“Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common…so continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart” (Acts 2:44)
There are some people who will forever leave an imprint and stamp on my soul … Tasonee is one of them.
I’ve been asked several times how my recent trip to Egypt was and was asked to share my experiences. And so here I am.
It is a bit lengthy — but I hope this personal journal will touch and inspire the reader. (At the bottom there are a few pictures too :))
The beginning of my trip was what I consider a fulfilment of God’s gracious love to me – in making the way to visit the monastery of St. Antony, which I longed to visit, especially since I was not able to during my trip to Egypt last year. It was a beautiful spent day and am so grateful I was able to visit the cave of St. Antony once again.
After a few days, I visited Alexandria, which was the main purpose of my trip among others. The majority of my time was spent at the house of the late Fr. Bishoy Kamel and Tasonee Angel Basili’s house. For the sake of time, (as I can write at great length about my memories with her) I wish to share certain moments and experiences with her in hopes to show that the early Church life of true selflessness and sanctification still is lived in our world today – so we too may bring the life of the early Church into any space we may encounter.
I first met Tasonee 12 years ago during one of our group diocesan Egypt trips from Los Angeles (and indeed I am exceedingly grateful to Tasonee Hemit who planned them). The image of meeting her still is so clear in my mind (and those who know me I am not the best in remembering when I first have met someone) – she greeted us during a festal celebration we attended in Mallawi – with an enthusiastic greeting that was filled with child-like joy and spirit. It is, as they say, some moments experienced by the human spirit cannot be fully described in words unless likewise experienced by the reader, and I think this is one of them.
Without doubt there are many others – better than I – who can attest to her life, but I will offer here what I can share from spending a little over a week with her. (God knows indeed I desired to stay for months sitting at the feet of my teacher, but I knew I had to adhere in finishing my PhD back in London, willing to give it all up to be with her).
The day I arrived in Alexandria, three nuns were staying at Tasonee’s house for a short time to receive medical treatment from the local Coptic hospital (House of Grace hospital). Tasonee greeted me immediately upon my arrival with that same sweet child-like joy that I remember meeting her 12 years ago… (and anyone who meets her can attest to this). I knew I was home again.
The following morning (and every morning thereafter) the five of us attended the divine liturgy (and some of those liturgies were very early indeed) at St. George Sporting, but Tasonee would wake up for morning tasbeha prior to that, and most days she would have to wake me up at that unknown hour to me (although hearing the pure sound of her voice you naturally want to rise up and adhere to her, desiring to be with her as much as possible).
Typically, we would begin our day around 4 am with morning tasbeha (midnight Coptic praises), then visit the church for the service and partake of the Eucharist. If we were running late to the start of the liturgy, we would shorten the tasbeha and leave for the divine service; however Tasonee made a point to still say her prayers even during the journey there (knowing the praises by heart, I would hear her sing the hoos’ as she walked to the car and as she drove to church). Dedication and discipline are her near companions.
Our days of the 5 of us always consisted of breaking bread together – in which we shared every meal together, listening to Tasonee’s stories or having a laugh around the table. Everyone was selfless, compassionate, ensuring that everyone’s needs were taken care of. We cooked for each other, washed up the dishes after one another, listened to each other of our present struggles and joys — (there was even a moment when one of the nuns who spoke very little began to speak a lot to me about her relatives in California and I was so happy to hear her – but she spoke so fast in Arabic I struggled to follow – but still enjoyed her presenceJ) I felt this was the Church as it was in the beginning, and this in hindsight is Church– being members of Him – praying, sharing, eating together, caring for each other, supporting each other, putting each other first – without feeling it’s even a sacrifice but rather something that came naturally and with joy. (And selflessness does not come only from being with a partner – but must come from every person we meet or know – stranger, grandmother, sister, colleague…)
Not one complaint ever filled that house – although the nuns suffered from sickness and sometimes severe pains, yet they too filled the house with peace and their prayerful presence. Tasonee only slept few hours a night and always did so much throughout her day and I could see at times very tired, but never complained — her love always kept her going. Even when we sat together and she would share a new doxology she wrote by her own hand in Coptic concerning modern martyrs she could easily fall asleep in a split second with the book and pen in her hand; I usually sat and waited for her to awake again and she would continue as eager as before.
Some days after the divine liturgy, Tasonee would drive us around the city of Alexandria for a “fus-ha” as she would say it — (‘time of enjoyment’ in Arabic). And indeed some of the best memories were spent going around the city in that white 1970s Volkswagen (originally bought and driven by Abouna), and on one occasion we did loose our way for a while but still laughed at the situation and just enjoyed sharing in the fellowship of the spirit with each other. This was Church.
When we would pass a church, Tasonee would ask audibly for the saint of that church to come and accompany us; when we visited the cathedral of St. Mark, we sung a hymn for him during our car journey; such simple expressions of faith made me realise how often I forget the beauty of a life-filled with praise, glorification, union with the saints and with the Trinity, and living in the West sometimes we become too rational, too technical, and forget to release the mind to God in prayer and praises.
We would usually end the day by midnight or so, spending every moment we can with Tasonee. The nuns and I sat gathered around her chair, like little children hearing the awe-inspiring stories of their mother. She would tell us countless of stories about her life with abouna, about her family and miracles she witnessed. Great lessons were learned, but the greatest lesson for me was herself. She exemplifies motherhood, true humility, and peace and joy of Christ. I have never met anyone like her (if anyone has they can attest to this too) and I am almost certain I will never meet another like her.
There were not many moments of complete silence (except when we all slept), just stories, laughter, prayers, praises.. it was beautiful. Often times I wouldn’t want to sleep because I wanted to spend every moment with her (although God knows I could have slept easily standing having slept a few hours every night). Even knowing she was sleeping in the next room filled and satisfied me with great peace. There was one day when she had to leave us at the house for a ministry; she was gone for a few hours and it seemed we all became restless, missing our teacher and mother, waiting eagerly for her to come back and fill the house again with her presence. I stood in the balcony waiting for any sign of her for a while, and one of the nuns who was with me was as eager as I was to see her again – I felt we were like little children waiting at the window sill for mom to get home again from a long journey; although it was only a few hours it felt like days. Then, she finally arrived (and as usual many people who knew her or knew of her greeted her in in the street), the house seemed to be complete again.
Besides the five of us at the house, visitors often came to and fro – some from far, some local, some in the dozens. (On one of those days, after I had awoken from a mid-day nap, I entered the sitting area to find it crowded with about 40 youth around Tasonee, listening to her stories about Fr. Bishoy.. I was taken back for a few moments at the large number of people visiting, whom travelled several hours to know more with sweet eagerness about her experiences with him; I felt like I was with a celebrity – or rather, a pure light in the world many hear about and come see across cities and countries to receive words of benefit).
I sat and wondered during my time there how could we bring such a way of living to the West? How could the life of inexpressible faith, deep wisdom and spirituality exist in a world where everything is questioned, people are faithless, and material consumption pervades all around. Then I thought to myself, it starts with myself. My own keenness and desire to know and live my potential in Christ – “from glory to glory” in Him. What God has intended for me to be – and not my own desire to be what I think I should be or how I should live (and indeed His desire is perfection – Matt 5:48). My willingness to be everything for everyone – a great and difficult sacrifice – one that which goes completely contrary to Western individualism and the constant need for self-centredness; something yet almost impossible, but only God can fulfil.
I want to conclude in saying that truly “The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord…” (Ps 33:5) and there are so many people living today who live and move and have all their being in Him. Tasonee is one of them; her focus was never on a situation, on a person (or lack of), or a place – but simply on living daily on her walk with and in Him. How often we pass our lives obsessing over failed or unplanned events in our life, or hurtful people, or unfulfilled relationships; life beholds the potential of infinitely beyond what we limit it to be – beyond temporary circumstances, limited people, and transitory pains.
Our time spent together reminded me what St. Gregory Nazianzus says when speaking about his time spent with St. Basil his best friend and mentor – that they only knew “two paths” – “one to the chapel and the other to the classroom” and indeed the chapel (the church) and the classroom (her house) were our only paths, but those of which were the greatest and most satisfying.
As I sit here now in my room in London, I breathe in the beautiful memories shared with her in that flat in Alexandria – and there lies in that humble abode in the great city of Egypt – a sacred known yet unknown place amidst a city of noise, chaos, and crowds of people …a place that one finds tranquillity and satiety for the soul.
This was and is Church. Let’s start with our homes, our work space, wherever we may go – to live and be Church – being the temple of the Spirit, we encompass the presence of God by our right of baptism – let us vivify this in all that we do – in all our relationships, in our end goals towards the kingdom.
*To read a book about Fr. Bishoy Kamel and his ministry by Fr Tadros Malaty, click here: http://www.orthodoxebooks.org/node/139 ; and a short book written by him: http://www.stminahamilton.ca/2010/09/the-cross-in-christianity-by-fr-bishoy-kamel)