Coptic Culture

                  

 

Christian Teachings and Thought, Part IV

 

by Ed Rizkalla

    

 

 

                        “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” Heb 13.8

 

                        “Iycouc Pi,rictoc `ncaf nem voou @ `ncof `ncov pe@ nem sa `eneh

                                  

                                                 “يسوع المسيح هو هو الامس واليوم والي الابد 

Over the centuries, several cultural attributes have contributed to enhancing the Copts’ prospects for growth and success.

 

Among these attributes are

1) Respect for education, knowledge and the love of wisdom and a predisposition to seek excellence.

2) Taking initiative and a "can-do" approach to life,

3) Flexibility, adaptability and innovation, and

4) A sunny disposition and joy of life.

Saint Athanasius the Apostolic (293-373 A.D.) wrote his book “The Life of Anthony” (1) shortly after the death of Saint Anthony the Great in 356 A.D. The book was originally written in Greek as a letter addressed to monks living abroad.

The contemporary reader should keep in mind that the purpose of Athanasius’s book was first and foremost to motivate the readers to lead a life of virtue, and encourage some to lead a life of asceticism. However as both the writer “Athanasius” and his subject “Anthony” were Copts, the narrative reflects some aspects of the Coptic culture.

The preface of “the Life of Anthony” illustrates the Copts’ respect for education, knowledge, and love of wisdom, and their predisposition to seek excellence. Athanasius starts by encouraging the readers who have chosen to enter into a contest with the monks of Egypt, thus emphasizing a predisposition to compete and seek excellence.

Athanasius continues “I will relate to you in this letter a few things that I remember about that man, setting them in writing for you... I wrote down for you the things I know-for I saw him often-and the things I heard from the person (monk) who followed him …I have endeavored to write these things down to you, my godly brothers, with great regard for the truth in every detail so no one will be skeptical after hearing too much or, on the other hand, hear fewer words than he should and hold the man in contempt.”

Athanasius’s cultural respect for knowledge made him endeavor to write with care and diligence, based not only on his own prior knowledge but also relying on a close follower of Anthony. The ancient Egyptians are known for the respect for and love of the written word, reflecting their knowledge and wisdom, and transmitting them to future generations.

The Copts’ respect for knowledge and love of wisdom have been further enhanced and invigorated by Christian teachings and thought. Christian teachings and thought admonish seeking “discernment” in addition to knowledge and wisdom. Thus Anthony exhorts “We ought, therefore, to pray all the time without ceasing, as I said before, to receive the gift of discerning the Spirit so that we may not believe every spirit.” 

Athanasius narrates that Anthony’s growing fame led people to visit him. The visitors however forced a change in the way Anthony led his life. He became concerned that the visitors’ praise could lead him to become conceited, and thought it best to travel to the upper Thebaid, where people might not know him.  The Spirit guided him instead to travel to the inner desert. He traveled with some Saracens into the inner desert, until he came upon a high mountain with abundant supply of water and small date palms.

Athanasius notes “Anthony, as someone moved by God, fell in love with the place…He first accepted some small loaves of bread from those with whom he had traveled and remained on the mountain by himself, remaining there like someone who recognizes his home…He also took a little comfort from the palm trees.” Sometime later on, some brothers found his new abode, and sought him anew. They endured a difficult journey into the inner desert to visit and bring him food supplies.

Athanasius further notes “He (Anthony) deliberated inwardly and asked the brothers who came to bring him a <tool for planting>, an ax and a little grain…He husbanded the land well and sowed it and watered it so it would prosper and by doing this each year he had little bread, rejoicing that he would be bothering no one…Later, however, when he once again saw some people coming to see him, he planted a few greens and herbs so that those who visited him would find little relief from their difficult journey.”

Though Anthony was leading a solitary and ascetic life in a hard environment, he exhibited a sunny disposition and joy in life. He fell in love with the place, took a little comfort and was rejoicing. Anthony’s actions further illustrate taking initiative and a "can-do" approach to life. Perhaps Anthony would have been blameless if he had relied upon food provided by his visitors. However he did not opt to rely on others and adapted to his new environment. Furthermore, he was not content to plant some grains to supply his own needs for bread, but he illustrated flexibility and innovation by planting greens and herbs so that he would help visitors. Anthony, with the grace of the Lord, continued to exhibit some of the cultural attributes inherited from his ancient Egyptian ancestors.  The Life of Anthony is in essence a story of struggle, spiritual warfare, and victory. It is a reminder for our times that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever”. This same Jesus continues in our day and age to lead the believers on the way to victory. The peace of the Lord be with you all. Irene Passe.

References:

 (1) The Life of Antony by Athanasius of Alexandria, The Greek Life of Antony, The Coptic Life of Antony, translated by Tim Vivian and Apostolos N. Athanassakis, with Rowan A. Greer, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 2003.

 

Acknowledgement: The writer would like to acknowledge and thank the staff of the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, for their assistance with research for background material for this article.

Ed Rizkalla is a management consultant and freelance writer. He is the founder of Pharos on the Potomac Group (POPG), a non-profit organization at Annandale, VA.  

 

http://mysite.verizon.net/vzes76jv/pharosonthepotomacgroup


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