The Limitless Hope of Bishop Samuel (1920–1981)

by Samuel Kaldas | Ελληνικά

Bishop Samuel

Few Copts today remember Bishop Samuel, the first General Bishop of Ecumenical and Social Services. They do not hang his picture in their homes or keep it in their wallets as they do with his contemporaries like Pope Kyrillos VI or Pope Shenouda III. Those who have heard of him are likely to know little beyond the shocking manner of his death: he was killed in the crossfire during the assassination of President Anwar Sadat on October 6, 1981—39 years ago today.

But long before that day and the bitter controversies surrounding it, Bishop Samuel had served as the public face of the Coptic Church under three successive patriarchs; he had been, in the words of John Watson, “in effect, the Coptic Orthodox Minister of Foreign Affairs,” and “the most famous Copt inside and outside Egypt.”[1] In fact, he was very nearly the 117th Pope of Alexandria himself; his name was one of the three in the altar ballot which selected Pope Shenouda III in 1971. Westerners who worked with him at conferences and ecumenical gatherings were consistently struck by his keen intellect and his open heart. When he met him in the early 1960s, Edward Wakin (late Fordham professor of communications) wrote: “He is the only member of the monastic elite who is addressing himself to the contemporary problems facing the Copts.”[2] After his death, he was remembered in The Times of London as “a small bustling man, with a big heart [who] will be missed by Christians in many parts of the world” (Obituary: Bishop Samuel, The Times, October 12, 1981).

While much has been written about Bishop Samuel’s efforts in the service of Egypt’s poor and his extraordinary skill as a pastor, virtually no attention has been paid to the theological vision that lay beneath those efforts. Bishop Samuel’s written legacy is vanishingly small when compared to those of his contemporaries like Pope Shenouda and Fr Matthew the Poor (prolific authors and rousing speakers both). Even so, his humble writings reveal a simple, powerful theological vision that informed all his pastoral and ecumenical endeavors.

Bishop Samuel’s theological vision is laid out most clearly in a series of talks delivered in 1964 to an ecumenical youth conference in Lebanon, later published in a small pamphlet titled Life and Hope. In these talks, he paints a picture of human life on which to be human is to have a deep longing for life, joy and goodness of the sort which this fallen world, with all its tragedies, deprivations and limitations, simply cannot provide or sustain. This longing, which he calls “limitless aspiration,” is a direct consequence of the fact that we are made in God’s image: “It is the breath of life which God placed within us that makes us eternal beings who abide forever. This is what gives man his limitless aspiration” (Life and Hope, 16). The frustrations of earthly life result from the fact that the created world is too limited to contain anything that might answer our limitless longings, whose proper objects are God himself and the joys of the Age to Come: “For this reason, our aspiration is not satisfied, hope never attained within the short, limited life that we live through the days of our pilgrimage on this earth. The eternal spirit within us looks for a better portion, a more perfect life in the heavens” (Life and Hope, 16). This deep and insatiable longing would make earthly life unbearable were it not for the divine gift of “living hope” (1 Pt 1:3) which God has granted us in Christ: Christ’s fellowship with us through the incarnation “fills [the human soul] with hope for a better life and a blessed future” (Life and Hope, 8).

Bishop Samuel’s hope is clearly eschatological: it is rooted in eternity, not in any material or earthly salvation. And yet, this longing for the world to come does not lead Bishop Samuel, as it has led others in Christian history, to abandon the task of tending to this world’s wounds and seek solitary salvation. On the contrary, he insists that genuine Christian hope leaves no room at all for “complacency and lack of concern for the sufferings of the nations and problems of the world” (Life and Hope, 18). In fact, it is only when our eyes and hearts are firmly planted in the coming age that we begin to find the resolve, creativity and inspiration necessary to perform meaningful service in this world.

Eschatological hope opens our eyes to possibilities that would otherwise be inconceivable. For example, where limited, earthly eyes see only a condemned thief in the last moments of his life, the eternal eyes of Christ see “a candidate for salvation, someone who can be led to salvation by even a small word.”[3] Where limited eyes see insurmountable obstacles and unbearable burdens in the path of service or spiritual struggle, a hopeful Christian is so immersed in “hope for the future” that “all hardships will seem trifling, and are conquered by the hope stored up through a life of thanksgiving” (Life and Hope, 14). Christ’s fellowship through the incarnation is what makes us capable of hope, and our fellowship with one another in His body, the Church, serves to “encourage, support and revive hope within” the members through the “deep, sympathetic communion” by which they are bound together in Christ (Life and Hope, 15.)

For Bishop Samuel, every kind of Christian service, whether on the level of individual pastoral care, or the larger struggle for “social justice, equality of opportunity and […] lasting peace” (Life and Hope, 18–19), is a work of hope. A Christian servant is someone “able to see, even while they dwell in a limited body, the horizons of limitless eternity.”[4]

As our world grows ever darker and scandals, provocations and divisions mount on all sides both within and without the Church, it is hard not to mourn Bishop Samuel’s absence today. As Pope Shenouda lamented in a letter shortly after his death, “Truly, who can fill the vacuum Bishop Samuel has left behind? Or rather, who can fill the many vacuums he has left behind, not only in terms of work but also in terms of heart and affection?” Yet, Bishop Samuel himself saw great cause for hope in the young people of his own time: “Faithful youth who are full of hope carry within themselves the most powerful means of bringing faith to the confused souls living in the darkness of despair…Youth who look cheerfully towards the future, who struggle with love and patience to bring joy to others and wellbeing to society…They are the ones who will be able to call others, with confidence and personal experience, to the good news of salvation, saying: “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8) (Life and Hope, 19). As he would no doubt remind us, there is no less cause for hope today.

[1] John H. Watson, Among the Copts (Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 2000): 100.

[2] Edward Wakin, A Lonely Minority: The Modern Story of Egypt’s Copts (1963; iUniverse, 2000): 123.

[3] Bishop Samuel, Serving and Working with Individuals (Giza: Educational Library of the Church of Giza 1973) 24.

[4] Bishop Samuel, “From the Depths” in Lectures on Contemporary Problems (Giza: Educational Library of the Church of Giza, n.d.), 47.

Samuel Kaldas is a lecturer in philosophy and Director of Research at St. Cyril’s Coptic Orthodox Theological College (within the Sydney College of Divinity) with research interests in philosophy of religion, patristics, and contemporary Coptic theology.