Remembering Abouna Fanous…

The recent passing of several giants has grieved me. There were the passings of Fathers Feltaous  and Mettaous  of the Syrian Monastery, then the passing of Anba Mikhail of Assiut. These and others, to me, symobolise the ending of a great era, a loss of giants. Hearing the news of Abouna Fanous el Anba Bola today, only added to this feeling. With every passing generation, I fear, humanly, that there’s a rich tradition that dies with them. I feel that there are secrets and mysteries that are symbolically lost forever. There are ways that are not explained, and stories that are untold. They are the ones that link us to the past, that tell us of the monks of old and can see with clarity the monks of our generation. They were stalwart pillars of the philosophy of monasticism, and no longer can they, in the flesh, transmit ancient truths to us modern hearers. I pray He raises up a new generation from among us.

I have had a few encounters with this man of God, and I have to admit that I was and am still very hesitant about this blog entry. Though I believe in and have witnessed the supernatural (as you will encounter in this post), I do not like it to be an emphasis in teachings or discussions. I am weary of a trend of either basing our faith on such events or overly magnifying them. I am weary about those that prefer these events and stories and live for them, rather than for jewel of Christ Himself. I do not want to be a hindrance to others and I do not want to encourage an emotionally-driven or miracle-driven faith.  That’s the first disclaimer.

The second disclaimer is that there is particularly one incident that may surprise people, but I can only recount it as it happened and as I witnessed it. It’s obviously simply ‘my word’, and I recognise that that word may mean nothing others. I am writing it, though, for the edification of all, because it is something that moved me. I am sorry for these disclaimers and hope that they do not detract from the solemnity and reverence that I have for this man who dedicated his whole life to our Lord.

My first encounter with Abouna Fanous was in 1995, but I barely remember more than that my family snuck into the monks’ only area to be able to simply greet him before he went back to his hermitage. We were successful in our endeavour and emerged not only victorious that we had seen him, but we also received candies from him. That was a good day.

The first more real and living memory, however, goes back to 2002, where I was deeply impacted by the encounter. I was at the monastery for a few days, and everyone was excited  that Abouna Fanous would be coming to the Church so that those who wanted to meet with him could do so. I had left the monastery of Saint Antony with a few friends and had come to the monastery of Saint Paul. Our group went to the Church to await Abouna Fanous’ arrival, and the place was akin to a zoo with the amount of people wanting to receive his blessings. The line went from outside the Church, through the whole inside of the church, and then continued again outside again. People, however, were standing and talking loudly. Most people paid no respect to the Church and just walked in,  lined up, and would not stop talking. This really bothered one of the friends of mine who had come with us, and he was not afraid to articulate his zeal.

“Are you coming into the Church for God or for Abouna Fanous?!” He chastised. “How dare you come into the Church and ignore the altar? None of you are entering and prostrating yourselves before the Lord of Hosts, and you want only to see Abouna? Is this in any way right or respectful? Would Abouna want you to ignore the altar and only talk to him?” Everyone was silent at his rebuke, and a few people went to the main altar and kneeled and prayed. Shortly after, Abouna came, sat in one spot, and the people would take his blessings one by one. Two things happened.

First, Abouna Fanous was silent. He wouldn’t speak a word to anyone. In fact, he didn’t look up at anyone, his head was bent relatively low and he would just hand candies to each person who greeted him and sometimes do the sign of the Cross on them. There was really no active interaction. When my friend, however, went up to take his blessing, Abouna raised his head confidently, looked the young man in the eyes, smiled a huge smile and nodded his head vigorously. Everyone noticed it. Everyone understood it. Abouna was validating the work of that young man and his zeal for the house of God.

This small gesture showed me that Abouna was both  ecclesiastical and honest.  He respected the Church and he wished for people to respect the Church. Of all the hundreds of people who were lined up to see him, there is only one person that he acknowledged and in a sense, praised, and that is the person who taught the people to respect the Church.  When my friend chastised the people, it was not taken well by them. It was seen as  ‘going overboard’ by many, and was largely unwelcome. Abouna wanted to make sure that he was commended for what he did, as if to say, “Yes, everyone, this person’s teaching is right.”

In another way, I was being shown Abouna’s humility. That is, Abouna’s honour was, in a [secular] way, challenged. To a person with ego, people being rebuked for wanting to see him so badly could have been viewed as a hit against his person. A celebrity that has thousands of people clamouring around him and paying no regard to what the crowd is doing wrong would not be viewed as strange. Few would expect the celebrity to stop the people and tell them that they are doing anything wrong – let alone to validate someone else who told them that they are wrong. Most would want to enjoy the moment and try and do gestures that bring them more praise and adoration. He did the opposite.

The second thing that happened was of a more personal nature. My friends told me, “You can ask him whatever you want. Ask him in your head and he will hear you and understand. Even ask in English!” For the sake of full honesty, I did not believe that Abouna would know my thoughts. I did, however, want him to. I wanted to believe that he could know them, and I will admit that I wanted to see some kind of proof of this supernatural stuff, but in my heart I did not truly believe. I was also not raised to ask questions of holy people as though they are soothsayers. I decided to gamble. Very nervously, I kissed his hand and in my head, I asked a very direct and specific yes or no question. I asked in my head, I didn’t even whisper. I also asked in Arabic. You know, just in case. I heard no response.  I was both relieved and disappointed.

Later that evening, however, one of my friends came to me and asked, “What was it that you asked Abouna Fanous?” I replied that it didn’t matter since he didn’t answer! To which my friend gave a rejoinder, “What do you mean? When you kneeled in front of him and he prayed, he suddenly smiled and started nodding his head up and down very vigorously! That question that I asked has in these last few years been fulfilled.

I was overjoyed when my friends told me this, and not because he had answered affirmatively. I was overjoyed because this was one of my first experiences with seeing that real people existed that had received some kind of heavenly charisma. We read of it in the Bible, and we read of it in the synaxarium, but to encounter it was such a new and wonderful experience. It said to me that not only is holiness real, but that God really changes people and gives them of His own gifts. It spoke to me of the love of God towards His children – that this mutual love between God and man did something to men – it made them a little more like God. It was also a testimony to me that the monastic tradition is a real tradition, that it still produces saints, and that was something that affected my whole identity.

I will tell the controversial story now. This story takes place in December, 2013. I was sitting in his cell with several monks. Abouna Fanous was sitting on his bed distracted and not present with us. It was clear to me that Abouna wasn’t in the best of health – not physically and not mentally. The normal effects of old age were undeniably taking their course with him. I had heard stories about Abouna – stories about his glowing hands and crosses in his eyes. I did not like the stories about his hands at all. So, I decided, in full love, reverence and with a desire for the real truth, to ask him about it. I decided I would ask in my head, because one, I knew that he could hear it and two, I knew that my questioning might be misinterpreted by others as just angry doubt, even though this was not the truth of the matter. So, in my head, I asked, “Abouna, your reverence knows that I love you, I revere you, and I see you as a model of holiness. My question is not one of contempt and there is no ounce of sarcasm within me when I ask you this! I struggle with the stories about your hands because it does not make spiritual sense to me. If God has given you this gift, then how could wearing socks or gloves cover that light? If God has given this gift, then why is it being hidden?”

Abouna had been playing around with something and not present in conversation, when suddenly, he looked up, and with full alertness, said, “They say that my hands glow. They say that my hands glow all the time. That’s what they say. But it is not true. It is true that my hands lit up when I was praying years ago. It happened on that one day for an hour, and it happened again on the same day the year after. That is all. That is what happened. My hands have not been alight all that time.” To those who were sitting with us, this appeared to be totally random of him. To me, however, I was filled with peace and an even deeper reverence. He had heard, in whatever way, my question, and he had dignified it with a response.

It moved me immensely that he cared to validate that indeed, something from God would not be hidden, and that that was a true teaching. He cared to proclaim the truth so that people would not encourage a lie. Even greater than this, though, was seeing his humility. In a sense, I had challenged directly the very sign that made most people believe in his saintliness. He could have at best ignored me and at worst publicly rebuked me. I asked him privately and he could have answered privately (if at all). Instead, he decided to answer a petty person, publicly. By saying out loud in front of the monks that the stories were not true, he was abasing himself in some way. He was removing a certain prestige and fame that he held with the people, because he was saying that the stories were misinterpreted. Think about if someone has spread a rumour about you that was extremely positive and flattering, and that it earns you fame, recognition and other positive benefits. To invalidate that rumour means to lose the praise and benefits that you were receiving, and possible even make people think less of you than before they heard the rumours. This is not an easy thing to do, yet, again, for the sake of an ignorant young man, Abouna actively and intentionally put the record straight. That is a man of integrity; a man who knows himself.

I will share one last story that I will never forget, that moved me. I was told this story more than a decade ago. A young man addicted to drugs was forced onto a bus sent from his church to visit St. Paul’s monastery. He had no desire of any kind to go. When the bus arrived at the monastery, Abouna Fanous was uncharacteristically waiting for it. He went straight to this young man, grabbed his arm, and took him to his hermitage. He held the young man under house arrest as he went through his withdrawal. He put up with the young man’s cursing and violence, and answered it with words of encouragement, and by providing him with food and drink. He nursed the young man through the whole recovery process, and then fed him the Lord and the words of holiness. That man is, I’m told, presently a monk at the same monastery. So deeply was he moved by the love, compassion, and boldness of Abouna Fanous, that he gave his whole life to the Lord and discipled himself to the righteous father.

Abouna is someone who persevered. I do not care if any of the miracles about him are true or false, but to live in simplicity and love for God for that many decades is in itself worthy of praise and veneration. Abouna persevered and excelled in his monastic life for so many decades! When Saint Paul’s monastery had been largely abandoned, Abouna refused to leave his monastery, in similar manner to Abouna Andraous el Samueli. Abouna stayed, honouring the instruction of Saint Antony that “When you find a place, do not easily leave it.” He did intensive manual labour in the monastery, carrying huge boulders and losing his health in his love for Christ, Saint Paul and his monastery. I was told that he would happily clean the filthiest toilets regularly – those toilets that are built into the ground and that are the nastiest  kind – ask anyone who visited in the 90s what those bathrooms looked like! He did not care about filth, pain or burden, because he had put his hand to the plow and was not looking back. He was denying himself for others.

I wish that I could say more about him, and I wish that I knew more about him. As is always the case, one wishes that one spent more time with a person before they left, but what is past is past. I pray that his memory last, and that whatever virtue he acquired, that there be many who testify of it so that we might learn and be traditioned through him.

May the Lord grant us the single-mindedness of heart that this righteous man had – the single-mindedness that kept him faithful to his calling and to his Lord for all these decades. May He grant us the wisdom and the humility to speak the truth even when it costs us fame. May He grant us the ability to reverence and love  our God,  His Church,  His saints and His children always and to the end of time.

Remember us before the throne, O valiant crossbearer.

Pray for us, Abouna Fanous, and ask Him to rain grace on us from on high.