When I signed up for Term in the Middle East, many members of my Catholic family posed the following question to me: how will you manage your faith abroad? After all, I was about to step into a world filled with radical Islam, disdain for Western society and religious systems, and streets lined with mosques instead of cathedrals. Some family members still send me emails littered with daily bible quotes, a step we had decided on before I left to keep me grounded in a part of the world where I wouldn’t have access to my faith.
Boy, were we wrong.
The members of TIME make up a radical range of religious backgrounds.We are Protestant, Catholic, atheist, agnostic. And on this trip, each and every one of us has been asked to question our belief systems in some capacity. And while we didn’t get the cumulative trip to Israel we had longed for, our capacity for religious growth and education was certainly fulfilled.
The many things about religion that I have learned on this trip are not limited to the history and religious rituals associated with Islam (as I had originally expected). Instead, I’ve encountered an extensive history of the growth of Christianity (and Judaism) in the non-West, made unmistakable connections between the religions of the book (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) and ancient pre-history ritual tradition, and, most importantly, learned that faith is a fluid entity that can grow and thrive without the presence of a chapel. I’ve walked the streets of Ephesus, the recipient of Paul’s epistle and the place he spent extensive time. I’ve knelt in the pilgrimage site of the home of the Virgin Mary. I attended Catholic Mass twice in Istanbul, with a few hundred other followers, very obviously from extremely different walks of life. I’ve looked upon the beautiful mosaics of Christ’s Church in Chora and the Hagia Sophia in the same city, monuments to a far-reaching Christian Byzantine empire. I’ve stood outside the oldest synagogue in Cairo, where Moses was reputedly pulled from the bull rushes of the Nile into the arms of Pharaoh’s daughter. I’ve studied the developments of religious freedoms in Morocco, watched first-hand protests in Egypt that are fighting to ensure this same religious freedom in the new constitution. I’ve seen ancient pilgrimage sites, but I’ve also been subjected to to the continuing moral and political complications that are being questioned in the region today.
Most recently, our group spent a lot of time learning about Coptic Christianity in Cairo and Alexandria. We visited two monasteries in Wadi Al Natrun during our excursion to Alexandria, and were given private tours by very kind and very pious monks at each location, who helped us delve into the rich history of the church.
The origins of the church date back to the apostle Mark (the namesake and reputed writer of the oldest gospel) who evangelized in Egypt right after the death of Christ. The church developed as part of the Eastern Orthodox family of churches until the Council of Chalcedon in 421 B.C. when they split into two distinct churches following a discussion of the true definition of the nature of Christ (Coptic Christians, like Roman Catholics and many protestants, recognize Jesus Christ as two entities – human and divine, whereas Eastern Orthodox faiths tend to recognize Jesus as a single mystical entity that is both human and divine and outside of human comprehension). There are many branches of the church in Egypt (including protestant copts and a second, much smaller orthodox church), but the majority of Egyptian Copts belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria which is led by the Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa and the Holy See of Saint Mark, Pope Theodorus II, who was only recently elected on November 4th of this year. Today, approximately ten percent of all Egyptians consider themselves members of the church.
Wandering around the larger of the two monasteries we visited, the Monastery of Saint Phisoy, I was struck by how simple and familiar the Coptic monastic lifestyle was to many things I had encountered in my own Roman Catholic upbringing. When I was young, my grandmother, sister and I would travel to the convent of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato where my great aunt had been a nun. We would go on retreats, and I recall how surprised I was at how normal life felt there. I was struck with this same realization as I toured the monastery. The monk leading our tour cracked jokes and high fived his friends as we toured the facilities, but the moment we entered the sacred space where the body of Saint Phisoy was laid to rest, I recognized the extreme devotion he had to his faith, an overwhelming moment detailing the strength of personal faith.
We peeked into a monastic cell, visited the medieval dining quarters of the monks, learned how to (sort of) read and sing verses of the Coptic bible. At the end of our tour, we visited the tomb of the previous Coptic Pope Shenouda III, an elaborate pilgrimage site filled with hundreds of relics and many faithful worshipers of all ages. We did similar things at the Syrian Monastery, just a few miles Northwest of the Monastery of Saint Phisoy, and also we able to see the Tree of Saint Ephrem, which grew from the staff of the saint when he laid it on the ground during his first miraculous meeting with St. Phisoy (miraculous because, while neither spoke the same language, they were able to communicate through the divine powers of God). Manuscripts from this monastery have given way to significant advancements in understanding the ancient languages of Syria.
Many of us also spent a significant amount of time wandering through the Coptic Museum in Cairo upon our return to the city after excursion. The museum was filled with thousands of artifacts and artwork that trace the history of religion in Egypt from ancient times to modern Coptic Christianity, including the development of the current coptic cross from the Ancient Egyptian ankh symbol. Also included in the museum are many religious relics and beautifully painted icons. In this same area of Cairo (called Coptic Cairo), we were able to visit two coptic churches. The first, The Hanging Church (real name: St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, nicknamed due to it’s unusual architectural style built above the entrance to the old Babylon Fortress), is the most famous coptic church in Cairo, and has throughout history often been the seat of the Holy See (despite the official capital of the church being in Alexandria).
We also were fortunate enough to visit the Church of Saint Barbara, which is located inside the Babylon Fortress (where some say the holy family stayed during part of their flight to Egypt). We walked in during a mass (not a typical weekend mass, which can gather thousands of followers, but a simple small, weekday service), and were able to sit for a moment and take in the experience. I recognized so many connections between my own religious rituals and the ones being practiced in front of me that I almost, for a moment, felt greatly comforted and completely at ease, almost as if I was home.
The beauty in all of this, of course, is that these were not the only time I felt safe and religiously secure during my trip. It did not take a trip to a Christian monastery to make me feel comfortable. While visiting many Islamic mosques and Jewish synagogues, even walking down the street and watching a man pray on the sidewalk, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm. I cannot, of course, speak for everyone in my group, but I can speak for myself and what I have learned. Religion, and faith, for that matter, is not stationary. While being in a foreign country and experiencing the religiosity of others, I can still learn about my own faith, challenge it, question it, and ultimately grow in it.