Friday, September 20, 2013

Caroline Schroeder's Monastic Bodies

I just finished reading Caroline Schroeder's Monastic Bodies: Discipline and Salvation in Shenoute of Atripe, which I recommend to anyone studying late antique Egypt, ancient monasticism, or uses the body as a critical lens of analysis.  I do not offer a comprehensive review here, but a series of impressions as I now step away from the book.

There is, indeed, too little scholarship on Shenoute, and Caroline Schroeder, through some close analyses of key documents, draws out Shenoute's concept of the body. She relies upon much similar work done on the body and how it relates to larger groups (Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger; Peter Brown, The Body and Society; Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body) as well as Foucault's analyses on discipline and discourse (e.g., Discipline and Punish, and I believe some History of Sexuality was involved as well), as a broader lens by which to read Shenoute's writings.

If I read Schroeder correctly, Shenoute makes a series of correspondences between the body of the monk, the "body" of all the monks (with Shenoute providing the head of the body), and the body of the space of the monastery.   Since the individual monk, the collectivity of monks, and the space they inhabit are all inherently connected, sin acts as a contagion for the body--threatening not only the individual monk, but the entire body of monks as well. Thus the sinful body must be chastened and disciplined, and the source of sin removed.

I found the chapter on how this relates to the space of the monastery especially interesting, as Shenoute develops the Pauline concept of the community as temple, eliding the difference between people and brick, spirit and flesh, identifying the spiritual community with the physical building they inhabit. (I wonder if Jacob Milgrom's discussions of sin, contagion, and purgation of the temple might be relevant here? Is Shenoute, in any way, also drawing upon Levitical understandings of the people and their sacred spaces from the Old Testament?  Or might Jonathan Klawans's Sin and Impurity be relevant, if even just for a point of comparison?)

And lest one think the Shenoute has only negative things to say about the body, its weakness, and temptations, the chapter on resurrection reveals a deeper ambivalence within Shenoute's writings on the body: it is not just a vessel for sin, but for transformation.

Whether one likes Shenoute or not, whether one finds his strictness off-putting or not, Schroeder shines a small light on this very important but rarely studied figure, illuminating the need for more study.

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