The Truth Shall Set You Free…It might piss you off first, but it will set you free.

Coptic Christians in Egypt – Monasteries

Posted by politicalmonkey2010 on August 2, 2010

Stained Glass Window at Monastery of al-Baramus

I would be remiss if I did not include the Christians in Egypt, the vase majority of which are Coptic Christians.  Egypt has the oldest monasteries in the world, many of which are still fully functioning.  The first monastery which is believed to have been established in the fourth century is on  the Red Sea coast of Egypt.   There is a cave 270 meters beneath the monastery  containing a tomb of  St. Anthony.  The monastery was established by his followers.  Of course there is the Monastery of St. Catherine’s at the foot of Mt. Sinai (more about that in a later post) – where you can climb to the top of the mountain for sunrise services, it is there that it is believed Moses received the Ten Commandments.  Also housed in this monastery is an archive second only to the Vatican.  While these are more famous to the masses, the more significant monastery religiously is St. Macarius.

Located about two hours outside of Cairo,  in an area called Wadi El Natrun – it is believed that the Holy Family during their flight into Egypt.  The area is known for natron – a salt which was mined here for use in Egyptian burial rites.  It is believed a hermit monk – St. Magar (Maker),  lived  in a cave for over forty years, received a divine revelation in the form of a dream to build a church. Upon his death in 390 A.D, he was buried in his cave and his monks remain to establish the monastery.  Actually there are four monasteries located relatively close together in this area…the one I will tell you about is The Monastery of al-Baramus, or “that of the Romans” … legend has it two Roman Saints – Maximus and Domitius arrived during the days of St. Marcarius after having visited the Christian shrines of Nicea and Palestine. St. Marcarius really did not want the two visitors to stay but the “two little strangers” manged to wiggle their way into staying and  established themselves in a cell. The older of the brothers is said to have attained perfection before his death,  three days later, the other brother died.  A year after their death, Saint Macarius consecrated the cell by building a chapel and said, “Call this place the Cell of the Romans”.

Each of the four monasteries suffered a variety of attacks – by the Berbers ( no Berbers were not Muslims), they were simply indigenous people of North Africa west of the Nile Valley. Attacks occurred in407, 410, 444, 507, 817 and the last in the eleventh century. Interestingly enough most severe threat to the monastery came in the form of the Black Death in the fourteenth century, which was followed by a famine. Each time the communities were attacked, the monastic buildings were damaged, the churches plundered and the monks either slain or carried off as captives.

Being an aaficionado of Saints and mystics, one in particular caught my eye, I had never heard of him. The Black Moses, or St. Moses the Black. His roots were Ethiopian, and he was quite the scoundrel and thief..
He came to the monastic life because he hid out with the monks after one of his raids. (We all come to God in strange ways) His conversion was a challenging process. The story goes one evening he was in his cell and some intruders looking to loot the monastery attacked him. He fended them off, tied them up and then brought them to the other brothers..saying he didn’t think it was a Christian thing to do to hurt them, and asked for guidance. Eventually the robbers converted. Another story of this fascinating man revolves around fasting – the abbot of had declared a week of fasting, some neighboring monks were visiting and Moses had prepared food for them. Some of the brothers upset that he had broken the fast confronted him..when they discovered the situation, they said to him: “You did not keep a human commandment, but it was so that you might keep the divine commandment of hospitality.”

Forgiveness was core to him, as he himself had such a checkered past. A brother had sinned, and Moses was to be part of the tribunal to determine appropriate penance. He refused to go, again he was asked, and finally he showed up carrying a basket full of sand (some say a leaking jug full of water) and said…”My sins run out behind me and I do not see them, but today I am coming to judge the errors of another.” The tribunal was dismissed. I now keep a small straw basket full of sand on my desk to remind me.

Interestingly and ironically enough he died at the age of 75. Word had come that a group of Berbers were planning to attack, some wanted to fight, but Moses forbade it. A total of 8 brothers, including Moses remained behind while the others went into hiding. Trying to welcome the Berbers with open arms costs them all their lives.
His remains are entombed at the monastery along with a variety of relics

St. Moses the Black

Coptic Services

I arrived with the intention of hearing mass, and the chanting, being a fan of Gregorian chanting, I was not sure what to expect. It was an eye-opener. First, their voices are beautiful. While one could easily get lost in the chanting alone, what really caught my attention was the protocol. Being a product of Vatican II and vaguely remembering more traditional masses, and recalling my father’s disgust when the guitar was introduced at the 9:30 youth mass, I had to chuckle. Dad would have appreciated this mass. Of course it was in Arabic, and I am assuming – still trying to clarify this, that the “rites” or prayer was in the Coptic language.

As I sat down in the pew in the back of the church, trying not to be noticed and just sorta blend in, I had to laugh at my own naivety. The first thing I noticed was men were on one side, and women were on the other side. In addition to that, if I did not know I was in a Christian church, I would have thought I was in a mosque. Several of the women wore the traditional scarves that a Moslem woman would wear, I am not talking about the burka – where the only thing visible is a little slit for the eyes, but the dress of an average mainstream Muslim woman. Others wore a little lace cap, much like my mother used to have. While, wrapping my head around that concept, the priest, did not face the congregation, but rather faced Jerusalem. His back was to us – just like the pre Vatican II Catholic mass. Then came time for communion, men and women separately. Then they got in “line” again, I was on the edge of my seat..they went back up and got something else. Curiosity was killing me. Mass ended, me being me eyeballed the crowd coming out and I picked what I thought looked like a friendly family. Introduced myself and apologized for my ignorance, and asked if they spoke English. Truly, God is merciful as they did, and they were more than willing to entertain my questions, and were excited to be able to share with this goofy Catholic American a bit about their faith. Very little, if anything has changed in the Coptic religion over the centuries. While I am still learning, my sense is that this must have been how the “original” Christians were. I asked about the men and women sitting separately, yes that was by design, not accident. This is a time for God, the focus and attention is on communing with God. The covering of the head, again was by design, to be modest and humble before God. Then I came to my curiosity is killing the cat question…what was they all stood in line for after communion, they received something in a packet. The answer: it was a cookie packet! They were hungry, in order for them to receive communion they must have fasted at least 12 hours. Today, in the Catholic church, again a product of Vatican II, you must fast only one hour. (Which has led me to ponder a whole other post) So there ya go! I am sure I will go back again, it was too fascinating, there is much to see and absorb.


One Response to “Coptic Christians in Egypt – Monasteries”

  1. […] Coptic Christians in Egypt – Monasteries « Politicalmonkey2010's Blog […]

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