Some old men said, “If you see a young man climbing up to the heavens by his own will, catch him by the foot and throw him down to the earth; it is not good for him.”
– Paradise of the Fathers
This week I was saddened to hear about the passing of a righteous elder, Abouna Stefanos Anba Bishoy. He was a monk of several decades, and the right hand man and steward of the monastery of Saint Pishoy in Wadi Natrun. While Paradise rejoices at the arrival of a struggling hero, I cannot help but feel sadness at the fleshly separation, at the end of the day, I am still a man. I want to share some meditations about what I observed in him over the last two years.
I met Abouna at a monastery that lacks a living tradition of elders, not because they refuse them but because that’s their situation. I was not yet wearing white, but dressed in plainclothes and had only been in the monastery for a few weeks when he arrived for medical treatment. I was invited into a room where he was resting after first arriving. His companion, Abouna Isidore Anba Bishoy, much younger, was very ill with a flu he acquired, and Abouna Stefanos was sitting at his side wishing to care for him in some way. He made eye contact and asked who I was, and they told him that I was there for monasticism and that I was an old son of the monastery. His face lit up and he embraced me.
The monks then began discussing news from Egypt, and I noted that Abouna barely spoke a word. He didn’t look disinterested or annoyed. He would occasionally nod his head and smile, but said very little. I knew he as preserving his thoughts and his peace. I crept beside him with my chair and asked, “Can you please tell me about the elders that were in the monastery when you joined?” His face lit up with joy and he asked back, “You want to learn about the elders?” I affirmed that I did. He smiled again, his great smile, and hugged me, and said, “may God grant you to learn”. Then he said nothing.
He said nothing because there was a time and a place, and because he, as an actual elder, had the discernment to see that. Switching the topic of conversation on the monks might have come off as presumptuous and self-righteous when they were eager to exchange news about their motherland and the state of the Church. He knew that not everyone wanted to hear about it. He taught me then, and he taught me later much more.
I opened my journal before writing this blog, and found this as the first thing I recorded about him, totally unedited:
22 Tobi, 1729/30 January, 2013
Two monks came here from Anba Bishoy: Abouna Isidoros and Abouna Stefanos. The latter is an elder and I sense holiness from him. I strongly liked him. I asked him during liturgy one of the days, how does one keep repentance at all times. It was there for a few days and suddenly that isn’t there as strongly. His response was, our Lord told us “learn from me for I am meek and lowly of heart”. So learn to be meek, and learn to love everyone. If a father upsets you, forgive him. If you hear something you don’t like going on or something in the monastery, don’t let it upset you. Try and show love to everyone so that they also love you. If you do all these things, you will find yourself naturally walking in the path of repentance.
Very simple; very deep. That was how he was.
As an elder, Abouna always taught, but he did it so silently. If Abouna entered the Church, you sensed it without having to see him. There was an aura of spirituality around him, and the level of respect and attentiveness grew the moment he entered. He commanded respect without ever demanding it, I think it’s because we could see holiness in him, a real, authentic holiness.
If a brother in the monastery was upset, young or old, Abouna would go to his cell and visit him just to make him smile. He wouldn’t pry, but if the person wanted to open up, he would listen, empathise, give a word of encouragement and leave. It was so rare that he would rebuke when a person was upset, that if he ever did it, it brought the person to their senses. But usually, it was a smile, a kind word, an exhortation to put up with the weaknesses of others by highlighting the strength and love of others. He was not a negative man, he was very positive.
When he left us for Texas for a month, I was devastated. I felt like I had lost the only authentic teacher in the monastery. His emphasis was always the need for a strong community life in the monastery, and he, who I viewed as the glue, had left. I struggled a lot during that month, as I was still a brand new novice. It was during that period that I also was clothed in white.
I had been clothed in white for only fifteen days when this incident that I recorded happened:
30 March, 2013/21 Paremhotep, 1729
It’s amazing what small word of comfort can evoke. Abouna Stefanos is back, he saw me in the cafeteria and I didn’t see him, so he followed me out to embrace me and say mabrook. I don’t know what came over me, but I burst into tears and told him that I am useless and a failure. He kept hugging and kissing me, and told me “I see differently than that”, he told me not to worry about anything anyone says; if someone gives a harsh word or treats me badly, just accept it. He said to try and serve everyone and they will grow in their love for me, and that “I see that you have a great future”. He told me I could talk to him at any time. O Lord, that there would be an elder here that would be able to teach, guide and comfort. … Abouna asked me to pray that the Lord complete his recovery. O Lord grant unto his heart’s desire! How I long to just be able to sit at the feet of a teacher and be instructed.
What wasn’t expressed in this journal entry, was that Abouna literally ran out of the cafeteria to embrace me, and his first words were, “I wanted so much to say congratulations! I can’t tell you the joy I had at hearing of this!” But when he saw me begin to weep, Abouna himself burst into tears and embraced me. The elder was weeping with the child. That image has never left me.
As the months progressed, Abouna had an eye on me. It’s normal in monastic environments for fathers and brothers to have minor conflicts. So please don’t be scandalised by the thought of this. I was struggling to be meek in all of them, but occasionally I would internally be upset. There was a period where I went into self-imposed isolation, and for weeks attended services, meals, and would take off without a word to anyone at all. One day as I was sneaking out a side route to go on a long walk, Abouna was sitting where he could see me, and he summoned me. “Habibi,” he said, “you must live in community. What you are doing is not healthy. Love the brethren and forgive anyone who does anything to bother you. Go out with them, take walks with them, sit with them and talk. Don’t do this all the time, there needs to be balance, but this extreme is also wrong.”
In joy, I obeyed.
There were so many of these lessons, most of them mean more to me than to others, but that was his character, to teach, and to teach quietly. Another fond memory I have of him, was when Abouna Isidore had returned to Egypt. The two are very close and Abouna was greatly saddened because it was a monk from his home on the one hand, and on the other, he was his gatekeeper in travels as well as his physician. I decided to visit him in his cell more after he gave me the green light to do that. When I entered his cell, he wouldn’t be interested in stories. He would first ask me if I was alright, ask me if anything was on my mind, ask me if warfare was troubling me and if I needed any help or advice. His smile was gentle. When any of that was resolved, he would sometimes sing a spiritual song or poem that he remembered, then ask me to read the Bible with him. I cautioned that I might be slow in reading the Bible in Arabic, but he said to read anyway. Within a few verses, he laughed, “Yeah, give me the Bible!” I laughed heartily.
When the time came to leave the monastery for a different monastic vocation, Abouna was stalwart. The days leading up to my transfer, I was bawling my eyes out, particularly the morning of my departure. Abouna went everywhere with me, holding my hand, squeezing my shoulder, rebuking at times and comforting at others. I don’t know how to express the depth of those things, an elder sacrificing himself for a child – I keep repeating that phrase because I have no other words.
For the period that followed, I was still moved by him. No longer was I living with him, but he would call me. I still cannot fathom that. That may sound like a small thing, but it’s not. It’s not the job of the father to call his son, the son should be calling the father, especially when the son knows the father is both ill and in a foreign land. Abouna, however, didn’t have a smartphone. He didn’t have data. He had an old school thing to get around with and to use sparingly. He called me regularly. He called me while he was in the West, and then what really struck me, is that he paid to call me regularly from Egypt. He called me even when I was negligent in calling him back. If I hadn’t returned his call in a month or two (it happened once), there was no tone of condescension in his voice when I finally did.
In fact, when I went to his monastery for my 40 days. The joy in his face was remarkable. He wanted to show me off to other fathers. He came to visit whenever he possibly could (as the wakeel or steward of the monastery, the Bishop had him travel with him a lot), he sent boxes of food and drink to my cell and the other fathers, he was just … love. He memorised the date on which I would be receiving the sacrifice, wanting to attend it. To those who know his role in the monastery, the very thought of him attending is very flattering.
When I asked Anba Serapamon about Abouna’s health once, His Grace looked saddened, knowing that he was not doing well, and said, “Abouna is the image of love and mercy. His heart is so large and he can forgive anyone for anything.” Admirably, Abouna Stefanos treated Anba Serapamon exactly how I treated Abouna himself. He saw the Bishop as his father, spoke of him as such, and lived a discipleship to him despite their closeness of age.
If I could say more, I would, but I hope the image that you are left with is one of a true father. A father who lived a real monastic life – who was in love with his Heavenly Father, and because of that love, showed the characteristics of a father. He showed us the value of community, the need for forgiveness, and the life of humility and sacrifice.
Blessed father, remember us before the throne of God.