Shenouda’s father owned land and flocks of sheep and he believed strongly that one should work for his wages. Therefore he taught his young son Shenouda to tend to the sheep from an early age. Even as a young child, Shenouda loved to spend time alone in prayer and contemplation. Like David the Prophet, he used his time in the field as an opportunity to spend more time with his Creator. Shenouda the young boy would go further out into the fields away from the other shepherds to have time in seclusion. He fasted the whole day, giving his food to the shepherds. On one occasion whilst in seclusion, one of the shepherds saw the young boy Shenouda praying. The shepherd was amazed to see his fingers alight like candles and there was a scent of incense that permeated from him. The shepherd quickly informed Shenouda’s parents of what he had witnessed. St Shenouda’s parents were righteous people full of love for the Lord. They wished the same for their young son and so sent him to his uncle (mother’s brother) Saint Pigol at the monastery hoping that under his guidance Shenouda would grow spiritually and increase in virtues.
Ordination as a Monk
Saint Pigol, at that time, was Abbot of the Red Monastery founded by Saint Pachomios (Father of the Community) in Upper Egypt. When Shenouda’s parents took their young son to his uncle, they asked Saint Pigol to bless him and guide him in the way of the monastic life. However, through the Holy Spirit, Saint Pigol witnessed that Shenouda was chosen by the Lord to succeed him as Abbot of the monastery. So instead of placing his hand on Shenouda’s head, Saint Pigol took the hand of the young boy and placed it on his own head to the amazement of Shenouda’s parents. He then said to Shenouda, “Bless me my son for you are a chosen vessel of Christ and shall be a father to many peoples.” Saint Pigol treated Shenouda like one of the monks of the monastery, granting him his own cell, despite his young age.
Shenouda’s spirituality continued to grow while in the monastery. Saint Pigol was filled with joy and awe by his ascetism and fervent dedication, especially from someone so young. One night, in a vision, Saint Pigol saw the angel of the Lord standing by the head of the young boy Shenouda saying, “Pigol, awaken early in the morning and go to Shenouda. There you shall find the Holy Eskeem* of monasticism that has been blessed by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Place it on the child for he shall be great in the eyes of the Lord. He shall build a great monastery with an active and honourable church.” Saint Pigol carried out the angel’s instructions and consequently Shenouda was ordained a monk. Monk Shenouda embraced the monastic life wholeheartedly, growing spiritually in his life of worship, prayers and praises whilst becoming increasingly ascetic.
He only ate bread and water but his true nourishment was his joy and happiness in his Beloved Saviour. Satan tried to tempt Saint Shenouda in many ways but by prayer and humility the Saint overcame the temptations. He kept the Cross ahead of him as his sign of victory and salvation. He would see the demons dissipate in a cloud of smoke at the sign of the Cross and he would say, ‘They have bowed down and fallen; but we have risen and stand upright.” (Psalm 20:8)
After the repose of Saint Pigol, the monks unanimously chose Saint Shenouda to be the next Abbot of the monastery. They were awed by his devotion, holiness, service and his great care for the monastery. Under his leadership and continuous effort, the monastery flourished with the number of monks and nuns increasing to approximately 4000. Saint Shenouda’s monastic order was distinguished by strictness and firmness. He instituted meticulous conditions for acceptance into the monastery, which were chastity, obedience and poverty. He insisted these conditions were to be strictly adhered to by all the monks. Saint Shenouda placed great importance on Bible studies for both the monks and laity, which he delivered himself. Also he valued the importance of handicrafts. He maintained that each monk use his talents and abilities in this area, especially for the service of the church and people. The monks were also encouraged to use their past professions to serve each other and the surrounding villagers. Monks who had been doctors ministered the sick; those who had been teachers taught the illiterate locals; they assisted in setting up farms, building churches and schools; and many other services. The monastery became a living example of Christian community and charity. Saint Shenouda loved the ascetic way of life and therefore cared for the hermits who lived outside the monastery. At one stage, he spent five years in the wilderness in prayer and contemplation, becoming worthy of hearing the heavenly voice saying, “Shenouda, you truly have become the leader of the anchorites.” (This is why we call him Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite.)
Saint Shenouda’s Services to the Church
As well as presenting many monks, hermits and anchorites to the church, Saint Shenouda cared for all believers. He invited all to the monastery and ministered to them both spiritually and socially. He destroyed the pagan idols and temples in the areas adjacent to the monastery. Also he burnt many books of sorcery and witchcraft that were prevalent during his time. Saint Shenouda and his monks built many churches with their own hands in the surrounding villages. They also set up schools to educate the local villagers as Saint Shenouda valued the benefits of education in the fight against paganism. He revived the Sahidic* Coptic language, using it in all his writings and sermons. He resisted the Hellenic culture in Egypt and encouraged the revival of the traditional Coptic culture in all aspects of the lives of the Egyptian people. He freed the people from Byzantine rule. “He created Egyptian nationalism or ‘Coptism’.” (Quote taken from The Coptic Orthodox Church as an Ascetic Church – Fr Tadros Malaty).
He became a spokesperson for the simple peasants in front of their harsh Greek landlords encouraging the Egyptians not to accept the oppression of their landlords. Saint Shenouda laid as foundation for his monks that the Church provides both spiritual and bodily services for her people. Thus he opened the monastery doors to all people on Saturday night to attend Vespers, pray the Midnight prayer and participate in the Holy Liturgy on Sunday morning with the monks. Saint Shenouda would deliver the sermon to strengthen the people in the Orthodox faith. Then the multitudes enjoyed a meal prepared by the monks. One instance of his great love for the people was in evidence when the Blemye tribe raided and plundered the surrounding area of Akhmim capturing whole families. When the saint heard of these disastrous events he went to the chief of the tribe and said to him, “Give me the people and you take the spoils”. The chief agreed and handed over twenty thousand people. Saint Shenouda took them all into the monastery for three months and the monks looked after them. They paid special care to the sick, elderly and children. During their stay at the monastery 94 people died and 52 babies were born. This event illustrated Saint Shenouda’s belief that practical love is above all other monastic virtues. The most important service Saint Shenouda delivered was going to Constantinople to expose the heresy of Nestorius. He then accompanied Saint Cyril of Alexandria, Pillar of the Faith, to Ephesus to attend the third Ecumenical Council held there in 431A.D. Saint Shenouda’s zeal for the faith encouraged the Council to exile Nestorius in Akhmim, near the monastery, where they felt he would be unable to lead anyone astray with his heresy until his earthly departure.
Building the Monastery
Saint Shenouda’s monasteries are ancient structures of great historical value. The Red Monastery (so named because of the red bricks used to build it) is located in Sohag, in Upper Egypt, three kilometres north of the main monastery. Only the Church of this monastery remains standing today. To the people it was also known as the Monastery of Saint Bishay. However the monastery usually associated with Saint Shenouda, and named after him, is the White Monastery because it was built using white limestone. This monastery is located west of Sohag, six kilometres from the foot of Mount Atrip (this mountain was named after the Pharaonic city which was located in the area.) Under the leadership and guidance of Saint Shenouda, the number of monks who started in the White Monastery were few, but soon grew to approximately 4000 monks and nuns. This required the addition of new buildings to house the increasing number. These buildings comprised of the original building, a building for the agricultural workers, another for the novices and a building for the nuns. In addition to these, the last building to be added was a magnificent church established by Saint Shenouda himself in 441AD. This church was the greatest of the monastery’s buildings and it is the only remaining building (at the time this book was printed). The rest of the buildings were destroyed over the years.
The church is what is now referred to as Saint Shenouda’s Monastery or the White Monastery. Historically, the Church is of great importance because it was constructed according to Bascilian Architecture and designed in the shape of a cross. It comprised of the altar, two side wings and the main area for the congregation. The altar area is the only part remaining and is currently used as a church. His Holiness Pope Shenouda III has delegated a number of monks to renovate and restore the church to its original state and to rebuild the monastery. Various archaeologists have assisted with the restoration of the monastery. During the work they discovered the ancient guest quarters, the original table where the monks gathered to share their meals, the Baptistery and other buildings which may have been monks’ cells.
The Coptic Church has always revered St Shenoute, but for centuries western scholars knew little about him because he does not appear in the Greek and Latin sources that survive from antiquity and because the codices containing his extensive writings in Coptic, nearly all of them collected and preserved in the White Monastery, were dismembered and dispersed into libraries throughout the world. Only recently has a contemporary coptologiest, Stephen Emmel, reconstructed these codices. Emmel discovered that most of St Shenoute’s writings were transmitted in basically two forms: the Canons, nine volumes of disciplinary writings compiled by the saint himself and directed almost exclusively to the monks; and the Discourses, eight volumes of assorted works, including letters and sermons addressed to diverse audiences, compiled later by the monastery for its instructional and liturgical needs.
This major breakthrough continues to make possible new discoveries about St Shenoute and his monastery, still, many fragments, large and small, of St Shenoute’s works remain unpublished and even undiscovered, and thus treatments of many aspects of his life and thought, must themselves be fragmentary. His corpus currently represents the largest library of texts written by such a prominent figure in early Egyptian monasticism. Over the course of his long life, he produced volume upon volume of letters, sermons, monastic rules, and treatises, all in the Sahidic dialect of the Coptic language. Much of the remaining Shenoutean research to date has come in the form of linguistic studies and textual translations. As one of the largest single collections of Coptic literature, Shenoute’s writings have provided an important resource to linguists of Coptic and other Egyptian languages.
The publications of Leipoldt, Amelineau, Elanskaya, and Young, in particular, have made Shenoute’s writings more accessible to scholars of late antiquity. Some have claimed that Shenoute’s monastery housed one of the primary libraries responsible for translating the Christian scriptures and other Greek Christian writings into Coptic. But his texts also provide a rare literary source for life in a fourth- and fifth-century ascetic community as it was portrayed by a contemporary participant. When the extant texts of Shenoute’s corpus are measured against the remaining documents from better-known figures, such as Pachomius or Antony, the textual legacies of the more famous monks seem sparse by comparison. Moreover, some of the most frequently used sources on Egyptian monasticism either are one or two generations removed from the circumstances that they describe or were written by authors who were not Egyptian ascetics.
Saint Shenouda was blessed by apparitions from the Lord Jesus Christ, similar to those witnessed by Saint Bishoy. After the Lord revealed to Saint Shenouda the time of his departure, he gathered all the monks around him to give them his last wish – to love each other and continue their spiritual work in all faithfulness. His earthly struggle ended when he was 118 years old on the 7th day of the Coptic month Abib (which corresponds to the 14th of July) in the year 451AD. He spent all his days in spiritual struggle and honourable church service. His successor as Abbot was his own disciple Saint Wissa. May the blessings and prayers of Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite and his disciple Saint Wissa be with us all. Amen.
From the Life of Saint Shenouda
+ St Shenouda reached such a high spiritual life that he often had many prophets and saints join him and walk with him through the desert. The following are a few of these stories as related by Saint Wissa, his disciple: Abba Martyrius visited St Shenouda one day and brought with him a certain Cantor. They went into the church to receive a blessing and the Cantor stood up to sing, and continued to sing for all he was worth but not understanding why he was doing this. Abba Martyrius said to Saint Shenouda, ‘Should I tell him to sit down?’ St Shenouda answered him saying, ‘Why are you concerned about him? Let him sing! Behold, there is a choir of angels around him responding to him. Look, there is the prophet David standing at his side and giving him the words which need to be said.’
+ One day when the brothers were gathered in the church for the evening prayer, a very handsome man came in dressed in royal robes. St Shenouda spoke to the stranger with great reverence and took his hand, leading him to the place in the church where the brothers gave the recitation. (Where they recited scripture they had learnt by heart). The stranger delighted everyone with how sweetly he spoke and the dignity with which he pronounced the words. They were amazed at his discourse and outstanding learning. Once the stranger finished he walked into the Sanctuary and disappeared. Some of the brothers then complained in their heart saying, ‘Why didn’t Abba Shenouda get one of the brothers to give the recitation rather than this layman?’ St Shenouda knew what they were thinking in their hearts and said to them, ‘My brothers, the man who went up and gave us the recitation just now was the holy prophet David, the son of Jesse; it was he who wanted to give the recitation in your church, and behold, the Lord favoured us with these great goods.’ The brothers immediately rushed to the sanctuary they saw no one.
+ It happened one day that St Shenouda was walking with the great prophet Jeremiah and they came upon a brother who was lying down while he was reciting the words of Jeremiah the prophet. The holy Jeremiah then stood over this brother and wept until his tears flowed down on the brother. St Shenouda then roused the brother and said, ‘Get up quickly! Do you know what the source of these drops of water is?’ The brother answered ‘I suppose it must have rained.’ St Shenouda revealed to him, ‘My son these drops of water are the tears of the prophet Jeremiah. When you were reciting his words just now, he was standing over you weeping, because you’re not speaking them with heartfelt ardour.’ Another time St Shenouda was walking with the prophet Ezekiel, and one of the brothers was sitting by himself reciting the prophet. The prophet Ezekiel went and stood over the brother but the brother was not aware of this. St Shenouda said to the prophet Ezekiel, ‘Come and be seated; do not weary yourself with standing.’ The prophet said to him, ‘Leave me for a while. I will not pass by this brother, for his recitation of my words truly strikes home.’
+ St Shenouda retreated to his cell in the desert to spend time in prayer, leaving instructions he was not to be disturbed. However, when some issues arose at the monastery that needed his attention, his second-in-command sent Abba Joseph, the monastery secretary, to speak to St Shenouda. As Abba Joseph approached the cell he heard many voices coming from inside. Abba Joseph waited outside the cell and after a little while he heard St Shenouda calling out, ‘Come in Joseph!’ Abba Joseph went into the cell and found St Shenouda on his own. St Shenouda said, ‘Why come all this way Joseph only to stand outside the cell? Why did you not come in?’ Abba Joseph answered, ‘Father I heard voices coming from inside the cell. I thought that maybe the rulers of the city had come to you and were speaking with you.’ St Shenouda replied, ‘Joseph, Shenouda does not speak with men in the desert; it is with the angels or the prophets, or apostles or martyrs. Nevertheless, Joseph, you lost a great blessing today, for the twelve apostles had come to visit me here and they just now arose and withdrew.’
From the Sermons of Saint Shenouda
+ A Homily said in the First Hour of Monday of the Holy Pascha; Brethren, to escape God’s punishment and attain mercy from Him, one must sit alone at the end of the day and search his soul and ask, ‘What have I offered my serving angel to convey to the Lord?’ Even when the night is over and day breaks, we must continue to search our souls to discover what we have offered to our guardian angel to deliver to God. We should never doubt, even for a single moment, that each of us, man or woman, young or old, who has been baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, has an angel responsible for him until his death. This angel conveys and raises our deeds day and night, to God. Not because God does not know what we are doing. On the contrary, God knows every detail, as it is written, ‘God’s eyes are watching continuously, and everywhere, the evil doers and the righteous’. However angels are servants appointed by God for those who are going to inherit salvation.
+ A Homily said in the Eleventh Hour of Monday of the Holy Pascha; There are works which we see as good but are unacceptable to God. Let us not look at one another in judgement and thus defile the holy places. For the Lord did not plant in the Paradise good trees and bad trees, but He planted only the good trees. He did not plant in it fruitless trees or trees bearing bad fruit. Not only this, but even the people He placed there, when they disobeyed, He did not bear them and cast them from it. From this, my brethren, know that it is not appropriate for the holy dwelling places of God to be filled with people who are evil and good. The world is full of sinners, unfaithful and defiled people as well as saints, but those who sin shall not be left in it but He will take them out. I know that the whole earth is the Lord’s, so if His house is similar to the rest of the earth then what will be its advantage? If I am a priest and do evil deeds like the evil people on earth, I should not be called a priest. So many times we do the wrong things but we do not judge ourselves. Nobody dares to fill your house with dirt unless he finds you negligent. The king’s chamberlain dares not allow anybody to enter the place whether he is complying with the king’s rules or not, without the king’s permission. If he does allow anything different from this, then he will be punished.
+ A Homily said in the First Hour of Tuesday of the Holy Pascha; There are two things which I will tell you about. All those people for whom the heavens rejoiced because they repented on earth will never see any grief or passion in that place. While those for whom the heavens did not rejoice because they did not repent on earth, will never enjoy any joy or rest. Those who will have their joy on earth will never have any joy or rest from this time on. You have heard that ‘Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted’, and also those who did not rejoice on earth will rejoice in heaven. You have also heard, ‘Woe to you who are laughing now because you will cry and grieve.’ This is the time in which the weak become strong; and those who are not strong will say, ‘I am strong when they give their hearts to the written commandments’. As the prophets had said, ‘Many are those whose bodies weakened because of their adultery, and their hearts will become weak as well’. The Bible described them by saying, ‘He will be destroyed by the uncleanness of himself’. While those who are bravely striving and struggling were described by the saying, ‘Hurry and reconcile yourself as a friend of God and undefiled performer who performs the word of truth.’
+ A Homily said in the First Hour of Wednesday of the Holy Pascha; I make this statement and stand by it. Do not imagine that after the separation of the straw from the wheat or the sinners from the good people, that the sinners will find comfort, and this is in accordance with the witness of the holy books. As for the angels and archangels, as well as the saints, they will all keep silent and the judgement of God will be final when He separates the good from the bad and throws the sinners into hell. Does God need anyone to consult or ask? What can God forget, to need someone to answer Him or inquire of Him about anything, except this statement which is uttered by all of us, as with one mouth, ‘Oh the Judge of right, all Your judgements are fair, You are the One who gives everyone according to his deeds and it is not for us to remind You of this because You are merciful.’
+ A Homily said in the Ninth Hour of Wednesday of the Holy Pascha; There are two things I will tell you. All those for whom the heavens rejoiced because they repented while they were still on earth will never have any passion or trouble in this place. Those for whom the heavens did not rejoice over because they did not repent while they were on earth will never have any joy or comfort in this place. Therefore til when are you going to remain to be lazy? I plead with you to lament over yourself as long as these lamentations will be accepted. If you have committed something that deserves lamenting, you have to lament it on your own, and all the saints will lament with you for your salvation. Blessed is he who laments over himself here on their own, for they will be rescued from the continuous gnashing of teeth and eternal weeping and will rejoice and enjoy a heavenly happiness. Let us wake up, my beloved, before the door is closed and it is too late to repent when we start pleading in front of the door only to hear, ‘I do not know you.’ All this and worse we will hear if we keep on sinning.