Bahitawi, The Hermits of Ethiopia

Bahitawi 1
“The bahtawi are an independent class of hermits who represent the anchoritic tradition – modern successors of St John the Baptist rebuking all including the emperor himself without fear or favour. As Shimei reviled King David, so the bahtawi have been know to hurl abuse at all and sundry including the emperor. Some live completely separately from society, unseen by all, their bones occasionally discovered after their deaths in the remotest of places. Others lived in trees (dendrites) or small holes in the ground. Often they live on leaves and bitter roots and reduce sleep to an absolute minimum. (One who had found his way to New York was taken to a mental institution after being found praying half-naked in the snow!).Those living in wilderness zones on the edge of the empire had the effect of
expanding the empire because they invariably attracted followers.”
Bahitawi 2
“Though it has long since disappeared in the West, the eremitical life is still widespread in Ethiopia. The cenobitical monks and indeed the ordinary people regard the hermitage as Man’s highest abode on earth, and often monks seem fearful at the possibility of God calling them to it. In almost every monastery there are a number of monks – perhaps one tenth of the total-who confine themselves to their cells. They are described as ” the monks who never see the sun.” They have no responsibilities within the community and do not attend the daily common prayers. Food is brought to their huts each day by a single monk permanently designated to the task, and the hermit only emerges for the Mass in church on Sundays and feast days. Usually their cells are within the monastery compound, though sometimes they are a short distance away: at Debre Damo, for instance, hermits can be seen in apparently inaccessible caves in the sheer cliff beneath the monastery.
Other monks or lay people can visit them (if they can reach their cell), and even today many of the rulers of Ethiopia, including the Emperor himself, frequently seek the advice of these hermits on both spiritual and temporal matters.
Bahitawi 3
Besides these monastic hermits, there are countless holy men (ba’atawi) living in remote forests and caves throughout Ethiopia. These men have totally rejected human contact, and if they ever visit a church they “come by night, crawling through the undergrowth so as not to be seen.” as an admiring priest described it. They live only on the wild fruits and herbs which Nature provides. A few of these holy men are ordained monks who have left their communities, but mostly they are lay people – as another monk put it, ” God has called them to holiness from nothing, as Christ called Peter and Paul.””
Bahitawi 4
“Several characteristics of the bahitawis of Ethiopia are contained in these stories as recounted in the Meshafe Senkesar, the Book of Saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church:
ethiopian saints
• Bahitawis are called to their lives as renunciates directly by God in visions. A bahitawi may be, but doesn’t necessarily have to be, a monk in one of the Ethiopian orders. Even today, men and sometimes women disappear from their workplaces or homes suddenly, leaving the world behind them.
Bahitawi 5
• They usually wear dreadlocks – long, matted hair – and do not cut their fingernails. This is done as a sign that they do not care for their bodies, but only for the spirit. Bahitawis are Nazarites as described in the Bible in Numbers chapter 6. Many bahitawis never leave their caves, and as a consequence their bodies are wasted and very thin.
Bahitawi 6
• They perform various, sometimes radical austerities. All bahitawis are monks. Most eat very little, often only a handful of chickpeas soaked in water or a handful of roasted wheat or barley per day. Some don’t eat anything at all for years, but live on the spirit alone. Some take vows of silence, others never sleep, but spend their nights in prayers, prostrations or meditation. Some stand upright for years, others sit in one spot without moving.
Ethiopia - Lalibela - A hermit in his cave in the walls of Bet Gioris
• As their name suggests, bahitawis usually live as hermits in caves, far away from all human contact. What little they eat is brought to them by the faithful who leave the food in a designated place. Bahitawis don’t normally attend mass or other religious functions, but may sneak into a church alone at night.
Bahitawi 8
• The aim of all the austerities, deprivations and prayers it to save sinners from damnation. Bahitawis do not aspire to spiritual heights for themselves, but sacrifice their lives for the benefit of others.
Bahitawi 9
• Bahitawis, both in ancient times and today, are known to perform miracles. They are not attacked by wild animals, may not be visible on a photo taken of them, or remain dry while walking in heavy rain.
Bahitawi 10
Since bahitawis take their authority directly from God and do not need to answer to any abbot or bishop, they are mystics rather than religious practitioners. Even in the west, mystics and prophets such as St. Francis of Assisi have often criticised the church for its love of wealth and secular power. And yet, bahitawis such as Gebre Menfes Kidus are today revered as saints.
The mystic bahitawi is the correction rod that keeps the established church from forgetting all its principles. He preaches in the tradition of Old Testament prophets and is often persecuted like them. During the reign of the current patriarch of Ethiopia, Abuna Paulos, many bahitawis have been imprisoned and even killed for criticising the church’s arrangements with the secular government of Ethiopia. The patriarch argues that bahitawis are hermits and have no business coming to the city to prophesy. They, however, follow God’s direct commandments in their visions undeterred by threats.
Bahitawi 11
Bahitawis are given great respect in Ethiopia due to their austere lifestyle and their mystic calling. Their dreadlocks appearance is understood by the people as part of their spiritual lives which are truly ‘separated unto God’ in the tradition of the Nazarites. The difference between religious practice based on tradition and spiritual mysticism based on direct contact with God is clearly seen even in modern day Ethiopia. Whereas the Ethiopian Orthodox Church follows the worldwide trend to water down its principles in order to please its dwindling congregations, allowing the shortening of the fasts and the eating of fish while fasting as well as permitting women to enter the church in trousers, the bahitawis do not change or compromise.”
Bahitawi 12
A useful reference source on Ethiopian Christianity is Poaulos Milkias “Dictionary of Ethiopian Christianity” [University Press of America, Lanham, 2010].
dict ethiop christ

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