Fr Matta El Meskeen

Radical Coptic Orthodox monk

Wednesday 01 April 2009 16:46

Yusuf Iskander, monk: born Benha, Egypt 1 November 1919; clothed a monk 1948, taking the name Matta El Meskeen; died Cairo 8 June 2006.

During the last few decades, a small number of monastics - Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant - have made a significant impact upon many churches and other world religions. The Trappist Thomas Merton of Kentucky, the Russian Orthodox Seraphim Rose of Alaska, the Protestant Roger Schultz of Taizé, and the Benedictine Bede Griffiths of Shantivanam in southern India were all prolific authors. All four of them were also readers of the renowned Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox monk Father Matta El Meskeen (Matthew the Poor).

Matta's radical focus upon personal faith and monastic enclosure stands in contrast to institutional religion and ecclesiastical authority. He always sought to affirm the "unity of Truth", which all radical monks have described as the goal of all religions.

Born into a wealthy family in the Nile Delta town of Benha, he was baptised Yusuf Iskander in 1919. He graduated in Pharmacy from Cairo University in 1944. In 1948 he left his profession and entered the Monastery of St Samuel, in Middle Egypt. He was named Matta El Meskeen and in the 1950s began one of the decisive revolutionary monastic experiments of modern times, moving into the Wadi El Rayan, a valley of the Western Desert 124 miles south-west of Cairo.

For nearly a decade he had lived a solitary ascetic life, but by 1960 seven other Coptic monks joined him, and the community expanded to 12 by 1964. The valley was entirely cut off from the outside world. For 12 years they read no newspapers and heard no radio. They lived in ground-caves, not unlike those in Cappadocia or Qumran. Some caves extended into the hillside and were covered in Coptic writings on plastered walls from early monastic settlements in the fourth century. The modern monks took turns to bake bread once a week. Water was carried on a donkey in petrol cans from an oasis.

Matta was determined that communal and solitary forms of Coptic Orthodox monasticism should exist in tandem, but he also taught that the most compelling development of the monastic vocation for himself was to be found in the solitary life. He frequently lived as a solitary, moving out of his monastic cell and into a cave.

In response to an appeal from the Coptic Patriarch Kyrillos VI the 12 monks of the Wadi Rayan moved north to the Wadi El Natroun in 1969 and developed the monastery of St Macarius the Great. Only six very tired and elderly fathers lived near the road between Cairo and Alexandria. Matta and his 12 companions cared for the frail old desert fathers and then reformed and reconstructed the monastery.

The scale of their achievement was remarkable. In 1971 Matta had 30 monks in the monastery, by 1981 over 80 and in 1991 over 100. In the 1980s President Anwar Sadat donated 2,000 hectares of desert land to the monks and a fleet of tractors to work it. A new well was drilled to obtain water. The monastery has a superb printing press and Matta's books and articles are distributed throughout the world, often in parallel Arabic/English texts.

In 2003, St Vladimir's Seminary Press in the United States published Matta's Orthodox Prayer Life: the interior way. The first edition, in Arabic, had been written in the desert in the early 1950s. Translations have appeared in French, German, Greek, Japanese and Russian, and abbreviated forms in 60 languages.

Most of the original band of monks in the Wadi El Rayan, when asked what directed them to the eremitical life, said that it was reading Matta's book on prayer. The book defined their monastic course. The practical works of the monastery are transfigured into one spiritual activity. Labour becomes a form of religious witness and a means of fraternal love. The only condition for admission to the monastery is that the aspirants should have some personal religious experience, even if only on a single occasion.

Matta represents an interior life that is perhaps rare in this time. He would affirm that whenever physical hunger became a problem he found fulfilment in meditation. If the biting cold of the desert winter was a danger, he found warmth in prayer. When people were harsh to him - "and their harshness was severe indeed" - he found comfort in his cell.

He described meditation and prayer as his food and drink, his clothing and his armour.

John H. Watson

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