Coptic Monastic Inspirations for Lent:

18-03-2013 11:58 AM

Interview by Donald Westbrook

Westbrook: Dr. Vivian, thank you for meeting again with Watani. You recently published a translation of ancient texts from the early Coptic monk and ascetic Saint Macarius. How is this ancient saint relevant today?

Vivian: Let me answer this in part with a story. After earning my Ph.D. and M.Div. I had a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at Yale Divinity School. The post-doc fellows had to have a research project. I was reading some Coptic texts to keep my Coptic sharp when I came across “The Life of Abba Pambo.” The text spoke to me both as a scholar and as a person of faith, so I set out to read other early monastic texts and early Egyptian monasticism became my topic. 
At the same time, I was deeply reading and reflecting on the writings of Thomas Merton, the Roman Catholic monk, whom I regard as one of the West’s greatest modern writers on spirituality. I was—very willingly!—captured by monastic spirituality, the deep truths it has to offer to us moderns who are beset and besieged by distractions that draw us away from a holy life of inward reflection and service to others. As the great medieval mystic Meister Eckhart puts it: Christ is born anew in each of us; we each have a great fountain of the divine within, but we’ve let it get so mucked over by cares and concerns that the divine within has no way to fountain forth.
For me personally, this is the great monastic insight: distractions, which comes from the Latin traho /tractum, “to draw or drag,” are like a tractor dragging us away from what Merton calls our “true selves,” made in the image and likeness of God; as a result, we live much or most of the time captured within our “false selves,” made in the image of Madison Avenue and Hollywood, consumerism and nationalism. The monks supply us with shovels to clear away the muck. We idolize our Olympic athletes, and assume that it takes great dedication and training, but we are lazy about our own spiritual lives; spiritually, we all too easily become couch potatoes. The monks show us that the spiritual life requires even greater askēsis, the Greek word for exercise and training, from which we get “ascetic” and “asceticism.” All people of faith should be ascetics!  
Westbrook: Saint Macarius seemed to have integrated animals into his conceptions of love, worship, ministry, and theology. Would you share with us one of the saint##s stories with animals?
Vivian: Here is one of my favorites: One time when Macarius is working the harvest with the monastic brothers, a starving wolf cries out. The saint stops and smiles with tears in his eyes. When the brothers see this, they’re amazed and ask what’s going on. Macarius answers that this wolf is crying up to Christ, whom Macarius calls “the lover of humanity, the compassionate one.” The wolf has the audacity—the trust!—to confront Christ and ask why he is suffering. You were the one who created me, he says. 
     I think this saying offers us a number of deep truths:
suffering does exist, among the “wild” animals as among ourselves;
the wolf is “the other,” the enemy: the person, animal, or thing we fear. Despite this, Macarius shows compassion to him.
the wolf’s suffering serves as a salutary reminder here, as Native American religion well knows, that the “flesh-eating beasts” are our brothers and sisters;
implicit, too, in this saying is the fact that if animals suffer, then they are like Christ, the suffering servant;
as any pastor, whether lay or ordained, knows, the heart’s cry of this wolf is our own: “Tell me why I am suffering.” 
Macarius, as a holy man attuned to God, hears the language the wolf is speaking, the universal language of suffering and he enacts God’s universal response: empathy and compassion.  
Westbrook: Where has your research on early Christian monasticism and Patristics led you since your last interview for Watani in 2003?
Vivian: Since 2003 I’ve published seven books: Four Desert Fathers: Pambo, Evagrius, Macarius of Egypt, and Macarius of Alexandria. Coptic Texts Relating to the Lausiac History of Palladius; Saint Macarius the Spiritbearer: Coptic Texts Relating to Saint Macarius the Great; Words to Live By: Journeys in Ancient and Modern Monasticism; Witness to Holiness: Abba Daniel of Scetis; a daily monastic reader, Becoming Fire: Through the Year with the Desert Fathers and Mothers; Mark the Monk: Counsels on the Spiritual Life; and The Holy Workshop of Virtue: The Life of Saint John the Little, with my friend and colleague Maged S. A. Mikhail.  
Westbrook: You recently presented at the UCLA-St. Shenouda Society Conference of Coptic Studies a fascinating topic that explored possible connections between non-violence in Buddhist philosophy and the praxis of the Desert Fathers. What##s the importance of this type of comparative work when studying religion and philosophy? 
Vivian: Well, I firmly believe that the connections are more than “possible.” They’re solidly there. I have a quote on my emails from the great scholar of religion Wilfred Cantwell Smith: “I would even make bold to say that the future progress of one’s own cherished faith even within one’s own community depends more largely than most of us have realized on the ability to solve the question of comparative religion. . . . unless, I say, we can together solve the intellectual and spiritual questions posed by comparative religion, then I do not see how a [person] is to be a Christian or a Muslim or a Buddhist at all.”
In his book Toward a True Kinship of Faith, the Dalai Lama sees compassion as the heart, soul, blood, and sinews that bind all religions together. I have come to see, to believe, that compassion overrides all other concerns, theological, partisan, nationalistic, or economic. 
Westbrook: What projects are you working now?
Vivian: Too many for my own good! By that I mean there’s so much I want to do, but with two more-than-full-time jobs as a professor and priest, I don’t have time and, to be honest, I find myself getting frustrated. Right now, among others, I’m working on editing translations of the Greek, Ethiopic, and Arabic versions of the Life of Bishoy (Pshoi), the great 4th-5th c. monk of Scetis, the Wadi Natrun. 
Westbrook: Thanks for your time and we look forward to following your scholarship closely in the future. Do you have any advice for budding scholars of Patristics and early Egyptian Christianity?
Vivian: Wow. The first thing I would say is don’t hide the light of your scholarship under a bushel basket; that is, ask yourself the question that all writers should ask: Who cares? Is what you’re writing so technical and jargon-laden that maybe only six other scholars in the world are going to read it? Keep asking yourself: What value can my work have for a more general audience, such as those who belong to the St. Shenouda Coptic Society and attend its annual conferences.
The Revd. Dr. Tim Vivian holds two positions. He serves as Vicar at Grace Episcopal Church in Bakersfield, California. But he is also Professor of Religious Studies at California State University in Bakersfield specializing in early Christian monasticism, among other subjects. He was last interviewed for Watani International on 6 July 2003 by Dr. Saad Michael Saad.
Donald Westbrook is in the final stages of a Ph.D. program in religion at Claremont Graduate University. He was a member of the staff that recently published the eight-volume Coptic Encyclopedia (Macmillan, 1991) in electronic form at the Claremont Colleges Digital Library: 
Watani International
18 March 2013
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