Interesting recent find. I pilfered this from a LISTSERV so I’m not certain of the source… I think it is a NY Times article…
September 28, 2005
Ever Since A.D. 270, the Need to Get Away From It All
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
ZAFARANA, Egypt – Men have retreated to the desert for centuries in search of God, drawn by the quiet and the isolation, by a feeling of divine presence in the barren landscape.
The Rev. Maximous Elantony was one of those men drawn to the desert in search of a relationship with God. But he could hardly believe it when he recently helped to discover some of the earliest physical evidence of Christians who made that quest as well.
Follow Father Maximous inside the 15th-century Apostle Church in the desert near the Red Sea and see history in the torn-up floor. Frozen in time, hidden for hundreds of years beneath one church, and then another, are what Egyptian antiquity officials say are the oldest monastic cells ever discovered, dating to the fourth century. They are so well preserved it is as if someone just lifted off the roof.
“When you live in a quiet place, like a cell, and you are not busy with anything but God, you start to hear yourself and to see yourself,” Father Maximous said during a recent tour of the unearthed cells. “We only want to be busy with God, to hear God, to see God.”
Father Maximous is a Coptic monk who for 27 years has made his home inside the walls of St. Anthony’s Monastery, a fortress of Christianity 100 miles southeast of Cairo that is generally considered the birthplace of Christian monastic life.
During the third century, there were Christians who sought piety through abstention and self-denial. But St. Anthony is credited with taking those practices a step further when he went to live in a cave in the mountains of the desert, not far from the monastery that bears
his name, around the year 270.
The monastery is breathtaking, two tall towers rising up from the sand, each topped with the Coptic cross, dotted with churches and cells for 110 monks. But it is the green that is so striking, the green that historians say drew Anthony, the green palm trees that signal the presence of water. It is easy to feel a divine spirit where water emerges from the desert floor.
And so the men who sought to live like St. Anthony built cells in the ravines of a craggy, bare mountain with all they needed to survive, and with quiet. They made their cells of bricks and plaster, durable but lost over the years, buried beneath Apostle Church.
Father Maximous is deeply interested in the past and is busy working with crews that have dug and scratched away at layers in every corner of the monastery. He said he knew that his predecessors used to build basins into the floor of their churches for what he called a “water mass.” So he began looking. Working with contractors, and with the help of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, he found one basin, and then, mysteriously, a second.
The second was a bit deeper down than the first, and in the wrong position to have been part of Apostle Church. “The direction of this one could not be for this church,” he said, pointing at the second basin.
So they kept digging, pulling away flooring and stone until they uncovered the foundation of an 8th-century church beneath the floor of the 15th-century church. So they kept digging, and beneath that found a stone with a Coptic inscription: “Forgive me Savior. Forgive me Lord,” is roughly what it said. Father Maximous tried to take the stone out of the ground, but it would not budge. So they kept digging.
“This was a complete surprise,” Father Maximous said pointing at the monastic cells.
In the corner of one is a brick stove that was used for cooking. Another was used for prayer. The cells told a story of monks who lived together, with several people in one cell. There was also a basin that was used to soak palm fronds, which they used for weaving things like mats and baskets.
Exploring the past tends to inspire reflection on the present, and as Father Maximous spoke about the cells he helped find, he commented on how much life has changed for Coptic monks in Egypt. The struggle back then was to avoid being killed by Bedouins roaming the desert. Today it is to hold onto the solitude that drew the monks here in the
“To be a monk is to let yourself free of everything, to connect yourself only with God,” he said, adding that today’s monks are nevertheless a different breed.
He said the younger monks wanted access to e-mail, and he himself carries a fancy cellphone. They want suitable toilets, too. “Those are for modern monks,” he said, a bit condescendingly as he pointed to newer housing on the monastery grounds.
But they also get tourists and pilgrims, busloads in the summer, who traipse through the monastery, taking pictures, making noise. The monastery, once sealed shut with no gate at all, is now open for tours daily, and monks are the tour guides. For a time, tourists were allowed to spend the night, but that was a bit much for the monks. So starting three years ago, all tourists were required to leave by 6 p.m.
Even now, Father Maximous is happy to show off the monastery’s historic sites, but will not show the cells the monks are actually living in. He appears reluctant to take visitors into the library, where there are 2,300 ancient manuscripts, and steps in only after
banging repeatedly on the door so that anyone who wishes to can hide or leave.
Some of the older monks are so put off by the tourists that they take food and head into the mountains to spend the day in a cave, returning only after the crowds have left.
Still, Father Maximous has a plan for Apostle Church that is certain to attract even more tourists. He wants to restore the monastic cells, then cover then over with a glass floor so the church may once again be used for prayer without burying the historic evidence of
early monastic life.
“We are trying to find a balance between our spiritual life,” he said, “and the needs of the people.”