I was surprised and saddened recently when I heard the news of the departure of Abouna Benyameen. For those of you who visited St. Antony’s monastery in California in the early 2000s, and those of you who are Baramos sons, Abouna Benyameen is no stranger to you. For those of you who didn’t, you missed out. It’s clear to me already that I won’t be able to keep all the stuff about Abouna to one blog, so I’ll include some things here and save others for reflection on another time.
I don’t know Abouna’s full history. I know that he was a monk since he was 27 years old. I know that he was one of the original monks sent in 1989 to inhabit and build the monastery of Saint Antony in California – the first Coptic Orthodox monastery outside of Egypt. I do know what he did to me. He set my heart on fire for for God, generally, and monasticism specifically. I remember how fast he talked, the excitement in his voice, and his sharp focus.
I’ll share some anecdotes of lessons I learned from this great Abba. I have the benefit of having written out many of his teachings and conversations with, most of which won’t make it into this blog. I would write them down as he taught me, because to see him was to see a real monk.
I’m going to point this one out from the get-go. Abouna was known (and sometimes [overly-] criticised) for being strict. I’d rather use the word disciplined because it’s more accurate. He was a no-nonsense kind of guy. It didn’t mean he didn’t laugh or appreciate humour, it meant that he had no time to waste on frivolity or work not befitting the Kingdom. This meant that his conversation was meaningful, his interactions were meaningful, and his time was meaningful.
You would not find Abouna ever sitting around to talk about the political situation in Egypt, or what brand of phone was best. He wouldn’t care about anything useless, he cared about anything in Christ.
I remember when I was a novice at Saint Antony’s, we were gathered around once in the guest hall and hundreds of people were visiting the monastery. The second wave of demonstrations against Morsi had broken out. Everyone gathered around a television that was there at the time in the guest dining hall, watching the events unfold. Another brother leaned over and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be good with all these people gathered to give them a word about our Lord?’ I remember reflecting on that and realising, Abouna Benyameen would have done exactly that. He didn’t stop talking about Our Lord and the heavenly things…well, ever.
He once said to me: you don’t come [to the monastery] for a cell or good sleep; you come to tire yourself to benefit. When you go home you feel it. Here is how you live with God.
Abouna lived this. Abouna expected everyone to be prompt to services and alert at the vigils and liturgies. He had no tolerance for people being too loose. He was stringent on everyone, novices and monks, to be at the services. Some people did not like this, but it completely changes the experience (or training) when followed.
Abouna himself, though, was stringent upon himself. I remember having to be in the Church area near a few of the cells one night a few hours before Midnight Praises were due to begin. The walls of the cells in that area are paper thin, and I heard Abouna Benyameen praying the praises alone in his cell. A few hours later he was in Church doing it again with all of us.
He kept a rule of personal praises and communal, and clearly he didn’t sleep. He didn’t come to the monastery for a cell and bed. He came to be concerned, as he told me in one conversation about monks in general, to be concerned only with praising God.
Me: Abouna, how do I be both wise and simple at the same time? (I was referring to “Be wise as serpents, gentle as doves” from Matthew 10:16)
Doves marry once. The serpent is wise because he worries about his head. Worry about Christ, forget the world. For example, you have money, and you know someone wants to rip you off. Be simple: let him have it. That you know about it is wisdom.
Abouna Ibrahim the Simple needed money for church. He counted the money he collected at a station, and a thief saw him. He found out how much he [Abouna] had, and invited him to his house so he could steal it. He told the priest to go up to [his apartment] to pray [it was not uncommon in those days to send the priest up to the apartment to bless while you wait for him elsewhere], and after Abouna went up the stairs, the thief took his bag with the money. The thief told Abouna that he tried to steal, but whenever he tried to move he failed.
Be simple for God, not foolish. Being simple like God is unconquerable. Don’t say 24 hours Church and no studying – that’s not simple. You can’t always ditch fun for payers and offend. Simplicity needs wisdom. Someone who is married cannot make a vow to give up the whole salary to God – this is not wisdom.
Abouna embodied this. He knew what he was doing as leader of a monastic community. He knew what had to be done and what had to be taught. Yet, he was also so simple! On one occasion that makes me laugh until this day, I was with him in his office. He was trying to call someone to fix something, and it went to a pre-recorded voice activated system of call forwarding. This was in 2003 when that was not the norm yet, most people when they called a 1-800 number spoke to a person.
Abouna, who wasn’t used to this at all, thought a real woman was answering and speaking over him. He had the phone on speaker, and he kept on saying, “I have sinned, I have sinned, please, if you please, just let me tell you my issue! Please, just one second let me say something! I have sinned, I have sinned!” He thought the woman was speaking over him and he was trying to keep his monastic teaching (see below) while explaining the problem that he had. He was full of wisdom and yet was totally simple and pure!
I loved him, dearly. I wrote once:
What a blessing these last couple of days to be able to work closely with Abouna Benyameen. He’s wonderful. Teaching him [how to use the computer] and working on the computer is long but fun…When AOL says ‘goodbye!’, Abouna says, ‘Goodbye, be’l salama!’
I did not witness this anecdote myself, but was told it either by Abouna or by people I trust (it was discussed so much at the time that I no longer remember who said it). It had happened that St. Moses the Strong had been appearing in the monastery.
Then, things evolved, and he started ‘appearing’ during liturgy, midnight praises, and vespers. Abouna Benyameen said there’s no way that this could still be from God, because no saint would distract people from the real goal: Christ. He expressed this, and many people were angered, accusing him of wanting to deprive them of a great baraka (blessing).
Abouna supplicated the Strong Saint Moses, someone beloved to Abouna as a monk from El Baramos, and told him, if this is not from God, please cause it to cease right away. It ceased.
His Ecclesial Spirit
The sons of El Baramos are known to be ecclesiastical, kanasayeen. Abouna was no exception and made his monastery and Abbot proud. His embodiment of liturgical life is something that I cannot articulate, because it is something that has to be seen. What I can say is that in observing him always present, always focused, always serious about the rites and rubrics but with an excitement that can only come from the heart, in seeing him pray, really pray, and put his whole self into it, I wanted to be that, too.
Teaching on Monasticism
A memorial about Abouna would not be complete without talking about his monastic spirit. Below are some notes from a short conversation I had with Abouna about monasticism in June, 2003. They are taken from my journal, not being recited from memory. I am putting them under the closing of this blog since I know some people find this article too long or are not interested in monastic wisdom. I encourage you to read on, though, because monastic wisdom is for everyone.
For those who will leave now, I’ll leave you with a piece of his advice to me:
Serve God. Love those you think are bad, because they’re in need. Learn to say sorry; a sinner who doesn’t have God is someone who doesn’t love. Christ loves those who love. Our Lord loves everyone. God created all and so loves all and wants all to love His Son. Christ loves those who follow Him as shepherd. God as Creator loves all, but as Saviour has a special love for those who follow Him… An apple comes from an apple tree …An apple smells like an apple tree and tastes like it came from an apple tree. But if you draw an apple, it’s not an apple; it won’t smell or taste of life. God is life and life is in His existence.
May God crown him with many crowns, and may He rejoice in his wedding to the Groom that he has lived from his youth. Abouna, you taught me so much, and you fanned the flames of desire for God so strongly, making me want to run for the desert to serve Him. Now more than before, pray for the Church, and pray for those youth who are seeking a life with Christ. You instilled this in us on earth, even more so now from the heavens, do also.
For those willing to read on, here are some monastic teachings:
On Monasticism generally:
Abouna: A monk is not a single virgin; the virgin soul is with his bride. We are brides to Christ: flesh and spirit. Our spirit is from God, our flesh is earthly. The flesh has worries: food, money, job…worries – like a horizontal line. Spirit is a vertical line. Sometimes this causes confusion. The spirit wants prayer, the flesh wants food, sleep. After the Crucifixion, Christ reconciled the two.
The monastic tires the flesh to relieve the spirit, hence they’re called cross-bearers. Why is it the biggest war possible? Christians took heaven; monks took heaven and earth. The devil lives in places without life because he is anti-life, because Christ is life. So monks on the earth take heaven and earth, and thus are at war. We brought life and expelled Satan when we planted bright fields. So the devil tries to prevent anyone from coming. People change their mind when they realise it’s a war. That’s why Antony fought 20 years in his cave alone and then established monasticism: because he overcame.
There’s a very deep theology here, and a deep continuity between him and the elders who came before him.
On Presumptuousness of Monastic Desire
He proceeded to advise me (I won’t type it all out here, but might in another blog appropriate to it) on practical rules for a layperson seeking monasticism to live in the world. He said one thing, though, that I must write here because of how real it was about himself:
Me: Abouna, how do you know that your desire for monasticism or perfection is not just pride?
Abouna: By being honest. [full stop, and what follows was not an explanation of the first line, but an addition to it. That’s important.] You can’t want to be loved, or be a Bishop.
Abouna knew the point. It was Christ. It was for the soul to marry, and so nobody could distract him from his spouse. He wasn’t interested in the praise of the people, nor was he interested in ecclesial elevation. If he knew people thought he was too stern or strict, he didn’t show it or talk about it publicly (if at all).
On Monastic Obedience:
He said: Obedience is not by the mind. Anba Theophilus of El Sourian monastery told a novice to plant a plant upside-down. The novice said it didn’t work. His Grace sent him home. These are tests; not to judge. It’s not to say what’s logical, but to teach the person to say ‘I have sinned’. Never explain yourself right away, always say first that you have sinned. If you are coming to the monastery to live with people, you’ll get tired. There are always problems, even in Church. Obedience is key, you are under someone else’s responsibility – someone else is your guide.
On Monastic Poverty
He taught: Poverty is so that when God’s grace or gift comes, you’re given to the Lord, even the self. Gifts and talents are from God. I am 0 and Christ is 1. No matter what I do, I’m 0. I I think I have words or anything, I have nothing without the 1. We left all the 0s to follow the 1. When you die, you take 0 with you! What I do before God is what has value.
On Monastic Chastity
He exegeted: This is not just about marriage, but that nothing you see is desirable; you don’t want anything. You are content with God. It’s not just about sex. It’s contentment only with Christ. You don’t care even for what you have, you won’t be sad if you lose the stuff you want. Chastity is like the angels – it’s unity with Christ and before Him at all times. Even chastity from the knowledge of sin. Knowledge of good and bad is bad. Like when people say ‘let’s just show you what’s going on’ – you’ve still united with sin by knowledge of it. The devil can’t be silenced, he wants your mind and soul to contradict. We make novices work like crazy to forget sin. They pray through their work, Jesus prayer; purify my thoughts, Lord!