Another Hermit Patriarch

The tragic story of His Holiness, Abuna Takla Haymanot (1918-1988), third Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church from 1976 to 1988, can inevitably be contrasted with that of His Holiness Pope Kyrillos VI (1902-1971), 116th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark from 10 May 1959 to his death on 9 March 1971. Both were essentially Hermits called, against their wishes, to high office at times of crisis. The crisis which Kyrillos was called to address was within the Coptic Orthodox Church as a result of the effective forced deposition in 1956 of his predecessor, Pope Yusab II, and the consequent conflicts between the institutional Church and its clergy and laity. Takla Haymanot was thrown into a much more dangerous crisis regarding the power of the State to control the Church, and by force of arms if considered necessary.
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“Pope Kyrillos VI was born on Saturday, August 2, 1902 and was called Azer Ata. His father Ata, was a church deacon and belonged to a middle class family. After completing high school, Azer went to work for a shipping company in Alexandria. Azer was content with little food and the ground to sleep on. Then much against his family’s wishes, he resigned his job with the intention of becoming a monk and entered the Monastery of El-Baramous on Wednesday, July 27, 1927. He was ordained monk on Saturday, February 25, 1928 and was named Mina after the name of Saint Mina (Menas or Mena), his patron saint. He was ordained priest on Saturday, July 18, 1931.
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He also attended the Helwan Theological College and was rated one of the top students. Father Mina’s love for God was so great that he desired a life of solitude. Only thirty years old at the time, the monks refused his request saying, “You are only thirty years old and your monastic life is only five years. Do you want to pursue the life of solitude in the desert whereas many others before you have struggled for the same goal for thirty or forty years and failed?” The assembly of monks did not change Father Mina’s decision and he lived in a cave near the monastery. He pursued a life of solitude at El-Natron Valley in the western desert between Cairo and Alexandria, then he headed the Monastery of Saint Anba Samuel the Confessor at Zawarah in upper Egypt and devoted a great deal of effort toward the restoration of this historic landmark.
When the monastery of Saint Samuel was restored, he left that area and moved to a deserted windmill in El-Moukatam mountain at the outskirts of Cairo. This windmill was totally abandoned and very dangerous. It was miles from the nearest city. Many dangerous animals can be found there at all times, like scorpions and snakes. Here, Father Mina spent his time praying and contemplating because of his love for his Saviour.
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It goes without saying that Father Mina had many obstacles to overcome which Satan setup. First Satan instigated the guard of Antiquities not to carry water to the monk. Afterward, God sent one of his saints in a dream to rebuke the guard. So he woke up and carried water to Father Mina who was in urgent need for it.

In another incident, Satan sent robbers to the windmill. The robbers beat Father Mina and injured his head. When Father Mina regained consciousness, he noticed he was bleeding. He crawled to the icon of Saint Mina and put the icon on his head. The bleeding stopped at once. Father Mina then went to the hospital to be treated. The doctors were surprised when they found out that he walked 15 miles from the windmill.
Father Mina also built a church at Ancient Cairo under the name of Saint Mina. He lived in this church till his ordination as Pope of Alexandria and the Holy See of Saint Mark in 1959.”

“On August 2, 1902, ‘Āzir Yūsuf was born in Damanhūr city, located 160 km northwest of Cairo. He attended primary school in the northern city of Alexandria, where he also worked for the Customs Authority.

At age of 25, he set off on his journey in monasticism after joining the Monastery of Baramus in the Wādī al-Natrūn desert, taking the monastic name of Father Mīnā the hermit. The hermit monk hid himself away from the conflicts that were raging within Egypt’s politics and the Coptic Orthodox Church.
No sooner had Pope Yusab II [who ruled from 1946 to 1956] been consecrated as the 115th Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, than he was subject to massive opposition campaigns from both the clergy and the laymen. In 1954, Yusab was kidnapped by a Coptic group of extremists named al-Ummah al-Qibtīyah [“The Coptic Nation”].

Although he managed to return to his papal seat, the Church’s Holy Synod and the Community Council agreed to oust Yusab as his kidnap had tarnished the church’s dignity as its highest symbol was kidnapped. Yusab died a year later in 1956.
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The church was in dire need of “a saint” to lead it to safety, and to re-gain the dignity of the papal seat. On May 10, 1959, Father Mīnā the hermit was ordained as the 116th patriarch under name Pope Kyrillos VI. Many people opposed the decision to make him the patriarch, believing that he had limited experience and knowledge However, he managed to help encourage a new well-educated generation of monks and bishops and it was their responsibility to ensure that the church continued to spread its message.”
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“Pope Kyrillos as a monk was known as Al-Mutawahad – the Solitary. His instinct that only a monastic revival and a parallel renewal of the eremitic life would rescue the Copts from their anxieties from persecution has been entirely justified. It can be appreciated in the context of Coptic history whose greatest spiritual directors were all monks: when the monasteries are strong, the Copts are strong. At the same time, the monasteries have sometimes been a retreat in the worst sense and they have depended completely upon the secret lives of their finest hermits. like Abouna Abd Al-Masih Al-Habashi. Pope Kyrillos carried the deepest monastic inspiration into the Windmill and his room in Old Cairo. The twenty-three most important years of his ministry as a desert hermit were lived far from the physical desert in the city of Cairo, because he was an outstanding example of those twentieth century Christian mystics who carry the desert and the hermit’s life within themselves.”;wap2
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“At the time Kyrillos lived the solitary life, he was not the only one considered saintly. One of the famous hermits was Abuna Abd el-Masih el-Habashi, whom Kyrillos met when withdrawing into the desert of Wadi Natroun. Being an Ethiopian, El-Habashi practiced one of the most austere forms of solitary life. Little is known about this person apart from what Otto Meinardus reported about him. [Otto Meinardus, “Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Deserts” (Cairo: A.U.C. Press, 1961)]. But he could relay the secrets of life in solitude and showed that this ancient option of living the monastic life was still possible in the twentieth century. However, few ever saw him, and still fewer actually managed to speak to him. Otto Meinardus tried to retrieve information from this holy person by landing in front of his cave in a small plane. He was greeted by a grumbling hermit who refused to accept his cans of tuna repeating that it was “satan’s lure” confronting him here.

Other monks who were considered saintly included Abuna Yustus (1910-1976) in the Monastery of St. Anthony and Abuna Andraus (d. 1988), the blind monk who guarded the Monastery of St. Samuel. Although stories about these monks circulated, they remained hidden away in their monasteries. The time of the mass pilgrimage had not yet started, and few Copts ever traveled to the monasteries.

When in 1936 Kyrillos left his monastery in order to take care of the seven monks who were evicted, the occasion provided a new phase in the life of Abuna Mina al-Mutawahhid (Father Mina the Solitary), as Kyrillos was called at that time. Living in the windmill on the Muqattam hill, just outside Cairo, allowed him to become a “public monastic” who transformed into a saintly figure well known for his strong prayers that brought healing and consolation to the people. As we learn from the works of Peter Brown and others, in the end sainthood is a joint effort in which the saint interacts with the public and thus becomes a model for religion. Recognizing saintly behavior is crucial for the saint’s message to reach the audience and transform the religious life of his or her day.
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To strengthen his spiritual efforts, Kyrillos relied on the teachings of seventh-century Syrian Nestorian ascetic Isaac of Nineveh, who practiced a rigorous spirituality in Iran’s southwestern desert. Living in a state of extreme solitude, after escaping the position of Bishop of Mosul (or Nineveh), Isaac wrote a treatise on the perfect Christian that by the ninth century was translated into Arabic, Coptic, and Greek. Isaac was not one of the famous Coptic desert fathers such as St. Anthony or St. Macarius whose writings were widely read in the Coptic Church. Neither had he lived before the time of Islam, as these fathers had. He provided a new model showing that even after the Muslim invasion the church was still vigorous.

More recently, the discovery of relics such as those of the famous Saint Samaan (tenth century) were found in 1992 during excavations at a church in Old Cairo.

By being a public monastic Kyrillos showed that this way of living could be followed by well-educated Copts. He also showed that it was equally feasible for devout Copts to follow a life of the spirit, in spite of the fact that visible models were lacking. Kyrillos showed the heart of religion, and by going public he invited others to follow. Although considered to be a thaumaturge, or miracle worker, observations from that time state that “Nothing was strange about his appearance, about his speech. But what he said conveyed meaning; the man was simple and deep but all natural.” Kyrillos did not fly in the air or perform miracles in public; things happened naturally–almost as if they were to be expected.
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Practicing his lifestyle in public imitated the way most hermits had lived in the early centuries. They had not been separated from the world but were in constant interaction with visitors who came to seek their advice and blessing. As Coptologist Chrisy Koutsifou has pointed out, some hermits expected to be visited, and some, when leaving their dwelling, left a message behind telling the visitors when they would be back.”


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