Leader to the Promised Land

15-12-2011 09:04 AM

Rev. Tim Vivian


It’s good to see a scholar speak in the Acknowledgements to a scholarly book of “two women whose deep compassion and yet strikingly divergent religious convictions revealed to me the abiding role of religion in people’s lives” (p. 236). Too often, scholars view late ancient religion, including Christianity, as a specimen under a microscope or a body on a slab. Despite academic protests to the contrary, however, there is no such thing as complete disinterestedness or objectivity. In Monastic Bodies, Caroline Schroeder ably manages to combine respect with scholarly critical distance to offer us a striking new paradigm with which to read Shenoute the Great of Atripe (c. 350-466), all the more welcome since Stephen Emmel has announced a project to publish texts and translations of Shenoute’s entire vast and dismembered corpus. Shenoute is by turns attractive and repellent, and Schroeder ably helps us to understand him better, despite, or perhaps because of, both.
Anyone who has read more than perfunctorily in early Egyptian monastic texts has observed the persistent, even prurient, interest in the fires of hell and the excruciating sufferings therein. The following monastic oath from Shenoute’s monastery would make a chilling needlepoint to hang on the wall of a cell: “In the presence of God, in his holy place, I confirm . . . I will not defile my body in any way . . .. If I transgress what I have agreed to, I will see the kingdom of heaven, but I will not enter it . . . since God will destroy my soul and my body in fiery Gehenna” (4). This vow also summarises what Schroeder does so well in this study: she demonstrates how Shenoute “developed a sophisticated ideology of the ascetic life” (1) by linking the sanctity of the corporate body with individual monastic bodies and by infusing monastic space “with as much meaning as the ascetic practices [and bodies] themselves” (90). After chapters on “Bodily Discipline and Monastic Authority” (Shenoute’s earliest letters) and “The Ritualization of the Monastic Body” (Shenoute’s Rules), she follows with Chapter 3 on “The Church Building as Symbol of Ascetic Renunciation.” Shenoute “maps” his “monastic interpretation of the Pauline ideology of the body in 1 Corinthians onto the church building” (100).
For Shenoute, sin pollutes the body, as Schroeder notes, in “a continuum of defilement,” with sexual sin being “particularly corrupting” (41). Bodily “[pollution travels from one member of the monastery to another and even to Christ because all form a single body in Christ” (103, emphasis added). Because the church building is an integral member of Shenoute’s “bodily discourse,” the archimandrite of Atripe argues that “the church and the monk’s body possess the same purpose. Both are spaces in which a monk should worship and glorify the Lord . . .. Calamity occurs when God abandons the church and the community. Since both are dwelling places of God, both can drive God away with their sin” (106-107). The Hebrew prophets bewailed God’s absence and warned Israel of God’s calamitous punishment. Schroeder aptly observes that Shenoute builds his theology of the body on Paul’s anthropology, modelling “the social system of the monastery on Paul’s vision of the Christian community in 1 Corinthians 11-12” (83), but she could go further, and further back: Shenoute’s Rules in their detail strike me as being like those in Leviticus (e.g. Lev 11). In the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel writer sees Jesus as the new Moses. Schroeder shows how Shenoute saw himself as another Paul. Did he see himself also as another Moses, leading his monastic people to the Promised Land of salvation?
That observation is a suggestion, not a criticism (a small criticism, though, is that the book would profit by the citation of more Coptic texts in the notes for the interested reader). This book got me thinking. Schroeder argues (sometimes wittily: “Where the Pachomian rules hint at monastic lapses, the Shenoutian rules wag a very accusing finger” [73]) that “purity and pollution language” is far more prevalent in Shenoute’s writings than in the Pachomian texts (5). That got me wondering about the Apophthegmata, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). Scholars have shown that the earliest desert monastic traditions (probably best preserved in the Sayings) do not share the later monastic hagiographical fascination with miracle and miracle workers. Does the same difference apply to Shenoute and the Apophthegmata with regard to purity and pollution? Unless you are an anthropologist or a biblical spelunker, purity and pollution may not seem like a hot topic. But numerous commentators have observed that the current argument(s) over homosexuality roiling most denominations today (whether acknowledged or not) has its origins in the Levitical (Mosaic) purity laws. Much modern Western discourse on the subject is therefore halakah. Thus purity and pollution, like much in Monastic Bodies, is a timely subject.
Ten thousand Copts, spiritual and filial descendants of Saint Shenoute, visit and make pilgrimage to Deir Anba Shenoute in Sohag, Upper Egypt, each July for the festival for the patron saint of Sohag. What Shenoute thought and wrote still matters: to Coptic faithful, students of early Christian monasticism, those interested in and practising monastic spirituality, and monks themselves. Shenoute, Schroeder concludes (158), “developed a theology of salvation that articulated the nature of the communal ascetic life as interdependent.” Those of us living today in the atomised, trickle-down United States could benefit from the renewal of such a corporate theology. Communal cares and concerns represent the attractive Shenoute.
Shenoute can, unfortunately, be very modern: much as today, as the Internet and airwaves buzz and titter with Paris Hilton’s porn video and Sen. Larry Craig’s airport bathroom misadventure, Shenoute had an inordinate—indeed obsessive—interest in sex, and the sex lives of others: “he cautions monks not to cross their legs when they sit because it encourages sinful ‘passions’” (71). On the subject of sex, therefore, Shenoute acts as a funhouse mirror, giving us back ourselves, but in an inverted, distorted manner. Nevertheless, it is still us that we see. Schroeder holds up yet another mirror to us, this time noisily knocking on it too, warning us still today of the dangers of a cramped and wizened soteriology: Shenoute insists “on labelling anyone who falls outside of his circumscribed definition of true Christianity as something other” (161). This is the repellent, yet instructive, Shenoute. Defining, then demonising, then dehumanising the other has given us the Shoah, Rwanda, Darfur, and even, arguably, Iraq (100,000 dead and counting), to name only a few modern horrors. As Baudelaire so aptly observed: “mon semblable, mon frère.” Shenoute our double, our brother.
Tim Vivian, California State University, Bakersfield

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