By Robert Van de Weyer
The following is a description of the life of the Ethiopian monastic community (nefru gedam), based on visits to 18 major monasteries and lengthy interviews with the monks. It is remarkable that from one end of Ethiopia to the other the life of the monasteries is essentially the same, varying only in degrees of strictness. It is possible therefore to typify that life.
Fortunately monasticism also spread southwards to the Land of Sheba. Ethiopians coming to be ordained by the Coptic Patriarch would often stop at the desert monasteries on their way to Alexandria, and on their return imitated what they had seen. Over the centuries the monks of Ethiopia have jealously guarded the primitive traditions, and they claim that even today their monastic communities are identical to those of the early desert fathers.
The Monastic Village
Like the first convents of Egypt the monasteries of Ethiopia are built like ordinary villages, using the same materials as the poor people. In Eritrea and Tigre it is rough, dry stone, and in the southern provinces mud and eucalyptus. Most have between 50 and a 100 monks, usually with about half as many boys studying in the monastery school. Each monk has his own hut, perhaps eight or 10 feet square, in which he has a skin to sleep on, a drinking gourd, a bowl for food and a prayer book. An older monk may have a few luxuries such as a metal bed and a torch. The students, on the other hand, have no privacy, three or four sharing one hut, and are allowed no extra possessions. There is a common kitchen where the food is cooked over an open fire, a granary and an assembly hall. Dominating the whole is the church, and this alone is built in expensive materials, such as cut stone and mortar or, in modern times, brick and concrete. Next to it is the sacristy where the vestments and sacred objects are kept.
The monasteries are mostly situated on mountains or cliffs since many of the founders were hermits living in mountain caves, and the original communities grew up around them. Debre Libanos of Ham, for example, is on a narrow ledge in a sheer rock face where Abba Libanos used to meditate in the fifth century; monks and visitors climb down to it by the hand and foot holes which Libanos’s disciples are said to have cut into the cliff. Debre Damo and Debre Salam are both reached by rope up a perpendicular wail of rock, and legends abound on how their founders made the first ascent. Some monasteries are at the bottom of a steep valley or ravine, such as Gunda-Gundet which takes five hours to reach from where it is first visible from above. Few are easily accessible.
The center of the monks’ life is prayer. The monks rise on most mornings at around four o’clock and assemble in the church to chant the morning office (Sa’atat) which last about two hours. On Sundays and major feast days they start the office at midnight and then perform the Mass (Kiddase), finishing at dawn. Unlike the large secular churches few monasteries have trained singers and the monks do not dance as the secular priests do. Some of the more ascetical monasteries do not even chant the office and the Mass, but prefer simply to say them. In mid-afternoon the monks gather once again, usually in the assembly hall, for a short office of about 15 minutes. Apart from these common prayers the monk is expected to pray frequently in private. Each monk is free to choose his own method of private prayer, though certain ways are common. Many retire to their huts every one or two hours and say the Lord’s Prayer and the Canticle of St. Mary. Others repeat ” Jesus Christ, please save me ” or ” Through Blessed Mary, have mercy on me ” 41 times. Most monks also spend long hours at night in silent contemplation.
The monasteries all own sufficient land for the monks, needs. Although manual work is not considered essential in the monk’s life, as it is in the contemplative communities of Europe, the stricter monasteries such as Debre Libanos of Ham and Waldebba regard it as important that the members plough the land themselves. At harvest time all able-bodied monks and students are working in the fields, and only the old and lame remain behind. However in most monasteries a proportion of the land is rented to peasant farmers in return for a share of the crop. At Abba Gerema, where almost all the land is rented out, the monks explain that at the foundation of their monastery in the sixth century the Emperor dispossessed all the peasants living nearby to give their land to the monks; since the peasants then starved the monks in their mercy gave back the land in return for a third of the crop, an arrangement persisting to this day. The domestic work – cooking, cleaning, carrying water and the like – is mostly done by the students. Nevertheless some monks want a daily occupation and volunteer to do some particular chore: at Sequar, for example, two venerable monks have been the woodcutters for the past half century and, as one of them said, death alone will make him lay down his axe.
Almost all monasteries trade with the local people, and every week on market-day a group of monks go to the nearest town with mules carrying produce from the monastery lands. In exchange they buy soap and candles and any other small luxuries. Some monasteries purposely grow fruit and vegetables which they never eat themselves to sell at the market; at one community they even grow cha’at, a drug forbidden to Christians, for the local Muslim population, and they have become so proficient that their cha’at is reckoned the best in the province. Most monasteries, however, simply sell their surplus grain. Apart from the obligations of prayer and work, the monk is free to use his time as he thinks fit. The monks spend many of their leisure hours chatting with each other, and it is not uncommon to hear a heated discussion coming from one of the huts. On Sundays and feast days many visit nearby villages, and they are invited into the peasants’ homes to drink barley beer (talla). Some go regularly to teach in the village schools: even today most children are educated by the clergy, and monks are usually preferred as teachers to secular priests. For spiritual guidance also people prefer to come to a monk since he can listen to their problems with detachment. Once a year on the feast of the founder the village people are invited to the monastery, and the monks entertain them with bread and beer.
In contrast to the Western monastery where the monks always eat in common, in Ethiopia they eat separately. After mid-afternoon prayers in the assembly hall the daily food is brought from the kitchens by students and distributed. The monks take it to their huts and eat it as and when they please. The food is generally bread and boiled beans, with a cup of barley beer or, for sick monks, a cup of milk. In stricter monasteries the bread and beans are served on alternate days. A few monasteries, such as Assabot and Zuquala, allow the monks to grow their own vegetables near their huts which they can cook themselves to supplement the diet. The monks keep all the normal fasts of the Church, and add many private fasts of their own. On major festivals the monks have stewed meat, and on these occasions they eat together in the assembly hall. The students receive the same food as the monks, though occasionally an older monk or one undergoing a private fast may give some of his food to a favourite boy.
Old Age and Death
As in every other part of the world, be it Buddhist, Christian or whatever, Ethiopian monks have a reputation for longevity. Yet in most monasteries no special provision is made for the decrepit and helpless old monk; his food is brought to him each day in his hut where he lies waiting for death. A few monasteries, however, have an infirmary. At Dalshiha, for instance, they have a long hut with bamboo beds on either side: the old monks chat to each other, those still able to see read the prayers and psalms for those who cannot, and students are always on hand to serve them. In Debre Libanos of Shoa old monks are taken to a nunnery two kilometres away where the nuns look after them. The normal funeral service for a monk is the same as for an ordinary lay person. A few monasteries, however, such as Abrentant profess such contempt for the human body that the monk is buried without ceremony.
The Chief Monk Each monastery is entirely independent in administration, both of other monasteries and of the local bishop. The head of the monastery in all temporal matters is the Abbe Minet. He does not directly order the monks as the abbot in the West does, but he appoints three senior officers to govern each area of the community’s life (see next section). In most monasteries the Abbe Minet makes these appointments alone, but in some he calls a meeting of all the monks to hear their views. For example at Enda Abuna Booroch after the harvest the monks meet to review the work of the previous year, and if necessary to advise on the replacement of senior officers. Sometimes an officer asks to be dismissed, and it is not uncommon for a newly-appointed officer to have disappeared by next morning.
The main job of the Abbe Minet is not in the monastery at all, but is as ambassador to the outside world. He usually has a house in the nearest large town where he spends most of his time, dealing with disputes over monastic lands – in a country where the monasteries are major landowners the Abbe Minet can be no stranger to the law courts – and employing men to ensure that the tenants pay a fair share of the crop. He also has much influence in local church affairs. In Eritrea, for instance, the bishop calls a council one or two times a year of the Abbe Minets of the 18 major monasteries to discuss major decisions of policy in the diocese.
The Abbe Minet is elected by the monks of his monastery for life or until he desires to leave the post. On the whole he is an untypical monk since he is chosen for his worldly wisdom, and many are quite young, some apparently in their early thirties. There is no special ceremony for the installation of a new Abbe Minet, but prayers for his guidance are added to the morning office, and at midday there is a feast in his honour. Occasionally an Abbe Minet is promoted to the episcopate, but more often he retires to pass his declining years as an ordinary monk.
The Abbe Minet’s deputy is the Afe Memhir, and he has charge of the monastery when the Abbe Minet is away. The Afe Memhir keeps the general discipline of the community, and he has the authority to judge and to punish. Students who fight or who are insolent or disobedient, the Afr Memhir orders to be beaten, appointing a junior monk to administer the punishment. This happens quite frequently, and no shame attaches to the offending student. Monks, on the other hand, he rarely needs to punish, and it is considered a terrible disgrace. For such offences as persistent disobedience or physical violence the Afe Memhir sentences the monk to be put in the stocks: the offender’s legs are put through two holes in a rough log, his feet are tied together, and he sits on a flat stone. For extreme crimes, particularly any kind of sexual immorality, the monk is expelled.
As far as the ordinary monks and students are concerned, the most important officer is the Magabi. He governs the whole livelihood of the community and assigns each person to his task. He decides when the seed should be sown and the grain harvested, and he ensures that the food is distributed fairly each afternoon. He does not have his own hut, but generally sleeps in the granary to guard against thieves. Above the granary door at Enda Bona hangs a fading sign, supposedly inscribed 700 years ago by the monastery’s founder, which reads: ” No one may enter without the Magabi’s permission.” The Magabi’s job is so hard that, although only young and able-bodied men are chosen, after two or throe years he usually retires and a replacement is found. The church and sacristy tire maintained by the Gabaz. Apart from students who clean the buildings, the Gabaz has under his direct charge an Ackabeit who guards the sacristy, sleeping there at night, and a bell-ringer who calls the monks to prayers. In large monasteries, such as Debre Bizen and Debre Libanos of Shoa, the Abbe Minet also appoints two or three older monks as advisers. They have no authority of their own, but they often accompany the Abbe Minet to meetings in town, and help to keep him informed of events within the monastery. Most monasteries, however, are sufficiently small and intimate to make such advisers unnecessary.
Komas – The Spiritual Father
The spiritual head of the monastery is the Komas. He is appointed by the bishop as his representative, and is often an older monk known for his exceptional sanctity. He does not guide the individual monk’s inner life, as the Spiritual Director in the West does, but he gives advice when it is asked for, arbitrating in any conflicts in the community. As one monk described it: ” While the Afe Memhir punishes by the rod, the Komas punishes by prayer.” Large monasteries may have more than one Komas, and new bishops are appointed from the Komases.
The monastery school is intended to prepare the students for ordination, either as secular priests or as monks, and its syllabus is the same as that of the normal seminary attached to a large church. The type of student, however, is quite different. The pupils of the normal seminary are mostly the sons of priests, and boys who have no relatives in the priesthood are often refused entry or charged a large fee. The monastery schools, on the other hand, are bound by tradition to welcome all comers. No fee is charged and the students are given free food and lodging, since the menial work they do is considered sufficient payment. Thus most of the monastery students are from peasant families. In many cases they come from villages hundreds of miles away to avoid parental opposition, since by entering the monastery they are depriving their families of their labour.
Two or three of the most learned monks are appointed by the Abbe Minet as teachers. During the day when they have finished their chores the students are taught to read Geez and to memorize large portions of the religious books. Their raucous voices reciting in unison what they have just learnt frequently breaks the calm of the monastery. After dark they learn the liturgical chants. The school has no classroom, but generally there is a small courtyard where the students squat on the ground while the teacher sits on a low stool in their midst.
Over half the students drop out after one or two years and return to their villages. After about three years the promising student is sent to the local bishop to be ordained deacon which allows him to assist at the Mass. After several more years when they consider him fit the senior monks give the student a test of his reading ability and his knowledge of the holy books. A failed student can re-take the test indefinitely, and almost everyone passes eventually. The majority then want to become secular priests, and so they go to serve as deacons in a village church for a year or two before being ordained into the priesthood by the local bishop. A minority decide to become monks.
Most of those who profess as monks are graduates from the monastery school. The rest are widowers with no family ties; of these most are laymen with little or no education, though a few are secular priests or lay scholars. The intending monk firstly has a long interview with the Abbe Minet. The Abbe Minet does all he can to discourage him from his vocation, explaining the rigours of the monastery compared to life in the world. At the end of the interview the Abbe Minet asks: “Are you prepared to serve God as a monk, according to the ancient traditions governing the monk’s conduct?” The candidate simply replies: ” Yes, I am.”
The ceremony of profession is held a few weeks later in the church, usually on a feast day. Traditionally the candidate is wrapped in palm leaves, the funeral dress of the poor, and the monks sing the funeral requiem to signify his death to the world. He then rises up and the Komas places on his head a cotton cap (kob) which he must always wear in future as the sign of his profession, and gives him a new name. For the next 40 days the new monk often chooses to confine himself to his hut, in imitation of Christ in the wilderness, to prepare for his future life.
About a year after profession the young monk who previously graduated from the monastery school goes to the local bishop to be ordained priest. The uneducated widower, however, is considered unfit for ordination.
The monks do not have a reputation for scholarship, and few receive a higher education. Rather it is the lay scholars (debteras) who devote themselves to study. The monks, however, have traditionally patronised the lay scholars, inviting distinguished teachers and their students to live at the monasteries and giving them food and lodging. With the general decline in recent decades in the higher learning of the Church this patronage is becoming less common, though still in the large monasteries such as Debre Libanos of Shoa lay teachers and students live side by side with the monks.
Many monasteries, however, retain great numbers of manuscripts which were mostly donated by kings and noblemen in the past for the use of the lay scholars. Some libraries, such as those at Waldebba and Gunda-Gundet, remain justly famous for their collections of rare works. The manuscripts are generally kept in the sacristy, and though so few monks can appreciate them, they are greatly treasured.
Leaving the Monastery
The majority of monks spend their whole lives in the community where they professed. Nevertheless a monk is free to leave his community at any time, and he will be welcomed at any monastery in the country. The small number of monks who desire a higher education leave in search of a suitable teacher unless there is already one in their monastery. Generally they do not return, but either settle permanently where they find a teacher, or become perpetual wandering scholars moving from one teacher to another. A few leave to seek a more or less strict life than that of their present community. At Abrentant, for example, which is reputed to be one of the most ascetical monasteries in the country, hundreds of monks come each year to try the life, though few stay. Abba Gerema, on the other hand, where the monks do no manual work has a number of monks from other monasteries who have come to enjoy a more leisured life. A sick monk may move to a monastery with a healthier climate, as did one of the present teachers at Enda Sellassie in Adua who came to escape the heat of Hallelu, his original monastery. Occasionally a monk leaves because of a bitter feud with another monk.
Though it has long since disappeared in the West, the eremitical life is still widespread in Ethiopia. The cenobitical monks and indeed the ordinary people regard the hermitage as Man’s highest abode on earth, and often monks seem fearful at the possibility of God calling them to it. In almost every monastery there are a number of monks – perhaps one tenth of the total-who confine themselves to their cells. They are described as ” the monks who never see the sun.” They have no responsibilities within the community and do not attend the daily common prayers. Food is brought to their huts each day by a single monk permanently designated to the task, and the hermit only emerges for the Mass in church on Sundays and feast days. Usually their cells are within the monastery compound, though sometimes they are a short distance away: at Debre Damo, for instance, hermits can be seen in apparently inaccessible caves in the sheer cliff beneath the monastery. Other monks or lay people can visit them (if they can reach their cell), and even today many of the rulers of Ethiopia, including the Emperor himself, frequently seek the advice of these hermits on both spiritual and temporal matters.
Besides these monastic hermits, there are countless holy men (ba’atawi) living in remote forests and caves throughout Ethiopia. These men have totally rejected human contact, and if they ever visit a church they “come by night, crawling through the undergrowth so as not to be seen.” as an admiring priest described it. They live only on the wild fruits and herbs which Nature provides. A few of these holy men are ordained monks who have left their communities, but mostly they are lay people – as another monk put it, ” God has called them to holiness from nothing, as Christ called Peter and Paul.”
The Benedictine monastery of Europe, in the words of the founder, is” a school of perfection”: the monk’s daily life is a continuous lesson within a rigidly ordered institution, prescribed in detail in a written rule. By the same analogy the Ethiopian monastery is a university: each monk studies perfection in his own way within a loosely-knit community, governed by traditional rules and customs. Ethiopian monasticism has retained the flexibility and freedom of the first desert convents of Egypt. The monk is within broad limits his own master, both spiritually and physically. He can participate in the community life as much or as little as he chooses, from being a hard worker who enjoys the company of his fellows in his leisure hours, to being a hermit.
St. Benedict in the sixth century purposely moved away from this kind of monasticism, but in recent years the pendulum has begun to swing back in the West. The Western monks may now be reverting to the primitive traditions which Ethiopia has preserved for 15 centuries. (The research on which this article is based was done jointly by the author, his wife Sarah, Father Thomas Conway and Miss Jocelyn Grigg).