Discipline and Salvation in Shenoute of Atripe
Caroline T. Schroeder
2007 | 248 pages | Cloth $79.95
Religion | Biography
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Shenoute in the Landscape of Early Christian Asceticism
Chapter 1. Bodily Discipline and Monastic Authority: Shenoute's Earliest Letters to the Monastery
Chapter 2. The Ritualization of the Monastic Body: Shenoute's Rules
Chapter 3. The Church Building as Symbol of Ascetic Renunciation
Chapter 4. Defending the Sanctity of the Body: Shenoute on the Resurrection
List of Abbreviations
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
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 Egyptian nationalism which would later resist the dominant Muslim culture. This particular portrait of Shenoute is crystalized in Johannes Leipoldt's 1903 monograph, Schenute von Atripe und die Entstehung des national ägyptischen Christentums, and was occasionally reinscribed by later scholars. This portrayal of Shenoute clearly represents a projection of prewar nationalism in Europe and its colonial endeavors; it and the whole notion of early Egyptian "nationalism" quite appropriately has been critically questioned over the past decade.
Shenoute's ascetic endeavors have received significant scholarly attention only recently. Most notably, Krawiec's book, Shenoute and the Women of the White Monastery, uses letters Shenoute wrote to the female monks of the community in order to reconstruct a series of conflicts between the women and the male leader. Krawiec situates her analysis of the asceticism practiced by the monks on the one hand and that advocated by Shenoute on the other within the context of late antique monasticism more broadly. Susanna Elm undertakes a more limited analysis of some of the same sources in her wider examination of women's asceticism, Virgins of God. Krawiec's 2002 book is the first monograph devoted to Shenoute since the publication of Leipoldt's biography almost 100 years earlier.
While my work necessarily builds upon the important insights of other scholars, this book's contribution to the history of monasticism is substantive as well as methodological. I examine the development of Shenoute's ideology of the monastic life over a wide array of his sources—texts written primarily for the monastic community and texts written for a wider audience; texts written as a young monk (before Shenoute assumed leadership of the community) and texts written as an old man; texts published and texts as yet unpublished (or with unpublished fragments). Also, this book is a study of Shenoute's monastic ideology—a study which draws on the methodologies of a variety of disciplines, including theology, literature, anthropology, art history, and history but which also consistently maintains as its object of inquiry the systems of theological, political, and historical meaning generated by Shenoute during his production of these texts over a lifetime spent mostly as the leader of a large monastery. One could describe the content of Shenoute's rules, letters, and sermons to the community as ascetic theory or a theology of monasticism. Such understandings of these sources' potential, however, conjure up images of scholarship framed by traditional intellectual history or historical theology. It raises up one side of the age-old divide between theology and praxis, ideology and realité, or even the history of theology and social history, or literary methods and historical methods. On the other hand, to describe Shenoute's writings as an archive for a documentary study of ascetic practices privileges the other side of that intellectual divide. Such divisions between theology and practice represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the monastic life, particularly as lived by Shenoute and the monks of his monastery.
As a monk and an author, Shenoute inhabits a world in which ideologies and material practices not only coexist but hold equally significant positions of authority. Shenoute the monk was not and cannot now be understood apart from his activities as a theologian writing on the nature of God and the relationship between humanity and God, as a prolific author of anti-heretical treatises, or as an orator lecturing against pagan religiosity. Nor can Shenoute the thinker be separated from the man who took a vow of chastity, fasted extensively, prayed several times daily, and provided detailed instructions on the physical positions and manners in which one should pray. The theology produced by Shenoute as a member, and as a leader, of his monastery was inseparable from, and in fact produced by, the language and material existence of the ascetic life, and it in turn shaped the concrete experiences in the daily lives of all the monks. Shenoute and his community live this theology and ideology in the ways that they structured the rituals of daily life. Moreover, Shenoute's theological and literary endeavors played a part in his attempts to establish and then maintain a specific authority structure for the monastery, and perhaps, one could argue, for the church at large.
Shenoute's Ideology of the Communal Ascetic Life
The principal element at issue in this study of Shenoute is his conception of the relationship between the salvation of the individual monk and that of the monastic community with respect to the role of the body in ascetic discipline. I refer to the systems of meaning that Shenoute constructs about the body as his ideology of the monastic life. By ideology, I do not mean a "purely" cognitive, and perhaps illusory, theorizing removed from the material conditions of "real life." Rather, I follow John B. Thompson's understanding of ideology as "meaning in the service of power," meaning that is produced by and that in turn impacts those very material conditions in which it is generated:
Ideology, broadly speaking, is meaning in the service of power. Hence, the study of ideology requires us to investigate the ways in which meaning is constructed and conveyed by symbolic forms of various kinds, from everyday linguistic utterances to complex images and texts; it requires us to investigate the social contexts within which symbolic forms are employed and deployed; and it calls upon us to ask whether, and if so how, the meaning mobilized by symbolic forms serves, in specific contexts, to establish and sustain relations of domination.Shenoute's ideology of the "body" is the central focus of this study for several specific reasons. The ascetic discipline of the body (along with Shenoute's position of authority as monastic father to define, supervise, and control this discipline) provides both the "specific context" of Shenoute's literary activities as an author and the symbolic language through which he writes his texts. For example, in Chapter 1, I discuss Shenoute's references to sexual sins in his earliest letters to the monastery. One of the foremost obligations of ascetic men and women in late antiquity was, of course, celibacy, and Shenoute's explicit enumeration and castigation of behaviors that would be considered illicit sex acts surely were understood by his audience as a denunciation of any violation of the vow of celibacy. It might even have been interpreted as an allusion to specific sexual transgressions that had recently been committed in his monastery. Additionally, however, there are significant philosophical implications to Shenoute's sexual language. Shenoute uses the specific monastic discourses of sexual renunciation—and their complementary discourses about the dangers of sex—to write about sin and disobedience more generally. For Shenoute, to disobey the monastic father or rules, or to transgress the boundaries of the communal ascetic life in any way is a form of fornication and a complete lapse of bodily discipline. He takes a page from the prophetic books of the Bible by using sexual terms to portray sin and disobedience as faithlessness to God. The language of bodily discipline is the language with which Shenoute constructs his understanding of sin.
Two other important terms from ideological and cultural criticism which I utilize quite freely are "discourse" and "power." I follow Michel Foucault's usages of both terms, and although his employment of them in poststructuralist theory is now widely known, it would be prudent to explain the ways in which they operate in my work. Power, argues Foucault, is not a static phenomenon but a system of "force relations" that are always in "ceaseless struggles and confrontations." Consequently, these force relations are always unstable, and no one person or constituency in a social system "holds the power." Rather, positions of authority are constantly being challenged, defended, and negotiated by the various constituencies. In the case of Shenoute, the contesting constituencies include Shenoute, his former leader, different individual monks or groups of monks in the monastery (especially, as Krawiec has shown, the female monks and the highest-ranking female elder), the bishops of Alexandria and other ecclesiastical authorities, Christian groups Shenoute regards as heretical, and non-Christians in and around Atripe. Throughout, the book also refers to various "discourses" of the body, which again are meant in a Foucaultian sense, in which discourses are specifically linguistic expressions of systems of meaning. Discourse is also implicated in systems of power; linguistic utterances, including Shenoute's texts, are never "innocent" of the power relations in which they are formulated and upon which they have an impact. As discourse, systems of meaning—or, more bluntly, knowledge—are never separate from the negotiations of power in which the discursive authors and audiences are embedded.
At this point, my use of "discourse" must sound quite similar to what I mean by "ideology," since both concepts seem to refer to the development of systems of meaning within complex systems of power. And indeed, I discuss the "discourses" of the body in Shenoute's writings as well as Shenoute's "ideology" of the body. But I refer to my primary thesis as an analysis of Shenoute's ideology of the body for three important reasons. First, I understand discourse as a component of ideology, or that ideology is a matter of "certain concrete discursive effects." Secondly, I prefer to focus on Shenoute's "ideology" because the term ideology itself does convey a pressing sense of the material and political effects of ideas and discourse. As Thompson has phrased it, the study of ideology "requires us to investigate the social contexts within which symbolic forms are employed and deployed." Or as Terry Eagleton has written, "The concept of ideology claims to disclose something of the relation between an utterance and its material conditions of possibility, when those conditions of possibility are viewed in the light of certain power-struggles central to the reproduction (or also, for some theories, contestation) of a whole form of social life." Eagleton's framing of ideology, and subsequently ideological criticism, are particularly apt for any study of Shenoute. Nearly all the historian has left of Shenoute are precisely his linguistic utterances—his texts—but these utterances are quite explicitly formed and deployed within a particular social and historical context—a context with a tradition that he in fact is attempting to reshape through his own discourse. Moreover, his discursive strategies are indeed formulated under the conditions of "power struggles" over a whole "form of a social life"—namely, Christian asceticism.
This leads me to the third reason I choose to describe Shenoute's work as "ideology": the term also conveys a stronger sense of an attention to issues of power, and particularly to how ideology perpetuates or challenges systems of domination and subordination. Shenoute writes these texts to produce at least two effects: to contest the authority of certain other members of the monastery (or the larger Christian community) or to consolidate his own authority over the community, and to refashion both the theological meaning and the very material conditions of his particular form of "social life"—the late antique monastery. The texts are embedded within localized power struggles for leadership within his community and Empire-wide power struggles to define the nature of orthodox Christianity and the leadership of the church. Thus, I employ the term ideology because I wish to hold onto the political edge that its usage conveys. Shenoute attempts to achieve these two effects through the production of his ideology of the body.
In arguing that the body and various "technologies of the body" (such as ascetic discipline) are the sites of political transformation and theological expression, I follow in now well-established lines of scholarship in literary theory, history of Christianity, and anthropology. The human body, as Mary Douglas has argued, is a "symbol of society," and "the powers and dangers credited to social structure" are "reproduced in small on the human body." Thus an analysis of the regulations of the individual human body will reflect larger cultural concerns about a group's identity and social systems. Similarly, regulations or technologies of the body are also in themselves epistemologically productive. Restrictions and constraints upon the body, such as the classic ascetic disciplines such as fasting, sexual abstinence, night vigils, and corporal punishment, are not simply repressive. Instead, they fashion the body "with a much 'higher' aim" and in order to produce (not merely inhibit) a particular kind of social subject and participant in society. I am also deeply indebted to a tradition of feminist theory which argues that sex, gender, and sexuality are not biologically and universally determined categories. Rather, the conceptions of "male" and "female" as well as the definition of normative sexual desire are social constructions with different manifestations in different cultures and different historical periods. Moreover, I loosely follow Judith Butler's contention that the very human body is itself a social construction; that there exists no universal, essential norm of the human body. Even the "materiality" of the body, and particularly the sexual identity of the body, is socially constructed through the ritualized, repetitive performance of social norms regulating sexual expression. The construction of the body occurs not as a result of a passive acceptance of cultural inscriptions from some "external" authority or "cultural source." Rather, the body is defined and reified through its active (and often shifting) performances within a particular society. For example, one prominent particularity in the social construction of Shenoute's monastic body was the ability for sin to travel with ease from one body to another; the social "performance" (to use Butler's term) of sexual abstinence in the particular social world of Shenoute's monastery participated in the cultivation of a normative and virtuous monastic body because it prevented sin from polluting the body of the individual monk as well as his or her monastic colleagues.
In late antiquity, the cultivation of the body was part of a larger "care of the self," in which the discipline of the body was intimately connected to the cultivation of virtue in the soul. Medical literature and philosophical writing conform in such a way that the body was construed as a reflection of the soul. Physiognomists and philosophers alike argued that the condition of the body revealed the condition of the soul, and that the literal physical reshaping or manipulation of the body could affect the soul. Where medical discourses of the body overlap with philosophical discourses of body and soul is also where understandings of the social body and the individual body overlapped. The standards by which the body was created and cultivated in order to produce a virtuous subject were, of course, determined in part by broader social concerns about what constituted a virtuous society. The shared philosophical and medical discourses about the body were an instance of the way in which the individual human body was, to quote Dale Martin, "but an instance of the social body."
This was particularly true with respect to ancient understandings of pollution. A polluting disease carried with it implications about an individual's moral state; in the words of Ruth Padel, there existed an "intermingling of moral and physical corruption." Disease often was associated closely with moral corruption, and purification addressed both. Martin has identified two conceptions or etiologies of pollution and disease in the first centuries of the Common Era. In the "imbalance" etiology, disease was conceived of as an imbalance in the humors inside of the human body (e.g., hot and cold, wet and dry), and pollution was not viewed as an invasion by an "alien infectious agent" but as an internal "putrefaction or corruption of the normal elements of the body." According to the "invasion" etiology of disease, illness was considered to be caused by exterior elements that acted as "invading pollutants." The first model was originally more dominant in classical Greek literature and medical theory and, according to Martin, reflected a more secure sense of one's place in society; the healthy body symbolized a more "secure microcosm of a balanced universe." The invasion model, however, reflected a much more anxious view of society, in which the body, like society, is "a site of cosmic battles between good and evil."
Shenoute's ideology of the body reflects the same concerns about the relationship between the individual body and the social body and about the close association between pollution and sin. His theology of salvation rests in large part on his understanding of the parallel nature of the individual monastic body—that of the monk—and the communal monastic body—that of the monastery, and the tendency of pollution to spread from one to the other. The spiritual statuses of the individual body and the corporate body are evaluated in terms of purity or pollution. Permeating Shenoute's writings is a conviction that for the individual monk to maintain a holy state, the entire community must be free from sin and corruption. The purity and integrity of the community depend on the purity and integrity of its members, and vice versa, because for Shenoute, sin is a polluting principle. The defilement of sin runs through the individual and corporate monastic bodies as disease. Although much of early Christian literature (beginning with the first Christian author, Paul) reflected the invasion etiology of disease, Shenoute's writings rely upon both models. Sin can be an invasive agent, penetrating the monastic body from the outside, but it also can be a slow corruption of the monastic body, originating from the inside, infecting and eating away at the other members and expressing within the human body the strife existing in the social body. Thus, in Shenoute's ideology of the body, pollution language does not always reflect a concern with strict communal boundaries. In the classical anthropological analysis of Mary Douglas, a heightened concern with bodily pollution often indicates anxiety about the dangers posed by the porous nature of the boundaries of the physical body and the social body. For Shenoute, however, the source of sinful corruption was often not an agent or principle outside of the monastic body but a member of that body. The sources of pollution that proved most threatening to the monastery were not nonascetic outsiders—lay Christians and non-Christians beyond the monastery's walls—but the very people who were living within the community, monks who might, in a variety of ways, violate the monastic rule and provide a refuge for defiling sin inside the corporate monastic body. In Douglas's analytical framework, purity and pollution language is often understood as an identity marker, as well; it sets those who must maintain ritual purity apart from those who need not. As I argue in Chapter 4, however, Shenoute's purity language does not mark the ascetic as particularly different from the lay Christian, either, since his discourse of purity and discipline informs his theological defense of Christian orthodoxy, which applies to all Christians. Thus, Shenoute's ascetic subjectivity, striking in its attention to bodily purity, ultimately becomes a Christian subjectivity.
With respect to the origins of pollution in the individual monk, Shenoute for the most part lays the blame for sin's defilement of the body not on external temptation but on something interior to the monk, that is, the corrupt state of that monk's soul. In this way, Shenoute also adheres to the ancient ideologies of the body that posited that influences of the soul on the body were at least as strong as the influences of the body on the soul. Like the neo-Platonic philosophers of late antiquity, Shenoute believed, to paraphrase Teresa Shaw, that the body physically reacted to the diseases of the soul, diseases otherwise known as the soul's passions. Disciplines of the body, such as fasting and sexual abstinence, were widely believed to temper the passions of the soul. For Shenoute, in as much as the discipline of the individual monastic body directly impacted the state of the monk's soul and thus the monk's salvation, that discipline also affected the salvation of every other monk, since the sins of any one monk spread throughout the corporate monastic body to threaten the spiritual status of every monk's soul.
This ideology of the monastic body has important political implications for the social structure of the monastery. In Shenoute's system, each monk has a vested interest in the degree to which every other monk practices proper ascetic discipline; each monk is thus implicitly and explicitly encouraged to monitor the ascetic progress of his or her colleagues and report back to the appropriate monastic authority. Nothing can exist beyond the limits of public scrutiny. This understanding of sin as polluting disease also provides the leader of the community (and potentially other authority figures on the lower levels of the monastic hierarchy) with justification for a fairly rigorous implementation of disciplinary practices in the monastery and a strict enforcement of the ascetic rule. If all monks are endangered by the sins of any one monk, this ideological system requires the swift and stern curtailment of even seemingly trivial sins.
Because Shenoute's ascetic ideology was configured as deeply entrenched in what were rapidly becoming institutions in late antique Egyptian Christianity—e.g., the emerging office of the monastic leader and developing orthodox theology (orthodox in the Alexandrian sense, that is)—Shenoute presents an ascetic subjectivity that is surprisingly non-transgressive. Many aspects of the burgeoning Christian ascetic movement could be characterized as resisting or challenging dominant cultural and political paradigms. Although Shenoute's ascetic ideology produces, or at least strives to produce, a distinctive Christian subjectivity, it is an identity that for the most part defines and understands itself as decidedly not marginal or alternative. Although Shenoute's valorization of celibacy, poverty, and the life of prayer partakes of the world-renouncing discourse that has led many to characterize early Christian asceticism as actively resisting cultural norms (such as marriage, family ties, inheritance laws, political allegiances, etc.), Shenoute's ascetic subjectivity presents a subject whose bodily discipline simultaneously produces a subject that is submissive to other dominant (or ascending) cultural paradigms and that is aligned with some of the institutions seeking to maintain or strengthen those paradigms. Shenoute often depicts himself as embattled, one of a small group of righteous combatting seemingly overwhelming forces of evil in the world—be it the pollution of sin, lingering paganism, threatening heresies, or Satan himself. And as an author, Shenoute often partakes of the writerly enactment of ascetic virtues, including humility and obedience. But despite this authorial persona, Shenoute usually writes from a position of power and authority in his social world, not one of marginalization. His texts outline a vision of the monastery as institution, an institution that seeks to "normalize" its members by "turning them into meaningful subjects and docile objects." It is possible that Shenoute's ascetic subjectivity, marked by its strident purity language, was perceived by people outside of his sphere of influence as an "alternative symbolic universe" that legitimated alternative authorities and ways of life. Yet, for those within Shenoute's sphere of influence, especially the monks, Shenoute's definition of the virtuous self was the dominant worldview, and one with clear ties to authorities and authoritative institutions outside the monastery and the region. Shenoute's writings exemplify the ways in which power's "material force operating on the body" produces forms of knowledge about the self and society.
Shenoute the Author
The act of writing held an almost sacred place in early Christianity. In putting word to parchment or papyrus, the Christian author ritually and mimetically recalled the incarnation of the divine word, or logos, in material form. As Derek Krueger has written, "From the perspective of late antiquity, the connection between logos and body always already underlies the craft of composition: the practice of writing is the embodiment of the logos." For his ancient readers and listeners, Shenoute's writings about the body constituted a writing of the body as a sacred and powerful site for the renunciation of evil.
For the historian of Christianity, Shenoute's writings hold a certain power, as well. The nature and scope of Shenoute's written sources are vast. His texts provide an exceptional resource for the study of early monasticism in general and the social construction of the body in particular because his corpus currently represents the largest library of texts written by such a prominent figure in early Egyptian monasticism. Over the course of his long life, he produced volume upon volume of letters, sermons, monastic rules, and treatises, all in the Sahidic dialect of the Coptic language. Much of the remaining Shenoutean research to date has come in the form of linguistic studies and textual translations. As one of the largest single collections of Coptic literature, Shenoute's writings have provided an important resource to linguists of Coptic and other Egyptian languages. The publications of Leipoldt, Amélineau, Elanskaya, and Young, in particular, have made Shenoute's writings more accessible to scholars of late antiquity. Some have claimed that Shenoute's monastery housed one of the primary libraries responsible for translating the Christian scriptures and other Greek Christian writings into Coptic. But his texts also provide a rare literary source for life in a fourth- and fifth-century ascetic community as it was portrayed by a contemporary participant. Shenoute supplies provocative descriptions of significant disputes in the monastery's community, a lengthy reproduction of their monastic rule, extensive biblical interpretations in support of his decisions and rulings, elaborate parables and prophecies regarding the spiritual state of the community, detailed accounts of his own and his monks activities, and considerable theological sermons and tractates.
When the extant texts of Shenoute's corpus are measured against the remaining documents from better-known figures, such as Pachomius or Antony, the textual legacies of the more famous monks seem sparse by comparison. Moreover, some of the most frequently used sources on Egyptian monasticism either are one or two generations removed from the circumstances that they describe or were written by authors who were not Egyptian ascetics. For example, James E. Goehring has established that many of the texts purporting to document the history of Pachomius' founding and leadership of his monasteries present that history filtered through a thick hagiographical lens; only the few authentic letters of Pachomius and his successors Theodore and Horsiesius "do not participate in the anachronistic developments discernable in other Pachomian sources." Samuel Rubenson and David Brakke have lucidly documented the difficulties in relying on the Apophthegmata Patrum and Life of Antony for accurate information on the "founding fathers" of Egyptian monasticism.
Unfortunately, such a prolific author is still relatively unexamined by historians of Christianity for several reasons. First, Shenoute remains unmentioned in Greek and Latin writings about Egyptian monasticism. Second, Shenoute has been depicted in historiography as a man more violent and less intellectually sophisticated than his other monastic contemporaries. One historian of monasticism has contended that Shenoute is "a man whom all agree in calling authoritarian, harsh, and violent," and "without theological formation." His theology and spirituality are described as "lacking any mystical dimension." Another prominent scholar, writing about the Council of Ephesus, describes Cyril's entourage of Upper Egyptian monks (including "the famous archimandrite" Shenoute) as "fanatic and untutored." Although Shenoute did not write traditional, systematic treatises on Trinitarian or Christological topics, he did write extensively on the nature of God and on the relationship of his community with God. His theorizing about the nature of coenobitic monasticism and its role in Christian salvation is as sophisticated as the list of his violent actions against pagans, heretics, and fellow monks is long. An analysis of his asceticism does not lead Shenoute to shed his image as a strict and sometimes violent man. He does, however, emerge as much more than a simple monk, strong of faith; Shenoute's violence was neither untheological nor unique in Egyptian monasticism. Although Shenoute's use of corporal punishment may be more widespread and more severe when compared to other monasteries, such punishment was no novelty in Upper Egypt. The penalties meted out in any early Egyptian monastery must surely be considered reprehensible by modern standards, and likely even more so in the case of Shenoute's monastery. I do not argue against either point. What concerns me is not so much the degree of the severity of the punishment, but the particular social function of the punishment in the authoritative system established by Shenoute and the theological meaning Shenoute urges the other monks to derive from their experience of punishment.
Thirdly, Shenoute's monasticism has been viewed as derivative of an "original" (and hence more historically relevant) Pachomian monasticism. Beginning at least as early as Paulin Ladeuze's 1898 dissertation on Pachomius and Shenoute, scholarship has narrated a fairly linear evolution of coenobitic monasticism and the Egyptian monastic "rule" in which Shenoute's monastery is characterized as a later stage of a Pachomian monastery. According to this tradition, Pcol (the first leader of what would later be called Deir Anba Shenouda) adapted Pachomius' rules for his new community by making them significantly stricter. Upon becoming the monastic father, Shenoute then adapted and edited Pcol's rules. Some subsequent scholars have followed Ladeuze in constructing this chain of textual transmission from Pachomius to Shenoute, and thus describe Shenoute as "Pachomian." These conclusions, unfortunately, are not based on a thorough comparison of the texts from the two communities, but rather on a longstanding tradition that honors Pachomius as the "father" of coenobitic monasticism. Ironically, we have more evidence for studying the asceticism of Shenoute than we do for the asceticism of Pachomius, and I would argue that the unique nature of the Shenoutean sources requires scholars to rethink this trajectory of coenobitic monasticism. It may indeed prove to be true that the rules and daily practices at Deir Anba Shenouda were adapted from the Pachomian traditions; but only a detailed examination of the monasticism depicted in Shenoute's writings can begin to provide us with an answer to this question. Krawiec's monograph and a recent article by Bentley Layton on the regulation of food consumption in Shenoute's monastery mark an important beginning to this scholarly endeavor. This book offers just one contribution to a much larger and long-term investigation of this community which must be pursued by a number of scholars.
By far, the primary reason behind the lack of research on Shenoute remains the sorry state of the manuscript tradition. Almost all of the manuscripts containing Shenoute's works were preserved only in the library of Deir Anba Shenouda. Most of the extant manuscripts date from the ninth to twelfth centuries. As time passed, knowledge of the Coptic language was lost, and these texts were eventually considered refuse by the monastery. Western Europeans "discovered" Shenoute's monastery in the seventeenth century and began plundering the remains of the library in the eighteenth century. Throughout the eighteenth through twentieth centuries, the manuscripts were dispersed to libraries and private collections in Europe and the United States. Frequently a codex was removed piece by piece to different locations, and as a result, parts of the same codex—and even the same text—currently reside in collections in different countries, or even continents. Lamentably, none of the original codices has survived in its entirety, even scattered among various collections. Although most of the extant Shenoutean documents likely have been identified, scholars nonetheless hope to continue to locate new fragments that currently reside undiscovered or unidentified in museums, libraries, or possibly even private collections.
The turn of the twenty-first century has witnessed somewhat of a renaissance of Shenoutean scholarship, due in large part to Stephen Emmel's codicological reconstruction of the remaining manuscripts of Shenoute's writings, completed in 1993. For the first time, scholars may reconstruct individual texts written by Shenoute and examine them in their entirety. Nonetheless, serious obstructions persist, since much of the literature remains unpublished and located in a variety of different libraries. The historian must piece together the remaining fragments—published and unpublished—to reconstruct individual texts. No critical editions exist, and for American and British scholars, few English translations have been published.
In his codicological reconstruction of these disparate fragments, Emmel has discovered that the surviving texts were divided into two major categories: the Canons and the Discourses. The Canons of Shenoute (Nkanwn) contain texts written primarily to the women and men of the monastery and seem to have been organized and compiled into nine volumes by Shenoute himself. The Discourses consist of public sermons, letters and other texts that seem to be written for a more public audience and are referred to in the codices as epistolh or logos. The eight volumes of the Discourses were probably organized for liturgical or lectionary purposes and likely were not compiled by Shenoute himself. They also contain miscellaneous letters to and from Shenoute that have been used to fill up extra space in the back of the codices. Deir Anba Shenouda's library contained additional lectionary codices that were not designated as volumes of the Discourses. Emmel is currently coordinating a team of senior scholars who plan to publish critical editions of the Canons over the next decade.
I follow Emmel's system of citing Shenoute's texts and manuscript copies. I refer to each of Shenoute's writings by its incipit (the opening line of the text). This may cause confusion for readers familiar with the titles given to texts by Leipoldt or other scholars who have published selections of Shenoute's corpus. For example, the text Leipoldt published under the heading "Adversus Saturnum II" is really one fragment of a longer text. Since Emmel's codicological reconstruction, it has been designated Not Because a Fox Barks. Occasionally, a text's incipit has been lost, and I follow Emmel's numbering of these "acephalous" works as Acephalous Work 2 (or A2), Acephalous Work 14 (or A14), and so on. I also provide the volume of the Canons or the Discourses containing each text as well as the codex sigla and page numbers of the codices in which the texts I utilize are found. These two-letter codes (e.g., XL, YW, YY) have been assigned to every codex originating from Deir Anba Shenouda's library. In the absence of a critical edition correlating each extant copy of the Canons or Discourses, these codex sigla are crucial in identifying the sections of any given Shenoutean text and their relationships to each other in the manuscript tradition. Finally, I have provided publication information for the text and English translation of the texts whenever such publications exist. If the text remains unpublished, the location, catalog number, and relevant folio numbers of the unpublished manuscript have been provided. For scholars who wish to investigate any of these texts further, I have provided descriptions of each text at the beginning of each relevant chapter, and I direct the reader to the pages in Emmel's codicological reconstruction that pertain to the reconstruction of the particular texts under consideration. Unless otherwise indicated, all English translations are my own.
The Scope of This Study
This book engages texts from both the Canons and the Discourses. The Canons contain important sources for understanding the asceticism practiced at Shenoute's monastery. Letters from Shenoute to the community and monastic rules form a large part of the Canons. Although the Discourses are directed toward an audience of lay people, clerics, church officials, and non-Christians as well as monks, some of the sermons, treatises, and letters pertain to Shenoute's monastic ideology of the body. His more explicitly theological texts address such important issues of embodiment as the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the resurrection of the body, and the relationship of the soul to the body. The current fragmentary and scattered nature of the manuscripts prevent a completely thorough examination of Shenoute's writings on any one topic; consequently, this study will be confined to a select number of texts in the Canons and an even fewer in the Discourses.
I also limit the book to one aspect of Shenoute's thought: the problems and potentials of embodiment. Given the paucity of scholarship on Shenoute, it is tempting to try to address every facet of his work. But for the same reason, it is impossible to do so. Other important aspects of Shenoute's writings and asceticism have necessarily been left for future scholars. For example, Shenoute's exegesis of the Christian Old Testament and the New Testament is central to his argument in every one of his writings. At times, Shenoute's writing style even resembles a series of biblical quotations. Shenoute is representative of a style of Coptic theological writing that is also characteristic of one of Pachomius's successors, Horsiesius. James Goehring's description of Horsiesius's writings as "replete with quotations" from the Christian scriptures applies to Shenoute, as well: "He has integrated the scriptural language so completely into his thinking that he simply expresses his ideas through it." This book examines several aspects of Shenoute's hermeneutical strategies, but a thorough analysis of Shenoute's exegetical system or the versions of the Coptic Bible from which he quotes lies well beyond the scope of this study.
I begin in Chapter 1 with the first formulations of Shenoute's ideology of the monastic life in letters the monk wrote to the community before he became its leader. These two letters make up the first volume of the Canons and document Shenoute's public argument with the second father about some incident(s) of sin in the monastery. During this period, Shenoute decided to remove himself from the living quarters of the monastery and retreat to the desert. In these open letters to the entire monastery, Shenoute berates the current leader for his poor management of the situation, arguing that the presence of undisciplined sinners threatens to destroy the entire community. This chapter reconstructs some of the events surrounding the conflict. It also examines Shenoute's depiction of sin as polluting and his use of sexual language to describe sin. Shenoute's sexual references, concern for pollution, and warnings about the demise of the community are parts of a larger ideology of monasticism in which sexual relations are a metaphor for the pollution of the corporate monastic body. Shenoute draws on imagery in the prophetic books of the Bible in which the religious community is seen as a feminine entity in relation to God; sexual transgressions are a metaphor for faithlessness to God and the ascetic life.
The second chapter examines the ritualization of Shenoute's discourses of the body in the monastic rules. I read Shenoute's rules alongside regulations from the Pachomian regulations in order to highlight unique elements of Shenoute's Canons. Regulations cited by Shenoute in Canons 3, 5, and 9 are examined with respect to three themes. First, as in Canon 1, the rules demonstrate an increasing concern for sexual purity when compared to other monastic rules, and they also exhibit a greater degree of pollution language in their discussions of sin. Second, Shenoute explicitly articulates a "one-body" ideology by claiming that all monks are "fellow members" of each other and are obedient to only one authority or head. He also argues that removing a sinful member from the corporate body is often required in order to protect the "virtue and purity" of the community. Expulsion, thus, is required for protecting the remaining members. Third, I examine Shenoute's explicit use of the language of disease to depict the spread of sin throughout the community.
I devote Chapter 3 solely to Canon 7, which contains two sets of texts: sermons preached on the event of the construction of a new church building at the monastery, and sermons and treatises written describing the efforts of the monastery to house the large numbers of refugees displaced by invasions from the south. In the first portion of Canon 7, Shenoute praises the construction of the church and uses it as a symbol of the monastic life. The beauty of the building is merely a reflection of the members who constructed it and worship in it. Shenoute interprets 1 Corinthians 6:15 and 12:12-27 to declare the monastic body the body of Christ and its members the members of Christ. Any sin committed against a member of the monastery constitutes a sin against the body of Christ. The sins of the community, which Shenoute often calls "unnatural acts," will drive God out of the church, and will be reflected in the physical deterioration or possible destruction of the building. In the second set of texts, written a few years after the construction of the new church, Shenoute describes the presence of what presumably would be non-monastic and therefore disruptive refugees who have brought their families, animals, and earthly possessions inside the monastic grounds to seek shelter from a series of raids on their towns. He does not, however, decry this as an invasion of sacred space, but seems to welcome them into the monastery's body of Christ. Canon 7 thus illuminates what sorts of behaviors and actions constitute the defilement of the corporate monastic body and the body of Christ. The presence of non-ascetics, their animals, and their earthly belongings do not pose a threat to the purity of the monastic body, for they are not a corruption or degeneration from the ascetic life. It is not outsiders who must be feared, but rather insiders. Finally, I compare Shenoute's theology of architecture to other late antique texts written about church buildings in ascetic contexts.
Chapter 4 examines Shenoute's ideology of the body in the context of his more explicitly theological writings. Up until this point, the book will have concentrated on the ways in which Shenoute understands the body to be susceptible to corruption. This chapter will place Shenoute's views on the corruptibility of the body and the spiritual dangers inherent in the human embodied existence in the context of Christological and anti-heretical writings from the Discourses that champion the sacrality of the body. The texts under consideration are I Am Amazed from Discourses 7, The Lord Thundered from Discourses 4, Who Speaks Through the Prophet, and Acephalous Work 5. Shenoute's Christology and his theology of the resurrection both contain a passionate insistence on the inherent goodness of the human body. The human body was created by God; it was the site of the incarnation of the second person of the trinity (Jesus Christ); Jesus Christ was resurrected in the body; and all human bodies will too be resurrected at judgment day. For Shenoute, the sacrality of the human body and its potential eventual to return to God at the resurrection are the reasons behind the need for ascetic discipline. One must discipline the body and keep it pure because it is the body that will be resurrected.
This examination of Shenoute's views on "the body" demonstrates that Shenoute engaged many of the same questions as his other monastic counterparts. Shenoute, thus, participated fully in the widespread ascetic movement that shaped late antique Christianity. Shenoute's answers to these questions, however, demonstrate the diversity of monastic experience in Egypt. Shenoute's development and enforcement of his ideology of the monastic life requires us to rethink the issues of authority in Egyptian monasticism. The conflicts in the monastery, and Shenoute's handling of them, challenge the somewhat romantic view that monks became authorities or community leaders because other ascetics adhered to them due to their sage advice and established ascetic discipline. This analysis of his ideology also requires us to rethink the roles of all Egyptian monks in the controversies and developments of Christian theology during this period. As this book demonstrates, although Shenoute certainly pledged his allegiance to his bishops in Alexandria, he did not merely rehearse for his monks the theological principles handed down from his ecclesiastical superiors. Shenoute's deep and critical engagement with the theological issues prevalent in his era surely was not unique.
Shenoute's representation of life in the monastery is a one-sided portrait. We glean the perspectives of the other male and female monks only through Shenoute's eyes. Nonetheless, this detailed vision of coenobitic monasticism in its formative period by one of its own remains one of our most significant and under-analyzed depictions of the ascetic life. This book investigates the means by which this arrogant youth transformed himself into the leader of a large community of female and male monks, and how Shenoute's own ascetic theory and monastic discipline helped to propel him to a position of authority that stretched beyond the bounds of his community.