A Day in the Life of a Coptic Monk
The sun god Ra rises high in the sky. Forgotten, pushed aside by the latest religious craze, he still comes to warm the endless desert here around Wadi Natroun, a dry valley north of Cairo. I've come to see what this "new" Christian religion is all about. Well, relatively new...considering that Ra was worshipped for at least 3000 years, until this Jesus guy came along.
He directed me through a green, open courtyard into the church. There are no pews or chairs, only carpets, an altar, and the bodies of the founder of the monastery, St. Bishoi, and his friend St. Paul of Tammah. Each body is inside a wooden tube, covered in a cloth with their image on it, wrapped in clear plastic, and lying on a fancy altar. I sat down on the floor in the stillness, with old paintings of saints and martyrs looking down on me from the walls. I was trying hard not to imagine the contents of those wooden tubes!
Another monk, Father Sarabamon, came to show me around, rescuing me from the eerie silence. I admit, I wasn't expecting someone who has chosen an ascetic, hermit lifestyle to be so friendly and cheerful, but he was. I told him all about the Odyssey World Trek, and he explained to me the history of the Coptic church, the history of monasticism, and what it's like to be a monk.
How amazing! To me, the Bible has always been an old book that was more parable than truth. But here I am, in a Coptic monastery, where His Holiness Pope Shenouda III can trace his position back through an unbroken line of 117 patriarchs to Saint Mark! Mark, as you may know, was one of Jesus' twelve apostles (or, if you're Coptic, seventy apostles) and one of the four Evangelists who wrote the first four books of the New Testament of the Bible!
For Father Sarabamon and the 150 other monks at Saint Bishoi Monastery, he day starts at four in the morning with prayer. Maybe that's why St. Bishoi was known to tie his hair to the ceiling to stay awake while praying! After that, they attend a church service, or liturgy, before heading off to work.
T hese guys don't put on power suits and head to Cairo in the rush hour traffic. Instead they work around the monastery, taking care of the gardens and the church, cooking, or greeting visitors like me! They break for lunch, and again for evening prayers at 4 PM. Then comes the most exciting part of the day--the monks leave the monastery to go walk in the desert for contemplation. After dinner at 7pm, they all go to their cells to read and pray before bed.
After he explained all this to me, I had to ask, "Why did you decide to become a monk?" I mean, it's not just a normal profession, like being an accountant or a mechanic or a writer for the Odyssey World Trek. But he seemed like a pretty normal guy, beneath the long robes and scraggly beard.
"So, what did your parents think?!" I asked. I imagined myself saying, "Well, Mom and Dad, I've decided to give up all my earthly possessions to live in the desert for the rest of my life." I don't think they'd take it very well.
"At first they were really sad," he admitted. His parents wanted him to grow up, get married, have kids and all that. "But now they are so happy. They can present their son as a man of God. They come visit me sometimes, and it has really been good for them, too."
"So, where do you sleep? Do you each have your own room?" I asked.
"We each have our own room, which we call 'cells'." He explained.
Sounds like prison, or maybe a huge biology experiment gone awry! I figured there were probably no posters of Ricky Martin or Tupac on the walls.
"Each cell has an inner room, for prayer, and an outer room for doing handicrafts, eating, and receiving guests. But not guests like you!" He was quick to add that the only guests would be other monks coming to chat. As a matter of fact, since the monastery is full right now, I wasn't even about to see one of their cells.
Within sight of the monastery, there are two other building complexes. One is a retreat center where youth groups from the Egyptian Coptic churches come and stay. The other is a monastery called Deir as-Suriani-the Monastery of the Syrians. It was founded by a Syrian monk in the 8th century around an older Coptic church and over the top of the cave where St. Bishoi prayed all night, with his hair tied to the ceiling to stay awake! After my tour, I thanked Fr. Sarabamon and walked down the road, across the windy desert to Deir as-Suriani.
Once there, a very cheerful monk sporting a graying beard greeted me. His robe was covered in dust because he was working on repairing one of the ancient walls. He wouldn't let me take his picture, but he had fun talking to me and playing with my digital camera, and he even gave me a chocolate bar...a sure way to become my friend! He told me that he is, in addition to being a monk, an engineer. "Many of the monks here in Wadi Natrun have professional degrees," he explained.
Later, I met 9-year old Miriam and her family outside, near the holy tree. Fr. Daniel explained to all of us that the tree sprang from the ground where St. Ifram stuck his walking stick back in the 4th century. Miriam understood what he was saying, too, because she goes to an English Language school in Cairo. She pointed out to me that her name was Miriam, the Arabic name for the virgin Mary.
The lifestyle of the monks has changed very little over the past 1,000 years or so, but there are some differences. For example, Deir as-Syriani has a website! If you're curious to learn more about the Coptic faith or the monasteries, check it out!
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