Remembering Fr Mina

Fr Mina Nematalla and his family as a layman, not long before his ordination, together with his uncle, Pope Kyrollos VI.
Fr Mina Nematalla and his family as a layman, not long before his ordination, together with his uncle, Pope Kyrollos VI.

Tomorrow, July 1st, marks the the tenth anniversary of the passing of Fr Mina Nematalla, the pioneering Coptic Orthodox priest of Australia. In 1969 he became the first Coptic priest to settle in Australia and established the Coptic Orthodox Church on this continent. Today I would like to share a few personal thoughts to mark this occasion.

Upon my ordination back in 1991 I was assigned by HH Pope Shenouda III to serve at Archangel Michael and St Bishoy Church as an assistant to Fr Mina. At that time, Fr Mina was alone in the parish, and very, very sick. In fact, it was during my ordination and stay in Egypt that Fr Mina Continue reading “Remembering Fr Mina”

Watery Thoughts

The gospel of the Samaritan Woman gives us some beautiful insights into the use of water in the rite of the liturgy.

 

The Samaritan Woman met Jesus at the well, as we also meet Him at the Church. He asks us to draw water for Him as He asked her, but what is the water we draw?

 

It begins with the washing of the hands by the priest. The deacon, representing the congregation (for he is their servant) takes the jug of water which he has previously filled and pours it out on the hands of the priest at the beginning of the Offertory. The fact that he has previously filled the jug indicates that he has come to Church prepared to meet Christ and to serve Him.

 

The deacon’s act of pouring the water assists the priest in his preparation for offering the Body and Blood. Thus, the deacon, like the Samaritan Woman, is the conduit by which many come to meet with Christ. This is symbolic of the role that each Christian should play in the world. The Christian can do little by himself, but by doing small acts of service, he can help open the way for Christ to enter people’s hearts.

 

There is a small bottle of water placed on the altar, together with the bottle of wine. These two are mixed in the cup by the priest as he prays the Prayer of Thanksgiving. Water is simple while wine is chemically complex. Perhaps this mixing can also remind us that our simple thoughts and ideas and efforts, when mixed with the work of Christ, can become an important part of the process of our salvation, and even that of others.

 

We see ourselves in the Samaritan Woman:

  • Like her, we interact with Jesus through the discussion about drawing water.
  • Like her, we get to know Him, and discover just how well He knows us.
  • Like her, our lives are changed through this dialogue.
  • And like her, we share this amazing Person with our relatives and friends.

 

These acts occur early in the liturgy. Sadly, the Church is usually relatively empty at that time as people drift in late. What a pity that they miss this important experience! Those who do come early get to have this personal meeting with Christ; a great foundation for fully experiencing the prayers that follow.

Looking Up

"The Holies for the holy"
"The Holies for the holy"

Following on from the interest shown in learning more about the meaning of the liturgy, I’ve dug out a little passage from my own little personal book of contemplations. It refers to the part at the end of the liturgy where the priest has finished dividing the Body into smaller pieces and lifts the paten high twice before he takes it away from the altar to give Communion to the congregation:

 

From facing the altar, the priest turns around and raises the paten twice towards the congregation, saying “The Holies for the holy”, and the people respond, “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord”.

This is an announcement to all that this is indeed the Holy Body of Christ. We are reminded, as we were during the last part of the prayers, that those who wish to partake of the Holy Body and Blood must themselves be holy. As the priest holds the Holy Body high, our eyes are drawn upward in longing and desire to be made worthy to share in this Heavenly Feast. But we know that we can never make ourselves worthy of such a privilege, so our upward gaze is also a prayer, a request, a supplication:

Unto You I lift up my eyes, O You who dwell in the heavens.
Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters,
As the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the LORD our God, Until He has mercy on us.

Psalm 123

 But it is also a reminder of the Second Coming, hence the two raisings of the paten. Christ is raised high in the air, since He shall come back “as the lightning flashes from the East to the west”. At His first coming, many refused to say, “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord”, but we now affirm that we are ready to receive Him by saying those very words. Then we are all gathered to Him as we approach for Holy Communion, as all peoples will be gathered to Him on the last day. We then receive Him so He dwells in us and we in Him. Thus do we taste the Kingdom of Heaven while we are yet on earth.

  But let all those who approach Communion make sure they are prepared, for the unprepared wedding guest was cast out, and there will be those on the last day who will approach Him, only to find themselves thrust to His left hand side.

 

I will try to share a few more of these contemplations over the coming months, and I would love to hear your own contemplations on your favourite bits of the liturgy.

 Fr Ant

Fast or Slow … er

 

 

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that the Liturgy is one of my favourite topics. That’s probably because the liturgy is actually one of my favourite things in life. I hope you won’t feel offended, but during most of the liturgy I do my level best to pretend you’re not there. The most profoundly moving experiences I have had during a liturgy all happened when I had forgotten that there was anyone else in the Church apart from me and the crucified Lord of the universe on the altar.

What a feeling!

The heart and soul are laid bare before the all-piercing gaze of the Creator Incarnate. There is no hiding, neither from Him, nor from myself. My carefully constructed facades crumble away and all those comfortable little lies with which I’ve been salving my conscience evaporate into the air, an air reverberating with the awful words of what He did for me. Who could resist being touched to the depths of their soul?

And yet, I do remember a time in my youth when the liturgy was anything BUT engrossing. I recall liturgies (mostly in Arabic) as a teenager where the main focus of my contemplation was the pain in my feet and back, and whether some old ‘ummo would get me in trouble if I sat down just now. One of the first things I memorised about the liturgy was exactly when we got to bow down; eagerly anticipated moments!

It took a long time to get into the Coptic Liturgy. It also took a degree of effort on my part: asking questions and reading books. One book that was a turning point for me in my experience of the liturgy was Christ in the Eucharist by Fr Tadros Yacoub Malaty (you can download this book from www.coepa.org). I consider this book one of the true classics of modern Coptic literature and one that will withstand the test of time. In it, Fr Tadros traces the symbolism and Biblical references of the words and the rites and rubrics of the liturgy. Abounding in ancient quotes from the Fathers of the Church, he explains this divinely inspired rite from a surprisingly personal perspective that serves to help open the flood gates of individual prayer in response to the ancient text and tunes of the liturgy.

I have never looked back since reading that book. My love for the liturgy certainly took on a new dimension when I was ordained a priest, but those earlier quiet, private spiritual epiphanies are forever engraved upon my memory. Which leads me mourn the fact that there still remain people in our congregation for whom the liturgy is a chore or duty, or even merely an act of mere habit.

 I enjoyed reading the comments people posted to my last blog. There is always a variety of views on the liturgy, and how it could be ‘done’ better. No doubt we can do it better, and I agree that participation by the congregation is the key. The fact remains that in the liturgy book, it says: “CONGREGATION:” All too often the deacons hijack a hymn or response all for themselves, instead of simply leading the congregation. The ideal situation is where the voices of the congregation drown out, or rather, unite harmoniously with, those of the deacons’ choir, so that the two are no longer distinguishable. Those are the moments when one feels the roof of the Church is about to be blasted away by this angelic praising, opening a conduit to unite heaven and earth! OK, I’m waxing a bit lyrical here, but such moments do genuinely make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

 Perhaps more lessons are needed to teach EVERYONE the complex Coptic tunes? Nowadays of course, we are blessed to have sites like www.tasbeha.org where one can find audio of virtually any Coptic tune that ever existed. I believe there are Coptic churches in America now, who have choirs of females singing antiphonically with the deacons, complete with their own ‘tunias’. When I put that suggestion to some of the young ladies to at our Church, they thought it was a horrible idea, but I wonder if that will change with the years?

 I’d be interested in reading your thoughts on how we can get people to participate more fully in the liturgy. Not saying I’ll agree with all of them, but if you come up with something that is likely to work, we might just go ahead and try it!

 Fr Ant

Fast or Slow

 How’s a priest to pray?

 Life is fast these days. Everything we do we seem to do faster than our parents ever did. Just think of all the devices we have at our disposal to speed things up: microwaves warm and cook food faster; televisions that can fast forward through advertisements; remote controls so you can change the channel/volume faster (no need to get up); electrical shavers so you can shave faster (not from personal experience of course); electric knives and mixers and bread makers and toasters in the kitchen to make food preparation faster; drive thru’s for those who don’t even want to waste any time cooking … the list goes on.

That’s all very well, and we could argue whether all these conveniences have really improved the quality of our lives or not another day, perhaps. But for now I just want to know: how’s a priest to pray? OK, here’s the dilemma: Sunday morning liturgy. The main prayer of the week. The focus of all our spiritual lives. The unique experience of being united with Christ. Should I pray slowly and contemplatively, in order that we all can make the most of this very special time, or should I pray more rapidly because people just don’t have the time or the patience anymore?

I have heard differing views on this point from a variety of people, all of whom are both sensible and sincere. On the one hand there are those who insist that the Church must keep up with the times. It is unfair, they point out, to expect people who are used to everything in life going briskly and efficiently, to come to Church on Sunday and listen patiently to the word “amen” being pronounced with 167 intonated syllables over two minutes. Just say it, and get on to the next part. And there is no place in the modern Church for long, undulating tunes in incomprehensible Coptic. (I have even heard ancient hymns like “Rejoice O Mary” sung in English, but with the tune so condensed that the whole four verses of lyrics are squashed into just one verse of tune. Perhaps we should call this fast food hymns … McAlhan!)

These days, people have other things to do on a Sunday, so let’s just have a nice snappy liturgy so everyone can go and get on with their lives. The famous Fr Bishoy Kamel who served some years as a parish priest in the USA once pointed out that he who makes the congregation become bored in the liturgy commits a great sin. Apparently, he always prayed at one pace, whatever the situation, and it was a moderately brisk, moderately contemplative pace.

And then, on the other hand, there are others who insist that our ancient tradition should not be watered down after 19 centuries of careful preservation. And isn’t Sunday the Lord’s Day? And according to the Ten Commandments, should not the Lord’s Day be devoted entirely to the Lord? Then why quibble over the length of the liturgy? What else is more important than spending just one day a week together with God and with each other?

 The long tunes of the Coptic tradition were meant to allow time for deep meditation upon the words they carry. We sing them in the Church, surrounded by a multitude of icons, the holy sanctuary and altar of the Lord, and in the very, physical presence of the Lord Christ Himself upon that altar. At the end of the liturgy we go forward to receive Him for ourselves in Communion. How can anyone want to rush this experience? We should enjoy it, lose ourselves in the moment, savour it as one savours the sweet taste of rich ice cream (oops – it’s Lent! Sorry). What does it say about our priorities in life when our attitude to the liturgy is “when will it finish”?

Do you understand the difficult conundrum that must be resolved by each priest and his deacons every Sunday? I must confess I can see some sense in both views. I hate praying by the clock (would you look at your watch if you were sitting with Jesus?) and yet, I feel the responsibility to finish the service at the advertised time. Even though I might personally lean towards the longer, slower point of view, I can also see that there are many people today who find it genuinely hard to maintain concentration for two or three hours straight.

Perhaps the answer is to take the middle path, much as Fr Bishoy did.

Fr Ant

Height and Humility

 

“Who dwells in the highest and beholds the lowly”  – Anaphora of the Liturgy of St Basil

How incredible to stand before the altar of God (which is His symbolic throne here on earth) and contemplate His true Heavenly Throne. He dwells in the highest of places, His existence is the highest existence, His glory, the highest of glories, and so on. Yet this Being of unimaginable height still cares for a lowly sinner such as I!

One can imagine Zacchaeus the tax collector as he sat perched in the branches of the sycamore tree, trying to glimpse Jesus through the crowd that milled around Him and hid Him from view. Then suddenly, in an instant, a chance configuration of the crowd opens a direct line of sight between him and Jesus. Imagine Zacchaeus’ surprise as he realises that Jesus is looking directly at him! Not only looking, but speaking, taking note of him, acknowledging his existence! Not only that, but actually promising to come and stay in his own house!

“Why me?” you can almost hear him thinking. “Who am I that the Master should choose my house to stay in? I am not important, or popular or rich. I am not a religious leader or even a righteous man. Everyone despises and hates me, and stays away from me. But He wants to stay at my house!”

We too would feel like that if we truly acknowledged our lowliness before God. Every liturgy, the crowd parts, and Jesus is looking directly at YOU. He asks you also, saying, “Today, I would like to stay at your house”. Will you let Him in? Will you free yourself from other commitments? Will you greet Him as Zacchaeus did, with humility and repentance, or will you greet Him as the Pharisee did, with snobbishness and judgment?

It comes back to one thing: do you see yourself as lowly and humble, or as an exalted good and righteous and deserving person? “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4). If you wish to have Jesus relieve you of your heavy burden, then you must learn from Him, for He is “humble and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29). Until I too humble myself before Him and admit my lowliness, I shall never truly experience the full presence and the indescribable glory of the Lord.

The Coptic of this phrase is: Fi-etshop khen ni-etchpsi; owoh etgousht ejen ni-et-theviout. It is one of those phrases in the liturgy where any translation into English fails to do the original meaning full justice.

The word “shop” means to ‘be’, but in a very special way. It mainly means to abide, to be somewhere or simply to be, but it also implies ‘existence’. When used of God in this way, it indicates the theological concept that God IS existence – He is the source of all that exists, and it is He alone who is self-existent; He exists because that is His nature, and not because anyone or anything else causes Him to exist.

The same Coptic word is used in John 8:58: “before Abraham was, I AM [shopi anok pe]”. The “I AM” is usually written in capitals because it was a very clear reference to one of the names of God in the Old Testament. When Moses at the burning bush asked for a name of God to give to the Israelites in Egypt, God told him, “’I AM WHO I AM.’ And He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you”’” (Exodus 3:14).

Equally beautiful is the word here used for us: ni-et-theviout. The Coptic construction of the word implies far more than is relayed by the English translation, “the lowly”. theviout is an adjectival root that means ‘humble’. But when et comes before it, it comes to mean not that we are humble, but that we have been humbled: it turns the adjective into something that has happened to us or been done to us. Thus, a more accurate translation of this nuance in meaning might be “He that IS, in the highest; and looks upon those who have been humiliated”.

What a beautiful and concise summary of our true state! God is the self-existent Creator who needs nothing. He is not interested in us because we are capable or worthy or strong. He is interested in us most when we are at our weakest, when we are brought low, when we are broken. And this state is one that almost always comes upon us against our own will, for who enjoys being humiliated? Who goes out to seek humiliation on purpose? And yet, it is when we are at our lowest that we are most likely to experience the loving care of God and to feel His presence; to sense that all-encompassing gaze of compassion and care surrounding us and blanketing us with healing and warmth.

And the tune of the Coptic melody brings out this stark contrast of our neediness to God’s powerful compassion beautifully. The melody rises suddenly and dramatically with chosi – ‘highest’; and then it descends rapidly, as if with God’s gaze looking down upon us, to peter out into our lowly humiliation; the last part of theviout.

One imagines a beggar standing at night in a field, looking up at the startling multitude of sparkling gems strewn across the dark velvet backdrop of space and being pierced by its majesty and beauty, and then lowering his gaze once more to behold himself: bedraggled, dirty, torn and bruised from the harsh buffeting of those who despise him.

Such is our state before God.

Fr Ant

A Long, Long Time Ago…

Sure it’s long, but is there any other experience like a Coptic liturgy in this whole world? OK, I’m a bit biased: I admit that. But the more I pray our beautiful liturgy the more does it steal away my heart.

 Here’s a little exercise you might like to try to see a little of what I mean:

 Imagine what it might have been like to have been an Alexandrian Christian in the First Century AD. Most likely, you would not have attended the liturgy in a purpose built church building. It would have been at someone’s house, or in a cave or underground tomb in times of severe persecution. No electricity or microphones – only candles and lamps and the human voices emanating from human hearts and minds; sharing together with their voices he experience of the presence of God among them…

 Before the liturgy, the gathered people would ask someone to read out the beautiful message in the copy of one of the apostolic letters that had reached Alexandria. One of the deacons respectfully pulls out a parchment and excitedly announces that he has gotten hold of a copy of a new letter from Saul of Tarsus, now known as Paul. The gathering murmurs with anticipation – he has quite a reputation, this Paul!

 After absorbing the exhortations of the apostle, the call is made to bring out the group’s chief treasure: a complete parchment of the Gospel left behind by the Apostle Mark, so recently and horribly martyred. A hush falls upon the little gathering as the elder slowly reads out words uttered only a few decades ago from the mouth of God incarnate. At the end of the reading, someone asks a question, and the elder takes a little time to explain, drawing upon all that he eagerly absorbed as he sat at the feet of Mark … in happier times. Then the Eucharist begins.

 Those who have offerings bring them out now, mostly offerings of money or clothing for the poor, or food for the Aghape feast that will follow the Eucharist. The designated deacons collect everything and carefully store it away, but two offerings they place on a special table: bread and wine. The elder prays, blessing the offerings and entreating God to accept them from the humble group. Then he turns to the people and exhorts them to lift up their hearts now to God, in prayer and contemplation. He re-enacts that fateful Supper, uttering the very words spoken by the Lamb of God on His way to being sacrificed for the sins of the world, repeating His very actions in blessing the bread and wine and breaking the bread. He winces as the fibres of bread split apart, thinking of how the fibres of Christ’s muscles tore apart as He was brutally stretched out upon that cross. Mark had been there…

 And now, the re-enactment is finished. They pray for their daily needs from God who gives all good things, and they remember not only the needs of the living, but also the souls of the dead who have departed in the hope of the resurrection. Finally, the elder turns to the people and invite them to come forward one by one to receive this most precious gift of God. They sing a hymn of joy, a hymn of victory, even though they are but a small and persecuted sector of Egyptian society. But they leave behind their worldly troubles and cares as for a few hours they are transported, first back to Palestine in the last hours of the life of the Christ, and then to heaven itself as the Kings of Kings comes to unite with them and to dwell within their bodies and souls.

 This joy they keep within them as they share the Love meal when the prayers are over. It is a joy that sustains them through the harsh reality of their lives, and brings them together as one community, one family, one body. With this joy in their hearts, they say their goodbyes to each other and disperse in little groups and knots to return to their daily lives.

 Can you recognise our liturgy in that little story above? That is exactly what the liturgy is, with a few embellishments and additions. How beautiful the experience becomes when one looks at it through the eyes of the first Church…

 Fr Ant

I Like Coptic.

Coptic manuscriptI really like Coptic.

The language, I mean. It is a beautiful thing in itself, and it also opens doors to new dimensions of spiritual growth. When I hear it, I like to think about the words echoing down from at least 5,000 years ago, changing slightly every few centuries to be sure, but still their essence continues from generation to generation, through historical periods as diverse as that of the Hyksos and the Turks (who both ruled Egypt at different times). I imagine an Egyptian peasant chatting idly with his friend on a felucca on the Nile as they drift lazily past the temple of an ancient god, or kindly father gathering his wife and children around him on the roof at evening to pray and read the Bible to them in Coptic.

My son recently introduced me to a Bible system you can download for free called “e-sword” (www.e-sword.net). I already have two Bible programmes on my computer, so I wasn’t very excited, until he told me you can also download the Bible in heaps of unusual formats. So now, I have the Septuagint in Greek, the Old Testament in Hebrew and best of all: the Bible in Sahidic Coptic! OK, I can’t read Hebrew, and I’m on my L plates with Koine Greek, but these versions have little links for each word so that if you hover your mouse over it, it gives you an instant dictionary definition of the word.

Reading the Bible in another language often provides insights into the finer shades of meaning, especially if it’s in the original language used to write it in the first place. I use the Hebrew and Greek versions when I want to get to the bottom of a tricky or uncertain verse, or when I want to discover some of the alternative definitions of the words used that haven’t translated across to the English. For example, there are four different words in Greek that are all translated into the English language as “love”, and each one has a different meaning. CS Lewis has a famous book about this topic called The Four Loves.

There’s more: reading the Bible in Coptic tells me a little about how our ancient forefathers (and mothers) interpreted the Bible. A translation can tell you a lot about the translator. Many words in one language will have no directly equivalent word in another language, so the choice of words, the choice of shades of meaning in the translation tells you what the translator thought was most important in the original. Reading it in Coptic, you can imagine St Anthony walking into the Church as a young man and hearing those exact Coptic words thundering down from the lectern to pierce his heart with longing to follow Christ. The way the phrases are structured in Coptic builds a slightly different picture in my head to that I get when I read it in English.

That’s also why I pray a Coptic liturgy every Thursday. I’m still learning, so it’s only about three-quarters Coptic so far, but growing. There is something different about our liturgy when it’s prayed in Coptic. Perhaps it is because the melodies were made for these words. Or perhaps again it is the sentence structure and the use of the specific words chosen. I am not sure, but I do know that the Coptic liturgy is a precious jewel in our treasure box of Coptic heritage. It needs a lot of effort to learn the language and come to appreciate it, but in my experience, it is effort that is rewarded many-fold.

And finally, there are those who wish to bring Coptic back to life. What a great thing that would be! There are virtual communities out there, such as Remenkimi, who regularly communicate in Coptic – that’s right, they exchange Coptic language emails. Anyone who’s interested in learning more about Coptic will find a wealth of information at their website (www.remenkimi.com).

A word of warning: while the learning and use of Coptic in our spiritual lives can be greatly beneficial, some people can take it a bit too far and become fanatical about it. Coptic should never be forced upon people – it should be a choice they can make if they wish to. There are many who know not the slightest scrap of Coptic and still enjoy deeply fulfilling lives within the Coptic Church, and that is as it should be, for our Church is about Christ, after all, not a human language or culture. It may not be for everyone, but learning Coptic is worthwhile for those who are interested in languages, and those who are interested in authentically experiencing the ancient and unique Coptic spiritual heritage in all its native glory.

Ougai!

Fr Ant

PS HH Pope Shenouda III Coptic Theological College offers courses in Coptic, Hebrew and Greek languages. I can also strongly recommend a “do-it-yourself” Coptic primer by Sam Younan enticingly titled “So You Want to Learn Coptic?

A Different Praise

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.

WARNING:
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!

A Common Confusion

Why do I pray?

Why do I fast?

Why do I go to church?

If I do not have a good reason for doing these things (as opposed to a bad reason, or no reason), sooner or later they will become empty, meaningless actions and eventually, my common sense will say to me, “What’s the point? Stop wasting your time!”

There are many bad reasons for doing good things, some of them obvious, some very subtle and difficult to detect. The obvious bad reasons for doing good things include pride, showing off, fear of punishment and dry habit without any love.

But one of the most subtle of tricks is confusion between reasons and busyness. It is not hard to get these two things mixed up. We can get so caught up and interested in the details of what we do that we actually forget why we are doing it – the details become the reason, and a bad reason at that.

An example: consider a deacon learning a complex ‘lahn’ (hymn) or a member of a choir learning hymns for an upcoming celebration. Immersed in the fine variations of the notes and tune, the challenge of getting it right becomes the goal, the reason for doing it. Performing the hymn becomes a goal in itself, even without the element of prayer or praising God. They have fallen into the trap of confusing the busyness of doing something with the reason for doing it!

It is not uncommon for us become engrossed in whether or not we have memorised the words of the prayer, or the beauty of a tune, or in the fine meaning of a Bible verse, only to find that the love has gone out of the exercise. It may be exciting, but spiritually, it is dead.

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying we shouldn’t memorise or enjoy our spiritual activities. What I am saying is that this enjoyment should never be more than a tool I use for enjoying God Himself. The moment I lose sight of God and instead enjoy only the tools that are supposed to lead me to Him, I become terribly and sadly confused. Imagine if Michelangelo had stopped painting the Sistine Chapel because he couldn’t take his eyes off his paintbrush! Or if Beethoven had become so interested in the paint on his piano that he forgot to write any music!

God is beautiful. Unimaginably beautiful. And, He loves me. Enough to create this beautiful world for me, and enough to die on the Cross for me. That should be reason enough for anyone. In a way, it’s really quite hard to understand why anyone should get confused …

Fr Ant