Pursuing an Infinite God: a journey of the mind and the heart

Peter Mansour

The icon of Christ, presented to Fr. John Behr, Dean, by His Holiness Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, in June of 2013The icon of Christ, presented to Fr. John Behr, Dean, by His Holiness Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, in June of 2013“Keep a regular spiritual canon while in seminary. There’s value in studying theology, but without daily prayer and sitting with God, God will be less of a Father and more of a textbook.”

Someone shared this advice with me before I arrived at seminary, and I’ve tried to remember these invaluable words always, in my life here at St. Vladimir’s.

As I approach my final semester here at the seminary, I’ve begun to reflect on all that I have learned. I remember how I was so eager to finally arrive and begin my studies. I had almost always been interested in theology and was anxious to come to an Orthodox seminary where I could learn Orthodoxy and live Orthopraxy, rather than merely attend classes at a regular graduate school where students are primarily focused on academia.

My first few weeks felt almost surreal. Being immersed in the liturgical life of the Church, in the Scriptures, and in the writings of the Fathers, I instantly felt right at home. It was so edifying to be surrounded by a crowd of like-minded intentional people, all striving in their spiritual journeys, all determined to serve Christ and His Church. Although the daily schedule became difficult and the course load became challenging, all of my time in the chapel and in the library enriched my spiritual and personal growth. 

As the months unfolded, I learned a lot about myself; what qualities I value, the dynamics of my spiritual life, and how to better manage my time. Yet still, nothing has proven truer or has been more apparent to me than the wisdom of that simple advice I received before I arrived here. I have found, while at St. Vladimir’s, that the days when I have been able to bridge the gap between theology and my own spiritual life, have been the days that I excelled in my studies and truly felt “renewed in my mind.”

This renewal came as I practiced my own spiritual rule, but also through the great encouragement provided through the existence of the Coptic Chapel of St. Mark on campus. Being able to pray in my own tradition, rites, and liturgical music, has been a special treat, something I will always cherish and for which I am grateful. Here, in this familiar, sacred space, I have been able to quiet my thoughts, and stand in the presence of God.

The Story of St. Mark’s Chapel 

The Coptic Chapel was just a few months old when I started as a student at St. Vladimir’s. It had been offered as a generous gift  to our small community of Coptic seminarians, and was meant to give us the chance to pray in our liturgical tradition and to feel completely at home. Our humble prayer space was adorned by a Coptic icon of Christ, one that had been presented to Fr. John Behr, St. Vladimir’s Dean, by our patriarch, on Fr. John's trip to Egypt in 2013. The room held a few other Byzantine icons as well. While this simple arrangement certainly didn’t keep us from praying and using this as our sacred space, we all had big dreams for the room. We all hoped to make this small classroom a beautiful example of Coptic liturgy and art, so we started brainstorming.

As it turned out, God was even more eager than we were to get this work going! The weekend after our first unofficial meeting to make plans for the Coptic Chapel, I was attending Midnight Praises at St. Abraam Coptic Orthodox Church. As I was leaving at the end of the night, I noticed a giant pile of things stacked up in the church’s storage room. Curious, I went over to look and discovered that it was an old iconostasis! It had suffered some water damage, but nevertheless, it was an entire iconostasis! The cantor of the church, seeing my interest, told me that it was being replaced and jokingly offered for me to take them, if I so desired.  To his surprise, I jumped at the opportunity and loaded up my tiny sedan with huge slabs of woodwork and icons and headed back to seminary. As beat-up as these pieces were, we all felt really blessed, and were ready to start putting together our chapel!

Our first step was to restore the main icons of the Pantocrator and of the Theotokos. I approached a couple, Evelyn Avery Rophael and Wafik Rophael, from my home parish in Maryland. They create and restore Coptic icons and woodwork, and they did not disappoint! They stripped and redid the gold leaf, repainted the damaged pieces of painting, set the canvas on a new support frame to straighten it out, and added it to an entirely new façade-frame. They did marvelous work and really brought out the dormant beauty of these 30-year-old icons.

On the Feast of the Cross, the icons went up, and the room was transformed from a classroom to a sanctuary. It was a joyous day, indeed! Standing in our new chapel at Vespers, I couldn't but notice the difference in our worship experience. There, in that room, now arose the same strength that shines in the classroom, and the awe I take with me to the library. This feeling has stayed with me. Worship now both informs and transforms every aspect of my life here at St. Vladimir's.

 Peter Mansour is a second-year Coptic student in the Master of Arts Program. He is a member of St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church of Savage, MD, where he served in the middle school ministry, and as a coordinator of the Coptic Hymns ministry/choir before he arrived at seminary.

Peter attended the University of Maryland where he received his B.A. in History and served as the president of the Coptic Orthodox Christian Association chapter at College Park, MD. He is now earning his Masters for the advancement of the ministry of the Coptic Orthodox Church in America. He hopes to pursue further studies after graduation while continuing to serve the Church in any capacity, as he is able.