Father Gary Thorne, Chaplain at the University of King’s College, Halifax Nova Scotia is a friend of our Diocese. He went on a trip to Egypt as the Anglican Foundation’s Saint Basil the Great Scholar to learn about the Orthodox Coptic Oriental Church and experience life as a Coptic monk.
Mr. Thorne asked if the Diocese could provide him with gifts of beadwork for the people he would meet on his trip. We put together a package for Gary with beadwork crosses, bookmarks and other items made by Maggie Charles and Liza Halkett from our Diocese and some crosses made by the women in Kingfisher Lake in the Diocese of Mishamikoweesh in northern Ontario.
As he gave the gifts of the beaded cross, he talked about the wonderful spiritual life of our Indigenous Peoples. He was struck by the ways that the Indigenous Peoples of the ACC and the Copts seem to share a common approach to the Christian faith: by the direct way they read the Bible as the Word of God and a guidebook to Christian living; by the way the First Nations people do not simply reject their indigenous spiritual heritage but continue to value it as revealed, akin to the Copts who see themselves as proud descendants of the Pharonic culture and who consciously and unapologetically incorporate the ancient religion of this land of the Pharaohs into their Christianity; and finally (for now!) how like the Indigenous Peoples of Canada, the Copts consider dreams and visions to be conveyers of spiritual truth.
He began his trip at the Monastery of Saint Macarius which was a perfect introduction to the Copts. The Copts are an ethno-religious group situated in North Africa and the Middle East, mainly in the area of modern Egypt, where they are the largest Christian denomination, but also in Sudan where they are the largest Christian denomination, and Libya where they are the largest Christian denomination.
In 1969 Matta El-Meskeen and his disciples were invited to take over the Monastery of Saint Macarius that was in ruins with only several very elderly and discouraged monks. Matta El-Meskeen is the one who has revived Coptic monasticism (there are now 140 monks at Saint Macarius and each year many more young people seek to enter the monastery than the monastery can accept). Matta El-Meskeen is recognized as responsible for the renewal of Coptic spirituality and the attraction of young people to the Coptic faith both in Egypt and throughout the diaspora ( including Canada).
As a guest at the Monastery Fr. Thorne attended all the worship of prayer, praise and liturgy and spent the rest of his time mostly in his cell. It is expected. They bring your meals and leave them outside the door of the cell so prayer and contemplation need not be broken and meals are taken alone in the cell. The Coptic Church is so dependent upon this monastic tradition - all bishops are chosen from among monks. It is impossible to understand monasticism from the outside. When they say that prayer is the foundation and the anchor for the church, they really mean it.
Before he left Canada one of Gary’s closest colleagues asked earnestly (on two different occasions) that if he chanced to meet Father Lazarus that he ask for prayers for him. His friend informed him that Father Lazarus lived as a solitary in a cave above Saint Anthony’s monastery. He is likely the most well-known ‘anchorite’ in the world today. Born in Australia, Father Lazarus was a university lecturer and what he called an ‘aggressive atheist.’ The story of his conversion from atheism to his ending up as an anchorite on Mount Colzim has been told many times in print and on video.
Fr. Thorne felt he would not want to disturb a true solitary but upon asking a young monk assigned to assist him if he had any advice about how best to spend his time in Egypt the monk told him “Go to Saint Anthony’s and see Father Lazarus”, the monk said, “That is something I dearly wished I had done before I took my profession here.” (Once ordained, monks generally do not leave their monastery except to receive necessary medical treatment).
He decided he would go to St. Anthony’s. Upon his arrival at St. Anthony’s he learned that Fr. Lazarus would be celebrating the Liturgy at 11:30 pm that night at a small chapel that is up the mountain halfway to St. Anthony’s cave. There are so many pilgrims that seek him out during the day that this is his only opportunity to pray the Liturgy. The following is an excerpt from Fr. Thorne’s blog.
“The sky is dripping with stars. I wait for a few minutes for my night vision to reveal the path before taking my first step – tonight I want to be guided by the stars, embraced by the silence, and clothed with “the darkness which is God.” I shall not use a flashlight unless absolutely necessary. I begin my climb in a slow steady rhythm as I recite the Jesus prayer. It turns out that the climb is not as difficult as I was told, and I will reach the Church in less than twenty minutes, but I did not know this. Alone, yet not alone: I feel blessed in every way, at one
with my God, and ecstatic with gratefulness. After ten minutes I meet one boy on his descent (the monastery has a full youth programme on the go). Because I am not using a flashlight he assumes that I do not have one, and he insists that I take his extra flashlight. Of course I have my iPhone, and a flashlight as well, so I try politely yet firmly to decline his offer. In the end he is so insistent that I take it. I turn it on, stand still, and wait for him to disappear down the trail before turning his flashlight off and continuing my climb. I hope I do not run into more such good Samaritans or else I will end up with a pocket-full of flashlights before church! But I meet no-one else”
I hope we can convince Fr. Thorne to visit our Diocese to tell us first hand all about his adventure.