Abouna Matta Al-Meskeen
1919 – 2006
(Father Matthew the Poor)
The saintly spiritual father of Egypt’s St Macarius Monastery (Abu Maqar), the hegomen Matta Al-Meskeen (Matthew the Poor); Coptic monk, Christian thinker and great scholar, has departed to heavenly glory, aged 87. His death followed a short illness in which he was hospitalized for four weeks.
Abouna Matta’s body was taken from the hospital to his monastery in Wadi Al-Natroun, in the western desert of Egypt, shortly after midnight on the 8th of June, 2006. The body was taken to the monastery’s main church at dawn, in which all monks had gathered for their daily praise and holy mass. Following the mass, the superintendent of the monastery led prayers for the departed father, and at the conclusion, each monk proceeded in turn to kiss the saintly body. After a procession of the church to commemorate the resurrection and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, the body of Abouna Matta was laid to rest in a cave chosen by the father four years before his death.
His reviving influence upon Coptic monasticism is felt worldwide. He carried the torch of spiritual and theological enlightenment in the church by combining fundamental teachings with the needs of modern thinking. By doing this he transformed the monastic life from that of simple, undereducated and less-religious worshippers to a life for the more serious seekers of the truth.
His life in brief:
* Born, Yousef Iskandar, in Banha a town 45km north of Cairo in 1919.
* He graduated with a degree in pharmacy in 1943. He worked as a pharmacist till 1948. He owned a pharmacy in Damanhur.
* Listening to the Lord’s voice, he sold everything he owned, and, except for the price of a one way ticket to the monastery, he distributed his wealth amongst the poor.
* On August 10, 1948, he became a monk in the monastery of his choice, the poorest of them all, the monastery of Anba Samuel in Upper Egypt.
* He spent his nights reading the Bible with great diligence until morning prayers. At Anba Samuel he started writing his first book Orthodox Prayer Life.
* His health deteriorated because of the severe poverty at the monastery of Anba Samuel.
* He was forced to move to El-Surian Monastery in Wadi Al-Natroun in 1951. There he was ordained a priest against his will.
* He lived a solitary life at a fair distance from the monastery. After two years, Abouna Matta was asked to be the spiritual father of the monastery's monks particularly the young among them.
* He became around that time the founder of the revival of Coptic monastic life. He returned monasticism to its glorious days by reviving the spirit of the great fathers of the desert, becoming a leading example of the highest level, and showing great talent in matters of fatherhood and planning—things that were missed since the days of fourth century fathers. This attracted many educated Christian youths around him to be given the right guidance in a modern monastic community.
* There, at El-Surian, he finished his first book, Orthodox Prayer Life, first published in 1952 and again in 1968 with corrections and additions. Orthodox Prayer Life was later translated into French (1977), Italian (1998), and in English (2002).
* In 1954 Pope Anba Yousab II, Patriarch of Alexandria, appointed him a deputy on the Parish of Alexandria after elevating his clerical rank to hegoumen. Abouna Matta stayed in this position for two years. On leaving he left behind a deep spiritual impression on many among the clergy of the region and the Christian community at large still felt until the present day.
* At the beginning of 1955 he chose to return to the life of serenity in the desert, returning to El-Surian Monastery.
* In mid-1956, he left El-Surian Monastery and returned to the monastery of Anba Samuel, seeking greater solitude. His new disciples among the monks accompanied him. There he stayed for three years. Around that time he was put forward as a candidate for Pope of the Coptic church for the first time.
* In 1959 he returned to El-Surian after receiving instructions from the new Patriarch, Pope Kyrillos VI, but soon after he preferred a life beyond the fences of the monastery, preserving monasticism in its purest form.
* With his disciples, 11 in total, he moved deep into the desert of Wadi Al-Rayan (1960-1969), at a distance of 50km from the nearest town in the Fayoum province in Upper Egypt.
* There they lived in caves, natural or engraved by their own hands, a style of life typical to that of the first great fathers of the Egyptian deserts, St Anthony the Great, St Pachomius the Father of cenobitic (communion) life and St Macarius the great. For 10 years Abouna Matta and his fellow monks stayed there bearing the harshness of elements and living on necessities.
* Despite their isolation from the world they increased in number.
* In 1969, Pope Kyrillos called Abouna Matta and his disciple monks to move to the monastery of Abu Maqar (St. Macarius), situated halfway between Cairo and Alexandria in Wadi El-Natroun. Upon arrival, the monks found the fourth century monastery in ruin. It was occupied by only five elderly and sick monks, and the structures within the monastery were at the point of collapse.
* From that time, a great revival within the monastery occurred, both in spirit and in construction. Today, in 2006, there are 130 monks and the area of the monastery is six times the original size. Abu Maqar is a pilgrimage for many from all over the world.
* The monks under Abouna Matta’s guidance learnt to work for their needs, rather than living an idyllic life.
* At Abu Maqar Abouna Matta penned many books that are still in use by the Christians in Egypt and in the Middle East and benefited greatly from them. He wrote 180 books, in addition to many journal articles (about 300).
* In 1988, he started writing a series of academic interpretations of certain books of the Bible. These books are each 500-800 pages in length. In addition to this, he wrote large volumes on The Life and Times of St Athanasius (800 pages), Monasticism during the time of St Macarius (800 pages), The Eucharist (700 pages), and on The Life of St Paul. Some of these books have been translated into English, French, German, Italian, Russian, Greek, Spanish, Dutch and Polish.
* Even on his death bed, Abouna Matta El-Meskeen, at the age of 87, kept writing. The last of his works is a series of booklets titled With Christ. These are works of contemplation on the gospels, and will soon appear in Arabic and in English.