Christ has promised, "He who believes in Me … out of his heart will flow rivers of living water." (John 7:38)
The lives of Alexandrian Church fathers St. Athanasius and St. Cyril epitomised a fervent and unwavering faith in Christ. It is fitting then that the teachings that flowed from their hearts have long endured in the Church, nourishing the faithful as rivers of living water. Nor have these teachings been confined by narrow banks, but instead have overflowed, irrigating the soil of the universal church, slaking the thirst of all who longed for the knowledge of God, and providing a common source of Christian understanding revered by theologians from Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches throughout the last sixteen centuries.
The Copts are fortunate to inherit this rich tradition and honoured to be members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, of which St. Athanasius was the twentieth patriarch (328-373) and St. Cyril was the twenty fourth patriarch (412-444).
But with such fortune and honour comes a burden of responsibility to inherited tradition. Despite the magnitude of the task, our generation may bear this burden with enthusiasm, mindful of the rewards of our stewardship: that Christ is glorified in us when we present Him to the world as the bread of life on the table of the Fathers.
In this respect, I was delighted when the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, under the supervision of His Grace Bishop Serapion, recently established the St. Athanasius and St. Cyril Theological Library. The Library is temporarily housed in the Diocese building at 4909 Cleland Avenue, Los Angeles. But I see that the Library is also located in the heart of the Coptic world. The Copts of Los Angeles, as all Copts in the world, can choose for themselves an effective role in the progress of the See of St Mark and all humanity. This patristics library can be one means for the success of such a worldwide ministry.
The Diocese announced that its purpose is to "establish a library that promotes, encourages, and facilitates the study of the biblical and patristic heritage of the great Church Fathers, especially Saint Athanasius and Saint Cyril, in response to the theological, pastoral, educational, and ecumenical challenges confronting the Church today."
The faithful welcomes this mission statement and passionately participates in transforming it into a reality because he/she knows that the experience of the Fathers, recorded in their writings, presents the richness of the Mystery of Christ to the world, and that the Library is a powerful means of achieving that end.
- Collections of writings: To establish an extensive library that contains the patristic writings of the Alexandrian Fathers, with specific emphasis on St Athanasius and St Cyril in ancient languages (Coptic, Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian) and modern translations (English, Arabic, French, German, Greek, Italian, etc.). The library will also include an extensive reference section for further research in various fields of study, such as Biblical Studies, Patrology, Church History, Dogmatics, Liturgics, Comparative Theology, and other fields.
- Theological courses: The Library plans to host a series of seminars and courses for all people in English and Arabic. General courses will seek to convey the teachings of the fathers for our day and age, such as study of the scriptures, marriage and family life, pastoral care, and Christian education. More intensive theological courses will also be offered for clergy and servants.
- Annual patristics conference: Each year in July, the Library will host a patristics conference of lectures from leading theologians in hopes to encourage further theological and patristic study among laity. This conference will also include a book exhibition and writing contest pertinent for such study.
- Publications: In addition to gathering and translating various patristic texts, the Library seeks to publish books, articles, pamphlets, and CDs for benefit to various needs: academic, pastoral, congregational, and personal. The Library also hopes to establish a semi-annual journal for Alexandrian patristic studies.
- Preparation of theologians: In order to encourage the next generation of theologians beginning with the youth, the Library will offer opportunities for young researchers to present papers, as well as provide scholarships for students to continue theological studies in accredited institutions.
First Patristics Conference
The faithful know that the treasure of the church is Christ, and that the lives of the Fathers and the rich tradition they left for us is the field in which this treasure is hidden (Matthew 13:44).
This sense of treasure permeated the first annual Patristics Conference, convened by the Library on 21 July 2007. The conference included four talks, each of which delved deeply into the field of church tradition in order to bring forth myriad theological riches.
Speaking first was His Grace Bishop Serapion, concerning "St Cyril and the Council of Ephesus." He explained the historical, theological, and political context of the Council and the role of Patriarch St. Cyril I in formulating doctrinal statements that united all participants in the council.
The second talk, entitled "Saint Cyril and His Commentary on Genesis," was presented by Fr. Dr. George Dragas, professor of patristics and dogmatic theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts. We learned from Fr. Dragas St. Cyril’s method of understanding persons of the Old Testament as types of Christ, how to appreciate the Mystery of Christ through meditation on the lives of Adam, Abel, Enoch, Abraham, etc…, and how to interpret the first creation in Adam in the light of salvation in Christ.
The third talk, entitled "Saint Cyril and His Commentary on the Gospel of John" was given by Mother Lois, assistant professor of early church history at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. She demonstrated how St Cyril interpreted the sayings and miracles of Christ by taking Christ himself as the focus and the goal. With respect to the Miracle at the wedding of Cana of Galilee, Mother Lois allowed us to see Christ as the Bridegroom and the Church as His bride. My friend, Dr. Nicholas Riegels who attended the conference, wrote to me afterwards saying, "Mother Lois’ talk offered numerous insights into the use of the New Testament to read the Old, and provided an incisive examination of the corresponding notion of ‘type’ as developed in the work of the church fathers. In so doing she soundly demolished the arguments of those who have sought to portray the Alexandrian theologians as ‘allegorical’ in their inclinations."
In the fourth talk, Deacon Severus Mikhail, PhD, assistant professor of history at California State University Fullerton, expounded on "Saint Athanasius and the Life of Antony" demonstrating how the intertwined lives and writings of St. Antony and St. Athanasius acted as pillars of the faith, strengthening the universal church throughout the centuries.
The Conference was organised and moderated by Fr. John Paul Abdelsayed (St. Paul Brotherhood, Los Angeles) and Fr. Kyrillos Ibrahim (St. Demiana Church, San Diego). News about the Conference and the Library can always be checked at www.lacopts.org.
Each talk was followed by a question and answer session characterised by lively discussion. There were also awards for contests in writings about patristics. The audience exhibited palpable enthusiasm for the many treasures of the Fathers presented to them, and their desire to learn and absorb more will doubtless carry forward into future conferences.
I was delighted to watch and listen. My level of optimism, faith and hope was elevated. How can it be otherwise when there is a promise in the Bible that says, "The God of heaven Himself will prosper us; therefore we His servants will rise and build." (Nehemiah 2:20).
Dr Saad Michael Saad is active in promoting Coptic studies at American universities. To participate, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was published in Watani International on Sunday, August 12, 2007 and published here with permission.