Between Pope Matthew the Poor, Anba Abraam, and the Departed Fr. Matthew the Poor (Revised)
- Between Pope (87) Matthew the Poor, Anba Abraam the Friend of the Poor, and the departed Father Matthew the PoorAs I contemplate in reverrence the departure of the beloved Fr. Matthew the Poor (Abouna Matta El-Maskeen); I am reminded with the similarity to two Coptic Orthodox Saints:1. Pope Mattew the Poor (Mattaus El-Meskeen1378-1408 A.D.), 87th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark was Pope and Patriarch during the rule of the Mamluks after the second Crussade. As a young boy, Matthew worked in tending the sheep of his father. He used to give his food to the shepherds, and spend the whole day in fasting. When he was fourteen he was admitted to the monastery to practice asceticism and worship. He was ordained a priest at the age of eighteen. Then he left to St. Anthony's monastery to escape vainglory. He did not tell any of the monks about his priesthood, but rather used to serve mass as a deacon. Once, while he was reading the Gospel a heavenly hand appeared and offered him incense three times. Seeing that, the elders of the monastery said that someday he will be elected a patriarch.Pope Mattaus as is known in Coptic and Arabic was a simple man who chose poverty and lived in the caves and crevises of the desert and valley. He lived in the monasteries of Saeid (deir al-muharaque) and St. Anthony monastery in the mountains near the Red Sea. When he was starting as a young monk, less than 16 years old, avoiding temptation made him shave his eyebrows so that he looks undesirable to a woman of ill repute that harassed him. That did not stop her initially, but later on she stopped harassing him realizing that he was truly a man of God.Escaping the world made him shred the clothes (weardrobe) of his bishop so that the bishop considered him mad. He repuked him and sent him back to the monastery. That was his real purpose, to escape the world and go back to the monastery. In the monastery he taught the monks by example the life of monastics (physical labor, fasting, praying, and giving) after it was neglected and they lived a routine life of eating and praying.As a young monk, he also hid his identity and travelled to Palestine and lived as a laborer between Jerusalen and Bethlehem. Through prayers, he helped a non-egyptian (most likely a Roman Catholic) cleric find his stolen money bag. He personally recovered the money without revealing the identity of the thief. That made the cleric marvel at the wisdom and blessings of this young Copt.As a monk, he was with his bishop (Marcus) when the soldiers of the ruler arrested them for no reason. He was beaten by the soldiers of the ruler until he was senseless (almost dead) without complaining and that was because the Frenga (The European Crussaders) attacked Egypt. He survived the beating and torture and the Lord brought heavy rain because of his prayers after a big drought that threatened all life in Egypt.When he was chosen for the patriarchate, he escaped on a ship and was seen by a child heading toward the belly (bottom) of the ship to hide. He was caught and at his request taken to the monastery of St. Anthony on the Red Sea to consult his fathers the monks who urged him to accept the patriarchate. Even then he cut the tip of his own tongue and became mute (unable to speak) so that he becomes in-elligible because the laws forbid selecting a mute and the Lord healed his tongue and his speech was restored which was more evidence that he was chosen by the Holy Spirit, and was consecrated Patriarch.He prayed and the Lord brought a 12th bishop to Alexandria to lay the hands on him because he saw it unfit for him to be consecrated by less than 12 bishops a symbol of the 12 disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. He served the Poor and lived a life of extreme poverty as a young man by choice, as a monk by choice, and as a Patriarch who lived in poverty by choice. He lived a life of poverty by choice and gave alms to the poor all his life. This is Matthew the Poor #1 in the Coptic Orthodox Church.2. Anba Abraam the Departed Bishop of Fayoum (1829-1914): My analogy between Abouna Matta El-Maskeen and Anba Abraam the departed bishop of Fayoum is very evident. It was a great honor for all of us and for the Church and for the blessed soul of Abouna Matta El-Maskeen to depart the world of falsehood on June 8th. That is the exact hsitoric date for the departure of the great saint Anba Abraam the departed Bishop of Fayoum, the Freind of the Poor, although the Church celebrates him on June 10th.One of our respected readers objected to the title "Friend of the Poor" and I would like to explain to the dear friend that the friendship of the poor is a higher spiritual rank than the friendship of all the other classes of people, because they are Christ brothers and sisters. It is easy, believe me, to befriend common people, well to do people, even those in authority and the extremely wealthy; but it is much harder to be friends with the poor, the sick, and the forgotten. Serving the Poorest of the Poor of Culcutta in India gave mother Teresa a fast track pass to sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.The least of us in many cases and places are kept so remote from the rest of society that reaching them and eating with them (as Anba Abraam did) is the greatest virtue. Anba Abraam the departed bishop of Fayoum gave away everything he had as soon as it came. He is depicted in a beautiful painting above his burial place in Fayoum as a conduit (pipe) receiving by one hand and giving by the other. When he departed they counted his personal posessions and found: The cloths he was wearing, an Old Bible, an Old book of praises, Agpeya, and a wooden cross. He even gave away the customary silver cross that was given to him when he was ordained bishop. Blessed are you our saint, Anba Abraam, the departed bishop of Fayoum, the friend of the poor.3. Fr. Matthew the Poor (Abouna Matta El-Maskeen: 1919 - June 8, 2006) was a Coptic Orthodox Christian youngman in 1943 who graduated from Cairo University, College of Pharamcy. He was very bright, handsome, and industrious. He started a Pharamcy in Damanhoor Egypt, and in 4 years he prospered to own 2 pharamcies, 2 villas (houses), and 2 cars. The normal human behavior (and nothing wrong with it) is to maintain the business, even prosper more. He was from a Christian family; he attended Church, and gave to the poor and fulfilled all the commandments. This could have been sufficient.Instead then Youssef Eskander from Benha, Egypt chose to live the life of a poor monastic (monk). He sold everything he owned and gave the proceeds to the poor and he kept only the price of a one way ticket to a forgotten monastery. He lived in the delta near the middeterenian in the great Coptic City of Damanhour, Manssoura; and had to travel to southern Egypt to join the the monastery of St. Samuel the confessor, in the qullamoun mountains near Menya. This is the same historic monastery that was returned to use 10 years earlier by one of his spiritual fathers, then Fr. Mena the Solitaire (who later became Pope Kyrillos VI, a contemporary saint).He stayed in this monastery from 1948 to 1950 when he was ordered by then Pope Youssab (Joseph) II to move to the monastery of St. Mary, known as El-syrian in the prairies of esecete in the Western desert between Cairo and Alexandria. He was ordained priest at El-syrian monastery and 4 years later elevated to a hegomen and was made a deputy to the Pope for the region of Alexandria ('waqueel patriarchate' for Alexandria). His efforts there were a nucleus for a revival of the then 40 churches in Alexandria in 1954, 1955. After two years he resigned the job and returned to the monastery of El-syrian.In 1956, he moved to a cave 40 Km East of the edge of Fayoum in the desert known as Wadi Al-ryaan. He was followed by others who liked his example of solitude. It was very harsh living in the desert without building or shelter. They each dug a cave in the desert hills to live in. However the number of those that followed his example reached 12.While living in a cave in Wadi Al-ryaan, He also was responsible for the renewal of the life of dedication by starting beet el-takreese (House of the dedicated to the service of God) in Helwan in the early 1960's. Beet el-takreese was an old villa (private home) with a garden in the city of helwan about 10 minutes walking distance from the train station. I visited the place many times in the mid 1960's.In 1969, he was ordered (given a formal assignment) by then Pope Kyrillos VI to renew the monastic life of the Monastery of St. Macarius in the escete (half way between Cairo and Alexandria in the Western desert that is part of the Sahara). At that time there were less than 1/2 dozen elderly monks in this monastery that lived in the ancient historic building ('hessn') that dates back to the time of queen Helen ('helana') the mother of the emperor Constantine, circa 330 A.D.The building was dlabitated and in poor shape and parts of it were buried in the sand of the sahara after 1500 years of neglect. There is to this day an old church that was repaired and renovated as part of the project to renew the monastic life at St. Macarius monastery. The place is now much bigger and is equipped to house hundreds of monks and to receive thousands of visitors. Our saint stayed at deir abu-machar until he departed to heaven on June 8, 2006.The number of monks at the monastery of St. Macarius increased from 1/2 dozen in 1969 to 130+ today. Since there are other monks of St. Macarius who are serving in other places in the world, their number exceeds the 130 residing in the monastery today. They have a large farm, several fully equipped clinics, shelters for domesticated animals, and workshops of different kinds for wood working, printing, car and tractor maintenance, etc.Abouna Matta El-maskeen lived the live of solitude outside the monastery (in caves) and inside it (qualya with limited to no contact with others in the monastery). The monks of abu-machar learned to live like their spiritual father in a commune (St. Pachomius order) and in Solitude (St. Shenouda the solitaire order). The monastery of abu-machar did grow six fold in land area and 100 fold in spirituality. The last time I visited was in the Advent season, 1994. And although the visits are forbidden during fasting (was the advent) seasons, they allowed people who lived outside Egypt to visit by permit anytime of the year, that is a great kindness of the fathers of all our monasteries.When we visited in 1994, we saw many crops that are produced to cover the needs of the community and the monastery sell the excess that is considered premium products. Sugar beet agriculture at abu-machar was implanted in Egypt by the monastery since Egypt relies on sugar-cane for sugar production. The monks manage agriculture and dairy production in the desert that far exceeds the abilty of the universities that advised them. In particular, a professor of agriculture in the Netherlands advised them to start this new (to Egypt) food plant and they exceeded the abilities of the university in size and nutrition vlaue.The monastery of abu-machar had to have a modern press because of the volumous theological works of the departed Fr. Matta alone. He wrote more than 280 highly valued theological and spiritual books in Arabic. They print a monthly magazine (St. Mark) distributed world wide. And almost all their publications are translated many live languages, other than the native Arabic, including: English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. Almost all their publications are printed using the monastery press.Abouna Matta was a tireless leader of tireless fathers who benefitted the whole world with his scholarly publications that are deep in Christology, Spirituality, theology, Philosophy that fits todays thinking, culture, and Christian living. In the early 1960's Fr. Matta El-maskeen wrote about socialism as a fair way of governing. There is no conflict if that is what you believe how governing should be.Abouna Matta was nominated for the patriarchate twice: in 1959 after the departure of Pope Joseph II and in 1971 after the departure of Pope Kyrillo VI. [The second nomination (Abouna Matta, the departed general bishop Samuel, and [then bishop] and now Pope Shenouda III] became an affliction (a source of friction) between Abouna Matta and the administration of the Church and that was not appropriate for the enistigators to cause].Also the events of the last four years of former president Sadat (Camp David, 1977 to his assasination on 5 October 1981) created another conflict because Sadat was impressed by the success of Abouna Matta and his monastic family (deir abu-machar). Sadat wanted to remove Pope Shenouda III and make Abouna Matta Pope. But in the right time, God removed Sadat from existence, when he was assaisnated by one of his army officers on the stand as he celebrated the October 1973 victory over Israel anniversary.[We all know and believe that Abouna Matta told Sadat that he cannot and is not advised to remove Pope Shenouda III, because he explained to the then president of Egypt that all Coptic Popes are chosen by the will of God and not the will of men. Unfortunately, Abouna Matta was misquoted in a most infamous TIME (USA) article in 1981. Fr. Matta El-maskeen was not the only Copt who blamed Pope Shenouda III for some of the struggle the Copts had with Sadat. As a matter of fact most Egyptians in Egypt did and 27 of our priest in the USA out of 30 went along with the Sadat orders. And it is a matter of fact that most if not all realized later that it was ordained that we went through what we went through and HH Pope Shenouda III forgave them all].It was unfortunate that the administration of the Coptic Church was in conflict with abouna Matta and that the monks of St. Makarius were not considered main stream and for a long time ignored!. However when HH Pope Shenouda III visited in 1996 after HH last visit in 1978 (18 years earlier), he was received by Fr. Matta and the monks at the door and Fr. Matta prostrated himself in front of the Pope of Alexandria and the Patriach of the See of St. mark as it should be after a long time of not seeing HH the Pope.In this most cordial visit of a father to his children the monks of St. Macarius, HH the Pope talked about the importance of the life of prayer for the Church. HH stated that the praying monk is more valuable for the well being of the Church than any other form of monastic service. HH gave Abouna Matta and his spiritual children credit for being a good example for the life of prayer in the Church:For the honesty in reporting on the life of the Church, as a theologian, Fr. Matta El-maskeen differed with the official position of the Church represented in HH Pope Shenouda III writings on very few intricate theological details that the average Orthodox Christian will not notice or care about. And the most learned will take as a difference of opinion between two Giants in the faith that we all will know when we get to Paradise as Paul the Apostole explained: " Now we know some, but then (with Christ in paradise) we will know everything".I never met "Abouna Matta" as he was always called, although I tried many times. I remember one time in 1965 when the Sunday Youth group I was in used to visit Kamal Habib (The departed bishop Poemen of Malawi), our then spiritual leader, in beet el-takreese in Helwan, he used to promise us to meet Abouna Matta, next time. And after many next times, we (at least I) realized that it was not ordained for me to meet abouna Matta in the flesh.But we met in the spirit everytime I heard a story about his high spritual statute and every month when I read St. Mark magazine that I used to buy for 5 piasters when I was a teenager in the 1960's (lots of money for a kid then) and now I receive by mail as a life subscriber ($2/month = ~1000 piasters).I can see not only the wealth of knowledge, but the beautiful printing of valuable Christian art from many cultures, countries and Orthodox traditions on the cover front and back. This is sophistication that is rare in people with this high level of spirituality and self sacrifice.I also was fortunate to acquire many of his books in Arabic and English: Most valuable of 280 books are: Life of Orthodox Prayer, the series "with Christ", the Holy Spirit (3 parts), Life of St. Paul the Apostole, Life of St. Athanasius the Apostolic, and his commentary on the Holy Bible. For over 50 years: 1960s - 2006 he wrote the opening article of the monthly St. Mark Magazine ('megalat morcos'). He also usually wrote one or two more articles every month. That is more than 2000 articles or one article for every year since our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ blessed the human race, and offered our salvation on the Cross in Jerusalem under Pantus Pilate in 33 A.D.That is a most rich life for a man that chose poverty as a way of life on earth.Blessed are you our departed Father Matthew the Poor, Abouna Matta El-maskeen, you are now discussing all the philosophy and theology, and the riches of Christ our Lord with the saints Paul, Athanassius, and Cyril the Great in Heaven. I also know that you did not neglect singing the praises, a very important part of the life of a monastic, but explained them to us in books and on tapes some were recorded by the ministry of Information and Culture of the government of Egypt as treasures of Coptic History and Culture.I am certain that David the Psalmist, Prophet, and Great King is in the circle of your friends that is enjoying your presnce with the heavenly chorus in heaven.What can we say, but to quote St. Paul the Apostole: "7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing." (2 Timothy 4:7-9).Axiox, Axios, Axios (worthy, worthy, worthy) Ava Matta ni monachos (the monk). Glory be to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. One God. Amen.Glory be to God in His saints the likes of Abouna Matta El-maskeen. May His blessings be with us all. Amen.William A. Hanna; Ph.D.EESt. Louis, MO 63011 USA
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