He was born to devout Christian parents, circa 348 AD, in a village called, at the time, Shenalolet.. His father was a farmer by profession and he also owned a small flock of sheep for which he employed a shepherd. This shepherd, probably for lack of honest help, in the area, asked the parents to have the young St. Shenouda help him in taking care of the sheep. For such assistance, he would have them deduct a fee from his wages. This afforded our young saint the opportunity to be trained in the profession of the saints, i.e. being a shepherd. The early signs of his spiritual growth was manifested to that shepherd one night, when he saw him raising his hands in prayer in the well with his fingers resembling ten luminous candles.
In a later trip to his uncle Pigol's monastery, the White Monastery, while in the company of his father, his uncle kept him as a result of a vision. There he stayed until he was made a monk in the austere style of his uncle. He was later entrusted with the training of the new monks. Around AD 385, he was chosen by his fellow monks to succeed his uncle as the abbot of the monastery. When he took over that task, the monastery was inhabited by 30 old monks. They were living in area a few times larger than the surviving church compound, referred to now as the White monastery. By the time he was called upon to join the ranks of his fellow saints in God' Kingdom in AD 466, the number of inhabitants was 2,200 monks and 1,800 nuns. They lived over an area about 3,000 times its original size.
Because of his popularity in Upper Egypt and his zeal for orthodoxy, he was chosen by St. Cyril the Great to accompany him in representing the Church of Alexandria in the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in AD 431. There he provided the moral support that St. Cyril needed to defeat the heresy of Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinopole. The eventual exile of the latter to Akhmim, St. Shenouda's backyard, was a testimony to the impression that our saint had made upon the attendees of this council. It is worth noting that this exile was intended to be and actually became an intellectual death for Nestorius. Thanks are due to our saint and his influence in that area.
After a long blessed life, he was called upon by our Creator to join the honored hosts of God's saints, that he deservingly belonged to, in paradise. Following a short illness, undoubtedly brought upon by his advanced age of 118 years, he gave up the spirit in the presence of his beloved monks, as the hosts of angels and saints looked upon. The Coptic Church commemorate this blessed event on the 7th day of the Coptic month of Abib (July 14)
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Our saint inherited a monastic system from his uncle St. Pigol. Such a system was based on the Pachomian system, though more austere and stringent.. This made its followers few in number and probably promoted decline rather than growth. With advent of our saint's abbacy, matters changed, and a more comprehensive system was eventually put into effect. This was less stringent and more suitable to the surroundings and the background of the people, who would later flock to join his herd.
This new system had an unusual component, in the Coptic Monastic sense, and that was a covenant (diatheke) to be recited and adhered to literally by the new novices. It read as follows:
Transgressors of that covenant received corporeal punishment, a practice that was customary at that era. In a more stringent way, they were expelled from the monastery all together. This was considered a near death sentence for those peasant monks.
Another interesting feature of St. Shenouda monastic system was his requirement for the new novice to live outside the monastery for a period of time before they were deemed worthy to be consecrated as monks. This seemed to be at odds with the Nitrian Monastic system, which allowed the monks to live away from the monastic settlements only after they became proficient in the monastic life. St. Shenouda also utilized the time of the monks, outside prayer and worship, in more varied tasks within the monastery than the Nitrian monks were exposed to. Aside from the traditional trades of rope and basket weaving, the monks engaged in weaving and tailoring linen, cultivation of flax, leather work and shoe-making, writing and book-binding, carpentry, and metal and pottering-making. All in all, he tried to utilize the monks in their old professions, if applicable, for more efficiency. Such activities made the monastery complex, which occupied some 20 square miles of land, a self-supporting unit. This was unheard of for a group of Egyptian monks at such time.
As a monastic leader, he recognized the need for literacy among the monk. So he required all his monks and nuns to learn to read and encourage more of them to pursue the art of writing manuscripts. This made the monastery more and more appealing to belong to, and consequently made the threat of expulsion seems the more painful.
However, all of the features of such system could not succeed without his extremely charismatic character. He was like a light-house in a sea of darkness and peasants were attracted to (to join the monastery) as iron filings to a magnet.
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Any cursory study of the living conditions of the peasants in Upper Egypt at his time, reveals a sub-human living conditions. This was exemplified in their illiteracy and slavery to the Greek landlords and to the land they cultivated. Such slavery was a life sentence that only death could free them from it. Even after Christianity spread among the them, their spirits were always dampened by the pagan landlords, who became more and more ferocious, especially after their slaves rejected their religion and adopted another (i.e. Christianity). The lack of leaders to defend them from such grave injustices, did not help either. This set the stage for the emergence of St. Shenouda as a leader of the oppressed populace.
To be a true leader, one would need to be strong, charismatic, caring, of good morals, and fearless. Such qualities fitted our Saint perfectly. So he took charge of the peasants with the ultimate goal of elevating them from being mere slaves to self-esteemed Christians, or at least to insure that they would get a fair treatment from their landlords. He opened his church to them, preaching them incessantly on religious and moral issues. He also defended and protected them from their oppressors whenever they asked him for such protection. He simply did not spare an effort in coming to their aid. Though his methods might seemed violent by today's standards, they were the only possible and effective means of his time.
St. Besa, in his laudatory biography (Vita) of St. Shenouda, he recounted several incidents of him coming to the aid of people. One time he went to Akhmim to chastise a pagan because of the oppression he was inflecting on the poor (Vita #81-2). Another time he acted to eliminate the cause of grief of the peasants, whom the pagan landlords of Paneleou forced to buy their rotten wine (Vita #85-6). On a third occasion he risked his life to successfully ask for the freedom of the captives at Psoi from the hands of the Blemmyes warriors (Vita #89). He also at times appealed on behalf of the peasants unto those in power, even unto the Byzantine emperor Theodosius. In summary, he fully recognized the misery of his people and emerged as their sincere advocate and popular leader.
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Introduction: To talk about St. Shenouda's writing, one is in fact discussing Coptic Literature at its best. His strong, charismatic personality reflected positively in his writings. He wrote in a style that was essentially his own. His writings were clearly based on a careful study of the scholastic rhetoric of his time and they displayed the wide and deep range of knowledge that he possessed. They were adorned with endless quotations from the Holy Scriptures, a typical feature of patristic writings. The scriptures were quoted whenever an argument presented needed support. In doing so he also displayed his astonishing memory as he rendered these passages with amazing accuracy.
His knowledge, however, was not confined to the Bible, as it was the case for the majority of the monks in Egypt. He was fluent in Both Coptic and Greek and was fairly well acquainted with Greek thought and theology. Some modern day scholars have even dared to say that he wrote at times in Greek! In any case, the sprinkling of Greek Loan-words in his writings was both extensive and sophisticated, and it was definitely not a product of his living environment. He also expressed knowledge of some of the works of Aristotle, Aristophanes, the Platonic school, and even some of the Greek legends. He certainly read some of St. Athanasius works like the Life of St. Antony and some of his homiletic works. He also knew the letters of St. Antony, some of the letters of St. Pachomius, and most likely some of the works of Evagrius. His knowledge further extended to such popular non-canonical texts as the Acts of Archelaus and the Gospel of Thomas.
The writing of St. Shenouda can be grouped in four categories:
First Category: This category, moral sermons, is the richest collection that we have survived. Among his works here is one about the disobedience to clerics (De Disoboedientia ad Clericos), in which he stressed the benefit of obedience and the punishment of the disobedient. He also wrote about the Nativity and the glorification of the Lord, where he discussed free will and the place of chastity in the monastic life (De Castitate et Nativitate).
Second Category:: This category, sermons against the pagan, represents an important side of St. Shenouda's thinking. In one place he portrayed the pagans to be worse than demon and their idols shall rightly be destroyed by the Christians. In another sermon he aimed his attack against a pagan, probably a magistrate, who troubles the monks (Adversus Saturnum). In a third sermon he attacks the concept of fate, in the opinion of the idolaters, as the controlling factor in the life of a person. He encounters with the teaching that nothing actually happens without the will of God (Contra Idolatras, de Spatio Vitae).
Third Category:: This category is similar conceptually to the preceding one. Here He direct his attack against the heretics who corrupted the faith. Here we encounter one of his longest works, which was probably written as a treatise rather than just a sermon. This is the work against the Origenists and the Gnostics (Contra Origenistas et Gnosticos). The aim of this work was to oppose heretics in general and origenists in particular with regards to their apocryphal books that they used and circulated. He also touched upon the subjects of the plurality of the worlds, the position and the work of the Savior, and the meaning of the Pascha. Other subjects mentioned in the treatise included the relationship between the Father and the Son, the origin of souls, Christ's Conception, the Eucharist, resurrection of the body, and the four elements.
Other works he had within this category were against the Meletians, in regards to the multiple celebration of the Eucharist in one day; against the manichaeans, concerning the value of the Old Testament alongside the New Testament; and against Nestorius in relations to the preexistence of Christ before His birth from the virgin.
Fourth Category:: This final category represents sermons that were based on miscellaneous interviews that he held with magistrates who visited him as a consequence of his fame and great authority. In those sermons he touches upon such arguments as the appropriateness of him correcting even generals in spiritual matters, the dimensions of the sky and the earth, the devil and free will, and the punishment of sinners. He also discussed the duties of judges and other such important personages as bishops, wealthy people, and generals.
Conclusion: A more and more identification of St. Shenouda's literary works is made, his contribution to Coptic Literature appears to be even greater than previously assumed. On the one hand, it is becoming clear that he treated a wide range of subjects, not only monastic ones. This suggests a more favorable assessment of the theological character of his writing, his spirituality, and his moral and nationalistic behavior. On the other hand, he accepted the inclusion of literary activity in the religious field. This sets him apart from the Pachomian system that tended to treat religious literature as mere written instructions with no regard to style being given. He further developed a style that is clearly a product of careful study of the scholastic Greek rhetoric of his time. Such knowledge tends to dispel the myth about him that he was just another fanatical Copt who totally rejected the Greek culture. Keep in mind that he did not subscribe to most of its non-chrsitian aspects. Further efforts in this regards received a great boost with the 1993 monumental dissertation of Prof. Steven Emmel on the Literary Corpus of St. Shenouda's Writing.
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The Life of St. Shenouda was recorded by his close disciple St. Besa, shortly after his repose. It was done in Sahidic Coptic but only the Bohairic translation survived intact in a 10th century AD manuscript. Some Sahidic fragments have been identified and published. There is also, a more expanded version extant in Arabic as well as one similar to the Bohairic surviving in Ethiopic. The Coptic Text was edited by Dr. Johannes Leipoldt from Vatican Copt. LXVI, ff. 19r-82r (CML 55C). It was translated in French by Prof. E. C. Amelineau, in latin by Prof. Weitzmann (?), and in English by Dr. D. N. Bell. The excerpts provided below are from the English translation.
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3. There was a village called Shenalolet in the nome of Shmin, and there lived the righteous parents of our blessed father. The father of Apa Shenoute was a farmer who had a few sheep, and he gave them to a shepherd to look after them in the field. Now the shepherd said to the father of Apa Shenoute:` Give me your boy Shenoute to watch over the sheep with me, and I will give you a little of my wages for him'. The young boy Shenoute had then begun to grow up in the grace of God which was in him and was gradually becoming more and more attractive. The mother of the young boy Shenoute said to the shepherd : `Look, I will give my son to you, but send him back to me at the evening of each day. He is my only son, and I rejoice to God with him each night and day'. And the shepherd said to them: `Every day, before the sun sets, I will send him back to you'. So henceforth, the shepherd took the boy Shenoute and looked after the sheep with him, and each day, when evening came, the shepherd would send the boy Shenoute back to his parents in the village.
4. Now Apa Shenoute himself used to go down into a water-cistern a short distance from the village-it was during the month of Tybi-stretch out his hands and pray like that, with the water coming up to his neck. Every day, therefore, when it was getting light, the mother and father of the young boy would quarrel with the shepherd, saying: `Why did you not send our son back to us at evening? We were afraid that something evil had happened to him'. Then the shepherd would say to his parents: `Truly, I do send him back to you every evening'. On one of these days, then, the shepherd followed the young boy Shenoute untill he arrived at the water-cistern, and by the water-cistern there was a sycamore tree. Then the boy went down into the water and there prayed to God with his hands stretched up to heaven. The shepherd followed him and hid himself under the sycamore tree so as to see what the young boy was doing.The shepherd would [often] testify and say: `I saw the young boy's ten fingers like ten flaming lamps, so I returned and went back beside my sheep. In the morning (he said)his father came and again quarrelled with me, saying: "Why did you not send my son back to me at evening?" I said to him: "Take your son with you! Iam not worthy to have him stay with me! And his father took him home".' This is what the shepherd told us when he testified to us.
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10. When the holy Apa Shenoute had received the angelic garment which came to him from heaven, he gave himself up to the anchoretic life with many great labours, many nocturnal vigils, and fasts without number. Nor would he eat each day untill the sun had set at evening, and then he would not eat his fill; instead, his food was bread and salt. Because of these things, his body was dried up, and his skin was very fine and stuck to his bones. The whole of his life and his intention were like [those of] Elijah the Tishbite, the charioteer of Israel.
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30. Before they had yet built the church, our Lord Jesus Christ appeared to our father Apa Shenoute and said: `Arise, and measure out the church and the foundation of the monastery, and build a sanctuary in my name and yours'. My father Apa Shenoute said to the Lord: `My Lord, where shall I find anything to spend on the building of a sanctuary?' The Saviour said to him: `Arise and go to [your] dwelling-place in the desert; pick up what you will find on the way and spend it on the sanctuary. You may perhaps think it the devils doing: it is not. It is instead the means whereby you may build the church and the monastery in accordance with my will. I, the Lord, have spoken'. 31. Our father, for his part then arose and went into the inner desert, and spent the whole night there in prayer. But when he had left and was on his way out of the desert in the morning, he found a small leather bag [of gold?], about a handsbreadth in length, so he stretched out his hand, picked it up, and went to the monastery. 32. Thereupon, our Lord Jesus Christ came to our father, and they went off together and laid out the foundation of the sanctuary. My father then arranged for the workmen and craftsmen, the stonemasons and the carpenters. They worked on the church, and with the Lord helping them in all that they did with everything they needed, they completed it.
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89. It happened one time that the Blemmyes came north, captured some of the cities, and took captive the men and their beasts of burden. They went south with all that they had captured and camped in the nome of Psoi. Then my father Apa Shenoute wanted to go to them for the sake of the captives thay had captured, and when he crossed the river to go east to them, those he met first raised high their spears intending to kill him. Their hands immediately became stiff and dry like wood, fixed unbendably at full stretch, and they were crying out in great distress. The same thing happened in a similar way to the rest of these people untill [my father] arrived at the seat of their king. 90. When the latter realized that they could not overcome the power which was with him, he arose and bowed to the ground befeore him, saying: `I beg you, restore my men's hands!' And when he made the sign [of the cross] over them, their hands were immediately restored to health. When the king promised him gifts, he did not take them, but when he spoke to him said only this: `Give me the men; take for yourself all the spoils'; and the king freely gave all of them to him. He crossed over to the west bank of the water with them and brought them to the monastery. He provided them with expences and sent them away in peace, each to his own house, glorifying God and his holy prophet Apa Shenoute.
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182. When morning came on the seventh day of this month Epiphi, he was in great pain from his illness. At the sixth hour of the day, I said to him: `My father, how are you now?' He said to me: `Woe is me, for the road is long. How long must I wait before I go to God? There are terrors and strong powers upon the path; woe is me until I meet the Lord'. 183. When he had said these things, he was silent and in a coma for half an hour. Suddenly he cried out: `Of your charity, my holy fathers, bless me; come and sit before me in your ordered ranks. 184. He said again: `Behold! the patriarchs have come with the prophet; behold the apostles with the archbishops; behold the archimandrites have come with all the saints'. 185. Again he said: `My father Apa Pshoi, my father Apa Antony, my father Apa Pachomius, take my hand so that I may rise and worship him whom my soul loves, for behold! he has come for me with his angels!' 186. At that moment, there came a great fragrance. Then, on that day, the seventh of Epiphi, he gave his soul into the hands of God.
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This is an ancient name of a village, now identified with the modern village of Shandawil, situated on the West bank of the Nile and less than a dozen miles from both Akhmim and the Monastery of St. Shenouda.
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This part of St. Shenouda's story seemed impossible to happen, thus deemed an embellishment by the Writer of the vita. But in recent memory we hear of a monk in St. Paul Monastery near the Red Sea in Egypt, who exhibited such phenomenon during prayer, i.e. luminous fingers!
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Based on internal literary evidence, his consecration as a monk is placed at AD 370-371.
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Prepared by Hany N. Takla. Last Update 4/19/96
For more information contact HTakla@stshenouda.com