Pray and Work like an Egyptian Monk

Labor in Monastic Rules of St. Shenoute (4th-5th century C.E.)

Ape Shenoute

Abbot Shenoute (347–465) was one of the most influential figures of early Egyptian (Coptic) Christianity. A long-lived authoritarian leader of the so-called White Monastery Federation—between the years c. 385 and 465—Shenoute left indelible mark on the communal (cenobitic) monasticism, giving his monks and nuns detailed rules to regulate every aspect of their lives.

“And together, all shall submit to the one who is in charge of them, with all submissiveness and all propriety, in what he directs them to do, without murmuring and blaming, knowing that they have been assigned to him by whoever instructs them.”

—Shenoute of Atripe (Rule #555)

This is one of the hundreds of monastic rules that have been preserved in the writings of Shenoute of Atripe (347–465), a great Christian leader in late antique Egypt. An abbot of the famous White Monastery and a head for many years of the monastic federation near the modern city of Sohag in southern Egypt, Apa (or, Father) Shenoute is one of the most influential figures of early monasticism. In his leadership role during the formative decades of Christian communal (cenobitic) monasticism, Shenoute authored or adapted rules that governed every possible aspect of monastic life. These rules did not survive as a single work but are found scattered in Shenoute’s eight-volume opus known as the Canons (composed in his native Coptic Egyptian), which only now is being systematically studied and published.
Shenoute’s monastic rules are among the most ancient ones, as some of them were produced only a generation after the oldest known monastic rules, composed by Pachomius in the second quarter of the fourth century. Addressing a wide range of situations and topics, these rules, commands, and wishes provide intimate access to the workings of the monastic federation and daily lives of its members.
As a great deal of Coptic monks’ daily lives revolved around manual labor, many of the rules relate to work. Writing for the Fall 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Dana Robinson focuses on what Shenoute’s rules reveal about the monastic lived experience as related to work and how monastic ideals about work were put into practice. Because these rules survive embedded in Shenoute’s sermons and letters that compose his Canons, they often appear in the context of a specific real-life situation. A researcher of food, work, and religion in late antiquity, Robinson in her article “Monks at Work: Ideals and Reality in Early Egyptian Monasticism,” tries to integrate these written sources with archaeological data obtained through recent excavations at the White Monastery.

White Monastery church

Main church of the White Monastery. The monastic federation under Shenoute’s leadership consisted of two male monasteries (known today as the White and the Red monasteries) and one nunnery. The federation was founded around 360 C.E., by St. Pcol, whom Shenoute credits as the author of some of the rules he quotes in his own writings.

“Abbot Shenoute’s strategies of control over the working environment and workforce (the monks) show that he was conscious of the possibilities of the monastery as a communicative landscape centered on labor,” writes Robinson. “Some of his regulations may seem like inefficient economic choices, but the “real” product of monastic labor—from the perspective of ascetic theologians, such as Shenoute—is the person of the monk him- or herself: humble, obedient, and spiritually focused.”

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To learn about the kinds of physical work performed at the White Monastery, the social effects of labor organization, monastic economy, and the spiritual aspects of work regulations, read Dana Robinson’s article “Monks at Work: Ideals and Reality in Early Egyptian Monasticism,” published in the Fall 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Red Monastery, North Lobe

Red Monastery lies 2.5 miles northwest of the larger White Monastery. Its main church (built in early sixth century) is decorated with stunning wall paintings, which have recently been restored by the Red Monastery Project. Shown here is the middle register of the north lobe featuring images of monastic saints, including Shenoute’s biographer, Besa (left), and Shenoute himself (second from left).

Subscribers: Read the full article “Monks at Work: Ideals and Reality in Early Egyptian Monasticism” by Dana Robinson in the Fall 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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