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?”

Indeed.

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.

Shenoute and the Demons: The Limits of Hagiography

I tend to try and find something edifying in much of what I read. So weird stories about demons and stuff don’t necessarily bother me, so long as the example of the monk or the lesson about who God is can be of use. However, despite much wisdom having come from the desert tradition, not everything the Desert Fathers and Mothers had to say and do was necessarily a good idea.

Now, these days most people get uncomfortable with desert monks because of their strong emphasis on avoiding other people. This is a justifiable concern — St. Basil the Great held it as a criticism of his time in Egypt. If you don’t spend time with others, how can you even begin to fulfill the commandments? Nevertheless, this has never been a great concern of mine largely because the monks who say, “Avoid people,” said it to people whom they were ostensibly avoiding.

More troubling is Shenoute, Archimandrite of the White Monastery in Upper Egypt from 385 to 465. Shenoute, as we see him in Besa’s Life of Shenoute, was a violent man whose idea of God’s forgiveness was that one is only forgiven after a sufficient penance set by Shenoute. Or a criminal’s repentance is not enough for salvation — he must also go to the secular authorities and be executed to reach paradise. He is a hard man, dried by the sun and his sparse diet, but it also feels at times that his soul and his very self are hard and dried out.

So when we consider Shenoute and demonology, we come across this story:

One day, when my father was sitting in the monastery, behold! the devil and a host of other demons with him came in and spoke to my father with great threats and wickedness. When my father saw the devil, he recognised him immediately, and straightaway he sprang upon him and grappled with him. He seized him, hurled him to the ground and placed his foot on his head, and shouted to the brothers who were nearby: ‘Seize the others who followed him!’ And they immediately vanished away like smoke. (Ch. 73, trans. David N. Bell for Cistercian)

Was this even the Devil? I mean, what if it was just an angry dude who Shenoute beat up? Or did it even happen? This is certainly a Frank Peretti moment in the world of ancient demonology, is it not?

The root and source of our tradition is Christ. Never does Christ beat up the Devil or step on his head. The Gospels are subtler than that — their presentation of the Devil is subtler than that! The Devil is a tempter in relation to Jesus. The demons, the unclean spirits, are beings that possess people in the Gospels.

The true defeat of the devil does not happen in a wrestling match in your living room or the forecourt of the White Monastery. It occurred on Golgotha when the Lord and King of the universe bled and died for His broken creation. It happened in the three days when that same Lord burst forth from the grave, trampling down death in victory.

Stories like this are there merely to enhance the prestige of their saint. One could argue that that is the whole point of hagiography, but I disagree; hagiography, at least most of what I’ve been reading, is about Christ and his power in people. Christ does not show up in this story, unlike in yesterday’s story of St. Antony.

The desert has its limits. As the desert tradition is gaining a certain amount of popularity today, as it encroaches upon our spirituality, let us stay grounded to the Scriptures and the broader tradition before we start going in for stories about monks who beat up the Devil.