Becoming a monk in Egypt is a long process, one I have not studied completely, but encounter often on visits to various monasteries. This weekend my family and I visited St. Toma Monastery to the northwest of Cairo, about two hours away. It is among the newer monasteries in Egypt, but is a sister monastery to the original St. Toma Monastery in Sohag, deep to the south in Upper Egypt, where the saint lived centuries ago.
St. Toma was a wandering ascetic, but a community grew around him in the desert that begins only a few kilometers away from the banks of the Nile. Today, as Egypt’s population continues to explode, the city of Sohag has encroached upon the ancient monastery, stealing the seclusion so valued by monks.
In order to rectify the situation, as well as create more outlets for the burgeoning monastic movement, St. Toma in Sohag spawned this new monastery. John, who I met and told me this story, is originally from Sohag. He states that while twelve monks or so reside in the newer location, significantly in the desert off the Cairo-Alexandria road, only about three monks remain in the original.
For himself, he felt the spiritual longing to devote his life to God, but found the monastery nearby too connected to the world. His family, friends, and neighbors could still have claim on him, or at least access, no matter how confined he kept to his cell. In the early days of testing his calling, he was encouraged to spend a few days at a time, several times a month, in silence and meditation at the monastery. When his aptitude was confirmed, both internally and by his spiritual leadership, he decided to head north.
John was a teacher, in his mid-twenties, when he sought his monastic vows. At the northern St. Toma monastery he was given charge over hospitality, offered to those like himself early on, who wished to spend a day or two in prayer and isolation. These he would receive, provide lodging, and instruct on the ways of the monastery. He would also help assign each a task in which to contribute at the monastery. For Girgis, who I met earlier, this involved washing the dishes for the many day visitors – like ourselves – that the monastery receives.
John was soft-spoken and humble in our conversation, and only reluctantly spoke of his love for God and prayer. It was prayer, in fact, he asked of me. He has now been in his training period, joining the monks in their activities, for over a year. He is with the monks, but not one of them. He did not know when his consecration might come, but he was not overly bothered. The life of a monk is one of long and patient waiting, in obedience to spiritual superiors. To wait on God, as he waits on a man, is part of his calling.
All the same, he asked for prayer. Please feel free to join along with me. If nothing more, it is the desire of his heart.
It is good to have such desire. Much in life must be done for the sake of responsibility, and there is honor and reward for fulfilling one’s duty well. It is desire, however, that helps provide meaning to life. It offers a task that may not be necessary in the formal sense, yet is absolutely necessary as internal compunction. It is a fire in the belly that not only endures, but forges through adversity, sacrifice, and the obstacles which stand in the way.
This was a spirit witnessed among many Egyptian revolutionaries. It is a spirit evident in John. Is it found in you, or me?
Maybe it is not a spirit present in all. Maybe it does not need to be. Maybe it only inhabits some. Maybe both God and the self can be fully satisfied with a life well lived, simply.
But if it is there, nurture it. It is the spirit that changes both self and the world. This change cannot be defined – it may be as wide as Tahrir Square, or as narrow as the entryway to a monk’s chamber. It may be broadcast around the world, or never noticed by a single soul. The fire is internal; though it gives light to all around, it is not meant for an audience. It burns because that is its nature.
The burning will consume its host, but only that which is not essential. What remains will be pure, the truest self. May God be honored; may the cause be just. May each locate their discontent, and channel it into the fire.
May our world be the better for it.