Reflection on a Saying of a Desert Christian: Abba Kopris

“Thrice-blessed is the monk who endures labors and trials, being thankful to God,” Abba Kopris used to say.

“Once Abba Kopris himself became gravely ill and astounded the brothers with his admirable patience. Not one time did he ask that his slightest request be fulfilled, and prayer was not for a moment absent from his lips.”

The Desert Christians embraced suffering with joy in their hearts because in so doing, they identified themselves with what Jesus suffered on the cross. They offered up their suffering as a sacrifice in imitation of Jesus. As a child when I attended the Roman Catholic private school, the nuns would teach us to offer up what we in elementary school considered our unbearable sufferings.

I remember my first experience of this.My first three days of first grade, I went to the Nassau Street School which was a public school.  Then my mother discovered that because of over-crowding, those of us who lived within a certain distance were expected to walk home and back for lunch.  As my mother didn’t feel she could cope with walking with me and my baby brother for four round trips a day, regardless of weather, my parents instead enrolled in in St. Paul’s School.  On my fourth day of first grade, there I was starting all over again, after just getting to know the ropes at the other school and was plunked down amidst kids who already had three days experience under their belts.  After lunch, we were out in the playground and everyone lined up and I joined the line only to discover that someone was selling candy and as I had no money, I couldn’t buy any.   It was really too much for me.  I burst into tears.

I had had a very hard morning for a five-year-old. A new school when I had been making friends at the first school. There was no desk, so Sister Padua sat me a table that faced the back of the room and if I wanted to see the chalkboard, I had to twist around in an uncomfortable position.  Alfred Perrone and Mark Sayles were naughty and to punish them, Sister bent Alfred over a desk in the front row and broke her yardstick over his butt.  She sent Mark across the hall to “borrow” Sister Mary’s yardstick and broke that one across Mark’s butt.  The Sister made us all sit in silence, looking at her for what seemed like forever.  In order to obey, and you can be sure I wanted to obey, I had to twist all the around in my chair, with my knees going in one direction and my head going another. I was traumatized by the time she got up from her class and resumed teaching.

So not being able to have any candy was the last straw for this tiny (I was the shortest kid in my class until freshman year of high school) child. Starting first grade was frightening in the first place, getting yanked out of one school and into a  new one was frightening, the yardstick thing was terrifying, and the sitting all twisted for all those minutes was physically painful.  I wept my eyes out. Sister Mary Zena came to me and said “Child, offer it up.  Jesus suffered on the cross.  Whatever hurt you, offer it up in imitation of Christ.”  As you may imagine, this made no sense at all to a five-year-old, especially as I had no idea who Jesus was and what suffering on the cross meant.

Abba Kopris was able to embrace his illness and offer it up.  He didn’t let his illness stop him in any way. In my opinion, this si an example of extremism we today should not follow.  He continued unabated to pray the Psalms, all 150 a day, and weave his baskets or mats.  He did not seek medical treatment or rest to allow his body to heal.

I am older now, and I have offered up many of my struggles.  But when it comes to illness, I will not follow the Abba’s example.  I will ask for help, be it going to the doctor or asking friends to go to the supermarket for me. I will sleep as I need to.

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