The giant pyramids faded away behind us as we headed out into Egypt’s western desert. Before us, huge advertising hoardings lined the four-lane highway from Cairo to Alexandria, signs of the all-pervasive globalisation. No signs however prepared us for the discovery we were soon to make about the surprising streams of spiritual life that had flowed out of this desert in centuries past to influence the whole Christian world, particularly Europe.
Each year, Romkje and I go on a short retreat with other senior YWAM leaders of the Europe, Middle East and North Africa field. This year we had agreed to meet in Egypt, and to learn something about the spirituality of Coptic Christianity.
After the resthouse midway between Cairo and Alexandra, our van turned off into a side road leading through the crowded streets of a Bedouin village. More people seemed to live in the desert than I had imagined. A short distance out of the village, we stopped outside a high wall, enclosing an oasis of tall date palms and clustered buildings. The blue metal gate swung open to welcome us, and we found ourselves inside a YWAM training and ministry community, raised out of arid wasteland over the past decade.
The out-of-place sound of a waterfall in the desert drew our attention to a sparkling arch of water gushing out of rocks into a deep blue swimming pool. Obviously this was a favourite spot for the members of this cosmopolitan community, whose students and staff came from across the Middle East, Africa and Asia, as well as several western nations.
From a rooftop lookout, we could survey the Wadi al Natrun (valley of salt), a long depression some 25 metres below sea level. Sodium hydroxide obtained from the salt lakes here was used for the preparation of mummies by the pharoahs, and by the Romans for making glass. But in the fourth and fifth centuries, the presence of fifty monasteries and five thousand monks seeking a deeper spirituality in the solitude of the desert made Wadi al Natrun one of the most famous Christian sites in the world.
Across the salt lake in the foreground we could see two of the remaining monasteries, with palm fronds and church towers rising above their compound walls. The widespread influence such monasteries had had on the development of Christianity in the west became clearer after a visit to the Monastery of St Macarius. Macarius (300-390) was a disciple of the father of monasticism, St Antony(251-356), and retired to the wadi to live in a cave in 330 AD. The community that grew up around this spiritual mentor later became the official residence of the Coptic patriarch for many years, a sort of Coptic Vatican. The famous School of Alexandria had also moved here after riots had destroyed many buildings and books. Some scholars say the Macarius community was the precursor to the concept of the university, with its library, mentor relationships and disciplined lifestyle(!).
The fame of this wadi quickly spread throughout the then Christian world. A cosmopolitan community of monasteries for Armenians, Syrians and Abyssinans soon sprang up in this wadi. From Cappadocia in modern Turkey, came St Basil the Great (330-379) as a young man to learn about Coptic spirituality. He returned home to father the Eastern stream of monasticism. St Jerome (342-420), translator of the Vulgate Bible in Latin, visited Macarius himself in the desert. He returned to Jerusalem where he wrote an influential history of the monks in Latin, broadly propagating Coptic teachings to the west.
Athanasius (293-373) of Alexandria, one of the framers of the Nicene creed, and later a Coptic pope, wrote the biography of his friend and erstwhile mentor, St Antony. Next to the Bible, The Life of Antony became the most influential and widely-read book in the world over the next few centuries. Driven into exile five times between 336 and 373, Athanasius took refuge among the Desert Fathers on several occasions. The mobility possible in the last centuries of Rome’s empire enabled Athanasius to spend two terms in exile in Trier, Germany!
French monk John Cassian (360-435) lived in these and other Egyptian monasteries before founding two communities in Marseilles modelled on the Wadi el Natrun rule. His written summaries of Coptic teachings were adopted by his older compatriot, St Martin (315-397), patron saint of France, as the rule for the monastery in Tours. St Benedict (480-550), ‘father of all western monks’, founded the Benedictine Order of monasteries on the Coptic rule learnt from Cassian and Basil, the most famous being Monte Cassino. Benedictine monasteries in time became the dominant order in the west.
Inspired by The Life of Antony, St Honorat founded the west’s longest continuing monastery on islands just offshore from Cannes on the French Riviera. One tradition holds that around 410, St Patrick swam ashore there after escaping from slavery in Ireland, learned the monastic lifestyle, and later returned to Ireland to transform it into ‘the Island of the Saints’. Irish Christianity was initially totally based on monastic communities, rather than on the parish church. The graves of seven anonymous Coptic monks in Desert Ulidh in Ireland indicate direct links with Egypt, along with striking architectural, liturgical and artistic similarities between the two traditions. Dynamic Celtic missions took the gospel further to Scotland, down into Angle-land (England), and across to today’s Holland, Germany, France, Switzerland and even into the Roman pope’s backyard in Italy.
Other Coptic missionaries to Europe whose names we do know, include St Maurice, messenger to Switzerland where today a town bears his name; and his sister, St Warina, who also went to Switzerland where a church in her memory stands in the city of Soleure.
The conversion of St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) – one of the most influential in history – was triggered by reading The Life of Antony, leading directly to his baptism in 387 and his founding of a monastery on Coptic lines.
All this from oases of spiritual life in the dry, lifeless Egyptian desert!
Parallels between these ancient communities and the YWAM community hosting us were not only apparent to us. Dr Atef, a celibate brother who inspired us for several hours sharing insights on Coptic spirituality, told us that what attracted him to YWAM was the close affinity he observed between YWAM’s values and the spirit of the early Coptic church.
So what was it that attracted such widespread attention to Coptic spirituality back in the fourth century? We’ll take another look at that next week.