Saturday, October 14, 2006
The spirituality of the desert is still a living reality in the Coptic monasteries of Egypt, among which there has been a remarkable renaissance in the last decades. In June one of the main figures of this revival died. Father Matta el-Meskeen, Matthew the Poor, was the spiritual father of the monastery of St Macarius in the Wadi el-Natroun, which Copts call “the place of the weighing of the heart” — the heart being in the Bible and in the desert tradition not the place of feeling, but of willing and of choosing.
Matthew the Poor, educated as a pharmacist, went to the poor monastery of St Samuel in Upper Egypt in 1948. For nine years he lived with 12 disciples in caves in the Wadi al-Rayan deep in the desert, until he was called to be spiritual father of St Macarius in 1969, a monastery which now houses a community of 130 monks. His books, The Communion of Love and The Orthodox Life of Prayer have influenced many.
I spent two months in St Macarius monastery in 1979. I asked Father Matta then about his experience of God. Faithful to the desert tradition he replied: “I have had far more experience of God through others than directly myself. I am always eating, as it were, of crumbs that fall from the table prepared by God for others through me” — and that, surely, is true for all of us.
He once asked theologians meeting to discuss Christian unity how many of them were prepared to die for it, “for if you are not prepared to die for it there is no point in coming here to talk about it”. Because, he wrote, it is our Creator who calls us to pray, “we should always begin our prayer with overflowing thanks”, giving God the glory, confessing our sinfulness and repenting, “for as much as our hearts are pure, God finds his rest in us”.
Saints are those whose hearts God has touched. That surely was true of Father Matta el-Meskeen, a desert father of our own day, for whom I with many others thank God.