Friday, October 24, 2008

Visiting the Copts - Part II

The Coptic liturgy is like opera - an expression of the greatest human suffering, with the hopeful spark of divinity that is man's greatest joy. It is also like opera in that it is entirely sung, and is four hours long. Fortunately Habib told me that, like many of the men, he only attended the final hour.

That sounded good to me. I set out on foot from my house at a quarter to eleven. I had driven by the church many times before, sometimes pointing it out to Emjay and saying, "I really need to talk to those guys about my book."

When I got there, I wasn't quite sure how to enter. The obvious big front door was locked. I went to a side door. I could already hear voices singing, and smell incense. It didn't seem right. I waited outside, and soon a family drove up.

"Good morning," I said, "I was hoping I could visit today. Can I go in with you?"

"Sure," the dad said, "Wait- are you Christian?"

I don't think anyone had ever asked me that before. I copped to it, and followed him in.

Orthodox churches traditionally have an entry hall called a narthex, the main room for worship which is the nave, and the sanctuary where the priests manage the sacred objects and Body and Blood of Christ. The three areas are laid out like a Manhattan "railroad" apartment, so one enters the narthex to get to the nave, and reaches the sanctuary from there. St. Mary's and St. George's did not begin life as an orthodox church. That explained the locked main doors. The side entrance and rooms served as the narthex.

I followed my host through a couple of rooms used as Sunday schools and nurseries. We entered the nave very near the front of the nave - so far to the front that we were behind the deacons, who at the moment were prostrating themselves on the floor. I stepped gingerly past them and found a pew in the back.

A crowd of altar boys, acolytes and deacons led the chants and hymns from the front. Men had the left side pews and women the right. Kids hopped freely from one side to the other and no one seemed to mind. The priest wore long white robes and a white satin hat with tails. He had his back to us, praying at the altar in a cloud of incense.

Once when I was church-shopping I went to a Methodist church that completely turned me off. They used Powerpoint and an LCD projector to help people follow the service. In this church, though, the projector seemed essential. The liturgy was part English, part Coptic (which is itself part Greek), and part Arabic. All the words in all three languages were projected side by side.

I sat quietly, joining in a "Kyrie eleison" or two. I tried to sort out who was depicted in all the icons. Saint Mark was the first on the left - Mary and Saint George, of course, Christ, and then a few particular to the Coptic church. I could turn enough of the Coptic letters into Greek in my head to be able to sound out half of the names. Other than the icons, the rest of the decor was very Prodestant, down to the stained glass windows with decidedly non-Coptic names of benefactors.

If I closed my eyes, and I did, I could feel immersed in an ancient Christian tradition. Other than some updating of language the liturgy is just as it has always been. This was a decidedly non-European, non-Americanized, Middle Eastern feel. No pipe organ, but cymbals and triangle. No four-part harmony, but chanting from the roots of voice. This was the Christianity of Mark, coming from Palestine to Egypt. A Christianity that never had a Crusade, a Henry VIII, a Cotton Mather or a Jerry Fallwell.

Habib arrived about ten minutes after me. He was just in time for the Eucharist, which in Orthodox churches is a bit different from the Catholicism of my youth or Anglicanism of my now. The priest finally turned around to face the congregation, holding a basket of bread up for everyone to see - take joy! The sacrifice is here for us!

The men all lined up first, and then the women. I did not participate, being an outsider. Also I knew that it is Coptic tradition to fast before Eucharist, and I had had a good paleolithic breakfast. Since the Orthodox bread is leavened and made into loaves, they had to finish it. (the unleavened bread I'm used to can be stored intact. I never thought of that.) This meant that, among other things, the altar boys had to go round and round the altar taking more bread until it was gone. Then they had to wash all the serving plates, rinsing them with water and drinking the dross- you cannot just throw out the Body of Christ. Fortunately they got to do the same with the wine.

Afterwards, Habib invited me to come up and sit with him and his friends. I was introduced to them quickly, while the priest blessed us and sprinkled us with holy water. A baby had been baptized that morning: he was paraded through the church in a wicker basket, dressed identically to the priest down to the satin hat. A grandmotherly-looking woman in the procession ululated.

Then, the sermon. In Arabic, of which I understood two words: Allah, and if I head correctly, "aasif", which means "forgiveness". I only know the latter because I named a character Aasif in my book.

Finally, some time after noon, it was over. Habib's friends were excited that I was writing a book about Saint Mark, and they pointed out the icon to me. Then it was time to go downstairs for coffee. I got out my notebook.


  1. My son has joined a similar Church -

  2. Hi, Marty, thanks for reading!

    I'll bet that what looked exotic to me from a Roman/Anglican perspective is perfectly usual for Greek, Russian, and other Orthodox adherents. I was just glad to be welcomed.

  3. Hi Rich,
    I'm a Copt who grew up in Alexandria and now lives in Boston, I came across your blog by chance, I'm really interested in your book :-) I noticed who eager you are about having feedback and the perspective of Copts. I would love to help with that :-)