Readers may have noticed that I am reading the Life of Saint Pachomius. This is my Lenten reading this year, a choice influenced by the fact that I am going to be making my solemn profession on the feast of Saint Pachomius, 15 May. While I had read bits and pieces of secondary literature on him, and found him an attractive, if challenging, figure, I had never read the Life and this seemed a good opportunity to do so!
Pachomius is known as the founder of coebobitic (or community) monasticism, in contrast to the anchorites or hermit monks. While there is clearly a continuity with the spirit of the anchorites – and one encounters the same emphasis on Scripture, self-knowledge, and a strict asceticism that is nevertheless combined with great gentleness and care for others – the emphasis in Pachomian monasticism is on the koinōnia which is seen as imitating the lives of the apostles.
I probably won’t quote much from this work as I am reading it in Dutch and don’t have an English translation easily available. But here is an extract from Placide Deseille’s L’Évangile au Désert (Paris: Cerf, 1965) 30-31, which I translated a few years ago and therefore happen to have on computer. It provides a glimpse of this important saint who had a profound effect on later monastic developments.
Saint Pachomius is the founder of coenobitism proper. He was born to pagan parents in the region of Esuch around 290. Forcibly conscripted into the army around the age of twenty, he encountered the charity of Christians who brought food to the young recruits of his regiment. He exclaimed: “Oh God, with your help, if I am delivered from the tribulation in which I now find myself, I will serve the human race in your name.” He was soon freed, received baptism and placed himself under the instruction of an elder named Palamon. After about seven years his spiritual father died and, while he was seeking to discern the will of God, an angel appeared and revealed: “the will of God is to put oneself at the service of humanity in order to call them to himself.” Thus Pachomius, having understood as he said to himself that “the will of God in taking the concerns of others onto himself,” proceeded to gather together disciples in order to realise “this perfect community spoken of in the acts of the apostles in which the group of believers was united heart and soul; no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, as everything they owned was held in common.” (Acts 4, 32)
Gathered around Tabennesi, the first Pachomian monastery, and then around Pbow, which became the residence of the Abba General, it was not long before many branches formed a flourishing congregation that comprised up to five thousand monks. Pachomius also created a monastery of nuns. Humble of heart, he was able to combine a great firmness with a goodness and a profound humanity. A spiritual father in the fullest sense of the term he was gifted in the discernment of spirits but proved at the same time to have an extraordinary genius for organisation. Twice a year the general chapters determined the exact observances for the entire congregation. Within each monastery the monks were grouped into “houses” attached to the work that they did. In place of the individual liberty of the anchorites, the rules revealed to the holy legislator “filled with the Holy Spirit” substitute a uniform observance that, while relatively supple and full of discretion, nevertheless makes obedience the corner-stone of the monastic ascesis.