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Queer Eye for the Ascetic Guy?

Homoeroticism, Children, and

the Making of Monks in Late
Antique Egypt
Caroline T. Schroeder

A famous instruction about children in monasteries reads: Do not

bring young boys here. Four churches in Scetis are deserted because of
boys. Taken from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, this apophthegm
exposes the presence of homoeroticism and anxieties about the homoerotic, especially erotic encounters with children, in early Christian
ascetic communities. This essay examines the construction of male
sexuality in early Egyptian monasticism, focusing on the Sayings and
the rules of the monastic leader Shenoute of Atripe It argues that the
masculine ascetic ideal builds upon certain classical ideals of masculinity, especially the control of the passions, but purports to eschew classical models of eroticism in which the adolescent male represents the
ideal sexual partner. However, these sources are designed to be recited
or retold as edifying texts; despite their overt disavowal of sexual
contact between men and boys, their retelling and rereading keeps
homoeroticism and the representation of boys as sexually desirable
objects alive in the ascetic imagination.

A FAMOUS PROHIBITION against children in early Christian monasteries reads: Do not bring young boys here. Four churches in Scetis are
Caroline T. Schroeder, Department of Religious and Classical Studies, University of the Pacific, 3601
Pacific Avenue, Stockton, CA 95211, USA. E-mail: carrie@carrieschroeder.com.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion, June 2009, Vol. 77, No. 2, pp. 333347
The Author 2009. Published by Oxford University Press, on behalf of the American Academy of
Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oxfordjournals.org
Advance Access publication on May 22, 2009


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

deserted because of boys (Isaac 5 in PG n.d: 65: 225; Ward 1975: 100).
From the late antique collection of texts known as the Sayings of the
Desert Fathers, or Apophthegmata Patrum, this statement seems somewhat crypticwhat danger do boys pose, one might ask? Yet read in the
context of other stories about sex and children in the Apophthegmata,
this pithy instruction evokes both the homoeroticism present in early
Christian communities of celibate males and anxieties about the homoerotic, especially erotic encounters with children. The Greek term in this
saying, ta paidia, means children (including adolescents, but not young
adults), and leaves no doubt that the monk is talking about minors.
Christian ascetic literature from the fourth through sixth centuries frequently construes children as obstacles to the spiritual progress of the
adult monastic. A ban on playing with boys in the rules of one of the earliest coenobitic monasteries (that founded by Pachomius) constitutes one
of the few references to children in that communitys corpus (Boon 1932:
66; Veilleux 1981: 2:177). A well-known admonition attributed to a
monk known as Macarius the Great apocalyptically describes the downfall of one of Egypts most famous ascetic communities, Scetis: When
you see a cell built close to the marsh, know that the devastation of Scetis
is near; when you see trees, know that it is at the doors; and when you
see young children, take up your sheep-skins and go away (Macarius the
Great 5 PG n.d.: 65: 264; Ward 1975: 128). Such warnings seem a reminder that Christian monasteries should not be confused with the classical
Greek philosophical school, in which sex between teacher and pupil was
an accepted part of the curriculum. And yet these admonitions also
remind us, the modern readers, that in these monasteries, and among
these monks, the classical standards of beauty, in which the adolescent
male form represented the erotic ideal, lingered.
Given the legacy of Greek culture in late antique Egypt, an admonition against bringing a young male into a celibate, homosocial community should seem obvious and unsurprising. Yet, although the presence
of young males within the monastery is eschewed, early Egyptian monastic texts embrace boys and adolescent males within their pages.
Despite the sources overt disavowal of sexual contact between men and
boys, the circulation, retelling and rereading of these texts, containing
their stories and rules about sex with children, keeps homoeroticism
and the representation of boys as sexually desirable objects alive in the
ascetic imagination.
This essay examines the construction of male sexuality in two
examples from early Egyptian monasticism: the stories from the
Apophthegmata Patrum and the rules and letters of Shenoute. The
Apophthegmata contain anecdotes, teachings, and sayings attributed to

Schroeder: Queer Eye for the Ascetic Guy?


monks in the fourth and fifth centuries, but they were collected and
written down in later years (Harmless 2004: 19, 169171). Shenoute
was a fourth- and fifth-century monk and eventually leader of a monastery composed of 5000 male and female monks who resided in separate,
sex-segregated residences. Many of his letters, sermons, and theological
treatises survive, although they have only recently become integrated
into scholarly treatments of monasticism (Krawiec 2002; Crislip 2005;
Brakke 2006: 97124; Schroeder 2007). In both of these sets of sources,
the visions of ideal ascetic masculinity build upon certain classical
ideals of masculinity, especially the control of the passions, but claim to
resist classical models of eroticism in which the adolescent male represents the ideal sexual partner. However, these sources are designed to
be recited or retold as edifying ascetic literature; despite their overt disavowal of sexual contact between men and boys, the retelling and
rereading of these texts eroticize the monastery. Monastic texts prohibiting sex nonetheless authorize and normalize a voyeuristic gaze on the
part of monks. They cultivate a decidedly queer eye for the ascetic guy.
The Apophthegmata depict communities of monks where children
resided alongside adult monastics, even if in very few numbers. They
record anecdotes about at least five male monks living with boys, who
were usually their biological sons. A few other snippets address other
monks and unrelated minor children. Two anecdotes underscore the literatures biting ambivalence about the lust for youth, particularly the
homoerotic pleasure in gazing upon young male bodies. The first, the
story of Abba Carion and his son Zacharias, exemplifies the sexual
tension that young males, and stories about these young males, produced.
Zacharias joined his father, Carion, at the monastic community of
Scetis when he was still a boy (PG n.d.: 249252; Ward 1975: 11618).
Gossiping about their living arrangements commenced among the
other ascetics as Zacharias grew olderpresumably when he entered
puberty. Although the scandal is mitigated by the fact that Zacharias is
Carions biological son, the father nonetheless suggests that they leave,
due to the murmuring by the other ascetics. Gossip was a common
strategy for regulating power relations between ascetics (Gleason 1998),
something the child monk seems to understand. For Zacharias objects,
pointing out that at least at Scetis, everyone knows that they are father
and child, but if we go somewhere else, we can no longer say that I am
your son. Zacharias is, of course, correct, for when they go south, the
murmuring follows them. So they return to Scetis, where again, the
gossip continues, until finally Zacharias soaks himself in a lake of
natronthe substance used to mummify corpsesuntil his body
resembles that of a leper.


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Although the narratives explicit concern is the unseemly nature of

an adult male living with a boy or adolescent, it implicitly exposes the
voyeuristic tendencies of the male monks who do not live with children
and who profess to object to such cohabitation. Zacharias represents a
sexual temptation to the other monks; seeing a threat to their own
battles to extinguish sexual desire, the monks use gossip about him and
his father to coerce the comely youth to leave. In the end, Zacharias
mutilates his body, so that his appearance is no longer pleasurable when
he is in the sight of other monks. No physical sex occurs in the story;
instead, much of the narrative revolves around appearancesZachariass
physical appearance, but also what it means socially and culturally for a
man and child to be seen together. The visible invites speculation about
the invisible; a man and boy seen together in public must be having sex
out of sight. Despite the absence of any visual evidence of sex, the
monks murmuring indicates the spinning of licentious tales; through
their titillating accusations, the gossiping monks participate as oral and
aural voyeurs in fantasies of sex acts they are forbidden to commit. As a
story of sexual voyeurism, Zacharias predicament reveals the pleasure
experienced when male monastics viewed the adolescent male body as
well as the pleasure enjoyed in telling tales about that body.
Zacharias disfigurement also serves to justify the continued erotic
gaze of his fellow ascetics. Although his leprous form invites (even
anticipates) revulsion, it simultaneously authorizes their gaze. Pleasure
is not excised from the narrative; his self-mutilation removes the guilt
from this guilty pleasure. Although exhibiting the body of an undesirable old man, he remains a youth. The horror of his figureseen by the
monks within the narrative and envisaged in the minds eye of later
monks, listeners, and readersis a paradigm of loss, the loss of beauty
and erotic physicality. As one of the many stories of reverse transfiguration in early Christianity, Zacharias corporeal disfigurement represents
less of a break with the past than a visual reminder of the past.
The hagiographical account of a famous prostitute turned monk
provides a parallel example of such a reverse transfiguration, in which a
saints holiness and spiritual virtue is made manifest in a decline in the
physical bodys aesthetic splendor.1 In the account of the Life of Mary
In the Christian tradition, the archetypal transfiguration occurs in the New Testament
Gospels (Matt. 17:19; Mark 9:28; Luke 9:2836), when Jesus becomes radiant with light, his
clothes turn pure white, and Moses and Elijah appear near him. In the narratives, this moment of
aesthetic splendor visually reinforces Jesuss status as Son of God, which a voice from heaven
simultaneously intones. Early Christian hagiography as well as the Apophthegmata Patrum
narrated the lives of saints in ways that evoked the life of Jesus. Some saints experience a bodily
transfiguration, in which physical beauty expresses the spiritual virtue of the ascetic; others

Schroeder: Queer Eye for the Ascetic Guy?


of Egypt, Mary renounces her profession after encountering a vision of

her namesake, the mother of Jesus, and turns to a life of ascetic repentance in the desert. There she lives for decades without clothing,
shelter, or foodexcept what God provides. Marys withered, emaciated
form, blackened by exposure to the sun serves as a physical witness to
the pleasures of her past harlotry; her tortured figure evokes the
memory of the perfumed, decorated, and hedonistic prostitute who had
sex with men not just for the money, but for the enjoyment of it (PG n.
d.: 87 (3): 36973726; PL n.d.: 73: 671690; Ward 1987: 3556).
Reading about and mentally visualizing, the pain of Zachariass
transformation can also elicit pleasure. In writing about the pornography of pain, Susan Sontag reflects, It seems that the appetite for
pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for the
ones that show bodies naked. Religious art portraying saints experiencing pain is particularly evocative. No moral charge attaches to the
representation of these cruelties. Just the provocation: can you look at
this? There is the satisfaction of being able to look at the image without
flinching. There is the pleasure of flinching (Sontag 2003: 41). The
account of Zacharias dip in the natron evokes the mental image of his
body both before and after. (Did you flinch when reading of Zacharias
entering the natron? Did you take pleasure in the flinch?)
Zachariass story also exemplifies the tension between the homoeroticism in early male monasteries and the masculine ascetic ideal of selfcontrol. The tale narrates two disruptions in this masculine ideal. First,
the responsibility for the preservation of male, ascetic chastity rests in
significant part upon the object of male desire (not in the self-control
of the desiring male subject): it is the young Zacharias who must make
himself less attractive in order to re-stabilize the erotic lives of the
adults. Second, the story affirms the adolescent male bodys eroticism.
It does not challenge the notion that the adolescent male body represents an erotic ideal; the adult monks are not required to repress or
reorient their erotic imagination, but rather Zacharias must make his
body less attractive.
The Apophthegmata also record the tale of an older monk stumbling upon another monk who is sinning with a boy ( paidiou) possessed by a demon. The boy had originally come to the monks to be
exorcised. The older monk watches the encounter. He says nothing and
does nothing, reflecting, If God who has made them sees them and

experience a reverse transfiguration, in which their holiness can be witnessed by their disfigured
bodies, often a result of severe physical ascetic discipline.


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

does not burn them, who am I to blame them (PG n.d.: 65: 256; Ward
1975: 107). The conclusion is surprising, because it seems to exculpate
the sinning monk and to condone a sexual encounter with a boy. The
tale could be read as one among many admonitions against the sin of
judgmental pride. A rather self-satisfied monk should not to be too
smug if his own ascetic efforts appear superior to those of a neighbor.
(The Judge not lest ye be judged lesson of Matt. 7:1.) But the story of
the monk sinning with a boy condones voyeurism, as well, even attributing the guiltless act of voyeurism to God himself. God watches and
does not judge. So too might another monk watch and neither judge
nor be judged.
In the telling and retelling of the story, the eye of God becomes the
eye of the next generations of monks, who as readers gaze upon this
sin with neither verbal censure nor threat of punishment. This eye of
God is no panopticon, no Big Brother from whom one cannot escape.
Hagiography often renders the ascetic gaze as an instrument of
shaming and assimilation. For example, Symeon Stylites, the famed
pillar-saint from Syria, only mounted the column on which he would
spend the decades of his life after abandoning a communal monastic
setting. Symeon engaged in acts of self-mortification, most notable of
which involved winding a rough cord made of palm around his waist
until it cut deeply into the skin. He wore the cord unceasingly under
his cloak, hiding his self-inflicted wounds from the view of other
monks for fear that his difference, his extremism, would render him an
other even among his closest peers. Symeons worries proved justified,
for his colleaguess reactions upon the discovery of his bleeding sores
forced him to abandon the monastery (Price 1985: 160176). In contrast, in the apophthegm of the monk, the boy, and the peeping-ascetic,
the gaze is no instrument of discipline or forced conformity, but a
means of justified voyeurism. While uncomfortable, it is nonetheless
In hagiography, the boundaries between seeing and doing are
porous. As Georgia Frank has taught us, visiting and viewing in the
flesh the living saints of late antiquity allowed Christian pilgrims to
imbibe and partake of their holiness. Travel literature that describes the
very monks enshrined in the Apophthegmata expresses the belief that
seeing the holy provides an active, tactile encounter with it (Frank
2000: 14). This entry in the Apophthegmata furnishes a textual recording of one mans sexual encounter with a demon-possessed boy, preserved for all to see in the minds eye. Do the observant monk and his
successors, who learn and reflect upon the story, see and thus absorb
the holy or the demonic? In her essay, Visceral Seeing, Patricia Cox

Schroeder: Queer Eye for the Ascetic Guy?


Miller examines the curing of a mans diseased testicles by Saint

Artemios, and the supplicants subsequent exposure of his healed body
parts for all to witness the miracle. This is visceral seeing at its most
intense, not only because of the images sensate effect on the reader but
also because the saints gaze invites the readers eye to look at body
parts that would normally be taboo. The affective quality of this image,
especially when it is repeated over and over again, not only brings materiality and meaning very close together, it also demonstrates the close
alignment of insistent physicality and equally insistent looking that
characterized late ancient constructions of the holy body (Miller 2004:
400). To see was as if to touch, to experience viscerally within oneself
the bodily transformation of another.
Is this true of demonic seeing, as well? The art of discernment in
Egyptian asceticism held as its goal the elimination of demons; to
recognize a demon for its true selfnot to mistake it for the thing
which it hoped to appear to be, whether a woman, a beast, or a fellow
monkwas the first step in rendering it powerless. In the case of the
older monk who observes his colleagues sexual indiscretions, discernment does not eviscerate the demon-possessed boys power, nor does it
extinguish the erotic power of the moment. Although forbidden to
touch a young boy with desire, the monks erotic voyeurism is now
authorized, even ritualized in the form of an edifying text. [T]hese
voyeuristic scenes of manifest realism bridge the divide between reader
and text. Further, the ocular and affective quality of these images is an
appeal to the sensory imagination of the reader . They are figuratively
realthat is, they are narrative pictorial strategies that seduce the reader
into forgetting that these are images in texts (Miller 2004: 402403).
Indeed, even the monks who watch by reading also see and thus
themselves participate in the sexual taboo. The texts invite the reader to
identify neither with the youth, nor with the sinning monk, nor with
young Zacharias, but with the ascetics who look upon these youthful
bodies, and whose voyeurism is justified either by the non-judgmental
gaze of the Almighty or by the sacrifice of their object of desire.
Both Zachariass immersion in the natron and the encounter
between monk and demoniac boy are short but intensely visual
moments. They function as verbal snapshots, economic hagiographical
ekphrases of iconic scenes suspended in time. As textual photographs,
they invite the viewer to identify with the monks who gaze upon the
bodies of the boys. As Sontag asserts, Memory freeze-frames; its basic
unit is the single image (22). These pithy, vivid, and thus memorable
sayings fix in the ascetic imagination of the image of the monk with the
boy, or Zacharias naked form, before and after.


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Perhaps Zacharias dip into the natron should be seen as an act of

seduction. Let us return to Mary of Egypt, the penitent harlot. In Sex
Lives of the Saints, Virginia Burrus rereads this hagiography as a love
story, in which Marys sacrifice of her body has led to a new series of
sacred seductions (2004: 158). Mary seduces the male monk Zosimus,
the purported narrator of the story, who discovers her in the desert and
is so taken by her that he cannot stop thinking of her and must return
to experience her presence again. She seduces even God himself in her
challenge to God to return to her a love as intense as the love she has
given her Lord. And even after her death, she seduces Zosimus ascetic
colleagues, whom he regales with tales of the fantastical Mary. Finally,
she seduces all subsequent readers of her saints life. Perhaps Zacharias
does not extinguish the erotic when he steps into the natron; perhaps
instead he allows it to flourish. His reverse transfiguration allows the
presence of the adolescent male in an environment in which the homosocial easily slides into the homoerotic. It also presents a material and
textual reminder of the hypersexual body he once inhabited.
Or possibly, alternatively, Zacharias actions could be read as an act
of resistance, a refusal on Zachariass part to be reduced to a sexual
object. He acts in an effort to realign the erotic tensions in the community. Paula and Blaesilla, friends of the church father Jerome, undertook
severe fasting and radical dress in their ascetic pursuit. Burrus characterizes the resulting disfigurement as an effective act of resistance. In
performing a denaturalized body, risking a hyperembodiment of
culture, Blaesilla and Paula walk a dangerous edge (89). Perhaps
Zacharias was staking his claim as a youth to the ascetic territory, a territory denied to him by a culture that viewed his body as inherently
sexual. By stepping into the natron, does he interrupt the gaze that
reduces him to object and produces sexually desiring yet ascetic adult
subjects? In manipulating the viewing subjects senses and imagination,
perhaps Zacharias turns himself into a mirror, exposing the monastic
viewers (or readers or hearers) status as an object of his own
voyeuristic pleasure? (iek 1991: 109110, 180n6).
The letters of Shenoute also exhibit anxieties about the stability of
masculine ascetic identity. Like the Apophthegmata, Shenoute purports to
eschew classical models of eroticism in which the adolescent male represents the ideal sexual partner. However, his masculine ideal builds upon
other classical ideals of masculinity, especially the Stoic control of the passions, and Shenoute identifies youth as a specific challenge to self-control.
His monastic rules forbid a number of undesirable behaviors, including
theft and secrecy, but also sexual contact (or potentially erotic situations).
And while this essay concentrates on forms of male homoeroticism,

Schroeder: Queer Eye for the Ascetic Guy?


Shenoute also condemns female homoerotic relationships and prescribes

punishments for individual women who have established inappropriate
friendships with other female monks (Wilfong 2002). The rules on sex
also explicitly prohibit certain forms of contact with young monks. I
should mention at this point the methodological difficulties inherent in
the sources; the language I translate as child or boy is the Coptic
phrase sre sm, which literally means little son; however, it seems
that in Shenoutes monastery, sre sm denotes minor children (as
determined by age), adolescents and young adults, as well as junior
monks or novices of any age. Thus, the masculine phrase sre sm and
the related feminine seere sm (little daughter) are umbrella terms signifying the spiritual children of the monastery, which would include
minors as well as novice adults. These sons and daughters are distinguished from the old men and old women of the community, who
have earned the status of established monks regardless of their physical
age (Krawiec 2007; Schroeder 2007: 179n24). Although our understanding of the roles of children and sre sm at Shenoutes monastery will
remain incomplete until all the manuscripts of Shenoutes writings have
been published, we do know that minor children lived at the monasteries affiliated with Shenoute and Pachomius (Crislip 2005: 134135).
That the term sre sm includes actual boys is obvious from one rule,
which condemns anyone who justifies touching a boy by claiming he is
only trying to determine whether the child has come of age.
The prohibitions on sex with minors are not limited to basic
admonitions toward chastity. Moreover, although they contain some
parallels with rules from the more famous coenobitic monasteries
founded by Pachomius, Shenoutes regulations are far more detailed,
and at times reflect different ascetic ideologies than the Pachomian
material (Schroeder 2007: 6881). Shenoutes rules contain very specific
prohibitions against kissing children, touching children, and unsupervised activity with children (such as anointing or bathing them). They
also forbid children from engaging in potentially erotic activities with
each other (such as shaving or pulling a thorn from another boys foot)
(Shenoute AT-NB K9101).2

These rules appear in Shenoutes first extant letter to the monastery, before he became its
leader. Thus some content in the rules may date to earlier in the monasterys leadership. However,
it is currently impossible to distinguish these earlier rules as a prior monastic rule, separate from
some kind of later rule of Shenoute, since even Shenoutes earliest letter was edited and compiled
into an authoritative set of Canons for the monastery after Shenoute became the father of the
community and began instituting his own rules. All of these Canons then were copied by
monastic scribes for subsequent centuries (Emmel 2004a: 1:34, 2:553558, 2004b: 154155;
Schroeder 2007: 1920, 28).


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

These and other admonitions against hetero- and homoerotic behavior often invoke a discourse of the passions taken from the Greek
philosophical tradition known as Stoicism; a proper monk, like the
proper Greek man, maintains control of his desires. In a variety of
Egyptian monastic literature, the combat with the passions is a primary
means by which ascetic subjectivity is formed. As David Brakke has
argued in Demons and the Making of the Monk, this Stoic approach to
virtue is a particularly useful paradigm by which to understand monastic accounts of conflicts with demons (39). In Brakkes reading of the
Life of Antony, the famous early anchorite seeks to preserve his natural
stateone not dominated by the passionsin the face of external
forces, such as demons, which target the soul (3839). The Stoic understanding of the natural state of humanity is a useful paradigm for interpreting Shenoutes monastic rules, as well. Shenoute specifically invokes
the passions as an acute source of distress. In one rule, anyone who
kisses a boy with desire (the Greek epithumia)3 is cursed. In others, a
man who embraces another man with a polluted epithumia, or who
kisses a boy with desire (epithumia) is cursed (Shenoute AT-NB
K9101). Burning with polluted epithumia for either an adult colleague
or a child will cause Gods wrath to rain down upon a monk (Leipoldt
190613: 3:197198). A more blanket prohibition condemns anyone
male or female, old or youngwho kisses or embraces another with
passionate desire (epithumia + pathos) (Shenoute AT-NB K9101).
Certainly, the presence of children or the opportunity for sexual contact
presented by certain situations in a monastery represent a threat to
celibacy in and of themselves, for Shenoute also specifically prohibits
bathing or anointing youth without reference to the passions (Shenoute
AT-NB K9101). But it is not merely a homosocial environment or the
presence of minors that trouble Shenoute. Not simply embracing
another monk, but embracing with passion poses the threat; not simply
kissing a child, but kissing with passion. We can imagine liturgical and
ritual settings in which monks should embrace or kissa kiss of greeting or the kiss of peace after a eucharist celebration, for example (Penn
2005: 4356). And certainly in a monastery composed of thousands of
ascetics, the close quarters afforded ample opportunity for physical
contact. In one rule, monks are censured for allowing defiled thoughts
to take root in their hearts, or for enabling polluted epithumia to
become established in their spirits after either shaving another, being

Although Shenoute writes in Coptic, he uses common Greek loan-words, including epithumia,
pathos, and hdon.

Schroeder: Queer Eye for the Ascetic Guy?


shaved, taking the thorn out of anothers foot, or having a thorn taken
out of ones own foot. Monks who touch each other while lying on a
mat two at a time receive censure if the touching occurs with a passionate desire (epithumia and pathos) (Leipoldt 190613: 4:124). Again, it
is not solely the physical intimacy of these activities that threatens the
monk, but passions that the monk might allow to take hold. Monks
must even bathe their own faces and feet with care, to avoid bathing
themselves with desire (epithumia), passion ( pathos), and pleasure
(hdon) (Leipoldt 190613: 4:118119).
In his earliest letters, Shenoute uses the rhetoric of femininity to
shame his fellow monks. Comparing sinful monks who break the monastic rules to the harlots of the Hebrew Scriptures, he likens insufficient
ascetic discipline in the monastery to the uncontrolled sexuality of these
biblical loose women (Schroeder 2006). The monks have become
scriptural whores. In his rules, we also see the conversethe construction of an ideal masculinity, of the man in control of his passions.
Gazing upon the bodies of ones fellow monks exacerbates the
monks vulnerability to the passions. Both men and women should
avoid peering lustfully upon the nakedness of monks in their cells, or in
public, when their garments accidentally reveal their genitals:
Cursed are men or women who will gaze or who will look desirously
(epithumia) upon the nakedness of their neighbors in their bedrooms,
or stare at them at any other place, either when they are on a wall or up
a tree, or when they urinate or walk in mud or bathe, or while they are
sitting down and they expose (themselves) inadvertently, or when they
were drawing a log to a place that is up high, or when they are working
with one another or even when they are washing their clothing in the
flow at the canal or by the cistern, or when the brethren who make the
bread reach into the ovens or (are busy) at any other task which some
would be doing in our domain or in your domain too and unwittingly
bare (themselves). And those who will gaze at them desirously (epithumia) with a shameless eye shall be cursed. And also those who will gaze
with a desirous passion (epithumia and pathos) upon their own nakedness shall be cursed. (Young 2000: 271273, trans. rev.)

One should expect to encounter nudity during the daily operations of a

monastery. Nakedness, even seeing nakedness, is unavoidable; but to
look with intentionality and passion invites the devil.
Shenoutes instructions and admonitions, while of a strikingly different literary genre from the Apophthegmata, are also intensely visual.
They too produce textual photographs of monks kissing, embracing, or
accidentally revealing themselves. And despite their different literary


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

forms, the Apoophthegmata and the letters and rules of Shenoute were
texts that were read and reread, recited and re-recited by generations of
monks. The traditional view of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers is that
they are compilations of sayings and anecdotes that likely circulated
orally in ascetic circles for decades before being recorded on parchment
or papyrus in the late fifth and early sixth centuries in Palestine, not
Egypt (Harmless 2004: 170171). The text claims that its authors have
committed to writing a few fragments of [these monks] best words
and actions, in order to preserve their heritage in the Christian
memory (PG n.d.: 65: 72; Ward 1975: xxxvi). So although the stories
themselves are often mythic and fantastical, the recounting and preserving of these memories served an important didactic purpose; as
William Harmless has written, this community [of later ascetics]
remembered [the early monks] because it was convinced that remembering provided access to the holy, to salvation. Later generations of
monks desired these words because they desired holiness and sought
pathways to find holiness past wisdom that might serve the present
quest (211). Likewise, Shenoutes letters and rules were compiled (in
part by Shenoute himself ) into a library of authoritative documents for
the community, to be read to/by the monastery several times a year
(Emmel 2004a: 2: 562563, 2004b: 154155; Schroeder 2007: 28). What
was the effect of this repetition of intensely visually evocative stories
and rules? Cannot the passions attack the monk through the minds eye
as well as the bodys eye? By keeping the images of partially nude or
sexually intimate monks alive in the ascetic imagination, Shenoutes
own writings destabilize the very self-control he seeks to cultivate, and
present an eroticized monastery as normative.
In The Body and Society, Peter Brown traces the transformation of the
relationship between body and city during the process of the
Christianization of the ancient Mediterranean (Brown 1988). The
Apophthegmata Patrum and writings of Shenoute expose both the fragility
of this transformation and the ambivalence in the ascetic community
about its claims to success. The attitudes toward young males and to the
control of the passions express an uncertainty about ideals of masculinity
ascetics have inherited from the classical past. The monastery itself is
envisioned as a space pulsing with erotic potential. Just as the male
citizen in the Greco-Roman city had to discipline his passions to succeed
in the complex negotiations of urban relationships, so too was the monk
required to maintain self-control in daily interpersonal encounters.
In the writing and reading of ascetic literature, eroticism ironically
flourished. In the Apophthegmata, the ideal sexual partner remains the
adolescent or pre-adolescent male. Furthermore, beneath the narratives

Schroeder: Queer Eye for the Ascetic Guy?


of self-control and de-eroticization in Shenoutes writings and the story

of Zacharias, lies a textual voyeurism authorized in no small part by the
genre of the text. Like the monk who observes his colleague sinning
with the demon-possessed boy, the monks who read, hear, and rewrite
these texts participate in a voyeuristic erotic experience about which the
texts themselves express decided ambivalence.

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Crislip, Andrew T.

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Frank, Georgia

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Miller, Patricia Cox


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PG n.d.

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Veilleux, Armand

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