By Fr. Moses Samaan – Parish Priest from St. Marina Coptic Orthodox Church, California, USA.
The Agpeya or the seven canonical prayers started as early as the Apostolic age during the earliest days of Christianity. The believers received this spiritual practice from the head of the Alexandrine Church: St. Mark the Apostle, who was also the first Patriarch of Egypt.
This was done according to what St. Luke, the apostle, wrote in the Book of Acts: “And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meals with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” (Acts 2:46-47)
Nevertheless, there was at the beginning, some disagreement on the limits of adoration and the number of Psalms that should be recited. Then one day, while the faithful assembled to pray the Psalms, an angel appeared in their midst, and started praising the Lord and hymning Psalms. The angel recited eleven Psalms with a very nice tune, then added certain individual prayers. Finally, the angel ended his worship by reciting an additional Psalm. Therefore, the total number of Psalms was determined to be twelve.
The angel disappeared after he put an end to the dispute, and the holy fathers concluded that the matter was settled with divine proclamation. Consequently, the Agpeya became an ecumenical law to be observed by all the believers.
It was mentioned by John Cassian that the system of prayers in the Church of Alexandria was devised before the beginning of monasticism. He said, “These arrangements of prayers were observed by all the servants of God in Egypt.”
When the clergy charged Saint Basil in Caesarea Philippi becaues of the Night-Watch system he proposed, he replied that this system was being observed in Egypt. Thus, it is not true, what some of scholars claim, that praying the Agpeya in Egypt was a monastic practice.
Since the beginning of the Apostolic Church, the Copts served God with newness of Spirit, worshipping the Lord with such a spiritual stature, sometimes higher than the monks themselves. According to divine proof, Sain Antony visited twice the outside world to look for the laity who surpassed him in holiness. Also, Saint Macarius, guided by the Spirit, went to visit the two women who exceeded him in sanctity and in their love for Christ.
Sain John Chrysostom had some nice comments about the fruits of prayer. He wrote:
“He who visits the Egyptian desert will find that it has been transformed into ‘Paradise’. Tens of thousands of angelic choirs live like ‘humans’, accompanied by masses of ‘martyrs’ (who are alive), and coexisting with flocks of virgins. The power of the devil has been crushed, and the Kingdom of Christ shines with abundant glory.
The land which once belonged to the wise men, the poets, and the magicians is now proud, only, with the group of fishermen and with that tent maker (Paul), taking refuge always in the cross. For truly, in every place in the land of Egypt, there are sheepfolds for Christ, saintly flocks, holy virtues and heavenly powers. These spiritual movements are found not only among men but also among women, for the Wicked One wages his war against men and women alike.
Thus, the wilderness of Egypt, with its monastic cells scattered all over, has surpassed in its beauty the sky dotted by so many twinkling stars.”