If you asked me about seminary two years ago, I would have replied that it wasn't even on my mind. I was tucked away on the other side of the world, 16,500 kilometers away (yes, we use the metric system in Australia!). I had just finished my physical therapy degree and accepted employment in a private practice. I was set in a comfortable workplace, reporting to honest bosses, and enjoying a supportive environment such as any new graduate would dream of. I was ready to begin my career.
Then everything changed. His Grace Bishop Suriel, dean of St. Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Theological College (SACOTC) and bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Melbourne, commissioned me to come to St. Vladimir’s to study towards a Master of Arts degree. Eight months later, I landed in New York and began the process of making St. Vladimir’s my second home, and the adventure began. I’m hoping to complete a Master of Theology here at St. Vladimir’s before pursuing doctoral studies. God willing, when I return home, I will work as a lecturer at SACOTC.
I certainly stand out at St. Vladimir's, with my Australian accent and vocabulary, and my need of spellcheck for words like “colour” and “centre.” (Sometimes I deliberately spell them this way, on my papers!) What I've found, however, is that I’m not the only one with an unusual background. I've discovered that almost everybody here has a story, a unique experience to share, something inspiring to say. I’ve kept a careful record of it all, and my journal is full of what I'm learning and experiencing. So many comments and observations have slipped off the tips of people’s tongues here, and have triggered days of subsequent reflection for me. Little do they know how their words have echoed in my mind, and stayed with me.
While the whole experience of moving to New York has been an adventure, and living away from home has taught me many things, it is truly the people at St. Vladimir's who have made the experience most memorable. Living in this like-minded community, I've been amongst people who have committed their lives to the message of the Gospel. My professors and fellow seminarians alike have given me a new perspective on life, and even the everyday happenings on campus are shaping and sharpening me.
In the classroom, the pressures of academic work have stretched me and the required reading has left me wanting more. Perhaps the most valuable skills I’ve learnt have been methodological. We’ve been taught how to read the Fathers, how to prepare a spiritual reflection on a Biblical text, and how to analyse primary historical documents. I also took a course in Hebrew, which has opened up possibilities of tasting the beauty of the Old Testament in a new way I never knew was possible. This is the real value in formal theological study. It’s not so much the material I’ve learnt; rather, it’s the tools I’ve been given, and will use for the rest of life, to grow in my faith, as I walk the pilgrim’s road to the kingdom of heaven.
Since I left home in August last year, I have seen God’s hand at work in my life in a far clearer way than ever before. He’s arranged everything, from the simplest of things as my circle of friends, to the numerous travel arrangements. He's provided academic and spiritual nourishment, and even finances, and He’s taken care of my every need. It’s been the journey of a lifetime. I am like the sojourning pilgrim of Russia, travelling where the Lord leads, not knowing the way but holding a steady Hand, trusting in His wisdom and growing in His love.
I’ve been blessed with an opportunity I would not have thought to choose for myself, and I am deeply thankful. Glory to be God in all things!
Abraam Mikhail is a first year Coptic student in the Master of Arts Program. He hails from Melbourne, Australia. This summer he was invited by Bishop Suriel to attend a conference in Egypt with His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, 118th Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark. He visited the Monasteries of St. Antony the Great and St. Paul of Thebes in the Red Sea, as well as that of St. Pakhomius, near Luxor (Thebes). St. Pakhomius was the father of cenobitic monasticism. Abraam was amazed to see the remains of Ancient Egyptian temples — the Karnak Temple and Temple of Luxor — that have been standing tall for thousands of years.
In his leisure time, Abraam enjoys making phone calls back home to Australia, and maintains a patristics blog. He hasn't posted anything all semester because he was busy doing the required reading for the Patristics survey course and the Origen class; hopefully things will change over the next few weeks!