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A Story of a 20th Century Desert Father

Excerpts from James Wellard, Desert Pilgrimage.

As we leaned over the wall, looking out towards the west, I learnt that several of the monks were, even now, out there in the cliffs, pursuing their private orisons. One of these hermits, a former monk of Baramous, was of special interest, for he seemed to me to be a direct descendant of the original desert ascetics. His name was Abuna Abd el-Masih, and this is what I learnt about him as I stood on the monastery ramparts.

Around midnight, Abuna Abd el-Mashi comes out of his cave in the Libyan Desert and stands with his hands held palm upwards in the same posture the first Christians used when praying. His lips move as he looks up into the sky. Sometimes he kneels and touches the ground with his forehead. For the rest of the night he still continues his prayers and genuflections as he had been doing for the last thirty-two years.

Abuna Abd el-Masih is a Coptic monk and he is seventy-two years old. Forty years ago he walked the 1,500 miles from his village in Ethiopia to the monastery of Baramous on the edge of the Western Desert, some seventy miles north-west of Cairo. He spent five years behind the high walls of this Egyptian monastery, distinguishing himself by the severity of his penances, until he found the company of the dozen other monks distracted him from his aim of total mortification. He decided, therefore, to go out into the desert which surrounds Baramous, to dig his own cave, and to spend the rest of his life in complete solitude communing with his Maker.

In those early days when he was younger the Ethiopian hermit used to walk once a week three miles back to the monastery to get bread, beans, dates, and a jerry-can of water. Now that he is an old man, the monks of Baramous take his meagre rations out to him. He exchanges ritual greetings with his brothers, but that is all. He wants to know nothing about what is going on in the outside world and has no interest in that world any more. He refuses to see visitors, and the monks of the nearby monastery where I spent two days and a night were gently but firmly opposed to my approaching his cave.

I was told that the last person to try to visit him, a German was dismissed with these words: "If you are a German you are not a Christian, for Germans don't believe in God"

He even scolds the monks themselves, saying to them; "You monks should know that when you eat oil and fish [he is referring to sardines], the devil will visit you at night."

I would very much very much have liked to visit Abuna Abd el-Masih, since he and several other hermits also living in caves in the region are the direct descendants of the famous anchorites of the Thebaid--of Paul, Antony, Macarius, and the thousands of other solitaries who peopled the Egyptian deserts in the third and fourth centuries of our era. To us in the Western world, so totally oriented to a machine civilisation, the very idea of a man living and thinking exactly as the Desert Fathers did 1,600 years ago is almost incomprehensible.

But standing that night on the ramparts of the monastery at Baramous, and looking out across the silent wastelands, I did not find it so hard to understand. In fact, the monks were not in the least amazed by the spiritual feats of Abuna Abd el-Masih and the other "athletes of God", as the hermits used to be called....

Listening to the murmur of prayers coming from some of the cells and looking out across the sand to the cliffs where Abuna Abd el-Masih was now standing with hands upraised praying outside his cave, I was struck by the curious disparity between what seemed like laxity on the one hand and extreme asceticism on the other. Inside the forty-foot-high walls, my two monkish companions appeared to be enjoying a pleasant and serene sort of life, while outside another monk was undergoing the severest conceivable penance. Both modes of spiritual service, however, are alike acceptable under the rules of Coptic monasticism, which has always left it to the wisdom of each man to work out his own salvation.

...Their rule of life has not really changed in fifteen centuries; and what the visitor to the desert monasteries is seeing today is still the birthplace of the most significant movement in Christian history, as well as some of the oldest shrines of our religion....

So the Coptic monasteries of Egypt stand as the first models of Christian monasteries all over the world; and hermits like Abuna Abd el-Masih as the last descendants of the primitive saints from an age when saintliness was equated with the annihilation of all earthly vanities.

I was told that the Ethiopian was in his cave during the campaigns in the Western Desert and that he was under fire during Rommel's advance on the Nile. We have no way of knowing what he thought about the experience. Judging by his contempt of the outside world and all its works, the probability is that he dismissed the bursting shells and the showers of shrapnel as another trick by the devil to interrupt his prayers and meditations.

It is also reported that British G.HQ. in Cairo apologised to the hermit for any inconvenience caused him--an ironic homage of the twentieth to the third century.
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