Monasticism in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church : A Brief Introduction by Fr. Dr. Jossi Jacob
Fr. Dr. Jossi Jacob – Chief of COS and Principal – STOTS, Nagpur – 27/06/2020
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church was closely associated with and considerably dependent on the Coptic Church for sacramental and spiritual leadership, since the return of St. Frumentious from Alexandria to Aksum in the 4th century as the first Metropolitan/Archbishop until the establishment of Patriarchate in 1959 AD. Due to the same reasons, the identity of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was often understood as an offshoot or a lesser form of Coptic Christianity. However, an unprejudiced glimpse into the nature and development of the Ethiopian ecclesiastical systems definitely rules out any possibility of labeling this indigenous form of Christianity as a lesser form dependent on the Coptic Orthodox Church.
As the most authentic African indigenous Christianity, Ethiopian Orthodoxy has more implicit forms of knowledge, embedded in spiritual practices, oral narratives, and the organization of everyday life. We notice three distinctive elements as formative factors of Ethiopian Christianity, namely, the non-Chalcedonian content of faith, liturgical texts, vestments and episcopal succession which they received from the Church of Alexandria; close interaction with early Syriac Christianity which influenced the pattern and modes of theological thought, and finally the indigenous cultural and religious background which expresses significant traits of Judaism.
Monasticism constitutes the backbone of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity expressing its identity, internal strength, and organization. Ethiopian monasticism throughout the course of its history as positively integrated into the life of the nation and always contributed to ongoing revivals of religious life among members of the Church. This article aims to give an impression of the history, characteristic features, and contributions of monasticism to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church.
Origin and Development of Monasticism in Ethiopia
Traditional accounts of monasticism view it as part of an ancient ascetic tradition stretching back to Old Testament times. Even though there is little documentation available on Ethiopian monasticism before the 13th century, we can somehow trace its history back to the 5th century. It was with the support of the Christian Kings of northern Ethiopia that monasteries were founded all over the country. The first monastic communities are believed to have been founded by the ‘Nine Saints’, great missionary monks who came to the northern part of the country during the reign of King Ela Amida II (circa 480 A.D.). The major evangelical activities of the Nine Saints were focused in and around Aksum, the capital of northern Ethiopia during that time. It is traditionally believed that they were originally from different areas of the eastern Roman Empire (i.e. greater Syria), and they are said to have spent some years inPachomian monasteries in the Egyptian desert prior to their arrival in Ethiopia. Such traditions are not sufficient to attribute the origin of Ethiopian monasticism to the influence of the Pachomian communities in Egypt.
Despite the absence of solid historical evidence, there are various indications of the possibility of interaction between early Syriac and Ethiopian monasticism. It is really tantalizing to consider the possibility of connections between Ethiopia and the ancient monastic traditions of East Asia, perhaps facilitated by some extreme ascetical movements of that time. Ethiopian Monasticism shows affinity to the early Syriac Proto-monasticism(benai qyomo or benat qyomo)in many of its characteristic features. Trading and cultural links between Syria and Ethiopia existed even in the early phase of the spread of Christianity and monasticism could have followed the same route.
Ethiopian Monasticism became more organized and was revived in the 13th century through the activities of certain well-known monastic figures like Iyasu Moa (+1287), Teklehaimanot, Ewostatewos (1273-1352), etc. The establishment of monastic communities in central and southern Ethiopia also happened in the same era, although there are communities that claim to have been centers of worship in Old Testament times (Tana Qircos, and Mertula Mariyam). The histories of many of the prominent monasteries of today’s Ethiopia can be traced back to the same era, which constituted a pivotal period for Ethiopian monasticism. Statistics on monasticism are unreliable, but it is said that there are presently more than 800 monasteries established in different parts of the country. The establishment of monasteries was sometimes associated with the policies and religious agenda of great rulers, but also with the activity of ascetic monastic movements that sought to distance themselves from the worldliness of the political authorities (i.e. Stephanites and Eustathians).
Diverse Forms and Ways of Life in Ethiopian Monasticism
The present ethos of Ethiopian monastic spirituality strongly resembles the Syriac pattern, reflecting elements of proto-monasticism. It is remarkable that after many centuries of Coptic leadership and literary influence, Ethiopian monasticism still retains traits more evocative of the models depicted in Syriac hagiographies. Ethiopian monasticism in its diverse manifestations retained fluidity and flexibility which was a characteristic feature of Syrian prototypes rather than the highly institutionalized and centralized systems of Egyptian communities. The Judeo-Christian matrix for early monasticism in Ethiopia prompts us to see Ethiopian monasticism in a new light. We can state that Ethiopian monasticism still expresses elements from the earliest strata of Christian asceticism, which stands closer to the forms of Syriac proto-monasticism, retaining a certain spontaneity not yet pressed into an institutional mould.
Monastic life is traditionally mainly cenobitic that is completely in community, or idiorythmic, in which case each monk is more independent, eating and working alone, but praying together. These two lifestyles are practiced side by side in some monasteries. There are also wide-spread forms of eremitic life. A very prominent monastery named Mehbere Selassie (Community of the Trinity) is an example of an extremely ascetic cenobitic life where the monks share even wild fruit and keep nothing as personal property. The monastic rules there promote the complete sharing of resources but prevent personal initiative. In another great monastery Waldebba, the monks live indiffused settlements spread out over a wide area. The emphasis is on personal asceticism, thus the way of life is more eremitic. A complete heritage style system is also practiced in large parts of monasteries and even outside in the wild. Traditionally the hermits (bahetawian) live in great simplicity, in a little hut or in a cave or even in a hollowed-out trunk of a tree. The Ethiopian tradition includes both canonical monasticism and more spontaneous and charismatic type of hermits who can be very influential (even politically orientated) and are not under the control of the Church authorities. Attempts to extend the power of the Church hierarchy over them have met mixed results. Ethiopian monasticism posses an original and somewhat un-institutionalized nature, consequently, it sometimes defies classification according to the normal categories of monastic ways of life. Monastic rules in each community also vary significantly, this is partly due to the topography of Ethiopia with its rugged landscape which formerly prevented easy communication and encouraged regional tendencies even local theological and dogmatic traditions. Ethiopian monks and nuns traditionally lived close to nature and had to adapt to widely varying habitats.
Rules and Spiritual Ethos of Ethiopian Monastic Tradition
It is traditionally believed that the 5th century Nine Saints translated the monastic rules of St. Antony and St. Pachomius into Ge’ez, the classical language of Ethiopian civilization. Specific monasteries developed their own rules often attributed to the founding father, which in many cases were ecologically orientated associating respect for the sanctity of the site with preservation of the original flora and fauna. Later monarchs of the 20thcentury such as Emperor Minelik II, Empress Zewdithu, and Emperor Haile Selassie encouraged the writing of Monastic rules as statutes or constitutions, which sometimes show parallels with the constitutions of Byzantine monasteries.
Ethiopian monastic rules and traditions generally embody the charisma and spiritual ethos of the founder reflecting monastic history and significant reforms implemented through divine inspiration. The rules are not intended to completely institutionalize the community or to undermine the spontaneous spiritual dynamism of ascetical life. For them, more stress is laid on the dynamic relationship to a spiritual father than on the mastery of a set of rules. The monastic written rules in Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church are identified rather as the constant realization of the divine presence manifested through disciplines, practices, and devotions. The ‘Book of the Monks’a prominent work of devotional literature in the Ge’ez language, expresses the essence of monastic spirituality. The three authors, Mar Yisak (Isaac the Syrian), Filiksios (St. Philexenos of Mabugh), andAregawi Menfesawi (an unknown spiritual figure of the Middle Eastern ascetic tradition), are considered to have written for different stages of a monk’s life: beginner, intermediate and advanced. The first concentrates on overcoming temptation, the second hagiography presenting the life of exemplary ascetical figures and the grace and honour of monks. The three stages are described as physical purification (overcoming the world), purification of the soul (including contemplation of nature), and the region of the spirit (transcending limitations). Monks and nuns meditate on the sayings of Mar Yisak in order to gain a more profound understanding of the ascetical spirituality of monasticism: “He who has made the angels his friends, who is in an exile, and stands at the gate (not entering into the world) as a hermit in hunger, weeping and praying, he is a true monk. Locked in prayer he experiences the levels of grace and understands the holy mysteries, according to his diligence in prayer and prostration. After the prayer of the soul comes the prayer of the heart and liberation. The real hermit remains in his cell, where he learns all things. He is an example for all, and like the desert, ass flees from worldly men”.Ethiopian monastic tradition treats written rules as principles directed towards the right ordering of spirituality to transcend its boundaries in the realization of God’s nearness and in acquiring Theosis.
Major Contributions of Ethiopian Monasticism
The widespread penetration of Orthodox Christianity all over Ethiopia can be viewed as the greatest contribution of the Ethiopian monastic movement. By the tireless efforts of monks with evangelical zeal and exemplary spirituality, Christianity and monasticism became essential components of an already existing civilization facilitating its expansion and growth. Their missionary activities eventually acculturated large areas into the Ethiopian sphere of influence. Evangelization and proper functioning of ecclesia required the production of theological and catechetical literature. Consequently, the monks by their works of translation and literary composition laid the foundation and nurtured classical Ge’ez civilization. Monasteries became the centers of cultural and intellectual development. The second-generation monks, especially St. Yared, facilitated the development of indigenous Christian hymnology by originating the unique system of Ethiopian liturgical music. His hymnological literature served as the foundation for the traditional education system and the poetic tradition of Ethiopia. Monasteries continue to be the cradle for the growth of the intellectual and artistic identity of the whole of Ethiopian society. Literature and iconography developed in the monasteries as a means for evangelism, catechism, and the spiritual enrichment of the believers. Eventually, the monasteries occupied a central position in society being the focus of educational, religious, and cultural activities and thus the powerhouses holding society together. The whole ethos of the Ethiopian civilization owed much to the monastic movements in the country.
The monastic movement contributed drastically to the unity of Ethiopia as a nation by their involvement in the expansion of the Ethiopian polity, incorporation of subject people, and settlement of power struggles between regional kings without bloodshed. They played an admirable role in setting the moral tone, providing spiritual guidance, and keeping the ethos of the whole of Ethiopian society up to this time. The monasteries were the only permanent institutions during the period from the late 13th to mid-16th centuries when the kings moved from one place to the other and the military camp served as the capital. The monasteries were the focal point in the medieval Ethiopian society as providers of what little social services and economic infrastructure existed. They also performed practical functions such as organizing law courts, markets, and the defense of strategic border areas, as well as caring for the poor and those afflicted by natural disasters. The unity of the Church led by its monastic leaders enabled the Ethiopians to prevent the imposition of Portuguese Catholicism in the early 17th century. Monastic communities continued to hold an influential position in the Ethiopian polity after the nation was firmly established and expanded under a centralized monarchy. The monastic communities remained a stronghold for retaining the Christian ethos of the nation, despite the terrible oppression of the church by the communist military regime known as the Derg, which came to power in 1974. The Communist regime which assassinated H.H. Patriarch Theopholos had a negative influence on the monastic communities – they suffered terrible deprivation and struggled to survive. However, despite the difficult situation, the monastic communities served as bastions of spirituality and courage nurturing the internal strength of the Church. Many monks during the Derg reign came to the towns and engaged in preaching activities in parishes to counter atheistic propaganda. Under communism, the Orthodox Church although dispossessed gained popularity and saw a revival as it transformed itself from an appendage of the feudal government to a people’s movement. Under the current relatively peaceful situation of democratic government, the monasteries are facing considerable challenges such as how to combine their ancient traditional education system with modern circumstances. However, they continue to play an important role in promoting spirituality and maintaining the solidarity of the Church.
Ethiopian monasticism should be viewed as one of the most important factors in the formation of the current nation of Ethiopia and the original identity of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. The committed service of the monastic movement has contributed much to enabling the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church to become the biggest among the Oriental Orthodox Churches with nearly fifty million faithful. The radiance of monastic spirituality within the Church and extending to the whole of Ethiopian society serves as the vital bond maintaining solidarity in the midst of a turbulent recent history immediately after the fall of the monarchy. Even today in the phase of globalization with overwhelming infiltration of modernity and secularist ideologies, monastic communities are serving as a bonding agent between Church and society, preserving the faith, spirituality, identity, and integrity of both the Church and wider society.
This article was first published on www.addisababa.eotc.org.et
Fr Dr. Jossi Jacob – COS