Interview with a monk
Can you tell us about yourself before you became a monk?
Before I became a monk, I was a secondary-school physics and chemistry teacher.
What made you decide to become a monk?
The life of a monk is a path to repentance. Monastic life is founded on a high degree of love for God.
Were there certain things you sought to renounce in particular or were you renouncing life in general?
Without doubt, as we are told ĎMan knoweth not the soul of any man save the one that dwells withiní. So, one ought to know oneís shortcomings and weaknesses and should renounce them and not revert to the path of weakness. The foes of Good bring others much strife. But the important thing is that we live our lives as a righteous/productive struggle.
Do you believe that, as you grow closer to God, you grow closer to yourself?
In your previous life, before you became a monk, were you happy?
No doubt I was. Monasticism is nothing more than escaping sin, you see. Monasticism is the path the successful tread.
Is it a difficult path?
Without doubt, any road has its difficulties. But reliance on God, who said, ĎWithout me you can do nothing,í enables a person to overcome any obstacles.
Did you hesitate or falter while you were in the process of becoming a monk?
Well, I wouldnít call it hesitation. I would call it an exploration of the self. The question was, am I infatuated by this or that road, or am I ready to tread the road where God is everything to me? God laid the different roads ahead of us and it is for us to choose which path we will tread. It is up to the individual to discover his own inclinations and find the road that suits him. The important thing here is that whatever road you choose you follow the instruction of God, ĎBe Saintly.í Saintliness can be achieved on many roads. And of course, all with the aid of God.
To me, monasticism means seclusion. How do you feel when outsiders visit?
Monasticism, in Arabic, means to live in awe and dread of God. However, the essence of the word can be expressed in four words, and they are, Pure Thought and Pure Heart. OK? As for seclusion, at the beginning of his monastic life, the novice starts off by serving all at the monastery, in all honesty and love. He serves the junior before the senior. He gradually progresses through monastic life until he eventually attains total seclusion. Complete seclusion cannot be accomplished from the first day. Yes?
Being a monk involves renouncing worldliness, right? However, we are all confronted with temptations. How does a monk handle temptation?
There are certain principles governing a monkís life like the vow of chastity. Secondly, voluntary poverty. Thirdly, abandoning the world. And the vow of obedience within the monastery. You are talking about the principle of abandoning the world, and what this means before anything else, is the abandonment of the worldís evil. It is not hatred of mankind or of any person. Do you see? As for temptation, as we say, we live in repentance and legitimate struggle.
Do you believe in absolute good and absolute evil?
Without doubt, God granted mankind full freedom/license and, being a just God, he placed before us the road to goodness and indicated that this is the road to everlasting life. There is also a road to evil that God told us to beware of and that one leads to ruin. An individual, with the aid of God, can become virtuous and lead a good life. As Saint Antony, the father of monasticism, said ĎBe blessed by allí.
Regarding, absolute evil, Iím not sure quite what you mean. Do you mean that Man is free to do evil? Undoubtedly. If that is your view or your question. Of course, Man does evil of his own free will. Saint John Chrysostom, one of the patriarchs of Constantinople, said that ĎMan cannot harm others without bringing harm upon himselfí. And, in fact, if you traced any problem to its root you would invariably find that the cause of the problem is Man. It has been said about God that ĎGod does not experiment with evil and does not force anyone to do soí. But the individual is free to experiment and choose to satiate his earthly/carnal desires.
What are the requirements of becoming a monk?
Well, firstly, to become a monk you have to be convinced that this is the right path. And it is merely a path and not an end. The end you strive for is complete love of God. So, in order to negotiate this road you must be whole-heartedly convinced that it is the right one. By its nature, this involves abandonment: the abandonment of your job, the abandonment of titles and materialism. Do you see? So that when you are confronted by the foes of good you have enough contentment/will to resist regretting that you chose this path. OK?
You place in your heart the notion of a life of repentance. A repentance that is renewed daily. And you must live according to the principles I mentioned at the beginning: the vow of chastity, the vow of obedience, etc. To live celibate and unmarried. Pure of thought and pure of heart. Abandoning the world and voluntary poverty. And the vow of obedience, as I told you. These are what you live by. Of course, you follow a spiritual rule regarding prayers and the reading of sacred scriptures, as well as humanitarian labour within the monastery and kneeling down in prayer. This spiritual rule varies within the same day.
Do you consider the monastic community to be an idealistic one?
Thatís what I would hope for. It should be an ideal community. Do you see? Each one of us in the monastery tries to get rid of his former self and of the frailties that governed his life in order to achieve complete idealism in the monastery.
In a community that aspires to idealism, wouldnít one want to pass it down to future generations? And doesnít celibacy and the refusal to procreate stand in the way of doing so?
No, dear brother, let me tell you something. It is not for us to pass down this supposedly ideal community. In the outside world, there are also plenty of excellent people who possess idealism. In the book of Genesis, the commandment to multiply, cultivate and fill the world is mentioned three times. OK? Thatís one point. So, here, we do not overlook this issue. The issue of matrimony and the propagation of humanity, you see, and the survival of the race; all these God informed us about, as Iíve just told you. And that is the natural order of things. However, we donít strive to hand down monastic life to other people. God, in the scriptures, describes monasticism as, ĎNot for everyone, but only to the one to whom it is grantedí. OK?
So, it is geared to the minority.
Itís not a question of minority or majority. Our mission is not to try actively to persuade people to join our ranks. We should set an example and, then, people, of their own free will, choose to follow the path that suits them. Itís a matter of individual choice. So, now, mine is a role of a silent preacher to the people. Also, if there is the opportunity to teach people something good or useful for their lives and after-lives, then we will. But we wonít tell people to become monks or not. This a personal matter between the individual and God in which he decides whether he is ready to embrace the order.
Do you think about death?
A monk is the first person to think about death. First of all, a monk, after he is accepted into the order, receives funerary rites from his comrades. This means that the monk has died to the evil of the world. Do you follow?
A kind of rebirth?
No, these funerary rites are administered on him to tell him that you are now supposed to be a man who is dying, day by day, to the evils of the world and to his attachment to the material world. OK? We call this expiration (Imata); and, of course, this is on the spiritual level. As for thinking about death, we should prepare ourselves fully for it and think about it in all seriousness and solemnity. We say a prayer before the liturgy (mass) in which we ask for just that. We ask God not to let our adversary, Satan, tyrannise us by expanding our expectations. Do you follow? We think, as the saints before us did, about these matters. Their thoughts and sentiments were always about such issues. God may reclaim our soul at any time and one must be ready for that. One saint said, ĎI long to be set free.í
Free of life?
So, you donít fear or dread death?
No. A person who fears death is distant from God. A sinner. Because he lives in anticipation of the eternal punishment that awaits him. And so he is afraid, he fears departing the pleasures of the world because he is attached to it.
Is there ever a time when a monk feels his willpower or momentum weaken?
Look, Iíll tell you something. I was just telling you that a monkís life is one of repentance. And this repentance is constantly renewed. This doesnít mean that I can repent today and then forget my resolution the next day. No. I should reckon with myself every day to see whether my love of God is growing, unchanged or diminishing. You see, because those who love God will live in accordance with the second commandment, the first and foremost being the love of God, to love thy neighbour as you love thyself. Neighbour, here, means all of humanity: all those I know and all those I deal with even if they mean me harm.
But is it possible to deal with all people equally?
What do you mean?
I mean, as a brother told me earlier, that once you adopt the life of a monk you must treat all people equally and look upon them as just a member of the human species?
Like I told you, my neighbour means everyone. Love thy neighbour as you love thyself and do as you would be done by. If I wish the best for myself, I must also wish the best to all people, you see.
But is it really possible to achieve this in practice? Can an individual truly treat all his fellowmen equally?
A commandment must be practicable in real life. Merely learning the words is not difficult. The important matter is how to live the commandment, how to apply it to my life. God is the examiner of our hearts and knows what our intentions are. So, it is not merely a matter of applying principles at the observable level, you see. No. There are people I deal with and others I donít get the chance to deal with. So, I deal with them with the heart even, as I told you, if they represent a threat to me. The commandment tells us to pray for those who do us wrong and persecute us. We pray to God to give them a better life.
But that doesnít mean you canít be angered by them and dislike them.
What angers me is wrongdoing, you see. And I wish that it would all be eliminated. I donít hate any particular person, rather I hate the wrong that he commits. Sin.
So, itís wrongdoing that you hate, not the individual.
Without doubt, of course.
Have you had any elevated spiritual experiences or visions?
No, not really. Forgive me, I canít call myself a visionary, or anything like that. But if you expose your life to constant scrutiny you will eventually perceive the voice of God, one way or another. You will be able to interpret what God wants to say to you from the signs around you, from situations, from your readings. Even if God has sent a person a sign, it is better to keep it to oneself. Metaphorically, it is like a gem you possess. You keep it, take care of it and protect it. If you own a gem you donít go around advertising the news. I am, of course, talking on the spiritual level.
In some oriental religions, they consider the body to be a hindrance, a cage, that traps the soul. They try to supersede the body and release the soul. How do monks view the body?
There is a scripture stating that Ďthe soul is contrary to the body and the body is contrary to the soul, and each desires to defeat the otherí. So you should champion the soul to overcome the frailties of the body. Besides, the body is a gift from God. We donít hate the body, heaven forbid. In another scripture we find, ĎAbhor not thy body, but nourish and nurture ití. However, the scriptures are not in favour of the weaknesses of the body. Subdue your bodily desires: adultery and impurity, and so on and so forth. But to resist the body? How can I ignore the condition of my body and then stand up to pray?
If one lapses and commits a sin, is it possible to purify oneself afterwards?
Of course, God is merciful. His mercy and justness are complete. If you put it in your heart that you will renounce your weaknesses, doubtless to say, that if it is a true atonement you offer than God will accept it. We, of course, know many examples of such instances Ė of those who came before us and pleased God with their actions.
As an outsider looking in, the life of a monk seems to be a life of solemnity and sacrifice. Is there an aspect of leisure or entertainment?
You mean in the life of a monk?
Look, Iíd like to tell you something. Iíd like you to be fully aware that entertainment is a sort of joy or happiness. Isnít that so? Iíd like to point out that true happiness is to be found in living a holy life dedicated to God. Why? Because this is an inner joy, you see: a joy that addresses the soul, one that makes the soul happy and joyous. Not everyone who laughs, or shows outward vestiges of rapture, is truly happy. It is often a fleeting joy that can change at a blink to sorrow for the merest of reasons.
Yes, superficial. But true joy is in a life dedicated to God. It has been said that, in such a case, even if there is sorrow in our lives, it will turn to joy.
So, is there scope for humour in a monkís life?
Look, let me tell you. ErrÖ WellÖ Within certain limits. I shouldnít allow it to become a guiding principle. Humour should not be a principle in my life. What I want to say is that even entertainment, as the scriptures tell us, should be indulged in only to promote love. If we consider laughter to be a kind of entertainment, then it should be purposeful, within the context of love. It should not be merely to make people think that I am a funny man. No. If I see somebody who is sad or upset, or something like that, and I want to help him get over his bad mood, then I can try to get him out of his state by employing a certain amount of simple humour. Of course, it must be measured humour, nothing outrageous or blasphemous.
About the monastery. From what I gather it dates back to the sixth or seventh century.
The fourth century.
The fourth? And the buildings are from the fourth century, too?
The monastic tradition here started in the fourth century and, of course, there is evidence to support this. St Antony, the father of all monks, visited the monks here and there is a scroll documenting this visit at St Antonyís Monastery, as well as in several church records. That was the beginning of the monastic tradition here. As for the buildings, the church was first built in the fourth century and, then, was later rebuilt. The current church is also old, dating back to the twelfth century. The remainder of the buildings are quite old, but not as old as what I just mentioned. The periphery buildings are about a hundred or so years old.
The monastery has now been opened to visitors. How do you feel about this?
Look, monasteries are places that some people come to on trips. Of course, because such a place is spiritually and psychologically appealing to people. No doubt, God provides contentment to these people in his own special way. I hope, of course, that all those who come to visit have this spiritual purpose in mind.
This monastery is in the middle of the desert and many other monasteries are built in the desert. What distinguishes one location from another in the desert?
No, itís not really a matter of preferring a certain location, you see. What I want to say is that these are ancient monasteries, built in dedication to certain saints. We try, with the aid of God, to preserve these places because, of course, many monasteries have vanished. Of course, we attempt this. We also collaborate with the government to maintain ancient historical sites such as this. The government strives for this and it is a good opportunity for them to develop religious tourism, which people come for. But as for the matter of choosing one location over another, the important thing is that a monk requires seclusion. It is true that peace and tranquility begin from within, but we also seek external tranquility. But, of course, it is essentially from within. However, we cannot do without external tranquility and the desert has this quality. The barrenness of the desert is also spiritually beneficial for a monk. Tuning into nature and the desert is, doubtlessly, a good thing.
There are those who compare Sufism to Monasticism.
Please forgive me but my knowledge of Sufism is limited. Iíve given you an idea of what I know. It is, of course, very possible that there exist similarities. Why not?
The remains of martyrs were discovered here recently?
Yes, in the summer of í91.
To which period do they date back?
We found no dates with them. Such matters need to be properly investigated before we can reach any conclusions. It is not right to speculate without any scientific backup. As you probably know, 99% of the matter in the world are organic and carbon-based. That means that the element of carbon is a basic component of organic matter. They take samples from these bodies and examine them using carbon-dating apparatus. They operate using radioactive C14. Ordinary carbon is C12 while radioactive carbon is C13 or C 14. Carbon-dating works by exposing the matter under investigation to C 14 and this tells them, more or less accurately, in which century they lived.
How did you decide that they were martyrs and not just bodies interred into a grave or a tomb?
What led us to this conclusion was the state we discovered them in. We found two bodies in one coffin. This was under the supervision of the Antiquities Authority here in Fayuum. One of the bodies had no head. Anotherís face and body showed signs of having been burnt, and on its hand were the remains of metal shackles. Yes.
You just spoke quite knowledgeably about carbon-dating and I have heard that there is quite a prominent scientific community within the monasteries. Can you tell me something about it?
It is not necessary to have high scientific credentials to become a monk. No. The most important thing is that the individual has in his heart the intention to lead a life close to God, as well as true repentance, and should at least have a good command of reading and writing.
Arabic only, or do they also need to know Coptic?
Iíll tell you this is a matter of pride for me that I have an exceptional command of the Arabic language. I know how to pronounce everything properly, in a grammatically correct way, and I also know why. I donít just say it unawares. To this day, almost 25 years after I completed my education (23 to be precise), it is still preferred. That doesnít preclude having knowledge of other languages. Thereís no problem with that. Of course, though, you ought to be proud of the language you grew up with. Thatís a good thing. I donít like to be in the presence of someone who speaks Arabic incorrectly. Of course, it is good to have a degree competence in a language such as English: a language that most foreigners can speak. This allows you to give them an idea about the place when they come here to visit. I think you also wanted to ask about the Coptic language? It is good to know because it is the ancient heritage of our forefathers. That doesnít diminish from anything at all because it this the language we pray in. But we realise that the majority speak Arabic and do not speak Coptic. We have a good command of Coptic but we have to strike a balance.
Many monks and priests wear a black habit. Does that mean anything?
It is supposed to signify that the impurity within has been expelled. In our prayers we say, Ďwith a pure heart, my lord, and a reborn soul withiní. We can look at the colour black as a symbol of the expulsion of the blackness in the heart. That is spiritually speaking. However, practically speaking, black is a functional colour, you see. And, for someone who has received his funerary rites and has died to the world. Well, not quite, but it does mean that the blackness within has been removed and that he now lives in purity. Thatís how it should be.
What are your hopes for the future?
For myself, you mean. As I told you, a monk does not long for the future Ė the future may come or it may not. A monk is supposed to prepare himself for the moment when he bids farewell to the world. There were saints, as they ascended or descended the stairs, who were always aware that God could claim them at any moment. So, all our thoughts and emotions revolve around this. If you live according to this philosophy, you will, undoubtedly, live in repentance and readiness for the moment God takes your soul. So, my only hope in life is that I am acceptable in the eyes of God. You see, a monk should have no other than spiritual aspirations. As for my hopes for humanity, I hope all goodness to all people. I wish the best, firstly, to our country and to the whole world and for peace and coexistence everywhere. I wish to see all people happy, but to be happy in the right way. Spiritually.
What, from events in the outside world, pains you the most?
Undoubtedly, there are things that please and others that displease. The suffering of people pains me. As you know we are supposed to abandon the world with all its weaknesses and to devote our lives to God. However, when we hear there are people suffering in the world that, naturally, displeases us. And, of course, we are pleased when we hear of good things happening and that people are happy.
This interviewed was conducted with the abbot of the Malik Gebril monastery in October 1999.
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