We now conclude our interview with Michael Elgamal, creator of the “Creative Orthodox” site!
FN: The Saint John the Short graphic novel. How did you come to decide Saint John the Short, and how did you come to decide that you wanted to do a graphic novel?
M: Saint John the Short’s story always gripped me. When I decided to start a graphic novel, I wanted something that had more “meat” than the typical saint story, something that has a lot of details in it, a saint that we know a lot about. At the time I was, and am, close to Saint Anthony. But he comes with such an aura of greatness, I mean “Saint Anthony the Great!” So I decided I’m not going to start my first book endeavor and do Saint Anthony. I won’t do it justice. So I did some digging and said, “Okay, what’s the next best thing?” And it was Saint John the Short.
I had read a book called “The Workshop of Virtue: the Life of Saint John the Little” by Professor Tim Vivian who basically translated the script from Russian, which was translated from the original Coptic manuscript. It was all there in the book. I read that and decided to start. I had no idea how to start the story, because the story was really fractured, as most stories were from that time. Often a saint story goes like, “This person was born to a Christian family. He did this and didn’t do this. He once did this, another time he did that. He passed away and then went to heaven.” This is sort of the default flow to our saint stories. For the graphic novel, though, I wanted to give it a narrative just so it’s an engaging read that resonates with a modern audience. This is where the idea of a seed growing into a tree and giving fruit came to mind as a general structure.
I started by drawing a picture of Christ the True Vine. Then I flipped the page and was like “Okay that’s great, I’ll just do Christ in the center, the disciples around Him, and then went further with the branches around Him as the Desert Fathers, and then had Saint John in the corner.” Great. Next page. I start writing “Saintly life is like a tree. It starts with a seed sewn by Christ, and it grows with attention to spiritual life into a garden.” Then I started the story. I started getting more details from other sources and really dug into research, and I found out that Saint John the Short said the same exact sentence. He said, “Saintly life is like a tree. It starts with a seed, we are all watered from the same source, and each one of them gives their own fruit.”
That was a very reassuring message! I was like, “I’m on to something! This can’t be a coincidence!” I took that as the overarching theme of the book as it worked on more than one level.
The book itself is five chapters. It starts with seeds, and the very last two chapters are “Fruits” and “Economy.” Saint John’s story itself goes back to the life of Saint Anthony the Great. The story starts with Saint John hearing about the Desert Fathers. He was a child who, very young, heard the story of Saint Anthony and wanted to be like him. In that way, I am no different from Saint John as I was told about these saintly fathers by own grandfather. The difference is that he followed in Saint Anthony’s footsteps. He found a guide, a desert father. You go to the end of the story and you find [Saint John] becoming a father to other monks.
When he dies (SPOILER ALERT!!!), Saint Anthony himself comes to take saint John’s soul to heaven. I found that very profound. It almost had a very cinematic quality to it. The desert father that Saint John the Short heard about when he was young came at the very end to take him up to heaven.
And so, for me, this was the core of the story. As we hear tales about our church heroes, we ought to imitate their lives, look to the elders of the Church, and be that beacon to our own children. And our children will continue telling their stories and so on and so forth. So the book itself ends with the message that Saint John’s story kept being told and retold, and right now in your hands, you are the most recent seed of that story! So you need to go on and be a tree for someone else, and give fruit.
FN: I love hearing your motivation behind this and how it grew out of prayer. With regards to the seed and the tree, it sounds like your story in general is kind of like that. I love it.
Tell me a little about your spiritual life. Not necessarily your prayer rule (unless you want to go into that). I mean, look, if you’re ethnically Egyptian and I am ethnically Greek, chances are we are born into our respective churches. But at some point we do choose to remain in our faith. Why don’t you talk a little bit about that?
M: You’re absolutely right. My family was always very close to the Church, and I gave you the example of my grandfather. He was sort of that direct tie to the Desert Fathers. Both my father and mother lived by a high moral standard, obviously stemming from Christ’s commandment of love. A very simple example is that I’ve never heard them swear. That’s a simple thing, but even in anger I’ve never heard them swear. That to me, set the standard that I tried to live up to, but in all honesty I was living a religious life because I was born into it.
Then we left Egypt. Everything was fine and dandy in Egypt, I was that kid who knew most answers in Sunday School- I’d put up my hand and gladly answer. But then we came to Canada, and I didn’t want to go to church anymore. This came from a place where I realized I had gone to church because a) it’s habit, and b) because my friends were there. But once you have all of that taken away, then you have your faith tested from a “Why do you do it” standpoint. This was a very difficult thing for my parents. They didn’t easily come to terms with it. Every Sunday it was a push to get up and go to church.
It’s funny because the way back into church for me was the Desert Fathers. It was actually seeing the example of one of my friends and how close he was to Saint Anthony. How personally close he was to Saint Anthony. We all speak of the saints, but a few of us actually have that direct relationship with the Fathers. He did. For me to see that was really inspirational and it brought me back to the Church. Loving and respecting him as a friend and brother led me to really loving and respecting Saint Anthony. It was a direct result. For Saint Anthony’s feast (which was two days ago) he would gather us all together, we would do veneration, overnight praise, and read his entire story cover to cover, every single year. Seeing someone in my immediate circle channel that love to the Church fathers brought me back into it. From Saint Anthony came my personal and direct friendship with Saint John the Short.
This was many years ago, and that’s sort of my journey so far.
FN: Once I decided to go to seminary and become a priest, one of my personal crusades in life was to help people realize that there is a personal relationship underneath all of this that needs to be there and that can be there! It’s not hard. It takes effort, but it’s something that we love doing. All the things we do in church and all the stories and everything, everything is meant to assist us in having that personal relationship. A relationship of prayer, a relationship of relying on God or the saints to point to God and carry those prayers for us. To hear that that personal relationship came about and change your life is absolutely beautiful and so absolutely perfect. That’s really what I wish we’d talk about even more of nowadays: that this person knows you and wants to help you personally, and be with you and enjoy life with you and all these things. God’s not inflicting things on you when bad things happen, but He is crying with you! He wants to be there with you. I’m just thrilled beyond belief to hear that. I think it’s great.
M: It’s funny because a personal relationship begets a personal relationship. Seeing my friend have that relationship with Saint Anthony, seeing Saint Anthony have that relationship with Christ… you get closer to Christ by virtue of observing the Fathers and the ones around you. How close they are and how much they love Christ and the saints.
FN: You truly are Creative Orthodox in every sense of the word, it sounds like.
M: Just having fun.
FN: That’s how these things start. You have fun and others start having fun. I think you’re doing a great job. I love the fact that you’re putting these beautiful stories and messages of faith into words and pictures, into a different medium, and just expressing yourself and having fun. I think it’s a wonderful thing for people to see and a wonderful thing for you to express your faith and live your own faith. I just think it’s a lot of fun, and I want to thank you for doing that and taking some time to talk to me as well.
M: Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule today to talk. It’s exciting for me to talk to a like-minded Orthodox who sees the value of storytelling and the value of the essence of comics and how it connects the faith.
Thanks so much Michael! Hope to talk to you again soon. God bless!
Great interview series!
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Thanks Tony! And great seeing you and the family (albeit briefly) this weekend!