Visit to Old Cairo & the Coptic Retreat Centre 'Anafora' - Printable Version
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Visit to Old Cairo & the Coptic Retreat Centre 'Anafora' - Michael - 18-04-2008
In the last week of October 2007 our 'Biblelands' group travelled along the Cairo-Alexandria desert road in the dark on our way to the 'Anafora' Coptic Orthodox Retreat Centre. We had no idea what we would find at the end of our journey. it was only with the dawn of a new day that we fully realised we had arrived at a physical oasis that in the next 3 days would become a spiritual oasis for many in the group.
Indeed, it was Anafora that had persuaded the majority of the group to sign up for this tour of Cairo, Alexandria, and Anafora, including myself, and we were not disappointed. For those who may not know (and before the visit I was one of those) the word 'anafora' refers to that part of the Eucharistic service in which the offering of bread and wine is made to the God presence. in the vernacular it also refers to the moment that a bird lifts its body into flight, the moment of 'take off.'
During our stay at Anafora Bishop Thomas, who is the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of El Qussia in Upper Egypt as well as being the founder and director of Anafora, gave us 4 talks on the theme of 'Desert Spirituality.'
The Anafora Centre has been reclaimed from the desert and turned into a self-sufficient community providing for its own needs and those who come on retreat. to do this a well was sunk deep into the sand and rock in order to draw up the known water supply that lay below the surface of the desert. The water was then chanelled through a canal system to irigate the surface of the land. This process of irrigation over the past 8 years has turned Anafora into an oasis that provides refreshment and renewal for those who are fortunate enough to find their way to its welcome and hospitality. Thus the spiritual focus is the same as the physical achievement. Those on retreat are invited to take time to search for the 'well of living water within them' that is God's gift of the Holy Spirit, and to draw that water up in order to irrigate their daily life.
The accommodation, or cells, in which each of us lived during our retreat is collectively shaped to form a question mark with the 'dot' of the question mark being a round prayer house. We were encouraged to bring our questions in prayer to God, and in discussion with each other, in the hope and trust that we might receive guidance and direction for our continuing journey of faith. This proved to be my experience.
During our stay at Anafora we also paid a visit to 2 ancient monasteries in the Wadi El Natrun - Deir Anba Bishoi and Deir as-Suriani. Here we heard of the thread that connects them with the earliest days of Christian monasticism. The monastic tradition and its present practice are clearly connected with the ongoing life of the Coptic Church in Egypt. At present we were told that there are more people wishing to join monastic communities in Egypt than there are places to accommodate them. As well as this wellspring of spirituality the group was able to view paintings, frescoes, and icons, some of which dated back to the 7th century.
I could go into much more detail about this visit and retreat, but this brief account opens a window onto the richness of my experience. I returned from Egypt with a stronger desire to nurture my own spiritual life and to encourage those congregations in my care to do so as well. (I am an Anglican priest with responsibility 4 small congregations and 2 parishes). The visit has served to remind me to be more thankful that I dwell in Christ and Christ dwells in me, particularly at those times when such a relationship is tested. Further, it has encouraged me to reflect and teach more readily about the richness of Christian symbolism within our sacred spaces, the scriptures, and the activities of our own lives. It has challenged me to live a more reflective prayer life and to allow religious tradition more readily to inform my present journey of faith.
This visit will, I believe, remain as a significant experience in my spiritual life and my ministry as an Anglican priest. I have returned with a piece of the desert in my heart, and Anafora has inspired me to both offer myself afresh to God and experience that sense of 'taking off' afresh into the spiritual journey that lays before me.
Thank you for the opportunity to share this with you in the name of the risen Lord.
- John Charmley - 18-04-2008
Thank you for sharing the blessing of this story with us. You evoke in a most beautiful manner something of the spirituality and tone of the Coptic tradition, thoroughly permeated as it is by monasticism.
How wonderful the Lord is, and how marvellous that you should have found such a help and such encouragement. I hope the experience will continue to bear fruit in your daily round; your task is the most demanding one laid upon man.
Cross fertilisation of desert spirituality - Severus - 24-04-2008
Michael is just one of many who has encountered the richness of the desert spirituality which permeates and underpins so much of Orthodoxy. In Sweden the Lutheran clergy have for some years (with episcopal approval) used the "Desert Mass" - inspired by the Coptic Liturgy. Both Bishop Thomas of Anafora and our own Abba Seraphim have supported and encouraged this extraordinary cross-fertilisation. There is also a similar movemnent led by Peter Halldorf among Pentecostalists centred on the congregation Sionforsamlingen at the Nya Slottel at Bjarka Saby, an eighteenth century castle south of Linkoping.
Abba Seraphim will be visiting Stockholm for a few days at the end of May at the invitation of the Christian Council of Sweden and also to share fellowship with both the Coptic Orthodox community and the Lutheran Desert Mass movement.
For details of the Desert Mass contact Fr. Gunnar Lind of Stockholm, whose email address is: <!-- e --><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com</a><!-- e -->
Father Gunnar's daughter is now living in London so he visits here from time to time. I'm sure - if approached - both he and Abba Seraphim would be happy to talk with anyone about the desert spirituality.
Desert Spirituality - Michael - 25-04-2008
I am most grateful for the replies I have received following my first posting. I feel that I returned from Anafora last October with a grain of the desert planted in my heart that has continued to multiply.
Personally, I feel that the Anglican Church (of which I am a priest) is the poorer for having lost touch with the spirituality of the desert as exemplified in the monastic tradition. In our effort to be 'new' and 'relevant' we are losing touch with our roots, and rootless plants whither and die! Senior appointments are often made on the basis of intellectual and academic achievement without discernment of the 'pastoral heart' within a person. In one of his talks at Anafora, Bishop Thomas spoke of the monk within him reminding him of the need for humility and prayer when, at times, as bishop he became a little too arrogant or self-assured. I, too, need to remind myself continually that I am called to have 'the care of souls' as the primary goal of my ministry.
The monastic pattern of prayer and work has much to teach not only the frenetic spirit of the modern world, but also that of the modern church.
I shall find time to seek more information on the concept and practice of desert spirituality posted by Severus for which I am indebted.
By the way, I have just received my copy of 'Our Daily Life' that I look forward to reading.
I sense that finding the British Orthodox Fellowship and its forum will be a source of much encouragement on my continuing spiritual journey with God and in God. For this I give much thanks!