Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Fr. Matthew the Poor, RIP

Fr. Matta El-Meskeen (Matthew the Poor)

My apologies if this is old news to my readers, but it came as news to me: Fr. Matta El-Meskeen ("Matthew the Poor") has passed away. The monk, who was widely credited with reviving modern Coptic monasticism, died June 8 at St. Macarius the Great Monastery in Scetis (Wadi El-Natrun), Egypt. He was 87.

Born Yousef Iskandar in Cairo in 1919, the future monk labored for years as a successful pharmacist, becoming a monk at the age of 28. Ordained to the priesthood against his will two years later, he was a magnet for generations of Coptic church faithful and for a time served as the confessor of Pope Shenouda III. The two, however, have since had fallings out, putatively over theology, though they differed sharply on administrative matters, as well. Fr. Matthew revived the faith of his fellow Copts just as he refurbished deteriorating monasteries in the Egyptian desert.

Though opposed (and deposed, then reinstated) by his patriarchs more than once in the last several decades, his fame spread even to the United States. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press published (at least) two of his books: The Communion of Love and Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way (which received an English translation 50 years after its initial publication). In the latter volume, Fr. Matta wrote of times of spiritual langouor, when all comfort or evidence of the soul's Divine-personal "relationship sleeps."
This relationship remains hidden from the soul. It is vain to try to convince a soul of its existence, that the soul might rely on this or reassure itself of its presence. For in this tribulation, the soul is called to stand alone.

The soul remains within the sphere of God’s dominion. Although unaware, it is still making progress and on the right path. It is still led by an invisible hand and carried by an unfelt power. The tangible proof for all this is the extreme, constant grief of the soul over its fall from its former activity, zeal, and prominent effort into its present state...

It cannot be assumed that a man will constantly see or feel the light or warmth of God. Yet both are constant and active, both in the light of this life as well as in its darkness, its coldness as well as its warmth, its happiness as well as its grief. The way of the spirit is not to be measured exclusively by periods of light, warmth, joy, or fruitful activity. Periods of impasse, of darkness engulfing the soul, of grief which oppresses the heart, periods of coldness paralyzing all spiritual emotion are inseparable parts of the narrow spiritual way. Such conditions seem adverse, painful, and deadly. What matters is how we face them. This is what determines our worthiness to proceed further, completing the blessed struggle until we receive our crowns.
His words continue to comfort thousands around the world. May he rest in peace.

(You can view a video of the funeral here. Click here to read his articles in English, or here to purchase his English language books.)

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