St. Shenouda’s title as documented by his disciple, Abba Wisa, is: “Our holy father, the prophet, Abba Shenouda, the presbyter and archimandrite.”
St. Shenouda was born to devout Christian parents, circa 348 AD, in a village called, at the time, Shenalolet (in the area of present day Akhmim in Upper Egypt). At the age of seven years, he was trained as a shepherd and worked with his father. Due to his Christian upbringing and inclination for the ascetic life, he would give his food to the other shepherds and spend a good portion of the night in prayer and contemplation after completing his work. In fact, one of the shepherds saw St. Shenouda’s fingers luminous as candles while praying.
At the age of nine, his father presented him to St. Pjol, St. Shenouda’s maternal uncle, to be a monk with him in his monastery, today’s Red Monastery in Sohaj, which was established on a similar order to that of the Pachomian Koinonia. Upon seeing the young Shenouda, St. Pjol took the boy’s hand and put it upon his own head in order to be blessed by him after being given the prophecy of how great this saint would be. By divine revelation, he placed the schema (i.e. the monastic dress) on him ordaining him a monk.
He continued to grow in his monastic life in a very deep and close relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. Upon St. Pjol’s departure from this world, St. Shenouda became the new abbot of the monastery. By the time of his departure in 466 AD, the number of inhabitants had risen to 2,200 monks and 1,800 nuns which required the building of additional houses for monks and separate houses for nuns.
St. Shenouda is, next to St. Pachomius, the most important representative of Egyptian cenobitism. Those who wished to enter the monastery had to renounce all their belongings and to make a vow, which was introduced by St. Shenouda, to lead a pure life. Before they were finally accepted, they had to spend a trial period at the gate house, which was also the place where visitors were received, and which was supervised by a trusted monk. Once in the monastery, they were expected to take part in the work and worship of the community. Precise rules regulated all activities, including eating and drinking in the refectory, which was, of course, severely ascetic. Only in the infirmary were the dietary rules relaxed. All responsible positions within the monastery were occupied by older, trusted monks.
The most unique feature of St. Shenouda’s monastic order was his close care for the spiritual lives of not only the monks dwelling in the monastery, but also those lay people dwelling in the surrounding villages. He opened the monastery every Saturday and Sunday for those people to provide for not only their physical but also their spiritual needs. His elegant weekly sermons written in pure Sahidic Coptic are preserved today and are the sources of spiritual enrichment to all those that read them in addition to being the subjects of several doctoral degrees. He is felt to be the most outstanding writer in Coptic. Most of his letters, addressed to monks and nuns, deal with monastic questions while others combat pagans and heretics. His sermons are spirited and predominantly eschatological in character. Some of his works survive in Ethiopic, Arabic, and Syriac versions.
A constant stream of visitors came to consult with him and to receive his blessing. These included bishops and ascetics, as, for example, monks from Scetis and from the Pachomian monasteries, as well as secular dignitaries. Even military commanders would seek his guidance and receive his blessing before going into battle against nomadic tribes, which from time to time made incursions into Upper Egypt from the south. In 450 AD, the Blemmyes attacked Upper Egypt and the Duke Maximus was sent against them and before setting out he visited St. Shenouda to ask his blessing on the expedition. About that time, it would appear, he was regarded as the great religious leader of Upper Egypt.
His charitable acts were many. The poor received alms, and in times of famine special relief was mounted and the distribution of bread was organized. One of the most moving events was his caring for an entire village and rebuilding it after they had been plundered by an invading tribe. This included 20,000 men, women, and children who sought refuge behind the walls of the White Monastery. They were fed and clothed by the monks and all their needs were taken care of. Their sick were tended by seven physician and surgeon monks; 94 people died and were buried; and 52 children were born during their stay at the monastery. St. Shenouda described this incident in great detail, but was careful not to claim any credit for himself, rather to praise God who had made this feat possible.
In spite of his heavy responsibilities in the monastery, he withdrew from time to time to a retreat in the desert in order to pray and enjoy a closer communion with God, and it is reported that he was granted visions of our Lord Jesus Christ and many saints.
Because of his popularity in Upper Egypt and his zeal for orthodoxy, St. Shenouda was chosen by St. Cyril the Great to accompany him in representing the Church of Alexandria at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 AD There he helped in defeating the heresy of Nestorius, who made a division in the True Union of the divinity and humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of St. Shenouda’s influence in the territory surrounding his monastery, Nestorius was exiled to Akhmim where he would not be able to sway the true and steadfast faith of those dwelling there. It was at this Ecumenical Council that he was ordained “Archimandrite” even though it was revealed from his childhood that he was to be an archimandrite.
After a long, blessed life of 118 years, he was called upon by our Creator to join the honored hosts of God's saints in paradise. The Coptic Orthodox Church commemorates this blessed event on the 7th day of the Coptic month of Abib (July 14).