The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is the third largest Christian denomination in the world, but most Western Christians know very little about their ancient roots, their miraculous success against Islam, or their peculiar traditions. This article will focus on the formative events of the EOTC. Brief comments on their later history and customs are included with recommended readings for those who want to know more.
The EOTC traces its faith back to the Queen of Sheba in 1 Kings 10 and 2 Chronicles 9. The “Kebra Nagast” gives her name as Queen Makada. Ethiopians identify Sheba as the city of Saba,1 from which Queen Makada ruled Eastern Africa and Southern Arabia.2 According to the “Kebra Nagast,” Israel’s King Solomon married and impregnated Queen Makada during her visit to Israel recorded in the Bible. The “Kebra Nagast” also details how Solomon’s son by Makada, traveled to Israel as an adult to meet his father and returned to Ethiopia with the Ark of the Covenant.
Regardless of how one views the “Kebra Nagast,” Jewish migration to Ethiopia after the destruction of the first Jewish temple is well attested historically and genetically.3 In Acts 2:8-12, Luke listed visitors during Pentecost as coming from several African regions. He showed no surprise, much less a need for explanation, regarding the fact that Philip ministered to an Ethiopian near Jerusalem in Acts 8.
The EOTC proudly celebrates the eunuch of Acts 8, listing his name as Barosh and stating that he was an effective evangelist upon his return to Ethiopia. After Barosh, some Christian traditions say that the apostle Nathaniel (also called Bartholomew) preached in Ethiopia. Ancient historians including Eusebius of Caesarea and Socrates of Constantinople agree that the Apostle Matthew preached in Ethiopia and was martyred there.
Whatever success Barosh, Nathaniel, and Matthew may have had in evangelizing Ethiopia, we have little historical record of Ethiopian Christianity between the death of Matthew and the national politicizing of Christianity there in the fourth century. The EOTC views the intervening years between the apostles and national conversion as enjoying Christianity, but without the added benefits of ecclesiastical structure and liturgy.4
In the early 300’s, a Christian a youth from Lebanon named Frumentius was sold as a slave to the Ethiopian Empire, the third largest empire in the world at the time after Rome and Persia. Frumentius earned the trust of the emperor and was granted freedom prior to the emperor’s death. Frumentius worked for the spread of Christianity in Ethiopia. He then traveled to Egypt, asking Archbishop Athanasius of Alexandria to send priests to Ethiopia. Instead, Athanasius appointed Frumentius in AD 328 and sent him back as a bishop. In AD 330, Ethiopian Emperor Ezana converted to Christianity and declared Ethiopia to be a Christian empire.
After the Council of Nicea, the heretic Arius regained Roman Emperor Constantine’s approval, who then exiled Archbishop Athanasius, the same person who had appointed Frumentius. After Constantine’s death, his son Constantius appointed the Arian heretic Eusebius of Nicomedia as Archbishop of Constantinople. Constantius sent an Arian bishop to Ethiopia as well, asking for Frumentius to be removed from office. Ethiopia refused and was the sole orthodox Christian Empire at that time. Her loyalty to the Alexandrian archbishops continues to this day.
A century after Athanasius of Alexandria, the Council of Chalcedon deposed Archbishop Dioscorus of Alexandria just as the Council of Ephesus had done to Archbishop Nestorius of Constantinople 20 years before. The council revolved around how to define the union of Jesus’ divine nature with His human nature, in order to defend it against the “monophysite” heresy of Eutyches. Dioscorus maintained that the two natures were united as one nature “without separation, without confusion, and without change.”5 His view is called “miaphysite,” reflecting the words of Cyril of Alexandria concerning the incarnation of Jesus as: “mia physis.” The prevailing view at Chalcedon held instead, that the two natures were united as two natures (diaphysite).
Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians remained loyal to Dioscorus, despite the Council of Chalcedon. Along with Armenian Christians and many believers in Syria and the Persian Empire, all those who rejected the new line of Alexandrian archbishops imposed by Roman emperors became known as Oriental Orthodox churches, rejected by Chalcedonian Christians as heretics. The most familiar form of Oriental Orthodoxy to Westerners are the Coptic Christians of Egypt, 21 of whom were famously martyred by ISIS in 2015 on a Libyan beach.
TRADITIONS OF THE EOTC
Long before Americans invented “Messianic Judaism,” Ethiopian Orthodoxy wove Jewish traditions into their faith far more intensively than any other branch of the Christians. They baptize infant boys at 40 days and girls at 80 days according the Jewish purification schedule in Leviticus 12:1-5 and Luke 2:22. They observe Jewish dietary laws, and they regard Saturday as a Sabbath day of rest in addition to Sunday as the Lord’s Day. The Ethiopian Liturgy revolves around the Ark of the Covenant. Every church contains a “tabot,” a replica of the Ark; and their liturgy strictly demands the presence of a tabot.
The official list of Holy Scriptures varies slightly among different Christian traditions, but the EOTC has the widest canon of all. Their 81 books include 45 in the Old Testament and 36 in the New.6 The EOTC is the only pre-Reformation branch of Christianity which does not recognize Maccabees I and II as Scripture. Instead, they have three unique books under the similar title of “Meqabyan.” The most famous books of their Old Testament are Enoch and Jubilees, both of which have been translated into English. Their 9 additional New Testament books mostly consist of Church rules and orders. Their most intriguing New Testament books to outsiders might be the letter written by Peter to Clement of Rome, simply titled “Clement,” and “The Book of the Covenant.” The latter primarily presents church orders, but ends with a discourse by Jesus after His resurrection. Neither one of these has been translated into English to date.
While a full list of EOTC traditions would fill several books, we should at least note here how successfully the EOTC has co-opted the customs and holidays of other religions for the twin purposes of introducing outsiders to the faith and enriching the understanding of current adherents. In some Protestant circles, it has become popular to criticize the Roman church for synthesizing pagan customs into Christmas and Easter. Yet the EOTC takes great pride in assimilating the practices of others and overlaying them with Christian themes for the building up of the faithful. For example Meskel, one of the most important Ethiopian holidays, celebrates Saint Helena’s discovery of the cross of Calvary in Jerusalem in AD 330. Ethiopians celebrate both Meskel and the previous evening, known as Demera, with bonfires, holiday foods, special attire, and singing from door to door. Originally celebrated in March, Meskel was moved to September, conveniently replacing ancient pagan celebrations of the changing seasons and the coming harvests.
THE CURIOUS CASE
Thanks in part to our bias against non-Chalcedonians, we in the West know tragically little about the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. When Islam overran nearly the entire continent, Ethiopia did not fall. When European colonization controlled almost all of Africa, Ethiopia alone defeated a European invader (Italy). When our modern maps of Christian persecution reflect Ethiopia as a haven between brutal Somalia and Sudan, Western Christians fail to ask why. The EOTC does not define Jesus’ incarnation with exactly the terminology that many of us prefer, but they have been Africa’s city on a hill (the Ethiopian plateau) since the fourth century AD. Or perhaps they have been so since the days of the Apostle Matthew and the eunuch of Acts chapter 8, Barosh.
Matthew is a post-Protestant disciple of Jesus, an avid disciple-maker, a father of 2 grown men, and the delighted husband of Kristy. He holds a Bachelor of Science summa cum laude from the University of Memphis and has authored 3 books. A former church planter, Matthew now serves within the Restoration Movement. He enjoys reading the letters of Desiderius Erasmus, learning the history of empires, and encouraging believers to take up Biblical Greek for the twin purposes of clarity and unity.
Ethiopian Orthodox Mass
THE ETHIOPIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH AND ITS MONASTIC TRADITIONDom Colin Battell
Pope John-Paul II in his apostolic letter, Orientale Lumen (1995), speaks of the
Eastern Churches as ‘an integral part of the heritage of Christ’s Church’. He goes on to say that the eastern contribution and especially its monasticism is necessary for ‘the full manifestation of the Church’s authority’. East and west should not be seen to be in opposition but to be complementary, the ‘two lungs’ necessary for a healthy body.
In a famous phrase, Khomiakov could speak of ‘a new and unknown world’ with
reference to Eastern Orthodoxy. That is perhaps less true now than when he wrote as a result of easy travel and encounters through the Orthodox diaspora. While at first sight such encounters might seem to be with a strange and exotic form of the
Christian faith, close contact soon reveals a fundamental similarity with Catholic
belief and experience. What we have in common is far greater than what separates and divides us.
If Russian and Greek Orthodoxy, for example, might seem unfamiliar, for most people this is far more true of the Oriental (ie non-Chalcedonian churches) and in particular the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. According to recent figures from the Ethiopian Patriarchate, there are 40 million believers, including 40 Archbishops, 400,000 clergy, and 1000 monasteries. This makes it the largest of the Orthodox family of Churches after the Russian Church.
To enter the world of Ethiopian Orthodoxy is to be confronted with what at first may seem an exotic and certainly unique form of Christianity. This is the result of its distinctive history and geographical isolation even from other Christian communities. Perhaps this should hardly be surprising. To the Biblical writers, Ethiopia stood for the back-of-beyond, the extreme limits of the imagination. Cf Are you not as the Ethiopians to me? Amos 9:14 and Psalm 87:4 . For them Ethiopia stood for anywhere beyond the fifth cataract of the Nile. Herodotus identifies it with the kingdoms of Nubia and Meroe. The much quoted verse from the Psalms: ‘Ethiopia will stretch out her hands to God’ originally had reference to the incredible universal extent of Yahweh’s sovereignty.
Certainly, Ethiopia was thought of as remote. Homer’s Odyssey could refer to the ‘distant Ethiopians, the farthest outposts of mankind, half of whom live where the sun goes down and half where the sun rises’. The word Ethiopia come from the Greek ‘Aithiops’ meaning literally a burnt face . The description Abyssinian comes from the people known as the Habasha, but is not used by Ethiopians themselves.
According to the Roman martyrology St Matthew was the apostle of Ethiopia and he died there. By the fourth century there were some Roman merchants there who were Christian. In the Emperor Haile-selassie’s (his name means ‘might of the Trinity’) reign (1930-1974) tourist posters described the country as ‘the oldest Christian Empire in the world’ and certainly from about 332 the rulers were Christian almost without a break until the communist take-over in 1974. The leader during the communist years Mengistu Haile-Mariam also clearly has a name that shows his Christian antecedents.
Ethiopian tradition affirms that not all were converted from paganism but that some were Jews and some were animists. ‘Before the coming of Christianity, one half of the people was under the Mosaic Laws, the other half was worshipping the serpent’. In the Fetha Negast (the Book of the Law of the Kings) a work which contains secular and ecclesiastical material (insofar as the two can be separated in Ethiopia). The queen of Sheba from Ethiopia was converted to Judaism by her visit to King Solomon’s Court. ‘From this moment I will not worship the sun, but the Creator of the sun, the God of Israel’. Although the Fetha Negast is a 13th century work in its present form, it is acknowledged to contain material dating from a much earlier period. As we shall see there is a strong Hebraic influence in Ethiopian Christianity.
The story of Rufinus
The story of the conversion of the first Ethiopian king, Ezana, is told by Rufinus of Aquileia. Two boys Aedesius and Frumentius were among a party who were shipwrecked and put in at the port of Adulis on the Red Sea. They were from Tyre in Syria. Their companions were slaughtered but being young the boys were taken to Axum, the capital of Ethiopia at that time, and attained positions of influence at the royal court. This was probably at the time that the Ge’ez language was replacing Greek as the language of the court. Aedesius who was less intellectual than his confrere was made chief steward to the king while Frumentius became his secretary and treasurer. Being foreign they were perhaps seen as independent of internal politics and intrigues and therefore trustworthy. On the death of the king, the Queen acting as regent for her son Ezana asked Aedesius and Frumentius to stay and assist her in ruling the country. Since they were Christian they promoted Christianity and encouraged the building of prayer houses for the Roman merchants who were present in the country. When Ezana became old enough to take over the reins of power, Aedesius returned to Tyre while Frumentius went to Alexandria and told the great St Athanasius that there were now Christians in Ethiopia but no bishop or clergy. Athanasius decided to consecrate Frumentius himself and send him back as the first bishop. ‘What other man shall we find in whom is the Spirit of God as in you, who can accomplish these things?’ St. Frumentius is known in Ethiopia as Abba Salama
(Father of Peace) and Kesate Berhan (Revealer of light). The story of Rufinus is confirmed by inscriptions celebrating victory over the Nubians and by the letter of Constantius, the Arian successor of Constantine, encouraging Ezana not to follow Athanasius. Aksumite coinage also testifies to the conversion of the king to the Christian faith.
From this we see the close links from the beginning between the Ethiopian and Coptic Churches. The tradition begun by St Athanasius continued until the late 50s of the 20th century with the Patriarch of Alexandria sending the Abuna to lead the Ethiopian Church. Obviously there were difficulties in having a foreigner who often did not speak the language as head of the Church on earth, but there were no Ethiopian bishops until the 20th century. The calendar of 12 months of 30 days and one of 5 or 6 with New Year’s day on September 11th is also Coptic.(It should be noted here however that Ethiopians are not Copts a word derived from the Greek for an Egyptian. However close the links may be Ethiopians are clearly not Egyptians.)
The Ethiopian Church shared in the Alexandrine Christology and hence the rejection of the Council of Chalcedon which it saw as failing to safeguard against Nestorianism. Nowadays, it would probably be true to say that this is not seen as a fundamental theological difference. Indeed the rapprochement between the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches should perhaps be seen as a major ecumenical break-through (western ecumenists please note!). It is also wrong to describe Ethiopian Christians as monophysites. Ethiopian Christology is
essentially that of St Cyril. The official title of the Ethiopian Church is the Ethiopian Orthodox Twahido (ie united nature) Church. The key phrase in Cyril writings is ‘mia physis tou logou theou sesarkomene’ (one incarnate nature of the Word of God) – ie ‘mia’ (one, not necessarily alone) not ‘mone’ which would mean ‘only incarnate nature of the Word of God’. In this St Cyril thought he was quoting St Athanasius though in fact the phrase comes from Apollinaris. There have been fierce Christological disputes within the Orthodox Church down the ages but the Twahido doctrine is the official teaching of the Church. Correctly understood, this does not mean as is sometimes alleged that the humanity of Christ was dissolved or swallowed up in his divinity. The Christology of the Ethiopian church is that of Severus of Antioch and St Cyril. As a modern writer, Peter Farrington, has put it, the Oriental Churches ‘utterly repudiate any teaching in which the distinctions of the natures of divinity and humanity cease to exist in the incarnation or any teaching which damages the complete and perfect reality and divinity of which Christ is.( But equally) in the incarnation and for our salvation, the Word of God has deigned to unite, in a manner past our understanding, humanity with his divinity such that even as there is no confusion or separation equally there is no division or separation, but we see ‘One Christ’ and one Lord as the creed confesses’.
So, from the 4th century apart from the odd aberration such as the Jewish, Queen Yodit (Judith) in the 10th century. Ethiopia was Christian ruled by a monarch who saw himself as vice-regent of God (the lion of the tribe of Judah) and head of a theocratic state.
From the beginning Christianity was very closely identified with the social, political and cultural life of the people. Of course it took time for the faith to spread. Unlike the Roman Empire where Christianity took hold, broadly speaking, first among the lower echelons of society and gradually worked upwards to the conversion of Constantine, in Ethiopia the opposite was true. The court was the first to be Christianized and then the faith percolated downwards to the people. Certainly for
centuries Orthodox Christianity has been an integral part of everyday life in a way that is scarcely conceivable to secularized westerners.
Here is a form of Christianity strongly Hebraic in character that has experienced neither the Reformation nor the rationalism of Enlightenment thinking. Ge-ez is a Semitic language and other Jewish influences include circumcision on the eighth day. This does not mean that Ethiopians are unaware of Pauline teaching. In any case they do not believe they were converted from paganism but from Judaism. ‘We are not circumcised as the Jews because we know the words of St Paul who says circumcision avails not, but the circumcision that is practised among us is according to the customs of the country like tattooing on the face in Ethiopia and Nubia and the piercing of the ear among the Indians. And what we do, we do not in observance of the law of Moses but according to the customs of men’. Other Jewish influences include the following of the distinction between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ foods as legislated for in Leviticus. The Sabbath is also observed as well as Sunday. There was a long and bitter controversy about this in the 14th century and for a time the supporters of Sabbath observance led by Eustatewos were outlawed but the issue was resolved in their favour at the Council of Metmaq in 1450 by the Emperor Zara Yacob. Moreover boys are usually baptized 40 days after birth and girls after eighty days cf Leviticus 12:1ff
There is also a class of ecclesiastical professionals known as debteras who sing and perform a kind of liturgical dance to the accompaniment of drums, sistra and with prayer sticks (maqwamia) rather in the manner of the Old Testament Levites.
The division of Churches into three sections also follows the pattern of the Jewish Temple. Every Church is divided into the Meqdes (the Holy of Holies where the altar is situated and which only the clergy may enter), the Qiddest or place of Communion and the Qene Mahlet where the singers perform. Men and women have their separate entrances and are accommodated separately too. The whole of the church compound is regarded as part of the Church. Some who are doing a penance given to them by their spiritual father (nefs abbat) for certain sins do not enter the building. Shoes are removed on entering the church. Currently a massive church building programme is being undertaken and even during the communist years (1974-91) two huge monastic parish churches were built in Addis Ababa. Churches can be round or octagonal especially in the south of the country reflecting the domestic architecture or basilica style as is common in the north and are often decorated with scenes from the Gospels and the lives of the saints in the very distinctive style of Ethiopian iconography. Large numbers of clergy are attached to each church as two priests and three deacons are normally needed to service the Liturgy .The Church is involved in aid and development work but this is usually done by the laity as liturgical functions are a full time job for the clergy. Careful preparation is needed for the reception of Holy Communion and the bread and wine are prepared by the deacons in a special building near the church known as the Bethlehem (house of bread).
Another Jewish influence is in the veneration for the Ark of the Covenant (tabot). The original ark according to Ethiopian tradition was brought from Jerusalem by Menelik I son of King Solomon and the queen of Sheba to Axum where it still remains in the Church of Debre Tsion Mariam closely guarded by a monk who after his appointment to the post of Guardian never leaves the compound. The manner of its transport to Ethiopia has been the subject of much speculation. (For a particularly fanciful account see Graham Hancock’s The Sign and the Seal cf Raiders of the Lost Ark etc.) A replica of the ark is found in every Church, indeed it is the sign of the building’s consecration and without it ceases to be a Church. Covered in richly embroidered cloths the arks are carried in procession on the heads of the priests on important festivals and are honoured with the greatest reverence.
The fifth century saw an important development with the arrival of the Nine Saints from Syria. They were perhaps among the refugees from the Byzantine Empire who refused to accept the Chalcedonian Christology. All of them were monks and all established monasteries which became very important centers of learning and evangelization. It would indeed be true to say that all evangelization and all education in Christian Ethiopia was in the hands of monks until modern times. Monks trained all the secular clergy and secular officials as well. (As in other Orthodox Churches, clergy may get married before ordination, but bishops are chosen only from the monks).
Many of these monasteries are still flourishing eg that of Debre Damo near the Eritrean border, still only accessible by rope. Its founder Abba Aragawi was conveniently provided with a snake in order to ascend and make the foundation. Wisely he insisted that the snake’s head should be at the bottom! All Ethiopian monks trace their genealogy to one of the Nine Saints.
The Nine Saints translated the Bible into Ge’ez probably using the Septuagint for the Old Testament. They also translated some extra books as well as monastic writings so that the Ethiopian canon is much more extensive than any other church including works such as the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didascalia, Enoch, Jubilees, Synodos etc. As with some other Orthodox churches there is no definitive text of Scripture. It raises interesting questions about whether the canon of Scripture is closed or open, at least potentially, to further development.
St Aragawi received his monastic habit from Theodore, a disciple of St Pachomius. There were Ethiopian monks in the Egyptian desert from early times eg St Moses the Black who was head of a band of robbers until his conversion. He was changed one day when he and his group attacked a monastery, intending to rob it. Moses was met by the abbot whose peaceful countenance and warm manner overwhelmed him. He immediately felt remorse for his past sins and joined the monastery. For years he was continually tormented by his past ways and especially by lust until the prayers of his abbot St Isidore the Great miraculously healed him. Near the end of his life he became a priest and formed a monastery of 75 monks, the same number as his robber band and was martyred in 405 at the age of 75.
So there has been a continuous monastic tradition in Ethiopia from this time though there are some gaps in our historical knowledge. Axum declined in the 9th century and later the Zagwe dynasty emerged which was responsible in the 12th century for the famous churches at Lalibella carved out of the solid rock and recognized as one of the architectural wonders of the world. This dynasty was replaced in 1270 by the Solomonic which traced its origins to the Queen of Sheba and her Son Menelik I whose father was King Solomon.
The great monastic revival of the 14th century led to the establishment of the
monastery now known as Debre Libanos whose founders were St Tekle Haimanot and St Ewstatewos two very great influential Christian leaders through whom the monks of today trace their origins. The monasteries provided a counter-balance to a heavily established and controlled Church. In their extremes of austerity the monks provide a prophetic and eschatological ministry in the Ethiopia Church. The bahtawi are an independent class of hermits who represent the anchoritic tradition – modern successors of St John the Baptist rebuking all including the emperor himself without fear or favour. As Shimei reviled King David, so the bahtawi have been know to hurl abuse at all and sundry including the emperor. Some live completely separately from society, unseen by all, their bones occasionally discovered after their deaths in the remotest of places. Others lived in trees (dendrites) or small holes in the ground. Often they live on leaves and bitter roots and reduce sleep to an absolute minimum. (One who had found his way to New York was taken to a mental institution after being found praying half-naked in the snow!).Those living in wilderness zones on the edge of the empire had the effect of expanding the empire because they invariably attracted followers. Evangelization was not systematic but the effect was to extend the frontiers of Christianity by being so successful in converting the surrounding population.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the spirituality of the laity in Ethiopia is essentially a monastic spirituality. Some emperors even saw themselves as monkkings. ‘When Lalibella established the throne he submitted himself to a fast more severe that that of the monks because to him the kingship appeared as the monastic life’. This may have been the ideal but of course there was always a tension between this and the reality. Emperors may have been the vice-regent of God on earth and protectors defenders of the faith but they were not its exponent even though they may have assisted in the settling of disputes eg regarding Sabbath observance. Moreover their moral laxity often came in for monastic chastisement
Monastic austerity is seen in the great emphasis on fasting. cf St Benedict’s somewhat unfashionable ‘love fasting’. The clergy fast 256 days a year, the laity 180. On these days no meat or animal products are eaten and one meal is taken after the Liturgy which takes place on those days at mid-day, finishing around three-o’clock. All Wednesdays and Fridays except in Eastertide are fast days (cf the Didache) and Lent lasts 56 days with an additional 16 days added in commemoration of the conquest of the city of Harar. There is also a major fast of 15 days before the feast of the Dormition of our Lady and Holy Week is observed very strictly indeed often with a complete fast from food and drink during the Triduum. The Fethe Negast says fasting is abstinence from food and is observed by man at certain times determined by law to obtain forgiveness of sins and much reward, obeying thus the One who fixed the Law. Fasting also serves to weaken the force of concupiscence so that the body may obey the rational soul’.
Not to take part in fasting would still result in ostracism in many rural areas and many will fast strenuously who perhaps do not practice their faith much in other ways. The laxness of western Christians in this respect scandalizes the Ethiopian faithful. Ethiopia is not a secular society in the western sense. The cadres who went into the university to preach atheism during the communist years following the fall of Haile-Selassie were mostly laughed at. Cf Psalm 53:1
Saints such as St Tekle Haimanot were renowned for their asceticism. His life was seen as a sign of the angelic life to the extent that he is often pictured with wings. He surrounded himself with eight spears to prevent himself from falling asleep while praying. The true ascetic we are told does not need to eat or drink or if he does then the natural waste will be miraculously disposed of. We are in the world of the Desert Fathers here. Such asceticism is greatly admired if not always emulated. It is seen as an ideal to which all should aspire and as a superior form of the spiritual life rather than as a special vocation. This finds an echo in Pope John Paul II’s words in Orientale Lumen: the monasteries are a reference point for all the baptized.
But as well as fasts there are feasts too. Major saints have their feast day celebrated every month and the faithful flock to the church named after him or her on that day. On important festivals the tabots are brought out in procession on the heads of the priests.Other major feasts with a distinctive ritual and enormous popularity include Timqet (the Baptism of the Lord) when water is blessed and the faithful sprinkled or even bathe in it! And Mesqel which celebrates the finding of the True Cross by the Empress Helena in the 4th century. Bonfires are burnt in recognition that she was led to the correct place by a mysterious smoke rising from the ground.
St Tekle Haimanot
The founders of monasticism as known today are St Ewstatewos, the upholder of the Sabbath observance in the 14th century and St Tekle Haimanot. The life of St Tekle Haimanot may be given as an illustration of the world in which we are moving. St Tekle Haimanot was from a family of priests. Miracles attended his birth. His first recorded words were to object to receiving his mother’s milk on a fast day! He learned the psalms by heart and was ordained at 15. He traveled round the countryside demonstrating the power of Christ He met the devil occupying a tree which was worshipped by the local people. He ordered the tree to come to him and it was uprooted killing 21 people in the process. He raised these from death and such was the ‘dynamis’ that went out of him he also raised the dead of a neighbouring grave-yard. Since they were unbaptised, he baptized them then reburied them. He converted a pagan king and studied in three monasteries for many years under the great monastic saints Basalota Mikael, Iyesus Moa and Yohannes of Debre Damo. Stability as propagated by St Benedict is unknown in Ethiopia. A monk may attach himself to a teacher for many years then move on to another. After three pilgrimages to the Holy Land he founded the monastery of Debre Asbo in Shoa, today known as Debre Libanos. It was here he prayed for seven years on one leg until the other dropped off and was given wings. Many miracles are recorded as the result of his prayers. Such stories raise questions about our common pre-suppositions. As children of the Enlightenment we tend to ask: did it happen? cf the quest for the historical Jesus, and the careful research of the Societe des Bollandistes in their patient weeding out of legendary material to preserve the historical elements in the lives of the saints. We need to understand these stories on their own terms not from the perspective of a modern historian (cf Fr Raymond Brown’s tongue-in-cheek reply when asked if the New Testament was true: yes, everything except the facts!).
A strong belief in the miraculous and its practice following the New Testament is seen a strong tool for evangelization. The Christian missionary has to carry conviction in a society where the exercise of magic is a normal source of power. Exorcisms and confrontations with evil spirits are seen as normal. The faith spreads by demonstrations of power as well as by catechesis. Animism is successfully challenged and the power of Christ is seen to be superior to all others. The conversion of King Matalome by St Tekle Haimanot is a symbol of the struggle with the monarchy. The monasteries were centers of influence sometimes opposed to the king and challenged the easy-going moral standards of the court. It has to be remembered that in Ethiopia for many centuries there were no city churches, bishops or councils – only monasteries.
The monastic rules followed go back to St Pachomius and St Anthony with local adaptations and are set out in the Book of the Monks and the Fethe Negast. There are three professions symbolized by the girdle or belt (kedet), the skull cap (qob) and the scapular (askema) There are hundreds of monasteries mostly smallish but with some having as many as 500 monks. Usually monasteries started as a place of retreat for the founder who then attracted followers who came to ask for prayers and for education. A modern phenomenon resulting form the loss of land after the communist take-over in 1974 has been the emergence of an urban monasticism which has led to a Sunday School movement for adults as well as children. In the big cities there were no monks at first. Now many parish staff and administrators are monks. The emergence of this was also linked with the achievement of autocephalous status and the need for a patriarchal bureaucracy. Inevitably there is a certain tension between the demands of urban life and monasticism – the word for monastery – goddam – literally means a place of solitude and quiet. As one monk put it the pure ‘tedj’ honey mead) of the rural areas is better than the watered down version available in the cities! The monks have introduced evening prayers in church which are well attended and promoted popular piety as well as being involved in catechetical teaching. Those with preaching gifts are much appreciated and long sermons are preferred in a way that those used to the sound-bite may find difficult to appreciate.
Ethiopia has the only ancient written culture in sub-Saharan Africa. Church schools are still active and there was no other education until the late 19th century. The educational system is highly complex. Clergy may seem often poorly or even shabbily dressed and may seem to be lacking in the most elementary principles of modern western education especially the sciences but that is not to say that they are uneducated. Many have spent years in disciplined study and are immensely erudite in a tradition completely foreign to western models. The educational system is also largely based on a tradition of oral culture. In contrast to a system that promotes individual creativity and independence of mind Ethiopian Orthodox education comes from a traditional society where the purpose is to fully integrate pupils into society. That is not to say that lively theological debate and discussion is excluded – far from it – and there were long periods especially of Christological controversy before the Twahido doctrine emerged as normative in the 19th century.
Education begins with the Reading School (nebab Bet) which teaches the syllabary and the reading of religious books in the Ge’ez language. Reading is aloud and the murmuring of the law of the Lord day and night that this produces would certainly win St Benedict’s approval. Then the first letter of St John is learnt by heart followed by the Psalms, the Gospels and the Miracles of Mary. The Psalms (Dawit) are most important in Ethiopian spirituality, monastic and lay. They are read or chanted aloud and memorized since few books are available even for the Liturgy. The Qidane Bet or Liturgy School teaches the deacons and priests and educates them in their liturgical functions – the Liturgy is steeped in Scripture. The aim is to produce a mind-set steeped in the Word of God.
In the Higher Schools the debteras are often the teachers – they also have a ministry of healing linked with holy water and herbal remedies and are consulted to interpret dreams.
Church music in Ethiopia goes back to St Yared in the 6th century who is said to have been influenced in his compositions by the song of the birds. It uses a pentatonic scale and while Middle Eastern in character it differs from Coptic music. There was no notation until the 16th century. It is mostly restrained and slow and in strophic and ametric form. It also includes the hymns performed by the debteras at the end of Mass and the use of drums, sistra and prayer-sticks Music is performed without any books
The Qene Bet (poetry school) teaches a highly sophisticated poetry, the fruit of long pondering on the Scriptures (= Lectio Divina) It is highly creative and requires enormous skill. It generates lively discussion about the merits of a particular composition It uses word-plays so that there is a surface meaning and a deeper hidden meaning (wax and Gold) in a way that is difficult to convey in translation. Because it requires great skill many of its practitioners attain to high positions in the Church. It takes many years to become a teacher in this field and a minimum of 12 years of full study is required for those who attend this school. Finally, the Metsehaf Bet or Literature School studies the literature of the Church and especially the Amdemta Commentaries. These are collections of the comments of the Fathers of the church mostly on the Scriptures. Again all is memorized. Only recently have these commentaries received any attention from western scholars such as Roger Cowley. The teacher comments on the texts , not critically but to expound the text in a way that puts the student under the text. It is said to take 40 years to follow the complete course!
From this it should be seen that many of the clergy are highly educated. This is a living tradition. The Coptic monastic revival in recent times has been attributed in part to an Ethiopian, Abd al -Masih el- Habashi , the teacher of the renowned Matthai el-Meskin of the monastery of St Macarius in the Wadi el-Natrun He lived in a cave there from 1935-1970 and is a modern successor of Moses the Black who was also Ethiopian.
As in Russia and Eastern Europe the Church underwent a testing time during the communist years but perhaps emerged stronger and purified as a result of the experience. Sometimes the Church could be compromised in its witness by its close relations with the state. The Church and especially the monasteries also lost their extensive land holdings though some urban property has been restored including the Theological College in Addis Ababa. The Church is popular in the best sense of the word and much loved by the ordinary people even though there may be criticism of the hierarchy. Here is an example of a truly inculturated Church with a rich monastic tradition. Whatever problems may be confronted as a result of western influence and the secularism that so often attends urbanisation, it is an Ethiopian article of faith that the psalmist’s prophecy will be fulfilled and ‘Ethiopia will continue to stretch out her hands to God’ (Psalm 68:31 ).
Dom Colin Battell