500 metres away from the famous monastery of St. Pishoy (Deir el Anba Bishoy), is the less known, but still known, monastery of the Syrians, “Deir El Sourian”. The monastery itself has had its recent greats. Bishop Theophilus will go down in history as one of the most charismatic abbots of that monastery. He was the abbot who had all sorts of ways of testing new novices before coming, and it was he who admitted Nazir Gayid to the monastery, who would one day become the thrice-blessed Pope Shenouda III. This monastery also gave us two modern elder saints that have been making their way in the world: Elder Matthias (Mettaous) and Elder Philotheos (Faltaos). There are, of course others. Copts of course are not as keen, it seems, on preserving the written record of some of the teachings of these elders. I pray that we acquire that.
From this world, came a monk by the name of Antony (Antonious). I am choosing to write about him today because it was three years ago to the day that I met him, although he reposed in the Lord earlier this year. This blog post will not do him credit, because I need to recover my old e-mails after I had wiped my computer, because I used to write what he told me in an e-mail draft. Abouna Antonious of blessed memory was a father – a real father. In this blog I will talk about my initial meeting with him, some of the things he said to me, but I really hope to have the discipline to follow up with more blogs about him and his specific teachings to me on various occasions.
Inevitably, some of the things that I mention have a ‘supernatural element’ to them. I leave it to the readers to believe them or not to believe, that’s up to them. I’m not writing about these things because I think talking about supernatural is the most edifying thing, but I speak of them as experiences that I truly had, and only because of the context of their spiritual meaning. I will never write about a miraculous thing for the sake of just talking about a miracle. Miracles are not entertainment. Abouna Antonious himself, actually, almost never was willing to talk about anything pertaining to supernatural to me. He liked all things to be both spiritual and rational for edification, and only once in my memory spoke about supernatural things, and it was because of something I was asking him about [in a wrong way].
First meeting and impressions
It was November 24th, 2013 – 15 Hatour, 1730. For some, it was the eve of fasting, but for a few of us at St. Pishoy’s, we had already been fasting for about two weeks. I was sitting with a few fathers who were in Egypt for retreat or other reasons, and they brought up a certain individual about whom there was some controversy. The tone, to be truthful, was somewhat negative. It wasn’t negative in the sense that they were calling the person evil, but I felt there was a tone of sarcasm and presumption about the individual. If I am to be entirely truthful, had I not known the gentleman about whom they were speaking myself, I would either have joined in and agreed, or maybe stayed silent. I did, however, know the man, and I became troubled. I spoke out and felt like I was ‘defending’ the man, saying that I knew him, and suggesting that those present ought to be sure of the accusations they were referring to, before casting judgment or speaking about him. I felt justified.
The next day was a personally significant day for me, there was a major event in which I was participating. Two monk friends from another monastery came to attend the event with me, who knew Abouna Antonious. After Liturgy, they told me they had a treat for me – they were going to take me to see Abouna Antonious, who wasn’t someone who exactly had his cell open to visitors. They made it clear to me that I was only able to visit him because I was with them. I was both excited and nervous. We went the short way to his hermitage – a simple cell on the outskirts of the monastery – where he, a Santa Claus-looking monk received us with great warmth and joy. He greeted me in Eastern style, had us all sit down, and was quick to try and get us warmed up with drinks and small snacks. I was silent throughout, smiling at the day as a whole thus far.
As we drank our tea, Abouna looked at me, and with no introduction or background, said to me, “Sometimes it is better to stay silent than to speak. Sometimes we are defending someone who needs no defense, or we think we are working a great work that is not that great or even necessary.” They were clear words, and they were said while looking intently at me. I immediately recalled in my mind the scene from the previous night.
“Are you referring to me defending ‘so-and-so’ yesterday night?” I asked, undaunted and unsurprised that he might have spiritual gifts like this knowledge. The monks with whom I was visiting had no idea about what we were speaking.
“Yes. ‘So-and-so’ doesn’t need you as his protector. He is spiritually very stable and in a higher place than you. Let him deal with His God and be protected by the saints and others with whom he has communion. It’s not your job to try and protect him. In fact, you may find yourself entering into problems and controversies completely unnecessarily by doing what you are doing. I laud you for meaning well, but it was not necessary or completely right for you to do as you did last night.”
I thanked him. I was actually overwhelmed with joy by his wise rebuke. We continued to converse about various matters, during which I mostly remained silent and took in the elder’s whole persona. I was moved by his depth and his simplicity, and a very clear air of discipline. He carried himself in this way not just in his manner of speech, but also in his decisions. Nobody was allowed to enter his cell except the elder of the two monks who came with me. Women were not allowed into his cell area, even the veranda, even if they were well-meaning. He would greet them outside and kindly, but he made sure that his cell was honouring the ancient monastic traditions. He was a man who understood the value of those disciplines, even if others spurned them as excessive or overly done. While one monk was in his cell cleaning our teacups and the other went to attend to a personal matter, I approached him and asked him if it would be okay with him, if I took his phone number. I assured him that it would be a rare occurrence for me to call him, but just that I wanted the luxury of being able to call him when I could. He pulled out a notepad, and said, “I only turn on my phone once a week for an hour. It would be a blessing for me if you called, but I need your number because I don’t answer calls from those that I do not know.” He asked my name, laughed, gave me a new name, and said again that it would be his blessing. I noted that his phone was old as far as cell phones go – an old flip-phone, not a smartphone, and not equipped with any features other than call display. Shortly after, the monks and I left his cell, at which he joked with me again about the new name he gave me, and all was done. I was moved.
When that trip to Egypt came to a close, I called Abouna Antonious on my last night, and just asked him to pray for me and a safe return to North America. He answered lovingly, praying for me and wishing me well. After that point, I never called him again. Instead, I would find a monk who was outreaching me.
Not a few months later, I was serving in a far-off place, and I was besought by warfare. It was a warfare that didn’t just start that night, it had been ongoing at that point for about five months, and I was deeply troubled and distressed. I was on the verge of tears as I laid in the darkness, hoping that things would turn around. I longed for guidance and expressed as much to God. Suddenly, in the throws of the night, my cellphone was ringing. It was Abouna Antonious. This shocked me for two reasons: first, that this disciplined monk was calling me, and second, that he was paying to call me! I answered, and heard his loving voice immediately say my name lovingly three times, adding the word habibi (‘my beloved’), and then asking, “Are you struggling with such-and-such warfare?” He had named the warfare with which, indeed, I was struggling.
“Yes, Abba. I am.” I replied.
“Yes, habibi. Don’t be afraid! Be courageous! Do not despair, this can happen. But let me ask you, do you know why most people get this warfare?”
I responded, “No”, knowing that I was about to find out.
“Well, most people fall into this sin because of other sins they committed. For example, you might have been judging someone a lot and -” As he said this, something like a video was playing in my mind, where I was immediately seeing situations that had just been happening where I was doing exactly that: judging.
“Also, most people have started…” and he went on with different things that cause the sin. As he went through this list, the video played in my mind of all the scenarios where I had done those things. I don’t know if this supernatural or psychological, but I know one thing: had I not seen those in my mind, I would have thought I was innocent of those things.
He ended the call with more words of exhortation, after having given me a teaching of what to work on to grow. I was in love and I was in tears. I felt like God Himself had outreached me in my need, and I was so moved that not only did this elder go out of his comfort zone to take care of me, but he also gave me a spiritual teaching so that I do not just get excited for a moment about spiritual things, but that I desire even more to grow.
I would find this as a pattern with Abouna Antonious. Whenever I would get more and more unruly spiritually, I would find him calling me to rebuke me and then comfort me, and set me on the straight and narrow again. He was always able to tell me exactly what it was that I needed to do. He was always able to articulate what I was going through. Even more impressive, was that he knew how to extract confessions from me. I don’t mean this in a manipulative way, I mean it in a holy way. A skilled physician knows what questions need to be asked in order to get a proper diagnosis. They know how to do a decent differential diagnosis by asking precise questions and ordering the right labs and tests. This is what Abouna Antonious did with me. He somehow got me to put forth all my symptoms and that would allow him to zoom in on the root cause of my diseases, for which he had spiritual remedies.
One night, in particular, his timing and God’s grace were so apparent to me. It was the eve of a very important first-year anniversary in my life, an event that was truly life-changing. More than anything, that night I wanted guidance. I stood before an icon of our Lord, and in prayer and grief, told Him that what I would really have liked that night was a teacher beside me to give me some words of advice, to reflect on the previous year with me, to rebuke and encourage me where appropriate. Comforting myself in His gaze, I laid myself down to sleep for a couple of hours before we would pray Liturgy. Not two minutes had passed from my laying down my head, and my phone was ringing. Yes, Abouna Antonious. “Happy Anniversary!” He said. Well, actually, Kol sana wanta tayib was what he actually said. The night of sadness was already a night of joy, I didn’t need to wait for the morning!
This is the section for which I wish I had more of my notes to write in detail, because whatever I write here won’t do him proper justice, but just a flavour. They were all also context-specific, so try not be judgmental if you think you disagree. 🙂
- Sometimes someone judges other people. This person is someone who will have a large sense of self (ego), and will pay attention to his own gifts. This in turn makes the person feel that he is better than other people. This kind of person, because of the pride, ego and self-trust, will likely find himself battling fornication. This kind of person is the kind of person who will be weak in warfare. He is weak in warfare because he is focused on himself, and because he likes to exalt himself.
- If you see someone and lust after that person, it is as though you committed the sin of fornication – our Lord taught us this. That is why you must have Christ alive inside of you. If Christ is alive inside of you, you can battle against this. Say to the Lord, I am but dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27) and then you will see that “For I the Lord thy God will hold thy right hand, saying unto thee, Fear not; I will help thee. I am only victorious when the Lord takes me in His hand.” (Isaiah 41:13) If the Lord takes your hand, if you put Him in you and hold Him then, “The Lord also shall roar out of Zion, and utter his voice from Jerusalem; and the heavens and the earth shall shake: but the Lord will be the hope of his people, and the strength of the children of Israel.” (Joel 3:16) We must put our trust in Him!
- But, if you judge others, you will lose grace. You will lose the Lord holding your right hand in that way and the power that He gives. The only judge is Christ. The Lord God gave judgment to the Son, so when I judge, I am taking His role. My job? My job is to tub-tub (to pat someone in comfort) on people and give them love! Our Lord loved sinners and ate with them.
- When you are struggling with sin, sit at the feet of Christ and request from Him, “If you please, look toward me and help me. Don’t let my hands [or any sense] take me to the enemy or work with my enemies. Protect my hands from from doing anything wrong.”
- Rejoice in your calling, your disciplines, your fasts, your metanoias, your psalms, your liturgies and your prayers. [Note: I included this last one to say that his emphasis was always on finding joy and love in what is right, not by building on the negative. He taught that one can love what is right instead of seeing it as a chore!]
- Never forget the woman in Luke 7! She won the Lord over through her love! She loved Him with her tears. Never judge, just love.
- We are all weak, defeated and poor (do’af, ghalaba wa masakeen)! But we can rejoice in this! We can rejoice from this because the Lord came for sinners, He came for people like us! Never forget that He is faithful and just (1 John 1:9)
These were all from just one particular discussion that I got to have with Abouna and others.
The condemnation of judgment was a constant theme with him. I wonder if it’s because of his own history. As I got closer to Abouna Antonious, someone who I love dearly told me a little about his history. He told me that he had a very negative history as a hymns teacher in Cairo near the beginning of his monasticism. The history is what caused him to be removed from the college and sent back to his monastery, where he lived more as a reclusive. Personally, I thank God that that happened. The experience clearly changed him, and for the better!
If someone were to judge him for whatever he did wrong in that period, they would have missed his transformation into a patient, virtuous man, which is in and of itself, the greatest lesson not to judge. Often in our ‘zeal for truth’, we do cast judgment and we hold people responsible for their faults or crimes all our lives. In doing this, we remain in our sin, and often do not notice that the one condemned has escaped his sin and been glorified in Christ.
Abouna Antonious is a model for me of a teacher and a father figure. He was someone who knew when to chastise and when to embrace. He knew what the Truth was and while he could show sympathy to our shortcomings, never consoled me at the expense of truth. If I told him I had been lax in spiritual discipline, there was no saving me from rebuke. There was no room for self-pandering or self-pity or laziness – discipline was discipline and without it we cannot be saved. He lived this, and he showed me this.
One time I told him that I felt sorry for myself for going through some illness and disease. I told him that I tell people about it. He looked at me, bewildered and said, “So you, a servant, go to the people and tell them what your pains are?” I nodded. “Well, this is a wondrous thing. I thought the servant was supposed to be at the feet of his people to ease their pain, not to give them more of it!” I laughed mightily. He didn’t say it meanly, but the point was made clearly. This was his way: truth and love, just like Christ.
He himself, did that with me. I had no idea what health issues he was battling, to the point that his death came to me as a complete shock. On June 18, 2016, at the age of 69, he reposed in the Lord. We are all the poorer in body to be deprived of his presence, but the richer in spirit, that he is interceding on our behalf before the throne of God.
What he lacked in perfection, he made up for in his love for me and others. Forever will I be impacted not only on a personal level by his teachings, but hopefully in a way that impacts others, because he showed me in his living that there is something higher. He showed me that people do need to be taught. He showed me the importance of moving beyond stating sins or problems, but instructing a person on how to overcome that sin, by learning about the spirit. He was a true elder, and I pray to the Lord that he raises and shows us more teachers in this generation like him.
Pray to the Lord on our behalf,
O struggle and cross-bearer,
Antony the Hegomen,
That He may forgive us our sins.
The Watani article about him can be found here.