Saint Shenouda, the Archimandrite
Departed on the Seventh Day of Abib
St. Shenouda, next to St. Pachomius, was the
most important representative of Egyptian coenobitism (monks living together). He
was Abbot of the famous White Monastery of Atripe in the desert of Thebes for more than sixty-five years (383-451 or 466 ad); he ruled over 2200 monks and 1800 nuns, as Besa his disciple
and successor informs us.
He is called archimandrite, i.e. the head of Anchorites, for he used to practice the solitary life from
time to time, and encouraged some of his monks to withdraw to the desert after a few years of solitary life, without completely
severing connections with the monastery.
Whereas St. Pachomius saw in the coenobium the culmination of monastic excellence, St. Shenouda saw in
it a period of transition and formation to prepare mature souls for the more ascetic solitude of anchorites.
In 431 AD, St. Shenouda accompanied St. Cyril of Alexandria to the Ecumenical
Council of Ephesus. Nevertheless, his name is absent from European literature
of the time concerning the Father of the Desert, because of the following reasons: 1.
He started a deliberate movement to purge Coptic literature of every element of the Hellenic culture. Nobody was permitted to speak Greek in his monasteries, and
in his preaching and writings he used only the Sahidic Coptic language. For many
centuries no western Father wished to translate any of his works. 2. Contrary to other Egyptian monastic orders all his monks were of purely Coptic origin. No foreign person could be admitted to his communities.
Before the birth of St. Shenouda, St. Athanasius foretold the important
role that St. Shenouda was to have in Egyptian monasticism and in aiding the church to flourish and spread. St. Horesius, one of the Pachomian monks also on his meeting with St. Shenoudas mother told her, God bless
the fruit of your womb and grant you a son, who will be like Amber, with its sweet smell that will spread throughout the whole
St. Shenouda was born in
Shenlala, a village near Ikhmim in Upper Egypt. Before he was ten years old,
his righteous parents asked their shepherds to teach him how to take care of the sheep and to send him back home before nightfall. The boy used to give his food to some shepherds and spend all his day in fasting,
then he returned with one of the shepherds halfway home. His father discovered
that he left with the shepherds early in the morning and returned late at night everyday.
His father followed him secretly to see him standing near a well in the road praying for a long time. The next day he accompanied his son not to the shepherds, but to his uncle Abbot Pegol, founder of the
With His Uncle Abbot Pegol
In the White Monastery, St. Shenoudas father asked Abbot Pegol to bless the
boy, but the Abbot held the boys hand, put it on his head, saying, I am in need of this boys blessing for he is a chosen vessel
of Christ, who will serve Him faithfully all his life...
The remarkable progress of this boy, attracted Abbot Pegol and all the
monks. One of the elders saw his fingers on day alight like candles when he stretched
out his hands in prayer. In 383 AD, St. Shenouda succeeded his uncle Abbot Pegol
as an Abbot of the White Monastery, setting out a severe order of monasticism.
St. Shenoudas coenobitic order differs from that of St. Pachomius, and is more strict. Its main outlines can be summarized in the following points:
1. The novice spent a probationary period in certain
houses outside the walls of the monasteries and not inside them as in the Pachomian order.
A written undertaking was signed by the novice before he became a monk, and was recited by him before the brethren
in the church. The signed and witnessed undertaking was kept in the monastery
archives: I promise before God in this holy place, as the word that my mouth promises is my witness. I do not wish to stain my body in any manner, I do not wish to steal, I do not wish to take false oaths,
I do not wish to do evil secretly. If I transgress that which I have promised,
I do not wish to enter the kingdom of heaven, for I see Him, God, before whom I have pronounced the formula of the covenant. Let Him annihilate my soul and body in the gehenna of fire, for I will have transgressed
the formula of the covenant I have pronounced. There is no mention of the classical
promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience, although these were implied in the coenobitic pursuit of perfect morality.
2. Every monastery was ruled by an Abbot, who in
return was the subject of the Archimandrite, as the Abbot of all monasteries. Four
general assemblies were held yearly where all monks, even the anchorites were present, to discuss the position of these institutions.
3. Concerning worship, short prayers were recited
by every group of monks before the beginning of their work. Private prayers consisted
of psalms and Church hymns, which were recited in the cells under the guidance of the spiritual father. Common prayers were also performed by monks who assembled four times daily for this purpose, in the morning,
noon, sunset, and at night. They assembled and departed in complete silence,
thinking only of the prayers they have recited. Moreover, the Eucharistic liturgy
was celebrated weekly. The families and all people who dwelt near the monasteries
were permitted to visit the monasteries on Saturdays, attend the Vespers service, hear the sermon and participate with the
monks in the Eucharistic liturgy on Sundays. The monks fed these multitudes and
St. Shenouda himself preached to them.
4. He established two schools in the White Monastery
and encouraged the monks to be educated. Since he believed that education is
the effective weapon against pagan customs, he felt responsible for the establishment of schools in the nearest villages.
St, Shenouda lived in one of the most critical moments in Egyptian history, when a great
gulf was created between the Egyptians and the Byzantine people. The Egyptian
peasants lived almost as slaves, working hard to the advantage of the Byzantine tyrant rulers or the aristocratic class. In spite of his great zeal to practice the hermetic life, he had taken himself over
to plead for the oppressed in the courts, and if he failed he would write to the Emperor himself.
Thus he pushed his people
not to surrender to oppression, but to struggle until the end. He stirred Egyptian
nationalism, or Coptism. For this reason he used the Coptic language in his preaching,
and not the Greek. In general meeting he stirred up the multitude saying: The hearts of those rulers are filled with wickedness, counterfeits, injustice and
covetousness. They have one aim; to collect money at the expense of the poor
who are the victims. Who can enumerate the sufferings which the people bear by
those rulers?! I know someone who finds no food to eat nor to feed his animals. I think they want to make Egyptians their slaves, put the yoke on their shoulders...
According to St. Shenouda, worship is correlated to social
life, and religion is practical love and piety. St. Shenouda with his thousands
of monks were not isolated from the Egyptian community. For example, when some
thousand people were captured by the Blemye invaders of Upper Egypt, he met the leaders of those people. He opened his monastery to those captured people to settle there for three months. All the monks devoted their time to their service. Seven monks who were doctors used to treat the wounded in the monastery. During this period ninety-four people died and were buried in the monastery, while fifty-two babies were
born. Eight thousand five hundred Ardab of wheat were consumed, besides the great
amount of lentils, oils, beans, etc.... The amount of guests to these monasteries
seems very great during this time. The manner in which the monks believed in
practical love as above any monastic canon or rule is very evident in their acts of agape.
We have seen that St. Shenouda opened his monasteries to the people on Saturdays and Sundays. He used to explain to them the Holy Scriptures, giving special interest in uprooting heathen custom. His eloquence helped him in overcoming the pagans of Ikhmim. He stirred up the multitudes to reject the pagan monuments and temples.
His Ascetic Struggle
St. Shenouda used to practice severe ascetic actions. For example, St. Besa his disciple told us that, During the holy week, St. Shenouda made a cross and tied
himself upon it for the whole week. He did so as if he wished to suffer with
his Master...He used to be fed with bread and salt for many days, and spent many nights in praying...
St. Shenouda underwent many demonic temptations, but
which by faith, righteousness, and the strength of our Lord, he endured and conquered.
Once a devil appeared to him in the shape of an angel, saying to him, Hail, O Struggling Saint, the Lord has sent me,
for you are righteous and have struggled too much. You have experienced enough
toils and ascetic actions in this wilderness, now go to the countries to guide men.
St. Shenouda replied to him modestly, If you have been sent by the Lord, stretch out your hands in the shape of the
Cross, the sign of your Lord Jesus. On hearing these words the devil fled away
as he could not bear the name of the Savior and His Cross.
St. Shenouda was granted the gift of performing miracles in the
name of our Lord Jesus Christ, some of which are listed here:
1. Once as the saint knew that the wheat would
not suffice and there was no money to buy some, he assembled twenty monks in church and prayed. Then God blessed the wheat so that it sufficed and surpassed all need.
2. Once while all the monks were assembled together
at night in the winter, three revered men, who looked like angels, entered and participated in worshiping, then departed. When the monks asked their Abbot St. Shenouda about those three whom he accompanied
to the outer door, he replied, They are John the Baptist, Elijah the Prophet, and his disciple Elisha; they came to comfort
us and strengthen us, for they also lived in the wilderness like us.
3. It is said that when an ambassador of the Emperor
Theodosius the Little asked him to accompany him to bless the Emperor he excused himself because of his multitude of responsibilities. As the ambassador threatened him that he would use violence, he entered the church
and prayed. Suddenly he was borne to the Emperor by a cloud, blessed him and
brought from him a message to his ambassador signed by his seal as proof!
4. It is also related that on his return to Egypt
from Ephesus after attending the Ecumenical Council, the sailors who did not know him refused to accept him on the ship where
St. Cyril of Alexandria was on. While the ship was sailing, St. Cyril saw St.
Shenouda and his disciple Besa borne on a cloud. St. Cyril cried, Bless us, our
father, O Saint, the new Elijah!
5. Once, after returning from Ephesus, St. Shenouda
visited the monastery of Amoun at Nitria. There he was astonished how the monks
ate meat and began to think negatively of them in his mind. The brother who was
in charge of the kitchen ordered one of the monks to put his hand inside the pot while the food was boiling and bring a piece
of meat. St. Shenouda was astonished how the monks hand was not injured and believed
that holiness does not depend on the kind of food one eats.
St. Shenouda is one of the most outstanding Christian writers in Coptic. According to Besa, he left a great number of letters and sermons, most of the former-addressed
to monks and nuns, which dealt with monastic questions and information combating the practices of pagans and heretics. His sermons are spirited and predominantly eschatological in character. In addition, several apocalypses and visions are attributed to him.
-It is of great benefit to visit the places of martyrs and saints to pray and to be sanctified
by receiving the Holy Communion in Christs fear. But he who visits these places
and enjoy carnal pleasures, to eat, drink, play, commit sins and to be drunken...he angers the Lord who says, My House will
be called a house of prayer, but you are turning it into a robbers den. (Matt 21:13)
Therefore whoever comes to the feasts of martyrs
to spoil the Lords Temple, falls under condemnation and is cursed instead of attaining the blessing of the Martyrs prayers.
receiving the Holy Communion, one has to hurry to ones cell joyfully and in peace. Nobody
must speak with his neighbor before or after the assembly, except if there is a necessity for the congregations benefit...thus
we preserve the innumerable graces we attain.
St. Shenoudas life story was recorded by his disciple Besa (Wisa). May the prayers of this great saint, St. Shenouda
the Archimandrite, be with us all and glory be to God forever.