The Flavour of Desert Spirituality

The Horologian of the Coptic Orthodox Church is known as the Agbeya. There are seven canonical hours – 1st Hour, 3nd Hour, 6th Hour, 9th Hour, 11th Hour, 12th Hour, Midnight – corresponding largely to the Byzantine order, with an additional “Prayer of the Veil” which is said by Bishops, Priests, and Monks (something like the Byzantine Midnight Office). The Coptic Horologion is poor researched and poorly understood, even within the Coptic Tradition. Most modern texts in English make use of translations of the Psalms from either the King James Version or the New King James Version, with a couple of editions using the Septuagint Psalter. Virtually all English versions are translations from the Arabic (not the Coptic original), and often the translations are (to put it mildly) inadequate, even crude.

Last year I acquired an unusual English translation in which the Psalms and text had been translated into English from the Coptic original which, as the Preface notes, “reflects the same understanding and meaning of the Psalms and prayers as used by our Coptic fathers. Thus it bears the particular flavour of the Coptic language. It expresses successfully the unique spirituality of the Coptic Church.”
Agpeya
This work – “The Agpeya. The Coptic Book of Hours”, Fr Matthias Farid Wahba (ed), St Antonius Coptic Orthodox Church, Hayward CA, 2nd edition 1999 – is inspiring! The recorded words of the Desert Fathers and Mothers have a very particular and peculiar style – one might say, in a wholly positive sense, they are abrupt, rough, often abrasive, profoundly down-to-earth. Not, I must say, unlike the conversations I had with old prospectors in the desert of the Western Australian goldfields when my father took me there (his home area) as a boy. It is the flavour of dry heat, dust, sand and salt!

An example of the “Desert flavour” can be found in the translation of Psalm 22(23) from the Coptic:

The Lord is He who shepherds me; I shall need nothing.
In a place of green pasture, there He has made me dwell, by the water of rest.
He has tended me.
He has restored my soul.
He has guided me into the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Even if I walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, these comfort me.
You have prepared a table before me in the presence of those who afflict me.
You have anointed my head with oil, and Your cup makes me drunk like power.
Your mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and my dwelling shall be in the house of the Lord unto length of days.

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