COPTIC MONACHISM AND THE WORD OF GOD

F. Guido Dotti, monk of Bose, Italy

Coptic monachism forcibly reminds us that the Word of God is and remains a lamp for our steps at every moment of our existence.


It was said about Abba Serapion that at Alexandria he once found a poor man numb with cold. He said to himself, ‘How is it that I, who pass for an ascetic, wear a tunic, while this poor man, or rather Christ himself, dies of cold? If I let him die I will surely be condemned for murder at Judgment Day’. Stripping off like an athlete in training, he gave the poor man the garment he was wearing. Then he sat down, putting under his arm the little copy of the Gospels he always carried with him. A guardian of the peace passed and said to him, when he saw that he had no clothes, ‘Abba Serapion, who took your clothes?’ Serapion took out his little gospel-book and said, ‘This is who took them.’ Getting up from there he came across someone being arrested for a debt he could not pay. Having sold his gospelbook, the immortal Serapion paid the man’s debt. He returned to his cell naked. When his disciple saw him naked, he said to him, ‘Abba, where is your little tunic’. The old man said to him, ‘My child, I have sent it where we will need it.’ The brother then said, ‘Where is the little gospel-book?’ The old man answered, ‘It has gone for a good purpose. He who said to me every day, “Sell what you have and give it to the poor” (Matthew 19.21) – I have sold it and given the profit to him to have more confidence in him on Judgment Day.’ (Nau 566)

litcopte1A reflection on the presence of the word of God in the daily life of the monks of the Egyptian desert must take its point of departure from the apothegm which has just been read because, yesterday as today, in Coptic monachism the Bible is used as the primary source of human action. Its reference is fundamental in the daily search for a life according to the Gospel. In these pages I would like to examine this monastic per spective. If there is one Christian tradition in which monachism has always been a faithful mirror – in periods both of great splendour and of decadence – of the vitality of the Church as a whole it is the Coptic world. Without running through seventeen hundred years of the history of the Christian presence in Egypt, I shall try to show what the relationship with scripture was in the so-called ‘fathers of the desert’ at the time of their appearance at the beginning of the fourth century, and what the importance is of the biblical text, and the Gospels in particular, in their life and witness today, in so far as I have been able to get to know it by frequent visits to Coptic monasteries and through fraternal friendship with certain monks.

Without any doubt, among the various elements which brought into existence the phenomenon of ancient monachism in the region which runs from Egypt to Syria, and which continues to give it its shape, scripture is one of the most decisive. This has also served as an example for monachism as a whole throughout the world, even in the West. Certain Gospel texts, in particular the words of Jesus about self-denial, discipleship, carrying the cross seem at the beginning of the desert monastic movement to have been the sources capable of inspiring the solitary life, withdrawal to the desert, a life of prayer and work and seeking the will of God. These are effective words which successively wove the tissue of the existence of the hermits, anchorites and cenobites, giving sense and direction to the constant search for salvation. The scriptures were heard, read and meditated in such a way that in knowing the ‘letter’ they reached to the ‘spirit’ in order to keep them in the heart so that they could provide a source of discernment in the fundamental aspects of life. In times of darkness, difficulty and struggle no less than in the more radiant moments of their life it was the scriptures which provided the key to penetrate the meaning of existence and purify relationships with oneself, with others and with God. The fathers of the desert reached such an assimilation of the word of God contained in scripture that those who came to them considered them to be ‘carriers of the Word’ in their daily life. They listened to them as authentic sequentiae sancti evangelii, living readings from the Gospel of life.

When reading the apothegms of the fathers one often has the impression that the monks of the desert lived and spoke the Word, for the scripture was for them prayer and work, dialogue with God and the daily labour of transforming ‘what was written’ into a ‘living letter’, a credible witness of the fact that the bread of the Word is truly a nourishment capable not only of nourishing for eternal life, but equally of moulding daily life, here and now. It is possible to smile at certain literalisms, but they do show what was probably the immediate and spontaneous reaction of those who first heard the preaching of Jesus. The parables, gestures, silence, attitudes of Jesus were understood by the first Christians and by the monks as concrete, practicable, accessible examples to make the daily following and discipleship of Jesus real and efficacious at a time when it was no longer possible to follow him physically on the roads of Galilee and Judea.

From Anthony, who on hearing the word of the Gospel ‘Go! Sell what you own and give it to the poor’ (Matthew 19.21) immediately sold all his goods and withdrew to a spiritual father, to Serapion, who sold the gospel-book to put into practice what was written in the book, the sayings of the fathers seem to us like simple paraphrases of the Gospel, different ways of expressing in non-verbal language what the scripture proclaims as the will of the Lord. We should note carefully that the word of God is a ‘lamp for the path’ not only at the level of personal asceticism, but also – and more so – at the level of fraternal relationships, in mutual acceptance, in service of the brothers. Every norm, no matter how strongly authorized, every ‘holiest’ rule, the most ancient of traditions, is subordinated to the commands of the Gospel. Fasting can be interrupted for the sake of hospitality, listening to an anguished brother can take the place of recitation of the Psalms, the fruit of daily labour must be shared with those in need, mercy towards the sinner holds a higher place than the justice established by the law.

In an era when most people, and consequently most monks, were illiterate, in a culture when oral tradition was the normal vehicle of transmission of knowledge, in an economy where books were rare and precious treasures, novices who came to the monastic life were required to know by heart ‘at least’ the Gospel and the Psalms in order to nourish daily their spiritual life. Apart from that, a disciple who set himself in the school of an Abba received a ‘word’ which most often was no more than

a verse of the Gospel or of the scripture, a word which he must repeat ceaselessly until he had put it into practice!

litcopte2This practice is still followed today. The Psalter, the Gospels and the writings of St Paul are the daily bread for monks often well schooled in the most diverse disciplines. The scripture is still the decisive word in monastic life. It is surprising when listening to a dialogue between two monks to hear their frequent recourse to biblical expressions, to the sayings of the fathers which refer back to the Gospels. It is true that ‘the mouth speaks from the depths of the heart’, and the scripture heard, read, meditated and prayed becomes the purest treasure from which to draw ‘things old and new’. The constant silent repetition of a biblical verse, common prayer in the church – during which each monk several times receives from the presider who passes before him the first words of a Psalm so that he may recite the whole Psalm by heart, and so all may fulfil the command to recite the Psalter in a single day – the habitual use of the words of scripture to express sentiments and emotions witness still today to the fact that the centrality of the Word in the life of a Christian does not depend on theoretical knowledge or deep exegetical study or knowledge of the original languages of the Old and New Testaments, but rather on the capacity which the Word has to penetrate the heart of the listener and on the response which the whole person – body, soul and spirit – gives to this Word according to each person’s particular way of thinking, speaking and acting in today’s world.

I would like to dwell in particular on certain biblical passages which come each day in the monastic common prayer during the morning office, above all the Canticle of the Sea intoned by Miriam, the sister of Moses, immediately after the crossing of the Red Sea and the liberation from slavery in Egypt and from the army of Pharaoh. It may seem surprising that Egyptian Christians sing exultantly a hymn which gives glory to God for defeating Egypt, for having thrown horse and rider into the sea! However, this fact shows the capacity of a spiritual reading of scripture: the defeated enemy are not the Egyptians as a people – and so in a certain sense the ancestors of those who today sing this hymn – so much as forces opposed to God which hold believers in thrall, preventing them from worshipping the Lord, constituting an obstacle on the road to freedom. In fact the joy in the liberty found by the children of God has no fear of taking over the expressions of a people who defeated, by the intervention of the mighty hand of God, their own ancestors. Today Egyptian Christians – just like the Jews and every other ethnic group on earth – sing their praises to the Lord who accomplished wonders and who annihilated the army of Egypt in the sea.

Still more significant for the spiritual life of the monk are the three Gospel passages which are proclaimed each morning during the common prayer: the passage of the foolish and wise virgins (Matthew 25.1-13), the episode of the sinful woman to whom much was pardoned because she had loved much (Luke 7.36-50) and the invitation to stay awake waiting for the Lord (Luke 12.35-40). The application to monastic life – or rather to the radical practice of the Christian life – of the first two passages is well enough established. The invitation to watchfulness, to be sure that the oil of charity is not lacking during the period of waiting, the fact of being consciously vigilant and ready as soon as the voice of the Spouse is heard is a topos, that is, a exhortation recurrent in monastic spirituality and catechesis. Equally, the figure of the sinful woman who silently asks and receives forgiveness from Jesus thanks to her repentance and the gestures of care for the body of the Lord – the traveller’s feet washed with her tears, dried with her hair, kissed and anointed with perfume – becomes the stock image of every believer, a sinner forgiven and called to love intensely in virtue of the love given and received. But the spiritual meaning of the second Lukan passage is still more pregnant, especially verse 37, ‘Blessed are those servants whom the Lord will find vigilant when he comes! In truth I tell you, he will gird himself, will seat them at table and will serve them one after another.’ In the monastic interpretation the accent is put not so much on the vigilance of the servants – this is already the lesson of the ten virgins – as on the disconcerting action of the Lord at his return: he, the lord and master, will gird up his clothes to serve the watchful disciples! The action of limitless service which the Lord Jesus lived out in his human flesh – so vividly pictured in the episode of the washing of the feet which the evangelist John recounts instead of the sharing of bread and wine at the Last Supper – will be that of the Lord when he comes in his glory: even the glorious Lord will be at the service of man!

What lesson more authoritative and efficacious for our daily life, what ‘incarnation’ more concrete and real of the Word can we find for our lives lived side by side in an attitude of listening and of mutual acceptance and service? Truly, Coptic monachism forcefully remind us that the word of God is and remains a ‘lamp for our steps’ at every moment of our existence until the total gift of our life, until the great and glorious day of the Lord’s return, a return in glory indeed, but in a glory which carries the indelible inscription of the seal of the service of love.