Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Christians in Egypt; prayer in the wilderness

Thomas Leiker
Albuquerque Catholic Examiner Christians have lived and prayed in Egypt ever since Christ. They’re there today. Even before them, people of faith blended into the terrain of this ancient kingdom, which has seen more than its fair share of faith history. In Genesis one God is established for the succession of faiths, while most of the remaining known world would celebrate many for some years to come. Abraham can easily be considered the first to readily acknowledge that one God as all powerful. Abraham’s walk with God took him from Ur, in what is now southern Iraq, to Egypt, and he became the patriarch of three major religions through his descendants, Isaac (Judaism, Christianity) and Ishmael (Islam) because his faith was so strong. Roughly fourteen hundred years before Jesus, the Pharaoh Akhenaton became the political founder of monotheism in Egypt. His views were revolutionary and he forsake all of the royal traditions of his country, even to moving the capital away from Thebes where corruption was plentiful, to a new over-ambitious (even for a pharaoh) city dedicated to the one God. Tradition won out, and Akhenaton was removed from royalty and his name virtually obliterated from history. His story is still being rediscovered.
In Bethlehem, when the magi had departed, an angel came to Joseph in a dream, and told him to rise at once and take the baby Jesus and his mother to Egypt. Furthermore, they were to remain there until the angel came for them. King Herod was searching for the child. As promised, the angel returned to Joseph when Herod had died, but the Holy Family was guided to Nazareth in Galilee instead of their original home. Thus Jesus’ infant journey to Egypt then Nazareth fulfilled prophecy (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23).
The nomads of the first century and the Desert Fathers after them found a certain solace, oneness with the Lord, and peace in death. They were acting out tradition that was already well established. They were of course also there because persecution only reaches so far into the wilderness. Today the Christians are still there, eight and a half million of them, more than the remaining total for the entire Middle East.
Among some of the notable attractions in Egypt are the fabulous monasteries that have survived since the Desert Fathers. Most likely the oldest anywhere is St. Antony’s (Dier Mar Antonios). Antony lived to 105, and his following was tremendous. Soon after his passing in 356 AD, those followers began the construction of a monastery at the site of his grave. St Paul’s Monastery nearby is almost as old. It is said that the abbeys are almost self-contained villages providing their communities with both nutritional and spiritual needs, and celebrating rites that have changed very little since the Desert Fathers.
One of the best known monasteries in the world is St. Catherine’s, The Monastery of the Transfiguration, or Monastery of the God-trodden Mt. Sinai, believed to be at the site of Moses’ burning bush at the foot of the historic Mt. Sinai. When Constantine’s mother, St. Helena was in the area she instructed that a church be built there. By that time, Antony and many others were already in the eastern Egyptian Desert on the opposite side of what is now the Gulf of Suez. Completion of the monastery took place around two hundred years later under the Emperor Justinian I, who named it after Catherine of Alexandria, a saint of whom little is known. In the eleventh century, a Mosque was added to the compound, with respect for the three religions that have celebrated the holiness of this place. Mohammed was among the people who visited and prayed there, and his declaration that the monastery would always be protected by Islam, is perhaps a reason why it has never been destroyed or subjected to terrorist attack.
Most of the Christians in Egypt today belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. They maintain the monasteries of St. Anthony and St. Paul. The nineteenth chapter of Isaiah is the prophecy of Egypt. The Coptics adhere particularly to verse nineteen, which says that an altar to the Lord will stand in Egypt. The Church is said to be founded by the evangelist, St. Mark and that from the very beginning was embraced by many Egyptians.
There is also a strong following of Greek Orthodox, who are the monks that now care for St. Catherine Monastery which houses the largest collection of original manuscripts and codices that exists outside of the Vatican. The Christians of Egypt today face strained relations with the government and with each other. As recently as July 11, 2009, the AFP news agency in Cairo reported the Coptic Church claimed there were new tensions stirred up the Roman Catholic assessment (reiterated by the Vatican on Tuesday, July 10) of being the one true Church of Christ.
This examination was to conclude the series on the nomads, Antony and the Desert Fathers, Benedict, Lectio Divina, and the Christian call to the Egyptian Desert. The series has shown that nomads carried the first good news of Jesus Christ, whether they were apostles, evangelists, or desert wanderers. It showed how the Desert Fathers came to be and how Antony developed their monastic code of behavior, and how through John Cassian, the rule became a foundation for that faith-filled lifestyle throughout the Western world as illustrated by the Rule of St. Benedict. It was a series that carried the underlying message that the heart of it all was a need to be alone with God, to be absorbed in contemplative prayer and a life pleasing to God. There was enough information uncovered in the research to fill several books (and indeed it has), and therefore, far too much information than could be included in these examinations.
Wandering off to the Egyptian Desert may not be everyone’s favorite way to find God. The wilderness is anywhere one chooses to find it. It is the place where one most feels the presence of God. That could be anywhere. The message was not about moving to a sand dune, but about contemplating the scripture that has been passed down by the witnesses and their chronologists. It may not always be accurate history, but it is certainly the Word of God. That same Holy Spirit has been given to other writers for their mission of writing all things spiritual. The desert is about prayer and faith. It is about finding that place where you call out to God, and it is silent enough that you can hear him when he answers.

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