(This blog post will also be printed in a forthcoming volume on the life of Bishop Epiphanius by the Monastery of St Macarius).
Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. (Psalm 55:6)
ἐπιφάνεια (e-pī-fa-ney-a; Epiphanius): manifestation of God.
I saw him sitting peacefully, alone in the back corner of the room. People joined the room gradually as the next lecture was approaching. I walked towards the back of the room to greet him and he immediately greeted me with a formal smile. He didn’t recognize me initially until I told him who I was and his face further brightened. I was so humbled and honored. I will never forget that encounter.
It is always a very difficult thing to lose a loved one, and a loss goes deeper when it is experienced by the larger community, when a prominent and influential, self-effacing leader and teacher leaves those who love him behind. This loss permeated many globally, both inside and outside the Church – Copts, various Christian denominations, and non-Christians alike. Many of us who knew him, or even knew of him, felt very close to him, although this closeness with many wasn’t measured by time.
There have been a swarm of social media posts and messages about the tragedy of his grace, and it is and has been overwhelming to anyone who has followed it, to say the least. But amidst the chaos, there we find peace. We’ve been told by fellow monks from St. Macarius his grace knew he was to leave this world in the flesh and requested a tombstone to be prepared for him a few days before his departure. In this we find comfort, yet we still feel the pain of the loss of an erudite teacher and talented theologian.
Throughout Sayedna’s life, he, for his foresight, unconventional knowledge, and passion for the Church, was “killed before he was killed” (as recently noted by a priest-friend) by some radicals who deemed him unorthodox since he was not categorized as a ‘Shenoudian’ (this in reality does not mean he did not love and respect the late Patriarch). Bishop Epiphanius was learned in several languages, trained theologically, contributed to the education of the Church, and had the spirit and pure love of a father. None of these childish attacks phased him, nor did he hold his life dear to him. But one thing is certain, he loved Christ with a pure heart and served His Church endlessly and altruistically. His teachings are aphoristic and will continue to serve and flourish the Church; this I have no doubt. (For what seed dies and does not bear great fruit? A Bostonian-friend shares with me regarding Sayedna’s departure).
I often wondered what it would be like to meet Athanasius of Alexandria if he were living during our time. My wonderment visited me when I spent some days with Sayenda during his last trip in Melbourne a few weeks before he departed. I was, and continue to be, in awe of his divine-humility and simple character. Any breathing human being who merely encounters him will inevitably and inescapably face this divine presence within him, regardless whether one dis/agrees with his theological astuteness.
Sayedna also had an inexpressible joy to him. Often when you would look at him, he would be in a state of divine contentment, a wholesome joy that was envious (and also contagious). We shared some joyful and laughter-filled moments during our trip, and I treasured every moment that we shared. I can almost hold those memories.
But truth be told and for light to permeate, darkness must be exposed in light of this tragedy. This recent dark history that still lurks in the Church today must be acknowledged and remedied. Sayedna and many monks of St. Macarius (among many others in the Church at large) have been regular victims of verbal and ‘theological’ abuse within the walls of Church – such behavior is simply immoral and sinful. The past decades of what is seen as a contentious (and may I add pretentious) movement propagated by divisive groups regarding ‘who follows who’, that is, Patriarch Shenouda III of blessed memory, or Father Matthew the Poor of blessed memory, have only induced hate, criminality, division, and false ideologies in the name of ‘sound theology’ or ‘sound Orthodoxy.’ Sound theology/orthodoxy only lie in one thing: unity in Christ through sound unity in the Church. Anything divisive is diabolic and does not permeate from God, who Himself is perfect unity as Trinity. (How does incrimination and hate in any way whatsoever equate ‘defending Orthodoxy’? We are no longer any better than the unbelievers if we disseminate hate and division).
We easily forget St. Paul faced this divisiveness at his time in Corinth–
For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase (1 Cor. 3:3-6)
Orthodoxy does not rely on ‘Paul’ or ‘Apollos’, it solely relies on and in Christ. Not one camp or the other, but on Christ and His Church.
There will be, and should be, different matters of theological opinion when diversity is warranted, apart from doctrine that is unchanging. That is the beauty of Orthodoxy – unity in diversity, diversity in unity. If the Church relies on one sole teacher – this is, in essence, not the Church; the Church is and can only be conciliar. Conciliarity is Orthodoxy.
We forget that many (I repeat many) of the fathers disagreed on many matters of opinion (canons, views and interpretation on Scripture, celibacy, marriage, virginity, bodily purity, and so on) – where such opinions can be expressed (did not St Theophilus, the 23rd Patriarch of Alexandria and uncle of St Cyril of Alexandria, excommunicate the great St John Chrysostom on so-called ‘theological’ matters, and Chrysostom was reinstated by Cyril years later after Chrysostom passed?)
The Church bleeds from human error and our fallen humanity, yet she will continue to live strong and endure. This tragedy and loss reflect the deepness of our human wounds and brokenness, but the beauty of the Church is that Christ is still present and the Spirit is still working– amidst our falling off the mark of Christ (our perpetual journey in this life of repentance to restoration and healing).
I pray for a Church that does not say ‘I am a follower of…’, or Church members who interrogate and categorize the other as ‘s/he is a follower of…’ I know his grace is an icon of unity and conciliarity and one who prayed and continues to pray for the strength of the Church, apart from the violence – verbal and physical, he faced during his life living as a faithful follower of Christ.
May his life be celebrated, may his joyful presence always remain with us, may his prayers cover us, and may his avid passion for theology and education of the Church be an inspiration for each of us. He is a victor of Orthodoxy and a true epiphanius – a manifestation of God.
Dearest Sayedna, one of your last public lectures was on ‘The Legacy of Fr Matthew the Poor’, now, it is our turn Sayedna, as God permits, to speak of your legacy in the Church of God.
We miss you Sayedna, but I know, more than ever, you are with us and praying ardently for us.
With prayers and love, your daughter,
Donna Rizk Asdourian
In praising Athanasius, I shall be praising virtue. To speak of him and to praise virtue are identical, because he had, or, to speak more truly, has embraced virtue in its entirety. For all who have lived according to God still live unto God, though they have departed henceforth. (Oration 21, St. Gregory Nazianzus)