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Constructing your Identity
HANI N. ELIAS
Growing up, I was frequently reminded by my parents-sometimes casually over dinner, sometimes with more religious undertones after Sunday Mass-that an abbot of a monastery had once predicted my monastic future. As an infant I was baptized into the Coptic Orthodox Church in a monastery founded in the fourth century by Saint Antony. The twenty-year-old Antony, meditating on the meaning of this temporary life after the passing of his wealthy parents, heeded the commandment of Christ to a rich man in the Gospel of Matthew and escaped into the Sahara: "If thou wishest to be perfect, go and sell everything which thou hast, give to the poor, and take thy cross, and come after Me, and there shall be unto thee treasure in heaven." As a young Christian, I admired Saint Antony for his self-sacrifice, but that was the extent of thought I gave to monasticism. Occupied with school and extracurricular commitments, comforted by my parents and friends, I saw meditation as an ambition for those with loftier sensibilities.
Spring semester of my junior year at Harvard, however, tested me in unique and unfamiliar ways. I often found myself unable to focus in class, crying alone in my room, and unable to laugh at even the funniest moments from Seinfeld . A flood of thoughts distracted me, but a recurring one would eventually lead me back to the monastery, this time in the guise of a scholar. I kept asking myself; despite my seeming academic success and comfortable life, why do I feel so unhappy, so out of place in the midst of common surroundings? I visited a number of physicians but the traditional medical lexicon could not describe my ailments and preoccupations; I called my parents daily but, unable to fully understand my problems, we could only pray together. I felt helpless at times and endlessly frustrated. This struggle pushed me to study monasticism for my senior honors thesis. My research focused on notions of world abnegation. I wanted to explore the plausibility of living independent of material possessions and from a technological and economic order that is leaving more and more people discontended, reliant on antidepressants, and in a chronic state of stress.
On August 1, 2004, I made my way to California's Mojave Desert where, between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, seven monks live in cenobitic life in a small Coptic monastery. Despite an intense heat, I immediately felt an inner sense of calm and peace. Surrounded by mountains and disturbed by neither penetrating buildings nor offensive billboards, here I had the opportunity to discover myself; here my soul could refresh itself. The desert, as I once heard before, truly appeared to me as a plane between earth and heaven. Aside from my fascination with this dry wilderness, I was astonished to discover that an ethic of brotherliness breathed life into this desolate landscape. In the monastery, it would be inappropriate for anyone to go to bed upset with another member of the community; after our evening prayer, it became routine to reconcile any personal differences by kissing each other's hands and asking for forgiveness. And yet behind this outward layer of monastic culture, I soon discovered a more disquieting ethos. A week into my spiritual retreat and academy journey, I read a disturbing message from an early church father on the wall of a monk's cell: he exhorts us not to fear the dead but to "run away from the living." To a monk, this short message accurately conveys a central precept of monasticism, but to me it somehow equally contradicted my innermost vision of my own sense of place amidst the community and larger world.
The monk's disengagement from the troubles of the outside world was especially upsetting to me because of a trip I had taken to Egypt three years before. In one town, I experienced a poverty to which neither books nor even photographs could fully do justice. Ezbet el Nakhl, an area inhabited by the city's garbage collectors, was, to an adolescent who was by no means wealthy, hell on earth. I interacted with youth my own age whose sole arenas of play were heads of garbage; I smelled an unbelievable odor; and most disturbing, I encountered parents and children who no longer believed that things would ever improve. I keep thinking that these living beings, effectively ignored not only by their corrupt government but also by monks, deserve my attention. The ethic of brotherliness and the principle of compassion-notions common within the monastery- cannot help those struggling to eat or escape disease so long as they remain limited to interactions between solitaries and recluses.
Recognizing the importance of the mores of monastic communities, namely, selfless love and brotherliness, it has been my passion to create a network of globally conscious students-future leaders who are committed to serving and helping those less privileged. In 2002, I founded CollegeCorps, a national non-profit organization whose mission is to remove obstacles that currently prevent undergraduate students from becoming involved in health, education, and environmental work in resource-poor centuries. While providing financial assistance and practical training to students alone may not alleviate poverty and disease, my stay in the monastery helped me realize that I cannot turn my back on those who are repeatedly marginalized. Perhaps paradoxically, I have also come to value asceticism. Like Antony, at twenty, I aspire to internalize the principle of self-sacrifice, to avoid the paralysis of a lukewarm passion. Rather than escaping into remoteness, I will apply this ethic as I help those who face poverty and those who suffer from disease.