Below is an article originally written by James Watson for the Coptic Church Review. It was re-published in the March edition of Pi-Monakhos, the periodical organised by St Shenoute the Archimandrite monastery in Putty, Sydney:
It is often the case that those who establish a reputation for lives of inner depth and strength have quite simple outer lives. It is particularly true of Abba Kyrillos. His life as a model of outward stability: sixty-eight years spent almost entirely in Egypt and over three hidden decades as a monk and solitary. Even when he rose to the senior bishopric in the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Kyrillos was faithful to his inner life. Some Copts were disappointed by his silence and piety. They saw that he preferred to be absorbed in prayer and contemplation. It was not easy to distract him from his absorption.
Pope Kyrillos as a monk was known as Al-Mutawahad - the Solitary. His instinct that only a monastic revival and a parallel renewal of the eremitic life would rescue the Copts from their anxieties from persecution has been entirely justified. It can be appreciated in the context of Coptic history whose greatest spiritual directors were all monks: when the monasteries are strong, the Copts are strong. At the same time, the monasteries have sometimes been a retreat in the worst sense and they have depended completely upon the secret lives of their finest hermits. like Abouna Abd Al-Masih Al-Habashi. Pope Kyrillos carried the deepest monastic inspiration into the Windmill and his room in Old Cairo. The twenty-three most important years of his ministry as a desert hermit were lived far from the physical desert in the city of Cairo, because he was an outstanding example of those twentieth century Christian mystics who carry the desert and the hermit's life within themselves.
At the height of his earthly eminence, Pope Kyrillos presided over the elaborate ceremonies which accompanied the return of the relics of St. Mark to Egypt. The great national hero President Gamal Abdel Nasser accompanied Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia to the celebrations. Delegations from Rome and the World Council of Churches crammed the sanctuary. At the end of the day Pope Kyrillos called his deacon to one side. “Did you see all these great ceremonies, my son?” The puzzled assistant replied that he had of course seen all that had taken place. He had stood all day beside his master. Pope Kyrillos repeated the question and received the same answer. Then the patriarch overwhelmed his deacon when he said, "all these ceremonies my son, are not equal to one day spent in the solitude of the windmill above Old Cairo."
Thirty-nine of his forty-two years of monastic profession were spent away from the monastic community in the Wadi Al-Natroun. But when Edward Wakin remarked so pointedly that Pope Kyrillos the patriarch had remained Mina the monk he was pointing to the primary emphasis in the man's life. Pope Kyrillos was a man of remarkable religious insights who somehow reached a bureaucratic position in an ecclesiastical structure where he disappointed many because he had no mind or heart for administration. The patriarch found ways of delegation which suited the times, but he remained what he was, a deeply pious and religious person with extraordinary spiritual gifts.
In 1933 an American theologian visited the Rock of Abouna Sarabamoun in the Western desert. He was taken there by a member of the Department of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo to assist the American scholar who was researching the period of Coptic Egypt before the Islamic invasion. For three hours Father Mina the Solitary read passages from his own copies of St. Isaac the Syrian and provided his own commentary on them: they were a precise exposition of the nature of authentic monasticism for all time. The Western theologian later said that three months research was nothing compared with three hours in the desert cave with the future Patriarch of the Copts.
Pope Kyrillos as a monk was a living testimony to the supernatural dimension of the Christian vocation. He was not a monastic preacher of negativism and withdrawal, who had no meeting place with the problems of our age. But for Pope Kyrillos, as for all mystics, the only Christian society of importance was spiritual and extraordinary: the Mystical Body of Christ on the Earth. ‘Pope Kyrillos experienced the life of that mystical community and represented its society before his church and community.
His life with Christ in the Eucharist may perhaps be described, though with ungrudging recognition of our linguistic and theological poverty, as 'the true church'. The true church is that place where all men are truly equal because subject to only one charismatic authority of wisdom, experience and love under God.
Remember us before Christ, Pope Kyrillos!