Monastic Bodies: Shenoute of Atripe

Caroline T. Schroeder “Monastic Bodies. Discipline and Salvation in Shenoute of Atripe” [University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007]
monastic bodies
An in-depth examination of the asceticism practiced at the White Monastery in Upper Egypt in the fifth century, using diverse sources, including monastic rules, theological treatises, sermons, letters, and material culture.
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
shenoute 1
“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….
Shenoute 2
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….
Shenoute 3
St. Shenoute the Archimandrite and Abba Wisa (Besa) his Disciple

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.”

An extract from which provides a lengthy and detailed summary of the book by its author.
Associate Professor Caroline T. Schroeder, Religious and Classical Studies; Director, the Humanities Center
As a scholar of early Christianity, she explore the ways in which Christianity evolved in contact and conflict with other religious traditions and communities. Both my research and her courses engage questions about the roles of orthodoxy, politics, social status, gender, and sexuality in the religions of the Roman and early Medieval/Byzantine worlds. Her primary area of research is early Christian monasticism and asceticism, with a particular interest in Egypt. She is the author of Monastic Bodies (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007) and several articles. Her current projects are a book on children, entitled “Monks and Their Children: Family and Childhood in Early Egyptian Monasticism”, and an online digital research platform, Coptic SCRIPtorIuM (Sahidic Corpus Research: Internet Platform for Interdisciplinary multilayer Methods).

See and

Details of her research on Children in Early Christian Asceticism and Monasticism can be found at

Details of her work on Early Christian Monasticism in the Digital Age can be found at
shenoute 4
For more on Shenoute, see:
Besa , David N. Bell (trans) “The Life of Shenoute by Besa” (Cistercian Studies 73) [Cistercian Publications, 1983]
Shenoute of Atripe, ranked second only to Pachomius for his contribution to the development of Egyptian monasticism, is all but unknown outside the Coptic tradition. This first English translation of his Life, by his disciple and successor, casts new light on the austere monasticism of the fifth century.


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