I wasn’t there long, but I sensed it was a place in conflict. In conflict with its neighbours, its history and its country. All the while, sitting there peacefully in the middle of the desert like an ancient monastic Tatooine.
The Coptics recently had some issues with Da’esh in Libya, and then in Upper Egypt – apparently building a church to remember the Libyan martyrs was upsetting for others. Violent troubles in the region’s history and the treatment of the monks were often mentioned, and politically they seemed a little tense, but in general quite relieved that the current leader was in charge.
I’d randomly met a lot of Christians in Cairo and Alexandria, many more than I was expecting. To my surprise, I found them to be everywhere.
Brother Macarius was a very amiable fellow. A calm and friendly man at peace. He seemed genuinely delighted to show me around. He said he doesn’t meet many Brits, and was delighted to be informed by an English teacher that his English was excellent. He has some family in Manchester, but was slightly taken aback and at a loss for words when I asked where abouts. Apparently, “I have family in Manchester” is enough to please most people.
He gently led me around, telling me how the Coptics claim to be the true descendants of the Pharaohs. Their language and some rites descend from ancient Egypt, and Arabic is the newest influence upon their daily life. This was mentioned to me on two different occasions in the monasteries which implied it must be a contentious issue, or a point of pride to one-up the other guys. He told me about the martyrs, the Berber invasions and his Christian v Muslim debating skills. He was a little surprised when I started to reference some Desert Fathers and practices I’d read about. I’m not sure what kind of people actually visit Wadi Natrun, but I assumed it would be people who know what the place actually is as it’s not exactly on the foreigner tourist trail. But perhaps not.
He went on to confirm that when they say, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” they often (but not always) follow it with, “All are One.” I should have guessed why, as it made a lot of sense when explained. I’ve heard myself several times from Arab Muslims of how the Christians believe in three gods. So in an attempt to dispel this myth, the Coptics explicitly emphasise the unity of the Trinity. When I quizzed him about the theological training of the monks, I was politely informed that knowing lots of theories and ideas does nothing for giving you peace, loving your neighbour or bringing you closer to the divine.
I’m not sure why, but I felt like asking him if the Coptics believed in war. The question was met with a rather surprised and confused Brother Macarius looking straight back at me. “How can anyone who believes in Jesus and the New Testament be anything but a pacifist?” Quite. So no Just War Theory or justification for violence in any context? “We didn’t have the Roman Empire to twist our theology like you Europeans. So no, we don’t believe in violence.” Well good sir, despite the fact you’ve never heard of Benedicta Ward, I do believe I quite like you and your completely sensible talk.