With the kind permission of Bishop Daniel (the Bishop of St Shenouda Monastery), we, the monks of the monastery, went on a spiritual retreat to the monasteries of Egypt. This retreat was an eye opener in many aspects. For this I thank Bishop Daniel very much.
One of the aspects that really came to light in this retreat was the variety of personalities of monks that existed in one monastery. Monks are not a special breed that did and thought about things the same way. On the contrary, every monk came with his talents and weaknesses and the monastery was able to utilise these talents and weaknesses for the monk’s spiritual growth as well as the community’s. This brought my thoughts to the very accurate naming of St Jerome’s 4th century book “The Garden of the Monks of Egypt”. It is a garden in the 21st century Egyptian Desert as much as it was a garden in the 4th century. In the garden you see trees that come in a variety of shapes and colors, some produce admirable flower; others bear fruit which feed many. Some trees grow very high and provide shade for some while some are crawlers that need a strong trunk to crawl upon. Obviously, this garden like every garden had malnourished trees with dry braches and were in need of fertilising.
What further impressed me was not only the wisdom and spiritual insight of the elders in the monasteries, but there was much to admire in the new shoots in this garden. The young novices who did not cease to have a smile on their faces while doing the hardest jobs around the monastery. I could also see in them the spiritual zeal that all monks came with to the monastery but in some cases this zeal weakens, it is for this reason St Arsanius used to say to himself regularly:
“Arsani, remember why you have come to the desert”.
Likewise in the monastery there are monks whose consolation is in reading and studying the Bible and patristic texts, others learn and memorise the hymns of the church, others use physical labour as a means to pray memorised prayers while serving their brothers. Some are known to people and others are not even known to exist even to the workers in the monastery. Despite this variety of personalities, they all have a common goal, and are all watered from the same fountain of Living Water.
An important plant in this Garden is the solitary monk. The reason why this style of monastic life is of interest to me is that it is almost always neglected or when mentioned it automatically refers to the 4th century Anchoretic monks as though this style of monasticism does not exist today. This notion is implied in the titles of some contemporary western writers; for example James Wellard’s article entitled “The Last of the Hermits” about Fr Abd el-Masih the Ethiopian or the TV documentary “The Last Anchorite” about a contemporary solitary monk in St Anthony’s monastery.
While these titles sound very attractive and grab the attention of many readers, Page 4 they do not give an accurate picture of the contemporary monastic life in Egypt. There are two contributing factors to this distorted picture, the first being that when western writers go to Egypt they are limited in their interviews to anchorites who speak western language i.e. French, English and German, which only represent a very small percentage of monks living this style of monasticism.
The other contributing factor is that like their ancestors these anchorites wish to live and die unknown to the world but known to God. That is why many of them are very reluctant to be interviewed by anyone.
On my trip I have been enlightened by the great counsel of these anchorites and was overjoyed at their great spiritual insight, especially that they produce great written works of their own and some translate from original languages, though they refuse to publish them.
While they refused any contact with the outside world they were very happy to talk to me as a new branch that needs watering. They did not even hesitate to offer me some of their unpublished writings for my spiritual benefit.
While I could not take photos with most of these monks I have added to this edition of Pimonakhos some photos of the caves of some of these great anchorites to assure readers that the Anchoritic life is alive and well in the Egyptian desert today as it was in the 4th century.