I was a newly ordained priest and we travelled to Alexandria to spend some time learning about service from a very well established Coptic community. We were privileged to be the guests of Fr Tadros Yacoub Malaty and his wife, Tasoni Mary. Fr Tadros is one of the foremost theologians and authors in the Coptic Church today. He has represented the Church on innumerable occasions at theological dialogues and discussions, written dozens of widely read books and is the oldest living representative of the Alexandrian branch of pastoral service that was developed by the late Fr Bishoy Kamel. So it was a very special honour to be allowed to pray a liturgy with Fr Tadros.
In his prayers at the altar, he lived up to all I had read about Fr Bishoy Kamel. His prayers were clearly heartfelt and he did not indulge in long melodies, but employed a simple and beautiful tempo that met the needs of those who wish to contemplate as well as those who have commitments for which they must not be late.
But his behaviour when he was not praying at the altar surprised and confused me. He sat or stood away in a nook of the sanctuary, writing. Writing! He was working on a book.
Now I had already learned that Fr Tadros does not waste an instant of his life. Even the photo we got to take with him shows him holding a phone to his ear! But surely, the liturgy is the time to put everything else aside and focus on God, isn’t it? Aren’t you supposed to drop your worldly cares and just lift your mind up to Heaven? Why was this pillar of the Church behaving so strangely, seemingly disregarding the liturgy that he was attending?
The Bible makes it clear that praising God is one of the chief forms of prayer. The phrase, “Praise the Lord…” is found 51 times in the NKJV of the Bible. “Praise Him…” is found a further 18 times, and of course, there are many other forms of saying the same thing.
The traditional form of praising God is well known. To sing hymns to Him, ideally with the full concentration of the mind and the full commitment of the heart. To lose oneself in the beauty of God is the ideal form of praise.
But when we delve into it, when we come to the core meaning of praise, we may find that there are other activities that are also, at their heart, a form of praising God. For example, a curious mind may praise God by exploring the world He has created if it is always conscious of the fact that there is a Creator behind this incredible creation. The scientist exploring the workings of subatomic particles or of the human body experiences this. The astronomer gazing out into the dark depths of space through his telescope, may feel that he is looking into the mind of God. The avid reader, enjoying a well-crafted novel and all of the issues and ideas it touches upon, seeking to differentiate right from wrong, justice from injustice, uncovering truths about the human condition: in all of these, the person is exploring the mind of God who created these things. If one approaches them with the right attitude, these activities become, in themselves, a prayer of praise.
When you enjoy the process of learning and discovery itself, you are praising God. You rejoice in the Creator whose wisdom created an instrument like the human mind that is capable of this amazing act of ‘understanding’! You are thankful that God has granted you this gift and granted you the time to enjoy it. You lose yourself in the pleasure of learning. It is another example of one of the highest goals of prayer: the destruction of the ego; the forgetting of the self. Instead, you ‘leave’ yourself behind as you are immersed completely in the God-made experience of exploring things outside of you. And throughout this experience, you find yourself constantly aware of the One who made all these engrossing things. If the creation is so intriguing, how much more so the Creator who made it?! In enjoying the glory of creation, you enjoy the glory of the Creator.
You recall what we said earlier about this form of prayer? “To lose oneself in the beauty of God is the ideal form of praise”. Thus, contemplation, exploration, learning – these in themselves, approached in a certain frame of mind – these can be a very profound form of the prayer of praise.
The mystery of Fr Tadros’ behaviour is solved. Many times I have felt that to allow the prayers of the liturgy to ignite the spark of a long and beautiful contemplation of God was a liturgy well spent. The contemplations may not have been exactly following the words of the liturgy, but that does not matter. The important thing is that I got to touch God. What better preparation can there be for having Holy Communion ?
I suspect that this is what was happening with Fr Tadros. He used the prayers of the liturgy to inspire him, and he was furiously writing down the contemplations that delved into the mystery of some aspect of God or His creation. No doubt, these hastily scribbled words eventually became a part of one of his books for many others to enjoy and in turn be inspired. But he was not disregarding the liturgy, he was not ignoring God. In fact, if we delve into the core of what he was doing, he was engrossed in a prayer of praise.
This does not mean that you should take a novel to read in the liturgy, or sit in the sanctuary and finish your assignments! There is more than enough in the liturgy itself to keep one utterly engrossed for the whole of one’s life. Fr Tadros’ case is a very special one, and not meant to be widely imitated!