Fr Abdel Messih el Habashi: The Ethiopian Hermit

One the truly great Ethiopian Hermits of the twentieth century was Abûnâ Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi (c. 1898 to c. 1973). A detailed account of his life is now available at http://www.dacb.org/stories/eritrea/abuna_abd_el_mesih.html This article by John Watson was reprinted, with permission, from Coptic Church Review: A Quarterly of Contemporary Patristic Studies, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Summer 2006). The paper includes fascinating details about his spiritual life, his worship, his Eucharistic practice and even his diet. May the blessed Hermit Abba Gabra Krestos remember us in his prayers.
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Abûnâ Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi was born in Ethiopia in 1898. ln English he is known as Father, the Servant of Christ, the Ethiopian. Orthodox Christians of Ethiopia knew him as Abba Gabra Krestos. The titles in Ethiopian Orthodoxy (identical in Amharic and Ge’ez script) are equally close to Arabic and English. Abba Gabra Krestos eventually left his farm work with his family without parental permission and travelled into central Ethiopia. It was in that region that he studied liturgical music and poetry, possibly at Debra Damo, a monastery built as early as the seventh century. One source claims that he also studied in Addis Ababa. It has been affirmed that he visited major Ethiopian Christian sites at Lake Tana. The legendary island monasteries out on the lake were a tremendous attraction to him and to most other candidates to monasticism. Local Ethiopian sources have affirmed his teenage visit to the 12th century site at Lalibela, with its historic rock-hewn churches, which are regarded as being amongst the finest examples of ecclesiastical architecture in the history of Christianity and comparable to the rock-hewn temples of Abu Simbel in Nubia, of Petra in Jordan, or of Ellora in Hyderabad, India. Abba Gabra Krestos was certainly perceived as a pilgrim within classical Ethiopian monasticism. Sadly, primary sources concerning his visits to Tana and Lalibela have not yet been positively confirmed though a substantial range of secondary and tertiary sources do claim that he was there.
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The reality is that Abd el-Mesih was perhaps the least known and least advertised of all hermits and solitaries. In the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and in Egyptian (Coptic) Orthodoxy, which were both intimately related for centuries, Abûnâ Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi was often portrayed as a man with one sense of direction only: his eyes were opened to eternity….

He had certainly lived – possibly from 1912 to 1934 – as an ordained solitary or a hermit (bahetawy) in Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is equally clear that Abd el-Mesih lived on – from about 1935-7 to approximately 1970-74 as a solitary (muttawahad) in the Wadi Natroun. This inimitable Desert Father lived in the physical and spiritual wastelands of both countries for at least half a century. But even in the long history of desert monasticism, the monastic institutions too often rejected the life of solitude, which was loved by the Ethiopian father. Many ancient sources have affirmed that if an athlete does not practice with other athletes then he cannot learn how to be victorious and learn to compete alone with his opponent. This is the monk’s life: If he cannot be trained in a monastery with other monks and learn to control his own thoughts then he cannot live in solitude and fight an inward battle. For Abd el-Mesih nothing could be further from the truth. He must fight alone. The greatest way forward is not the institutional way but the individual way. The Ethiopian Father identified with Elijah the prophet and St John’ the Baptist: the desert path was the only path…
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It is certain that Abûnâ Abd el-Mesih initially felt himself to be a prisoner in the monasteries of the Wadi el-Natroun, but he eventually walked free. One of his much-quoted foundational texts was: “We have been buried with Jesus through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6.4). He liked to insist that he was a free man who could walk out of the ecclesial prison and into the liberating deep space of the solitary. It was perhaps around 1935-7, before the Second World War, that he went to live in a cave not far from Deir al-Barâmûsi. The cave was about four and a half kilometers from the monastery. The large open cleft in the rock has been identified as pentagonal. It was an area hewn out of sand stone and approximately three-by-six meters in size, but a deeper and lower eremitic section had definitely been established. Below the pentagonal cave the subterranean space was his secluded eucharistic sanctuary.

A film, “Fr Abdel Messih el Habashi: The Ethiopian Monk”, (with English sub-titles) about the life of can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tuM7YuUx1lA

For information on the Ethiopian monastic life, see http://www.monasticlife.org/MonasticLife.html and for the tradition of the Bahitawi (meaning in the ancient Ethiopian language Ge’ez, ‘one who lives in the wilderness’) see http://ourafrikanheritage.com/magazine/archives/31 .
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For a brief interview with and fascinating photographs of a 101 year old Ethiopian monk: http://www.joeyl.com/2009/03/a-conversation-with-a-101-year-old-monk-from-ethiopia/

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