Visit to Old Cairo & the Coptic Retreat Centre 'Anafora'
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.