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Shenoute of Atripe led the White Monastery, a community of several thousand male and female Coptic monks in Upper Egypt, between approximately 395 and 465 C.E. Shenoute's letters, sermons, and treatises—one of the most detailed bodies of writing to survive from any early monastery—provide an unparalleled resource for the study of early Christian monasticism and asceticism.
In Monastic Bodies, Caroline Schroeder offers an in-depth examination of the asceticism practiced at the White Monastery using diverse sources, including monastic rules, theological treatises, sermons, and material culture. Schroeder details Shenoute's arduous disciplinary code and philosophical structure, including the belief that individual sin corrupted not only the individual body but the entire "corporate body" of the community. Thus the purity of the community ultimately depended upon the integrity of each individual monk.
Shenoute's ascetic discourse focused on purity of the body, but he categorized as impure not only activities such as sex but any disobedience and other more general transgressions. Shenoute emphasized the important practices of discipline, or askesis, in achieving this purity. Contextualizing Shenoute within the wider debates about asceticism, sexuality, and heresy that characterized late antiquity, Schroeder compares his views on bodily discipline, monastic punishments, the resurrection of the body, the incarnation of Christ, and monastic authority with those of figures such as Cyril of Alexandria, Paulinus of Nola, and Pachomius.
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Caroline T. Schroeder teaches at the University of the Pacific.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Shenoute of Atripe in the Landscape of Early Christian Asceticism
In the early 380s, in a monastery in Upper Egypt, a young monk named Shenoute stormed out of the monastic residence. Deciding to live as a hermit in the nearby desert, he accused his spiritual father of allowing acts of impiety and impurity to proceed unchallenged in the monastery. One might expect that this story would end with the monk receiving a harsh punishment or a humiliating reprimand in order to serve as an example of the dangers of youthful pride to other potentially brash ascetics. Instead, he became the next spiritual leader of that community, succeeding the very person whom he had criticized openly before his colleagues. Indeed, he would become a central figure in late antique Egyptian Christianity, earning the lofty title of "archimandrite" in honor of his monastic leadership. He would also be revered as one of the Coptic Orthodox Church's most important saints. How this monk came to lead that monastic community, and how he developed a sophisticated ideology of the ascetic life is the subject of this book.
Over the course of a long career as a monastic father, Shenoute used his skills as an author and an orator to carve out a space for himself on the early Christian landscape, a landscape dominated during his lifetime by such theological heavyweights as Jerome and Augustine. Shenoute—the leader of a community of possibly thousands of male and female monks and author of at least seventeen volumes of texts—is best known in modern historiography for his attendance and influence at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431, his destruction of "pagan" religious sites in Egypt, and his significant contributions to the development of the Coptic language and literature.
Yet, as Stephen Emmel has so aptly noted, Shenoute himself identified as, "first and foremost, a monk." He was born in the mid-fourth century, and in about 371, he joined a monastery located outside of the town of Atripe, which is now the modern city of Sohag. Atripe sat on the West bank of the Nile River, across from ancient Panopolis, now the modern city of Akhmim. The site of the ancient monastery is frequently called the White Monastery by some scholars and tourists in reference to the towering white walls of the church building that remain standing there. The name "White Monastery" distinguishes it from the other late antique monastery a few kilometers away, Deir Anba Bishoi, which is called the "Red Monastery" because of the reddish tint to the stones of its church building. Archaeologists and contemporary Coptic Orthodox Christians now call the White Monastery Deir Anba Shenouda, or Father Shenoute's Monastery, after its most famous spiritual leader. Shenoute became the third father of this community around 385, not long after his public dispute with the second father. During Shenoute's tenure, the "monastery" actually consisted of at least three monastic "partners" housing potentially thousands of monks, both male and female. The site known as the White Monastery functioned as the headquarters, but another smaller men's residence existed, as did a women's residence to the south. Shenoute writes of the entire monastic community at times in the singular, as the congregation (tsunagwgh), or in the plural, as the congregations (Nsunagwgh). He remained the leader of this large institution until his death in approximately 465.
Recent scholarship has turned its attention to Shenoute's identity and activities as a monk, and thus also to the importance of his writings for understanding the many worlds constructed and inhabited by early Christian ascetics. My work explores the contours of the ascetic space that Shenoute created for himself and his monks by outlining an ideology of the monastic life centered on the discipline of the body. I argue that this ideology lies at the heart of Shenoute's theology, his asceticism, and his style of monastic leadership. I ask how Shenoute's constantly evolving ideology of the communal ascetic life relates to the production of theologies, ascetic practices, and a Christian subjectivity distinctive to his monastery.
The Monasticism of Shenoute of Atripe
In his ideology of the communal ascetic life, Shenoute envisions the monastery as one corporate body in which the individual monks (both male and female) are its members. These two bodies—the individual monastic body and the corporate monastic body—have parallel natures, such that the salvation of each and every monk, whether male or female, depends on the salvation of the community as a whole. Likewise, the salvation of the community rests on the spiritual status of each of its members. Central to this relationship between the corporate and individual bodies is Shenoute's notion of sin as polluting, and his related advocacy of bodily discipline as the means to combat the defilement of sin. Shenoute's ascetic discourse foregrounds purity of the body, and he categorizes as defiling not only traditionally polluting activities (such as sex) but disobedience and transgressions more generally. Sin pollutes the body of any monk who violates his or her ascetic vow or the monastic rule, and this sin will spread throughout the monastery, corrupting and defiling the corporate monastic body and thus threatening the salvation of other members of the community. Shenoute thus paints a portrait of two monastic bodies whose fates are irrevocably tied together either by the impurities of sin or by the virtues of discipline: the individual monastic body (namely, the monk), and the corporate monastic body. The purity of the corporate body depends upon the purity of the individual monastic body.
At the heart of the relationship between monk and community lie the important practices of discipline or askesis. Askesis is "the training of the self by the self," usually through renunciatory practices. For the individual monk, this training constitutes the discipline of the body through chastity, fasting, prayer, and obedience to the monastic rule. For the community, ascetic discipline is comprised of unified submission to the will of God, the community's leader, the monastic rule, and the "orthodox" Christian tradition. The practices of ascetic discipline are both redemptive and theologically productive in Shenoute's writings. Through the language and rituals of ascetic discipline, Shenoute constructs his vision of the relationship between the monastery and God. As Rebecca Krawiec has observed, Shenoute's concern for bodily purity is embedded within the very monastic oath monks were required to take upon entering the community:
Thus, each person shall speak as follows: In the presence of God, in his holy place, I confirm what I have spoken and witness by my mouth. I will not defile my body in any way; I will not steal; I will not bear false witness; I will not lie; I will not do anything deceitful secretly. If I transgress what I have agreed to, I will see the kingdom of heaven, but I will not enter it since God, in whose presence I have established the oath, will destroy my soul and my body in fiery Gehenna because I transgressed the oath I established.Protecting the body from pollution takes pride of place in this oath as the first in a litany of transgressions to avoid. Remarkably, Shenoute does not define what constitutes bodily defilement. Is this a subtle allusion to sexual behavior? or to breaking a fast? Rather than attempting to circumscribe Shenoute's ambiguity, I propose instead that this ambiguity plays an important role in Shenoute's ideology of the monastic life. All sin is defiling—to both body and soul. Moreover, as the oath indicates, a monk's purity (or impurity) will determine the fate of his resurrected body and soul on judgment day. As I explain in Chapter 4, it is with respect to theological concerns such as the resurrection that Shenoute's ascetic sensibility (predicated on the discipline of the body) bleeds into his understanding of Christian identity more broadly. Despite the prevalence of pollution language in his discourse, Shenoute nonetheless fiercely defends the sanctity of the human body according to "orthodox" Christian theology. Because the body is holy and will some day be resurrected, monks, and even lay people, must protect its purity. Shenoute's faith in God's embodiment, as enacted in Jesus Christ's incarnation and bodily resurrection, is manifestly tied to his faith in the salvation of his monks through bodily discipline.
By no means is Shenoute unique in Egyptian monasticism for his attention to bodily purity. A monk named Theodore, who joined the network of Pachomian monasteries in Upper Egypt, is reported to have said upon his conversion, "If the Lord leads me on the way that I may become a Christian, then I will also become a monk, and I will keep my body without stain until the day when the Lord shall visit me." Nor am I the first scholar to comment on Shenoute's particular attention to bodily purity. Krawiec, also pointing to the connection between the social body and the individual body in Shenoute's writings, has described bodily purity as "the main symbol for purity in the community." Yet the role of bodily purity in Shenoute's discourse deserves continued attention. As I argue in Chapter 2, purity and pollution language characterize his writings to a greater degree than they do the texts from the more famous monasteries founded by Pachomius. Moreover, as I maintain throughout, the discourse of purity is central to his formulation of the nature of salvation as well as to his own political aspirations.
For Shenoute, the body is the site of redemptive transformation. It is also the site for theological development, social control, and the construction of Christian identity. In The Body and Society, Peter Brown writes of the relationship between Clement of Alexandria's askesis and Clement's understanding of the self in society: "Sexual renunciation might lead the Christian to transform the body and, in transforming the body, to break with the discreet discipline of the ancient city." For the archimandrite Shenoute, ascetic discipline transforms the body, and in transforming the body, situates the Christian monk into a social and theological position subordinate and obedient to God, to Christian orthodoxy (rather, orthodoxy as defined by the bishop of Alexandria), and to the monastery's leader. Like Clement, Shenoute constructs an understanding of the Christian subject in relation to his or her social world that is deeply ascetic. The notion of the person as a subject has a dual meaning: the individual who is "subject to someone else by control and dependence," but who also acts as an agent in developing a self-identity in relation to these mechanisms of power by means of "conscience or self-knowledge." Subjectivity, is both "the way in which the individual establishes his [or her] relationship to the rule [of conduct]" at work in one's society and "the basis of one's own identity through conscious self-knowledge" and consciousness. In Shenoute's work, the particular sense of the self as subject consists of a negotiation between the individual and his or her position within society, which is expressed in the discipline of the body. The cultural paradigms that inform Shenoute's asceticism, that shape Shenoute's subjects and by which these subjects shape themselves, have changed from Clement's. The rhythms of institutionalized prayer, scriptural recitation, and monastic work replace the pulse of the cosmopoitan city. The centuries-old legacies of the ancient philosophical schools fade in prominenenc as the theological tradition of the Alexandrian bishops rise in importance. And whereas Clement's discipline may have constituted a "break" with that of the dominant culture, Shenoute's bodily discipline promoted a much more sustained engagement with many of the dominant, or soon-to-be dominant institutions of power in late antique Egypt.
Although Shenoute's asceticism has not been neglected by Western scholarship, it has been relegated to the background while his other activities have caught the eyes of historians. When Shenoute's name is recognized by Western historians, it usually is for his vigilant campaigns against heretics and pagans. Shenoute is known as the monk who attended the Council of Ephesus in 431 and, representing the politically influential Egyptian monastic movement, threw his weight behind the bishop of Alexandria. His violent encounter there with Nestorius must count as one of the most memorable episodes attributed to Shenoute's career. The event is narrated in the vita attributed to Besa, his successor as monastic father. The literary account suggests that Shenoute's appearance was one of the more dramatic moments of the Council. Shenoute accompanied Cyril of Alexandria to Ephesus to denounce Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople and Cyril's political and theological opponent. At a meeting of these figures, Nestorius removed a copy of the gospels from the only "unoccupied" chair in the middle of the room and placed it on the floor. He then seated himself on the chair, instead. His actions offended Shenoute, who immediately arose and hit Nestorius in the chest. When Nestorius questioned Shenoute's audacity as a mere monk to attack physically a bishop, Shenoute responded, "I am he whom God wished to come here in order to rebuke you for your iniquities and reveal the errors of your impiety. . . . And it is he who will now pronounce upon you a swift judgment!" Nestorius immediately fell to the ground possessed by the devil. Shenoute's actions earned him the cloak and staff held by Cyril as well as the title of archimandrite. Although this account certainly possesses more than a few narrative and hagiographical flourishes, it is one of the most well-known anecdotes in Shenoute's legend. On another heresiological front, historians point to Shenoute's denunciation of Origenist texts as evidence of the penetration of Origenism into Middle and Upper Egypt.
Scholars of religion in antiquity also remember Shenoute as a leader of frequent attacks on "pagan" religious sites neighboring his monastery. One of the most vivid images of Shenoute is one he himself crafted, that of the destroyer of pagan idols and temples. Shenoute describes a campaign against a nearby elite man in which Shenoute and his monks broke into the man's home, stole his pagan religious objects, posted a writ renouncing the pagan onto his door, and dashed pots of urine against his doorway. The vita recounts other incidents in the campaign with pride. Scholars have often used Shenoute's writings as evidence for dramatic Christian and pagan interactions in Egypt. In this context, Shenoute is also offered as an example of the late antique holy man whose increasing power and influence accompanied the Christianization of the once polytheistic Roman Empire.
Another historiographic narration of Shenoute renders him a symbol of an early Egyptian nationalism. In this paradigm, Shenoute the Egyptian Christian who wrote in Coptic, routed the Eastern Greek-speaking Nestorius, and destroyed the temples of pagans (Hellenes) becomes Shenoute the defender of Egyptian faith in the face of a dominant Greek culture. He becomes the harbinger of a primitive ethnic...
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