Posts Tagged ‘Monasticism’

The Church of the Red Monastery in Egypt: A Late Ancient Church Comes to Life

Friday, January 18th, 2013

by David Brakke

On a Saturday in December 2012, as Egyptians went to the polls to approve or reject a proposed new constitution, I arrived in Cairo to meet my colleagues Eugene Rogers, who teaches Christian thought at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Caroline Schroeder, a fellow early church historian at the University of the Pacific. The next day we traveled south to Sohag, where we met up with Malcolm Choat, a papyrologist at Macquarie University. The four of us had traveled to this bustling city north of Luxor to visit one of the most significant surviving monuments from late ancient Christianity, the church of the Red Monastery. Thanks to a conservation project led by the art historian Elizabeth Bolman of Temple University as overall director, we were able to admire the most extensive painted church interior to survive from late ancient and early Byzantine Christianity. It is, simply put, a revelation.

© David Brakke

A door to the church on the northern side, with some surviving ornamentation from late antiquity.

In late antiquity the Red Monastery was part of a federation of three monasteries, two for men and one for women, which scholars usually call the White Monastery Federation, after the larger of the two monasteries for men. (“Red” and “White” are modern terms, based on the color of the surviving churches’ bricks.) Established by Pshoi in the middle of the fourth century, the Red Monastery probably became subordinate to the White under the leadership of Pcol, the founder of the White Monastery; the federation of three communities took definitive shape under Shenoute, who led it for some eighty years until his death in 465 CE. Shenoute directed the building of the church at the White Monastery, after which the smaller church at the Red was modeled. Although both churches partially survive, only in the Red’s church can one still see the sanctuary’s painted program almost entirely intact, thanks to mud-brick walls that covered most of it from some time in the Middle Ages until the early twentieth century.

Ten years ago a team of Italian conservators—directed by Adriano Luzi, Luigi De Cesaris, Alberto Sucato and Emiliano Ricchi—began the arduous and delicate task of cleaning paintings that had been obscured by centuries of accumulated smoke, soot, and dust. The U.S. Agency for International Development supported their work, through the American Research Center in Egypt. In the 1990s Bolman and the Italians had successfully completed a similar project on the thirteenth-century wall paintings at the Monastery of St. Antony; the breathtaking results of their work there can be seen in Monastic Visions: Wall Paintings in the Monastery of St. Antony at the Red Sea, which Bolman edited and Yale University Press published in 2002.

The paintings in the Red Monastery church are much older than those at St. Antony: their (at least three) successive phases date to the sixth and seventh centuries. In a video made for an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier in 2012 and still available on YouTube, Bolman explains the significance of the church’s paintings and the nature of her and her colleagues’ work. Shortly before we arrived, their project came to its end.



The results of a decade of labor are extraordinary. The sanctuary of the Red Monastery church now requires the close attention (either in person or through the book that Bolman and her collaborators will soon publish) of all historians interested in the worship, art, architecture, spirituality, and monastic life of late ancient and early Byzantine Christianity—that is, of just about every church historian of the period. We can now see in vivid color “the jeweled style” that characterized the literature and art of late antiquity across the Mediterranean. These Egyptian monks did not praise God and contemplate his Word enclosed by drab grey or tan walls that reflected the monochromatic desert sand. Rather, they worshiped in a space sparkling with bright greens, pinks, and yellows, and populated with plants, animals, and a crowd of faces, including those of human beings, angels, and Christ himself.

The three semi-domes of the tri-conch apse feature monumental depictions of Christ, as an infant suckling at the breast of the Mother of God, as the incarnate Word, and as the triumphant returning savior, along with angels, the evangelists, and other biblical figures. Lower levels feature ornately decorated columns flanking niches that contain depictions of revered fathers of the monastic community (such as Pshoi, Pcol, and Shenoute) and prominent bishops of the Egyptian church (such as Athanasius, Cyril, and Dioscorus), as well as of prophets and martyrs. Around the niches plants send forth flowers, rams and gazelles run, and peacocks pose. Two columns feature dozens of paired human faces, gazing at one another. On a wall just outside the apse, a praying figure with Persian hair and boots, perhaps the church’s patron, welcomes the visitor to this lush and lively world.

It is characteristic of the jeweled style that the eye finds nowhere to rest, but roams around the walls and ceilings, delighting in the variety of the images and making connections among the figures and between individual elements and the larger program. Why are there animals in male-female and male-male pairs, sometimes with explicit genitals and sometimes without? Why do St. Stephen, the first martyr, and Theonas, the relatively obscure late third-century bishop of Alexandria, stare at each other across the southern conch? And how do all these relate to Mary and the Christs that look down at them from above? We can anticipate Bolman’s carefully researched answers to these and other questions in her forthcoming publications, but the church does not lend itself to definitive interpretations and final theological statements. Instead, it invites the continual play of the Christian imagination.

Although later phases of the painting look distinctively “Coptic,” Bolman has found that earlier phases find close parallels in places as far away as Milan, and the overall effect must have been characteristic of thousands of painted church interiors around the Mediterranean world. The huge White Monastery Federation, across the Nile from the major city of Panopolis, was no cultural backwater, even if modern-day Sohag does not receive many tourists. The Red Monastery Church provides a unique opportunity to get as close as possible to how a Christian of the seventh century would have experienced the apse of a painted church visually. The closest analogy that I can think of is what one can learn from standing in the reconstructed synagogue of Dura Europus in the National Museum of Damascus. Unlike that painted synagogue interior, however, this amazing church remains where it has always been. It is a special doorway to the past.

© Caroline Schroeder

The northern exterior wall of the Red Monastery church, which was constructed around 500 CE.

But what is the Red Monastery Church’s future? My colleagues and I were lucky enough to visit it just after the conservation team had departed and while Professor Bolman and the art historian William Lyster were still there to provide us access and to spend hours with us explaining their work and discussing the meaning of this rich visual environment. We are deeply grateful to them for what I can describe only as an early church historian’s dream come true. I hope that many of my colleagues will be able to experience this precious monument as I did, but the painted surfaces remain delicate, vulnerable to damage through even a small accident. After centuries of absence, a renewed community of Coptic monks has gathered around this ancient gem. It will be their responsibility, as well as that of the wider Coptic Orthodox Church, to find some balance between the church’s unparalleled status as evidence for the Christian past and its undeniable potential for fostering spiritual renewal in an uncertain present. In late December came word that the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization (ISESCO) will add the Red Monastery to its World Heritage List for the Islamic World, the first monument in Egypt to be so honored.

John Henry Newman, Monasticism, and the Teaching of History

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

by Greg Peters

John Henry Newman’s Coat of Arms
I am a scholar of Christian monasticism, an Anglican priest and a professor at an unashamedly religious institution in the Protestant Christian tradition – and I am happy! There’s something unmatched about working at an institution that supports one’s theological/religious convictions, provides opportunities to further explore one’s faith with students and colleagues and helps to integrate one’s life into a coherent whole. I am here not because I am unable to go anywhere else but by choice. I love what I do and I love coming to work each and every day (though I do enjoy my summer and January breaks). For many scholars such a life would seem too quaint and simplistic and for others my employment at an overtly religious institution is tantamount to a lack of intellectual freedom. That certainly is not the case here at Biola University.

Biola University was founded in 1908 as the “Bible Institute of Los Angeles” (hence the neologism Biola). It became a college in 1949 and a university in 1981. Today there are nearly 6,500 students being educated in six schools from the bachelor’s to the doctoral level. There are several hundred faculty members and twice as many support staff stuffed into 95 acres in the larger urban sprawl of Los Angeles, closer to Disneyland than the Disney Concert Hall. The beaches and the mountains are within easy driving distance as is Mexico, the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. If you don’t mind people, asphalt, sunshine and heavy traffic then we are ideally located.

In addition to teaching at a great university, I also teach in one of the most exciting undergraduate programs on campus, and perhaps even in the country – the Torrey Honors Institute. Torrey is a liberal arts, great books based program that demands much reading, writing and discussion from its students. Since students do not take a major in the Institute, they add a specialized major in any area available at Biola University to the grounding they have received in the classics. As a result, Torrey combines the best of classical and traditional American university education; that is, we sit in a circle for six to nine hours a week discussing the classics of the western tradition (think Homer, Plato, Locke, Austen, etc.). I never have to lecture and I always get to work with the best and brightest students on campus.

Furthermore, as a scholar of monasticism and an Anglican I have the privilege of seeing what we do here at Torrey fit into the larger picture of monasticism, at least when viewed through the lens of the Anglican-turned-Roman Catholic John Henry Newman. In his article “Schools of the Lord’s Service: Benedictine Ideals in the Educational Thought of John Henry Newman,” [American Benedictine Review 57.1 (2006): 60-80] Denis Robinson, himself a Benedictine monk, writes that the

virtues of monasticism for Newman were enshrined in five basic ideals: (1) the significant bridge monastic culture formed with the patristic past, (2) the mixture of the active and contemplative ideals, (3) the notion of the central spiritual dimension in education, (4) an essentially Platonic epistemology, and (5) the expression of these in the practice of the Liturgy of the Hours [that is, daily prayer] (p. 64).

On the first point, “In [Newman’s] estimation the Benedictine tradition formed a bridge between the world of the Fathers and the modern world. Monks enshrined the values of the classical world by carrying forward the teachings of the ancient church in a way of life as well as in formal theology” (p. 65). Newman’s writings on the Benedictine’s are some of the results of this belief, as is his The Arians of the Fourth Century from 1833. Concerning the second point, Robinson writes that “Newman had little taste for rarefied academicism. In his estimation, scholarship had to be sound, but it also had to be mixed with a ‘practical frame of mind.’ In other words, theory had to spill over into action or it was essentially useless” (p. 67). Reflecting on the relationship of spirituality and education, Robinson believes that “Newman’s view of education was precisely discovery of meaning. Theory had to be infused with an existential regard, a spirituality that spoke to the dreams and hope of people where they lived…” (p. 67). Regarding Newman’s Platonism,

Theoretically, this intersection of the visible world and the invisible reality of the divine points to Newman’s essential Platonism. Although Newman was influenced by the work of the earlier group of Anglican scholars know [sic] as the Cambridge Platonists, he was somewhat distrustful of their overly rational and supernatural interpretation of Plato’s work. Newman’s project in the Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870) in many ways can be attributed to his need for an epistemological rehabilitation of Platonic idealism. Without getting into too much detail, Newman posited the necessity of innate ideas, refusing to accept Locke’s sense-based empiricism. However, Newman also appreciated, in a way Plato undoubtedly did as well, the need for the incubation and expansion of these values in the lived experience of human beings. (p. 69)

Finally, concerning his fifth point, Robinson notes,

In Tract 75, Newman offered an apologetic for the Benedictine breviary… The lessons of the Liturgy of the Hours formed a compendium of prayers, doctrinal readings, Scripture readings and the poetry of the psalms. The Liturgy of the Hours was the ultimate catechumenal text in Newman’s estimation precisely because it did what any good educational and formational tool should do, that is, it shaped the life and thought of the person through continual re-presentation of the truths of Christianity in a varied and multi-dimensional way. (pp. 69-70),

As Robinson ably demonstrates, for Newman the Benedictines provided an educational model that was worthy of emulation. In fact, as Robinson explains, Newman used this model as the basis for an attempted renewal of the Oxford University tutorial system upon his appointment at Oriel College in 1826. It is my opinion that these same five observations are applicable to the educational task attempted today at the Torrey Honors Institute, aligning its program with that of both the Benedictine legacy and the educational philosophy of John Henry Newman as developed under the influence of his reading of the Benedictine tradition.

(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)   Jeff Rau  

First, the Torrey Honors Institute seeks to connect its students to the past, including the Christian inheritance, by reading authors from the past 2,500 years of Western civilization. This reading and study of the past is what best equips students for life. The Institute also strives to connect the contemplative and active ideals of education into a cohesive whole. Though the bulk of a student’s time in Torrey is spent in the reading and discussion of assigned texts, tutors (as the professors are called) encourage students to participate in Institute-sponsored programs that reach others, such as Torrey Theatre, Torrey Music and the Torrey abroad programs.

Further, many students participate in short-term service programs administered by Biola University or other service agencies and/or reach out into the local community through local, community-based programs. The Torrey Honors Institute does not neglect the spiritual dimension of its students who are expected to have a “growing spiritual life.” Through the intentional mentoring program and inclusion of great Christian texts, primarily the Scriptures, into its curriculum, the Institute seeks to minister to the whole person. Conversations between students and tutors are personal and spiritual as often as they are academic.

Though not fully adopting a Platonic epistemology, the Institute does use the Socratic dialogue format, as exemplified in Plato’s dialogues, as the basis of its educational pedagogy. The Institute believes that all truth is God’s truth and is given to us as a gift from God; therefore, discussion of any text that yields an “understanding of the philosophical systems and worldviews of the greatest Christian and non-Christian thinkers in Western civilization” is worthwhile. Finally, the Institute’s educational goals are intended to develop the full Christian life of each student, including their prayer life. Sessions are often begun with prayer and students and tutors are encouraged to pray with one another.

Most importantly, just as the Benedictines have historically prioritized the use of the Sacred Scriptures in both their teaching and praying, the Institute also gives pride of place to God’s Word and strives to incorporate its teaching and truths into all class sessions and Institute activities. Like its predecessors Benedict of Nursia and John Henry Newman, the Torrey Honors Institute honors the Holy Scriptures as it strives to create whole persons with whole souls pursuing truth, goodness and beauty. It too, like Benedict’s monasteries, strives to be a school for the Lord’s service and I am happy to be involved in such an important task.

It seems important to me that scholars, especially those of Christian history, know where they have come from as much as where they are going. Though the past is always open to debate the future is completely hidden, despite our best attempts to predict it. Biola University knows where she comes from and has a fairly good idea of where she’s going should it work out according to plan. As well, the Torrey Honors Institute also understands its connection to the past by way of the great books of the intellectual tradition. We love books because we believe that

Unless great books are our very life, unless we look forward hungrily to the next opportunity to read them ourselves or to hear our students discuss them, unless by impulse and choice we are turning them over in our mind as we walk across the campus or through the school hallways, it is only a cold dish we are likely to serve up to our pupils, and they, taking their cue from us, will discuss great and noble ideas at a low temperature and on a low plane
(John Erskine, founder of the General Honors program at Columbia University in 1920).

It is my hope that all of us, as teachers and scholars of Christian history, be rooted in our respective traditions and histories so that we can be effective in what we do, inspiring those who will come after us. Again, I am happy and I love what I do. I hope you are too.

Running With Saint Columbanus

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012

by Marvin Lindsay


St. Columbanus Window of the crypt of the Abbey of Bobbio. Via Wikipedia.Christian monks fancied themselves “athletes for Christ.” If so, the Irish pilgrim Columbanus was a monastic Bobby Knight, a demanding, fearsome coach of the ascetic lifestyle.

How demanding was he? Columbanus’s Rule maximized manual labor and minimized food and sleep. The Irish pilgrim permitted his monks but one meal a day, in the evening. On winter weekends, Columbanus required his charges pull back-to-back all-nighters: chant half the psalter on Saturday night and the other half on Sunday. Given that Columbanian-inspired literature assigns penances for nodding off during the divine office and for squirreling away food, it appears as though the Rule induced sleep deprivation and eating disorders in some of its adherents. Indeed, Columbanus’s Rule is a feedback loop. It produces physical symptoms that are dealt with by ratcheting up the very pressures that produced the symptoms to begin with.

“Why did they live like this?” we ask ourselves.

Like your middle school PE teacher, Columbanus lived by the maxim, “No pain; no gain.” If the rewards of the next life are “an unbearable weight of glory beyond all measure,” then such a reward would require a commensurate weight of sorrow in the present life. In addition, Columbanus regarded the human body on a good day as “full of bile, rheum, fluid, blood, and phlegm” (Sermon VII). Why indulge the loathsome flesh’s insatiable demands for food, sex and sleep?

When I run, I bring Columbanus with me. Marathon training is the closest I come to the disciplined and physically demanding lifestyle of the ancient “athletes of Christ.” Working up to last November’s race day distance of 26.2 miles (10 miles farther than the average American work commute) required me to complete innumerable eight to 12 mile runs in Richmond, Virginia’s oppressive summer heat. Those runs left me gasping for air, on the edge of dizziness and nausea, a little too keyed up to fall asleep and feeling exhausted upon waking. Halfway into my training program I was receiving PT for a strained piriformis muscle (a literal pain in the butt). The best treatment is rest, but the training program feedback loop cried for more mileage. I gave up my Sunday run anyway. I also ditched the half-marathon scheduled for the morning that Hurricane Irene’s outer bands were lashing central Virginia, much to the chagrin of my inner Columbanus. He harangued me for my lack of fidelity to the training rule and my pitiful excuses.

When he wasn’t haranguing me, Columbanus was asking me the same question that I asked him: Why are you doing this, Marvin? To stay a step ahead of the Reaper? To show up at your next reunion looking a tad fitter than most middle aged men? Columbanus just shook his head at how my bodily discipline was entwining me in the flesh rather than emancipating me from it.

I’m OK with that. I understand but do not subscribe to the ascetic mindset that sees body and spirit pitted against each other in a zero-sum game.

Besides, there’s more to running than pride and vanity. Around the 14 mile mark I experience what some people call flow. In the rhythm of pounding the pavement and the gentle up and down motion of the pack, you’re no longer running a race. You are the race. An ebullient spirit wells up and overflows.

Flow, or any other uncanny, athletic experience is not necessarily a religious experience, as Nick J. Watson points out in his essay “Nature and Transcendence: The mystical and sublime in extreme sports.” Watson calls the reader’s attention to Eckart’s warning that there is nothing spiritual about seeking a spiritual experience as an end to itself apart from efforts to purify the soul of vice. I view my running schedule as a metaphor for other, more important and purgative commitments in my life: persistence in prayer, persistence in my graduate studies, faithfulness to spouse, children and friends.

Did Columbanus experience flow? The concept of flow seems to be more congenial to Eckart’s unitive brand of mysticism than Columbanus’s world-denying asceticism. Columbanus preaches a God who is immense and incomprehensible, “wholly other” to use a 20th century term, too “big” to unite with. But maybe there is something like flow in the hagiographical accounts of Columbanus taming bears in the wilderness of the Vosges. Columbanus’s disciples remembered him as someone whose self-discipline extinguished the inner flames of vice and restored a fallen creation to its Edenic state in which an ebullient spirit united all living creatures. Perhaps that’s the standard by which to judge any discipline we would submit ourselves to: does it reconcile us to God, the world and ourselves?

Marvin Lindsay is a Ph.D. student in the History of Christianity at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.

Thoughts from the New Mexico Desert

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

by Barbara Newman


The Monastery of Christ in the Desert

At the monastery of Christ in the Desert, twenty-seven miles from the village of Abiquiu, the night is still save for coyotes and birdsong. A few seconds after the coyotes howl, signaling a kill, their cry echoes eerily from canyon walls. A red clay-and-pebble road snakes its way among the cliffs, which are striped with layers of beige, ochre, pink, russet, and purple rock. By the banks of the Chama River, a lush but narrow strip of piñon pines hints at spring. Elsewhere nothing grows except cactus, dwarf spruce, and stunted juniper. “Truly this is a desolate place”—beautiful, but desolate.

About thirty monks, a mix of Hispanics, Anglos, and Vietnamese, observe the Benedictine Rule in this wilderness with a rigor that St. Bernard himself would have approved. Seven times a day they sing God’s praise, beginning with Lauds at 4 a.m. in a church of adobe and native rock, its east window staring directly into a cliff. The monks chant precisely, half-whispering. Otherwise silence reigns. A guidebook for guests reminds us that conversation is forbidden in the refectory, the courtyard, the canyon, and even our rooms. Over our meal of rice, tofu and vegetables, a monk reads from a history of the church in New Mexico—grim tales about a Pueblo revolt in 1680, punished by the Spaniards with enslavement and the amputation of hands and feet.

The next day we visit a medieval village, the Taos Pueblo, built around 1350 and inhabited to this day by the descendants of its founders. A river runs through it. About two thousand Taos live here intermittently, clinging to their traditional culture with a determination as fierce as that of the monks. Their tribal council has banned electricity and plumbing.


Taos Pueblo

The Taos Pueblo - "untitled" (William Thayer) / CC BY-ND 2.0


We are fortunate to arrive on the day of a Corn Dance, which visitors are allowed to observe. As the daylong dance winds through the village, a circle of elders chants and drums while the dancers, aged from about ten to thirty, perform their rounds. Women make up the outer circle, wearing vivid dresses, with their left arms and shoulders bare and their right covered, a sash around the waist, a leafy stalk in each hand. In the inner circle, men and boys dance in loincloths, their upper bodies naked except for jewelry and body paint. Each shakes a gourd in his right hand and wears a single feather in his hair.

What does this dance mean? It “has to do with fertility,” but that’s as much as non-natives can be told. For the dance is only an exoteric part of what is, in effect, a mystery religion. Only male initiates are allowed to enter the kivas or ritual chambers. Likewise, at Christ in the Desert only monks are allowed to enter the cloister, which is decidedly not about fertility. Yet the core of the monks’ prayer is the Psalter, sung in its entirety every week. This is the prayerbook of ancient Israel, another desert people, whose culture was far more like that of the Taos Indians than of these Catholic monks. Lineal descent, fertility, and their sacred land meant everything to them. What would they have made of these celibate men who leave their families, homelands, and native tongues behind forever to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

The Taos language is strictly oral, so no one outside the tribe understands the elders’ chant. The Israelites, on the other hand, chose to write their songs in a book—and that has made all the difference. From writing there followed translation, exegesis, rival hermeneutics, and all that we know as Judaism and Christianity. In the beginning was the Word.