Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Catholic Explores the World of Coptic Orthodoxy

I love exploring the world of Christianity.

Through my being raised a Seventh-Day Adventist, I came into contact with much of the Protestant world, both fringe and mainline.  As I converted to the Catholic Church, I insatiably sought anything and everything I could get my hands on when it came to the faith.  For the last couple of years, I have also studied Eastern Orthodoxy and gained much wisdom and insight from that.  But the one group within Christianity that has thus far largely escaped my studies are the Oriental Orthodox.

I beg forgiveness from any Oriental Orthodox readers if I make any ignorant statements below - I will do my best to give a brief overview from the little I know.

The Oriental Orthodox branch of Christianity, from what I can tell, began with the rejection of the Council of Chalcedon - hence, these churches only accept the first three ecumenical councils, rather than the first seven ecumenical councils accepted by the Eastern Orthodox and us, or the fourteen councils beyond the first seven that are accepted by us in the Catholic Church.

From what I have seen, the most obvious and well-known branch of Oriental Orthodoxy is the Coptic Orthodox Church, however, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has the most adherents.  Other branches include the Armenian Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church.  Here, I wish to explore in particular the world of Coptic Orthodoxy.

Several things fascinate me about this branch of Christianity which seems to be so often overlooked.

Firstly, the Coptic Orthodox Church in particular seems to have preserved the tradition of the Desert Fathers right on down to this day - we see this in such figures as the recently deceased Matthew the Poor, as well as in the present life and teachings of Fr. Lazarus El Anthony.  Saints such as St. Anthony the Great and St. Macarius are huge and obvious influences here.

The aesthetic look of Coptic Orthodoxy is also very interesting to me.  I remember distinctly, when my wife were exploring the grounds of Blarney Castle in Ireland, seeing a Coptic Orthodox monk or priest (I am too ignorant to know which) and remarking upon his unique garb.

The iconography of Coptic Orthodoxy is totally unique as well.  Unlike the style I am used to in Byzantine iconography, Coptic iconography seems to be of a much simpler and cleaner style.  One thing that is interesting to note is the hand gesture of Christ in Coptic Orthodox icons - instead of two fingers held up, there is only one held up; presumably, this refers to the Oriental Orthodox position of Christ having only one Nature, wherein the divine and human natures are united in one nature, but of this I am not certain.  Bear with me, I am exploring it all too.

The wisdom found within Coptic Orthodoxy, however, is what especially appeals to me.  I like to think that every branch of Christianity has something to offer the inquiring Catholic - as anyone who has read this blog before might know, I take the approach of St. Thomas Aquinas, that truth is where it is found (I am paraphrasing here).

Being as my patron saint is St. Anthony of Egypt (along with St. Francis of Assisi), I can readily dive right into the writings of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which has been a haven for desert spirituality for centuries.  Fr. Lazarus El Anthony is, to me, by far one of the wisest living Christians I have yet encountered in my life.  If you have not inquired into his life and teachings, then watch this, and begin your journey:

With the sufferings of the Coptic Christian community in general so highlighted in the news lately, it has really made me want to investigate and learn from this particular tradition.  I still know little about it, but I hope I have at least sparked your curiousity to keep walking with me so that we might learn together. I hope in the future to publish a post on the saints of Oriental Orthodoxy in particular, if for nothing else than to learn more about our brethren in these churches and establish more awareness of them.

May God grant us all unity in Him.


  1. May the Lord guide you in your search for His Love. I am a coptic orthodox christian and enjoyed reading your article. God bless you.

  2. I don’t think it was an issue of them rejecting the council it was more or less them being rejected in their expression, which was later recognized by Pope John Paul II when he and the Coptic pope signed a doctrinal agreement about the nature of Christ. As the former Coptic Orthodox Pope states:
    “The term "Monophysites" used for the believers in the One Nature has been
    intentionally or unintentionally misinterpreted throughout certain periods of history.
    Consequently, the Coptic and the Syrian Churches in particular were cruelly persecuted
    because of their belief, especially during the period which started from the Council of
    Chalcedon held in 451 A,D. and continued to the conquest of the Arabs in Egypt and
    Syria (about 641 A.D.).
    This misinterpretation continued along history as though we believed in one
    nature of Christ and denied the other nature.
    We wonder which of the two natures the Church of Alexandria denies?
    Is it the Divine nature? Certainly not, for our Church was the most fervent defender
    against the Arian heresy in the Council of Nicea, held in the year 325 A.D., as well as
    before and after that. Or is it The Lord’s human nature that the Church of Alexandria
    denies? St. Athanasius of Alexandria resolved this entirely in the oldest and greatest
    book on this subject The Incarnation of the Word,
    The expression "One Nature" does not indicate the Divine nature alone nor the
    human nature alone, but it indicates the unity of both natures into One Nature
    which is "The Nature of the Incarnate Logos".