Can you notice what is ‘wrong’ with this picture?
Our daughter Emma noticed right away. The picture is a clear inversion of the Gospel story in which Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. Emma asked, “Why is that man washing Jesus’ feet?” and the question is valid. Presented in such a manner the lesson is clear: We are to be servants of Jesus. This is a good message, of course, but it disturbs the radicalism of the Gospel in which Jesus established the basis of leadership to be service to all, especially the lowly.
Had Emma been born in the Orthodox Church, however, she would not have noticed a dissonance. The picture represents Saint Bishoy, who was renowned for his hospitality, and this picture represents the pinnacle establishment of his holiness. One day a visitor came to him, lowly in presentation, dirty from the travel. As was his custom, St. Bishoy stooped down to wash his feet. Only in the assumption of this command of his Lord to repeat his holy practice was the visitor then revealed to be none other than Jesus himself. This manifestation demonstrated God’s favor upon St. Bishoy, and the story was recorded for all history, here preserved in a stunning icon.
Though any Egyptian Christian child would have recognized this story immediately, I am unable to differentiate St. X from St. Y, or to know how it came to be that St. George killed a dragon. The icon above is from St. George’s Monastery in Khataba, Egypt, about a two hour drive northwest from Cairo. In conjunction with a class I am taking in a Coptic Bible Institute, a story I will have to relate later, I went with my family on a day trip to visit this and a sister monastery only about fifteen minutes further on. It was a wonderful view into Coptic spirituality, which is very monastic in its formation, and we heard many stories about the various saints which populate the Coptic imagination. In each monastery the relics of such-and-such saint were preserved, and prayers were offered at each in commemoration of their life.
I am no longer as disturbed as I once was by the idea of praying to saints. This formulation, however, ‘praying to saints’ may simply be a Protestant slur to blacken the concept; surely we should pray only to God. On the other hand, it may represent the actual practice of many traditional Christians who perhaps feel that they are not worthy to approach God directly, or that a particular saint may more readily grant them favor. But as a concept: If I will not hesitate to ask my living brother to pray for the healing of my sick daughter, why should I hesitate to ask my departed brother now living in heaven? We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses watching with interest our terrestrial drama. Can their requests to God not also be marshaled on our behalf?
As I discussed these matters with my classmates—professional employees, university students, businessmen, all committed to God and his service in their church and country—each one was keen to convince me of the legitimacy of these practices. They have heard the critique of rational Western Protestantism, both from within and without Egyptian borders. They would link each practice to either the Bible or early church tradition, and I wish my Arabic was strong enough to fully understand their arguments. As I learn more, I will relate their tales, but inasmuch as these were my first lessons it was hard to grasp all their nuances. The fervency of their justifications, however, was noticed, as they sought to demonstrate they were not backwards, occultist Christians, anticipating an oft-heard criticism before I might voice it. They worship God alone; they pray to God alone. God, however, has left marks of his favor on certain of his saints.
St. Bishoy, for example, had his dead body preserved for centuries after his death as it had been the day he died, soft and supple. This story was repeated for other saints in other locales. This miraculous preservation of the corpse is a signal from God that such a person was particularly holy. In fact, St. Bishoy’s body only decayed in rebuke of a later Pope who departed from God’s favor.
We in the West have heard stories such as this, but largely assign them to the genre of pious legend. Certainly St. X and St. Y were holy people who lived God-pleasing lives. Yet after their death in preservation of their legacy the simple, pre-scientific peoples around them developed all sorts of miracle stories to idolize them. Perhaps this was innocent, perhaps it was sinister—a place of pilgrimage is generally also a place of commerce—but over the centuries the stories remained part and parcel of the saint’s history. Given that the Muslims of Egypt and elsewhere also have their celebrated miracle-working saints, it is easy for us today to dismiss these tales of ancient European and Mediterranean Christianity.
Yet the testimony of these professional, modern-educated lovers of God makes it harder to dismiss. If they were only preservers of ancient tradition, however, they could be excused for following in the credulity of their ancestors. The testimony, though, does not remain in the past.
One of my classmates spoke of the city of Damietta, on the northeastern shoreline of the Nile Delta. In that city is preserved the soft, supple body of a deceased saint from two centuries ago. The body is enclosed in glass casing, allowing the miracle to be witnessed by all. She invited us to join her family some day in the future to take a trip together to see it.
Furthermore, she spoke of her own village in southern Egypt, which was served by a noble, but uncelebrated priest. One day the priest died of natural causes and was buried in ordinary fashion. Unknown outside of the village he was simply replaced by another priest, and life continued as usual.
One day there was some reconstruction taking place in the village, and the local sewer line was disturbed. The pipes cracked and burst forth, spewing into the cemetery where the priest and many others were buried. It made quite a mess, and necessitated the transfer of the cemetery to another location. At this time, however, in unearthing the grave of the priest, buried traditionally without a coffin, his corpse emerged unchanged from the day of his internment. Soft and supple his body remained. Though not esteemed by man, God gave witness of his favor.
This story resembles the others told in history, but comes with a contemporary witness: My classmate testified she saw this take place with her own eyes.
Perhaps a journalist would probe deeper. Perhaps a sociologist would identify group hysteria. Perhaps we in the West are so terrified of these stories that we immediately seek for alternate explanation. What is the cause for our terror? Stories like this threaten our unconsciously adopted worldview of scientific rationalism. This worldview can make room for sporadic divine interventions, but generally only if there is a clear and logical purpose behind it. Stories such as these, however, make no sense to us. What purpose does God have in the rather morbid preservation of a corpse?
As I will learn the longer we live here, many Orthodox traditions have a sense of the mystical. I have begun getting introductory lessons in transubstantiation, for example. Yet no matter where we draw the line, the mystical cannot be separated from Christianity. At its core is the promise: Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is not my point to either justify or refute the miracle stories that are believed by so many. A faithful record of them, however, is necessary, for the Orthodox in Egypt are brethren in Christ, members of his body. This itself is mystery, a miracle story to be cherished.
Postscript: I am posting this reflection one day before traveling without my family to another monastery, St. Makarius, where I will reside for the next three days. One of the places of conflict I am researching is the Abu Fana monastery, in which monks are prominently involved. It was recommended to me that in due time I stay with the monks there in order to better understand the local realities. That monastery, however, due to the conflict surrounding it, has become a much politicized place, and as such is not the best introduction into monastic life. In preparation for this experience, then, I should first have a taste of a functional monastery, and St. Makarius is by reputation one of the most reputable, though most controversial, in all Egypt. This, though, is a story for another time, hopefully shortly after I return. Your prayers are requested; may they mix with the incense rising from the altar…