Thursday, July 8, 2010

Monasticism, not mummies. A Benedictine oblate blog

Getting directions at night

Scetis is among several areas where the Egyptian desert produced its greatest gift to the world — not the Great Pyramids, not mummies, but monasticism. Beginning about 300 AD Coptic men went to live in the Egyptian desert because they wanted to live the complete Christian life — the life that dwells with God. Some of those Coptic monks went to a remote Egyptian desert valley called Natron. They called their monastic settlements "Scetis" which is Coptic for "to weigh the heart."1 All of Christianity owes its monastic heritage to the Coptic church in Egypt and one of its most important examples, Scetis.

The remote Valley Natron (Wadi Natrun) is where monks established Scetis which consisted of groups of related monastic huts (cells) and settlements. The valley is in Lower Egypt (the northern part of Egypt by the delta of the Nile River).

Scetis is about 25 miles west of the Nile River. In ancient times, Scetis was a day and a night's journey south of Nitria — another monastic area and about a three-day journey northwest of the Great Pyramids.

Monasticism is often associated with stability and perseverance. At the time the Coptic monks went to Valley Natron, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara which is now the oldest free-standing stone structure in the world was already about 3,000 years old. They lived among antiquity even then.

Scetis' remoteness did have a direct connection to the Pyramids and mummies, however. The Valley Natron's ten "salt lakes" were a principal source of Natron also called niter. The Egyptians mined Natron — a salt-like mineral used as a drying agent in embalming. Natron was also used for hardening glass and ceramics.2

The Valley Natron is about 22 miles long and some of it lies below sea level. Low marshes and oases in the valley helped the monks find enough water to live. The water did not taste bad even though it had an unpleasant bituminous odor.

There were no marked routes on the earth leading to the Valley Natron. Travelers needed to know the map of the stars to find their way.3

If the monks chose the word "Scetis" ("to weigh the heart") as a description of their practices, it was a perfect choice. In about 400 AD or a 100 years after the first Coptic monks went to Scetis, the European monk John Cassian was in Scetis recording the monastic way. Weighing the heart was surely how the monks saw the effect of the remote wilderness.4

For monks in Scetis, the ultimate goal was to dwell in the tent of God, but the Scetis desert monks knew there was an intermediate goal — the daily, hourly path to follow. They taught that purity of heart must be the traveler's constant guide — without it the way is lost.4 In Valley Natron purity of heart was weighed.

John Cassian recorded what he learned and brought that Egyptian monastic wisdom back to the west in two key books, the Institutes and Conferences.

It may seem ironic that early Coptic desert monks who sought one of the most remote regions of Egypt developed a way of monastic life that shaped all of subsequent western history.

In addition to the works of John Cassian, the "Sayings of the Desert Fathers" are contained in two main series, the Alphabetical and Systematic Series of the Apophthegmata Patrum (from the Greek: apo, from; phtheggomai, to cry out; pater, father). Descriptions of the lives of Coptic desert fathers have also been preserved. Today, three easily-available books give an excellent study of the desert fathers:
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Cistercian studies 59) [Paperback]

The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers [Paperback]

The Lives of the Desert Fathers: Historia Monachorum in Aegypto (Cistercian Studies No. 34) [Paperback]
Many of the monastic principles Cassian lived with in Scetis were taken up and used 130 years later in about 530 AD by St. Benedict in his Rule for monks.

The Rule not only contains principles of monastic life from Scetis, but in Chapters 42 and 73 of the Rule, St. Benedict instructs monks to read the Institutes and Conferences (also called Collations). The clear voice of early Egyptian monks in Scetis carries well across the stillness of the desert at night.

St. Benedict became the father of western monasticism. His Rule became a trusted guide in the chaotic breakdown of civilization after the collapse of the western part of the Roman Empire. The Rule of St. Benedict (RB) became the main Rule for all monks in Europe. St. Benedict's monks and his Rule helped preserve the ancient Roman and Greek manuscripts and then reformed European civilization from a new mineral — the salt of the earth.

I blogged about the extensive Benedictine contributions to the world, but it would be equally true to recognize that behind those great accomplishments is Egyptian Coptic Christianity and in particular the Scetis monks.



Picture is M42 Orion by makelessnoise and is used subject to license.

1. Harmless, W. (2004). Desert Christians an introduction to the literature of early monasticism. Oxford [etc.: Oxford University Press, pp 173-175.

2. Natron as a flux.

See especially this interesting article:

The Use of Natron in Human Mummification: A modern
(in PDF), by Bob Brier and Ronald S. Wade

3. Harmless, W. (2004). Desert Christians an introduction to the literature of early monasticism. Oxford [etc.: Oxford University Press, pp 173-175.

4. From Cassian's Conferences:
"And so the end of our way of life is indeed the kingdom of God. But what is the (immediate) goal you must earnestly ask, for if it is not in the same way discovered by us, we shall strive and wear ourselves out to no purpose, because a man who is traveling in a wrong direction, has all the trouble and gets none of the good of his journey. And when we stood gaping at this remark, the old man proceeded: The end of our profession indeed, as I said, is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven: but the immediate aim or goal, is purity of heart, without which no one can gain that end: fixing our gaze then steadily on this goal as if on a definite mark, let us direct our course as straight towards it as possible, and if our thoughts wander somewhat from this, let us revert to our gaze upon it, and check them accurately as by a sure standard, which will always bring back all our efforts to this one mark, and will show at once if our mind has wandered ever so little from the direction marked out for it."


  1. Thanks, John for this most informative post.  I never knew the meaning of "Scetis"; "to weigh the heart" is totally appropriate.  The one Coptic monastery in the US is near Barstow, CA.  I hope to visit there some day.

  2. Hi Joe, I didn't know it either and thought it gives a better look into those great old monks.  My wife and I are reading the Conferences.  They are the source of some of our best conversations on monastic principles.

    Thank you for the information on the Coptics in Barstow!  I lived in Barstow when I was about 5 years old.  The first thing I can remember was in Barstow.

    My wife and I would live in the California desert today if we were able to.  Great place.  For now we will read about desert life.

  3. And they say nothing grows in the desert!

    Wow, this is fascinating.  I am reading the Conferences and I have been wondering about Scetis.  THANKS for taking the time to research and write about this monastically historic area!

  4. Thanks Teresa for the kind comments.  Scetis is amazing even seen after all these years.

  5. Thanks John for your consistent and careful look into the history of the Benedictine spirituality. Your knowledge is a real gift to the community. 

  6. Hi Caroline.  The old monks out in the desert were  amazing.