Life of the spirit
Father Matta El-Miskeen (1919-2006)
Father Matta El-Miskeen
Youssef Iskandar -- Father Matta's birth name, by which he was known before entering Anba Samuel Monastery -- was born in the Delta town of Benha in 1919, the year of the revolution against the British led by Saad Zaghloul and which united Egypt's Muslims and Christians against their occupiers. Iskandar studied pharmacy, graduating from Cairo University in 1943, and though he began a career in his chosen field the call of the wilderness would eventually prove stronger. On 10 August 1948, he took orders as Father Matta (Matthew) the Samueli, entering Saint Samuel's Monastery by Qalamon Mountain in the Western Desert of Lower Egypt, seeking poverty, solitude and worship and retreating from the bustle of everyday life.
Fr Matta wrote his first book, the Life of Orthodox Prayer, whilst still at the Monastery of St Samuel, though the austerity of the regime was to rake its toll on his health to the extent that, in 1951, he moved to Al-Surian Monastery in Wadi Al-Natroun, where he was known as Fr Matta Al-Miskeen (or the poor), to distinguish him from an older Fr Matta already at the monastery.
Fr Matta's reputation as a spiritual guide grew steadily, and in 1954 he was chosen by Pope Youssab II to be general deputy to the Patriarch of Alexandria. It was a post he occupied for less than a year, returning early in 1955 to his cell in St Samuel's Monastery, attracting a great many monks who travelled to the monastery to study with him.
Following the death of Pope Youssab II, Fr Matta was nominated as a possible successor but he had yet to complete 15 years of monastic life, a necessary condition for the post.
Following Pope Kyrellos VI's call in 1959 that all monks return to their monasteries, Fr Matta moved back to Al-Surian Monastery and later to Wadi Al-Rayan in Fayoum, where he lived for 10 years in caves among a small community of other monks.
They were productive years, during which he completed several books. In 1969, Pope Kyrellos VI invited him -- along with 12 students -- to move to the Monastery of Abu Maqar in Wadi Al-Natroun, a few miles off the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road. Pope Kyrillos VI and Anba Mikhail, Bishop of Assiut and Abbot of Anba Maqar Monastery, requested he undertake the rebuilding and revival of the monastery, which was then in a shambles.
Fr Matta became the spiritual father of the monastery, shouldering the burden of renewing the monastic tradition, and adhering to the practices of the fathers.
After the death of Pope Kyrellos VI, Fr Matta was again nominated as a possible successor, though the nomination was rumoured to have met the disapproval of the then president, Anwar El-Sadat, who entertained reservations about the man sometimes known as "the communist monk". Pope Shenouda III won the elections. He was one of Fr Matta's students, and he acknowledges his debt to his teacher in the introduction to Intelaq Al-Rouh (Departure of the Spirit).
Fr Matta was a meticulous researcher and prolific writer, producing a number of Bible studies, as well as The Orthodox Life of Prayer, The Virgin Mary's Fast, The Philosophy of Death of Egyptian Martyrs, Women... Their Rights and Duties, Social and Religious Life in the Church, Christianity in the Family, and Repentance and Monasticism in the Age of St Maqar. Many of his writings and articles have been translated into English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Greek.
Last Thursday Fr Matta passed quietly away in a hospital in Cairo. He was taken to Abu Maqar where he was interred swiftly and quietly, as he had requested.
Father Matta abandoned worldly desires to love with and in Christ. His books and sermons are a beacon to all who seek the life of the spirit. We are blessed to have seen and heard such an exceptional person, whose uniqueness lay not in wealth, or even worldly genius, but in his humility and immeasurable love for all.