By Weston Bland
On Friday, 16 May, as part of a group of diverse national and religious background, I had the opportunity to attend the moulid, or festival, of St. Dimyana at her namesake monastery in the village of Dimyana in the district Barrary-Belqas in the Egyptian Delta. In general, the trip, organised by the Center for Arab-West Understanding, provided a fascinating look into the dynamics of a popular religious celebration, as well as into the lives of the nuns that live and work on the grounds of the monastery.
St. Dimyana’s festival is a popular Christian celebration that attracts large numbers of visitors every year. Traditionally, the celebrations include activities both within the monastery complex, as well as on the grounds surrounding the complex. This year however, the outside celebrations were significantly scaled back due to security concerns; these concerns were underscored by the heavy security presence we encountered at the perimeter of the festival grounds upon arriving. Ultimately though, such concerns seemed to have had little effect in deterring the significant crowds of the faithful that still turned out for the celebration.
After entering the monastery complex, we were quickly directed to the primary church where prayers were taking place. In the front of the hall, our group was given a brief audience with Metropolitan Bishoy, the Orthodox Metropolitan for Damietta, Kafr Al-Sheikh, and the abbot of the monastery. Metropolitan Bishoy is a major figure in the Coptic Church, having previously served as the secretary of the Holy Synod for over two decades, in addition to serving his diocese. The spiritual importance of a figure like the metropolitan was distinctly illustrated by the reaction of the crowd in the church to his appearance, with many gathering near the barrier between the stage and the rest of the hall, shouting “sayyedna!” following his emergence on the stage, and a few even forcing their way past the barrier in order to kiss the Metropolitan’s hand and to receive his blessing. Based on the reaction of the crowd, it was clear that our chance to meet with Metropolitan Bishoy was very a unique and special opportunity.
Following our meeting with the Metropolitan, we were given a tour of the grounds of the complex, learning the history of the monastery and the story of St. Dimyana, as well as the significance of the various sites within the complex. One of the most important of these sites, indicated by its place of prominence, as well as the reverence it received from the attendees of the celebration, was the tomb of St. Dimyana and the forty virgins itself.
St. Dimyana represents an important figure in the historical narrative of the Coptic Church as an early 4th century martyr. According to tradition, St. Dimyana, rejecting marriage and seeking seclusion from the temptations of the world, founded a convent with the help of her father, so that she and other like-minded girls could dedicate their lives fully to God.
During the Diocletian persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire, St. Dimyana and her associates, known as the forty virgins, were killed for refusing to reject God in favour of idol worship; important in the narrative is the preference for heavenly reward over the worldly gain that the martyrs would have received had they denounced God and been spared. As such, St. Dimyana represents not only a powerful image of bravery and sacrifice, but likewise provides an ideal model for the monastic tradition of nuns.
Our initial tour of the grounds was followed by the opportunity to meet with one of the nuns of the monastery, Mother Theoliptie. Mother Theoliptie is an interesting individual to meet in a Coptic Orthodox monastery in the Egyptian Delta, as she is not Egyptian, but Chinese-Canadian. During our time meeting her, Mother Theoliptie told us her story of conversion from Buddhism to Christianity in Canada. It was there that she was introduced to the Coptic Orthodox Church, and felt that this particular church best served her spiritual needs. After visiting the Monastery of St. Dimyana on multiple occasions, Mother Theoliptie felt a calling to dedicate her life to God through monastic service, and became a part of the community of the monastery as a nun.
A striking element of Mother Theoliptie’s description of life in the monastery was the general isolation the nuns experience from the events in the rest country. With neither television nor newspapers, the nuns of St. Dimyana’s have little exposure to the world outside of the monastery. However for Mother Theoliptie, such separation provides an ideal opportunity for completely dedicating one’s life to devotion to God. Mother Theoliptie recognises that the monastic lifestyle can be difficult, and is not necessarily for everyone, ultimately requiring a calling from God; as she often reminded us, such a lifestyle would not be possible were it not for an intense love and commitment for God.
After sharing her story, Mother Theoliptie proceeded to give us a tour of the building where the nuns’ residences and workshops were located. Visiting these workshops, it was clear that in addition to functioning as a quiet centre of devotion removed the troubles of the world, the monastery also serves as a centre of skillful and unique artistic production.
Touring the facilities, we had the opportunity to watch the nuns at work, creating fantastic mosaics, icons, and paintings, and even constructing the distinctive headgear used by the clergy.
In addition to the workshops, the nuns maintain a plot of agricultural land, cultivating a variety of produce, including grapes and honey.
Following our time in the monastery, our group entered the surrounding village, where we had the exciting opportunity of visiting the home of one of the local families. This opportunity was particularly special as the members of the family were longtime friends of Arab-West Report Editor-in-Chief Cornelis Hulsman. Over cold drinks and tea, witnessing Cornelis reconnect with multiple generations of a family that he’s known for decades was a wonderful image of the lifelong relationships that are forged across cultures in a country like Egypt.
The visit to the monastery provided a welcome and much-needed break from the bustle and politics of Cairo, and served as an important reminder of the need to find time for the spiritual within our busy and chaotic lives. Ultimately though, unlike the nuns of the monastery, our separation from the world of Egyptian political affairs would only be temporary; immediately upon leaving the sacred space of the monastery, we were given a not-so-subtle reminder of what awaited us upon our return to Cairo.
Cornelis Hulsman expressed his concern at seeing “Church leaders endorse presidential candidate Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi” as he strongly believes in the separation of religion and state. In the view of Hulsman, religious leaders should of course encourage the faithful to vote, but they should never publicly support one particular candidate. Hulsman believes that this is highly risky, as an alliance with Al-Sisi could potentially make them the target of Al-Sisi’s opponents, Muslim Brothers and other Morsi supporters. In the words of Hulsman, “If one day Islamists would come to power again, they might see Christians as those who once supported their enemy.”
This article was initially published on Arab West Report
Clarification made by Cornelis Hulsman, Editor-in-chief Arab-West Report on 31 May 2014, following the publication of the piece:
“The last paragraph read that I made a comment on a banner with the photos of Bishop Bishoi, abbot of the monastery, presidential candidate al-Sisi and Pope Tawadros. The Monastery of Dimyana informed me I had wrongly interpreted this banner as “church leaders endorsing presidential candidate Abdelfattah al-Sisi.” Neither the monastery nor its abbot had allowed this banner, which we saw outside the monastery, to be placed. It still keeps puzzling me how people in Egypt are able to get away printing banners or posters without permits of the people on those banners or posters. In most other countries such banners or posters would be rapidly removed since one cannot possibly make people believe that the leaders portrayed on such a banner do indeed support the political goal of that banner. I am a strong believer of the separation of religion and state and in particular party politics. I have no problem with religious leaders calling for participation in elections, that is anyone’s national duty, but I do believe that religious leaders, of any religion and denomination, should refrain from giving followers any partisan advice. I also believe that religious leaders should not appear on banners and posters with any candidate or any party representative. I would wish the new government would prohibit such banners or posters so that no one can make misuse of this as, obviously, has happened in the case of the banner published in your issue of May 29.”
The Center for Arab-West Understanding, an Egyptian NGO, advocates dialogue between people of different convictions, including Muslims and Christians, and works with Egyptian and non-Egyptian student interns. The center organizes visits to locations and meetings with Egyptians. Reports of activities are placed in Arab-West Report, www.arabwestreport.info This article was written by a student intern of the Center for Arab-West Understanding, www.cawu.org