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The Reflections of Fr. Alexander Schmemann on Meeting His Holiness Pope Shenouda III of Blessed Memory

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Saturday, February 11, 1978

Immersion yesterday and today in a totally unknown (to me) world of Coptic Christianity. Right away I must express my main impression: it is edifying and it is alive. I remember my trip to the Middle East in 1971 and my impression of something outlived, nominal, dying, chained to the past—the existence of a non-existent world. Lifeless Hierarchs. Fear. Lies. Corruption.

And then, last year in Los Angeles, I met His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, the Patriarch of the Coptic Church. Right away—an impression of genuine life, spiritual openness. And now, inCairo, I am meeting the very Coptic reality. There are about seven million Copts in Egypt! And this church, despite persecutions (Byzantine, Arab, Turkish), despite the surroundingsea of Islam, despite its isolation and loneliness, and the whole spiritual and political chaos of the Middle East, is revived and alive!

In the morning, a long reception at the Patriarchs residence. Right away, we talk about the essential—the Church, ways to unify, mission, Africa, youth.

In the evening, I witnessed something truly amazing. In the packed cathedral, seven thousand people listen—as they do every Friday—to the Patriarch. In front of him, on a little table, hundreds of little pieces of paper with questions. He chooses five or six and answers them so simply, and at the same time so deeply (about the meaning of “Lord have mercy”; about the death of a mother—“where is she now?”; about a fifteen-year-old girl—“should she go to a monastery now?”; about somebody who promised to work in the church school if he passed his exam and has not kept his promise, etc.). Then he lectures about the temptations of Christ in the desert, and again—genuine, lively, pastoral, nurturing. Where in the Orthodox world can one see and experience this, a patriarch with the people, in a live dialogue?

But then today I had an extraordinary day: a visit in the desert to three monasteries with an uninterrupted tradition from Anthony the Great, Makarios, etc. In one of them is the sarcophagus of Ephrem of Syria. And the most amazing, of course, is how very much alive it all is: Real monks! In my whole life, I have seen only imitations, only playing at monastic life, false, stylized; and mostly unrestrained idle talk about monasticism and spirituality. And here are they, in a real desert. A real, heroic feat.

So many young monks. No advertisements, no brochures about spirituality. Nobody knows anything about them and they do not mind it. I am simply stunned. I have a thousand questions, and I will have to gradually start sorting it all out. Right now, this trip to the desert remains in my memory as something radiant. 

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Editor’s Note: The Rev. Alexander Schmemann was a leading Russian Orthodox theologian influential in U.S. church life in the cause of religious freedom in the Soviet Union and in the world-wide ecumenical movement. He was an adjunct professor at Columbia and New York universities and at Union and General theological seminaries in New York City. He was also dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y.

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