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THE COPTS AND THE GUARDIAN ANGEL: THE EVIDENCE FROM SAINT PAPHNUTIUS

December 10, 2017

GA

Guardian Angel, using the Byzantine art of iconography[1]

In a previous article, I talked about the belief of the Copts in a guardian, personal angel who accompanies the individual all his life from birth to death; and on that occasion I used evidence from Saint Anthony the Great no less, but it seemed like it was the only occasion in Coptic literature in which the Guardian Angel is mentioned.

Looking for other sources for the belief in the Guardian Angel, I subsequently found much evidence. In the Life of Onnophrios, the Anchorite, by Apa Papnoute (Paphnutius), which is told in a Sahidic Coptic text published, with English translation by Budge in his Coptic Martyrdoms,[2] we are told how Onnophrios (Un-Nefer, or ‘Beautiful Being’) had been living a coenobitic life in the Thebaid before he moved down to live in the monastic community of the Scete. One day, the thought of leaving the coenobitic life to become an anchorite in the inner desert, living a life of, prayer, fasting and suffering in the wilderness, came into his mind; and, consequently, “a great ecstasy seized me, and I became like those whose minds are snatched away into another world. And I rose up and took a few bread cakes to eat whilst journeying to the place where God should enable me to reach.”

The place which God enabled him to reach was a hut which lied over four days walk into the inner desert. In his journeying to that destination, we are told that the Guardian Angel of Saint Onnophrios guided him. As Onnophrios left the Scete monastery, he looked and saw a being of light before him, and he was afraid, and thought that he would be turned back. But that being, seeing that Onnophrios was afraid, was quick to reassure him, saying:

“Fear not, for I am thy angel who dwelleth with thee, and who has been with thee from thy childhood.”

Here we have another evidence of the belief of early Copts in the concept and existence of the Guardian Angel. In the previous article on the subject, I mentioned the lack of artistic evidence, in Coptic icons and murals, of the Guardian Angel; but the absence of evidence does not always prove the non-existence of it. I suspect that one day we will find evidence of the Guardian Angel in a Coptic piece of art.

Considering that the concept of the personal Guardian Angel is biblical,[3] it is hardly surprising that the Copts did believe in the concept like other Christians of old churches. It is a shame that we don’t hear much about the Guardian Angel in the teaching of the Coptic Church or find Coptic art interested in the subject. There is a huge potential for the development of a beautiful art if Coptic artists embraced the concept of the Guardian Angel.

____________________

[1] By Monastery Icons.

[2] Coptic Martyrdoms etc, In Dialect of Upper Egypt, E. A. Wallis Budge (London, 1914).

[3] See: Matthew 18:10, Acts 12:1-10, Psalm 91:11.

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