There are people that you do not know personally, but you are so aware of and so influenced by, that you feel like you belong to them. It may be a grandparent, it might be your priest, it could be anyone. You feel insecure when they are gone. This is how I feel about Anba Serapamon. From the get-go, I want to make it clear that I am not pretending that His Grace (HG) and I were personally close. I have some personal experience with him, and I have seen the effect of him on many of his children (including my Bishop). It’s his very existence, however, that mattered to me and the whole Church.
This generation has seen some giants pass, and Anba Serapamon is one of those. We lost Anba Mikhail of Assiut, Abouna Feltaous el Souriany, Abouna Fanous el Anba Bola, and many others (forgive me for not naming them all). We are indebted to these fathers for their sanctity and for the genuineness of their spirituality. They affected us in ways that we know and do not know. They made the Church a spiritual place and protected us from many problems.
HG was born February 21, 1937. In December 1958, the same year Pope Kyrillos was elected Patriarch, he became a monk at the famous El Sourian monastery. The monk assigned to be his spiritual elder and father, was Abouna Antonious El Souriany (the future Pope Shenouda III). He recounted this in front of me once with great joy. The amazing thing is one day he would become the father of confession to the very same man. In 1973 he was made Bishop and Abbot of St. Pishoy’s monastery in Scetis.
It’s important you know the significance of this monastery and his headship of it. St. Pishoy’s monastery, as my Bishop taught me (who hails from there), was extremely poor. In fact, the monastery of St. Pishoy was financially dependent for a long time on the much richer (at the time) El Sourian monastery. When the thrice-blessed Pope Shenouda III was under his house arrest, he went to St. Pishoy’s as his place of exile. Some lore has it (I say lore because I do not know the veracity of it), that Pope Shenouda III made a vow that he would restore St. Pishoy’s monastery and give it proper attention.
Whether he made a vow or not, he certainly gave the monastery attention. The poor monastery of St. Pishoy became the monastic headquarters of Pope Shenouda III. Consequently, construction, renovation and attention became normal. Conferences and synod meetings were regularly held there, and a papal residence was built there. The monastery became so busy, that I hated to retreat there! Monks upon monks sought monasticism there. As head of this monastery, these monks upon monks were being overseen by Anba Serapamon. The student had become the teacher.
I will give just a few anecdotes under different headings for you to get a sense of him.
Monasticism and Freedom
On the night I mentioned in my other blog about him, I spoke to him about monasticism and monastic life. The details of which I, unfortunately, did not write down. HG opened up to some kid (me), about the struggles he faces with his monks. Out of respect for monasticism and that people do not understand monastic life but judge it anyway, I will not write all that he said he was struggling with in his monastery. In it, though, he asked, “Imagine, imagine habibi [my beloved], when a monk tells you he is late to the midnight praises because of [insert warfare here]! What do you even say to such a person? Does he know why he is there? He must know why he is there. Some people say to me, ‘you should just order them or make a rule’. I cannot do that. Monasticism has to be a free-will offering of love. You cannot force someone to love God. You cannot force someone to be at praises. You cannot force someone to be disciplined. They must choose it. I am criticised for my monastery being too ‘loose’, but I cannot force people, that is not freedom, it is not love.”
I remember those words in particular because they impacted my whole outlook on spiritual life in general so deeply, and the very way in which I approach confession and guidance. They are the words of someone who gets it. In here is not just a marvelous teaching on freedom and love and monasticism, but also on not caring what others think of you.
My first meeting with Anba Serapamon was when I was a novice. He came on his annual visit after the Feast of the Resurrection and he gave a talk to the whole magma3 (assembly of monks and novices). He read to us the rule that Pope Shenouda III had given to him when he was a novice and then monk. He distributed it to us (I can’t find it here or I would scan it to put up). He spoke with tears about how he followed it and how important it is for us to be ascetical, to remember our deaths, to die to ourselves and the world, otherwise we, as monastics were in big trouble. He told us those in the world are accountable for their love for others: they work, they marry, they raise children. We, however, he warned, are accountable to nobody, and, in fact, are literally living off of the goodwill of the people. Consequently, he said, what will you say to the Just Judge if you spend your time in the monastery eating and living for free, not praying or developing your relationship with Christ? What can you possibly say in excuse for yourself?
I was filled with the healthy kind of fear and trembling. It’s monastic language, but it was exactly what was needed.
Asceticism: Food & Silence
At the same monastery, people spoke in front of me and mocked HG. They said that he comes from Egypt for his annual ‘vacation’. They said that he comes to the monastery for only a few days, and then goes to Hawaii where he eats away and is on vacation. It was almost as if the mockery was to avoid the graveness of the matters that HG had taught. I would be a liar if I pretend that I was uninfluenced by the allegations. It seems that humans like negativity.
It so happened that less than 9 months would pass, and I would be assigned to serve in Hawaii. I happened to be there, as recounted elsewhere, when Anba Serapamon was visiting. Now was the chance to see how he really lives. The accusations could not have been further from the truth.
As the newer priest, I got instructions on how to care for HG. I was told to go in daily, restock his fridge with yoghurt, cheese and small things for him to snack on. I was told to see to it that any necessities he needed were there. Naturally, HG didn’t ask for this, but it was an offering of love.
The refrigerator was stocked fully with all these fresh foods. As HG’s son, my Bishop, was in Hawaii with him. There were many invitations for them to go out to eat and to visit the faithful of Hawaii, who wanted the blessings of both bishops. It was Paschaltide (aka ‘Holy Fifty’), and as you might imagine, a season of feasting. This was the time to eat like beasts and joke and talk.
I saw none of that in HG. None. Every day I went to his fridge to restock it, only to find he had pretty much not touched it. I say pretty much, because I couldn’t even tell if he had touched it. If he did, he could not have had any more than a piece or two of cheese. Nothing that could be opened had been opened. No packages were unsealed. He had no access to secret foods. The man barely ate.
In addition to this, at the restaurants or houses we were at with those who invited Sayidna, he barely touched his plate. Nobody let him serve himself, but if he had, then the amount he ate would be less than I could ever handle on a really ascetical day. He really barely ate.
Furthermore, what astounded me, was that HG was entirely silent. He did not once speak unless spoken to. He not once offered an opinion without explicitly being asked one. He didn’t tell stories. He didn’t joke. He didn’t look cold. He didn’t seem angry. He sat there, silently, with a smile of peace, and said nothing. It was so noticeable that as I was helping him into the car leaving somewhere one night, I whispered to him, “Sayidna, I’m learning volumes from your silence more than anything. Thank you for teaching me to [try to] keep silent.” He replied, “We never regret silence, habibi. God recompense your love.”
The man had much to offer, but he counted himself as nothing. Unless asked, he didn’t speak. We would all do so well to emulate this. We offer advice that is unsolicited all the time. We weigh in on opinions and preferences and ‘shoulds’ and ‘ought tos’ even when nobody cares about our opinion.
This man did not forget that he was a monk.
A father’s father
Anba Serapamon has a particular relevance to my diocese. Our father, our head, is a spiritual son of HG. Without saying too much that could be of a personal nature to our head, I would say that seeing our father with Anba Serapamon was like seeing a little child who adores his father.
One time he told us how he was struggling to choose which monastery to consecrate his life to Christ in. He had favoured one particular monastery and visited there the most, but some events happened that made him embittered toward it and unwilling to consecrate there. The monastery he had favoured had severe politics around it, and many monasteries would speak about it very disparagingly.
Seeking advice, he spoke to Anba Serapamon. To his joy, Anba Serapamon’s advice to him was, like the man himself, simple. He told him, “All monasteries are the house of God. Go wherever your heart finds peace.” The joy that that Bishop-to-be had in that moment at the love, kindness and wisdom of Anba Serapamon, made him decide that he would stay at that monastery and learn at his feet. Instead of seeing a man jump at the opportunity to criticise, he instead spoke Peace.
When Anba Serapamon came to Hawaii, he was invited to go on a very private glass-bottom boat tour. He neither said yes nor no, he was simply taken wherever he was told to go. So, we all get on the boat, and HG was in his element as he clearly loved nature. He was silent the whole time. The people who were driving the boat were typical Hawaiians and dressed as most Hawaiians at the beach might dress. There was a woman in her bikini. I’m bringing up this story to show you how monastically both HG and his son behaved. Anba Serapamon kept his head down and looked up only when I was taking the picture (below).
The two running the boat were so moved by him and told us so when we got off. They were very excited and dying to speak to him and requested to be able to talk to him through a translator. When they were done, they asked if they could have a picture with him. Again, HG, who had been silent and only answering specific questions asked of him, made no comment. His son, however, knew that any picture of him with women (which I emphasise again, he did not even look at), might be seen as scandalous. As a true son, he adamantly refused the idea. A good father produces a good son.
The same bishop in a more intimate meeting told us that sometimes HG struggled because the presence of Pope Shenouda III in the monastery so regularly meant that he had much say over the administration and decisions of St. Pishoy’s monastery. This is inevitable to some extent. Yet, it is not any bishop who can handle that.
Often preferences of Anba Serapamon were silenced – not because His Holiness silenced him, but because Anba Serapamon silenced himself. He killed his will entirely. Not only did he kill his will, but he also killed his ego. Anba Serapamon was held responsible for many of the decisions not liked by others, that in fact were not his own decisions. He did not point that to His Holiness, he took it on himself.
More could be said about this great man, but unfortunately, I’m not the one who can tell it, not having grown up with him myself. I care so much because of the link I have to him, but as said earlier, for who he is. This man was the father of the Pope, numerous bishops and monks. He raised five generations of novices, monks and Bishops (that’s huge), and himself had been a monk for 61 years. He served the Lord with the whole of his being. He accepted taking second place when the preeminence of Pope Shenouda IIIs attention was lost.
To look at his face was to find peace. To see him was to see meekness. To see his smile was to fill you with joy and serenity. He was not judgmental. He did not fight for his dignity. He was a real monk.
Anba Serapamon encapsulated for his whole life, “He must increase, and I must decrease”. May the Lord grant him to sit with the choir of the ascetics, shining and luminescent like his fathers who went before him. He will not be ashamed to sit at the same table as St. Pishoy or St. John Kama.
Pray to the Lord on our behalf, Abba Serapamon, that we might use our freedom to love Him as you do.