The Ethiopian Mystic
Abūnā Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi is the Arabic name and title carried by the subject of this study. He was born in Ethiopia in 1898. ln English he is known as Father, the Servant of Christ, the Ethiopian. Orthodox Christians of Ethiopia  knew him as Abba Gabra Krestos. The titles in Ethiopian Orthodoxy (identical in Amharic and Ge'ez script) are equally close to Arabic and English.
Some researchers have dated his life nine or ten years later than 1898, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Two Ethiopian sources have confirmed the earlier date. Constant verbal forms of communication are familiar to researchers of the life of Abba Gabra Krestos but claims concerning printed identification in Egypt have not been confirmed, except in written Arabic from the late twentieth century. There are no secure records, and there may be no written official documents or printed certificates available anywhere in Ethiopia. Coptic Orthodox authorities, including His Holiness Pope Shenouda the Third, provided some documentation on the Ethiopian's behalf in the hope that he might be allowed to travel to Jerusalem at the end of his life. Papers were submitted to Egyptian government authorities in the capital, and Cairene executives produced provisional documentation in the early 1970s. The equivalent of a passport was provided in Cairo and additional documentation was made available in Beirut, Lebanon. Sadly, traditional Ethiopian certificates of any kind relating to Abba Gabra Krestos have not yet been unearthed.
As a child Gabra Krestos worked with his family as a herds-boy at home in the Eritrean Province of Hamasen. In the last three decades, since his death in the 1970s, his family name has not yet been made available. Abba Gabra Krestos eventually left his pastoral occupation without parental permission and travelled into central Ethiopia. It was in that region that he studied liturgical music and poetry, possibly at Debra Damo, a monastery built as early as the seventh century. One source claims that he also studied in Addis Ababa. It has been affirmed that he visited major Ethiopian Christian sites at Lake Tana. The legendary island monasteries out on the lake were a tremendous attraction to him and to most other candidates to monasticism. Local Ethiopian sources have affirmed his teenage visit to the 12th century site at Lalibela, with its historic rock-hewn churches, which are regarded as being amongst the finest examples of ecclesiastical architecture in the history of Christianity and comparable to the rock-hewn temples of Abu Simbel in Nubia, of Petra in Jordan, or of Ellora in Hyderabad, India. Abba Gabra Krestos was certainly perceived as a pilgrim within classical Ethiopian monasticism. Sadly, primary sources concerning his visits to Tana and Lalibela have not yet been positively confirmed though a substantial range of secondary and tertiary sources do claim that he was there. The reality is that Abd el-Mesih was perhaps the least known and least advertised of all hermits and solitaries. In the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and in Egyptian (Coptic) Orthodoxy, which were both intimately related for centuries, Abūnā Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi was often portrayed as a man with one sense of direction only: his eyes were opened to eternity.
It has often been noted that his second name in his homeland - following the established title Abba Gabra Krestas - was Abouna Eustathius (Ewostatewos) and that he eventually entered the monastery of St. Mary the Virgin in Western Eritrea. When he had left home to study classical Ethiopian church music and literature, his mother had heard rumors of someone bearing the title and name Abba Eustathius. She travelled to the monastery and asked the abbot for permission to see her son, but the boy responded negatively to her visit. Abouna Eustathius stated rather bluntly but clearly that any newly blessed Ethiopian Orthodox monks must acknowledge that their Heavenly Father and Virgin Mother would protect them for the rest of their lives, but that their earthly parents must die to the worldly life of their child whilst giving thanks for a holy, deathless existence. In a further but most memorable phrase, Abba Eustathius is said to have affirmed his conviction that 'mothers pursued their heavenly sons, but that monks could not pursue their worldly families'. His mother returned home to the Province of Hamasen and for the rest of their human lives they did not meet again, though at the very end of her life she heard just once, with great comfort and joy, that her son the Servant of Christ, the Ethiopian was living a life of prayer in Egypt's Western Desert. She was reassured that one day she would meet him again. 'Heaven is our home.'
In the decades which followed, Abba Gabra Krestas or Abba Eustathius reminded himself, and told many others, that a monk who goes home to see his parents is not a monk: he is "just like a fish out of water." But a monk who learns to live a holy and disciplined life will go on to heaven, just as a married Christian couple who live well will make the same journey. But a monk living only for himself, with a great lust for episcopal and priestly power, will go to hell, just as a married Christian couple who live badly will go to hell too. For his parents, for Abba Gabra Krestos himself, and for all true Christians the doors of paradise "are open when the Love of Christ is copied."
The Languages of the Ethiopian Recluse
Abūnā Abd el-Mesih's spoken language is generally believed to have been Tigrinya (tigriñña) a direct successor of Ge' ez the classical language of Ethiopia. At the time of Abd el-Mesih's birth in the late nineteenth century there were possibly more than a million tigriñña speakers, the majority living in Eritrea and recognized as Orthodox Christians. Foreign missionaries of many denominations have published the Bible in tigriñña. The Semitic languages of Ethiopia represent, next to Arabic, the living tongues employed by the Ethiopian majority. Ge'ez ceased to be used as a spoken language centuries before the education of sixteenth century Ethiopian monks, though it was certainly the only official written language at the end of the nineteenth century. In the last two millennia, all of the Semitic languages of Ethiopia are read from left to right. 
Abūnā Abd el-Mesih was deeply embedded in a linguistic and spiritual Tradition that was centuries old, and in which he was born, raised and educated. In the ancient but surviving Ethiopic tradition at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries he read, thought and prayed in the language of the Orthodox Church of his homeland. 
Abba Gabra Krestos read the Christian Scriptures and as a cave-bound solitary participated in the Divine Liturgy, almost certainly in Ge 'ez, the language of his own tradition, but not in Coptic or Arabic. Oral sources have described his literary Arabic as 'basic'. But a large number of verbal sources have confirmed that Abūnā Abd el-Mesih memorized all the Christian Scriptures - the Old and New Testaments - by heart.  Abba Gabra Krestos would most probably not have known the apocryphal or deuterocanonical books but his knowledge of the Masoretic Text was encyclopedic.
All sources for the life of Abba Gabra Krestos, including those of the distinguished German Coptologist Professor Otto Meinardus, acknowledge that the Ethiopian hermit-priest knew the Bible by heart in his native languages, but perhaps to a lesser extent in some Arabic phrases too. Although Abba Gabra Krestos had mastered - even memorized - the Holy Bible in the 1920s, it seems certain that his lasting memory would have been in Ge'ez and not in Amharic. The scripts are almost equivalent: the sounds are different. 
A great variety of Amharic texts of the Holy Bible and of "worship services" Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant - are now readily available in modem Ethiopia. Such innovations are recent and it is much more likely that Abba Gabra Krestos was rooted liturgically and scripturally in the classical language of his people, and perhaps in additional forms of traditional Amharic, though his knowledge of standard Amharic and Tigrinya was considerable. Linguistic and liturgical traditionalism is most certainly of central significance for any hermit like Abd el-Mesih. It may be noted that since the political and ecclesiastical separation of Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Liturgy in Asmara is perhaps more appropriately described as Ethio-Eritrean though more simply as Ge'ez Eucharistie Worship or Ge'ez Liturgy. Abūnā Abd el-Mesih could have known nothing about the appalling divisions in his mother church, and he would most certainly have been completely committed to the ancient languages and conceivably to the most traditional worship patterns of his people.
Abba Gabra Krestos lived in Coptic Egypt for several decades and his Arabic was invariably described by many monastic sources as adequate, but by others as 'broken Arabic'. It is most likely that he thought and prayed in his mother tongue.
Out of Ethiopia: into Egypt
It is possible that Abd el-Mesih left Ethiopia in the early 1930s: dates are in conflict, ranging from 1932 to '37. On his travels across the Sudanese and Egyptian borders, Abūnā Abd el-Mesih had no passports or related documents. An oral source has claimed that he approached the borders by placing a shepherd's staff on his shoulder so that he would simply seem to be a passing herdsman. In some accounts he travelled down to Khartaum on foot and then sailed down the Nile tawoards Cairo. It is unlikely that he only followed the course of the River Nile on foot. ln two accounts, a wealthy Sudanese Christian, who paid for Abd el-Mesih's river journey, supported him with food, clothing and the river cruise. After arriving in the Egyptian capital the Ethiopian ascetic went to the patriarchal offices and was then sent out into the Wadi Natroun, moving an from the Monastery of he Syrians to the Monastery of the Romans. It is, therefore, most likely that he was no longer known as Abba Gabra Krestos, on his journey from the Ethiopian Highlands to the Western Desert, but that he became Abūnā Abd el-Mesih in the Arabic-Coptic equivalent of the Ethiopian title. It was perhaps at this time that he was ordained as a priest.
Several sources have affirmed that printed or handwritten evidence of the ordination of Abūnā Abd el-Mesih el-Habashi as a Coptic Orthodox priest have definitely not been found, though there are a number of oral sources which confirm his ordination in Ezbekiah, a Cairene suburb which had been the seat of the Coptic Patriarch.  Concrete evidence relating to the early life and ministry of Abūnā Abd el-Mesih el-Habashi is thin, but Abba Gabra Iyasus Kefle the nephew of this modern desert father has certainly affirmed (e-mail: 18.August 2003) that his uncle was ordained a priest in the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt. The distinguished Coptic musicologist Dr. Ragheb Moftah (21 December 1898, al-Faggala, Cairo - June 16, 2000, Cairo) has also recorded substantial commentaries concerning Abūnā Abd el-Mesih el-Habashi (CSCIL tapes 1989). They were close friends, and Dr. Moftah is certain that the Ethiopian mystic was an ordained priest in Egypt.
Dr. Ragheb Moftah and Abba Gabra Iyasus Kefle have affirmed that Abūnā Abd el-Mesih el-Habashi was a great master of liturgical and scriptural Ge'ez, and a mystic deeply entrenched in the most ancient traditions of the Desert Fathers. He had nothing approximating to an ecclesiastical career in his homeland or in his adopted country. The isolated Ethiopian hermit of the wilderness in the Western Desert knew little or anything about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in his homeland, nor of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt. He was spiritually ahead of the institutions. He was certainly alive within the Orthodox ascetical tradition. He was rooted in the Holy Scriptures, which came into his life each day. He memorized the living liturgy of the church by heart. His religious life was expressed fully in the real world and beyond. He had certainly lived - possibly from 1912 to 1934 - as an ordained solitary or a hermit (bahetawy) in Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is equally clear that Abd el-Mesih lived on - from about 1935-7 to approximately 1970-74 as a solitary (muttawahad) in the Wadi Natroun. This inimitable Desert Father lived in the physical and spiritual wastelands of both countries for at least half a century. But even in the long history of desert monasticism, the monastic institutions too often rejected the life of solitude, which was loved by the Ethiopian father. Many ancient sources have affirmed that if an athlete does not practice with other athletes then he cannot learn how to be victorious and learn to compete alone with his opponent. This is the monk's life: If he cannot be trained in a monastery with other monks and learn to control his own thoughts then he cannot live in solitude and fight an inward battle. For Abd el-Mesih nothing could be further from the truth. He must fight alone. The greatest way forward is not the institutional way but the individual way. The Ethiopian Father identified with Elijah the prophet and St John' the Baptist: the desert path was the only path.
It is certain that Abūnā Abd el-Mesih initially felt himself to be a prisoner in the monasteries of the Wadi el-Natroun, but he eventually walked free. One of his much-quoted foundational texts was: "We have been buried with Jesus through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life" (Romans 6.4). He liked to insist that he was a free man who could walk out of the ecclesial prison and into the liberating deep space of the solitary. It was perhaps around 1935-7, before the Second World War, that he went to live in a cave not far from Deir al-Barāmūsi. The cave was about four and a half kilometers from the monastery. The large open cleft in the rock has been identified as pentagonal. It was an area hewn out of sand stone and approximately three-by-six meters in size, but a deeper and lower eremitic section had definitely been established. Below the pentagonal cave the subterranean space was his secluded eucharistic sanctuary.
Diet in the Desert
The diet of Abūnā Abd el-Mesih has been discussed for more than half a century. It seems clear from most sources - Ethiopian, Eritrean and Coptic-Egyptian - that he was not simply a vegetarian, who abstains from animal food, particularly that from slaughtered animals, but that he was a vegan who will not use or eat any other animal products like milk and cheese. He also ate no fish. He liked to affirm short phrases from St. Isaac the Syrian: "There can be no knowledge of the mysteries of God on a full stomach." "There can be no weapon more powerful to the heart than hunger endured for Christ's sake." After more than three decades in the Wadi el-Natroun, Abūnā Abd el-Mesih usually ate and drank alone. In common with other monks by the Red Sea, in the Fayoum Basin and in Upper Egypt, Abūnā Abd el-Mesih's favorite dish was Mulukhiyyah, a leafy summer vegetable that is extremely popular throughout the Middle East. Only the leaves are edible. They are usually available fresh, dry or frozen, though in the Wadi el-Natroun it is most likely that they were simply dry - there were no refrigerators in desert caves, at least not in the time of the Ethiopian mystic! These tasty leaves were the most important ingredients in the stable diet of Abūnā Abd el-Mesih. He also ate lentils (lens culinaris). He cooked alone in his desert cave, lighting a fire at night for cooking and maintaining the flames in the desert winter so that he could be sufficiently warm. Although he liked to drink tea, it is sometimes reported that he used salt rather than sugar in his drink. But bread was more important, and was supplied freely by the kitchen of the Monastery of the Romans. We may see that the bread that he ate was not simply mundane but mysterious: "God sends bread to me every day."
He obviously remained in the desert cave close to Deir el-Bārāmūsi for a very long time, and, apart from one brief period of sickness in the 1950s when he was taken to Alexandria, he only left his cave for Jerusalem in 1970s. He was certain that he needed to fulfill the classical Ethiopian monastic injunction to "stand in the Holy City of God". A monk who leaves the silence of the desert dies, but Ethiopian Orthodoxy speaks of a hermit who must travel "to find the City of God, coming down from God out of heaven". Abūnā Abd el-Mesih was not alone in his conviction that he should travel beyond the earthly Jerusalem to the heavenly revelation of that city.
Alone, at home in Ethiopia, bidden in the monastic wasteland of Egypt and finally on pilgrimage to Israel-Palestine, the desert father Abūnā Abd el-Mesih el-Habasbi did not welcome earthly companions but frequently affirmed the presence of "angels and archangels and all the company of heaven" who joined him daily in their hymns of praise.
The Eucharist in the Desert
We may feel that Abūnā Abd el-Mesih el-Habasbi lived as a priest and a cave-dwelling solitary completely within the Holy Eucharist. It has frequently been suggested, in a variety of sources, that Abūnā Abd el-Mesih el-Habashi was present at the Monastery of the Romans on many Sundays, where he attended the Liturgy of St Basil the Great, receiving the holy gifts at the altar. It seems that he did not celebrate the monastic liturgy as a priest at any time. Some sources are contradictory and have indicated that he would only come to the monastery on Saturday night, ring the bell and offer his water carrier to a monk. Bread and water were handed to him by the gate-keeper, and el-Habashi then walked away carrying the container on his head. Some suggest that he did sleep on hay at the monastery gate before attending the Sunday Eucharist. Other sources have indicated that he only attended the Liturgy once or twice per annum. The evidence is insecure. But it bas been strongly affirmed that he celebrated the Liturgy every day in his own cave for over three decades. He always took the eucharistic bread - the corban - from the' monastery and kept it in his cave. In Abūnā Abd el-Mesih's tradition -- Coptic and -- Ethiopian - it was customary to use leavened, not unleavened, bread. The use of wine in his desert liturgy is less certain. Scholars who have explored his cavern have clearly stated that a narrow passage led much further underground from the central pentagonal desert cave. There was a small 'chapel' or 'sanctuary' in the bowels of the earth where he 'lived the Eucharist' each day.
Abūnā Abd el-Mesih's journey into the subterranean cave was the same journey as that in the Third Gospel: "He (Jesus Christ) was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread" (Luke 24.35). This is the supreme moment of contemplation when the Liturgy draws many believers not only to the sacred elements of bread or wine but also to Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
Dr. Ragheb Moftah and a dozen others CSCIL sources have identified Abūnā Abd el-Mesih's eremitic life as a eucharistic life. Orthodox devotion in the Divine Liturgy can certainly emphasize the assembly of large numbers of practicing believers and communicants. But personal sacramental devotion with the sacred bread can have equal significance for an Orthodox hermit. Remembrance and thanksgiving are at the heart of any liturgical spirituality. The hermit's liturgy of the subterranean cave is the constant recall and recovery of death and resurrection. To eat the bread in the desert cave is to be filled with Christ's life, to participate fully in the incarnate life or Our Lord and to already receive in the mouth the foretaste of eternity. Abūnā Abd el-Mesih echoed others when he often said, "I shall not pray at the Liturgy but pray the Liturgy."
In the Eucharist, the Servant of Christ thanked God the Father for all that had been done and revealed in both Word and Sacrifice. To participate in the central activity of the Eucharistic Offering was perhaps perceived by Abūnā Abd el-Mesih as his first duty in his cave, in which he was united with the oblation and satisfaction of Christ. In the desert cave the prayer and the offering was through Christ alone. In this daily eucharistic action Abūnā Abd el-Mesih was drawn by the Holy Spirit to be offered by, with and in Christ as the one central offering to God for the sins and needs of the world.
The Eucharistic Prayers (Akwätetä Qwerban) of the Ethiopian Liturgy are legion. It is clear that Abūnā Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi knew them all using devotions to the Theotokos in a Eucharistic context, and those prayers that had been formed by ancient traditions relating to the Twelve Apostles. Many of the Akwätetä Qwerban come from the oldest Aksumite-Ge'ez tradition and were specifically related to James, the Brother of the Lord, St. Mark and over three hundred Orthodox Church Fathers. All the Akwätetä Qwerban were recited in al-Habashi's subterranean house of prayer.
Orthodoxy, like all ancient and traditional expressions of faith, is sometimes spiritually weighed down by hierarchical ceremonial and ritualistic formalism. It also seems that the life and worship of classical desert monasticism is too often weakened by the fact that ambitious men become monks solely because it is the only route to the episcopate. Abūnā Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi does not stand in this tradition. The Eucharist dominates the spirituality of this Ethiopian mystic, though it may be expressed in a different form. He wore no vestments. He carried no eucharistic vessels from the ancient tradition. He was alone in the cave but very far from alone in a spiritual sense. Bread was essential for the Eucharistic sacrifice. Wine was not. Remembrance and thanksgiving were the essentials of his eucharistic spirituality. Those who cite Plato as one who placed all learning in memory would place all religion, all of the eucharistic sacrifice, in memory too. The constant recall of what Christians believe to be the saving events of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ are perhaps the real heart of Christian Faith. Abūnā Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi, lived the Eucharist of death, resurrection and new life every day in the desert as the essential symbols of his faith. This sacrifice - perhaps by bread alone - is the summation of his eremitic life.
Three Modern Desert Fathers
Professor Otto F. A. Meinardus regarded Abūnā Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi as one of the greatest influences upon Coptic monasticism in the twentieth century and affirms the Ethiopian's repetition of classical sayings from the desert tradition: "I love to be unknown and to be regarded as nothing." Abd el-Mesih was contributing to a major revival in anchorite asceticism not simply through words, or his acknowledged central discipline of a daily Eucharist, but through a sacred silence -- physical and spiritual -- far beyond the confines of any religious institution.
Silence was one of the greatest privileges of Abd el-Mesih's life. In the desert cave he refined silence as the strictest discipline. The outward silence of the body --the rejection of speech and movement - included his acceptance of physical nakedness. He was often seen naked in the desert, but hid himself if he was aware of the fact that anyone could catch sight of him. He rejected intellectual imagination and physical distraction. He surrendered himself to God. He had relinquished his human will so that he could be still and know that God is God, leading to a silence that was the grounding for the fullness of desert contemplation: "God is our refuge and strength" (Psalm 46). Silence was something that he guarded, so that none should ever invade his silence. He quoted the Revelation to John: "There was silence in heaven" (8.1): the desert dweller might live "within the stillness of the angels of heaven." Silence could not be an excuse for indiscipline or lethargy -- physical, mental or spiritual -- but the life of Abūnā Abd el-Mesih el-Habashi was a life trained each day to follow the example of those present before God in eternity. Our Ethiopian Abūnā always struggled to live in the heart of eucharistic silence and eremitic prayer.
Silence has to be built into the spiritual life in a down-to-earth way. Coptic, desert worship has learnt this more carefully than most traditions. In the heart of silence we learn to ask the right questions about God, about the world in which we live, and about ourselves. Without silence we are little more than 'tinkling gongs and clanging cymbals."
The finest Coptic Orthodox monk and principal disciple of Abd el-Mesih in the modem period was undoubtedly Abūnā Mattį El Meskeen (Matthew the Poor, born Yusuf Iskander in Benha Kaliobia in 1919). He learnt from Abd el-Mesih but was almost certainly alone in leading the ultimate revival of traditional, communal Coptic monasticism in the last century. Too many monks were reckless in their pursuit of episcopal authority but Mattį was not in that tradition. Abūnā Mattį El Meskeen of the monastery of Abu Makar heard from his Ethiopian teacher that Antony the Great and Paul the Hermit had only finally come to live together when the discipline of monastic desert fasting impressed them both. Matthew the Poor and the Servant of Christ must learn a mutual sense of ascetic and devotional discipline. They did. The Ethiopian Servant of the Lord allowed Matthew the Poor to stay with him for some time. It was the discipline and asceticism of Abd el-Mesih that inspired the new generation of monks from the late 1960s to the present day. The Ethiopian desert prophet would always return to the sacrarnents of the Church, but his essential focus would be almost entirely upon communion with God. There could be no real need for any ecclesiastical means of grace. In the desert Abūnā Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi cut himself off from the fellowship of the monastic establishment, which he had deliberately fled. The desert father is isolated. When removed from his desert cave because of sickness, a Coptic physician in Alexandria admonished Abūnā Abd el-Mesih for not eating properly, but when given food by his physician he simply passed it on to his driver:
My doctor is Jesus Christ, my food is Jesus Christ, and my fuel is Jesus Christ.
It has often been noted that Abūnā Abd el-Mesih always spoke in riddles or parables, which his listeners could not understand. But it should also be no surprise that some of his cryptic desert sayings embody the wisdom and world of the Coptic desert and have survived in many notable international collections.
In the desert, far from urban civilization, an equally noteworthy figure in modem Egyptian spirituality met the remarkable Ethiopian ascetic. This Coptic spiritual father was Abūnā Mina al-Muttawahad (Mina the Solitary, 1902-1971). He too stood aside from episcopal authority though he was the first desert mystic of modem times to become a Coptic Orthodox Pope in 1959. Abūnā Mina's spiritual father also carried the title Abūnā Abd el-Mesih (the Servant of Christ) ibn Abd el-Malak el-Masudi. Both shared a special devotion to the works of Mar Ishak AlSuriani (St. Isaac the Syrian). Influential figures in recent years have sought to identify the Servant of Christ, the Ethiopian, with Mina the Solitary. Pope Kyrillos the Sixth wanted Abūnā Abd el-Mesih el-Habashi to be left alone in the peace of the desert, but above all he hoped for the prayers of the Ethiopian mystic: "Leave him alone, to pray on our behalf." The isolated cave dweller claimed that he had often been challenged by the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John, 5.17: "My Father is working until now, and I myself am working." Although Abūnā Abd el-Mesih was occasionally challenged about his advanced age, physical weaknesses and mental exhaustion, even by Abba Kyrillos and Mina the Solitary, he always responded immediately with Psalm 23.1 - usually in broken Arabic - "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."
There was an intimate connection between Father Mattį and Pope Kyrillos who were both devoted to the frail Ethiopian mystic. Before the appointment of Father Matthew the Poor to the Monastery of St. Macarius by Patriarch Kyrillos the Sixth, Coptic monasticism was in decline. Numbers fell. Most monks were rather old and the basic buildings were in serious decay. But when Pope Kyrillos called Abba Mattį el-Meskeen to Abu Makar in the Western Desert in May 1970, the major monasteries exploded with a minimum population of two hundred monks. In the 1980s there were at least six hundred monks in monastic institutions: very soon the monasteries of Central and Southern Egypt were also increasing. Abūnā Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi always remained critical of those in the church hierarchy who sought control rather than ascetic and spiritual restraint, but he had also surely foreseen the corruption of church institutions many lands. He found a renewed spirituality in Coptic monasticism, but he always questioned the future of Ethiopian monasticism in his homeland. In a series of verbal statements, in contact with Egyptian, Ethiopian and Syrian lay people who visited the Wadi Natroun; he associated much Orthodox monasticism with the search for ecclesiastical power, physical laziness and intellectual indifference. Abūnā Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi remained sharply critical of all institutionalism. For him the spiritual life is of necessity opposed to the institutionalized life. The material and authoritarian world is evil and doomed to destruction, and any contact with the material world is harmful to the spirituality that can only be acquired in the physical and spiritual wilderness.
The three fathers who lived in caves near the monastery of the Romans- Abūnā Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi, Abūnā Mina el-Baramousi el-Muttawahad and Abūnā Mattį el-Meskeen - were perhaps the three major contributors to modern Coptic Orthodox spirituality. They adopted a tradition in which the absolute imperative for Christian life was the renunciation of the world and the self. The Christian life is the imitation of Christ.. "We are to follow Christ- the Kenotic Christ - the Lord of Glory - who in the Incarnation engages in the process of self-emptying, self-giving love." Christianity - Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant - can only be understood in terms of the emptying of the divine powers and prerogatives. Kenosis is a central concept in the interpretation of Coptic Orthodox spirituality: "He emptied Himself of all buy Love and bled for Adam's helpless race." The lives of these three holy men are a disciplined remolding of Christ's incarnate life of renunciation and humility. Only the Christian who has followed his path of self-forgetfulness can be truly human and free.
Isaac the Syrian, who was also known as Isaac of Nineveh, lived in the seventh century. He was a personal hero of Cyril the Sixth, Matthew the Poor and the Ethiopian Serant of Christ. Isacc was an ascetic, a desert solitary and a mystic. He was therefore the model for these three modern desert fathers. All three of these twentieth century desert mystics frequently quoted Isaac:
The ladder to the Kingdom of Heaven is hidden within you, and within your heart. Dive down into yourself, away from transgression, and there you will find the steps which you can ascend.
It is certain that figures like Isaac the Syrian were intimately connected with the major monastic tradition that was developing in the Wad Natroun during the time of Mattį, el-Mesih and Cyril, and it is confirmed that Abūnā Mina al-Muttawahad (Pope Kyrillos the Sixth) translated a substantial amount of Isaac's work into his native language.
The knowledge of God does not live in a body that loves physical ease.
A farmer gets pleasure from bread that is produced as a result of the sweat of his labor. Until one first sweats, the True Bread does not give satisfaction.
Prayer that is not tied in with a good way of life is an eagle whose wings have been plucked.
Happy is the man who has eaten the Bread of love, which is Jesus.
In the context of desert spirituality, Abūnā Abd el-Mesih constantly referred back to the great Desert Father of ancient times known as Moses the Robber, the Negro or the Black: it is possible that the title ought to be 'The Ethiopian', elHabashi. Abūnā Abd el-Mesih liked to refer to the central message of Abba Mussa el-Habashi when a visitor to the desert cell asked for "a word" from the holy man. Moses the Black told the man to "Go and sit alone in your room (your monastic cell) and your cell and your wall will teach you everything."
Beasts and Hermits
Stories concerning the Ethiopian's relations with wild animals are legion. Many responses in a variety of languages sound rather similar to the translations of Helen Waddell in Beasts and Saints: what 'valor of faith' was in Abūnā Abd elMesih and "what poverty of spirit in those who simply watched him with his own wild style of life." Evidence is, as one would expect at this time, rather thin. But in his desert cave Abūnā Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi is said to have spoken of lizards, snakes and scorpions as 'his friends'.
Even a very large and dangerous snake is said to have lived with el-Habashi for some years: the monstrous snake would come and sit next to him or even lie down on his lap. Jackals are said to have slept at the cave entrance. Abūnā Abd elMesih is reported to have lived with a wolf in 1964: the wolf in the cave used to sit with him and he patted it on the back, allowing the tawny-grey mammal, which had a formidable reputation for flesh eating, to leave the cave if visitors came to see the Ethiopian mystic.
Once a gigantic snake came to Abūnā Abd el-Mesih and blew something into his face, but the desert monk was unafraid. He would even walk out into the desert carrying a scorpion in his hand. He showed no signs of fear when handling scorpions, disregarding the lobster-like pincers and jointed tail that could easily inflict poison upon anyone touching such a dangerous arachnid. (cf. 1 Kings 12.11) Abūnā Abd el-Mesih was deeply offended when visiting monks killed scorpions in his cave. He described all life forms in the natural world as his "family".
When once challenged to fit a wooden door to the mouth of his cave for reasons of personal security, Abūnā Abd el-Mesih replied, "A jackal does not need a door, does he?" He also liked to quote Job 5.17: "For you will be in league with the stones of the field; and the beasts of the field will be at peace with you."
Perhaps all stories of love between humans and beasts in any century, from the fourth century and even to our own, are parables of mutual love:
"With Christ every brute beast is wise and every savage creature gentle" (Sulpicius Severus circa 350-420 Century was a French Catholic monk who visited the Copts in Egypt at the end of the fourth century).
Abba Gabra lyasus Kefle: Nephew of Abūnā Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi
One useful source for the investigation of the life of Abūnā Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi was a distinguished Ethiopian Orthodox monk and scholar Abba Gabra Iyasus Kefle of Asmara in modern Eritrea. But it must be noted that there are no 'primary' written Ethiopian Orthodox sources, not even from Abba Gabra Iyasus Kefle. The Eritrean priest is well known as a major figure in modem Orthodox monasticism, but he was only a small four-year old child when he heard the legend of his renowned uncle Abūnā Abd el-Mesih. Most of the stories of this Servant of Christ came from Abba Kefle's great-aunt - Abūnā Abd el-Mesih's mother - who begged Abba Gabra to find her son one day. It was many years before the younger monk discovered that his uncle had worked as a monastic herdsman at the Tsa 'eda Amba in Eritrea and that Abd el-Mesih had finally fled to Egypt because he was recognized by many visitors and feared that he was not only too well known but that he might be forced into some position of ecclesiastical authority. In several sources, though without written evidence, it has been frequently stated that Abūnā Abd el-Mesih came from an extremely rich family with imperial connections, and that he had a superior education, being prepared for high office in the church.
Abba Gabra Iyasus Kefle travelled to Jerusalem via Egypt in 1958. He was Assistant to Amba Phillipos who became the Ethiopian Orthodox Bishop of Jerusalem. At this significant moment in Ethiopian Christian history it was the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch His Holiness Pope Kyrillos the Sixth of Alexandria who consecrated Bishop Phillipos, but perhaps more significantly it was His Imperial Majesty Haile Sellasie the First, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God and Emperor of Ethiopia (1891-1974/5) who was responsible for the appointment of the new bishop and regarded the new Episcopal candidate as the living centre of Ethiopian Jerusalem. Haile Sellasie - known in 1928 as the Ethiopian king Ras Tafari Makonnen - wanted one autocephalous African Christian Church of his own. For many centuries it was the Coptic Orthodox episcopate from Egypt who came to live and rule the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, but in 1959 Pope Kyrillos consecrated the Ethiopian Abouna Basilios as Patriarch of Addis Ababa and all Ethiopia. Full ecclesial autonomy and complete national independence were now central to Ethiopian Orthodox church life. Abba Gabra Iyasus Kefle knew what was happening, but his beloved uncle, the cave dwelling mystic isolated in the Western Desert, could not have known that these changes had taken place. He was not merely alone in a desert cave. Being a solitary was his real vocation.
As a scholar, and student of Hebrew in the Holy Land, Abba Gabra Iyasus Kefle was most deeply committed to the ministry of the Ethiopian Orthodox in Jerusalem and, though he had travelled through Egypt with his newly consecrated bishop in the late 50s, he had, for more than a decade, completely failed to find out where his uncle Abd el-Mesih really was. Only the abbots of the Monastery of the Syrians and the Monastery of the Romans in the Western Desert knew that Abūnā Abd el-Mesih was a hermit. Abba Gabra Iyasus Kefle finally found Gabra Krestos (Abd el-Mesih) in the Wadi Natroun late in 1969. One slightly unusual but at present unconfirmed story tells of a visit to Abd el-Mesih from his nephew Abba Gabra Iyasus Kefle. The aged uncle was to be presented with a beautiful new robe. It was magnificent and came from the Emperor Haile Sellasie. Abd el-Mesih would not accept the robe, would not return it to his nephew Abba Gabra, would not pass the garment to anyone else but simply cut it up into small pieces. He wanted the simplest dress, and he was equally critical of Coptic bishops and priests who wore elegant and expensive clothing. He frequently quoted the first gospel: "Do not acquire gold or silver, or copper for your money belts, or a bag for your journey, or even two tunics, or sandals" (Matthew 10: 9). Although provided with a robe each year by his neighboring monastery he often gave the garment away to a Bedouin peasant. He chose the plainest raiment. Abūnā Abd el-Mesih especially liked to quote St. Peter: "I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene - walk!" (Acts 3.6).
Abūnā Abd el-Mesih el-Habashi left his cave in the Western desert in the 1970s. He became a pilgrim to Zion, but in the opinion of Abba Gabra Iyasus Kefle the place and date of his uncle's death are unknown.
Sadly, many fascinating sources for the early life of Abūnā Abd el-Mesih -- American, Coptic, Ethiopian and European - are contradictory. It is a great tragedy that information from his life, long after the overthrow of the Emperor and the reestablishment of Eritrea and Ethiopia, and much later than the time of Abūnā Abd el-Mesih's death in the 1970s, is very seriously misused and abused by well known ultra Orthodox sources. The regular misuse of sources is a fraud. But it is designed to undermine Ethiopian Orthodoxy in favor of Coptic and Eritrean church politics. As noted above, some researchers describe the family of Abūnā Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi as poor Eritrean agricultural laborers or farmers and others as Eritrean aristocrats of enormous wealth, closely related to the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Sellasie. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, no definitive primary sources have been unearthed, though it should be noted that there are frequent accounts of visits to Abūnā Abd el-Mesih between 1950 and 1969 by members of the imperial Ethiopian family, leading political figures from his homeland and a number of wealthy persons in exile from the empire who were en route to Europe and the United States of America. Searching for definitive sources can be unsuccessful. Abūnā Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi was believed by some compatriots to be very close to the heart of Imperial Ethiopia, but in the judgment of others he was little more than a peasant.
Abba Justus and Abba el-Habashi meet by the Red Sea
When Abūnā Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi left his cave in the early 1970s he was determined to travel to Jerusalem. But first he left the Wadi Natroun to enter the Eastern Desert near the Red Sea and visit the monastery of St. Antony the Great. It was to be his last visit to any other Coptic monastery. Jerusalem was his goal. En route to the monastery, Abūnā Abd el-Mesih was transported by car from the Diocese of Beni Suef. When the vehicle arrived at the monastery's entrance the gate was firmly locked. The driver tolled the bell at the monastery's gate. Abd el-Mesih left the car and stood up to pray the Divine Office before the monastery wall. It was Morning Prayer (Matins) and no one within the Monastery of Saint Antony had any idea about who was outside the walls. The sixty-year-old monk Abba Justus Al-Antouni, who was not a priest but a humble lay clerk in the monastery, made his way to the gate, singing the Divine Office in unison with the visiting monk in the desert roadway. They used the same versicles and responses. Yet neither of them knew each other. They had never met. When the gate reopened Abūnā Abd el-Mesih and Abba Justus Al-Antouni embraced each other warmly. They did not enter the monastery at first but sat at the roadside in deep conversation. After a while the two holy men got up, took each other by the hand and entered the monastery garden. No one has ever known what they said or did. But it is often suggested that they had attained an authentic holiness, which caused them to recognize each other, just as St. Anthony the Great and St. Paul the Hermit had done. 
Two of the twentieth century's greatest mystics had met physically after decades of a deeply shared spiritual life within Coptic Orthodoxy. In the modern world they lived the life of the desert fathers: Abba Justus and Abba Gabra Krestos inhabited the world of the spirit but stood far apart from all ecclesiastical institutions. Tragically, the real faith-message of the mystics is lost in all forms of institutional religion.
The Road to a Heavenly City
Abūnā Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi had devoted about half a century to the life of solitude. After leaving his monastic brother Abba Justus Al-Antowli he was determined to travel to Jerusalem. For some time he slept in the patriarchal compound in Abassiya but he could not prove who he was. He had no certified Ethiopian State documents. There was no birth certificate and no passport. He had no identification card and certainly no proof of his decades of residence in Egypt. Pope Shenouda the Third certainly knew the Ethiopian hermit. They had met in the Western Desert. But there was no way of acquiring legal documents for Abd el-Mesih's move to the Holy Land. In any case, the country was wrecked with violence. This Servant of Christ was a refugee without a home. For some time he slept in the sanctuary of Anba Rueiss in Abassiya, but the Coptic Patriarch worked to secure Abd el-Mesih's pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Abd el-Mesih did finally travel from Alexandria to Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, and His Holiness Pope Shenouda the Third wrote a letter to the Coptic representative in that country, providing other correlated information, following the decades the Servant of Christ had spent in Egypt.
In the early 1970s Abūnā Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi lived in a solitary monastic cell in Beirut. He preferred to sleep on the bare boards of the floor rejecting any mattress. He cleared the flat of all furniture. He was identified as a man of average height, dark skinned, very thin and with a body that appeared to be dry and lightweight, almost transparent, it was as if light came out of his body, reflecting mystical images of the most saintly monastics. Abūnā Abd el-Mesih wore a black gallabeyah, no vest but tight leather underwear. He walked barefoot. He pulled a leather belt tightly into his thin body and wore a black hat on his head, but an old blanket always covered his head and shoulders. He carried very little luggage. No clothing. No personal effects. But he always picked up his decades-old library of scriptures and liturgical texts - the only texts to define his holiness. He had acquired the traditional Tau stick of St. Anthony the Great. It was his most important physical support. He lived in complete silence. It is certainly possible that he then moved on to Damascus, Syria where he slept under the staircase of a Syrian Orthodox Church. His diet was strictly vegetarian or vegan and he drank a bottle of water every day. Finally, it is reported that he was granted a passport into Amman, Jordan but that he was arrested and searched by the Jordanian police, who only discovered a number of sacred texts with decayed edges. The written language of his texts was identified by the police department as Ge'ez. The Copts in Jordan were amazed to find this desert hermit sleeping in their church in Amman. After a fairly long period of withdrawal in Amman, Jordan some arrangements were made to allow him into Jerusalem. He was accompanied by a group of Orthodox nuns. Some verbal accounts clearly state that he arrived in the Holy City and stayed there for a few days before dying and being buried there. The date and place of death are not known.
Abba Gabra Iyasus Kefle, the nephew of Abūnā Abd el-Mesih al-Habashi, and Dr. Kirsten Stoffregen Pedersen (Sister Abraham) have both stated that they were in Jerusalem in 1969-70 or longer. They did not meet Abūnā Abd el-Mesih in the Holy City. Otto Meinardus, Ragheb Moftah, Naguib Farag and many others have affirmed that Abd el-Mesih died, possibly in Jerusalem, in about. 1973. But Abba Gabra and Dr. Pedersen were aware of the ecclesiastical structures in Israel-Palestine and were well connected with the Ethiopian and Coptic Communities in the Holy City. Both believe that it would have been quite impossible for them not to hear of Abūnā Abd el-Mesih's death in Jerusalem. In their view he did not reach Jerusalem. Nobody spoke about him in the Holy City. He was not buried there. Other sources say that Abūnā Abd el-Mesih stayed with some unidentified Orthodox monks and that he simply vanished in the Holy City. It has been stated that he met the reigning Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of Jerusalem, but criticized Amba Basilios for wearing flowing robes that were far too elegant and ostentatious. The Archbishop did not respond negatively for he too knew that he was dealing with a figure of holiness. An even larger number of Coptic Orthodox Christians, and believers from many other traditions, have identified the Servant of Christ as a saint.
Some believe that Abūnā Abd el-Mesih el-Habashi did not die. He was taken directly into Paradise. A substantial number of Armenians, Copts, Ethiopians and Syrians are certain that they have seen visions of Abūnā Abd el-Mesih in prayer. They received personal messages from him. He could intercede on their behalf.
Perhaps we will never know how, when or where he died? But we may also hope that some reliable historical sources exist somewhere. Documentary evidence must always be sought. Perhaps more will be revealed in the future. There may still be written sources somewhere in Israel-Palestine. The present writer must conclude that this great Ethiopian-Coptic mystic was one who walked with God and that God never lost the Servant of Christ.
And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him."
Now when the Queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon, she came to Jerusalem to test Solomon with difficult questions. She had a very large retinue, with camels carrying spices and a large amount of gold and precious stones; and when she came to Solomon, she spoke with him about all that was on her heart. And Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was hidden from Solomon which he did not explain to her. And when the Queen of Sheba had seen the wisdom of Solomon she was breathless ... And King Solomon gave to the Queen of Sheba all her desire which she requested besides a return for what she had brought to the king. Then she turned and went to her own land ... (2 Chronicles 9.1-3, 4,12.)According to Ethiopian tradition, the Queen of Sheba bore King Solomon's son whose name was Menelik. He became the first emperor in a line that was to stretch unbroken into the twentieth century and which led from the fourth century onwards into a unique Christian theocracy.
This article by John Watson was reprinted, with permission, from Coptic Church Review: A Quarterly of Contemporary Patristic Studies, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Summer 2006). All rights reserved.