They were not spoken by some dying man or one who laid claim to a philosophical theory on life. They were spoken by a man who decided the world had nothing of value to give him; he turned his back on the world and, while yet living in this world, decided to seek a better, fuller life. That man was Nazeer Gayed, the young teacher, writer, poet, seminarian, and preacher of national renown. In 1954 he decided all the success he had attained, and the prospect of fame and a brilliant career gave his soul no fullness. Realising that only Christ could fill the emptiness he felt inside, he quietly left all behind and headed to the monastery of the Holy Virgin of al-Surian in the Western Desert where he took orders under the name of Father Antonius al-Suriany.
+Life of solitude+
In the Coptic tradition, taking orders involves saying funereal prayers on the prospective monk or nun. The theory is that they ‘die’ to the material world and are resurrected as other beings who are ‘dead’ in body but alive in Christ.
In the life of monastic solitude, Father Antonius finally found what he was looking for, the wondrous peace and fullness of the soul. He started off in charge of the monastery’s priceless library where his work in the preservation of the books and his call for the restoration of the ancient documents there bore fruit years later at the hands of other dedicated monks and scholars. At one point during his life at the monastery, Fr Antonius went into solitary retirement in a cave outside the monastery walls.
Yet it was the will of God that in 1962 Fr Antonius would be consecrated by Pope Kyrillos VI as Bishop of Christian Education and Dean of the Coptic Orthodox Seminary, under the name Anba Shenouda. He cried bitterly at his consecration, realising it meant the end of his life of solitude. But he also realised the Lord had called him to a task he must obey. Pope Kyrillos VI, who was patriarch from 1959 to 1971, is in his own right a modern-day saint; he was last year canonised by the Coptic Orthodox Church.
+“The wisest of the wise”+
Anba Shenouda was named after 4th century St Shenouda the Archmandrite who was a strong, avid scholar. Anba Shenouda lived up to his namesake, and through his weekly prayer meetings—attended by no less than some 7000 every Wednesday—as Bishop and later as Pope he carved for himself an indelible imprint as a Christian teacher. He was a prolific writer, and has to his credit more than 100 books; most of which were translated into English, French, and German. He wrote a weekly Bible study for ++Watani++, which went on almost uninterrupted for more than thirty years.
In November 1971, Anba Shenouda became the 117th patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. His more than 40 years as pope were legendary in achievement. The Church saw a huge revival, grew in leaps and bounds to serve the needs of the growing congregation, and crossed over national boundaries into the four corners of the world. He reached out to other Egyptian and non-Egyptian, Orthodox and non-Orthodox Churches in the world; in 1973, he made the first visit in over 1500 years by a Coptic pope to the Catholic pope in the Vatican, Pope Paul VI.
Pope Shenouda’s boundless love and wisdom were pivotal in containing sectarian conflict in Egypt; for that and for his systematically patriotic stances during crises he was rightly called the “Pope of all Egyptians”. Following his funeral, The Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib, described him as “the wisest of the wise.”
Pope Shenouda was famous for his legendary sense of humour. He was able, through a good laugh, to break the ice with the young and old. Children especially were close to his heart; he interacted with them on a one-to-one basis with understanding, wit and humour; and they reciprocated his love for them.
On 17 March 2012, Pope Shenouda III breathed his last after a long battle with illness during which he insisted on performing all his duties, despite the pain and fatigue.
Perhaps most outstanding in Pope Shenouda III’s papacy was his persistence in spending three days every week at the desert monastery. His stature as pope never could make him forget that he was, first and foremost, a desert monk who had by choice given up everything for the privilege of living with his Creator and Saviour, basking in the eternal grace. There can be no doubt that this must have been the source of love, wisdom, and strength in his life.
18 March 2014