Children and Family in Late Antique Egyptian Monasticism
- ISBN: 9781107156876
- Published By: Cambridge University Press
- Published: September 2020
Modern western monasteries are seldom considered places for children. Even in late antiquity, children were thought to be unwelcome in the earliest Christian monasteries in Egypt because they were distracting to the more seriously devout members of the community. Caroline T. Schroeder’s engaging book Children and Family in Late Antique Egyptian Monasticism argues that children and families were never wholly absent from these monastic contexts. Not only were they present, but the words naming these individuals and familial relationships was in the process of being appropriated by monastic legislators for their affective symbolic power to delineate new social relationships in the monasteries. Drawing principally on monastic legislation associated with Egyptian communities formed by Shenoute of Atripe and Pachomius the Great and also on other monastic textual sources such as letters, lives, sayings, and sermons, Schroeder provides ample evidence for this appropriation of familial relationships undertaken by monastic leaders.
Among Schroeder’s most troubling findings is that children’s lives in late antique Egyptian monasteries would have been characterized by violence and trauma. Children might have been in these communities because they had been orphaned or abandoned by parents or older siblings; others might have been given to the community by the children’s families to repay a debt of gratitude for a healing or some other such benefit; others may have joined the community with parents or family members or have become laborers for the community; and still others were instrumentalized in stories depicting parents willing to demonstrate fidelity to the monastic community over their parental affection by sacrificing or being willing to sacrifice offspring.
Backgrounding these findings, however, is the difficulty of identifying children in the late antique period of social transition. The book opens with a demonstration of the broad range of ways in which language for children and familial relationships appear in the monastic textual sources and an explanation of the difficult linguistic problem of accurately identifying children in these sources, as the transformation of the family began symbolically to identify novice monks as “children” of the monastic “family.” On the other side of this relationship, “father” became an honorific identifying authority within the community. Though Pachomius resisted this name for himself and insisted it belonged to God alone, and this resistance might be evidence of an “underlying anxiety” about hierarchies forming in monastic contexts (57), Schroeder does little to explore this anxiety. Instead the book’s argument returns repeatedly to the tension that children (and family) represented within the ascetic project: they had to be renounced, but they were also necessary for the monasteries to continue.
Among the fascinating explorations Schroeder undertakes in this book is the juxtaposition of representations of biblical pairs—Abraham and his son Isaac, as well as Jephthah and his unnamed daughter—with the altar where the Eucharistic meal was prepared. These characters involved with sacrifice (averted or completed) were models for monastic parents and children who were urged to relinquish former attachments in favor of those formed in monasteries. “The ascetic life,” Schroeder writes, “is an act of mimesis, modeling oneself on the dedication of the biblical parent willing to kill his child for God” (95). In this case, the biblical parent willing to kill his child was Abraham, Jephthah, and even (troublingly) the patriarchal God, and this sacrifice was understood to be experienced in the Eucharistic meal. The ascetic became one willing to renounce the actual living children they had brought into the world and the possibility of more, in the process becoming themselves children of a monastic “father.” Further, the children (literal or metaphorical) of the monastery might identify themselves with Jephthah’s daughter, an interesting and underdeveloped biblical exemplar for late antique ascetic Christianity, especially for women. The lack of sources of “sacrificed” daughters to monastic communities might explain this lack of development; we know little, for instance, of Antony’s sister but mention of her in The Life of Antony (Paulist Press, 1980) indicates that women’s communities were already, at the time of Athanasius’s writing at least, readily absorbing such unwanted dependents.
Accompanying this chapter’s analysis of artwork is engagement with a troubling story about a desert Christian who killed a fetus (“sacrificed”?) to better understand how children are formed in the womb. Schroeder’s engagement is thorough and yet a trifle dissatisfying if only because this reader wanted more open condemnation of the man’s act. Later, more satisfyingly accurate language is used to speak of Jerome when he is described as manipulating and exploiting his friend Paula through her maternal affection for her offspring (183). In the same chapter, the words shame, manipulate, and discipline are used in connection with John Cassian, Shenoute, and Jerome as they engaged others to construe and maintain their authority (189). In many other stories drawn from the Egyptian context and establishing late antique monastic authority, similar language might be used. Though monastic authorities challenged their community members to severe links with family members, Schroeder shows us these authorities did so by manipulating legitimate affection for offspring or parents to redirect it to themselves and each other. Further, they exploited legitimate affection while also naming the eschatological expectation many Christians had for reunion with family members after this life; members of monastic communities were urged to expect to see their family members in a future life because of their sacrifice in this life.
Though it can be painful for some to consider the entrenched patriarchy of early Christianity in a book like Schroeder’s, Schroeder helps us understand that deep appreciation of family undergirded monastic leaders’ appropriation of family relationships. The work honors the tension between valuing family and the sacrifice required to create a new community that monastic innovators like Shenoute and Pachomius struggled with. The book is a welcome contribution to the literature of early Christian monastic experience, offering a more complete picture of what life in community looked like and offering important insights into the construction and maintenance of social cohesion and authority.
Rachel Joy Wheeler is assistant professor of theology at the University of Portland.Rachel J. WheelerDate Of Review:March 21, 2022