Saints and tradition in Coptic Orthodox Christianity in Egypt

Title: Saints and tradition in Coptic Orthodox Christianity in Egypt
Source document: Religio. 2021, vol. 29, iss. 1, pp. [3]-32
  • ISSN
    1210-3640 (print)
    2336-4475 (online)
Type: Article

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Based on ethnographic research, the article explores the position of saints in the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, focusing particularly on the relationship between Copts and their saints, and on the role the saints play in the Coptic understanding of their Church past. I demonstrate that Egyptian Orthodox Copts are encouraged to model their selves on narratives about their saints, and the saints' lives are turned into forma vitae, i.e., lives to be emulated. Further, I show how Coptic Orthodox saints can be considered key symbols, while their lives can be deemed key scenarios with suffering and persecution representing a root metaphor. The saints, thus, embody Coptic Orthodox values, which are socially accessible through ecclesiastical teachings on the appropriate Coptic Orthodox Self. In this way, Copts are made a part of the same series as the saints, and this seriation, as Bandak calls it, authorizes certain social actions, and social agency is thus challenged to follow such comportment (and particular social values). Further, the saints are crucial for understanding the Coptic concept of tradition, an indispensable element of Orthodox faith, as they represent its constituting elements. I point out that tradition in the Coptic Orthodox Church is defined as a lived experience (anchored in the experience of suffering) that can be lived again (it is not a historical moment located exclusively in the past) and is directly linked to the past. I link this understanding of the past with Simon Coleman's notion of historiopraxy to illuminate the Coptic disposition towards the past, and I argue that in the Coptic Orthodox Church the existence of the past without tradition is meaningless.