Saint of the Week: Shenoute

Not only is today the day Canadians remember Queen Victoria signing the BNA Act and making Confederation and the Dominion of Canada reality, it is also the Feast Day of St. Shenoute (348-466).

Now, if you’ve not been around my blog before, or only dip in once in a while, you’re probably saying, “St. Whosit?”


Shenoute’s section in William Harmless’ book Desert Christians has the title “Monasticism Overlooked: Shenoute of Atripe.” This is because Shenoute has, frankly, been largely overlooked. Even Derwas J Chitty’s masterful introduction to Desert monasticism, The Desert a City, passes him by, because Shenoute is beyond the purview of a book concerned only with the Chalcedonian tradition.

That’s possibly a better reason than most have for not knowing about Shenoute: He was a Copt who wrote in Coptic and left no remains in Greek or Latin. Shenoute’s obscurity, in my opinion, is entirely because he is part of the Coptic tradition. Perhaps if the Coptic and Graeco-Latin traditions of Christianity had not become estranged, more of us would know about Shenoute. However, given that we also have a hard time making Syriac saints beyond Ephrem and Aphrahat popular, I doubt it.

It is high time Shenoute, for all his faults and oddities (see my earlier post about him), had his day in the sun.

Shenoute became a monk at a young age, moving into the large coenobitic complex of his uncle, Pjol, near Atripe in Upper Egypt. If you read The Life of Shenoute by his disciple Besa, you will learn about the miracles and feats of asceticism Shenoute was capable of even as a young man.

Eventually, Abba Pjol died. Foolishly, the administration of the coenobium was left to someone else. Anyone who knows the Life of Pachomius should know that the new abbot should be popular, precocious young man, not that other guy. But I guess Abba Pjol didn’t know about the Life of Pachomius. Or Besa did. Either way, things went badly, until Shenoute took over as archimandrite of the monastery, just as Theodore eventually succeeded to being abbot of the Pachomian foundations at Tabennesi.

The monastic complex over which Shenoute was archimandrite is called the White Monastery by modern archaeologists, given the white colour of the stones from which it was built. It is to be distinguished from the Red Monastery which is nearby and was led during Shenoute’s life by the revered Abba Pshoi. Antony and Savvas are said to have made the desert a city of monks — Shenoute certainly did, for the White Monastery was more of a monastic city than a simple coenobium or monastery.

There were several monastic houses attached to one another within the walls of the White Monastery — Egyptian coenobia tend to come with walls to keep out wild beasts, thieves, and the Devil. At a certain distance were the houses of women associated with the monastery. Also connected to the White Monastery were some anchorites. Eventually, Shenoute went out to the desert to be an anchorite himself, dealing with the monks of his establishments through letters.

These monastic settlements succeeded in drawing between 10 and 15,000 monastics within their life and walls. Impressive.

What drew these people to Shenoute and the White Monastery? Salvation. The hope of glory. The fear of Hell.

Some would say, “Financial and economic security,” imagining poor Copts to be easily-ruled people who are concerned largely with their bellies. I do not know if this is true; it sounds too much like Hellenic propaganda about barbarians to me. Research should look into it and tell us.

Shenoute offered people more than food in their bellies and a structured work day. He offered them salvation, and he regulated that salvation down to the minutest detail — what you wore, when you prayed, what you ate, what you prayed, how you worked, how you prayed, where you worked, how you were beaten, by whom you were beaten — that sort of thing. A highly detailed roadmap to heaven was made available to Shenoute.

Who wouldn’t want that?

Shenoute also cast his monks as brethren. They were a family. And they were all equal, which is why they were brethren, not brethren and sistren.  Salvation was found in a tightly-knit group of people with whom you could rejoice when one rejoiced and mourn when one mourned. All were bound together in this vision of salvation.

This is not to say that it was all basket-weaving and linen harvesting. No, indeed. The monks and nuns of the White Monastery occasionally got fed up with Shenoute’s heavy hand. A couple of times they rebelled. Sometimes the women, who never actually saw Shenoute, would take the running of their community into their own hands; they would also frequently receive spiritual instruction from Pshoi, abbot of the aforementioned Red Monastery.

These occasional disturbances are why Shenoute moved into the desert and communicated not only with the women but also with the men via epistolary.

He was a man who was committed to the orthodoxy of the Patriarch of Alexandria, and accompanied St. Cyril to the First Council of Ephesus in 431. Our records of his Christology are largely to the extent that he an anti-Nestorian Nicene, and although he lived until 466, his own thought does not seem to show a great facility with the issues surrounding Christ’s nature that were setting Alexandria to the North aflame.

Some say that his Christology is of a Christ-less Christianity. Jesus was God, certainly, and he died for our sins. But there is little of grace in Shenoute, sadly. His Jesus, while a close chum of Shenoute’s (Besa records several instances people running into Shenoute having a chat with Jesus), is a stern Jesus, a Jesus of the baking sun and blowing wind of the Desert. This Jesus puts heavy burdens on humanity so that humanity can grasp salvation.

Nonetheless, Shenoute was one of the first great Coptic writers, and his dialect, Sahidic, was the literary form of Coptic for centuries until Bohairic eclipsed it in the Middle Ages. He left behind a collection of letters — sadly scattered and tattered by now — and sermons in Sahidic Coptic. He helped Coptic move beyond its status as a language whose literary remains were largely translation into a language with a spiritual literature all its own, standing alongside Latin, Greek, and Syriac as one of the great languages of ancient, patristic Christianity.

For more on Shenoute:

Primary Sources

Besa. The Life of Shenoute. Trans. David N. Bell. Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1983. Our main source for Shenoute’s life.

If you read Coptic, check out Shenoute’s Literary Corpus that has gathered together all the scattered bits.

Secondary Sources

Harmless, William. Desert Christians. Oxford, 2004. pp. 445-447 deal with Shenoute.

Krawiec, Rebecca. Shenoute and the Women of the White Monastery. Oxford, 2002. This book, while it seems to be a women’s studies approach to Shenoute given the subject matter and title, is a very good introduction to life in the White Monastery and what drew people to Shenoute’s rule.

Thoughts on Climacus’ Ladder, Step 4

I am partway through Step 4 of John Climacus’ (Saint of the Week here) Ladder. Not being a monk, I find a lot of his wisdom wasted on me. Still …

A lot of people these days are really stoked about “narrative” and “narrative theology” and suchlike things. I remember once at a party a guy who worked for the Canadian Bible Society remarking that the Gospel could never be put into propositional statements because Jesus taught in parables. Given that that was a propositional statement, I was amused. Given also that the content of the Gospel is not Jesus’ parables but his life, I was a bit irked.

A lot of people try to pit narrative against proposition, though. This is wrongheaded, as Edith M. Humphrey (once Anglican, now Orthodox [yes, I’ll mention that every time I mention her]) notes in her book Ecstasy and Intimacy. We need both. We need balance. In Step 4, about obedience, St. John Climacus, Father of the Church, demonstrates the usefulness of both ways of presenting truth.

Approximately half of this Step on the ladder to paradise is occupied with stories about a monastery John once visited in Alexandria. He was filled with wonder at what he saw there. The monks lived in obedience to their abbot to a very high degree. To test them, he would make them lie on the ground for undetermined lengths of time just to see if they would do it. Once, to see if a postulant was worthy of admission, he made this man, a former fornicator (with both humans and animals), thief, and liar confess in detail his deeds before all the brothers at Divine Liturgy. Brothers who were disobedient enough were cast out or sent into the Prison where they only got bread and raw vegetables for food.

The monks were also obedient to one another and sought to outdo each other in virtue and in bearing one another’s burdens, claiming the sins of others for themselves to help brothers avoid punishment.

The result of this radical obedience was great virtue. John writes, “If they had to speak, what they talked about all the time was the remembrance of death and the thought of everlasting judgment.” (95, Classics of Western Spirituality translation) The advanced brothers were so humble that, when asked about hesychia by John, they claimed to be merely corporeal men with no knowledge of such things.

These men were calm of heart, humble, meek, pure. The longer they lived in the monastery, they less they were involved in backbiting and prideful actions.

Now, I’m not sure if I can handle such radical obedience. But imagine if we tried to do things for people without grumbling or complaining (cf. Philippians!). Imagine if we tried to be the servant of all (cf. Mark!). Imagine if, when asked to do something that is largely indifferent, we did it, seeing it as a way of learning humility. Imagine if we saw everyone around us as Kings and Queens. Or, to take another image, imagine if we saw them as Christs (cf. Matthew! Also, John of Ephesus, Lives of Eastern Saints, Chapter 5 about Simeon & Sergius, Patrologia Orientalis 17, pp. 84-89) rather than as nuisances.

Anyway, Climacus pairs this narrative teaching technique with propositional statements such as this:

Obedience is a total renunciation of our own life, and it shows up clearly in the way we act. Or, again, obedience is the mortification of the members while the mind remains alive. Obedience is unquestioned movement, death freely accepted, a simple life, danger faced without worry, and unprepared defense before God, fearlessness before death, a safe voyage, a sleeper’s journey. Obedience is the burial place of the will and the resurrection of lowliness. (91-92)

I like this technique, this balance between narrative and proposition. Western preaching has swung too far to the propositional, but I do not think it should be lost. We should find, however, a place for deep and meaningful storytelling in our teaching, as we see St. John Climacus doing in Step 4.

In the words of my friend Fr. Ioannis, “How clever the ancients were!”

Origen and the Development of Orthodoxy

I have been reading Origen’s On First Principles recently, and a thought came to me which had come to me before (you can thank me for being suitably vague later). This newly-recurring thought is that Origen and “Origenism” are the formative source and root for Christian controversy and Orthodoxy.

Now, you’re probably going to tell me that it’s actually biblical interpretation, such as the interrelation of Proverbs 8:22 with John 1. And you’d be right. But whose biblical interpretation do you think everyone was arguing about?


Case One: Arianism. Origen’s Christology, as represented both in On First Principles and his Commentary on John is subordinationist, and, although he does not believe, “There was when he was not,” he at times calls Christ “created” and could be read through an Arian viewpoint, especially given the lack of homoousios theology. However, in On First Principles, Origen is also fond of the image of the Son being like the rays of light from the sun — this is an image favoured by Athanasius, the great opponent of Arianism. Hm…

Case Two: Pneumatomachianism (aka Macedonianism, literally “Spirit-fighter-ism“). Origen’s theology of the Holy Spirit is relatively undeveloped, in my opinion. When, in On First Principles, he comes to discussing the Spirit, he gets himself sidetracked with a discussion about spirit more broadly. He once again has a subordinationist view, saying that the Father’s being overflows into the Son who overflows into the Spirit.  The Spirit at times feels more like a personification of spirit, not necessarily a self-subsisting person or hypostasis.

This ambiguity of the treatment of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity ended up with Origenists such as the Pneumatomachians arguing against the Spirit’s divinity and other Origenists such as Didymus the Blind in On the Holy Spirit arguing for the Spirit’s divinity.

Case Three: The First Origenist Controversy. This controversy was specifically about Origen and some of his less … mainline … teachings and his approach to Sacred Scripture; some people (Epiphanius of Salamis, Jerome) were certain that he was an out-and-out heretic and deserved condemnation, and that his allegorical interpretations went too far. Others (John Chrysostom, John Cassian, Rufinus of Aquileia) argued that Origen was largely orthodox. In the heat of it all, Chrysostom ended up dead, Rufinus and Jerome ruined their friendship, and the golden age of Egyptian monasticism was gone forever.

His defenders found precisely where he was worth fighting for, and his opponents found the places where he was worth attacking. What constitutes orthodoxy was, as a result, more clearly defined, but, thanks, in the West at least, largely to Rufinus’ translations of Origen and John Cassian’s work in Gaul, allegorical readings of Scripture were never fully lost.

Case Four: The Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory Thaumaturgus was a student of Origen, and the Cappadocians (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) were students of Thaumaturgus. They were also involved in the later stages of both the Arian and Pneumatomachian Controversies. Gregory of Nyssa was able to produce theological writings after the triumph of Nicene Orthodoxy in 381.

Within the bounds of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan understanding of the Trinity, these three Orthodox Fathers par excellence produced Trinitarian theology that follows the trajectory set out by Origen. Origen, unlike his Platonist predecessors, rooted the being of God (His ontology) in being a Father, not in being a Creator. This meant that there never was a time when the Father lacked the Son. It also meant that the Godhead is a distinct being from creation who depends not at all upon the created order. It also means that the very root and source of the universe is rooted in communion (see John Zizioulas, Being As Communion to have your mind blown on this count). These were points taken up by Athanasius, but their nuances were really explored and set forth for us by the Cappadocians.

Case Five: The Second Origenist Controversy. This was a controversy about a number of Origen’s cosmological statements that were being espoused by a group of “fanatical” Palestinian monks. In 553, in meetings before the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II), Justinian and the Fathers determined that certain Origenist statements were outside the bounds of orthodoxy, and in the Acts of the Council itself, Origen and Evagrius are condemned outright as heretics.

This meant that such teachings as celestial bodies having souls or apocatastasis (seriously, get into Patristics for the awesome terminology) which teaches that at the end of all things God will reconcile all rational beings to Himself (presumably the Devil as well — Evagrius certainly thinks so) — such teachings are officially outside of orthodoxy. It also means that very few of Origen’s writings survive, and far fewer of Evagrius Ponticus’ — although one of his writings survived under St. Basil the Great’s name, another under Nilus. People will circulate what they wish, no matter how many books you burn.

In the end, so many of the big controversies of the early centuries of Christianity revolved around Origen, his understanding of Scripture and of God, and the Church’s understanding of Origen. He’s not exactly one of the early Christian theologians for one to start with, but he’s definitely worth reading, and certainly important.