It’s about ten days before Christmas as I write this, and I’m in the middle of Christmas parties, baking, shopping and all the usual pre-Christmas rush. And yet, my thoughts are still in Egypt, as I reflect on what this trip, finished more than a month ago, means to me. I’m still hearing from Reda and Hanel through Facebook, and I read whatever news I come upon that pertains to Egypt.
I sit in my bed every morning, as before, read the Bible and devotional books and pray, but I’ve added a new element to my prayer time. Sometimes I look at the pictures of Jesus and Mary that Reda gave me. I think about Mary and what an open, compassionate woman she must have been to agree to mother the most compassionate of human beings there ever was. I see myself as a woman like her in some ways, certainly with the same capacities. If she was compassionate, I can grow in compassion. So I pray for more compassion in myself. I look at the picture of Jesus, imagining the depths of love, compassion and power contained in this man. He is, after all, resurrected from the dead, and has the power to resurrect all that is dead in me. I reflect on the verse in Colossians, “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3) Surely this is the secret the sisters possess in order to live in such peace and joy. They live, not caring that much whether they live or die, because they know they have eternal new lives, hidden and protected in Christ Jesus. They consider their old lives to be rubbish. The sentence St. Paul wrote to the Philippians has taken on a deeper meaning: “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ.” Philippians 3: 8-9. Paul goes on to describe more of the life I have seen in these sisters: “I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” Philippians 3: 10-11.
I feel some embarrassment writing this, but I am unsure where my embarrassment comes from. Is it something within me, or am I reflecting an embarrassment burdening our modern Western society? These words sound so old-fashioned, so far from the way we in the West live our lives. But it is precisely because this way of living has become so rare that my time with the sisters and their friends is so precious to me. They have influenced my thinking and my approach to God. The time I spent there continues to influence how I prepare for Christmas.
Being there was good for me in so many ways.
I had the chance to live around Christians whose very lives depend upon their faith. They rely on God for everything. They will not give up their faith, even if it costs them their lives. Not only that, they refuse to open themselves to hatred or revenge. They will continue to love and serve other Egyptians, even if some Egyptians hate them enough to kill them. They remain open, loving and tolerant of differences.
It’s not only the sisters who live such courageous lives. It’s also people like Reda and Marleen who refuse to join the western, materialistic mindset, even Mary in the gift shop at the airport. Copts don’t date, they don’t have sex before marriage, and they don’t divorce. I can imagine many people I know who feel trapped in their lives. They long for a better partner and they recoil at the thought of a lifestyle that they consider restrictive. They might consider this Egyptian mentality rigid and reactionary. But I don’t see the people I met as trapped. To the contrary, I think they’re onto a secret of happiness – sticking with relationships, even when they’re difficult. I saw sisters complaining about other people to Sister Maria. But they try again the next day. At the Salam Center, they don’t teach putting up with abusive behavior either. That’s not it. There, they teach people how to live constructively in relationship.
Living with radiant, cheerful Christians who are true to their faith, to their principles, and who love, showed me that there are groups of Christians who are really good examples of the faith.. They truly live in, for, and love Christ. This has opened me up to looking for more of the same positive faith here in Germany, where so many people focus on the weaknesses of Christians. That’s what makes it in the newspapers and on the internet, and that’s what people talk about. They talk about bishops who build lavish homes instead of humble Christians who live generous, joyous lives.
At the Salam Center I had a positive experience of life in community. Sister Maria runs the center with a steady, yet gentle hand, and not as an autocrat. She listens to the complaints and arguments of others, and they state their opinions and grievances openly. It felt good to be around her and the other people I encountered, day after day. It felt good not to run away into ever new people and experiences.
I valued my own good qualities because I saw them as valued by those I encountered there. For instance, people there kept talking about my kindness. This is something I’ve never particularly valued. I’ve valued competitiveness more, because that’s what our society values. But seeing my kindness as something they treasure helped me to treasure it too, and to work towards developing more kindness and dropping the competition.
In the same way, I valued my profession as a teacher of English as a second language, because I could see that my teaching skills were openly valued there. People could see and hear what I did in the classroom and they expressed approval and sometimes even admiration. This helped me stop taking what I do in the classroom in Germany for granted. In Germany, I think native speakers of English who teach their language are seen as people who do this for lack of having found anything more lucrative to do. I remember reading an interview with the American crime novelist Donna Leon, who lives and sets her novels in Venice. She said that in the beginning of her time in Venice she was forced into (horrors!) teaching English in language schools. It took doing it in Cairo and seeing how much the Egyptians value this to place a high value on what I do. These days, I’m looking at teaching as a wonderful career, and I see the logic and the great sense of purpose I can find in being a teacher.
I loved the openness and candor of the Egyptians I met. I have found this each time I’ve been in Egypt. When I meet warm people, there is a synergetic effect – I warm up! These Egyptians are unafraid of eye contact or of showing who they really are, even if it is their softer, more vulnerable side. Their heroes are godly people from the past and present, not rock, movie or sports stars. The people I met are unafraid of admiring the character qualities they find in people, and they even want to emulate this!
Sometimes they would walk right up to me and say things like, “You have beautiful eyes.” “You have kind eyes.” “You’re beautiful.” “I like you.” I responded to their openness, and it opened me up. I smiled and related to everyone from my heart, because that’s how they related to me. I’ve tried bringing this back to Germany. I recently said to a casual friend of mine as I said good-bye, “You’re so sweet!” He smiled and seemed delighted with what I said. I hope he was. In Germany people don’t go around telling each other that they’re sweet. At a Christmas party I smiled long at another woman, looking directly into her eyes. I don’t know her terribly well, but I like and respect her very much. She smiled back at me. We weren’t making passes at one another. I wouldn’t have smiled at her like that if I hadn’t experienced the same thing in Egypt.
At the Salam Center, I saw the distractions we have in the West as simply that – distractions. They do not improve our lives. I have a deeper desire to concentrate on the essentials, on the important things like love, and to let the other things drop. Living in that environment helped me to see which activities are distractions and which are life-bringing.
I have rarely felt such supreme happiness as I felt while at the Salam Center. Sharing my gifts and my self with people who valued this made my days! And I shared my happiness with God, talking about this in my moments alone with God. I didn’t care about all the deficits at the Salam Center, things like broken doorknobs and wading through sand to get into the convent, feeling that joy, that happiness. That is an essential. That is something worth more than gold. Well, you can find it at the Salam Center.
At the Salam Center, I felt like I belonged to a group, and that this was a group I wanted to belong to. I respected their values and even shared most of them. Those I didn’t share, like the kissing of icons, I could at least understand. In this community I felt completely accepted, desired, and valued. What can be better than that!
And so, here I am now, living again in Germany, profiting from the treasures – from the rubies I discovered in a center near a rubbish heap. These treasures have the ability to enrich my daily life. They also create a hunger in me for more. Insha-Allah, Lord willing, I will return to the Salam Center, not only to share more of myself, but also to receive more of what these marvelous people have to share with me.