousand inside. Might there be another stampede when the service ended?

Yes, but in the other direction.

Near the close of service the funeral leader read off the list of names present. These included top military brass, major presidential candidates, senior figures from the Muslim Brotherhood and other parties, and ambassadors from around the world. Nearly all major religious denominations were also present. It was an impressive list.

But not to the crowd waiting outside. They listlessly attended to the names, and awaited the final farewell video of Pope Shenouda.

When it came, they raised their hands and tearfully waved him goodbye.

Video: Copts Wave Goodbye to Pope Shenouda

Then when they were bid farewell in peace, the crowd rushed across the entranceway courtyard to the balcony for one last glimpse of his physical body. He was taken from his throne and escorted outside to the street, where he would be flown for burial at St. Bishoy Monastery in Wadi Natroun.

Video: Copts Rush to Balcony to Witness Shenouda’s Final Departure

When this scene ended, as most were unable to see, a small contingent started to physically break down the cathedral door to enter inside. Only the rapid reaction of the church’s scouts prevented this from happening.

I did not quite notice how it happened next, only that a few minutes later another door was forced open. It may have been aided by those inside seeking a more rapid exit, but before long the crowd was jamming itself through the narrow entrance, past the cries of those inside forbidding the action.

Video: Copts Enter Orthodox Cathedral for One Last Look at Pope Shenouda

Once inside, all propriety was lost as many started climbing over the pews to get to the front.

Video: Copts Scale Church Pews to Approach the Papal Throne

The object was Pope Shenouda’s throne. Before too long scores of Copts had surrounded it, trying to get close enough to touch. These were seeking blessing, as the pope had only minutes early been occupying the seat. Most would never get that close to either a pope or his chair again.

Video: Copts Seek Blessing at Papal Throne

Many Copts believe in the physicality of blessing, and they have scriptural warrant to do so. It says in Acts 19:11-12,

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.

The Coptic Orthodox Church believes itself to be an extension of the original apostolic authority. As Peter became pope in Rome, so did Mark the gospel writer in Alexandria. Their power given to work miracles continues today.

I cannot say whether the following is official doctrine or not, but one mourner told me that no injections had been given the corpse of Pope Shenouda. He died three days ago but his body has not yet begun the process of decay. He has sat-in-state since then, for public display and affection, as a mark of God’s approval.

I found the example of the priest in the video to be inspiring. His spiritual leader had just died, all order was breaking down inside the cathedral, and he sat patiently in the papal chair serving the crowd. Instead of rebuking them, he assisted the gathering of tissues from those who were too far away, touched the chair, and gave them back. May God bless him.

Today was a sad day, and I wish I was not so occupied with gathering pictures so as to more fully join in. The Bible commends us to mourn with those who mourn. At times I did, especially when witnessing others shed tears. But for the most part I was too distracted with the surroundings.

May God bless the Copts, give them space to mourn and sympathy from their neighbors, and an eventual next good pope to come.


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St. John the Short

The Relics of St. John the Short

The Coptic Orthodox Church is filled with the stories of saints, so much that the production of their movies has become a cottage industry. They are not always the best acted or of the highest Hollywood production value, but they open a window into the worldview of Egyptian Christians.

I first heard of St. John the Short when I visited the Monastery of St. Makarious, located in the Wadi Natrun Desert between Cairo and Alexandria. It is there I saw his relics; the monastery also houses those of John the Baptist, Elisha, and the Three Makarii, after one of whom the monastery is named.

The Relics of John the Baptist and Elisha the Prophet
The Sign above the Previous Photo
Relics of the Three Makarii

St. John the Short’s relics came to settle here as it was his abode for most of his monastic life, indeed, his life entire. John left Bahnasa near Minya in Upper Egypt at the age of 18. He was raised by Christian, God-fearing parents, though his mother was distraught he fully followed his spiritual commitment into monasticism. His father was more accepting, as was his older brother who bore family responsibilities preventing his own monastic choice until after his parents passed away.

John’s path to monasticism led him to a company of hermits who abused him incessantly in tests to decipher his commitment. In general a monk is by nature an individualistic solitary; the film presents them with few social skills. Yet for the most part it was a ruse, and John proved faithful. Eventually an angel appeared to the abbot and commanded him to accept John into their band.

Even so, the testing continued, leading to the event for which John is best known. The abbot instructed John to find deadwood in the desert, plant it, and then water it every day from a river twelve miles away. Faithfully, John did so, as obedience is a mark of Christian character. The abbot was astonished, for John kept at his work, never complaining a word.

This was only the beginning of the astonishment. After a long duration (stated in Coptic records as three years), the deadwood sprouted leaves, produced fruit, and became a full-grown plant. In popular Coptic lore it is known as the Tree of Obedience.

The Tree of Obedience, in Wadi Natrun

Years later John would give example to the fact that however monks desired independence and were often caustic with each other, beneath it all was a foundation of love. The abbot who abused John for so many years grew to love him like a son, and John cared for him in his debilitating illness over twelve years.

John’s miracles were many. The film displays him driving out a demon from a woman who aimed to kill him. He gave sight to the child of a woman to whom he was led from charity to give bread. He healed the stuttering of a man for whom he also cured his withered hand.

Yet despite his miracles he cared most for the cure of souls. A wealthy woman in the nearby village discovered the joy of the Lord when she gave away her possessions to the poor. Yet upon their exhaustion, none cared for her in return, and she slipped gradually into a life of ill repute. John went to her and rebuked her, but with the love of one who cried over a broken masterpiece.

The woman repented and followed John through the desert to take residence in a nunnery. John pushed her, urging her on as penance for her descent into sin. When she could go no further John allowed the opportunity for both to sleep, yet awoke in the morning to find her dead. He wept at his error, cursing himself that he allowed her to die before her sins could be expunged. Yet an angel appeared to him to lift his sorrow. God had forgiven her sins at the moment of repentance, and had now accepted her into paradise.

Eventually John moved from Wadi Natrun to the present day area of Suez. The film does not give the reason, but Coptic records state it was in response to Bedouin raids on area monasteries. Yet in Suez he faced another danger; the Roman prelate Clopas demanded to see who was giving comfort to the tortured village Christians.

He did not have opportunity to torture John himself. God struck Clopas with a painful disease, semi-comically labeled in the film as ‘chicken pox’. It drove him blind and gave him unbearable shivers. A palace servant instructed Clopas to beg healing from John, as he had healed others. When all other options failed, he humbled himself to do so.

In what struck me as odd, John refused. He sent message to Clopas he would not come unless he renounced his gods and worshipped Jesus, the Son of God. Encouraged to come, John heard his confession, and restored Clopas to full health.

John came to Suez in 395 AD, and died in his nearby isolated cave in 409 AD. An angel visited him the day of his death to declare his acceptance before God, that he had finished the course. Coptic records state he led the majority of Suez’s inhabitants to Christianity.

In an earlier post I wrote about Coptic miracle stories and the pervasive acceptance of these throughout the community. I also wrote once about the value of monasticism, though I don’t wish to rehash either of these reflections here.

Perhaps the only remark is the didactic simplicity of these films, seeking to bring the life of the saints into greater focus for the modern world. The cheesiness factor relates mostly to them being dated, but didactic films are often not that entertaining anyway.

Pope Shenouda opens each of these films with footage from one of his weekly meetings forbidding the improper copying and distribution of these films. He states that those who made them have a right to their intellectual property. In Hollywood, the FBI issues such a warning, threatening imprisonment or fine. In Egypt, it is the head of the church, threatening nothing in particular, but you know where this can go…

I mostly jest. I do enjoy the films, though their re-watch-ability is nil. But as I opened, they are a wonderful window into popular Coptic spirituality. The question is if I profit spiritually myself, or only as a sociological student. The former is far better, and St. John the Short offers lessons, to be sure.

Yet I am far too Western to give too much credence to the details of the story. Perhaps here there is a spiritual lesson to come, when I receive my comeuppance.

There is another question: Tonight, should we watch the more modern tales of Sister Irini, or Pope Kyrillos? Any suggestions?

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