Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite (348-466) was the abbot of the White Monastery in Egypt. He is considered a saint by the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and is one of the most renowned saints of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Shenouda was born in 348 AD in the Upper Egyptian
village of Shenaloletto to devout Christian
parents. His uncle was Saint Pigol
, another famous Egyptian
saint and the founder of a monastery
in Upper Egypt
known today as the White Monastery
. At a young age, Shenouda helped taking care of his father's flock of sheep.
During one of Shenouda's trips to his uncle's monastery, Saint Pigol kept him as a result of a vision and later made him a monk. Around 385 AD, he was chosen by his fellow monks to succeed his uncle as the abbot of the White Monastery. When he took over that task, the monastery was inhabited by 30 old monks. By the time of his death in 466 AD, the monastery had 2,200 monks and 1,800 nuns, who lived over an area about 3,000 times its original size.
Because of his popularity in Upper Egypt
and his zeal for Orthodoxy
, Shenouda was chosen by Saint Cyril the Great
to accompany him in representing the Church of Alexandria
at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus
in 431 AD. There he provided the moral support that Saint Cyril
needed to defeat the heresy of Nestorius
, Bishop of Constantinople
. The eventual exile of the latter to Akhmim
, Shenouda's backyard, was a testimony to the impression that Shenouda had made upon the attendees of this council.
On 7 Epip
, following a short illness undoubtedly brought upon by his advanced age of 118 years, Shenouda died in the presence of his monks in 466 AD.
Influence on the Monastic Movement
From his uncle, Saint Pigol
, Shenouda inherited a monastery
based on the Pachomian
system, though more austere and stringent. This made its followers few in number and probably promoted decline rather than growth. Shenouda implemented a more comprehensive system that was less stringent and more suitable to the surroundings and the background of the people. This new system had an unusual component, which was a covenant (diatheke) to be recited and adhered to literally by the new novices. It read as follows:
- I vow before God in His Holy Place, the word which I have spoken with my mouth being my witness; 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 transgressed what I have vowed, I will see the Kingdom of Heaven, but will not enter it. God before whom I made the covenant will destroy my soul and my body in the fiery HEll because I transgressed the covenant I made. (Bell, the Life of Shenute by Besa, pp.9-10)
Transgressors of that covenant were expelled from the monastery altogether. This was considered a near death sentence for those peasant monks.
Another interesting feature of Shenouda's monastic system was the requirement for the new novices to live outside the monastery for a period of time before they were deemed worthy to be consecrated as monks. This seemed to be at odds with the Nitrian monastic system, which allowed the monks to live away from the monastic settlements only after they became proficient in the monastic life. Shenouda also utilized the time of the monks, outside prayer and worship, in more varied tasks within the monastery than the Nitrian monks were exposed to. Aside from the traditional trades of rope and basket weaving, the monks engaged in weaving and tailoring linen, cultivation of flax, leather work and shoe-making, writing and book-binding, carpentry, and metal and pottering-making. All in all, Shenouda tried as much as possible to employ the monks in their old professions. Such activities made the monastery a vast self-supporting complex, which occupied some 20 square miles of land.
As a monastic leader, Shenouda recognized the need for literacy among the monk. So he required all his monks and nuns to learn to read and encourage more of them to pursue the art of writing manuscripts. This made the monastery more and more appealing to belong to, and consequently made the threat of expulsion seems the more painful.
Legacy as a National Leader
In his laudatory biography Vita of Saint Shenouda
, his disciple Saint Wissa
(Besa) recounts several incidents of Shenouda coming to the aid of poor Egyptian
peasants. One time he went to Akhmim
to chastise a pagan because of the oppression he was inflecting on the poor (Vita #81-2). Another time he acted to eliminate the cause of grief of the peasants, that the pagan landlords of Paneleou
forced to buy their rotten wine (Vita #85-6). On a third occasion he risked his life to successfully ask for the freedom of the captives at Psoi
from the hands of the Blemmyes
warriors (Vita #89). He also at times appealed on behalf of the peasants unto those in power, even unto the Byzantine emperor Theodosius I
. In summary, Shenouda fully recognized the misery of his people and emerged as their sincere advocate and popular leader.
Life as a Writer
To talk about Shenouda's writing is to discuss Coptic literature
at its best. He wrote in a style that was essentially his own, with writings based on a careful study of the scholastic rhetoric of his time, which displayed the wide and deep range of knowledge he possessed. They were adorned with endless quotations from the Holy Scriptures, a typical feature of patristic writings. The scriptures were quoted whenever a presented argument needed support. In doing so Shenouda also displayed an astonishing memory as he rendered these passages with amazing accuracy.
Shenouda's knowledge was not confined to the Holy Bible, as it was the case for the majority of the monks in Egypt. He was fluent in both Coptic and Greek, and was fairly well acquainted with Greek thought and theology. The sprinkling of Greek loan-words in his writings was both extensive and sophisticated, and it was definitely not a product of his living environment. He also expressed knowledge of the works of Aristotle, Aristophanes, the Platonic school, and even some of the Greek legends. He certainly read some of Saint Athanasius' works like the Life of Saint Anthony and some of his homiletic works. Shenouda also knew the letters of Saint Anthony, some of the letters of Saint Pachomius, and most likely some of the works of Evagrius. His knowledge further extended to such popular non-canonical texts as the Acts of Archelaus and the Gospel of Thomas.
The writing of Saint Shenouda can be grouped into four categories:
- Moral Sermons: This category includes the richest collection that have survived from Shenouda's writings. Among his works here is one about the disobedience to clerics De Disoboedientia ad Clericos, in which he stressed the benefit of obedience and the punishment of the disobedient. He also wrote about the Nativity and the glorification of the Lord, where he discussed free will and the place of chastity in the monastic life De Castitate et Nativitate.
- Sermons against the pagans: This category represents an important side of Shenouda's thinking. In one place, he portrayed the pagans as worse than demon whose idols shall rightly be destroyed by the Christians. In another sermon he aimed his attack against a pagan, probably a magistrate, who troubles the monks Adversus Saturnum. In a third sermon he attacks the concept of fate, in the opinion of the idolaters, as the controlling factor in the life of a person. He encounters with the teaching that nothing actually happens without the will of God Contra Idolatras, de Spatio Vitae.
- Sermons against the heretics: This category is similar conceptually to the preceding one. Here Shenouda directs his attack against the heretics who corrupted the faith. One encouners in this category one of Shenouda's longest works, which was probably written as a treatise rather than just a sermon. This is the work against the Origenists and the Gnostics Contra Origenistas et Gnosticos. The aim of this work was to oppose heretics in general and Origenists in particular, with regards to their apocryphal books that they used and circulated. He also touched upon the subjects of the plurality of the worlds, the position and the work of the Savior, and the meaning of the Pascha. Other subjects mentioned in the treatise included the relationship between the Father and the Son, the origin of souls, Christ's Conception, the Eucharist, resurrection of the body, and the four elements. Among the other works within this category were against the Meletians, in regard to the multiple celebration of the Eucharist in one day; against the Manichaeans, concerning the value of the Old Testament alongside the New Testament; and against Nestorius in relations to the preexistence of Christ before His birth from the Virgin.
- Sermons based on interviews with magistrates that visited him: This final category represents sermons that were based on miscellaneous interviews that he held with magistrates who visited him as a consequence of his fame and great authority. In those sermons Shenouda touches upon such arguments as the appropriateness of him correcting even generals in spiritual matters, the dimensions of the sky and the earth, the devil and free will, and the punishment of sinners. He also discussed the duties of judges and other such important personages as bishops, wealthy people, and generals.
As more and more identifications of Saint Shenouda's literary works are made, his contribution to Coptic literature appears to be even greater than previously assumed. On the one hand, it is becoming clear that he treated a wide range of subjects, not only monastic ones. This suggests a more favorable assessment of the theological character of his writing, his spirituality, and his moral and nationalistic behavior. On the other hand, he accepted the inclusion of literary activity in the religious field. This sets him apart from the Pachomian system that tended to treat religious literature as mere written instructions with no regard to style being given. He further developed a style that is clearly a product of careful study of the scholastic Greek rhetoric of his time. Such knowledge tends to dispel the myth about him that he was just another fanatical Egyptian who totally rejected the Greek culture.
Monasteries named after Saint Shenouda
Four Coptic Orthodox monasteries worldwide are named after Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite, namely:
- Besa, Life of Shenoute, trans. D.H. Bell (Cistercian Publications, 1983)
- Rebecca Krawiec, Shenoute and the Women of the White Monastery (Oxford University Press, 2004)
- Caroline T. Schroeder, Monastic Bodies: Discipline and Salvation in Shenoute of Atripe (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007)