As Coptic Orthodox Christians, we celebrate the Feast of the Cross twice a year, on September 27 and March 19. For all of us, the Life-Giving Cross must play a pivotal role in our lives. Therefore, we felt it is apropos to present a brief glimpse into the life of a contemporary cross-bearer, the late Fr. Pishoy Kamel Is’hak, whose departure we commemorate on March 21st. It is not coincidental that his departure was on the third day of the Feast of the Cross for, as we shall see, God wanted his memory to be always associated with the Life-Giving Cross.
As Christians, we believe that the grace of the Holy Spirit works in all of us to the extent that we are willing to open our hearts and place ourselves in the Mighty Hands of God. The late Fr. Pishoy Kamel Is’hak (1931-1979) exemplifies the Christian person, who allows himself to be a tool for God to use. God gives each of us gifts, but what makes Fr. Pishoy unique is the vast number of gifts God has combined and blessed him with; it is rare to have so many combined in one person. But he used all of them and all his talents for the glory of God’s Name. The purpose of this article is not just to praise a man, who was a giant in his faith and love for God, but rather to concentrate on one aspect of his life, which is how he carried the Cross in his life. He truly was a modern day cross-bearer. He was a phenomenon in our generation and we are indeed blessed to have had such a pious man living amongst us. We can only thank our Lord for His gift to us in Abouna Pishoy.
For all of you, who personally knew Fr. Pishoy, you must agree that human words fail to describe this great father. For in describing him, we are describing the mighty work of the Holy Spirit in a human being, who allowed himself to be an instrument in God’s Hands to be fully utilized for service and for the growth of God’s Kingdom. How can one describe the work of the Holy Spirit?! Any words used will not do him justice, but it is a minor effort to show how the Cross had a pivotal effect on his life and how he wanted it to be effective in our lives. The Cross certainly played a distinctive role in his life. By human standards, his life on this earth was short. But what he did in his few years was magnificent by the power of the Cross. We shall look at how the Cross played a vital role in Abouna Pishoy’s personal life, in his service, and during his illness.
In His Personal Life:
Fr. Pishoy was a man who lived the commandments of the Bible and applied them to himself before he started teaching them to his children. He had a definite goal in his life, which was his own salvation and the salvation of all his children. The secret of the power of his spiritual life lied in his firm belief in the power of the Life-giving Cross. He practiced self-crucifixion through his strict asceticism, following what St. Paul said, "But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified." (1 Cor. 9:27) He led a simple life, subjecting himself to strict fastings and night vigils. Up to the time of his severe illness, the few hours that he slept at night, he slept on a thin cotton mattress on the floor. His body was frail from the outside, but he was a spiritual giant. He never seeked praise for himself. In fact, he often wondered why people loved him so much and always sought him. He believed that his personal life could not be separated from his ministry and service. Although everyone, who knew Abouna Pishoy, honored him greatly and respected him, he always fled from honor. He believed that the true honor comes when one is despised for the Name of Christ. One time during his early years as a priest, he was walking down the street when a Moslem man insulted him by words because he was a priest and when he spat, it fell on his cloak (his farougeya). When he went home, he gave his "farougeya" to Tassoni Angele, his wife, to clean it. She was very upset that someone dared to do that. But he told her, "You foolish one! This is our pride. To be despised and humiliated for the Name of Christ is our honor."
Carrying the Cross of Others in Service:
Fr. Pishoy exemplified how love of God is manifested through love of neighbor through true and pure sacrifice. He loved all those he served and considered himself their father, offering himself as a sacrifice for them. We define true Christian love as giving of oneself to everyone, without limits. Abouna Pishoy gave of his time, his effort, his energy, his talents, and everything he had to his children. For Abouna Pishoy, service was not a duty, an obligation, or a responsibility. It was a passion for the salvation of everyone, and it came from the heart. He felt his mission was to show the power of the Cross to everyone by being a sacrifice like our Lord was on the Cross. His heart ached whenever a sheep was about to get lost or was lost, and this was one of the heaviest burdens for him. Whenever he heard that a person was weakening and may abandon his faith, he would seek this lost sheep with all his might and pour himself as a sacrifice in prayer before the altar, determined, by the grace of God, to bring that soul back. Many of us know the story of how he held on to a police car that was taking away a young woman, who forsake Christ. He would not let go of the car to the point that he was being dragged on the road, and they had to stop the car to avoid severely injuring him.
His love for the flock was seen when he helped them carry their own crosses. He shared in their sufferings and, by God’s wisdom, helped those, who came to him, to rise to a higher spiritual level by teaching them to carry their crosses with joy. He did not believe that the Cross was a punishment, which one should "bear and grin". On the contrary, he taught us that the Cross should be a daily desire. He used to tell us that we have to enter "the school of the Cross" and going to school must be done daily. He taught us that carrying the Cross was carrying the Throne of our King, and that through it Christ rules over our hearts. To those who came to him with problems, he taught them that every cross that came their way was a blessing. But he also would help them lift their burden by offering to do something concrete. Abouna Pishoy was not a passive man; he worked without ceasing. He was known for his thoughtful deeds and sensitivity towards the feelings of others, extending help, without being asked. That is why he was so endeared by his children and loved by his flock. We all smelled the aroma of his loving sacrifice to everyone without favoritism.
He was given the gift of understanding the complex human nature and God bestowed this gift upon him in abundance. He used it to the fullest for the spiritual edification of all his children. As a result, he was able to carry their crosses during their time of emotional distress. God also gave him the gift of making every one feel that (s)he was his very special son or daughter, not just the few who closely worked with him. Such a gift is a great blessing in ministry. For all of us who dealt with him, each one has his own story of how true this was. But what is important to emphasize is that unless the Cross was definite and clear in his life, he would not have been able to open his heart like that. He offered his heart as a sacrifice of love like our Lord did on the Cross. This is why his frail and weak body had an immensely large heart. Indeed, it is the power of the Cross that transforms a human being, and this is why he truly deserves to be called a cross-bearer.
With his children in confession, the big fatherly heart was always evident and felt. He never condemned, but always felt that the sins of his children are his very own, and his to carry. Indeed, he did carry them and brought them all in front of the altar of the Lord. With his warm smile and comforting eyes, he raised them to a higher spiritual level, by not only sharing their feelings, but by making them see the blessing of the Cross in their lives. So, while he helped them carry their crosses, he also lifted them up spiritually. That was apparent in all the problems that came to him. He turned it into an opportunity to bring Christ into the person’s life to settle in his heart.
It was known that he financially helped many college students and families. But it became evident after his departure that he even helped some Moslem families, showing that the true Christian servant gives of himself to everyone so all can see the icon of Christ in him and smell the aroma of Christ’s sacrifice. One time as Tassoni Angele was buying bread from the young boy, who brought the bread to their apartment, he was accompanied by another young Moslem boy, who told her that he had no shoes. She turned him away and told him to go to their mosque and they will buy him shoes. When she retold the story to Abouna Pishoy, he became quite upset and told her, "Is this what Christ taught us? This afternoon, you go and buy shoes for this child!" So, although he was known for his firm and courageous stands during time of trouble with authorities, yet he still fulfilled the commandment of love on an individual level.
Carrying the Cross teaches humility and Abouna Pishoy was a humble man. He never seeked his own glory. In fact, he often thought that maybe instead of building the big Church of St. George in Sporting in Alexandria, it would have been better to have built many other small churches. He was not self-centered seeking only the glory of his ministry and his church, but cared only about the salvation of souls. Indeed, he did help establish many of the surrounding churches in Alexandria and provided for these churches from the best servants in his church. Isn’t this true sacrifice? Amazing love for Christ and for the growth of the Kingdom!
With his children in confession, he always advised us to contemplate on the crucified Christ. He used to say that we carry the Cross daily when we bear the abuse of people around us, when we struggle against sin that surrounds us on the street, in the office, at school, etc. We carry the Cross when we are determined to crucify our desires and lusts. We carry the Cross when we maintain our freedom, which we were given through baptism. Obeying Christ’s commandments, no matter how heavy they may seem, is carrying the Cross. He taught us that every submission and acceptance of illness and pain with thanksgiving is carrying the Cross. He taught us that in falling down under the yoke of Christ’s Cross, like Simon the Cyrene, that we share with Christ the burden of carrying the Cross for the sake of others. So when I carry the Cross, Christ is blessing me. He used to tell us that whoever stands at the feet of the Cross, like St. John, deserves to have the Blessed Virgin as his mother.
To help his children carry the Cross on a daily basis, he gave us spiritual exercises, such as praying Psalm 70 (69 in the Coptic version), "Make hast, O God, to deliver me!…" He used to say that praying this psalm is like releasing an arrow from a bow; the devils flee away, and we should use it at times of temptation and weakness. He also used to say, "Meditate on the Cross" every day. The picture of our Lord Jesus Christ crucified and Mary Magdalene at the foot of the Cross was very endearing to his heart. In fact, he had one hanged in his room, over his bed. He used to say that Mary chose the best place ever, at the foot of the Cross. He also wrote two books on the Cross: With Christ Crucified and Under the Foot of the Cross.
Carrying the Cross During His Illness:
Abouna’s love for the Life-giving Cross was a passion. He always longed to really enter into "the sphere" of the Cross (as he used to call it), by actually suffering physical pain so he can share Christ’s glorious resurrection. Our Heavenly Father wished for His precious servant, Abouna Pishoy, to have a glorious place in the Heavenly Jerusalem. Therefore, for two years God gave Abouna the yoke of suffering in the form of his illness with caner and the unpleasantness of its chemotherapy treatment. It was at that time that we saw Abouna’s faith and spirituality blossom even more; he entered "the dynamic state" of the Cross (another of his favorite phrases regarding the Cross). God gave him heavenly and spiritual power and comfort that even during those difficult years, he was a tremendous source of comfort for others. For every person that came to see him at that time, Abouna would turn the conversation about the visitor, not about himself or his illness. It was always about "his children", never about himself. He always wanted to help them carry their crosses, even when his cross was very heavy. So if he could not go to them because of the limitations set on him by the illness, he wanted them to come to him. He was truly an icon of the loving shepherd and father who seeked the comfort of others at the expense of his own comfort and his own health. Isn’t this the road of the Cross?…In fact, during the last few months of his life, his home was a shelter for two troubled young women, who were sent to him by their bishops from different dioceses.
We must give credit where it belongs, and I must admit that Tassoni Angele, his wife, carried this big cross with him, and I will even dare to venture and say that she actually shared in his physical pain during his illness. She often would say that she wished she could switch places with him and carry this cross of illness instead of him. It was to God’s glory that Abouna’s spirit departed from his frail body two days after the Feast of the Cross, on March 21st, 1979. It was as if God was giving us a message: This precious servant of Mine, who willingly carried the Cross with joy, is being resurrected into eternal life on the third day (2 days after the Feast of the Cross)! We stand in silence and only bow down to God worshipping Him at the foot of the Life-giving Cross, as Abouna taught us.
I can go on and on and feel that I have not said enough about Abouna Pishoy for I know that no matter what words I use, I can never do justice to this great spiritual father, and I can not paint a full picture of him. His life in the Cross transcends human words. He lived within "the sphere of the power of love" as he called the Life-giving Cross. But the purpose of this article is to give all of us an inspiration to carry the Cross with joy and to be cross-bearers by the power of the Holy Spirit within us, and through the prayers of our father, Abouna Pishoy. We may not be given another spiritual father quite like him for a long time, but we unceasingly thank our Lord for His heavenly gift to us in Abouna Pishoy. We have confidence that as he himself carried the Cross with joy, he can sustain us by his prayers so we may also joyfully seek our crosses and are always confident that our resurrection starts with our cross. Our hope is that at the time of our departure our spirits will meet his spirit in the Heavenly Jerusalem and be forever alive in the presence of our Lord.