28 May 2009

'Around Him, the Monks Swarm'—St Pachomius the Great

Today, 15 May on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of our Holy Father Pachomius the Great (292-346), founder of Egyptian coenobitism. According to William Harmless, ‘His Coptic name, “Pachom” [Παϧωμ], means “king’s falcon”’ (Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism [Oxford: Oxford U, 2004], p. 118). Born to pagan parents, the stories of his youth make it clear that he was feared by the demons even before he became a Christian. St Pachomius explained this to his disciples later, saying (Armand Veilleux, trans., Pachomian Koinonia, Vol. I: The Life of St Pachomius and His Disciples [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1996], p. 26):

Do not think that the demons, who do not know the good, had me driven out of that place because they knew beforehand that I was later going to receive mercy by the true faith. Rather they saw that I hated evil even then—for God made man upright. And it was for this reason that they moved their servants to chase me out of that place. Just as anyone will say about a field that has been cleared, ‘Probably the field that has been cleared of all darnel is going to be sown with good seed.’

When he was twenty, St Pachomius was conscripted and taken down the Nile. He was detained in a prison at Luxor, according to Derwas Chitty, ‘somewhere, we may suppose, in the legionary camp which enveloped a large portion of the ancient Egyptian temple’ (The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Eygptian and Palestinian Monasticism under the Christian Empire [Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1995], p. 7). There, we are told:

In the evening some merciful Christians, hearing about them, brought them something to eat and rink and other necessities, because they were in distress. When the young man asked about this, he was told that Christians were merciful to everyone, including strangers. Again he asked what a Christian was. They told him, ‘They are men who bear the name of Christ, the only begotten Son of God, and they do good to everyone, putting their hope in Him who made heaven and earth and us men.’

Hearing of this great grace, his heart was set on fire with the fear of God and with joy. Withdrawing alone in the prison, he raised his hands to heaven in prayer and said, ‘O God, maker of heaven and earth, if you will look upon me in my lowliness, because I do not know you, the only true God, and if you will deliver me from this affliction, I will serve your will all the days of my life and, loving all men, I will be their servant according to your command.’ (Veilleux, p. 300)

Thus, as soon as the young man was discharged, he went to a church in the Upper Thebaid and received catechesis and holy Baptism. Eventually, he decided to become a monk, and spent seven years in strict asceticism as the disciple of an elder named Palamon. Aside from the physical ascesis, he practiced reciting the Scriptures for long periods of time, endeavouring ‘to cleanse his conscience perfectly to fulfil the law of God, looking to the great hope in heaven’ (p. 304). It is said, ‘When he began to read or to write by heart the words of God, he did not do this in a loose way or as many do, but worked over each thing to assimilate it all with a humble mind in gentleness and in truth’ (p. 304). In this way, the Saint was gradually prepared for the tremendous task that lay ahead of him.

While he was still young, St Pachomius was ‘led by the Spirit’ to a deserted village near the river called ‘Tabennisi’. As he prayed there, he heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Pachomius, Pachomius, struggle, dwell in this place and build a monastery; for many will come to you to become monks with you, and they will profit their souls’ (p. 39). According to the Life of St Pachomius, he returned ‘at once’ to his elder and told him about the voice. Elder Palamon heeded the words as the will of God and went to the place with St Pachomius to help him build a cell there.

Not long afterwards, Elder Palamon fell asleep in the Lord and St Pachomius was joined at his hermitage by his brother John. Then, one day, when he was gathering rushes, ‘an angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him three times, “Pachomius, Pachomius, the Lord’s will is to minister to the race of men and to unite them to himself”’ (p. 45). According to tradition, the angel also gave him two very important things (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. I: April, May, June, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 182; see the Sebastian Press trans. here):

Then an angel appeared to him in the robes of a monk of the Great Habit [Schema] at the place called Tabennisi and gave him a tablet on which was written the rule of a cenobitic monastery, commanding him to found such a monastery in that place and prophesying to him that many monks would come to it seeking the salvation of their souls.

Furthermore, according to Ivan Kontzevitch (The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit: Orthodox Ascetic Theology, Vol. I [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996], p. 96):

Tradition has it that the Lord’s Angel who gave St Pachomius his monastery’s Rule said: ‘The Rule is for those whose mind is not yet mature, so that remembering the Rule of common life, in fear before the Lord, they might attain freedom of spirit, be they even unruly slaves.’ [I have found something quite close to this statement in the Lausiac History, 32.7, here and in Veilleux, Pachomian Koinonia, Vol. II: Pachomian Chronicles and Rules [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1981], p. 127.]

It was then that St Pachomius began to build more cells and the disciples began to pour in. According to Harmless, ‘By 345, the year before Pachomius died, there were nine monasteries for men and two for women’ (p. 122). Palladius tells us that St Pachomius was ‘archimandrite of three thousand men’ in his lifetime (Veilleux, V.II, p. 123; here, at 7.6), and that the communities numbered 7,000 by Palladius’s own day (Veilleux, V.II, p. 127; here, at 32.7). In his Foreword to the Pachomian Koinonia, the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé writes, ‘Before the end of the century, the pachomian Koinonia had sister-houses in Pontus and Cappadocia, in Syria and Palestine, in Italy, Africa, and Gaul—to mention only those which are best known to us through their literary remains’ (Veilleux, V.I, p. vii). According to Peter Brown, ‘The great Pachomian monasteries were vast, impersonal places’ (The Making of Late Antiquity [NY: Barnes & Noble, 1998], p. 96).

But as Brown notes, all of these enormous communities were tightly organised around a very personal figure, the apa, St Pachomius himself, and his successors as elder, such as St Theodore. In de Vogüé’s words, ‘[T]he pachomian Koinonia had a father capable of binding it together, one who radiated the grace of fatherhood to the superiors of each monastery and each house’ (Veilleux, V.I, p. xi). Harmless calls him ‘a charismatic, Spirit-charged’ (p. 133). Peter Brown writes:

Pachomius and his successor Theodore were held to have been able to achieve, in the exemplary conditions of a great monastery, what the . . . other religious leaders of the third century had failed to achieve. They had founded and maintained an institution on a gift to search hearts. . . .

The gift, to dioratikon, was held to be the secret of Pachomius’ ability to organize and to control a landslide of conversions to the ascetic life in Upper Egypt. He was the kind of leader the monks needed: the identity of each one was transparent to him. . . . Over two thousand monks might come together, squatting on the ground at a great festival. Yet Abba Theodore would go round that crowd, stepping from one monk to another, and telling to each what each had on his mind [Epistula Ammonis 21; Veilleux, V.II, pp. 89-90]. (Brown, p. 96)

Of course, as de Vogüé has noted, ‘An abbot is nothing without a rule’ (The Rule of St Benedict: A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary, trans. John Baptist Hasbrouck [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1983], p. 73). Accordingly, we find among the Pachomian documents highly detailed legislation for organising the coenobia—here for example are two sections from the ‘Precepts’ of St Pachomius:

139. Whoever enters the monastery uninstructed shall be taught first what he must observe; and when, so taught, he has consented to it all, they shall give him twenty psalms or two of the Apostle’s epistles, or some other part of the Scripture.

And if he is illiterate, he shall go at the first, third, and sixth hours to someone who can teach and has been appointed for him. He shall stand before him and learn very studiously with all gratitude. Then the fundamentals of a syllable, the verbs, and nouns shall be written for him, and even if he does not want to, he shall be compelled to read.

140. There shall be no one whatever in the monastery who does not learn to read and does not memorize something of the Scriptures. (One should learn by heart) at least the New Testament and the Psalter.

Clearly, St Pachomius had a keen interest in detail, and the extent of his achievement was great. His monasteries attained such a unity of will that he borrowed the New Testament word κοινωνία to describe them. As St Pachomius himself is reported to have said:

In Egypt now in our generation, I see three principal things flourishing with the favor of God and man. The first is the blessed athlete, the holy Apa Athanasius, the archbishop of Alexandria who struggles for the faith even to the point of death. The second is our holy father Antony, who is the perfect model of the anchoritic life. The third is this Koinonia, which is the pattern for everyone who wants to gather souls together according to God in order to help them achieve perfection. (Veilleux, V.I, p. 192)

Peter Brown assigns the Koinonia a secular significance as well for its rôle in ‘the making of Late Antiquity’, one ‘more enduring than that of Constantine’ (p. 80). But as de Vogüé concludes his Foreword:

The rules and traditions, organization and hierarchy, monasteries and congregation all disappeared, and the faint literary or institutional traces of Pachomianism left to the monastic world—particularly in the latin West—would of themselves constitute only a pitiable survival. But in truth, the Koinonia of the sons of Pachomius has not ceased to exist. It is found wherever brothers gather together in the love of Christ to live in total sharing, perfect charity, and the renunciation of self-will ‘under a rule and a father’. (Veilleux, V.I, p. xxiii)

I myself have previously discussed some of the Pachomian materials in this post; and although there is only a passing reference to St Pachomius by name, I recommend this post at Sr Macrina's A vow of conversation where she discusses some issues in de Vogüé that are relevant to my observations here about the Koinonia, and which in fact inspired some of the emphases of this post. In conclusion, I offer two more things. First, a brief, edifying excerpt from the writings of St Pachomius himself (Pach. Instr. I; Armand Veilleux, trans., Pachomian Koinonia, Vol. III: Instructions, Letters, and Other Writings of St Pachomius and His Disciples [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1982], pp. 20-1):

21. My son, be merciful in all things, for it is written, Strive to be presented to God as having come through trial, like a workman who fears no shame (2 Tm 2:15). Approach God as one who sows and reaps, and into your granary you will gather God’s goods. Do not pray with much show, in the manner of hypocrites, but give up your whims and do what you do for God, acting thus for your own salvation. If a passion arouses you, whether it is love of money, jealousy, or hatred and the other passions, watch out, have the heart of a lion (2 S 17:10), a strong heart. Fight against them, make them disappear like Sihon, Og, and all the kings of the Amorites. May the beloved Son, the Only-begotten, Jesus the king, fight for you, and may you inherit enemy towns. Still, toss all pride far from your side, and be valiant. Look: when Joshua (son) of Nun was valiant, God delivered his enemies into his hands. If you are fainthearted, you become a stranger to the law of God. Faintheartedness fills you with pretexts for laziness, mistrust, and negligence, until you are destroyed. Be lion-hearted and shout, you as well, Who can separate us from the love of God (Rm 8:35)? And say, Though my outer self may dissolve, still my inner self is renewed from day to day (2 Co 4:16).

Second, the first four lines of the ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St Pachomius found in the Prologue:

With the Spirit of God, Pachomius burns,
With the angels, Pachomius speaks.
Around him, the monks swarm
All like candles, they stand before God.

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