Let us look at an extract from the beginning of the first sermon: “So listen, O you who have friendship for the man who is discouraged, and look at his affliction when he says, ‘Behold, Lord, I am tormented, my heart has become disturbed, and my heart has turned within me because I am in anger, yes, in anger. Indeed, this sickness has robbed me of my strength and subjected me to an increase of suffering so that I do not wish my garment, and my garments, to touch… If it were possible, l would throw them away so as not to wear them.”
Shenoute often speaks of himself in the third person, referring to himself as “the man” or “this man.” This procedure enables him to introduce smoothly a citation of Lamentations 1:20, where he substitutes himself for Jerusalem in the first person pronoun “l” Like many texts of Christian literature, the sermons of Shenoute are literally stuffed with biblical citations and allusions, though few authors make such extensive use of the Prophets.
From the very beginning of this sermon, the two dominant themes of Volume 8 are clearly in view. The theme of sickness is susceptible to two readings. On the one hand, it is possible that Shenoute was actually ill with a chronic disease, probably a skin disease that made him subject to unbearable itching, which he sometimes describes with realistic exactitude. On the other hand, the human body was a commonplace metaphor for the Christian community, mainly inspired by the epistles of Paul, and particularly apt for describing a monastic community. As head of the body, the leader of the federation feels the effects of all weaknesses and suffering.
Associated with this image of the body is the image of the garment. Just as the monastic habit is the outward sign of a monk, the monks are the finest visible expression of the community, that is, the garment of the monastic body. If this body is ill, it can no longer endure contact with garments. Here too the image is coupled with an allusion to reality: Shenoute’s garments are obviously a sensitive issue in the life of the congregation.
By: Anne Boud’hors