Saint Isidora of Tabenna Monastery

Saint Isidora of Tabenna Monastery


Very little is known about this monastic who chose the role of Fool for Christ, except that if she existed at all, she was one of the earliest recognized Fools in our history.

She is said to have lived at the Tabenna monastery in Egypt. Tabenna, or Tabennesi, was the original monastery established by St. Pachomius sometime after 325 AD. Until his coming, monastics had lived alone, in what came to be known as eremitic monasticism. The hermits, or anchorites pursued a rule they devised (or that God gave them), each one different and each one alone. Perhaps the most famous anchorite was St. Anthony of Egypt, who lived alone for most of his life, struggling to grow closer to God.

Often, small groups of monks would gather in the same area for companionship and worship, but unless they were disciples of one of the monks, their ways of living were particular to them. St. Pachomius realized that if monastics lived in common, sharing work, food, and worship as well as the same rule of life, there would be less chance of them being overwhelmed by the demands of the life they’d chosen, and more support for them in their spiritual struggles. He, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and his elder Palamon, traveled to Tabennesi, north of Thebes and established his monastery. It wasn’t long before more and more monks heard of him and joined him at the place.

His sister, Maria, set up a women’s monastery near her brother’s and with his help, organized and ran what may have been the first full cenobitic (community) monastery for women in Egypt.

It isn’t known when Isidora was born, precisely, although most accounts say she lived during either the fourth or the fifth century AD, nor is it known how old she was when she became a monastic. We know that she arrived at Tabenna and was accepted into Maria’s monastery, and was tonsured. At some point, she began acting as if she were insane, or had become a demoniac, as some accounts relate, and refused to eat with the other women. There was little patience for her behaviour, and the mothers treated her with derision and contempt, even, it’s said, beating her for the way she behaved. They assigned her the lowliest, dirtiest, and most difficult tasks in the place, and she took them all on cheerfully, never, tradition tells us, complaining about the work or her treatment, and responding to all the mothers with charity and kindness. She worked in the kitchen, and wore an old dishrag on her head. Instead of food, she drank the dirty dishwater, and she kept the kitchen spotless.

We don’t know how long she might have continued at the monastery, because a monk, known in these accounts as St. Pitrim, arrived one day at the monastery with a remarkable tale. He said that he had been in his cell, praying as usual, when an angel appeared to him and told him to travel to the Tabenna monastery and seek out the nun with the rag on her head. The angel also told him that this woman’s thoughts rested always with God, no matter where she went, what she was doing, or how she was treated, and that Pitrim should learn from her, since, even though he stayed put in his cell, his thoughts wandered all over the world! He was to ask her blessing and learn from her.

Obedient, he set off, and once he’d arrived and told his tale, the abbess introduced him to all the mothers, but none of them was the one he was seeking. Finally, they took him into the kitchen, where, sure enough, there was Isidora, with the rag on her head, doing the chores she’d been assigned. When she saw him, she fell at his feet, asking for his blessing, but he bowed to the ground before her and asked for hers. Needless to say, the monastic women were amazed by this, and, in some accounts, by the crown that appeared over her head. They repented of their treatment of her, and asked for her forgiveness. She gave it, but within a few days had disappeared from the monastery, presumably to avoid the temptation of pride that she was afraid her new-found fame would bring.

No one knows what happened to her, although it’s believed that she died sometime around 365 AD.

Svitlana Kobets, Foolishnes in Christ: East vs. West

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network. You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+

About author

Bev Cooke

Bev. Cooke has been writing for publication since 1989. Her first love is writing for young adults, and she has three YA books on the market: Keeper of the Light, a historical fiction about St. Macrina the Elder in 2006. Royal Monastic, a biography of Mother Alexander (Princess Ileana of Romania), also published by Conciliar came out in 2008. Feral, an edgy mainstream novel was released by Orca Book Publishers in 2008. Her latest publication is a departure from her regular work - an Akathist to St. Mary of Egypt, published by Alexander Press in 2010, which was written partly as a response to the seventy missing women from downtown Vancouver's east side, and as a plea to St. Mary of Egypt to pray for those women, and the men and women who live on the streets.

Bev. and her husband live in Victoria, BC where they enjoy two seasons: wet and road construction. They have two adult children, two cats and attend All Saints of Alaska parish.

Bev's very out of date webpage is and her blog is It's a little more up to date than the webpage. Bev is planning to blog more and update her webpage very soon, so keep checking back to them and be sure to "Like" her FB page: Bev. Cooke, writer.