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Ask for the ancient paths where the good way is9 months ago
In this week’s blog, Canon Patrick Whitworth writes from Egypt, giving us a window into the life of their church today. Patrick draws out three themes in particular - The Shadow of persecution and the sunshine of joy, an ownership and celebration of their tradition & personal holiness and public witness.
I am sitting in a top floor flat of a house in Damascus Street, Heliopolis. The house is surrounded by motor accessory businesses, interspersed by jewellers. I can imagine a young Egyptian man coming here to get a new gizmo for his car, and then some jewellery for his girlfriend or wife on the way home. It seems the car is king in Cairo: to cross the road you become your own personal zebra crossing holding your hand up and stepping out in front of the traffic and hoping it will miss you. And looking at the jewellery in the shops the Egyptian women certainly like their jewellery on the bling side of decoration, much like Cleopatra. And there is a Cleopatra street around the block. I am here on a theological ‘blind date.’
Almost a year ago someone who I had never heard of called Jos Strengholt got in touch through my website to ask whether I would come to Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo, to make a number of videos on the Cappadocian Fathers about whom I had published a book in 2015 entitled Three Wise Men from the East : The Cappadocian Fathers and the struggle for Orthodoxy (Sacristy Press 2015). I was due to go earlier this year but it was postponed due to Covid and re-arranged for November. This time I slipped the leash of Lockdown, had a test, and on the second attempt arrived here last Thursday night on the legitimate grounds of education.
The Academy of Anaphora, of which Jos is CEO, is a Coptic teaching website making videos for enrolled students of whom there are now two hundred. Having been a pastor here connected to the Coptic church and something of a pioneer, he began the academy two years ago. Like the nearby St Michaels Coptic church which he revived, he likes starting things and has a deep love for the Coptic Church and its well-being. But the date has remained a blind one as he has been in Holland all the time I have been here. Instead, I have met other members of the team: Yasmin, Fady and Sherif. And on Monday November 15 I made the twelve twelve-minute videos in the beautiful Anaphora Monastery grounds with its organic farm, vivid flowers; its serene, disciplined and prayerful atmosphere. I was speaking about Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzen and Gregory Nyssen who were in different ways were close to the Egyptian or Coptic church in the fourth century.
Over the last few days I have met the impressive local pastor here Father Daoud of St Mark’s Helioplos, whose teaching may be found on Youtube, enjoyed their worship on Sunday – a two and half-hour liturgy, and the day at Anaphora Monastery which attracts large numbers of young people. Perhaps I can draw out three things about the life of their church today- founded by St Mark in Alexandria in c50AD and whose greatest leader was Athanasius- which have struck me.
The Shadow of persecution and the sunshine of joy
For anyone approaching St Mark’s Cleopatra Street in Heliopolis, the first thing you will notice is the security fence around its precincts, the doorway detector as in airports, the two armed Egyptian security police with guns and then being gently asked by a steward, “Are you Christian?” The threat of violence is not far away. There have been many deaths and martyrs in recent years through bombings, executions by ISIL and other random attacks. Numbering nearly eight million in this majority Muslim country of nearly a hundred million they are a significant minority, and well aware that they lived and worshipped in Egypt for five hundred years before the coming of Arabic and Islam. The threat of persecution is an everyday reality but a shadow compared to the zest, vitality and joy of the congregation of all ages that I met last Sunday. Their faith was more precious than gold, their joy sunshine in the shadow of persecution. Their fortitude in Christ was an encouragement to me in difficult days in the UK.
An ownership and celebration of their tradition.
Again, and again I sensed that they owned or celebrated their tradition, by which I mean the faith handed down to them. I saw it in the liturgy celebrated on Sunday with about 180 there at St Marks; normally in non-Covid times it would be four hundred. I heard it when Father Daoud talked about Athanasius and the purpose of the Incarnation as being for our salvation. Famously Athanasius said, “He became as we are that we might become as he is” (Theosis- De Incarnatione para 54). I saw it in the presence of large numbers of young people in and around the rooms of the church on Saturday evening, and those queuing up to speak to Father Daoud. All signs to me that age need not be a bar to vitality, nor ancient traditions a restriction on contemporary faith. It was an encouragement to me to dig deep into the Scriptures and into faithful writers who have gone before.
Personal Holiness and public witness
At the Anaphora Monastery I wandered into the library, always an irresistible attraction to me. Some books were in Coptic, others in Arabic, neither of which I could understand, and then I turned to an English section. There were several books about women/men relationships and marriage, several more by Rick Warren the American author and pastor who famously wrote the Purpose Driven Life. I was not so surprised. Last time, nine years before, when I had visited another Coptic Monastery that library had several books by the devotional English writer F. B. Meyer and Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest. I was amazed that out there in the Egyptian desert these books were cherished. It was clearly explained to me by a monk that affirmation of the great truths of the faith must go alongside a deep internal commitment to the ways of God: nothing less was required. It was an encouragement to me that knowledge was one thing, but holiness of life its necessary complement.
My blind date, in the end, was with no one individual but the Coptic church: brave, steady, rooted in its rich traditions, open to the Spirit of Holiness and holding to the truth that through the Incarnation comes forgiveness and salvation. And It reminded me of a verse from Jeremiah which I have treasured:
“Stand by the cross roads and look, and ask for the ancient paths where the good way is: and walk in it, and find rest for your souls”.
Jeremiah 6: 16 ESV