I thought long and hard about writing about our beloved “Tunt Samira” (Doherty), and I have refrained for a long time because I do not believe it is my story to tell. The closest to her spiritually, without any doubt, was our beloved Abouna Kyrillos Ibrahim, who I’ve dubbed “the beloved of the Saints” (they all seem to really like him). I have also refrained because I do not want to be misperceived as being closer to these holy people than I was. I was undoubtedly loved by Tunt Samira, but I cannot say that I was a loving and faithful son to her. It is in that context that I think perhaps I have something valuable to share with you from some of my own experiences with her.
Anyone who speaks about Tunt will speak about prayer, the same way that one would when speaking of St. Pope Kyrillos VI. Shortly after my ordination as a deacon or priest, Abouna Kyrillos told me about this woman he knows that knew St. Pope Kyrillos VI while he was alive, and that her life is full of blessing from him. At this point of her life, there were not really any heavenly manifestations or appearances (to my knowledge). There were miracles in her life for sure, but Abouna did not describe her as someone who saw saints regularly. So, to me, she was a pious woman who was fortunate enough in her history to know someone else who was also holy, and that was it. Honestly, I mostly forgot about her.
Then I met her. I went to St. Marina’s church for a weekday liturgy. There are some liturgical mysteries in the life of a priest that are hard to explain to others, but I had one of my first mysterious events during that liturgy. Standing at the altar thinking myself to be “praying”, I felt overpowering prayers pouring over the altar. I do not know how to explain how one feels that, but I am sure God permitted it for my repentance. I felt powerful prayer rushing past me and on the altar of God, and I knew quite well they were not my prayers. It was not my heart producing something so beautiful and transforming. I could not bear the urge to look behind me, and it was almost instantaneous that I knew who it was. I saw her praying, and returned to the service, knowing that I needed to meet this saintly woman. I had no idea who it was, I had never seen or met her before. The liturgy was prayed and concluded, and I walked directly up to the woman and asked who she was. She said her name, and I instinctively asked her, “Are you the beloved of Pope Kyrillos?” She giggled like a little child and expressed how happily flattered she was to be associated in any way with that saint. I was almost in tears at her beauty, a beauty of purity, simplicity and virtue. She hugged me, and I begged her for prayers. This was the beginning of my knowledge of her. It was not the first time she would help me to repentance.
This story is a humorous one between Father Kyrillos and I, but I will share it at the risk of humiliating myself. Some time had passed, and by now, Tunt Samira was not a stranger to me, but a familiar mother, advisor and friend. It so happened that I was traveling to Egypt for my annual retreat at the monastery. I made a stop at another monastery to consult an elder there before returning to my home monastery. While there, I received messages from one of my monastic brothers asking “if I was okay”. I said I was fine and moved on. I have an illness, and so I thought my brother was asking about me. Truthfully, I was in a very difficult spiritual warfare, and I was starting to give up in that fight. Then, Abouna Kyrillos messaged me, asking me if I was alright because Tunt Samira was worried. Uh oh, I thought, he knows I’m sinning. Then he asked me directly if I was having warfare or not (he knows that from him I could be asked that happily), and I said that I was. He was not asking for curiosity but because he wanted to know if these feelings Tunt was starting to have more frequently were accurate.
I returned to Saint Antony’s monastery, where I found a dear brother of mine from there calling me to ask me if I was okay because Tunt Samira has told him she’s worried. I was going crazy, He doesn’t even know her!!! Why does the whole world know that I’m up to something, even random monks she’s never met?! I was so nervous. I went to my cell, and found my monastic brother calling me, I answered, and he told me that Tunt Samira had asked for a way to reach me, so he was arranging a three-way call. Well, this is awkward, I thought. Tunt Samira gets on the phone, and the sound of her giggles was enough to calm me. “Are you alright, habibi?! I am soooooooo worried about you, tumminny [reassure me]!” I smiled and said I was and would be fine by her prayers, and then she started giggling again and said, “I can see you!” I believed her. I started waving my hand in the air as though to greet her, and she started laughing so hard like a little child. “Inta habibi! [You’re my beloved!]” I felt the strength to struggle again.
Once I returned to the Diocese, I saw her within a couple of days on the feast of St. Pope Kyrillos VI. I sat next to her, and said, “I feel totally exposed, and I don’t know if I can handle it.” You would think that most people would be happy for this, but to me, it made me understand more deeply why St. Peter said to our Lord, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man!” It’s because you feel so exposed by the glorious purity of the person in front of you. I felt this way around Tunt. She smiled, pulled me aside, and said, “The devil wants to put a wedge between us.” I acknowledged this and said, “Yes, and it’s working really well! I am so fearful to be around you if everyone is going to know what’s going on with me, and if you can see every thing that I do. I want the freedom to sin!” I was only half-joking. I was scared of her, but needed her. She told me, “Habibi, I can’t see what you do, but I can see the state of your heart.” She proceeded then (and other times) to constantly exhort me that I needed to fight much harder against the devil. There was a deep consolation the day following this event, but this blog is not the appropriate place to recount it.
One Pascha week, Abouna Kyrillos invited me to give a sermon at an evening Pascha in his parish. I was not nervous until I realised Tunt Samira would be there. How was I to preach in front of someone who knew me inside out, and how opposite I am to the things that we teach. How was I supposed to be teaching about warfare when I am so weak in it myself? I gave the sermon, and refused to look at Tunt during it, certain that a rebuke would soon come. Instead, she walked up to me, gave me a great big hug and told me, “You fooled me! You know the devil inside out, you are fighting strong!” This was not exactly true (or I would not have included it), but she knew that I wanted to fight, and she was exhorting me further. This was a beautiful pastoral teaching to me: to work with people where they are and to help grow their desire for good, even if they are falling short of fruit. She knew how to cultivate.
Another teaching came when I took a beloved youth and friend of mine to see Tunt Samira in the hospital. The young man was struggling with some spiritual concepts, and to me, he had totally rejected spirituality until other certain concepts could first be dealt with or answered. I was fine with that. Consequently, I did not think it was appropriate for me to exhort him to prayer when that was, in my view, the least of his concerns. Well, Tunt Samira totally disagreed. She shocked me. She burst into a long and powerful talk about how he must pray. I do not want to try and summarise what she said because I think it would be a disservice, because it was not just what she said, but the totality of her being that said it that was verbalising something deeper than words could express. She taught what was necessary because she knew its truth.
I want to point out that she was not going out of her way to rebuke me or others, but she was willing to receive rebuke. One time as Abouna Kyrillos and I were visiting her in her house, she joked that she was jealous of someone. It was said totally jokingly, very similar to a modern colloquial of “No way! I’m so jealous!” and meant in a positive way. Not five minutes passed, and (probably at some prompting of her beloved Baba) she burst into tears. “I should not be jealous, Abouna!” [Note: I was never a real Abouna to her, ‘Abouna’ means Abouna Kyrillos] Abouna tried to console her and tell her that it was okay, that we knew she was just joking, but she would not be consoled by those words, “No! I was wrong, I should not be jealous, forgive me, please!” She only was fine when she was excused for her error. Abouna Kyrillos could have been her son when it comes to age, but the way she humbled herself before him and took every word of his as though from the Lord, was so deeply beautiful.
Much more could be written, but I will end it there this year, possibly to write again in future years. I will say that I miss her immensely, I miss her joy, her smiles, her love and her adorable personality. I miss the presence of holiness that we had, the balm of simply looking at her, and the random calls when I am slipping up and need a friendly hand to set me on the straight and narrow. I miss her Christocentricity, her realness, and her unwavering love.
Tunt Samira on the eve of her departure, October 22, 2015
Beloved Tunt Samira, on this, the third year of your departure, please, pray for us struggling here below at the Throne of Grace. Accompany us in our hardships, please, and ask Him to forgive us our sins. I love and miss you, tunt.