Cyril assumed the patriarchal throne at Alexandra in the four-hundredth and twelfth year of our Lord. He sent out an edict to be read in all the churches and monasteries obliging the faithful not to tolerate pagans and heretics in Egypt. Cyril would later burn the ancient pagan library and all its heretical writing at Alexandra to the ground. Halfway up the Nile, Cyril’s ever faithful Shenoute, his zeal for Christian piety so strong, took it upon himself to cleanse paganism and heresy from his native province of Akhmin, even as far up river as Chemboskin. Shenoute’s stern face burst into a wide grin of broken teeth behind his wild coarse beard when he read the edict. Deep wrinkles puckered around glaring, piercing eyes. He almost whirled around his bare second floor room with plastered walls on which he painted, in the color of the Lord’s blood, red, as many of the psalms was would fit, in a neatly lettered stiff upright script. The new patriarch would finish what his predecessor was unable to complete, driving Satan and his demons, not just into the desert, but all the way out of Egypt. He would announce the new proclamation in his Sunday sermon to the hundreds of monks he ruled over, as their father and abbot, fighting for their salvation at the White Monastery.
In the night, after the moon that the godless pagans worship, had risen over the desert, and the hot sand was cooled enough to walk on in tough leather sandals, Shenoute and his most loyal monks slipped out of the White monastery, under the cover of darkness, to claim the shrine of Pan in the village of Pneueit for Christ. Those fools would never be able to save themselves without his intervention. Dressed in long woolen robes with camel-hair linings, and cowls pulled up over gaunt heavily lined and bearded faces, they slipped into the desert heading for the fertile valley of the Nile.
Shenoute announced the patriarch’s edict with glee. He stood before his assembled monks setting on the floor of the large meeting hall of the monastery. He held his bony arms out in an embracing gesture, the sleeves of his robe falling from sunken human flesh giving him the appearance of wings, and looked upward to the ceiling, at a childishly rendered painting of Christ on his cross, this blood dripping on the skull of Adam for his redemption. He preached to them how the coming of the Lord was to battle Satan, how Christ had come to take away most of his strength, to leave Satan amputated of his arms and legs, laying helpless in the hot desert sun, writhing in the sand, wallowing in his own oozing black blood. Oh, but he is not totally powerless, they were told, he still had his breath, the breath of temptation, and his voice called out to his demons to devise his tricks and schemes to tempt the holy and trap the godless, the pagans and the heretics, into doing his bidding. Why did Christ not just slay the disobedient evil one fallen from heaven? It was the Lord’s way of separating the pious and the pure from the blasphemous and the filthy. “He gave all of you great power to hunt down and slay evil, swords and spears and clubs of your purity and piety and the Scriptures and the Name of the Lord and the Sign of the Cross!” The monks were empowered. They went back to their struggle for salvation with renewed aggression.
In the night, the monks, some armed with pickaxes with worn wooden handles and iron heads; others carried clubs in emaciated claw-like hands with broken fingernails, moved stealthily over the sand that glowed gray in the moonlight. One monk carried a lit torch to lead the way. Shenoute clutched a large wooden cross, its crossbeam bounded to the upright with a coarse hemp rope, knuckles white as he lifted it before him. He could see demons playing in the shadows just beyond the torchlight, carousing with intertwined arms, lewdly kissing each other in impure places, gesturing with obscene hip movements, and kicking up little sprays of sand as they pranced about, giggling behind their long bony fingers with sharp pointed nails and displaying foul jagged teeth. Overhead brilliant stars glowed, crowding the vault of the heavens. Shenoute and his most dedicated monks resolutely marched down the steep path leading to the valley. Mars was rising. Orion stood in the sky.
Shenoute chose his most dedicated monks, the most fearless for this mission. If he did not keep a close eye on the monks, some would slack off in their work, and in their devotions. Some came to the monastery because they were hungry, to get two meals a day. They had no interest in their souls. He would let them stay if they worked and kept the rule, the codes and the cannons, maybe if after being purified of their lust and whoring after harlots, of their drunkenness and slothfulness, they would take an interest in their eternal souls. They had to be broke first. If they were too lazy, or laughed too much, or ate too much, if they pilfered food, let their eyes wonder away from the Scripture or spoke impious works, or touched themselves in the places of desire or corruption, he would find himself pacing the halls with a frown on his cracked face trying to determine the correct punishment. Hallways of rough-cut stone crushed into place, held together by hardened red clay; he would have these wall plastered and inscribed with John’s Gospel. He would preach to them: let Christ be your example, did he not suffer hunger and thirst in the desert, and did he not successfully resist the temptations of Satan? Have you been called to a death on a cross? You have not! Your suffering is light compared to his; his suffering you could not bear and live! The suffering you have been called to in his Name and Glory you can bear. And if you go blind from your hunger and thirst then you have killed the demon of lechery; if your tongue dries up in your head then you have killed the demons of gossip and slander! Shenoute had to be ruthless in exposing the thieves and the impure and the impious lest they corrupt the other monks’ diligent efforts to earn their place in heaven. He would punish them first. Blows to the bottom of their feet with iron bars was not always sufficient, sometimes he had them restrained, and designated another monk to give the insubordinate, the rebellious a good beating. Sometimes he would beat them himself. If they continued to persist in their immorality, he would expel them.
In a grove, surrounding it on all sides except the front, of cultivated date palm trees that each spring sprout new shoots when it bears its fruit, the parent stems dying off once they reproduce, stood the shrine to Pan. Shenoute thought it unimpressive. In the dark it looked ghostly: goat-footed demons played in the branches, casting very faint shadows in the moonlight on the shrine’s sides. The building was small and square, made of White Egyptian sandstone carved from the cliffs formed by the Nile as it makes its way to the sea. The flat-roofed structure had an uncovered portico in front, with two steps leading up to it, and a square entryway with a brown cloth screening off the interior. The shrine was built and patronized by Ecklemenon, the local landowner, to ensure the regular rise and fall of the waters of the Nile to fertilize the wheat crop. He sponsored the annual offerings and sacrifice to placate wild Pan, performed when the waters began to rise. Shenoute was determined to show that the God of Christ, not Pan, was responsible for the rise and fall of Egypt’s life giving waters.
Some of the poorest of the local peasants, and those not wanting to be bothered with them, would dump their unwanted male children into the monastery, their unwanted girls into a sister nunnery. At times it seemed the monastery was swarming with children. Shenoute assigned one of the elder monks to look after them, a monk he thought particularly accomplished in self-control and bodily purity. Shenoute one day witnessed this monk and one of his charges from his second story window engaging in a prelude to an unspeakable act. Back-grounded by the barren desert, he saw the monk place his elderly hand on the boy’s shoulder. He let his hand slide down the boy’s back and turned the boy to face him. The monk knelt to the ground and pulled the boy into an embrace, placing the child’s head on his shoulder, and covering his youthful head with his wrinkled hand. The bright sunlight set this act into relief. Shenoute fumed. He found a large branch that could be used as a club. Breathing hard, his face screwed up, eyes narrowed and bearing his front teeth, he burst upon the monk and the child, and welding the club over his head, struck the monk on the chest knocking him to into the sand. He threw the club down and jumped on the monk, beating him about the face and chest with his fists, trying to tear the brown fabric of his robe from his body. Defiler! Perverse monk! Polluter of your body with that unspeakable impurity that no penitence can cleanse! You have condemned yourself and this boy to hell! The monk tried to defend himself with his hands and arms, but Shenoute had him by the throat. The monk could only break his hold by rolling over, driving his face into the sand. Shenoute jumped onto him, driving his knees into the monk’s lower back and pulled his robe off him from behind, falling back into the sand when it came free. The monk’s tunic was torn down its side seams to his waist revealing a withered back with a bent spine and aging slumped shoulders. While the monk was still panting from exertion and spitting sand from his mouth, Shenoute found his club and pounded the monk’s back and skull. When Shenoute finally stopped striking him, the monk lay lifeless, his arms outstretched, hands flayed out, his back broken with blows, and his skull bleeding into the sand. Shenoute ordered an unmarked grave dug for him in the desert out of sight from the monastery. The body was placed into it naked. Shenoute refused to allow any prayers to be said over it. The child was sent home to his parents.
Shenoute mounted the steps of the shrine and tore away the brown cloth that covered the entryway from the pegs that held it in place. He entered with the monk carrying the torch. The monks with the clubs took up positions at the entrance. The inner walls were plastered and then painted with images of Pan playing a flute under a palm tree, the Nile watering tall wheat stocks growing toward the sun, vines full of grapes, animals—dogs and cats, crocodiles and frogs, snakes and scorpions, birds, cattle, and foxes, and drawings of the sun, moon and stars. Shenoute frowned—they worship the creation! He directed those monks with pickaxes to destroy the images. Shenoute removed the objects from the stone altar—a silver statue of Pan, a knife used to kill animals in sacrifice to Pan, a lamp stand with oil lamps hanging from it, some fruits and vegetables and loaves of bread on platters; an evil book of vile incantations that the pagans thought they could use to manipulate those demons that they call gods. He told one of the monks to take the fruits, vegetables and bread, and throw them into the river. The idol, the knife, the lamps and lamp stand, and the platters he had the monks put into cloth sacks. These objects would later be buried far out in the desert where they could never be found. Shenoute took away the book and erected the wooden cross he carried on the altar.
One night, when Shenoute was sleeping restlessly, his chest tight and painful and his arms and legs limp and trembling, he awoke, lying on his straw pallet, his body and soul feeling troubled. He laid, with his teeth clenched, staring hard at the wall covered with psalms, unreadable in the darkness. He was fully clothed even though it was a warm night. He forced himself to roll over and found that he had been drooling down the side of his beard that was now wet and sticky. He climbed to his hands and knees, feeling disgruntled about feeling fearful and having an unsettled feeling. He made it to his feet and stumbled to the open window that faced east looking out into the desert. The window was a long wide rectangular hole cut into the wall; to expose him to the wilderness. Scorpions sometime managed to craw into the room. The desert looked gray and gloomy and spiritually dangerous. He turned away, and went to fetch a piece of Scripture he was copying from John’s Revelation. A shadow fell across the room in the moonlight. He turned to face the window. Outside, not far from the monastery, some giant desert creature was slithering past. It had a chicken’s head covered with black feathers, a sharp-pointed beak and black evil eyes. This head was attached to a man’s torso, smooth and muscular with large nipples and genitals. The arms that hung almost to the ground looked strong, impious, with enormous hands that could crush a soul. Instead of legs, the bodies of two massive serpents, poisonous asps, supported it. With supernatural strength, Shenoute hurled John’s revelation at it. He hit it on the chest and screamed obscenities. It suddenly vanished. His screaming awoke some of the other monks. None of them had seen the beast.
The activity of the monks roused the attention of the villagers. Word spread from one hut to another, as they roused each other from sleep: “something is happening at the shrine,” they whispered. Some of the villagers began to gather outside of the shrine, some carrying torches of their own. The monks with the clubs waved them around and shouted for the gathering crowd to stay back. One of the priests of Pan was awakened from his mat and ran over wearing nothing his loincloth. Shenoute, hearing the shouts coming from outside, turned and walked over the chunks of plaster on the shrine’s floor, crushing them under his leather sandals, he would have the walls replastered and images of Christ and his saints painted there. When Shenoute emerged from the shrine the murmuring in the crowd became louder. The villagers knew who Shenoute was; his anti-paganism was widely known, and many were sympathetic to his cause. He threw the vile book to the ground and took a torch and set fire to it. The priest of Pan began to spew invectives against Shenoute and laying curses on him. Shenoute took a club from one of the monks, walked over to him, and struck him across the mouth knocking him to the ground.
Shenoute had been furious that morning. He sat at the desk made of excellent Lebanon cedar that his friend Cyril had sent him. It had been finely polished, with ornate carved intertwining vines and ripe grapes along its edges, surrounding representations of angels holding in outstretched arms glowing loaves of bread to docile sheep. He spent the morning carefully writing out, on parchment, the rules of conduct for the monastery: all the codes and cannons that Shenoute devised for the monks to follow to put his rule into place. At the morning meal, one of the monks refused to eat, insisting that he wanted to live only on the blood and body of Christ, even if it eventually killed him. Shenoute considered that to be arrogant and boastful. Not even Shenoute, who considered asceticism and extreme self-control necessary to combat the demons of the world, and win salvation, of paramount importance, took his self-denial that far. Shenoute restricted his rigors of self-control to one meal a day of bread and water. Shenoute began to fume when the monk insisted that he wanted to serve the Lord to his utmost, and that his desire for more strict self-denial was not vanity. Shenoute finally made the other monks to force him to eat. He would have the pages he wrote out bound, and the monks to recite it every Sunday. That way they would know exactly how much or how little they could eat, how many hours a day they must spend in recitation, and how much more was just egoism; how little sleep they can have and how much work they must do, without falling into the devil’s snare of thinking that more would make them better. That was the height of impiety! Better yet, he would like to have the rule, the codes and cannons, not just tattooed onto the monks’ flesh but also inscribed into it so they would not forget.
Shenoute ascended the steps of the shrine and began to speak: “this abominable shrine to an unclean spirit, I will make into a shrine to the Holy Spirit. Sacrificing to Satan and worshiping him will come to an end! In this shrine, Christ will be served and worshiped, and bowed down to and feared! Where before you blasphemed, you will now give blessings and sing hymns. There will be no more absurdity and lies but the soul-saving Scriptures of life will be proclaimed here! What will be inscribed on the walls will be in honor of the blessed Jesus Christ and all his angels, and the saints who will give you instruction concerning your purity. Multitudes of soul have died in their ungodliness because of shrines like this that were built in the name of Satan who sent their hearts astray from the Lord God! Because of my acts tonight you may become one of the multitudes of souls who have earned their salvation because of churches built to the name of the Lord.”
Shenoute had a vision of a golden church standing in the desert. The sunlight reflecting from it would make it visible throughout all of Egypt. At night its own radiance would glow bright in the darkness as a beacon. In the night, he would dream of being lead into the desert by the Lord to find hoards of gold and silver and precious stones to build this Church. Its inner walls would be decorated with images of Christ and his Saints outlined with gold and silver and their images constructed of mosaics of colored stones and crystal. In the front of the sanctuary, behind and above the altar, where an archangel would come each day to administer the Holy Sacraments, he imagined a huge golden throne onto which Christ would descend and seat himself. The light radiating from his divine body would shine through the sanctuary and reflect from the gold and silver ornaments and the gemstones embedded in the mosaics. This golden Church would be inscribed inside and out with the words of the life-giving Scriptures. No demons, not even Satan himself, would be able to penetrate its walls. Inside, perfect purity and obedience would reign. The whole house would be filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. The floor would be covered with cushions and rugs made from the softest material. Hard stone floors to knell on would be unnecessary. All those within would be perfectly chaste and temperate now that they were protected from demonic temptation. The perfected congregation within would live in eternal ecstasy kneeling and prostrating themselves, and singing hymns in praise of the Lord, needing only to be feed by the Eucharist. For all the glories of Shenoute’s vision, one thing saddened him. There were so many in the world unworthy to enter this Church. He would have to station himself at its entrance, like the sword that protects the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, to turn away the impure and the disobedient, to prevent them from entering into bliss. He would have to spend his eternity with his back to the beautiful face of the Lord. He would never get to prostrate himself and sing praises to the Son of God.
Shenoute told the gathered crowed that there was nothing more to see, and to go back to their huts. When the crowd was slow in dispersing, the monks surged forward swinging their clubs around at the crowed. The crowd quickly dispersed; some dropped their torches on the ground. Small fires were left burning on the dark earth, under the brilliant stars overhead, crowding the vault of the heavens. As Shenoute and his monks disappeared back into the desert, Orion had disappeared from the sky. Mars was setting. Dawn approached.
* The above story is based on actual historical events. The named characters, events and setting are real. The names of characters have not been changed to protect the guilty.