Contemporary Coptic Nuns

Pieternella van Doorn-Harder “Contemporary Coptic Nuns“ [University of South Carolina Press, 1995]
“Contemporary Coptic Nuns” reveals a world rarely seen by outsiders – the world of the nuns who worship and serve as part of the largest community of indigenous Christians in the Middle East. One of the few people unaffiliated with the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church to observe these women, Pieternella van Doorn-Harder tells about the nuns who eschew secular pursuits to devote their lives to this extraordinarily conservative faith. Through the actions of leading Coptic women, van Doorn-Harder portrays their rich traditions and beliefs, and she examines the forces that compel these women to embrace such a demanding monastic lifestyle.
In depicting the nuns’ daily lives, van Doorn-Harder describes their work, their role in the Coptic resurgence, their influence on the laity, and their position in the larger Islamic society. In presenting the potency of their spiritual lives, she attests to the vigor of their prayer, fasting, and devotions as well as to the abundance of their spiritual gifts, which include clairvoyance, intercession, and healing. Through van Doorn-Harder’s compelling portrayal, the Coptic nuns emerge as women who enthusiastically welcome their increased opportunities for service and leadership yet remain anchored to orthodox traditions and Egyptian culture.
T76-1150275 - © - Dave Stamboulis
““Van Doorn-Harder is clearly an expert in Coptic matters. She has taken on the formidable culture of one brand of monasticism and emerged with insight and appreciation. Van Doorn-Harder’s academic rigor sets her in critical solidarity with the subjects of her study and their ecclesiastical institutions. Her direct writing style joined with life experience sets a sympathetic tone for a text whose dissertational structure might otherwise have proven dull and pedantic. She aims at highlighting and describing how contemporary contemplative and active Coptic nuns have developed their place in their church and in the context of modern Islamic Egypt. The roots of this monastic tradition are found in the lives of the earliest monks, Antony (251-356) and Pachomius (292-346). The author points out without ambiguity that there is little written history of Egyptian convents, except for scant references to the twelfth century. She concludes that this “heritage is more or less confined to the centuries prior to the Arab invasion. What came after the invasion remains rather opaque” (p. 33).”
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See also Nelly van Doorn-Harder (Valparaiso University) “Imagined Antiquity: Coptic Nuns Living Between Past Ideals and Present Realities”, a paper given at “Living for Eternity: The White Monastery and its Neighbourhood. Proceedings of a Symposium at the University of Minnesota”. Minneapolis, March 6 – 9. 2003. Available on-line at
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“Monastic life for Coptic Orthodox nuns gained popularity during the 1960s and has developed into one of the strongest institutions for women in the Coptic Orthodox Church today. It provides possibilities for women to hold respected, authoritative positions within the Church. Looking for models of spirituality and holiness, the twentieth century nuns had to turn to the hagiographies of women in the early Christian. Coptic Orthodox nuns in Egypt have a long history to look back on. Their experiences derive from an environment that daily presents multiple dichotomies. For each circumstance, the nuns have to settle their framework of symbols that can apply to a wide range of experiences from daily chores to visionary experiences. Being women in Egypt they appropriate and adapt the symbols available from the Muslim-Christian environment, the male oriented church hierarchy, and the male-dominated society. Their trump card, however, remains themes and figures from pre-Islamic antiquity that can be imitated, or serve as frame of reference in times of conflict.
Traditionally far more places were available to men than to women to pursue the contemplative life. Active vocations for women such as the deaconesses of the early Church had disappeared over time. Copts speculate that this was due to the Islamization of Egypt that prevented women from moving around freely. Inspired by the revitalization of their Church, women who wanted to pursue an active vocation, in 1965 started the community of the Daughters of St. Mary (Banat Maryam) in Beni Suef. The idea was to “find a synthesis between the rules and examples of the early church and modern life.”
daughters of st mary
For the Daughters of St Mary, see further and

The social, cultural and political environment has changed many times during the long existence of the Coptic Church, yet the early models remain the ideal for those heeding the call to devote their lives to God. As research in church history, art and archeology is steadily developing, Coptic leaders and scholars realize that due to the Arab invasion in 641,
Copts have lost track of many facts and data available from those early centuries. Much of what is considered “antiquity,” in fact has been remade into Coptic tradition. But in essence, it is the spirituality of early Christianity; of the time of the saints and martyrs and their fervent love for God that Copts seek to recapture. That essence could be found in the desert. Thus it is the monastic revival that has become the heart of the church renaissance as the monasteries produce theologians, priests and bishops while the convents offer the Coptic community women who serve as spiritual guides, social counselors and provide general support especially for women.
For women, withdrawal into the desert was always deemed too dangerous and their convents were based in the city or in the vicinity of a monastery for men. Yet they equally do cling to the ideal of withdrawal into the solitude of the desert. Most monasteries were never really completely isolated from the world as monks sold their products in order to have a minimum of sustenance. The ideal of the isolated monastic, however, is reproduced until today in the advice that St. Macarius the Egyptian gave to the monks of Scetis: to leave when they would start to see trees and boys…
The point here is that the stories of women still have to be rediscovered. As in the rest of the world, Coptic history is written by men. Women who want to shift the paradigm to women saints and martyrs have to do this research themselves. Few nuns are equipped to do this. And it is not their priority. Similar to monks and lay Copts, nuns believe that in modern times the revival of the era of the saints is in their spirituality, not in the mode of living of the saints from antiquity. Asceticism has replaced a violent death as a sacrifice of one’s life for Christ. According to Father Malaty, St. Athanasius called this “the martyrdom of conscience.” Every Copt who obeys God’s commandments and strives to purify the heart can be considered a martyr in life and words. This motto has let to intensified practices of prayer and fasting among all Copts….
Contemplative nuns, in spite of their high religious position will always be measured according to the stereotypes that prevail in their surrounding society. Subconsciously the Coptic clergy applies to Christian women the judgments found among Muslims. When, for example, discussing the absence of leadership roles for women in the Coptic Church, leaders
such as Father Matta el-Meskeen and Pope Shenouda III refer to the Bible, and to the fact that none of the twelve apostles were women and to woman’s impurity during her monthly menses, which prevents her from active duties in the altar. There are actually few books available about this topic. The most sophisticated is still Father Matta El-Meskeen’s “Women. Their rights and obligations in social and religious life in the early Church” (1984) . What is interesting is that they never refer to the canons concerning women’s restrictions issued by early Fathers such as Dionysius of Alexandria (died 264) and Timothy I (died 384).
matthew the poor
Referring to the Bible, Father Matta El-Meskeen states that women are equal to men and that through the work of Christ they received “true rights for the first time in history, and from God Himself,.. becoming equal to men in all matters related to God.” The book mentions many examples of outstanding women of faith, but one of Father Matta’s main points is that problems arise when women assume functions that are beyond their rights. In fact Father Matta describes these as interfering with the activities of men. For example, when women have or had a vision during church service, they should wait to the end and entrust it to the priest after all have left. They are not to speak up, neither should they stand out. Father Matta then turns to woman’s real call in life: “to be a support and helper to man.” He also reasons about humans’ natural origins, division of tasks, and the fact that it harms future children when women take up work in noisy and polluted environments such as factories….
As for the nuns, they are social martyrs who have sacrificed their life in the world for an existence of worship and total dedication to the rules of the Church. Their acts of resistance have to take place in total conformity with Church policies lest they be accused of disobediance or of hubris. It is precisely the ancient Coptic tradition that provides valid ways out of this conundrum; its symbols and figures provide the nuns with strategies to obey in resistance, ultimately reaching their goals. In order to gain a stronger position, the nuns opt for male figures rather than spending (perhaps wasted) energy on the many female ascetics, saints and martyrs who equally suffered to build the fundament of the Coptic Orthodox Church. And whether or not the newly developing rational Coptic mind agrees with it, the reality of the nuns remains top heavy with the supernatural, just as they imagine it to have been in antiquity when the struggle was on against what was then a pagan environment filled with demons.”

See also
Pieternella van Doorn-Harder teaches Islamic studies and Arabic at Duta Wacana University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. From 1986 through 1991, van Doorn-Harder served as director of an ecumenical refugee project in Cairo, Egypt—a position that enabled her to explore the world of religious Christian women in Egypt.

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