An Arab proverb says, "Man fears Time, Time fears the Pyramids." The Coptic church may be the pyramid among Christian traditions. The Coptic Church's stability stands through the centuries despite plunder and persecution that have gradually eroded the church built on other lands.
It may be no coincidence that Christian monasticism was founded by the enduring Copts in the same Egyptian desert where their ancestors built the pyramids.
"Coptic missionaries reached as far as the British Isles long before the arrival of St. Augustine of Canterbury in 597 AD. Stanley Lane-Poole, the well-known historian, wrote:The ancient Copts gave monasticism to their Christian brothers and sisters, recognized as the greatest contributions from Egypt to the world (another blog on this topic and the Scetis community).
'We do not know yet how much we in the British Isles owe to these remote hermits. It is more than probable that to them we are indebted for the first preaching of the Gospel in England, where, till the coming of Augustine, the Egyptian monastic rule prevailed. But more important is the belief that Irish Christianity, the great civilizing agent of the early Middle Ages among the northern nations, was the child of the Egyptian Church. Seven Egyptian monks are buried at Desert Uldith, and there is much in the ceremonies and architecture of Ireland in the earliest time that reminds one of still earlier Christian remains in Egypt. Every one knows that the handicraft of the Irish monks in the ninth and tenth centuries far excelled anything that could be found elsewhere in Europe; and if the Byzantine-looking decoration can be traced to the influence of Egyptian missionaries, we have more to thank the Copts for than has been imagined.'" From The Coptic Orthodox Church.
"Irish monasteries became centre of learning and centres for the training of missionaries who went out to evangelise in Britain and on the European mainland." From the beautiful Under the Oak blog by Brigit
Copts (meaning Egyptian) are Egyptian Christians who are members of the Coptic Church founded by St. Mark. According to the Copts and some other Christian traditions, the book of Mark is the oldest Gospel narrative.
Copts are ethnically the same as most Egyptians. The Copts look like their Muslim neighbors and speak the same language, but the Copts are Christians who are members of the Coptic Church.
The word Copt is English for the Arabic word Gibt or Gypt. When the Arabs came to Egypt in the early 600s A.D., they called the Egyptians they conquered Gypt which is from the Greek word Egyptos or Egypt. "The Greek word Egyptos came from the ancient Egyptian words Ha-Ka-Ptah or the house or temple of the spirit of God Ptah, one of the major ancient Egyptian Gods."1
I met a Copt online recently. He is a member of the Coptic church (general info on the Coptic church and its ecumenical relations with the Catholic church here and here.)
My Coptic online friend speaks about the past and present persecution of the Coptic church. When I consider the hardships those devout Christians faced and are still living with today, it is humbling.
I also asked him about monasticism. He knows about the lives of many Coptic monks. He said he was named after Father Bola who lived for nearly 90 years in a place where today there is a monastery bearing his name.
He told me that there is only one aphorism still remembered from Father Bola, "Who avoids trials, avoids God."
The implication of Father Bola's saying might be a fitting description of the Coptic Church through time — they have not avoided trials and stayed close to God. In that closeness to God they have been preserved through suffering.
Philip Jenkins author of The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia — and How It Died, HarperOne, 2008 studied Christian churches that exist today only as remnants in many formerly Christian lands.
Philip Jenkins said in an interview with Christianity Today the Coptic church is his personal selection as the greatest example of Christian survival in history.
For the Coptic church to be recognized as the leading example of successful faithfulness during prolonged attacks gave me a lot to think about. What is there in the Coptic church that has infused such strength and stamina? I don't know.
From the little interaction I have with Coptic Christians online, there seems to be a greater intensity — but certainly the Copts might describe something else. Parents naming their sons after a monk whose only saying carried down through the years is, "Who avoids trials, avoids God" may be a good place to start looking for the answer.
As you know, my wife and I are studying John Cassian's Conferences and that has caused us to look more into the early Coptic desert monastic fathers.
Much of what endures in the wider church is associated with monasticism and its sheer endurance in the lives of faithful men and women. They return to the desert — not to avoid trials of the world, but to engage the enemy with the only weapon that lasts throughout time — God alone.
Picture is Coptic Egypt by ctsnow and is used subject to license.
1. Quote is from Copts.com.
For more extensive information on the Coptic church see the Coptic Encyclopedia at Coptic.net.
Thanks to Joe Rawls whose blog is The Byzantine Anglo-Catholic, I learned about a Coptic monastery in the USA. It is the St. Antony's Monastery in Barstow, the California desert. The monastery's website has a good Coptic overview.
Monasticism is a well-organized and detailed description of Coptic monasticism compiled Mark Mikhael and edited by Father Daniel Al-Anthouny in Australia.
Coptic Cairo is a beautiful site about Coptic culture.
I blogged about the Valley of Natron — Scetis — where a prominent early monastic settlement was established and still exists.
Here is the beautiful home page of the website (not in English) of St. Mary Monastery (El Sourian Monastery)- Wadi El Natron. I found a page of fabulous pictures and videos (at the bottom of the screen) here.
Additional Coptic monasteries.
If you came from Facebook and saw Saint Cecilia's picture, for some reason Facebook got the picture at the bottom of this blog rather than the one at the top. You can read about Saint Cecilia at the bottom of the screen, that's where her picture is.