Ten years on the passing away of Tamav Irene
Sunday 30 October will mark ten years on the passing away of Tamav Irene (1936-2006), former Abbess of the Convent of Philopater Mercurius, commonly known in Arabic as Abu-Seifein (The One with the Two Swords). Tamav is Coptic for “Mother”. It is amazing how during these years she proved even more her sanctity, and grew in well-deserved popularity among the Copts, both in Egypt and abroad. Despite her physical absence, her presence is strongly felt.
Strength made perfect in weakness
Tamav Irene’s rich life testifies to her contribution to the Coptic Orthodox Church and to monastic life as practised by women. To her is attributed the revival of female monasticism which had over the centuries undergone a great decline. It had reached the point where convents were populated by nuns who had taken orders merely to escape social censure on account of disability, missing out on marriage, or the inability to fit in society. Tamav Irene, to quote Dutch researcher Pieternella van Doorn-Harder in her study on Contemporary Coptic Nuns, succeeded in rendering monasticism an alternative to a career. University-educated young women joined monastic life for the first time, leading to a substantial rise in the educational standard of nuns.
Tamav organised life in the convent of Abu-Seifein according to the Coenobitic or Pachomian rules and regulations, which would later be followed in other convents, especially when many of her spiritual daughters became abbesses of other convents. She thus managed to regain the old glory of this angelic life which was Egypt’s gift to the Christian world in the fourth AD century.
Tamav Irene pioneered the first venture of nuns into the desert modern times when, in the early 1970s, she took the unprecedented step of founding a convent in the then deserted North Coast. It was not an easy decision, taking into consideration all the difficulties and challenges she had to face from the Bedouins in the area to the local authorities. What she accomplished there is by all means a great miracle that testifies to the power of her true faith in God. It exemplifies the Lord’s words to St Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12: 9).
The light that shines to others
Tamav Irene was a role model to be later followed by others. Her deep spirituality and pioneering work makes me, as a feminist and new historicist scholar, regard her as a modern desert mother who carried on the tradition of the Desert Mothers of the fourth, fifth and sixth AD centuries. During her lifetime the nuns of the Abu-Seifein Convent published an extremely valuable book entitled St Mary and the History of Generations of Virgins. This book is indeed a feminist and new historicist text that revisits the history of monasticism through highlighting the often-neglected role played by women celibates in the Egyptian wilderness.
No one can fail to see how Tamav Irene’s life vividly testified to Christian faith in our post-modernistic age of scepticism. Tamav’s life on earth and the years following her departure to heaven prove the Lord’s promise not only to His disciples, but also to all who believe in Him: “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do….” (John 14:12). She will always be part of the Coptic Orthodox Church’s legacy to the whole world, continuing to give light to all in the house and shining before others, so they may see her good works and glorify our Father in Heaven.
Tamav Irene: “My all for Him”
This was written by someone who asked to remain anonymous, denoted simply as: One of Tamav’s children. Watanihere honours this wish.
For 20 years, I had the privilege of being close to Tamav Irene. I heard and saw things that surpass human mind and understanding. More than once would she read my mind and tell me whether what I thought of was right or wrong. She was once in the monastery in the North Coast in the early 1980s when the place was still very poor. They had visitors, but there was only one plate of lentils and rice. Yet she served her guests from that one plate and they ate their fill. This and many other amazing things proved that He is the God of yesterday, today and tomorrow, the Unchangeable.
During my PhD viva, Tamav Irene was present through siyaha, telekinsim, a spiritual phenomenon that does not in fact have a synonym in English. Through it the person is taken miraculously from one place to another in a twinkle of an eye. Later in the day, she told me: “I was in my cell [at the convent in the North Coast] praying for you when I was taken to the hall where you were defending your thesis”; that was in Cairo! She described to me in detail what I was wearing and what I said. That was in 1999, a time when cell phones were still rather primitive, and there was no Viber or WhatsApp for people to share pictures or information.
Through such incidents and many others Tamav turned my life upside down as she did with so many people. She redirected our perception, aspirations, minds and hearts to Him; and Him alone. I remember very well how more than once she would simply tell me: “Ask Him to come and sit with you and He will.” Stunned, I would ask: “Just like that?” Her simple reply: “Yes, just like that.” She would then tell me how kind and loving our Lord is, and how accessible to all. Knowing her, I was sure she was speaking out of a first-hand experience. Many times, she spoke before hundreds of people about the nun who went to heaven or the one who saw Christ in her cell; and that anonymous nun was none but Tamav herself. Still the most incredible thing was how she told all these stories with amazing simplicity, as if it were possible to all people.
If one is to wonder about Tamav’s overwhelming love, simplicity and humility, there is only one obvious reason: she enjoyed true companionship with God. When I think of her over and over and try to find something that best describes her relationship with Him, I find nothing better than the German Mother Basilea Schlink’s phrase: My All for Him, a title of one her booklets. Indeed, Tamav’s all was for Him. She loved Him wholeheartedly, that special kind of love that surpasses and outshines all other loves, to quote the translator of Schlink’s booklet. This strong and empowering love was the reason and the motive that gave “the first-generation Christians their dynamism, [and] inspired them to share their faith before kings and emperors, to brave hardship, suffering and even death, taking their message to the ends of the then-known world.”
With this strong love for Christ, it was natural that He would reciprocate by abundantly bestowing His grace on her, through which she literally and figuratively performed miracles of spiritual and physical healing to countless people. Tamav Irene’s character and life will always stand as an emblem of true love for Christ.
26 October 2016