Unification News for April 1997

Exploring the Roots of Christianity

Dr. Tyler Hendricks
April, 1997

This March, Rev. Joong Hyun Pak, Dr. Tyler Hendricks and Mrs. Nora Spurgin traveled to Egypt in search of the roots of Christianity: the Coptic Orthodox Church. We sought a meeting with the Pope of this most ancient of Christian communions, His Holiness Shenouda III. Little did we expect that this meeting would take place at a monastery in the desert.

Our travels were ably coordinated by Father Athenasius Paul, the first American to be ordained a Coptic priest. Father Athenasius Paul attended a True Family Values Seminar in Washington, DC, last December. He was impressed with the deep Christian message of the conference, a message which resonates with the insights of the ancient Coptic teachings. From that time he sought the opportunity to introduce the TFV Ministry staff to his tradition and its leader.

For us, to be able to meet the Patriarch of some one million Christians was grace from God. The highest Christian leaders are now being introduced to the ideal of True Parents and True Family, and to the Blessing of marriage now sweeping the world in God's providence.

We arrived in Cairo late Wednesday afternoon, March 18. Our party of eight, including Father Athenasius Paul's daughter and grandson, Jennifer and Christopher, and Pastor and Mrs. Rick and Mayumi Joswick of the Los Angeles church, was greeted by an equal number of members of Cairo's St. Mary's Church at the airport. Their reception was warm and embracing. In the Coptic tradition, the person lower in the hierarchy kisses the cross which the superior holds in his hand, and then kisses his hand, places his or her forehead on his hand, and then they kiss each others' necks on both sides. Then the priest may choose to place his hands on the person's head and give a blessing. The highest grace is to blow on the person's head, passing on the breath of the Holy Spirit, which has been transmitted this way for over 2,000 years beginning in the Upper Room.

From the airport we were whisked away to the St. Mark Center, the Pope's guest house located in a suburb of Cairo. We freshened up after our 10-hour flight and had a light meal. It is the fasting season for Copts, but not to worry. The Coptic fast means refraining from foods having animal origin: meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. The staple during fasting time is a bean called foule. We were told that Muslims consider this fit only for animals, so the Christians adapted it as their staple, in an expression of humility. With middle-eastern spices, parsley, onions and so forth, we all became fools for foule, wrapped in a soft pita bread with tomatoes and peppers. Well, I could go on for several paragraphs about the delicious food we were provided during the fast, but I will spare you who have little or no access to it.

After our "snack," we departed to St. Mark's Cathedral, a modern structure filled that evening with some 7,000 worshippers. Each Wednesday night is the Pope's night to teach and answer written questions in Cairo (Thursday in Alexandria). He sat at a large desk on the stage, with a hundred or more bishops and priests sitting at his left hand; to his right the throne of St. Mark, founder of the church in Egypt. As we approached the front of the sanctuary, Father Athenasius Paul entered that fenced-off area, bowed to the Pope and received his blessing, and mentioned our presence to him, indicating our location in the front row. Later in the evening, the Pope gave us a greeting, and Father Paul informed us that His Holiness would meet us "in the desert" two days hence. This was good news, because in the desert, there is time; there is much t i m e.

The Pope is a gentle man with a grandfatherly white beard and sonorous voice. He answered questions regarding theology, spiritual life, and personal problems. His answers were simple, for the most part, often only one sentence long. His homily was on responsibility. He said that our first responsibility is to our family. Most essentially, it is the responsibility of parents "especially the mother" to raise the children in the fear of God. Parents should not expect the church to take care of their children's spiritual life; Christian nurture begins at home.

The Pope announced proudly that there are now 160 Coptic churches overseas, including in Hawaii, Australia, South Africa and Europe. One church in the past two years has grown from a few families, to 70 families, to 120 families. We discovered later that there are many Coptic churches in America, with 95% of the members being of Egyptian origin.

The next day we visited Christian sites in Cairo. We began by returning to St. Mark's Cathedral. Under the altar is a shrine containing the relics of St. Mark himself. Mark, the author of what is generally accepted as the earliest gospel, was martyred in Alexandria, stoned by a mob. A word here on the Coptic veneration of relics and icons.

The Copts take the incarnation as a foundation of their dogma. The presence of the divine in the mortal flesh means that the spirit world is connected to specific things in the physical world. The incarnation of God Himself in Christ is extended next to the incarnation of the divine in the Eucharist, in which bread and wine become Christ's body and blood; again, the divine in material form. This is extended further to relics: the bones of the saints, and to icons: pictures of the saints. The believer connects to the divine by touching and kissing the icon, in the proper spirit of faith and love.

Thus we entered the sanctuary of St. Mark, a small round room with icons and murals on the walls, several with candle settings in front of them, and in the center the encasement of the gospel writer's relics, a cube with sides perhaps four and one half feet in length, covered with red velvet. After our devotions there we proceeded to the altar of St. Athenasius, where we offered similar devotions. Father Athenasius Paul prostrated himself completely on the ground in the presence of his namesake. St. Athenasius was the great fourth-century Patriarch of Alexandria, the central author if the Nicene Creed which is the standard creed for all churches. (The split of the Copts from the other sees came in 451 AD with the Council of Chalcedon.)

The remainder of the afternoon was spent visiting fourth century churches in Old Cairo, including the site where the Holy Family disembarked from the Nile. The Egyptians consider their nation to have equal status with Israel in terms of Jesus' presence; it is the only other nation in which he is known to have lived. On the Upper Nile is a site at which, centuries ago, a Bible was floating in one place, unmoved by the current. It was open to a passage in Isaiah which predicts God's blessing upon Egypt. Thusly it was revealed that there, the Holy Family also lived. That Bible has been preserved and the page has never been turned nor the covers closed.

That evening was spent at a reception at St. Mark's church, at which we met the President of all the priests in Cairo and their Bishop. The following morning we departed for the desert monasteries. Located a few miles off the Cairo-Alexandria highway was our first stop, the Monastery of St. Macarios. It is the largest of the fifteen monasteries in Egypt, with hundreds of acres of cultivated land walled

in, irrigated from a well dug by the monks centuries ago. Under cultivation were dates, citrus, olives, onions, bamboo and more. Local farm workers are employed by the monastery.

In the center of the fields rose up walls 25' or more high: the walls of the monastery proper. As beige as the rest of the desert, with its walls stretching hundreds of meters in each direction, this the largest of Egypt's monasteries. Inside it was immaculate, with marble floors, extensive grape arbors, benches, and stairs 12 meters wide leading down to lower courtyards. Off the courtyards were several churches. Each monastery houses a number of small churches; I suppose we would call them chapels. Here the monks gather for their masses and times of prayer throughout the day and night. A mass was just beginning, and Father Athenasius Paul joined the monks; we could not. We soon learned that the St. Macarios church in which they were celebrating housed the relics of none other than John the Baptist. After the mass, during which time we visited several other ancient churches on the grounds, and the fortress within the monastery, we returned to this church of St. Macarios and entered.

The room was still fragrant with incense, and we touched and prayed at the relics of poor John the Baptist. At the same location were the relics of the prophet Elisha, and on the altar was a carving of Elijah's ascent in the flaming chariot; a fitting icon for John the Baptist's tomb, as he was declared by Jesus to be the returned Elijah.

Space does not permit detailed explanation of all the flavors and sights of the Coptic desert monasteries. Let it just be said that time has stood still there, especially in the shadowy, cave-like churches housing these ancient relics with their miraculous histories attached. Here we could understand how the Coptic church alone among its brothers throughout the entire middle-east and North Africa withstood the power of Islam. The Coptic roots are deep and absolute.

After tea and bread, we drove for half an hour to the monastery of St. Bishoy, which is the residence of the Pope. We met the manager of the monastery, a jovial young Australian monk, who had our dinner prepared. Awaiting dinner, we met and spoke at length with Bishop Macarios, of Ethiopia. He is an erudite man, who did post-graduate research at Harvard and was thoroughly familiar with the US and world at large. He spoke with equal knowledge and insight about economics, politics and theology. In fact, all the monks we met were men of advanced training. By their accounting a high percentage were medical doctors and many were engineers.

We rested that night, and spent the morning and afternoon of the next day touring the monasteries of St. Bishoy and St. Syrian, located within walking distance of each other. Of particular interest was the monk's "cell," or apartment. It consisted of two rooms, altogether amounting to no more than 100 square feet. The outer room was for weaving baskets and wool, their livelihood, and copying texts at a small desk. The inner room was for sleeping, praying and fighting Satan.

At 5 p.m. we were notified that the Pope would see Father Paul and then, God willing, us. After his meeting of 90 minutes with Father Paul, we were summoned, and we gathered with him around the table on his porch. Reverend Pak shared that we had in a short time developed a deep love and appreciation for the Coptic church and its people. We presented the World Scripture, in which he showed interest. Rev. Pak discussed the True Family Values Ministry seminars and the True Family Festival. The Pope examined photographs of the December 10 TFVM seminar in Washington, and of several True Family Festivals. He spoke in agreement of the need to have strong families, and explained the

resurgence of the Coptic church over the past three decades through investment in the Sunday Schools. Mrs. Spurgin voiced her support for the Pope's work with families and women, and shared about the sisterhood ceremonies.

Altogether the Pope was wonderfully gracious, giving us all gifts and autographing photos and calendars at our request. The meeting lasted far longer than any of us expected. We left the monastery after our evening meal, arriving "home" at the St. Mark Center well after midnight.

The following morning after Pledge Service we attended mass at St. Mary's church. Father Athenasius Paul assisted in the mass, a lengthy, precise and complex affair involving the priest, deacons and congregation in a closely coordinated set of words and actions. The book of liturgy, printed in Arabic and English, was itself over 140 pages long, just for the mass! The service took two hours, including a 15 minute homily and communion.

Father Paul delivered the homily, on the Holy Spirit. In its course, he introduced Rev. Pak and his spiritual father Reverend Sun Myung Moon. He made very sure that the interpreter pronounced "Reverend Sun Myung Moon" with exact precision. This was surely an historic moment. Equally ground-breaking, though not as earth-shaking, was the invitation to a non-Copt, yours truly, to read the scriptures. Truly I felt the spirit of God as the scriptures resounded through the sanctuary (Ps 78:7-8 and the Parable of the Prodigal Son).

We spent the afternoon with members of this special congregation, at one of their three buildings, one dedicated to housing young married couples, another to housing college students, and this one to housing the aged. After this visit we were treated to a cruise on the Nile, affording us a view of many parts of the city and many conversations with our new-found friends.

The following day was our last in Egypt, and we could not leave without a tour of the pyramids! Nonetheless, our party divided, as Rev. Pak and Father Paul joined Father John and a secretary from the Pope's office for a meeting with the Holy Father at his Cairo office. Rev. Pak commented later that our meeting in the desert was so fortunate, as we had time, whereas in Cairo there was a long line of people waiting to see the Pope, including an official from the Arab League and many other such dignitaries.

The meeting that day was brief but significant. Rev. Pak presented a copy of Reverend Moon's teachings, the Exposition of the Divine Principle, and the Pope in turn called for an icon to present to Reverend and Mrs. Moon. First a small one was brought out, which he rejected and sent for a large one, a beautiful representation of the Virgin Mother and Jesus.

The two groups viewed the pyramids, and had their rendezvous at the home of one of St. Mary's congregants for dinner. We rushed to St. Mark's Center with just enough time to pack and drive to the airport" for our 1:30 a.m. flight! We simply could not get enough of the lovely Coptic people of Egypt. We pray that our friendship as two churches created in the will of God will prosper and bear fruit.

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