Monasteries and Monastic Monks in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is a land of God, which since the time of the old Testament, through the biblical faith and Worship she followed, has produced innumerable Christians and saints of the Testament.
The biblical faith and worship in this country was able to bear so much fruit because the word of God, which was broadcasted, on the heart of the people was a seed which fell on fertile ground.
Although it is difficult to speak in figures about the many saintly laity who rose, in particular starting from the time of the transition of the country and people from the old Testament religion to the Christian faith when the word of the Gospel was heard in the first century A.D up to the time when the faith was strengthened in the 4 th century, it is possible to mention many examples.
In the canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church those who became the saints of the Testament and the "shields of religion" did not only come from the monastic personalities. They emerged too from the ranks of those, like Henock, Noah, Abraham, Moses and the like, being in this world and shouldering family and community responsibility still performed deeds of sainthood. The source of life of the Ethiopian monasteries is the existence of such saints.
To be able to speak by turn and in order about the establishment of monasteries and monastic community members the pattern of their life, their kinds and number, the contribution past and present of monasteries and the monstic communities to the country ,it is essential recount briefly of the early history of monastic life. A “ Monastic person” is according to the practical definition a man of God, who lives without tasting refined and delicious food ,with out wearing colorful and warm clothes, who waters his mouth with dew of the grass, has stones as his pillow, is unscarred by the roaring noises of wild animals and the majesty of the night and shuns worldly life, reserves himself from needs of the flesh and from joy and happiness, avoids joy in all his daily life and dependency on others, relies on and helps himself, is fully engaged in fasting and praying and preoccupied on acts of martyrdom and goodness”.
The founder of such monastic life was the Egyptian hermit Father Antonio's who rose up in the 4 th century. The monastic rules and regulations were laid down by another Egyptian hermit Father Pachimos who also lived in the same century .That the monastic life,its regulations and its contemporary form and content, owes itself fundamentally to these saintly fathers is accepted by all churches at though it is necessary to make the history of these two persons the starting point of a discussion of monasticism, it is likewise essential to point out that another hermit called “the kind pauli” even before these two fathers was pursuing a similar kind of life in the wilderness.
The rules and regulation of monastic life do not permit that men and women pursue monastic communal life in the same monastery. It is believed that when the above-mentioned fathers first established monasteries for men, a certain woman named Mary, the sister of Father Pachimos, also established monasteries for women for women contemporaneously.
After these Fathers, monastic seclusion drew the attention of the whole world of Christendom and thus spread rapidly. Among the countries, which received this gift, Ethiopia is one of them.
1. Establishment of Monasteries in Ethiopia
As much as Ethiopia is the home of numerous churches, it is also a country which has many monasteries. The establishment of these monasteries started at the end of the 5 th century with the arrival of the nine saints from Syria, Egypt and the Greco-Roman territory. These are the Fathers who at present are referred to in Ethiopia to as the nine saints. These saints came to Ethiopia fleeing from the dangerous disturbance caused by the Arian heresy and they chose Ethiopia because the have heard it was a free Christian country which strongly opposed the Arian herecy. The nine saints which strongly opposed the Arian herecy. The nine saints according to the records and evidences of church are the following:-
- Abba Likanos Abba Yimata
- Abba Aftsi Abba Pantoliwon
- Abba Tsehima
Others like Abune Gebre Menfes Kidus and Abba Libanos who arrived in Ethiopia before and after the nine saints have also contributed their part for the establishment of monasteries. The arrival of these saints to Ethiopia laid the foundations for the establishment of monasteries and gave to the spiritual life of the church the present. This is because of the educational value of monastic life to those worldly groups who in pursuit of worldly honor and wealth humiliate human beings in exploitation , injustice and violence.
2. Pattern of Monastic life in Ethiopia
Monastic life is divided into two parts. The first one is communal monastic life and the second one is private monastic life. In communal monastic life the whole monastic order works together, eats together, prays together and renders services together.
In this kind of monastic life no form of personal property is permitted. It is strictly forbidden to stay idle with out praying and working. It is not allowed to go outside the monastery with out adequate reasons and with out the permission of the monastic Association. With regard to food it is not permitted to eat beyond the type and quantity of food laid down by the rules of the monastery. Grieving and weeping for a departing member of the monastery, half-heartedness in duty, hiding one's own mistakes, in general becoming a slave of worldly desire and of the flesh are not the distinguishing mark of monastic life. To be ready to serve others than being served is one other obligation of monastic life a place for supporting the indolent, every monastery live on the income of the labour of its members. Not being indolent being one other characteristic feature of ,monastic life, except those who by reason of sickness or old age are unable to work no member is allowed to live in dependence Even those who are weal ,unless the monastery seeing their weakness releases them from work .he/she will not rest form work or ask to be given rest. Although a communal monastery basically and in short is a common institution of life of these of these people of ascetic life, among them those who attained a spiritual life as complete as possible may by permission and blessing of the monastic association and with out isolating themselves from the communal monastery, could live a life of seclusion restricted to one place. These kind of secluded people, since they possess the spiritual strength to with stand all the trials of the life of seclusion, they are not exposed to evil thoughts.
This being the case, the attempt at a description of Ethiopian monasteries and about the life of asceticism will not be complete without mentioning that there are places of asceticism where except roots and fruits no other food is tasted.
A private monastic life differs from a communal one in that under the former a certain measure of private property is permitted. Otherwise as there is no difference in the life of the asceticism, there is no special account to make about the private monasteries.
In talking about the monastic life of Ethiopia, there is one other important point which should be mentioned. There are times when imposing people appear dressed in a special way like Melke Tsedik and John the Baptist and live in some caves found at a distance from the communal monastery. People call these hermits anchorites.
“Hermits” means “a hidden person who lives far away from people". When seen their appearance is overpowering. Since people know this secret when they find skeletons, books, cross- ended support sticks and fly whisks; littered on the ground in the wilderness they recognize that these are the remains of these saints.
3. Services of Monasteries to Ethiopian Society
Although monasteries are places of asceticism, their services to the society and country is not limited to praying. They have since long been serving as sources of literate education, church music and of the study of the Holy Book. They were also among other things school of arts, museums of relics and libraries and thus it is difficult to estimate the value of services given by the monasteries to the Ethiopian people. The present Patriarch His Holiness Abune Paulos Patriarch of Ethiopia and Itchegue of the see of Tekle Haimanot is one of the products of the monasteries.
Concerning the number of monasteries, out of the 35 thousand parish churches one thousand are monasteries. Of these the majority are monasteries for men and a few are for women. In1984- 1988 following the drought and famine in Northern Ethiopia, many monasteries suffered from this situation and the assistance which these monasteries from the Canadian Council of Churches is vividly and gratefully remembered. Since the monasteries as explained are not only places of asceticism but the preservers and places of the history and culture of the country, His Holiness among his great efforts hand works for the wellbeing of the church is the special attention he pays to the welbeing of these monasteries.
May God Bless us
Reference: The Church of Ethiopia past and Present.Sept.1997.