ST. MACARIUS MONASTERY, Egypt (AP) -- A generation ago, this fourth-century desert monastery was at the point of closing down. Crumbling, short of funds and with only a handful of monks, it could have at best become a tourist attraction, much like Egypt's ancient ruins.
But the fortunes of St. Macarius, one of Egypt's oldest monasteries, were to change with the arrival in 1969 of a hermit known as Matha el-Masken, or Matthew the Poor.
Thirty-two years on, the once-derelict retreat runs an agribusiness and communicates with the outside world via fax and the Internet. It stands as a symbol of the revival of Egyptian monasticism, a place where the enduring traditions of one of the world's oldest Christian communities are wedded to the modern age.
The revolution at St. Macarius has helped answer criticism that Egypt's indigenous and fiercely nationalistic Coptic Orthodox Church was an inward-looking church with little appetite for intellectual endeavor or reform.
The Egyptian church traces its origin to St. Mark, one of Jesus' disciples, and its followers make up about 10 percent of predominantly Muslim Egypt's 65 million people. Its followers worldwide are estimated at about 30 million.
''Despite all the activity and the work, our monastery remains foremost a religious institution. It is a place of worship, a place for which we left the world,'' said Father Yohanna, who was one of 12 monks who came to St. Macarius with Father Matha in 1969.
A pharmacist until the age of 30, Father Matha came to St. Macarius after 15 years as a hermit monk in the caves of the Egyptian desert, where he survived on little food and water and he passed his nights singing hymns and reading the Bible.
Once at St. Macarius, in Egypt's western desert some 65 miles northwest of Cairo, Father Matha turned the monastery into a hub of agricultural and scholarly activity.
Father Matha is now the abbot, and St. Macarius is now the most prestigious of Egypt's 12 major monasteries. It is home to more than a 100 monks -- it had only six in 1969, most of them university graduates with degrees in engineering, pharmacology and agriculture.
''We need three years to judge whether a man can officially join us, but sometimes we turn them away after one day,'' said Father Yohanna. ''We don't want the ones who want to be monks to escape worldly problems, because they cannot earn a living or they come to us because they are poor.''
Father Matha doesn't grant interviews. He has written 120 books, most on biblical subjects but also on family planning and organ transplants. At 82, he is too frail to put pen to paper, but still has much to say. The monks are shopping for voice recognition software for his computer. His works are translated from Arabic to English, French and Greek by his monks, and mailed to Switzerland and Italy for German and Italian editions.
The monks tread a narrow path between the fast-changing world around them and the ascetic traditions left them by St. Anthony, who fathered Christian monasticism when he retreated to Egypt's desert wilderness some 1,600 years ago.
The Internet was introduced to the monastery in January so monks could read new religious works and do agricultural research. But only one monk is allowed to surf the Web, passing on what he finds to his brothers.
''It'll be a major distraction if everyone uses the Internet,'' explains Father Yohanna. ''It'll disrupt the spiritual and scientific work of the monks.''
The monastery plans to set up a Web site later this year.
''We are not content to be only on the receiving end of globalization,'' explained Father Vasillios, a 39-year veteran of the monastic life.
''On our Web site, we shall remind other churches of the traditions of eastern Christianity and export our brand of monasticism. This is not criticism, but they do lack that touch of spirituality that we have here,'' Father Vasillios said.
The monks supervise a poultry farm of 48,000 chicken and use pioneering animal husbandry techniques, like embryo transplant, in a 700-head cattle farm.
The monastery, which employs 700 lay workers, commands 2,000 acres dotted with palm and olive trees. Monks carry Japanese-made cordless phones to keep in contact while on the vast grounds of the monastery.
Land reclaimed from the desert is planted with potatoes, wheat, banana trees and watermelons. Most of the monastery's produce is sold locally and the revenues are used for charity and the upkeep and renovation of the monastery.
Father Yohanna says olives produced in the monastery found their way to Spain in a deal in the mid-1990s and that small amounts of potatoes have been exported to western Europe.
''The quality of our produce is still not good enough for export, but we try,'' he said.
It all sounds a touch worldly, but the monks of St. Macarius still guard their seclusion.
''Visits are forbidden without exception,'' warns a large sign at the entrance of the grounds, where cells and chapels are protected by an imposing castle-like wall with a medieval fort inside that once protected the monks against raids by hordes of Berbers.
''We also prefer to pray alone without outsiders. We don't like the noise and the distractions,'' said Father Irenaeus, a 51-year-old monk.
End Adv for Friday, March 4
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.