Sometimes we Copts forget that we are part of a wider community of Orthodox Christians, but I feel a sense of joy and comfort when I make any kind of contact with another community of faithful Christians. One of the ways I do that is to look in periodically on an Orthodox Christian news service, OCP Media Network. Please let me share with you two recent little items, one happy, one sad, from the lives of our fellow followers of Christ…
First, the sad. While the situation in Egypt for Coptic Christians is dangerous and difficult, the plight of our sister Oriental Orthodox Church in Eritrea is in many ways much worse. Here in the west, we hardly ever hear news of the dark and distant Horn of Africa. That silence is all the more disturbing when one realises what is going on there. Anyone who loves freedom and human rights should be outraged at what is happening to the Eritrean Orthodox Tawahedo Church. Together with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo Church, the Eritreans trace their Christian heritage back to the earliest centuries of Christianity, and consider their first archbishop to be St Frumentius who was consecrated by the Egyptian St Athanasius the Apostolic in the fourth century AD. They have a long and rich history of spirituality and ascetism that reflects their unique culture.
But today, the Eritrean Church in Eritrea is slowly dying. Persecution of the Church is hitting it on all levels. Abune Antonios, the duly elected patriarch who was consecrated by the late Coptic Pope Shenouda III in 2004, stood up to the Eritrean government when it tried to interfere in the affairs of the Church. As a result, he was deposed and replaced by a government appointee in an effort to turn the Church into virtually another department of the government. Abune Antonios was chosen for the patriarchate for his good character and his sincere devotion to raising the spiritual standard of the Eritrean Church. But now he has been held incommunicado by the government in an undisclosed location for some years, unable to pursue his spiritual agenda, while government puppets submit the Church to the agenda of a government that cares little for the Christian gospel or spirituality.
What is worse, the government has waged an unmitigated campaign against Eritrean clergy in an effort to weaken the Church. In the just the past eight years it is estimated that 1,500 priests and deacons have been conscripted against their will into the army for an indefinite period of military service, while clergy who refuse to submit to the government are arrested and defrocked. This has led to a drastic shortage of clergy for the parishes, and 1,500 parishes are in danger of being closed for lack of parish priests to serve them. Further, there are estimated to be up to 3,000 Christians currently held in Eritrean prisons as prisoners of conscience, subjected to torture and deprived of medical care.
Another snippet from my slowly evolving book on Coptic Christianity:
As we saw above, the very name of the Church, “Orthodox” (straight or true worship or belief) itself emphasises the importance of holding to a faith, believing that which is true and correct. Christianity is founded fundamentally on Truth. Jesus Christ Himself was recognised as “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) and “teaching the way of God in truth” (Mark 12:14). He described Himself as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) and promised those who follow Him the “Spirit of Truth” (John 16:13). He commands us to “worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23) and He teaches that “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
Truth should be one of the chief motivators for the Christian life. The teachings of Christ resonate with the human spirit because they have an intrinsic tone of truth to them. For example, love is the central theme in the teaching of Christ, yet even apart from that teaching, people of every age and every culture have always seemed to feel instinctively in their hearts the truth that love is the most important thing in life. Thus most people put their family above their career or popularity in importance, and might even be willing to give up their own life for those whom they love.
Yet the beauty of Christian truth is that it takes this basic human reality and extends it into areas beyond our merely human instincts. Christ taught not only basic human love, but divine love, a love that elevates the truth that love is paramount to noble and life-changing heights. For example, He taught that it is not enough to merely love our friends or relatives, but that we must also love strangers and even enemies. Here, the truth of Christ becomes counter-intuitive; it goes against the grain of human nature. And yet, it works! This kind of unconditional love, when practiced sincerely and properly, transforms not only the individual’s life, but whole societies.
This truth about love was reflected, one might say, embodied, in the person and the life of Christ Himself. By becoming a human man, by dying on the cross, by rising from the dead, by all the events of His life, He showed His great love for the feeble human creatures He had created in His own image, and who had abused their free will to their own hurt and detriment. This beautiful story of love and salvation is most clearly and succinctly told in the ancient statement of Christian belief that summarises these truths about our existence and our relationship to the one who created us; the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.
However, over the years, the significance of this universal Creed has evolved differently in the various branches of Christianity. I shall share with you my own rather simplified impression of this difference Read the rest of this entry »
It was a truly historic moment, and one that brought hope for many reasons. The tension built as millions of Copts around the world sat glued to their screens and prayed and chanted Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy) with those in the cathedral. I hoped fervently that it was only going to be 41 Kyrie eleisons and not 400! Anba Pachomius enjoined everyone to raise their hearts in supplication and submission, and a silent united supplication from millions around the world rose up to entreat God to choose a shepherd after His own heart for His Coptic flock. And then, a little boy named Bishoy dipped his hand into the bowl and pulled out a transparent orb. Time seemed to stretch out forever as Anba Pachomius fumbled with the seal and then unfolded the piece of paper that held the name of the poor man who is to lead the Coptic Orthodox Church into the future. After a quick peek himself, he held it up for all to see, and we had our new Pope…
Allow me to share a few impressions at this historic moment in time. Firstly, we must appreciate how wonderfully HE Metropolitan Pachomius has carried out his duties as locum tenens since the departure of Pope Shenouda. He had to care for a bereaved Church and soothe their sorrow (whilst no doubt dealing with his own). He had to tread a careful path in a tumultuous post-revolutionary Egypt, forging good relations with the new authorities while at the same time standing up for the rights of Christians suffering persecution and crying out for a father to defend them. He had to deal with a number of major unresolved issues within the Church, any of which could easily have led to huge splits in sections of the Church. He had to run the papal elections according to an outdated yet necessary set of bylaws, negotiating the conflicting opinions about diocesan bishops and (possibly) ambitious candidates, contrary to the venerable humble spirituality of our Coptic tradition.
All this he carried out with serenity, humility, integrity and profound wisdom. I had a personal experience of this during my recent trip to Egypt concerning one of those sensitive matters, Read the rest of this entry »
There have been many tales of people who have experienced the life beyond death and returned to describe it, but none has impressed me as much as this one. The reason it impresses me is that the subject of the experience, unlike most other cases, was a hard-headed, fairly agnostic and highly intelligent scientist … a neurosurgeon, no less! If anyone should be able to tell a purely physiological phenomenon from a genuine supernatural experience, you would think it would be someone like Dr Eben Alexander.
A near death experience is one where a patient is clinically dead for a period of time and is then resuscitated. Such patients often recall strange experiences during the time they were unconscious; some of them pleasant, some of them deeply distressing. A variety of natural explanations have been put forward for this very real phenomenon, such as the effects of a lack of oxygen in the brain. Others have pointed to the possibility of producing strange experiences using the general anaesthetic ketamine as suggesting a similar natural process underlying near death experiences.
Which is why the story Dr Alexander tells is particularly pertinent. He contracted E. coli meningitis, a bacterial infection of the lining around the brain that seriously imperilled his life and flung him into a coma for seven days. During that time, numerous scans of his brain and its function were conducted, and showed that his brain was not just impaired, but genuinely non-functional. What this means is that his vivid experiences are unlikely to have been produced by a lack of oxygen or damage to neuronal circuits causing the brain cells to misfire and produce hallucination, or any other natural process. To put it bluntly: a brain can’t hallucinate when it has stopped working altogether.
I have been interested in near death experiences for decades now, ever since reading Beyond Death’s Door by Dr Maurice Rawlings back in the eighties. His description of a patient who could recall the details of a neck tie worn by a staff member who came into his hospital room after he had clinically died and left before he had recovered consciousness struck me as being pretty good evidence for the reality of such experiences. Another striking tale I came across on the net was that of a Russian priest (from memory) who had a near death experience in a hospital during which he wafted out of his body and came across an infant in another bed who wordlessly told him that his hip hurt. Upon waking and describing the infant and his location to doctors, it turned out that the infant had been in hospital for weeks crying constantly with pain but without a diagnosis. When they examined his hip, they found that was where the problem was. This kind of knowledge, inaccessible to the patient, discounts the possibility of any natural explanation.
So I was fascinated when I heard of an experiment to be conducted by Professor Bruce Greyson at the University of Virginia that planned to test out the reality of near death experiences. His plan was as elegant as it was simple. Read the rest of this entry »
I thank Mark Ramzy in the USA for raising the case FOR diocesan bishops becoming pope in a Facebook discussion. To clarify some of the things in my previous posts on the topic, I thought it worthwhile to post his comments here with my response. Feel free to share your opinion – it is wonderful that we are able to debate such issues with frankness and love, and can it can only lead to a better Church in the future as together we seek the truth in love. To find the canons mentioned below and many more documents that are relevant, go the canon 15 website.
I like the article Abouna, with the exception of the paragraph about diocesan bishops. It strongly implies that any diocesan bishop who is up for patriarch is somehow automatically coveting the position. I don’t think that automatically follows and, if it does, whatever the reasoning is would apply to anyone up for patriarch, not just that select sample.
I think the only way the argument holds true is if (i) diocesan bishops cannot become patriarch and (ii) each diocesan bishop up for the position actually believes (i). (Also holds true if (i) is wrong but the diocesan bishops think it’s true).
And my response:
Hi Mark. If you read the actual canon there is leeway for exceptions in certain circumstances. Of course, we would always want the best person for the role and historically we have had even laymen chosen to be pope with excellent results. If there were a standout diocesan bishop of superior spiritual qualities and no viable alternatives, I would certainly support his elevation to the papacy – that’s the kind of exception envisioned in the canon. But that certainly was not the case in our current situation. Perhaps, say, if HG Bishop Moussa was a diocesan bishop, there would have been a good case for his being a candidate (note he immediately declined when he was nominated).
If you read the letters of St Basil, you will find that even in the fifth century, politics had entered the Church and he struggled greatly to overcome this objectionable environment of ambition and self-seeking. I think the wisdom of the canon is to create an environment where this is not possible. WHy target diocesan bishops in particular? Actually, the canon covers bishops, priests and even deacons. The premise is “don’t strive to leave a smaller service for a bigger service”. We should strive to faithfully fulfil the mission given to us by God rather than being discontented with it and seeking to do something “bigger”. This is something we teach to our servants every day and seek to follow as priests as well. Service is not about being a hero, it is about humble loving sacrifice. And the same applies to a bishop just as aptly, if not moreso.
I hope that clarifies it a little? What do you think?
Yesterday His Eminence Metropolitan Pachomius announced the final short list of candidates for the election to be held on November 24 to choose the 118th Pope of the See of Alexandria, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The list of five candidates is:
- HG Bishop Raphael (General Bishop)
– responsible for central Cairo but also serves with HG Bishop Moussa in the Bishopric of Youth.
- HG Bishop Tawadros (General Bishop)
– assistant to HE Metropolitan Pachomius in the diocese of Beheira, north-western Egypt.
- Fr Raphael Ava Mina
– a disciple of the late Pope Kyrollos VI and Abba Mina Ava Mina, the late head of the Monastery of St Mina.
- Fr Pachomius Elsouriany
– has served in Rome, Italy as a parish priest under HG Bishop Barnabas.
- Fr Seraphim Elsouriany
– has served in Hawaii, USA as a parish priest under HG Bishop Serapion.
No doubt more biographical details will soon be released about each of the candidates. I have gleaned from various sources that the Electoral Committee comprised of nine bishops and nine lay members of the Community Council (Maglis el Milli) spent nine days deliberating in the desert monastery of St Bishoy in order to trim the original list of 17 nominees down to just five. They considered all the objections that had been submitted to them for consideration and gradually whittled down the list through a series of secret ballots. All this was supported by a general fast with many prayers and liturgies carried out by the whole body of Copts all over the world, praying for God to guide the process and those conducting it to make the best decision for the Church.
I think the fasting worked. There are a number of positive things about this shortlist that are worth noting. Firstly, it is reassuring to see that our monasteries are still capable of producing monks of a high spiritual calibre in this day and age where life has become so complicated and true ascetism so difficult. Secondly, it is encouraging for the younger generations in the Church to see that some of the candidates, especially HG Bishop Raphael, have a firm background in serving the youth, which means they should have a comprehensive knowledge of the needs of the youth and how best to meet them. The young have been a very high priority since the papacy of Pope Shenouda III who was himself a Sunday School servant in his younger days and whose experience with the young greatly influenced his direction as pope. Also encouraging is the fact that a number of the candidates have served in the west and should hopefully therefore possess a sound understanding of the unique challenges and needs of western Copts, a category that currently comprises roughly 10-15% of Copts in the world, and will only grow in the years to come. Read the rest of this entry »
Most people take it for granted that each of us is free to choose in life. But some philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, claim that most people do not really want to be free. Choices have real consequences, and freedom brings with it responsibility. People do not want to be held responsible for the consequences of their actions. What if I make the wrong decision? What if the consequences are bad? I don’t want to be held to blame! I don’t want to feel guilty. And so people seek ways to shift the responsibility on to someone or something else, whether they know they are doing this or not.
One famous way of doing this is “the devil made me do it”. But a more subtle way of shifting responsibility is to lay it upon God, or upon His representatives on earth. Sartre points out that when a person adopts a faith, they surrender some of their freedom. They surrender the freedom to decide for themselves what is right and wrong, for by subscribing to their faith’s moral code, that decision is taken out of their hands. Of course, each person is still free to choose whether to obey their faith’s moral code or not – they are still quite free and quite responsible in that sense, but they are no longer responsible for the content of the moral code itself.
Now I do not see this as a bad thing in itself. We humans are, after all, quite fallible, and we have a disturbing tendency to try to cheat to make life comfortable for ourselves. If there is a genuinely objective right and wrong in the world (as most people would agree there is), then we are much more likely to find it when God tells us what it is than when are left to work it out for ourselves. Read the rest of this entry »
There has been some heated debate recently over the question of submission in marriage. It has been stirred up by the conservative Sydney Archdiocese of the Anglican Church introducing optional marriage vows for the bride that include the concept of submitting to her husband. This of course is something that has existed int he Coptic Orthodox rite since time immemorial. It is no novel invention, but derives from the words of St Paul:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Saviour of the body. 24 Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22 NKJV)
Liberal Anglicans are outraged. They see this as huge step backwards for their Church, plunging it back into a discredited, patriarchal misogyny. St Paul wrote in the context of first century Greco-Roman society, where the inferiority of women was simply taken for granted. He and those to whom he wrote simply could not imagine a world where things were different, so he was simply giving advice on how to live as a Christian within that existing social structure. Compare slavery, the liberals say. St Paul encourages slaves to be obedient and submissive to their masters as to the Lord. But enlightened Christians in a more developed society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries refused to accept slavery as an institution and changed the whole structure of their society, eliminating slavery altogether, rather than just telling slaves to accept their lot and be submissive. By analogy, they say, our even more enlightened society in the twentieth and twenty first centuries is now changing the very power structure of marriage and introducing the fullness of the equality before God that St Paul mentioned elsewhere:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28 NKJV)
But both the liberal interpretation of St Paul and the objections to submission in marriage are based on a crucial misunderstanding of the Gospel of Christ, reflected in St Paul. Once clarified, submission falls into its proper place and becomes something beautiful. To identify this misconception, we shall go right back to the beginning of the problem… Read the rest of this entry »
Did you know that the fastest growth among the Christian denominations in Australia today is happening in the Pentecostal and Charismatic Protestant Churches?
One of the defining characteristics of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity is the phenomenon of speaking in strange languages. It is believed that this is a miraculous gift from the Holy Spirit, that it continues a practice of the Apostles themselves, and that it is even a sign of God’s favour. People who speak in tongues consider it to be an experience of connecting with God, a superior form of prayer in fact. Some will even go so far as to say that Christians who do not speak in tongues are seriously deficient as Christians
All of these beliefs are highly suspect. But don’t take my word for it; read the evidence and make up your own mind. You will find some detailed research here which I will try to summarise briefly below.
Firstly, if speaking in tongues were truly a gift of the Holy Spirit, one would expect it to be unique to those who believe in the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit. But in reality, speaking in tongues or glossolalia was not only practiced by pagan cults well before Christianity began, but continues to practiced by non-Christians today, including Hindu fakirs and gurus in India and even, worryingly, by voodoo practitioners in Haiti. There is no doubt that pagans began speaking in tongues long before Christianity began, and there is compelling evidence that the practice was smuggled into Christian life by pagan converts to Christianity.
But didn’t the disciples speak in tongues? Here we must make an important distinction, one you will have already noticed if you have been reading your Bible carefully. Read the rest of this entry »
It strikes me that many people in the Coptic tradition spend a lot of their lives being discontented with their prayer life. “I don’t pray enough”; “I don’t focus”; “I don’t feel much”.
Now there’s nothing wrong with desiring a deeper, more genuine dialogue with God. What is more important to our being than this? But it is also true that human nature is to shy away from things with which we are discontented. They make us feel bad, and so we avoid them if we can. Hence the struggle that many face to pray. It is not that they do not wish to be with God – it is that in their minds, prayer has become solidly attached to an uncomfortable feeling of failure or guilt or vague restlessness, a tone that makes them avoid prayer whenever possible.
This has to be one of the cleverer tricks of the devil to keep those who sincerely desire the presence of God away from experiencing it. Imagine the opposite. Imagine if prayer were instead attached to feelings of joy, peace and love. Who in their right minds would avoid that?
The question then becomes how one is to rescue prayer from the muddy negative attitudes that so easily encrust it and hide its true beauty. Here are some musings from a fellow struggler… Read the rest of this entry »