The Monastery of St. Macarius
at Scetis (Wadi Natrun)
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  • The Monastery of St. Macarius the Great at Scetis (Wadi Natrun) History of the Monastery

    The reconstruction of the monastery

    The discovery of the relics of St. John the Baptist and Elisha the Prophet

  • Income

  • Agriculture and stock firming

  • The Rule of the monastery

  • The monk's Day

  • The Union of Work with prayer

  • The Common Meal and other gatherings of the community

  • The Eucharistic Liturgy

  • The Place of the Solitary Life in our Community

  • Our Message to the World

  • The Monastery and Christian Unity
     

  • History of the Monastery
    The Monastery of St. Macarius lies in Wadi Natrun, the ancient Scetis, 92 kilometers from Cairo on the western side of the desert road to Alexandria. It was founded in 360 A.D. by St. Macarius the Egyptian, who. was spiritual father to more than four thousand monks of different nationalities-Egyptians, Greeks, Ethiopians, Armenians, Nubians, Asians, Palestinians, Italians, Gauls and Span-lards. There were among them men of letters and philosophers, and members of the aristocracy of the time, along with simple illiterate peasants. From the fourth century up to the present day the monastery has been continuously inhabited by monks. [(1) Fr. Matta el-Meskeen has written a major work (in Arabic) on the history and archeology of the Monastery of St. Macarius entitled "Coptic Monasticism in the time of St. Macarius" Cain, 1972, 880 pp.]

    In 1969 the monastery entered an era of restoration, both spiritually and architecturally, with the arrival of twelve monks with their spiritual director, Fr. Matta el-Meskeen. These monks had spent the previous ten years living together entirely isolated from the world, in caves in the desert area known as Wadi el-Rayyan, about 50 kilo-metres south of Fayyum. There they had lived the monastic life in the fullest sense, in the spirit of the desert fathers, with that same simplicity and the same total deprivation of all the goods and cares of this world, the same deep sense of the divine love, and the same complete confidence in divine providence in the midst of the most austere natural environment and the dangers of the desert. For these twelve monks, this was a time when they were bonded together in the crucible of the divine love, uniting them in Christ, in the spirit of the Gospel.

    It was the late Patriarch Cyril vi who in 1969 ordered this group of monks to leave Wadi el-Rayyan and go to the Monastery of St. Macarius to restore it. The patriarch received them, blessed them, assured them of his prayers and asked God to grant their spiritual father grace that the desert might bloom again and become the home of thousands of hermits. At that time only six aged monks were living in the monastery and its historic buildings were on the point of collapse. The new monks were warmly received by the abbot of the monastery, Bishop Michael, Metropolitan of Assiut, who through his wisdom and humility was able to create an atmosphere favourable to the renewal they hoped for.

    At the present time, under the patriarch Shenouda III, who is himself busily engaged in restoring the two monasteries of St. Bishoy and Baramos, and after fourteen years of constant activity both in reconstruction and spiritual renewal, the monastic community numbers about one hundred monks. Most of them are university graduates in such diverse fields as agriculture, medicine, veterinary medicine, education, pharmacology and engineering, and have had job experience before entering the monastery. The monks live in strong spiritual unity, according to the spirit of the Gospel, practising brotherly low and the unceasing prayer of the heart. They are all directed by the same spiritual father who watches over the unity of the spirit of the monastery. The renewal is also revealed in the diligent prayer of the daily office and other liturgical services, for it is the aim of the monks to revive in the Church the spirit of the first centuries of Christianity, both by their rule of life and by conscientious study.

    The reconstruction of the monastery

    The new monastery buildings, designed and constructed by the monks qualified in these fields, are now nearing completion. They include more than 150 cells (each comprising a room for prayer and study, a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and small balcony), a large refectory where the monks gather daily to share an agape meal, a new library with space for several thousand volumes, and a spacious guest house comprising several reception rooms and a number of single rooms for retreatants and other guests. Buildings to house various utilities have also been constructed, including a kitchen, bakery, barns, garages and a repair-shop. The new buildings occupy an area of ten acres, six times that covered by the old monastery.

    In addition, the historic buildings in the monastery have been care-fully restored. This difficult and delicate task has been supervised by prominent archeologists [Drs. Gamal Mehriz, Gamal Mokhtar, Abdel Rahman Abdel Tawwab and Zaki Iskandar, and the German archeologist Dr. Grossmann.] under the auspices of the Department of Antiquities. These specialists have expressed their admiration for the way in which the archeological work has been carried out by the monks, who, under their guidance, have restored and fortified the historic buildings, while at the same time demolishing the recent and dilapidated constructions, which encroached upon and even covered the ancient monuments. The old toilets in particular needed to be removed, since their inefficient drainage system was liable to cause real damage.

    The discovery of the relics of St. John the Baptist and Elisha the Prophet

    During the restoration of the big Church of St. Macarius, the crypt of St. John the Baptist and Elisha the Prophet was discovered below the northern wall of the church, in accordance with the site mentioned in manuscripts from the 11th & 16th centuries found in the library of the monastery. This is also confirmed by the ecclesiastical tradition of our Coptic Church. The relies were then gathered in a special reliquary and placed before the sanctuary of St. John the Baptist in the church of St. Macarius. A detailed account of this discovery and an assessment of the authenticity of the relies have been published by the monastery.

    Income

    Up to the present time the community has spent about 5 million Egyptian pounds on restoration and construction. The monastery has no regular source of income and no bank account. We do not sollicit donations, publicize the monastery's financial needs or receive financial support from any organization. And yet, when the monastery's needs are put before God in our communal prayers, donations are received daily, miraculously meeting our needs exactly. The monks therefore have no doubt that God has undertaken responsibility for this enormous work, not only in the spiritual, but also in the material realm.

     Agriculture and stock firming

    The monks have been reclaiming and cultivating the desert land around the monastery since 1975. First they planted fig and olive trees, varieties of fodder crops and other crops, especially water melons. Large farm buildings have been constructed one kilometre to the north of the monastery to house cows, buffalo, sheep and poultry. The Egyptian government has recognized the importance of the work of the monks in these areas, for the monastery is thus participating in solving the country's food supply problems. Particular appreciation has been expressed for our achievements in introducing and adapting to Egyptian conditions new strains of livestock, poultry and crops.

    Particularly noteworthy is a new type of fodder crop (fodder beet), which the monks have cultivated for the first time in Egypt. This experiment holds promise of relieving problems of stockfarming once it is established throughout the country. In gratitude for this pioneer work, President Sadat donated to the monastery in 1978 a thousand feddans of desert land, two tractors and a new well, drilled to obtain sub-soil water, which was more important than the three already in use.

    The Rule of the monastery

    The single requirement the spiritual father lays down for the acceptance of a postulant is that he should have sensed within his heart, even though it be only once, a feeling of love for God, for it is the love of God which unites and rules our community day by day. We have no other law than submission to the will of God through loving Him. And as the will of God is declared principally in the Bible, attention to Gods Word, in both the Old and New Testaments, has become our main work and the source from which we continually satisfy our thirst for Him and nourish our love towards all mankind.

    The only law of the monastery is love, without rules or limitations, as it was revealed to us on the cross. This love is at once the motive and aim of all our actions, efforts and sacrifices, and most of the monks have acquired a profound experience of the divine love.

    The spiritual father, who has spent 35 years in the monastic life, is the director of the whole community and of each monk individually. It is he who helps each one of us discern the plan of God for his life, and it is he who, as it were, takes the place of a monastic rule. He is a living rule which is adapted to each life, to each monk, to each vocation, and which is itself constantly renewed, progressing with each monk along the path that leads to God. The spiritual father is himself being continually renewed in his inner life, and this renewal overflows to the whole community. We are not guided by predetermined principles, but by the Spirit of God in us and especially in the spiritual father, who guides us. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (IICor. 3:17). The aim of the spiritual father is first to live according to the Spirit himself, through inner illumination, taking care to maintain conformity with the tradition of the early Fathers of the Church and the monastic life. He then leaves to the Lord the task of communicating this inward experience to his spiritual sons by a special grace, so that they too may live in the inner liberty of the Spirit. He is therefore careful never to impose his own personality, but to leave each man to develop freely in his own vocation, fulfilling his own spiritual character. Any perceptive visitor notices the united spirit of all the monks as well as the clear personality of each. In this way spiritual men are formed among us, who have acquired an experience of God and know how to be spontaneously led by the inner light of the Spirit. It is men of this kind that the world needs.

    We have no rules of penance or set methods of chastisement, for love is more effective than any disciplinary measure. Our sense of being pilgrims in the world makes it easy for us to submit to each other out of love for Christ.

    The monk's Day

    We have no very precise timetable; each monk arranges most of his own time under the guidance of the spiritual father. But a bell wakes us at three in the morning for private devotions, each monk in his own cell saying the midnight office, malting prostrations and saying personal prayers. A second bell at four oclock summons us to the church where we chant together in Coptic the midnight hymns of praise. These are mostly of biblical canticles (Ex. 15, Ps. 135, Dn. 3, Ps. 148-150) in praise of God, the Creator and Saviour of the universe.  These are the most beautiful moments of the day in the monastery. We have taken great care to perfect our liturgical chanting and have been helped by the oldest and most authoritative canters in the Coptic Church.

    We attain such harmony in the singing of these melodies that our voices are blended together, expressing the unity of our spirits. We do indeed sing the praise of the Lord with one heart and one voice (Rom. 15:6). All the monks are aware that by participating in this daily worship and sharing the common meal we receive a daily foretaste of the blessedness of the Kingdom to come. At about six oclock this service of praise ends and we say matins.

    The Union of Work with prayer

    After matins each monk takes up the task assigned to him by the spiritual father, which usually corresponds with the profession he followed in the world, while his spirit is uplifted by the atmosphere of worship in which he has spent the first few hours of the day in church. In this way the monks begin to experience the mysterious unity that can exist between work and the worship of God, and with perseverence their work is spontaneously transformed from a source of fatigue, a burden and a curse (You will eat your bread through the sweat of your brow), into an expression of unceasing praise of God and love for the brethren.

    All the work of the monastery thus becomes a spiritual activity, whether it be on the scaffolding around the buildings, in the machine shop, the carpenter's shop, the forge, the fields, the farm, the guest house, the dispensary or the enormous kitchen.) [Cf. Zech. 14:20-21 And the pots in the house of the Lord shall be as the bowls before the altar, and every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord of Hosts, so that all who sacrifice may cane and take of them and boil the flesh of the sacrifice in them. Thus the mat mundane daily last, such as caking, becomes a sacred work, and the whole monastery is transfigured into the Temple of the Lord. Are we not living in the messianic times proclaimed by Zechariah?] This latter caters for the labourers [All our labourers receive, apart from their wages, fm accommodation, food, clothing and medical care. we also provide them with religions, moral and vocational training.], who may number up to four hundred, as well as for our visitors, of whom there may be about fifty on normal days, or up to a thousand on holidays.

    The monastery dispensary is staffed by several of our monkstwo qualified physicians, an ophthalmologist, a dentist and several pharmacists. It serves the labourers and visitors, as well as the monks, providing all kinds of medical care and treatment.

    All these activities are carried out under the attentive concern of the spiritual father, who has a wide practical and theoretical knowledge of these different fields, as well as in how to direct the labourers. He gives constant advice, pointing out what needs to be done, criticizing and correcting, and exposing the spiritual faults revealed by the manner in which work is carried out. Thus the practical things of life become, for the monk, an indispensible means of learning, progressing, putting into practice the spiritual principles he has learned, becoming aware of his failings and correcting them. Labour, of ten even very hard labour, is a means the spiritual father chooses to detect spiritual weaknesses and correct them psychologically and spiritually, but we have come to understand that work itself and its success or failure are of no consequence to the spiritual father; his interest is always in the integrity, growth and' maturity of the spirit.

    We never divide the material and spiritual. Our whole life, even in its most material details, must contribute towards the spiritual progress of each monk and the whole community towards the worship of God, to equip the saints for~ the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:12). It is our deep conviction that we attain our heavenly vocation through the carrying out of these commonplace tasks on earth.

    This unity between the material and the spiritual in our lives is an important principle in our spirituality, and is the reason why the spiritual fathers direction is not restricted to the inner life, but extends to every detail of material, psychological and physical life. It is also the reason why we have no strict timetable separating times for prayer from times for work. However diverse our occupations during the day, we believe that we all have before us one essential task to which we must constantly address ourselves, whether we be at work, in our cells or in church, and that is to offer ourselves up as a sacrifice of love to the Lord Jesus, lifting up our hearts in unceasing prayer, and remaining continuously at peace, even in the midst of hard work, with the peace of Christ that passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7).

    A visitor, seeing the monks at work, is quite unable to distinguish between the beginners and those who have been long in the monastic life. Work unites them in an intimacy full of love and real humility. They move in harmony and interchange every task, whether great or small, without partiality.

    The Common Meal and other gatherings of the community

    At about mid-day we gather in the refectory to sing the ninth hour with its twelve psalms, and this is followed by the only meal of the day taken together. While we eat, the sayings of the Fathers are read to us. The evening meal, and of course the morning meal (for the weaker or sick brethren), are taken individually in the cells at the time and in the quantity directed by the spiritual father for each, according to his ability to fast and the amount of physical labour demanded of him. In this way our common life does not impede the personal life of anyone.

    From time to time the spiritual father calls us together for a time of spiritual instruction in the church. This meeting does not take place on  regular basis; it remains spontaneously dependent on the inspiration given by God to the spiritual father in response to the needs of the community.

    On Sunday evenings we meet for open prayer, when each expresses extemporaneously the movement of his heart. This is the time when we set before the Lord all the spiritual and material needs of our community. We believe that this prayer meeting is very important for keeping our community in the unity of the Spirit (Eph. 4:3).

    The Eucharistic Liturgy

    Following the tradition of the desert fathers, we celebrate the eucharistic liturgy only once a week, on Sunday morning. It begins with an office of praise at two o 'clock, ends a t about eight oclock and is followed by an agape meal. Our community is transformed by this celebration of the eucharist from a purely human gathering into the actualization of the Body of Christ. This is why the liturgy, for us, cannot be said by an individual, or even by a section of the community; it is essentially the meeting of the whole community, gathered together as the Church around the Lamb offered at His wedding feast (Rev. 19:9).

    The Place of the Solitary Life in our Community

    Although we live a community life, we believe that the monastic vocation is most fully realized in a life of solitude in the desert. When a monk is sufficiently mature to live alone, the spiritual father advises him to go out into the desert to live as a solitary, usually in a cave in the rock. Before this decisive step is taken, the spiritual father may allow certain monks to experience the sweetness of the solitary life for a limited period of time, either in a cave or in their own cell.

    Our Message to the World

    The monastery receives large numbers of Egyptian and foreign visitors, sometimes as many as a thousand in one day. Most are primarily seeking to receive a blessing from this place, which has been made sacred by the tears and prayers of generations of saints whose names are famous throughout the world. Who has not heard of Macarius the Great, Macarius of Alexandria, John the Short, Paphnutius, Isidore, Arsenius and Abba Moses, Paemen, Serapion, the elders of Scetis and so many others?

    Monks are made available to visitors, to listen to them, answer their questions and give spiritual guidance. Most of our visitors experience relief from their cares and problems as soon as they enter 'he monastery, for the great spiritual joy which they receive from this blessed place makes them able to overcome all that grieves them.

    Particularly during the summer vacation, the monastery offers to young people the opportunity of spending a few days on retreat in our community. They receive spiritual direction and guidance about their life in society without imposing any commitment to the monastery or a monastic pattern on their life.

    Special priority is given to priests, full-time lay workers and Sunday school teachers, who come to prepare themselves better to offer their lives to God in their different spheres of ministry.

    Through the writings of the spiritual father, which amount to more than seventy books and two hundred articles, the monastery is playing a significant role in the spiritual awakening of the Coptic Church. Our monthly magazine St. Mark is addressed especially to the spiritual needs of young people, and many of the spiritual fathers sermons have been recorded and are circulated on cassette tapes among Copts in Egypt and abroad. In 1978 the monastery installed a modern printing press which produces all our publications in Arabic and foreign languages. The few articles that have been translated into European languages have been warmly received in a variety of places.

    The monastery is characterized by a sincere openness to all men, of whatever religion or confession. We receive all our visitors, no matter what their religious conviction, with joy, warmth and graciousness, not out of a mistaken optimism, but in genuine and sincere love for each person. We offer to every visitor our hearts and our sincere friendship.

    The monastery maintains spiritual, academic and fraternal links with several monasteries abroad, including the monastery of Chevtogne in Belgium, Solesmes Abbey and the Monastery of the Transfiguration in France, Deir el-Harf in Lebanon and the Convent of $be Incarnation in England. Several monks from these monasteries have stayed with us for various periods of time.

    The monastery enjoys good relations with the various government departments and organizations. It is well-known that our monks have completed their military service commitments and many among us spent some time as officers or in the ranks. The political views of Fr. Matta el-Meskeen are widely respected for their integrity, humanity and seriousness. In his book Church and State, he declares that politics should be entirely separated from religion. Render unto Caeser that which is Caesers, and unto God that which is Cods (Mat. 22:21). In other writings such as Sectarianism and Extremism" he warns against the common tendency of minorities to be wrapped up in themselves and despise others.

    A monk is aware of his critical responsibility before a sinful world, a Church fallen- into division and decadence, the younger generation slipping further and further away from God. He considers himself a representative before God of a suffering world and so offers himself every day as a sacrifice, united with the sacrifice of Christ, for the salvation of the world. On the practical side, all the monks work towards furthering their education by serious study, so that they may be ready at any time to serve the Lord anywhere in any capacity that does not conflict with their monastic vocation.

     

    The Monastery and Christian Unity

    In our monastery we live out fully the unity of the Church in spirit and in truth, in anticipation of its visible attainment ecclesiastically. Through our genuine openness of heart and spirit to all men, no matter what their confession, it has become possible for us to see ourselves, or rather Christ, in others. For us, Christian unity is to live together in Christ by love. Then divisions collapse and differences disappear, and there is only the One Christ who gathers us all into His holy Person.

    Theological dialogue must take place, but we leave this to those who are called to it. For ourselves, we feel that the unity of the Church exists in Christ and that we therefore discover in Him the fulness of unity in the measure in which we are united to Him. If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation (II Cor. 5:17). And in this new creation there is no multiplicity but one new man (Eph. 2:15). Although we practise our Orthodox faith, and are aware of all the truth and spiritual riches it contains, we still recognize that in Christ there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all (Col. 3:11). While wounds in the Body of Christ exist, we would offer our lives daily in sacrifice for the reconciliation of the Churches.

    We have found in the religious life the best means of attaining union with Christ and hence the best way of fulfilling that new creation which gathers men of every nation, race, people and tongue (Rev. 7:9) into unity of spirit and heart. This has been a clear feature of the monastic life in Scetis since the beginning. The particular gift of St. Macarius was that, as a spiritual director, he was able to gather together men of conflicting temperaments, different social classes and diverse races. Among his spiritual sons were Abba Moses, a Nubian bandit, alongside Arsenius, a Roman philosopher and tutor to the children of the emperor, illiterate Egyptian peasants side by side with the princes Maximus and Domadius. And they all lived in perfect spiritual harmony through the great spirit of love which was the life breath of St. Macarius, and was passed on by him to contemporaries and then to his spiritual heirs up to our own time.

    It is our hope that the desert of Scetis will become once more the birth place of good will, reconciliation and unity between all the peoples on earth in Christ Jesus.

 
This site is issued by the Monastery of St Macarius the Great at Scetis