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A Skete (from Coptic ϣⲓ(ϩ)ⲏⲧ via Gk. Σκήτη), is a monastic style community that allows relative isolation for monks, but also allows for communal services and the safety of shared resources and protection. It is one of three early monastic orders along with eremitic and coenobitic that became popular during the early formation of the Christian Church.
Skete communities usually consist of a number of small cells or caves that act as the living quarters with a centralized church or chapel. These communities are thought of as a bridge between strict hermetic lifestyle and communal lifestyles since it was a blend of the two. These communities were a direct response to the ascetic lifestyle that early Christians aspired to live. Skete communities were often a bridge to a stricter form of hermitage or to martyrdom. The term Skete is most likely a reference to the Scetis valley region of Egypt where Skete communities first appear, but a few scholars have argued that it instead is a stylized spelling of the word ascetic.
Early history 
It is impossible to talk about the earliest Skete communities without touching briefly on the early days of monasticism itself. The earliest monks were simply men who fled civilization to lead an ascetic lifestyle alone in the desert. Early desert ascetics have been chronicled as far back as the writings of Eusebius In his book Church history or Ecclesiastical History, he writes of early desert fathers who left civilization behind to wander the desert, eventually drawing a following and settling down into monastic communities. The problem with these earliest writings is that no distinction is made between those who fled civilization for ascetic reasons, and those who fled to avoid persecution. Another problem is that early accounts of monastic life are greatly exaggerated leading some scholars to calculate that if these reports were taken at face value the monasteries were larger than the entire populations of the countries where they were founded. The only thing that is absolutely certain from these early writings is that some early religious figures did flee to the seclusion of the desert while others had a legitimate calling.
Whether fleeing persecution or fleeing civilization the monks who retreated to the Scetis valley in Egypt eventually began to draw followers. The problem with followers is that if you are seeking solitude drawing a crowd defeats the purpose. Early communities began forming with the monks building small one or two room cells or occupying caves. Eventually these small communities would draw more people and led to the need for simple communal infrastructure. The monks would work together to build a communal church then retreat back to the solitude of their cells or caves to embrace the hermetic (at least partial) and ascetic lifestyle. After building a communal church they could gather for weekly mass and or the Eucharist.
Locations of the earliest Skete Monasteries 
The Scetis valley in Egypt (Now known as the Wadi al-Natrun) is twenty-two miles long and lies west of the Nile River in the Libyan Desert. The name Scetis comes from the Coptic word Shi-het and the translation is “to weigh the heart”. The valley lies slightly below sea level and is dotted with oases and marshes. Despite the low elevation and water resources Scetis valley was a dangerous place and early writings are replete with travelers who went astray and died trying to cross it.
The monasteries of the Scetis valley were not the large centralized communities that would come to define monasteries in the Middle Ages. Instead the Scetis monasteries should be thought of as a collection of hermits who for the most part lived separately, but would come together for weekly prayer, and holy holidays. These small cells could be close together or widely scattered making exact locations of these earliest dwelling hard to pin point. Later when major buildings or towers are erected the locations become easier to find, but the original locations of the early monks become even harder to know with perfect certainty. Modern scholars now estimate the most famous of these monasteries, the Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great to be roughly 92 kilometers North West of Cairo.
Notable early Skete leader Saint Macarius 
St Macarius was born into a middle-class family in upper Egypt in the year 300. His father was a camel driver and merchant. His early desert excursions with his father are how he came to know the Scetis valley. When his parents arranged a marriage for him he feigned an illness and retreated to the desert to contemplate what to do. When he returned he found that his fiancé had died. Soon after his parents also died and he gave all the money he had to the poor.
Seeing his piety the bishop of Ashmoun and he was ordained a priest. Later he was accused by a village woman of impregnating her. He did not defend himself, but the women had a difficult labor and did not deliver until she confessed that Macarius was not the father. Following this incident he fled to the Scetis valley to live as a desert hermit.
Soon he began to draw followers and sought the advice of Saint Anthony, who inspired him to become a teacher and found a monastic community. That monastic community reflected Macarius’s own thoughts on the need for solitude and contemplation and allowed monks to live for the most part separated from one another, coming together when needed for mass on the weekends and in times of trouble.
He was exiled to an island in the Nile along with Saint Macarius of Alexandria by emperor Valens over a dispute over the Nicene creed. This was short lived and he returned to his monastery where he lived until the time of his death in 391. After his death his body was stolen and brought to his home village of Shabsheer, but his remains were later taken back to the Monastery of Saint Macarius in the Scetis where they remain to this day.
Daily life in early Skete monasteries 
The Skete monastery system is thought of as a middle path of monastic life because it is a middle ground between extreme isolation that is exemplified by the anchorite eremitic lifestyle, and it is less communal then coenobitic monastic system.
In the early days of the Skete monasteries there was usually a central house for communion and weekend mass, but the monks did not live there. Instead they lived in small cells, constructed by themselves or by a communal effort with one monk bringing bricks, another mortar, another bringing water and so forth. Such a building would usually consist of two rooms, front room for work, sleep, and receiving visitors, and another room for prayer and contemplation. Some early church leader complained that some monks built larger than necessary cells, some as big four or five rooms. Saint Macarius cell was said to be two small rooms, but it was rumored he had a small tunnel dug in the back that led to a cave where he could escape from the throng of masses that came to visit him. Another style of cell was to dig into the sides of rock walls to create small two room caves. These dwellings resembled the cave dwellings of the Pueblo Indians. Still others would be simple huts of mud and brick built against cliff walls so the back room was the side of the cliff. The high walls and complex buildings that look more like fortresses then monasteries come much later.
The furnishings for some of these simple cells would consist of a mat and sometimes a simple woven stool called an embrimia. Some would have doors and shelves for storing books or valuables. By day the monk would do his day labor in the front chamber sitting on his mat, and at night he would pray on his embrimia, and perhaps use it as a pillow. Some of these cells could be very elaborately furnished with fine furniture and even a courtyard. These more worldly cells were the outliers; the vast majority were simple one- and two-room cells with the humblest of possessions inside.
Daily life during the week consisted of the monks working and praying. It is difficult to be exact as to what sort of daily routine was most common because it seems the monks had some freedom in choosing how to spend their time during the week, and also because almost all monks worked and sometimes these day jobs would be seasonal, or occasionally make it necessary to meet with merchants (i.e.: basket weaving or rope making). Typically monks would wake at midnight (or there about) and pray the night office, then meditate till dawn. They did not recite the rest of the offices of the day but instead worked their manual labor while meditating, mixing the menial with the spiritual. During the ninth hour, close to 3 the monks would eat their one meal of the day which usually consisted of two small loaves of bread called paxamatia which together were often less than one pound. These loaves could be stored for long stretches of time. They could be soaked in water to be made softer and seasoned for taste, but few monks had access to resources beyond a bit of salt and perhaps occasionally olive oil. Records show there were some vegetables such as beans and lentils and even occasionally grapes and fruit, but these were usually reserved for guests or for sick monks in need. Even though this diet seems strict in the extreme it is not terribly different from what the average Egyptian ate. At sunset the monks would celebrate the vespers and would go to sleep shortly after sunset. This cycle was only disturbed for holy days, weekend mass and if their manual labor made change necessary.
On Saturday and Sunday the monks would gather at their communal church. At these gathering the monks would pray together, with one monk leading and the rest chanting back the offices of the day. Next would be a reading from the New Testament (some sources say one some say two) and additional readings. The monks would celebrate the Eucharist on both Saturday and Sunday. The time of the Saturday Eucharist is not clear but Sundays occurred at the third hour (at or close to 9 o clock). They would sit together for a communal meal on Sunday called agape. This meal consisted of bread wine and their one cooked meal of the week. These gathering were a time for social interaction and connect with their fellow monks. At the end of the meal they would pick up their supplies for the week including food and materials needed for their day labor and return to their cells.
Political hierarchy 
Because of the nature of the Skete style monastic system political hierarchy in the earliest days the monasteries were not necessary. Most monks worked and prayed alone all week and only gathered on the weekends for group prayers and the Eucharist. New monks would often attach themselves to older monks (called an Abba) to learn the basics of monastic life and if needed a skill for their day job such as basket weaving or rope making. Some monks would gather a large cluster of monks around him as his disciples. How these small grouped worked is unknown but many disciples followed their leader monks until they died.
After the death of Macarius in 390 four distinct congregations formed in the Scetis valley. These four congregations had their own church, kitchens and served the monks living in the cells around these central structures. These congregations had their own monk/priests who were in charge of the weekly Eucharist and in organizing the new monks as they joined the community.
For larger matters some of these congregations formed councils that acted in judicial matters even wielding the power of excommunication in extreme cases. Eventually these monk/priests would become known as a “Father of Scetis”. These men would be responsible for their congregations and it would become customary for them to report to the patriarch of Alexandria.
Economies of the early Skete communities 
As we have already stated monks labored almost continually in their small cells as a type of both labor to make money for the monastery and as type of daily meditation. Two of the most common skills employed by the monks were rope making and basket weaving. Even Macarius the Great, founder of Egyptian monasticism was a skilled basket weaver who trained other monks how to weave. The reason for the prevalence of these two jobs was that there were numerous marshes around the Scetis valley to provide the raw materials. The monks would either take their finished products to the church on the weekends to be sold, or sell them to camel caravans when they passed by their cells. The Apophthegmata Patrum mentions other jobs monks carried out such as copyists. Many monks including early church leaders such as Macarius the Great and John the Dwarf worked as day laborers at local farms during the harvest season. These labors served two purposes; they provided the monks with the means for survival in the desert where food and supplies are not easily available. They also were a kind of manual meditation that gave the monks time to both work and reflect on the scriptures.
Church controversies in early Skete communities 
The early church was fraught with controversies that bitterly divided many cities and even congregations. The earliest monasteries of the Scetis valley predate many of these early church schisms and because of their isolation and because most of the monks spent so much time in isolation these church problems were slow to affect them. For example during the great persecution of Christians under Emperor Decius many early Christians fled to the desert to the monasteries, but the long arm of Rome did not extend very deeply into the Scetis valley. The creation of Martyrs during this time influences the way the Skete monks are perceived because the extreme asceticism of the lifestyle lead many to believe the monks to be living Martyrs.
Later during what will become known as the Melitian Schism when the church becomes divided in Alexandria over who is the rightful bishop, local monastery around Alexandria will choose sides enter the fray, but Scetis monasteries only mention the problems in passing. The isolation of the desert and the of the monks themselves kept many of the bitterest church controversies at bay.
As mentioned earlier Saint Macarius was briefly exiled to an island in the Nile river over a disagreement concerning the Nicean Creed, but the exile was short lived and he soon returned to his monastery.
The Skete monastic style of monasticism fell out of favor with the church at the beginning of the Middle Ages. This is due mostly to the need for relative safety that more traditional cenobite communities offered. Skete monasteries still exist, and the monastery of Saint Macarius the Great still stands and has a thriving Skete community.
See also 
- “The Coptic monasteries of the Wadi Natrum”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol 6, No. 2, (Feb, 1911) 19-20.
- El-Meskeen, Matta, Coptic Monasticism & The Monastery of St. Macarius A Short history, Printed in the Monastery of St.Macarius, Cairo, 2001.
- Russell, Norman, The Lives of the Desert Fathers, Cistercian Publications: Kalamazoo, 1981 (this work is a collection of sayings that were gathered in the 6th century).
- Russell, Dorthea, Medieval Cairo and the Monasteries of the Wadi Natrum A Historical Guide, Thomas Nelson and Sons, New York, 1963.
- Ward, Benedicta, The Saying of the Desert Fathers, Cistercian Publications, Oxford, 1975 (It should be noted that this work is a collection of sayings that were gathered in the 6th century).
- Harmless, William, Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism, Oxford university Press, Oxford, 2004 169-181.
- Goehring, James. Ascetics, Society and the Desert: Studies in Early Egyptian Monasticism, Trinity Press International, Harrisburg, 1999, 19.