Monastic Bodies

Monastic Bodies: Discipline and Salvation in Shenoute of Atripe

Caroline T. Schroeder
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 248
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    Monastic Bodies
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0338-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction: Shenoute in the Landscape of Early Christian Asceticism
    (pp. 1-23)

    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’s 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...

  4. 1 Bodily Discipline and Monastic Authority: Shenoute’s Earliest Letters to the Monastery
    (pp. 24-53)

    In the year 381, a weary and embattled Gregory of Nazianzus, the former archbishop of Constantinople, lamented the politicking required of an urban bishop and cosmopolitan theologian. His words dripping with sarcasm, he proclaimed himself unsuited for the prestigious and powerful office he had recently vacated, because he had failed to “hunger for the enjoyment of the goods of the poor” and to compete with more overtly political animals such as “the consuls, the governors, the most illustrious generals.”¹ Gregory contrasted the bitter infighting of the debates at the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople that year to the quiet serenity of...

  5. 2 The Ritualization of the Monastic Body: Shenoute’s Rules
    (pp. 54-89)

    The rules at Deir Anba Shenouda were a crucial way of shaping a communal identity. As Shenoute himself explains, they defined the very boundaries of the ascetic community: “Everyone who will dwell in our domain shall be bound by the canons that are established for all the brothers (and sisters) who gather together.”¹ Through the rules, all the members of the monastery were joined by a common set of ritual practices that forged new ascetic subjects out of those who performed them. The rules set forth the activities of daily life in the community, such as work, cooking, meals, prayer,...

  6. 3 The Church Building as Symbol of Ascetic Renunciation
    (pp. 90-125)

    Manuscripts of Shenoute’s writings are not the only material legacy of Deir Anba Shenouda. On the edge of the cultivated land outside of the modern city of Sohag lie the remains of its church building. According to a twelfth- or thirteenth-century inscription in the sanctuary, the basilica was originally built c. 450–55 c.e. on the instructions of Shenoute himself.¹ It sits at the foot of desert cliffs dotted with caves that have been home to ascetic hermits from Shenoute’s time to the modern era² (Figure 1, p. 2). Although the original building was partially destroyed by fire (likely in...

  7. 4 Defending the Sanctity of the Body: Shenoute on the Resurrection
    (pp. 126-157)

    Shenoute’s letters, rules, and sermons to monks are suffused with the sense that the human body was a problematic site for the ascetic Christian. Throughout the Canons, he writes of the desires, impulses, and activities that monks experienced in the human body as sources of deeply polluting sin, sin that rendered both monk and monastery condemned before God. Just as the monastery was one body in Christ, the members of the community were members of Christ’s body. In the same way, the church building was the home for the Holy Spirit, and Christ would abandon the building should it be...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 158-162)

    Shenoute built upon prevailing late antique discourses of the body and gender to produce a Christian subjectivity informed by his ideology of the body. In his earliest letters, he developed a theology of salvation that articulated the nature of the communal ascetic life as interdependent; the spiritual status of each monk in the monastery—male or female—was impacted by the actions, and especially the sins, of other monks. He constructed the monastery as a whole as a feminine entity highly susceptible to desire, sexual temptation, and pollution, a feminine figure who was prone to disobedience and thus in need...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 163-212)
    (pp. 213-214)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 215-228)
  12. Index
    (pp. 229-234)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 235-237)