The moment you decide to go for it, the instant you steel your will and take up your weapons for battle, something has to happen to make your goal suddenly seem that much harder.
Last time I shared my intention to be more punctual – a brave thing to do. What followed was an illness that meant I had to not only not arrive on time for my next few days of appointments, but cancel them altogether! Talk about not keeping your word. The good news is that I’m back out of hospital now with little permanent damage done, and I’m not going to give up! It may well be some time before I can make appointments again, that’s true, but when I do, I am going to try to be punctual to them.
This kind of thing does not surprise me. It is for me one of the indirect proofs of the existence of God. If God didn’t exist, why should it prove so consistently darned hard to obey Him?
It is also good for the soul. Obstacles give us an opportunity to be stubborn in a good way, and that’s something most of us relish. At least you are sure whose side your on. Give me a clear path with lots of obstacles over a confusing path anytime.
The more cynical among you may be thinking right now, “Isn’t that compulsory for a Coptic priest? Don’t they teach that during their 40 days of training?”
Of course, the reality is that Egypt lies at the junction of the Middle East and Africa, two regions of the world where puncuality as a priority rates somewhere between eating your greens and polishing your carburettor. If the West enjoys occasionally being ‘fashionably late’, everyone in the Middle East is a trend leader, while the dark continent loves to remind you, “No hurry in Africa”. No wonder that Egyptians, by and large, are not a very punctual people.
But here’s my problem: not only do I serve with a priest who is abnormally punctual, but I am married to one of the most punctual people I know! I am developing an inferiority complex! If they can do it, why can’t I?
Lateness is an attitude. If you are engrossed in the thing you are doing at the moment, it is easy to lose track of time. It is easy for the person you are talking to now to seem more pressing than the person you have not yet reached. Somewhere in the back of mind lurks the idea that nothing so terrible will happen if I’m a little bit late. And of course, the little bit becomes a little bit more, and little bit more, and… oops.
I can see spiritual benefits in this attitude, not to mention health benefits. Surely it is a good thing to give the person you are with your fullest attention? Doesn’t that let them know that they are important to you? It also means that you can do things properly, rather than leaving things half finished. Then of course, there is the valuable humility you gain from constantly apologising to people when you are constantly late. Healthwise, it is really good for you not to stress over the little details of life. Your blood pressure will thank you, even if the person waiting for you will not.
But my wife said something to me once that gave me pause: “Being punctual,” she said, “is keeping your word.” I had never really thought of it like that. If Egyptians are famous for lateness, Upper Egyptians (of which I am one) are proverbial for keeping their word – no matter what. So every time I am late, I am actually breaking my word to someone. “I’ll be there at 7,” I confidently tell them. When I eventually arrive at 7:30, not only have I kept them waiting for me for half an hour, but I have also broken my word. That’s not a nice thing to do. The message it sends is that the person waiting for you is not that important. Perhaps that your time is more valuale than theirs, so it is fine for them to wait for you.
Punctuality is often viewed as a cultural thing. But if so, I wonder why many of our Coptic youth who have been brought up here in Australia still seem to have the lousy punctuality of their parents. I begin to wonder whether there is not more to it than just culture. Maybe there is a personal choice to be made here. Can an unpunctual person really change? Can a Coptic priest really turn up on time? I have known some who do, on a regular basis!
Among the difficult questions in life is trust. We cannot survive without trust, but then again, we are constantly anxious about who, when and why to trust.
On the simplest of levels, you trust that the glass of water you drank this morning did not contain some deadly germ, and that the brake pedal in your car is actually going to stop the car when you need it to. (I once owned a car where this was not always true, by the way. We developed a very close relationship, that car and I. We came to know each other’s limits intimately; I knew the distance the car required to stop on the flat using only the manual downshifting of gears and the hand brake, while it came to know what I sounded like when I thought I was about smash into a tree.)
But it’s not usually the inanimate objects that give us grief with trust. Far more often, it’s the other humans. I think we are all born with an innate willingness to trust; an innocence if you like. You need only watch a three year old being tossed high into the air by her Daddy, see the huge grin and hear the cackling, to know that here is an example of absolute trust. Daddy drop me? The very thought is impossible!
But by the time we are adults, we find it hard to take people at their word or completely depend on someone. Between innocent childhood and suspicious adulthood something changes. Of course, the change occurs through bitter experience. Once someone lets you down, you find it hard to trust that person again. If it ever happened that a Daddy did actually drop his daughter (surely not!) that daughter would no doubt be quite wary of games with Daddy after that. And so it goes on through our early lives: promises broken, agreements dishonoured, honesty repaid with humiliation, secrets betrayed…
If it only happened once, perhaps we would have a fighting chance of maintaining our innocence. But when it happens many times, we naturally develop an instinct of wariness and caution that eventually comes to colour our personality and our whole approach to life. Shatter trust often enough and the person will withdraw into their own safe little world of lonely isolation where no one can hurt them anymore. How sad.
Life a lot nicer when you can trust. To live in constant doubt about others is to live without peace. If we are ever to share a sincere relationship with someone, we have to let them in to our inner thoughts and emotions, share with them the experiences that made us who we are. But to do so is to leave oneself incredibly vulnerable to the other. he might go and tell someone else, or criticise me, or not like me, or worse of all, laugh at me! It is so hard to trust another person with your real self, and yet, if we don’t, we are doomed to a sad life of loneliness.
As a parent, you learn how important trust is in the relationship with your child. You cannot be with them twenty four hours a day, so they have to learn how to keep safe, how to be sensible in their choices, how to resist temptation and how to be honourable and remain steadfastly true to their principles. That trust is not easy to achieve. It involves a lot of heartache, not knowing how things are going to turn out, sometimes even running the risk that the child may be hurt in some way, but it’s the only way to develop true trust.
And the trust has to work both ways. A child can only learn to be trustworthy if they have a living example of trustworthiness before them every day. The parent who takes the shortcut of telling a little fib to escape to buying those chocolates at the checkout today will find their child telling them fibs about anything and everything tomorrow. There are no shortcuts to trust, no discounted sales: it’s expensive, and part of the price is being utterly trustworthy yourself.
God trusts us.
He shows us His trust in the incredible degree of freedom He gives us. Yes, if I choose foolishly to eat unhealthily or to blow myself and others up as a suicide bomber, he doesn’t forcefully stop me. God grants every one of us genuine freedom of action, even knowing the consequences of a bad choice. Why does He do that? Why doesn’t He make the world such that no one can hurt anyone else? Perhaps He could enclose every human being in a sort of force field that is impervious to evil actions! Every time you tried to hurt someone, you couldn’t pierce the shield around you. Wouldn’t that be a much nicer world to live in?
Or would it? I know many parents who would love to get their hands on an invention like that, and would love even more to get their children shackled inside one! But then, where is the freedom? Where is the chance to learn real lessons? Where is the trust? No, God does not deal with us like that. Instead He chooses to unleash us on the world and leave us to make our own choices, choices with real consequences not just for us, but for others also. Only in this way can we become the kind of creatures He wants us to be, or develop the kind of relationship He wants with us.
Can you trust God?
As life goes on, everyone goes through experiences that shake their trust in God, and in some cases, destroy it completely. “How could God have let such a thing happen?” is not an uncommon question. How can we trust God when things go so wrong in this world? How do we know He’s not going to drop us?
Bu there’s the beauty of it. He never does! Oh sure, there are times when it really feels like He has. We see the ground screaming crazily towards us and we get that sick feeling in the pit of the stomach that this time, everything is not going to be alright. But then, it is. Maybe not when we want it to be, maybe not how we want it to be, but wait long enough and sure enough, there it is: the safe hands that reach out at the very last moment when all seems lost and gently hold us and draw us back into that powerful safe embrace.
Those who have been up and down often enough learn to trust those powerful hands. They know that it simply cannot happen that He should ever drop one of His children.
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb?
Surely they may forget, yet I will not forget you.”
Is it better to see life in complex or simple terms? Should I delve deeply into things, seeking hidden meanings, or should I just accept things at face value?
In my last post I looked at the argument in favour of complexity. Today, a look at the other side…
Simplicity plays a crucial role in the life of the true Christian. When our Lord gives us simple, direct commands, there is not a lot of wiggle room, nor should we be clever and try to find it. An example of this might be the central law of love in Christianity. We are enjoined to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, our neighbours, and even our enemies and those who persecute us: in simple terms, to love every human being in this world.
You can get pretty complicated in addressing the question of how to apply this command, but basically, it boils down to something pretty straightforward: put away your ego, your fear, your dignity and your pride. See how God loves the unlovable, and strive to do the same. When the man asked Jesus “who is my neighbour?”, he was possibly trying to find a way out of loving someone he didn’t want to love by changing the definitions. This is resorting to complexity where it does not belong. This is why attackers of Christianity accuse Christians of being hypocritical. Richard Dawkins is convinced that when Christians say “love thy neighbour”, they mean only the neighbour who belongs to my tribe, my faith, my nationality. From where does he get this ridiculous concept? From Christians who play with the words for their own selfish ends.
Simplicity makes life so much easier, so much more peaceful when we employ it in our dealings with one another. Consider the person who constantly doubts the motives of others, constantly taking offence at others’ words and actions, seeing insults where none are intended or snobbishness where none exists. This person lives in constant anxiety and discontentment. Compare him to one who takes the words and actions of others simply. When someone says, “I didn’t mean it”, he takes them at their word and thinks no more about it. If someone seems to ignore him, he takes no offence but rather anticipates that there is some other unknown reason for the apparent snub (he was tired, he was distracted, he has a tooth ache…) This person lives a life of peace and contentment. He is happy with others because he is happy within himself. A simple heart produces a simple eye, and a simple eye produces a simple heart.
Last time we considered mandlebulbs where simple instructions produced incredibly complex and beautiful forms. But the opposite may be true as well. Sometimes very complicated beginnings boil down to a very simple ending. Consider the famous Theory of Relativity discovered by the famous Albert Einstein, a man who himself was in love with simplicity. Some pretty heavy maths takes a long and circuitous path to boil down to a stunningly simple equation in the end: e = mc2.
In his personal life, Einstein sought simplicity in ways that many would consider eccentric at best, downright insane at worst. For example, he drove his poor wife crazy by insisting upon taking up the scissors and cutting off the cuffs of his shirtsleeves. What purpose do the darn things serve? All they do is get dirty and force you to wash the whole shirt before the rest of it is in need of washing! For similar reasons, he apparently often dispensed with socks. To his mind, unnecessary distractions prevented him from focusing his time and energy on his real goals, his mathematical and physical investigations, so he took the logical course and simplified his life.
Personally, I find much to admire in this approach. Gone are the days when I used to spend ages trying to match up my socks. Of course, they’re all black, but there is black and there is black. There are thicker winter materials and lighter summer ones. There are long, medium and short ones, with elastic and without, and then of course, there are all the stages of fading. You can tell I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. But one day it dawned upon me that this is such a waste of time. Black socks are black socks in the end, and who pays attention to your socks? Matching socks never got anyone into heaven, not so far as I know, anyway. So now I just take any two socks out of the washing basket and slip them on. Simplicity! It feels like being set free from prison! The prison was my own unnecessary perfectionism, vanity and small mindedness. Just don’t look too closely at my feet, next time we meet…
So where does all that leave us? Should we be simple or complex in our approach to life? The answer, I think, is both. There is a time and place for complexity and another for simplicity. There are even times when we should use them together, as we use a hammer and nail together. To know which is to be applied requires wisdom and discernment: gifts that generally are won through hard experience, many mistakes and an open mind.
“Be wise as serpents, innocent as doves”, said our Lord. And yes, it is possible to have both in the same person. I hope these modest reflections may have shed a little light on how this is possible.
As a young new priest, I came to be well known for the size of my pockets. They bulged and overflowed with mysterious contents that were often the subject of idle speculation. Yes, I was ready for anything!
This morning, I went through that time-honoured ritual of the Coptic priest: “the changing of the cassock”. Perhaps not as glamorous as Buckingham Palace’s changing of the guard, it is an exercise that is no less important, nor, as it turned out, instructive.
For I realised that this morning as I transferred things from the old cassock to the new that the contents of my pockets are but a pale shadow of their former selves. I bulge no more…
And I could trace the reasons why. As a young priest I wanted to be sure that I had the keys to everything. I didn’t want to ever be stuck outside a door at Church unable to get in. Today, it doesn’t seem to matter that much anymore. If I can’t get in to that room, I just find somewhere else … and life goes on.
As a young priest I carried in my pockets a Bible, an Agbia, a diary for appointments, a bulky mobile phone, a bulky book of addresses and telephone numbers and a notebook to scribble in. Plus two very hefty bunches of assorted keys. It helped me feel I was equipped for anything that might come my way. Today, all those things (except the keys), together with a dictionary, a thesaurus, an encyclopaedia, innumerable newspapers, a street directory, the White Pages and the Yellow Pages, an audio player, a video machine, a camera, a photo album, a full set of the Katameros for every season (daily liturgical readings), a Synaxarium (daily stories of saints) and much more besides all sit in my pocket in just one compact device, on my tiny little iphone.
My world has changed. And I have changed.
Gadgets like an iphone make our world that much more convenient. It is a seismic shift that I suspect will not only make our lives more convenient, but change the very way we think and deal with our world. Gone are many of the little obstacles in life that sometimes infuriated us, but often taught us patience and perspective, and forced us to be resourceful. So many of the opportunities for genuinely original thinking that those frustrations represented have all but disappeared from our lives. A good thing, or a bad thing? Who knows, but our world has changed.
And I have changed with the years. I have become a much less stressed out individual. Through repeated experience, I finally appear to be learning that God is indeed in control, and that there is nothing the world can throw at you that you and God can’t handle. Another lesson from experience is just how much time and effort we waste on inconsequential matters. Today, I hope that I am targeting my time and energy on things that make more of a difference (but you can never be sure). I have learned not to worry or be disappointed when things don’t go your way. They will go God’s way, in the end. There is no longer any doubt in my mind on that.
And so, the slow evacuation of my pockets in a way mirrors another emptying; the emptying of my ego. There is no longer a need for many of those “I” statements that human beings are so addicted to. “I failed / I succeeded”; “I can’t do this”, “I am disappointed”, “I don’t like this”: these and many more, like the many items in my pockets of old, have outlived their usefulness and been replaced with something much smaller, much better, and much lighter to carry. Instead of all the many “I”s, now I mostly carry just one “Thy”: “Thy will be done”. And I’m learning to carry it with a smile.
Where will all this end? I look forward to the day when my pockets can be completely empty, when I can carry around all that I need within the compact little device called “me”. Because in the end, what DO I really, really need to get through life? All those material items are helpful, but none are truly essential. One thing only is essential:
The presence of Christ: not in my pocket, but in my heart.
“It is better to be silent and be suspected of being a fool,
than to speak, and remove any doubt.”
I don’t remember where I came across that little gem, but it carries a useful message. How often have you been involved in a discussion with someone who is absolutely certain about something, and you are equally certain that they’re wrong? You try to convince them. You call upon logic; you appeal to evidence; you cite witnesses; you plead for common sense, but nothing seems able to shake that rock solid (mistaken) confidence. Arghhhh!!!!
There are situations in life where it can be quite dangerous to be certain and wrong at the same time, and then there are situations where it hardly matters anyway. Does it really matter if my friend is convinced that George Washington was the first Prime Minister of Australia? It may be frustrating; it may betray a certain lack of patriotism, but in the big scheme of the universe, it makes very little difference to anyone.
Then again, a doctor learns very quickly how dangerous being overconfident in your opinion can be. To continue to believe in a diagnosis that is wrong could harm a patient, or in extreme cases, kill them. That is why doctors (the good ones, anyway) work very hard to train themselves in the art of uncertainty.
A gifted doctor will be able to tell you at any stage of the diagnostic process just how certain s/he is. They may not be able to put a figure on it – “I am 75.492% certain that we are dealing with melanoma here” – but they can usually tell you if they are definitely certain; quite certain with a little room for doubt; leaning towards one diagnosis rather than the other, or quite frankly flummoxed. Knowing one’s degree of certainty influences the therapeutic decisions one takes. Medication may sometimes be given on speculation, such as a case of suspected bacterial meningitis (infection around the brain) where administering antibiotics quickly is crucial and delay could cost lives. In such a situation, one need not wait for test results to improve the degree of certainty. On the other hand, if you’re thinking of administering powerful anti-cancer drugs that are going to cause horrible side effects, you’d better be pretty darn sure you’ve got the diagnosis right!
Now, there have been those who have tried to tame uncertainty using the whip of mathematics. There are mathematical strategies for putting a number on uncertainty that at least allows you to compare uncertainties, but to use these strategies as if they were completely accurate and infallible would be a mistake. The real world is just far too complicated and involves too many variables for any mathematical model to be more than a mere indication.
So the art of uncertainty is just that – an art. It is learned through experience: through observation and analysis of one’s mistakes, and the gradual accumulation of this data over many years. It often depends on a degree of informed intuition, rather than being a totally logical process. But I believe it is a very useful tool to have in one’s toolbox of life. Skill in this art will inform all your life decisions and increase your wisdom factor, which usually makes life more comfortable, successful and enjoyable. If nothing else, being skilful in the art of uncertainty will at least limit the number of people whose blood pressure you raise by arguing confidently for that which is false!
Angela asks how to explain to a three year old why we are celebrating Christmas again – obviously she is discovering the joys of childhood curiosity. Hang in there, Angela: the questions only get harder from here on!
Anyhow, here are a few of my suggestions on handling this delicate situation. Please note that some of them involve the tongue being placed firmly in the cheek. I should point out that my own kids passed the age of three some time ago, so please forgive me if the answers below seem a little rusty. I’ve been dealing with teenage questions for so long I’ve forgotten how nice the simple enquiring mind of a toddler can be…
1. We mucked it up the first time so we thought we’d have another go.
2. I wasn’t happy with my presents so I asked Santa to come back for an exchange.
3. What? You mean it’s only been two weeks and not 12 months???
4. We’re practising counting up to 2.
5. We have our Christmas AFTER the Boxing Day sales so we can get our presents on special.
6. Jesus is SO special He is the only one in the world who gets TWO birthdays every year!
7. There’s Western Christmas and Coptic Christmas because our calendars have gotten a little bit confused. One day we’ll fix them and then we’ll all just celebrate Christmas on together on the same day. Maybe when you’re a grandpa.
Readers should feel free to make up for my poor efforts by contributing their own explanations as a comment.
PS For those who’d like a more serious explanation for the double Nativity, I will post a detailed paper on the Coptic calendar shortly.
As I write, the leaders of the world are gathered at Copenhagen to discuss what is to be done about the threat of global warming.
There remains a significant minority of climate change ‘sceptics’ in the world. The debate over the reality of global warming is a fascinating illustration of the human ability to ‘manufacture’ a preferred reality. At the one extreme you have environmentalists who have clamouring about the damage humans are doing to planet earth since the 1960s, and who now feel they have enough solid evidence to say a rather big “I told you so!” At the other extreme you have the vested commercial interests for whom saving the planet is just going to cost too much money, and who find it more convenient to believe that global warming is just a big conspiracy.
Both these extremes exhibit all the classic features of self-deception: picking and choosing the evidence that supports their case and ignoring the evidence that doesn’t; setting up ‘straw man’ arguments for their opponents and demolishing them; attacking the character of those on the other side; and so on. Their positions may be complete opposites, but sometimes it’s amazing how similar their tactics are! And none of those tactics are very likely to lead them to know the truth of the matter.
In the middle, of course, lies the real and objective science. As I understand the current state of play, the debate is able to continue because the evidence is not yet conclusive either way. It is simply not possible to say with certainty yet that man-made global warming is a perilous reality or to rule it out with confidence.
So the game becomes one of risk management. Sometimes, even if the risk of something bad happening is small, you may still want to invest a lot in avoiding it, because if it did happen, it would be disastrous. We do this every time we hop into a car. Your seat belt will be useless and inconvenient 99.9% of the time you are in the car. Yet you put up with that because that 0.1% of the time when you need it, when you are involved in an accident, it can save your life. The seriousness of the danger makes all that inconvenience worthwhile. That seems to be the argument of the more sensible and objective climate change believers at the moment, and I must confess it makes a lot of sense to me.
It also bears a startling resemblance to the argument about believing in God. Even if you believe it highly unlikely that God exists, the danger of being an unbeliever if God is real is so great that it actually makes sense to believe in God just in case. I suppose this is another variation on Blaise Pascal’s famous wager (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal%27s_Wager).
Following the risk minimisation logic through, you will find some rather unexpected personalities on either side of the global warming debate. For example, while the Greens’ Senator Bob Brown is an avowed atheist, he sees the sense in taking the safe path on the environment. On the other hand, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell is a climate change sceptic!
That’s not to say that all Christians should be global warming believers. As I said before, the evidence remains inconclusive at this point. But it is interesting to see how people can change their standards for accepting things so drastically according to what they want to believe.
The gathering is interesting from another side as well. Nations have historically found it almost impossible to collaborate effectively on anything without selfishly seeking what’s best for themselves. Even friendly nations often will not help each other without getting something out of it, or at least safeguarding their own interests. The Americans have been the world champions at this game for some time now, although China seems to be challenging for the crown through its business ventures in Africa. But now, faced with a potential crisis that threatens the very existence of nations, and one that threatens the whole world without exception, will this selfish approach be continued? Or will the nations finally feel that they must put aside individual agendas and come together to save humanity from destruction?
I think it would be naive to expect that any real change in attitude is likely to occur, at least not until things get really, really bad. And perhaps not even then. And yet, it will be interesting to observe just how much change does occur, and how much of it is genuine rather than grandstanding on the world stage.
Meanwhile, think green! Hey, it’s a nicer lifestyle anyway.
The fourth annual Archangel Michael & St Bishoy Church Trivia Night last Sunday was everything it promised … and more (about 20 degrees Celsius more!) Yes, it was hot: and I’m not just talking about the competition. The scorching November Sunday evening had us wondering just how bad global warming might become.
Yet somehow, a couple of hundred dedicated quizzers managed to keep their grey matter from liquefying and focused on the challenging questions. It was great to see Team 2 Kool 4 Skool there for the first time, representing the teachers of St Bishoy College. While their spelling was atrocious (write that out properly a hundred times!) their general knowledge was dazzling. They just beat out Team Hectic Kebabs into third place overall for the night. No prizes for guessing what was on the minds of the fourth place getters, just two sleeps away from 43 days of fasting.
But in the final run, it was the syntactically challenged Team Awesomeness versus the imaginatively named Team Insert Names who battled it out for the shiny new trophy. And when the final scores went up on the electronic score board, it was an awesome victory for the awesome Team Awesomeness, while the second place getters were left to insert their names on the runner-up certificates. Well done to a team who have been there or thereabouts in every trivia night so far.
No doubt you will want to know how Team MIB fared. Yes, the team made up of the clergy and their families struggled bravely through questions from maths to nautical navigation. Had we known there would be points up for grabs for being able to catch a lolly thrown at you with your mouth, we might have practiced! It’s not that easy when you have to deal with the wind-drag on a moving beard. Then there was that hope-crushing crashing out of their entrant in the Speak-for-60 seconds-without-saying-the-word-‘and’ competition. 59seconds! We was robbed!
I’m not trying to make excuses, mind you. But I will point out that we did improve two whole places to come 6th this year. At that rate of annual improvement, I expect we should win the competition in 2012.
Not that it’s about winning, of course. It was a lovely night of good natured fun and fellowship, the kind of occasion that brings people closer together in love and Christian unity. Once again, I am left feeling incredibly honoured to be serving among a group of such dedicated and mature youth who designed and ran the night with very few hitches indeed – may God bless them all.
Now for next year, do you think we might have a few more questions about religion, and astronomy, perhaps?
Today is 14th November. It is the anniversary of the ordination of our own beloved Fr Botros in 1996 (Happy Anniversary Abouna!) but it is also the anniversary of the enthronement of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III way back in 1971. No doubt, a great deal will be written and said about this beacon of Coptic history, but I would just like to add a few personal little memories to the avalanche of praise that rains down this day.
You see, for me, it is not the more obvious achievements that inspire my love and affection for this man whom I have only met on a handful of occasions in my life. It is not the number of Churches he has established, nor ordinations he has carried out. It is not what he has done that impresses me, it is who he is; his character and personality.
I am not exaggerating when I say that Pope Shenouda has played a vital role in my being Coptic Orthodox Christian and in serving as a priest. Through his character and his leadership, he has created a Church where the Truth of Christianity is first and foremost, above all else. This may sound obvious, but it must not be taken for granted. There are sadly many Christian communities in this world where the Truth of Christianity takes a secondary role to material wealth, or politics, or power, or personal rivalries.
His Holiness also made the Church into a more open institution. He warmly welcomed people who do not fit the usual image of a Coptic Christian into the Church with open arms. His personal support for missionary work in Africa and elsewhere is a case in point. His concerted efforts to make the French and British Orthodox a part of the Coptic Church without losing their individual identity is another example.
My own service is yet another example. Who ever heard of a man being ordained a Coptic priest when he could not even say “Abana Allazee” (“Our Father”) in Arabic, but only in barbarous English?! In my early years, some people left our parish in disgust that this new-fangled priest was praying in English in the Sunday liturgy. Without the sense of support and confidence from His Holiness, neither I nor the many other Fathers and layservants who have grown up in Australia and other western lands could have continued in our service. His Holiness made us feel that we belonged in the Coptic Church, where many others in times past would have excluded anyone who didn’t fit the Arabic mould.
Even more influential has been His Holiness’ personal modelling of integrity and character. His courage and strength are now legendary, being displayed in the difficult Sadat years. His wisdom has been extraordinary and his theological and spiritual knowledge and ability as a teacher have had influence far beyond the limits of Coptic Orthodoxy.
But it is his meticulous and constant application of Christian morals that has inspired me the most. His Holiness is the kind of person who insists on the truth in all he does, big and small. He refuses to take shortcuts that are not in keeping with Christian morals and ethics, no matter how hard that might make things.
Added to this honesty is a compassion and selflessness that is astounding for one in a position of authority such as his. Patriarchs are bowed to and served hand and foot. How easy it would be to just take this for granted; he is certainly busy enough to just accept this and turn his mind to weightier matters. And yet…
It was very dark, and four new young priests were standing outside the Papal Cell in St Bishoy’s Monastery at 2am, waiting to welcome His Holiness back from Cairo where he had just delivered his weekly Wednesday Sermon to 10,000 listeners. They scratched sleepily at the itchy fuzz in their newborn beards. The car swept up the driveway, and the small figure of His Holiness emerged from the back door. With a smile beneath manifestly tired eyes he patiently greeted the small group, and after a little good natured banter, he began to climb the steps to his cell. Suddenly, he stopped and turned around. He called his secretary and sent him into the cell to get something for him. A moment later, he called up the four startled new priests and gave them each a little torch. “Here,” he said, “take these. I was told that the monastery generators have been breaking down lately, and you might find that your electricity cuts out every now and then. You might want to keep reading in the dark, so use these.”
I still keep my torch as a treasured memory of a love that cares for each and every soul individually. Even at 2am after an exhausting Patriarchal day.
That is but one example of many of the courtesy, the thoughtfulness and the genuine love that His Holiness lives in our midst every day. Most of our youth have never known the Church without Pope Shenouda. May they continue to be led by his example for many years to come. Fr Ant