We mourn the loss of an icon of holiness.
Audio version can be accessed here.
I awoke today to the jilting news that HG Bishop Reweis, had reposed in the Lord. I will not attempt to articulate what that did to me. This beloved Bishop was of particular importance in my life, to my family, to my local church, and in my view, to the entire Coptic Orthodox Church.
My first encounter that I am aware of with this blessed man, was in 1989, when I was consecrated as a psalter by his hands in Cambridge, ON. I didn’t know anything about him.
Anba Reweis was the most regular visitor to our churches both in Kitchener and London. I recall one of his first visits that I remember (he had been visiting for ages). I felt something different around him. With him, even without close contact, I felt safe and secure. I could barely understand Arabic at the time, but I remember that at the end of Sayidna’s visit, I wept. I felt like something that I badly needed was taken away from me, and I had no idea what it was.
As I started to understand Arabic better, I was moved by his sermons. I wanted to hear him speak, and that was a rare thing for me. I not only wanted to hear him speak, I wanted to hear him in his own language. At our church there was often someone translating the sermons to English for us. Once I could understand enough, I stopped listening to the translation because I was frustrated if a word or sentence was missed, because something was different about this man. I didn’t know what it was.
One time my dad was repeating part of the sermon that HG had given. He was asking me and my siblings if we understood the sermon. Then he went over the main points. I must say, that in and of itself was not a common occurrence (to review a sermon we heard). I started nodding to what my father was saying (like I already knew), and I remember his disbelief and then surprise at how much of what HG said that I not only understood, but retained. It was because of that something different about him.
Anba Reweis had the gift of spiritual teaching. Those who attended his sermons will likely remember his small pieces of paper (they were usually very small), on which he would have a few jot notes from which he would speak. They were powerful. Always they were powerful. Never did I attend a sermon of Sayidna’s that I didn’t leave with conviction that I must change. I must repent. It was the effect of his words, without force, and without violence, and without shaming. Something was different.
So powerful were his words, that I remember in Grade 9, one sermon affected me so deeply, that it broke an addiction. Something I had been struggling with for several years, that I was completely and totally addicted to, was broken by the force of his gentleness. His sermon was not even about my addiction. It was the thing that was different about him, in seeing his face while he spoke the words, in seeing the words alive in him, not just as words, I was compelled to question myself and my ways. I could not understand why the natural reaction to his sermon was to repent, but that is what happened.
I even remember that sometimes we would attend his talk in London, ON on one day, then in Kitchener the next, and the points he used were the same. Yet the content was somehow different, or the giving of it was different. They were similar words but different sermons. He was alive, it was different.
Wa ba3adayn – Then what?
HG spoke so often about remembering death. There was a story he repeated very often. He recounted the story of a young man, an engineering student, who was visiting a monastery and having a conversation with a monk.
The monk asked the young man what he wanted to do with his life. The young man replied he wanted to graduate from school. ‘Then what?’ asked the monk. The man replied he would get a job. After each goal, the young man was asked ‘Then what’, and the answers went from getting a job, to making a lot of money, to having a wife, establishing a family, providing for his children and so on. Eventually, in exasperation, the young man said, ‘Then I die!’Finally the monk asked him, and I can hear Anba Reweis voice imitating it, ‘Wa ba3adaaaaaaaayn? Then whaaaaaaaaat?’
The youth , said the Bishop, was so affected by that conversation, that instead of going out and having a family, and doing the things he said he would do, he graduated and went to the monastery. I loved that story.
Years later, in my early university days, I was visiting the monastery in Texas, which at the time was inhabited by monks from El Souryan monastery, the same monastery HG was tonsured in. A monk was telling the exact same story that I had heard HG tell us so many times. I was so excited that it was familiar. Yet, suddenly, there was a twist. The monk added something I had not heard before, ‘And now that monk is a Bishop!’ HG was the young man from the story. In his humility, he did not point it at himself.
HG used to spend his nights at our house when he visited our city. I do not write this as a boast or for attention, but to establish that the rapport with him was very strong. HG was known to call all the kids ‘el katakeet‘ (the chicklets). So I grew up with him around, and he knew me by name.
One year, during my visit to Egypt, I had decided I wanted to meet HH Pope Shenouda III of blessed memory. I wasn’t sure if it was possible, but I did everything I could to find out. After a bunch of things occurred, I found myself in the Cathedral, seated beside Cantor Ibrahim Ayad, waiting to see His Holiness the Pope of Alexandria. Across from me, were a series of benches where the Bishops usually sat. I saw Anba Reweis and was so excited.
I went over to meet him, and he hugged me, kissed me, and said, ‘How are you ya katkoot?’ I assumed that he used the generic “chicklet” designation because he was not sure who I was. This didn’t bother me, as I was not in Canada where he usually sees me, and probably wasn’t sure where I came from with the thousands of people he sees. So, I started to introduce myself, ‘Sayidna, I am -‘ And he cut me off. ‘Habibi (my beloved), I know who you are. You are so-and-so the son of (and he names my parents by name) from Canada. I am so happy to see you and so surprised! What are you here for?’ I told him that I was seeing the Pope and that I would shortly return to the monastery of Saint Antony where I had started taking retreats.
Immediately, HG started asking if I needed a letter of recommendation for the monastery for retreat. He told me the process of how to approach the Pope to meet him. Then he leaned in to me, held me close and said quietly but firmly, ‘Habibi, you know that while you’re here, I’m baba (daddy) to you! Anything you need you just tell me. Do you understand?’ I told him I understood. I was overwhelmed by his love. Then he added, ‘I’m asking you if you are even short of pocket-money for your stay here. I don’t want you to be in need. I’m baba for you.’ I couldn’t believe his words. Here was a ‘prince of the church’ being my servant. He was different.
Shortly after, the security person at the end of my row, prevented me from seeing Pope Shenouda. I was flabbergasted. I was sitting where I was sitting because of two bishops, and yet I was being prevented. I told the man as much and he said something to the effect of, ‘I don’t care who told you that you can speak to the Pope, but you’re not. Over my dead body.’ I took a piece of paper, wrote a note on it that I was prevented from seeing the Pope, and asked the security detail to deliver the note to Anba Reweis.
I watched HG carefully. HG opened the note, read it, and went back to his known natural pose. Head down (or sometimes up), but prayerful. No strong emotions. It was like he had not read the note at all. I told myself to accept that it just wasn’t my day.
A few minutes later, HG straightened himself, looked towards the security man, and got his attention. I think HG waited so that the security person wouldn’t think he was in trouble because of my note. Anyway, having got the guard’s attention, Anba Reweis pointed at me, then the Pope. Then he lowered his head. He didn’t need to make an utterance. The security detail turned to me with some humility, ‘Go ahead, sir. Go ahead and meet the Pope.’
A Lesson on Intercession
HG loved St. Philopater Abu Seifein and had a devotion to him as well to Mother Irene, the famous Abbess of the last century. He spoke often of the saints, their interventions and miracles.
One time I was in a dispute with my dad, because he was adamant that I do a doctorate after my bachelor. I was completely disinterested and unconvinced by the idea. Anba Reweis was visiting us, and totally out of character (he didn’t usually initiate), he pulled me aside.
He asked me what my ‘future plans’ were, and I understood that my father must have spoken to him. I told him, ‘Listen, Sayidna, it seems that dad has spoken to you, but I really don’t want to, and I really don’t need to.’ So, HG said, ‘Well, ask your intercessor, Saint [so and so] for guidance and help.’ I interrupted him to tell him that Saint ‘so and so’ (my former name) was not my intercessor. Saint Antony was (and is).
‘Like I said’, he repeated, ‘ask your intercessor, saint -‘ I interrupted again (which was out of character, honestly!), ‘he’s not my intercessor, Saint Antony is.’ After the third repeat and interruption, HG, who didn’t often become upset, looked at me sternly and said, ‘I am telling you to ask saint [so and so]. Who do you think you are? Do you think you chose your name? Do you think you get to choose? The saint chose you. Saint so-and-so is your intercessor. Ask whoever you like in addition to him, but you will also ask saint so-and-so.’ Hader (so-be-it), I finally replied. I didn’t know about any of that stuff.
A Lesson in Meekness
I was told by a direct witness about an incident that I want to share, because it really helps capture this man’s meekness and humility. It happened once that the late Anba Bishoy of Damiette was visiting one of the Church’s under Anba Reweis’ care in Cairo. Metropolitan Bishoy was a famous figure, and a well-attended speaker. HE Anba Bishoy showed up at the parish, and he was processed with great ceremony into the church where he began his lecture. Someone had graciously parked his car for him.
Meanwhile, because of the traffic, Anba Reweis, who was responsible for that church, was having trouble finding a place to park. It’s Cairo after all. Desiring not to appear disrespectful to Anba Bishoy by being too late for his talk, HG got out of his car and asked a woman who was standing by her car, if she would be so kind as to permit him to park in her place so he could go in. This bishop didn’t see himself as entitled whatsoever. People treated the guest with great honour, and forgot the existence of their father, but it did not trouble him. He was different.
I have yet to verify this story, so use it with caution, but it comes on good authority. It was told to me, if I remember correctly, by monks from his monastery.
Anba Reweis became a monk in 1963, four years into the papacy of His Holiness Saint Pope Kyrillos VI. I was told that St. Pope Kyrillos desired to consecrate him a bishop. In traditional monastic piety and humility, Abouna Metias El Souryani (as was his name then) fled and hid himself in a giant water pot that people used to get cold water from, until the tribulation passed.
Because of this, I was told, the thrice-blessed Pope Shenouda III of blessed memory, insisted that Anba Reweis wouldn’t escape him. I was told that he refused anything other than general bishop, refusing several times to be enthroned to any diocese. Those who know Anba Reweis wouldn’t be surprised or taken aback, I think, by any of this.
Even in his illness…
Anba Reweis bore the disease of suffering. He developed Alzheimer’s disease, and his memory faded. In conversation, you might have him repeat the same thing multiple times, or he would ask the same question numerous times as though the conversation never happened.
One time it happened that I was in disagreement with my father of confession, the the priest of my parish, about discerning the will of God about a particular issue. I felt strongly about the issue. My father of confession told me to pray about it, and to ask God to speak to me as well. I did that.
Anba Reweis was visiting one weekend, and I was already aware of his illness. I considered going to him at the end of Liturgy and telling him about my issue. Then I thought against it, saying to myself, you would not normally do this, do what you would normally do so that you can see God more clearly and without bias.
So, instead, I said to myself, I won’t ask HG anything. In fact, if you asked Anba Reweis to pray for you after the liturgy or have a talk about an issue, he almost always said, ‘You just had Eucharist, you have God in you. There’s no need for me to pray a special prayer or to ask on your behalf. You have Christ.’ I didn’t want that answer. So I decided I would do my normal, and just greet him. If he asked, I would answer, if he did not, then no problem.
I went to HG, kissed his hand and asked him to remember me in his regular prayers. Totally out of character he asked, ‘Is there an issue you are struggling with?’ I was overjoyed. ‘Yes! Totally yes!’ I told him my issue and what I had received from my father of confession, and what the discord was based on (it had to do with my parents’ view of the issue). He asked me a few questions and then gave me three specific opinions and his blessings.
But, two seconds after he gave blessings, he asked again, ‘Is there an issue you are struggling with?’ I groaned. Oh, I forgot about the Alzheimer’s. I answered him exactly as I had the first time. Honestly, he gave the same advice, the same opinions, the same instructions and the same blessing. Then we had the same conversation a third time, and then he ended it. I felt consoled, that even in his weakness, God made sure to speak through him, affirming three times with clarity the exact same message with the exact same words that were so specific, with Alzheimer’s. It was something that my father of confession had told me to ask for, and God used it.
The Blessing of Alzheimer’s
I can’t help but wonder aloud and meditate on HG’s Alzheimer’s which I believe was a blessing to him. I suggest and ponder on whether or not God permitted Alzheimer’s to him so that he would not endure the woes our beloved church has seen and witnessed in the last few years.
Anba Reweis hated politics – secular or ecclesiastical. His conversation was never about those things. He was not interested in personal alliances, or party lines. He was not interested in forming positions against people, parties or stances. His sermons and his life were about God, about virtue, about love.
That’s why I think that Alzheimer’s must have been a great blessing for him, so as not to lose that blessed serenity he had. He would live through revolutions in the country, internal conflicts in the church, even the murder of a Bishop, and be as though in total oblivion. His peace would not be shaken. He’s different.
I will not spend long on this, but I want to mention it because of how him it is.
One visit to Egypt, I had found out that my father of confession had had a heart attack. My father of confession was so beloved to Anba Reweis who nominated him to the priesthood. Likewise, the adoration that my father had for HG was unparalleled to anyone else of whom I ever heard him speak.
I headed for Abbasiya to see HG before flying back to Canada the next day. I was directed to his cell, something like a trailer at the back of the compound. It was not a clean area (at the time). It was unceremonious.
HG invited me in, and my goodness at its simplicity. There were no fancy gadgets. No luxury items. Nothing but simplicity. At the risk of cheapening what I saw, I will say it in one sentence: his inside and outside were the same.
What was different…
I could go on and on about Anba Reweis, but it wouldn’t do him justice. Gone are the nights he would spend with us, the spiritual talks, the gatherings we would have in joy around him. He was a uniter.
What I will say, though, is that what I could not figure out as a child about him, I understood in my early adult life. I was not able to name the thing that was in him or that was different about him as a child, but I can now: it was holiness.
Anba Reweis was my first real encounter with holiness in a human and I simply did not know what that was. A man had become so united with God, that God gave Him from what is His. He was full of love, full of warmth, full of serentity, full of stability. His eyes could see past you and through you, and they did not terrorise you, they healed you.
To sit and listen to him was to sit at the feet of God. This experience I had as a child must have been, I think, what drew the little children to the lap of Christ. The beauty of God’s nature exuded from him such that all who were simple, all who were loving, could look at him and want to be embedded deeply into his heart.
The memory of Anba Reweis’ face is usually enough in any situation to bring me consolation and peace, and a remembrance that everything would be okay, because that’s how I felt with him: it would all be okay. Sin can be forgiven. Repentance is possible. Life is nothing. God is love. He often would say, ‘I think only people who really want to go to hell are there; going to heaven is not hard!’ The important question was always: and then what?
Now, beloved father, holy Bishop, and new intercessor, you get to partake in the ‘wa ba3adayn‘, you get to see and live ‘and then what?’ It’s not lost to me, Anba Reweis, how suitable your funeral today was. You never wanted the praise of men or their adoration. Your funeral was as quiet as you were in life: unassuming, quick, without applause and without ceremony. If you could have planned your own departure, it would have been this way.
Now, oh Beloved of God, we your children salute you and commend you to your King. You who were peaceful in life, grant us a measure of your peace. You who lived as our Saviour lived, ask Him to help us live as He and you did. You have put on the Lord Christ, you have entered into the ‘then what’. I beg you, intercede for us, that we might join you in confidence in the ba3dayn. Axios, Abba Reweis, Axios.