The Value of Monasticism

At Wednesday noontime I traveled to Shubra, Cairo to meet Fr. Basilius in the offices of the St. Mark’s Bookstore. While our meeting was ostensibly to discuss the arrangements for my stay in the Makarius Monastery, we discussed extensively the role of monasticism in the church, with an eye toward the issues of the Abu Fana Monastery, which has fallen into sectarian conflict. The following is a summary of our conversation.

Before our meeting I had written a long list of questions for Fr. Basilius concerning the details of my stay in his monastery. How long should I stay? What should I bring? Where would I sleep? What should I wear? What time are prayers? These and many other concerns filled my practical head, but I had a few other questions as well about the monastery and things I had heard about it. Nevertheless, our conversation turned instead to introductions, which led quickly into substantial discussions about monasticism and its role in society and the church.

I briefly described my role in the Center for Arab West Understanding as a continuation of the work done by Cornelis Hulsman in unearthing the real, often non-religious origins of sectarian conflict, but seeking in our new project to move beyond reporting into proactive contributions to the reconciliation effort, in areas, for example, such as Abu Fana. Fr. Basilius spoke warmly of Mr. Hulsman and mentioned instances of their prior cooperation. He then asked me what I thought of the Abu Fana situation. I replied that I was new to this country and preferred to hear from him what he thought, but that I was able to state the findings of Mr. Hulsman, of which he was aware. Fr. Basilius was reluctant to say much, but the nature of our conversation signaled an implicit understanding that the role of the monks in Abu Fana was negative.

“Has anyone tried to communicate with them about their position?” I asked. Fr. Basilius was unaware of any efforts, but stated that he doubted anyone was able. The monks are entrenched in their position and in general were supported by their leadership. What benefit could be gained from words by an outsider? The situation was beyond redemption in any case, for the surrounding population, including government officials, had developed a hatred for the monks in their intransigent attitudes. “But if a message was to be delivered, what would it be?”

Fr. Basilius paused for what seemed a long time, and I was not sure he was going to answer. I had asked variations on the two questions above a few times already, revealing perhaps a strange urgency. He had been engaging, kind, but perhaps not inappropriately vague. When he did answer, it was in recollection of a story, “We have dealt with a similar issue ourselves.”

President Anwar Sadat decided in the late 1970s to grant Makarius Monastery over one thousand acres of land. He had noticed the commendable job the monks had done in reclaiming desert land for agriculture, and, as the country was experiencing phenomenal population growth the government realized such projects were extremely necessary, so he tripled their workload. The abbot at the time, Fr. Matta al-Miskeen (Matthew the Poor) was honored at the gift but wondered, we can barely keep up with our three hundred acres, what can we do with so much? There was much internal debate and reluctance to receive this gift, but in the end, they accepted their charge, and began working the land.

The process of registration of the land in the name of the monastery, however, did not go smoothly, despite even a later presidential rebuke of his ministers. They faced endless delays in getting the proper paperwork, but pressed on anyway with their cultivation. During their efforts to navigate Egyptian bureaucracy, President Sadat was assassinated. In the next meeting with government officials Fr. Matta was told that the monks had no claim to the land, as the promise from President Sadat was only oral, and not in writing. Discouraged but accepting, Fr. Matta returned to the monastery, and informed his fellow monks of the decision.

As time passed the monks returned to their own fields, but a little later there came word of a general presidential initiative. This one was meant to encourage all university graduates to find land in reward for their studies, as many were entering a work force devoid of substantial openings. As the monastery was populated by dozens of monks with university degrees, each one applied for the position, and not long thereafter the monastery had recovered, now officially, all the land originally promised. These lands were in the names of the monks, not the church, but that mattered little since the monks had forsworn all worldly possessions. The monks had been promised wealth, but showed no excitement; they had been ill-treated, but put up no protest. Finally, after accepting patiently the will of God, God had restored to them their previous honor.

Fr. Basilius gave no direct answer to my question about Abu Fana, but said succinctly, “Perhaps the monks at Abu Fana have not been able to have a teacher as wise as Fr. Matta al-Miskeen.”

I shifted course after this story with a personal inquiry. I communicated that I was a Christian, raised in a Protestant tradition, and surely he was aware of our critique of monasticism. “Yes,” he replied quickly, “you think we are lazy and do nothing but pray all day.” He smiled as he said this.

I countered, however. While some may think so, this was not the impression I had growing up. Monks were imagined to be among those who love God most fervently, and are dedicated in their prayers, and, in places, in their work. Their fault, it is claimed, is that perhaps they love God too much. They can be seen as selfish in their spirituality, for they are so enraptured in his love that they neglect relationships with the rest of the world. They hole themselves away with others of like mind, and experience neither the hardships of communion with ordinary people nor the necessity of service to those around them. They live only to God, and therefore in a sense, only to themselves.

I assured Fr. Basilius that this was a perspective I have inherited, but it was absent of the attitude which often accompanies it. I have a healthy respect for Orthodoxy in general, and am confident that they have an answer for such accusations. Having never heard the reply, however, I asked him to respond. I told him it was my purpose to better understand and appreciate monasticism in general, but with an eye toward Abu Fana in particular. The monks there are bent on the acquisition of land surrounding the recently rediscovered ancient monastery. Though there have been regrettable actions on both sides, the monks have shown little regard for their neighbors. Yet if the nature of monasticism is internal in focus, walled around a community closed to the outside, how can these monks receive a message of reconciliation with their neighbors?

Fr. Basilis began by commenting on Protestantism, stating, “Your living of the Gospel is based entirely on preaching.” I interrupted, stung by his choice of pronoun, for this is a critique I share of our denomination. “Not entirely,” I offered, and perhaps he recognized the legitimacy of my qualification. It should be mentioned that as he continued he gave no indication of ill will. If he was offended by the repetition of Protestant critique, he did not show it. Instead, his manner was warm and friendly, yet intent on edification.

Protestants will criticize us, he explained, because we isolate ourselves and do not preach. Meanwhile, they express their service to God in their positions in business, education, and a host of other occupations, but in reality, neither do they preach. Even in the Protestant services one can see the emphasis on preaching – there is a lengthy sermon, a few hymns, and a couple prayers. We in the Orthodox Church have a different understanding of Gospel responsibilities. We do preach, but the sermon is only a smaller part of our mass. Most of our time spent in worship is dedicated to prayer.

As monks, this is our dedicated heritage. We do not occupy positions in society which take time away from prayer. We have forsaken family, wealth, fame, and reputation to dedicate ourselves to the kingdom of God. Our prayers support the work of the church in all other areas, including preaching. Furthermore, since we have no children to support we can offer all the proceeds from this monastery as gifts to the poor. We have a calling, as others in the church have a calling. Ours, however, is for prayer, both to God in praise, and for others, in supplication.

I thanked Fr. Basilius for these words, and acknowledged their Biblical nature. I assured him I would be pleased to convey such thoughts to my fellow Protestants. Yet what of Abu Fana, how can this message be communicated to its monks? “This is difficult,” he replied. “They will not receive this message from you,” he smiled, “a Protestant. And we in this monastery are not accepted by many in the church.” “But what of those among you who are called to preach? Who could deliver such a vision? The messenger is not as important as the message. Besides, it is the work of God to change hearts, not of man. It is men, though, that must communicate the message. But what should the message be? ”

Fr. Basilius gave pause again. This time he answered. Though brief, it encompassed all. “The first priority of Christianity, and the second, and the third, is love. Perhaps the monks of Abu Fana have neglected this.”

Time was escaping us. Though I could have spent the rest of the afternoon with him, he had details to attend to for which he had come to Cairo, neglecting his monastery. The exigencies of my upcoming stay required a bit of mundane conversation, after which we departed. The value of the encounter, however, will last, and is the best place at which to end this account. May God grant peace to the people and area of Abu Fana; may his love be communicated to all.

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