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The Monastic Concerns Regarding Unity And Reconciliation of Traditions

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The Monastic Concerns Regarding Unity And Reconciliation of Traditions

By Bishop Suriel [Published in St. Nersess Theological Review 3:1-2 (1998) 118-124]

I wish to thank St. Vladimir’s and St. Nersess Seminaries for their kind invitation to attend this symposium and to speak to you today.

What are the Oriental monastic concerns regarding unity and reconciliation of traditions?

I truly believe that this is a very important subject that perhaps has not been discussed very much so far in the dialogue between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox. We need to know what the monastic tradition teaches us in this regard and what is its viewpoint with regards to unity.

We need to remind ourselves of the aim of monasticism. Monasticism was meant to unite man with God, man with his fellow man, and also man with nature. This was the ideal that the early fathers were aiming for and succeeded in achieving. It was St. Arsenius who said, “Strive with all your might to bring your interior activity into accord with God, and you will overcome exterior passions.” He also said, “If we seek God, he will show himself to us, and if we keep him, he will remain close to us.” Unity and reconciliation between man and God is what those early monastics sought. They also sought unity with their fellow man. Abba Isaac said, “I have never allowed a thought against my brother who has grieved me to enter my cell; I have seen to it that no brother should return to his cell with a thought against me.” Also Saint Anthony the Great said, “Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.” We also see that these monastics were living in harmony with the nature that surrounded them. Saint Paul the hermit had a crow bring him half a loaf of bread each day and on the day that Saint Anthony visited him, the crow brought them one whole loaf of bread. They also ate from whatever the nature around them provided, for example dates. They also used the palm trees for their living: to weave baskets, to keep themselves busy, and for these baskets to be sold in the cities to provide for their bread. It was a harmonious life indeed.

Another important way that monasticism should be a way to unity is through prayer. Even though the monk leaves the world, its troubles and wars, yet he prays for peace. He prays for unity and for the healing of schism. It is the life of prayer without ceasing. As Saint Paul tells us to pray at all times. The power of prayer especially by those who have consecrated their lives for it definitely has the effect to solve many disputes.

So then, the point I am trying to make here is that monasticism should be a point of unity in all aspects of life and not something that divides. It is the source of spirituality and piety in the Church. We need to remember also that we have many common monastic fathers whom we revere and honour in both of our Orthodox families. Great fathers such as Saint Anthony the Great, Saint Macarius the Great, Saint Pachomius, the Syrian fathers Saint Isaac and Saint Ephrem, Saint John Cassian and Saint Palladius, just to name a few. We really have so much to unite us in monasticism, and it is these roots that can bring our traditions closer together and unite us once again by God’s grace. These fathers that came from different backgrounds were also willing to learn from each other. We see for example Saint John Cassian and Saint Palladius coming to Egypt to learn monasticism at its source. The lives of these great men and their sayings deepened the spirituality of Christian life. They were also a source of inspiration to many who repented at reading or hearing about them. One famous example was that of Saint Augustine, who was deeply affected by the biography of Saint Anthony that was written by Saint Athanasius the twentieth Pope of Alexandria.

Monasticism should also be a source of strength and a torchbearer for correct teaching and Orthodoxy. It preserves the true faith for us and fights against heresies. The monastic fathers did not remain quiet when it came to heresy. They looked for unity amongst Christians, but this unity was built upon unity and oneness in faith. This was exactly the case with Saint Anthony the Great. He defended the faith against the Arian heretics. It was said that, “he was well acquainted with their schisms,…and he even exhorted every man to withdraw himself from them, for he used to say, ‘Neither in the discussion of them nor in their result is there any advantage.’” When the Arians came to spread their poison in the desert he cast them out from the mountain like the other wild beasts and vipers. He even went down to Alexandria to defend the Orthodox faith against the Arian heresy. Of course he was so well known and respected all over the world, and his words had their influence and confirmed the people in sound doctrine.

It was similar with Abba Agathon, who was willing to accept any type of ridicule and insult except to be called a heretic. At being called a heretic he replied, “‘I am not a heretic.’ So they asked him, ‘Tell us why you accepted everything we cast you, but repudiated this last insult.’ He replied, ‘The first accusations I take to myself, for that is good for my soul. But heresy is separation from God. Now I have no wish to be separated from God. ’”

If we look for a moment at some sad history, we see that many monks had to endure many tribulations. Several emperors attempted to force Coptic monks to accept the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon. One such famous monk was Saint Samuel the Confessor. Otto Mienardus, in his book titled Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert, speaks of Saint Samuel’s theological activities and especially his keen opposition to the decrees of Chalcedon when an attempt was made to impose the decrees upon the monks. “Saint Samuel was imprisoned and beaten, and after severe questioning, was about to be publicly flogged when the civic authorities saved his life.”

If we now move to the current situation, we see that monasticism is still playing a positive role in leading us towards unity and reconciliation. Several of the official dialogues between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox took place at Saint Bishoy Monastery in the ancient site of Scetis, which dates back to the fourth century. So, monasticism today still regards that working towards reconciliation and sharing the same faith as vital to its survival. It is also of great importance to note the work of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria. His Holiness has worked so hard in planning, attending and participating in many of these dialogues. In fact under his leadership the Coptic Orthodox Church was the first Church to accept the Agreed Statement of 1990 signed in Chambesy, Switzerland. He takes the subject of unity seriously and again this is stemming from his monastic roots. He is a great theologian, and he did not only gain a Bachelor of Theology’ from the Seminary in Cairo, but did extensive reading and research while he was a hermit at El-Sourian Monastery in Wadi Natrun. Even though he is the Pope and Patriarch he has not forgotten for one single instant that he is a monk first. That is why he spends approximately half of each week at the Monastery of Saint Bishoy. This time is spent in contemplation, prayer and writing.

From the Coptic Orthodox point of view, we have no reservations with regards to unity with the Eastern Orthodox. The Coptic monks as well as all of the Coptic community are well aware of all of the agreements that have taken place so far. In the official magazine of the Coptic Orthodox Church named El-Keraza (Preaching), His Holiness Pope Shenouda III always publishes the latest news on the dialogue. Also many articles are written to explain the process of the dialogue and the decisions that have been taken by our Holy Synod with this regard. I can say with confidence that our people are for this unity and so are all of the monks. I know that I myself am awaiting for this blessed day, when I can partake of the Eucharist with my brothers in the Eastern Orthodox Church. When I was serving our parish in Hawaii, before I was ordained as a Bishop, I had very good relations with the Greek Orthodox priest, Fr. George Bessinas. Since we did not yet have our own church, on many occasions he would allow us to use his church for our services. It was a relationship of love and mutual respect. One day he invited me to attend a liturgy of the Pre-sanctified gifts. It was very moving experience for me and I enjoyed it so much. But at the same time it was such a painful experience for me, because I could not share in the Body and Blood of Christ with him. I pray and hope that this day will come soon, when we can be fully united in Christ the incarnate Logos.

Another important point I wish to make that is evident today, is the effect of monasticism to unite people of non-Orthodox background. Recently I was reading a wonderful article by Tim Vivian titled “The Monasteries of the Wadi Natrun, Egypt: A Monastic and Personal Journey” that was published this month in the American Benedictine Review. At the end of his article Tim Vivian states, “For the first time in my eight-year monastic journey, I was connecting what I had learned from books with what I could study in the field and hold in my hands; for only the second time in my academic career, I was teaching the subject I care about the most, and I saw monastic spirituality connect with my young students; visiting the Coptic monasteries of the Wadi Natrun showed me the many strengths and beauties of ongoing monastic tradition; I marvelled at the monastic renaissance taking place in Egypt, and I could only admire these monks and lay Christians who devote themselves to Christ in the face of persistent adversity.” Perhaps monasticism will also play an important role in restoring the whole Christian Church to one faith. One flock for one Shepherd, Who is Our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ.

I think that for us Copts – and I am speaking as a monk also, if there are any concerns with regards to reconciliation, they would be with regards to the monks of Mount Athos and some Traditionalist groups within the Eastern Orthodox Church. The document titled, “Declaration of Mount Athos Against Reunion with the Non- Chalcedonians” concerns me somewhat. To go through it in detail is beyond this lecture, but let me mention a few brief points. In this document the Eastern monks are demanding “the unconditional acceptance of the Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and of their sacredness and universality by the Non-Chalcedonians.” Well, first of all, we were not even part of these councils to begin with, and did not take part in the decision making. So, how can we just accept them as such? In a recent paper by His Eminence Metropolitan Bishoy of Damiette, the Co-President of the Official Dialogue, he stated, “ …the Orthodox interpretation of the teachings of the four later councils of the (Eastern) Orthodox are the same as the doctrine of the Oriental Orthodox who have always refused both the Nestorian and Eutychian heresies. The two families are called to reinforce each other in their struggle against heresies and to complete each other as one body of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.”

The Eastern monks continue to say things like denouncing the Joint Commission of the dialogue, naming Saints Dioscorus, Jacob and Severus as heretics, and stating that there is radical disagreement between the Joint Commission and the teachings of the Holy Fathers. The document also questions, “Has there not been a scandalous deception in the information given to the people of God?” They are also in opposition to the removal of any texts which degrade or attack the Oriental Orthodox in Eastern liturgical books. I feel that this type of spirit on the part of our brothers the Eastern Orthodox monks of Mount Athos will only divide even further and delay reconciliation between the two families of Orthodoxy. I know that committees have been set up to produce books to explain and clarify the positions and teachings of both families of Orthodoxy. I hope that these books will be a great source of help in clarifying the Agreed Statements even further and press the move towards unity. I believe that one other important way by which monks from the different traditions can come to understand each other is through an exchange program. Monks from Mount Athos could spend some time in Oriental monasteries in Egypt, Syria or Armenia and also perhaps some Oriental Orthodox monks could spend time becoming familiar with the monastic tradition on Mount Athos. This may help to bridge the rift that has lasted for fifteen long centuries now.

There is also another group named, “The Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies,” which attacks the Oriental Orthodox Churches severely, especially the Coptic Orthodox Church. They call us all sorts of names such as “The Non-Chalcedonian Heretics”; “The Copts are Monophysites and thus heretics. Their Mysteries are invalid and, should they join the Orthodox Church, they must be received as non- Orthodox.” Very harsh and damaging words, indeed destructive and far from the spirit of ecumenism that we are living in the 1990’s. Such a group may be a minority, but they certainly have a loud voice and can [harm] relationships between the average people who do not know better. I do not wish to harp on the negatives, but they are certainly a concern for us. Please remember also that quote from Abba Agathon, “But heresy is separation from God. Now I have no wish to be separated from God.” None of us could wish this upon anyone, to be separated from God, yet such people are insinuating such an idea.

Fr. George Dragas in a paper titled “The Rapprochement of the Orthodox and Orientals” also thinks that the reason for such negative reactions is lack of information. He states, “In my opinion, however, such negative reactions are primarily due to a lack of information on the recent history of constructive contacts between the two Orthodox families of Churches and especially on the very significant theological classifications and agreements which have been made from both sides in many ‘consultations,’ both unofficial and official, as well as in new constructive and fundamental theological researches by individual theologians.” Another important point that Fr. George Dragas makes in his paper is that in the teachings of Saint Athanasius and Saint Cyril we have a common foundation for modem dialogue. He says, “It should be pointed out that Orthodox share with the Oriental Orthodox certain unquestionable patristic authorities. They share common fathers and common patristic conciliar decisions. The great Alexandrian fathers St. Athanasius and St. Cyril, as well as the great Cappadocians, St. Basil, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. John Chrysostom … and also the first three ecumenical councils … are wholeheartedly accepted by them. Is this not sufficient ground for orthodox rapprochement? … Indeed I believe that these particular authorities provide all that is necessary for orthodox advance and consolidation.”

There can be no doubt, then, that the monastic tradition can have an important role in bringing this dialogue to complete fruition, culminating with the lifting of the anathemas and – along with the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in His Church – the restoration of the one glorious and undivided Orthodox Church of God.


[Source: St. Nersess Theological Review 3:1-2 (1998) 118-124]


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