The Eremitic Charism

Religious consecration is expressed and realised through the profession of the three evangelical counsels – chastity, poverty and obedience – and has the “duty of making somehow present the way of life which Jesus himself chose and indicated as an absolute eschatological value.” (John Paul II, Vita Consacrata, 29).  Consecrated persons remind all the baptised who, whilst not explicitly called to effectively and materially live the evangelical counsels, must nevertheless embrace them both emotionally and spiritually (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:29-31), knowing that it is the best form of life, as it is the one who has chosen Christ and that it will be the condition of all in eternal beatitude..

But the fame of him went abroad the more, and great multitudes came together to hear, and to be healed by him of their infirmities.  And he retired into the desert, and prayed. (Luke 5:15-16).

Very many great saints avoided the company of men wherever possible and chose to serve God in retirement.  (The Imitation of Christ Book I, Ch. 20).


In this teaching we will try to illuminate the specific elements of eremitical life:

    1. In part one – we will review the various forms of Christian consecration.
    2. In part two – we will specify the various forms of religious consecration.
    3. In part three – we will study the ecclesial texts on the eremitical life.
    4. In part four – we will present the particular charism of urban eremitism.


A. The Baptismal Consecration

All Christians, thanks to Baptism, are consecrated to the Father by Christ, through the Holy Spirit:

For every high priest taken from among men (cf. Hebrews 5:1-5), is ordained for men in

Baptism of Jesus

the things that appertain to God,and hath made us a kingdom, and priests to God and his Father” (Revelations 1:6; cf. 5:9-10). The fact the baptised are consecrated by rebirth and by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, to be a spiritual home and a holy priesthood, and thus be able to offer in spiritual sacrifice all the human activities of the Christian, and announce the wonders of him who from the darkness He has called them into his marvellous light (cf. 1 Pt 2, 4-10)” (II Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, 10). Baptismal consecration enables Christians to live as children of God, exercising the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.


B. The priestly consecration

At the Last Supper, in conjunction with the Eucharist Christ instituted the ministerial priesthood:

During the Last Supper, Christ entrusted this sacrifice to the Church – the sacrifice of the new and eternal Covenant – as a Eucharist: the Sacrament of his Body and his Blood

Presbyteral Consecration


under the species of bread and wine “in the manner of Melchizedek” (Psalms 110:4; cf. Hebrews 7:17). When he said to the Apostles: “Do this for a commemoration of me (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24) He commissions the ministers of this particular sacrament within the Church, which must be continued for all time, renewing and implementing the sacrifice He had offered for the redemption of the world, and these same ministers He orders to operate – by virtue of their sacramental priesthood – in his stead: “in persona Christi” (Letter of the Holy Father Pope John Paul II To Priests for Holy Thursday 1985).


The priestly consecration enables some Christians to serve the people of God with the love of Christ the Good Shepherd, in whose name we proclaim the Gospel, celebrate the sacraments and guide communities.

“The laying on of hands by the bishop, with the consecratory prayer, constitutes the visible sign of this ordination.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1538).

C. The Religious consecration

The lay faithful have as their specific but not exclusive characteristic, activity in the world; the clergy, ministry; consecrated men and women, “special conformity to Christ, chaste, poor and obedient.” (John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, 31). “This call is accompanied,

Consecration of a Virgin

moreover, by a specific gift of the Holy Spirit, so that consecrated persons can respond to their vocation and mission.  For this reason, as the liturgies of the East and West testify in the rite of monastic or religious profession and in the consecration of virgins, the Church invokes the gift of the Holy Spirit upon those who have been chosen and joins their oblation to the sacrifice of Christ.” (John Paul II, Vita Consacrata, 30).


Religious consecration is expressed and realised through the profession of the three evangelical counsels – chastity, poverty and obedience – and has the “duty of making somehow present the way of life which Jesus himself chose and indicated as an absolute eschatological value.” (John Paul II, Vita Consacrata, 29).  Consecrated persons remind all the baptised who, whilst not explicitly called to effectively and materially live the evangelical counsels, must nevertheless embrace them both emotionally and spiritually (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:29-31), knowing that it is the best form of life, as it is the one who has chosen Christ and that it will be the condition of all in eternal beatitude..


By simplifying one can classify the various forms of “special consecration” having the experience of Christ as a guideline (A: Christological classification), or by way of assuming profession through the counsels of the Church (B: Canonical classification).

A. Christological classification

The form of life embraced by Christ was lived by Him in divine perfection, so those who follow in his footsteps through a special consecration can imitate only one aspect; this explains the great variety of charisms, which are the origins of the forms of consecrated life “in the strictest sense”.  We can group the variety of charisms into three great scions:

1. The contemplative consecrated life:

a.  This form of consecrated life imitates and represents Christ, who retires to pray in solitude.

b.  It gives pre-eminence to the relationship with God, and in organising one’s daily life as a direct function of the meeting Him in solitude, in silence and prayer (Sacred liturgy and prayer).

c.    Comprising:

  i.  Religious Communities (Benedictines, Camaldolese, Carmelites, Carthusians, Clares).

ii.  Hermits.

2.    The active or Apostolic consecrated life

a.  This form of consecrated life imitates and represents Christ, which inaugurates the Kingdom of God with his public ministry with preaching the Gospel, of liberation from evil and healing from disease.

b.  It gives a place of importance to the direct relationship with our neighbour, in order to serve them in their spiritual needs (education, evangelisation) and their corporal (poverty and sickness).

c.  Comprising:

  i.  Community Religious (e.g.: Camillians, Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans, Salesians, Comboni Missionaries and the Canossians, etc.).

ii.  Consecrated Virgins.

3.  The secular consecrated life

a.  This form of consecrated life imitates and represents Christ who shares in all (particularly the humble and ordinary thirty years of His life in Nazareth) the condition of life of His contemporaries, working for the salvation of the world in an unseen manner (such as yeast leavening in dough) doing every single thing in filial communion with the Father’s will.

b.  Establishes to live in the various activities of the world, with the goal (assumed with faith and love, but without publicly declaring their specific consecration) to guide them according to the will of God and in the evangelical spirit.

 c.   Those who embrace it live at the same time:

      i.  Community aspects:

–   They are placed in Institutes with regular meetings for training, sharing and decision-making;

       –    They have daily contacts in their work environment;

     –    They can live in fraternities or with a family (where no one, however, will know that they are consecrated persons).

   ii.  Solitary aspects:

    –  They do not ordinarily share in the daily prayers and fraternal life of the members of their own Institute;

    –  They can live alone.

B. Canonical classification

Code of Canon Law

Since the life of special consecration belongs to the Church as a constitutive and precious reality, the Pastors have established some norms to favour authenticity and stability; these norms are gathered in the Code of Canon Law, Book II (the People of God), Part III: Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (canons 573746).


Starting from the canonical norms we can classify the various forms of consecrated life considering


a.  The method of adopting the evangelical counsels; from this perspective we can discern:

i. Religious Institutes, in which the three evangelical counsels are decide on by public votes.

ii.  Secular Institutes, in which the three evangelical counsels are taken with votes that remain reserved.

iii.  The consecrated Virgins, who publicly assume only the vow of chastity.

iv.  Societies of apostolic life, in which the evangelical counsels are not generally adopted by votes.

b.  Relations between consecrated persons; from this point of view we can distinguish those who live:

i.  In brotherhood, as in religious Institutes of active life and in Societies of apostolic life.

ii.  In community, reserving spaces and times appropriate to solitude, as in religious institutes of contemplative life.

iii.  In solitude, separated from the world and from other solitary (hermits in the strictest sense of the word).

c.  The ecclesiastical authority competent in admitting consecrated persons; from this point of view we can distinguish the forms of consecrated life by right:

i.  Diocesan, when they are recognised by the diocesan Bishop (Religious institutes at the beginning of their experience or small in numbers; Consecrated Virgins; Hermits).

ii.  Pontifical, when recognised by the Apostolic See (Religious institutes whose charism leads them to operate beyond the boundaries of the Diocese, and who are numerically important).

Live in Solitude


Hermits are consecrated persons who have a contemplative charism, who live in solitude (both with regard to the world and with respect to other hermits) and who take the three evangelical counsels by professing them publicly in the hands of the diocesan Bishop.


The Magisterium of the Church offers us the following three texts on the eremitic life.  Code of Canon Law, can. 603 – (January 25, 1983)

§1. In addition to institutes of consecrated life, the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through a stricter withdrawal from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance..

§2. A hermit is recognized by law as one dedicated to God in consecrated life if he or she publicly professes in the hands of the diocesan bishop the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by vow or other sacred bond, and observes a proper program of living under his direction..

Catechism of the Catholic Church, pt. I., sec. II., ch. III., n. 921. (October 11, 1992).

921. They manifest to everyone the interior aspect of the mystery of the Church, that is, personal intimacy with Christ. Hidden from the eyes of men, the life of the hermit is a silent preaching of the Lord, to whom he has surrendered his life simply because he is everything to him. Here is a particular call to find in the desert, in the thick of spiritual battle, the glory of the Crucified One..

John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, nos. 7 and 42 – (March 25, 1996)

7. Men and women hermits, belonging to ancient Orders or new Institutes, or being directly dependent on the Bishop, bear witness to the passing nature of the present age by their inward and outward separation from the world. By fasting and penance, they show that man does not live by bread alone but by the word of God (cf. Matthew 4:4).

Such a life “in the desert” is an invitation to their contemporaries and to the ecclesial community itself never to lose sight of the supreme vocation, which is to be always with the Lord.

42. […] Hermits, in their profound solitude, do not withdraw from ecclesial communion but serve that communion by their specific charism of contemplation..

From these ecclesial texts, which proffer both an instruction and a rule, we can draw a profile of the eremitic charism, i. considered in the particular commentary, ii. in its ecclesial relationship and iii. in its spirituality.


a.  For a consecrated person to be a hermit, he must live “through a stricter withdrawal from the world“ (can. 603 §1). This separation makes  this particular exterior solitude possible, which implies detachment from creatures and hidden from the eyes of men: it is the “desert” of the Catechism n. 921.  External solitude favours external silence..

monastic seclusion
Monastic detachment

b.  Exterior silence supports inner silence, that is the contemplation and peace that derive from detachment (not thinking about it, not worrying, not desiring) from creatures; this separation cannot and must not be absolute (we have need of others and this is also true for hermits that the heart of Christian life is the love of God, verified with the love for our neighbour), but if it is not an effectual detachment, then there is no eremitic life.

c.  Interior silence facilitates the reciprocity of love with the Lord, which is the vocation of every Christian (cf. Ephesians 1:4-5), but the hermit must do so  progressively:

  • profound: is the “personal intimacy with Christ” of which the Catechism speaks, n. 921;
  • exclusive: “because He is everything for him” (Catechism n. 921); the hermit together with his vocation receives a particular grace which enables a maturity in divine love by withdrawing from human affairs as much as possible and to immerse oneself totally in the relationship with God in Christ;
  • continuous: this continuity is indicated “to be always with the Lord” in Consecrated Life n. 7 and in “continuous prayer” in canon 603 §1. .

From the relationship of love with the Lord Jesus, which inserts us into His Mystical Body, which is the Church, the hermit therefore obtains the necessary ecclesial relationship.


Public profession of a hermit

a.  The hermit receives everything that enables him to be a disciple of Christ from the Church: the proclamation of the Gospel, the grace of the Sacraments, the service of the Pastors who guide him in the truth and in the will of God and a reciprocal edification of mutual love within the Communion of Saints.


b.  From the Church the hermit receives the authoritative instruction to enable him to live his particular vocation authentically (cfr. three specific ecclesial texts mentioned above, together with all the fundamental indicators that are given for each form of consecrated life).

c.  The hermit receives from the Bishop of his local Church (Diocese):

  • the last discernment of his vocation;
  • the approval of his Rule of Life (canon 603 §2);
  • the possibility of publicly professing the three evangelical counsels into his hands (canon 603 §2);
  • the possibility of living in obedience, and having him as a legitimate Superior (canon 603 §2).

d.  The hermit donates to the Church:

  • the spiritual service of intercession incorporating prayer (similar to Moses on the mountain) and sacrifice (similar to Christ on the Cross);
  • a testimony of the priority of the love for God and of the “temporary nature of our current times” (Vita Consecrata, no. 7).


Celtic Cross - spirituality
Celtic Cross – Early Celtic Christianity had a very clear concept of Spirituality

a.  The hermit believes that love received from God and given back to Him is the supreme vocation of man.  He believes that only in a relationship with Christ can this vocation be fulfilled.


b.  The hermit accepts the need to be separated from the world as a mysterious initiative from God, trusting that with his vocation He gives the necessary help.  He believes that Christ “satisfies” his transformation into being a saint in love; he is confident that becoming increasingly holy gives conjointly to the Church and world, a help that is incalculable.

c.  The hermit bravely embraces the mortifications that are tied to his vocation (penances established by the Rule and unforeseen penances), knowing that he has to combat relentlessly denying his self admiration, therefore like Jesus and Mary becoming a absolute filial “Yes” with the love of the Father.

d.  The hermit remains ever vigilant to be humble (in his life everything is a gift where nothing is acquired once forever), faithful (obedience to the Rule is the surest way to persevere in God’s will) and grateful (even when the way it is narrow, God  has reserved the best part for him: Luke 10:42, a most magnificent inheritance: Psalms 15:6).



At first sight the hermit’s life and the city seem to be self-contradictory, for the simple

Florence a city with urban hermits.

reason, that a city is composed of many people who live together, whilst a hermit is called to live in solitude.


In reality solitude is also possible in a city because:

  • many people do live alone (32% of housing stock in the Canterbury Kent area are single occupancy); this may be by choice (young people who leave the parental home to be self-sufficient) or by necessity (separated or divorced people, the elderly);
  • being immersed in a crowd can produces the experience of anonymity: people who intersect each other have no name and mostly do not forge personal relationships, even when an exchange of information or services occurs.

The hermit can live alone in the city because:

  • they can find sufficiently quiet self contained accommodation;
  • they can limit their “outings” to the strictly necessary (especially with online shopping using companies like amazon etc.);
  • they can go quite inconspicuously through a crowd (“relatively” but not entirely, due to their dress, nevertheless most people are mostly in a hurry and are concerned about their own affairs).

It is clear, however, that the city is not the best place for a hermit because:

  • it is not possible to enjoy complete silence;
  • There are several circumstances for distractions or interruptions;
  • there is a need to take into account additional stress because:
  • i.the possibilities of getting around are reduced because of the need for solitude;

ii.  lack of beneficial contact (for body and soul) with nature.


Since the city is not the ideal environment for eremitic life, why do some hermits choose to live in the city?

To this question we can apply two answers:

1. From a personal point of view, a hermit chooses the path to live in the city het recognises that this is God’s will for him.

2. From a design point of view in that Divine Providence is realising for the salvation of all men, we can surmise that the good Lord places hermits right inside a city for:

  • to remind men, who are so often absorbed by earthly and material things, that the greater gain in life (Matthew 16:26) is to fashion a love story with God, a love story:
  • to which the hermit dedicates his total existence;
  • that, alone, it will allow him to authentically love his neighbour;
  • to witness to the disciples of the Lord and to all those who seek God, that solitude and silence:

i.  are necessary for the interior life and for the prayer of everyone;

ii.  that it is also possible in a city, dependant upon the particular circumstances of each individual;

iii.  to suggest that purely out of necessity solitude can become a way of peace, communion and productiveness, if lived in the intimate friendship with Christ;

iv.  stand before God, with continuous tenaciously in prayer and sacrifice, interceding for the benefit of all (Psalms 105:23; Code of Canon Law, can. 603 §1).


The eremitical life in the city, although difficult, is possible:

The Venia is performed as a mark of humility
Venia is performed as a sign of humility

1. Because the good Lord through our vocation always gives us the grace to bring to fruition.

2. Expand on a Rule of Life (Code of Canon Law, can. 603 §2) with the consensus of the diocesan Bishop, who for the hermit becomes the ecclesial reference point, both for discernment and for any obedientiary restrictions.


3. Cultivating the “separation from the world” by means of:

  • a solitary dwelling;
  • the predisposition to concentrate the necessary egress throughout one half of the day, morning or afternoon;
  • of an entire day in the desert once a week;
  • a vigilant economy regarding meetings, relationships with family members, using the telephone, radio, newspapers and computer (for work) and not having television.




Plan of the Sceilig Mhór Lavra or Hermitages. Drawing by J.R. Allen (1881) .

The Lavra or Laura were clusters of anchoritic cells or caves, inhabited by monks who, although living alone, gathered as disciples around the figure of an Elder, to regularly share experiences and prayer, especially the solemn liturgy of Saturday and Sunday. The term laura in Greek (Λαύρα ) means “narrow lane or alley” and was chosen based on the network of paths that connected the the individual cells of the hermits with one another to a central community site with a church and a refectory at its center.



The Lavra, whilst respecting the specific aspects of the eremitic vocation, offers the hermits who adhere to it:

1. moments of community prayer and Lectio Divina;

2. an organic path of doctrinal and spiritual formation;

3. a simple, regular and concrete opportunity for fraternal sharing;

4. mutual economic support.


Since every hermit has made a vow of obedience to the diocesan bishop, it is up to them to approve the constitution of Lavra and to watch over the activities.  Owing to the fact that “separation” is the specific charism of a hermit, association with the Lavra must not lead to any canonical constraint, not even for a simple association of the faithful.


Recommended Reading:

The Eremitic Life Paperback – 1 Jun 2006

In Praise of Hiddenness Paperback – 1 Jun 2006

Silence Paperback – 15 Dec 2010

When Silence Speaks: The Spiritual Way of the Carthusian Order Paperback – 21 Aug 2015

Book Review: Sun Dancing – Geoffrey Moorhouse

Sun Dancing: Life in a Medieval Irish Monastery and How Celtic Spirituality Influenced the World

Subject: Monastic and religious life–Middle Ages, Celts, Monastic and religious life, Middle Ages, Civilization, Skellig Michael (Monastery : Ireland).

“As I climbed the path winding up to the ancient constructions near the top of the cliff, I sensed that I was on the threshold of something utterly unique, though I was by no means a stranger to monasteries, which I had visited throughout Europe, and even farther afield at one time and another.  But nothing in my experience had prepared me for this huddle of domes, crouching halfway to heaven in this all but inaccessible place, with an intimidating immensity of space all around, where it was easy to feel that you had reached a limit of this world.  A holy place, to be sure, which would still have been so, even if it had never known the consecrated life of prayer.”  From the Author’s Notes – Sun Dancing Copyright © 1997 Geoffrey Moorhouse. All Rights Reserved

This is a Secular History; and as such must be read with spiritual rationality.

The Hibernian Monks of the Middle Ages are credited with saving Western civilisation.  So what is known of their everyday lives? The spiritual struggles? Their achievements? Or the inconceivable physical travails that they underwent?

Sun Dancing‘s is an insightful chronicle that express an exceptionally powerful regimen of cenobitic life, it elucidates upon one of the most arcane but seminal epoch of the Celtic narrative.

Sun Dancing makes manifest the sedulousness and devotion for God of the Hibernian Monks from 1430 years ago.  Their exemplification in these disciplines are extremely impressive.  It is the Hibernian monks who safeguarded the book of the Bible for us as the Roman Empire fragmented and Europe retrogressed into philistinism and savagery.   It brings to the forefront the history of the cenobites  of Hibernia, the men who created the Book of Kells.  The Irish monks of this period practiced a most uncompromising and rigorous form of self-mortification and self-abnegation in the history of the church perhaps even more so than the Carthusians today.  The practice of “penance” as practiced by the monks in this book is based on the idea that a Christian can partially “atone” for his own sins.  Some christians today would see this as a challenge of the atonement accomplished by Christ on the Cross, claiming that salvation is achieved by ‘sola gratia’ grace alone.  The Penitential of Finnian prescribes penances with a view to correcting sinful tendencies and cultivating the contrary virtue, it shows wide learning and draws on the teaching of St John Cassian on overcoming the eight evil tendencies – gluttony, fornication, covetousness, anger, dejection, accidie (laziness), vainglory and pride”.  Irish asceticism was a copy of the Thebaid.  The daily routine of monastic life was prayer, study, and manual labor.  With regard to food, the rule was most exacting, as was the way of life. The diet of monks living on the North Atlantic islands was somewhat different from that of those who lived on the mainland. Having less arable land available to grow grain, vegetable gardens were an important part of monastic life. Of necessity, fish and the meat and eggs of birds nesting on the islands were staples.  A system for collecting and purifying water in cisterns had been developed. No more than twelve monks and an abbot lived here at any one time. A hermitage is on the South peak.

I found Sun Dancing to be well researched and communicated for both monastic and lay persons alike.  It contains an indelible exemplification inimical to the sin of spiritual pride.  Commencing with the saga of the monks of Sceilig Mhichíl (Skellig Michael) west of the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry, in a fictional style, using archival elements leading us to a more concise chapter containing many historical facts.  The year 588 A.D., sees Fionán of Clonard, a monk of the community of Saint Brendan of Clonfert The Navigator, with twelve brother monks, setting off, looking to institute a new community in the desert.  Arriving at Sceilig Mhichíl somewhere between the 6th and 8th century (The first definite reference to monastic activity on the island is a record of the death of “Suibhini of Skelig” dating from the 8th century; however, Saint Fionán is claimed to have founded the monastery in the 6th century); it is a forbidding rock island with an area of 21,9 hectares approx; The topography of Skellig Michael with its iconic twin peaks and valley (Christ´s Saddle) is entirely controlled by bedrock geology.   Irish Monks would live there for the next 600 years.  This book is the amazing story, from a historical point of view and from records of how they lived, and what daily life was like.

Dom. Ugo-Maria

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The Consuetudines of Guigo I

Translation in English from the Latin, Click below.

The Consuetudine of Guigo I, 5th Prior of the Carthusian Order

Guigues du Chastel

Fifth prior of the Grande Chartreuse, legislator of the Carthusian Order and ascetical writer, born at Saint-Romain in Dauphiné in 1083; died 27 July, 1137.

He became a monk of the Grande Chartreuse in 1107, and three years later his brethren elected him Prior.

To Guigues the Carthusian Order in great measure owes its fame, if not its very existence.

When he became prior, only two charterhouses existed, the Grande Chartreuse and the Calabrian house where St. Bruno had died; nine more were founded during his twenty-seven years’ as Prior. These new foundations made it necessary to reduce to writing the traditional customs of the mother-house. Guigues’s  “Consuetudines”, composed in 1127 or 1128, have always remained the basis of all Carthusian legislation.

After the disastrous avalanche of 1132, Guigues rebuilt the Grande Chartreuse on the present site.

A man of considerable learning, endowed with a tenacious memory and the gift of eloquence, Guigues was a great organizer and disciplinarian. He was a close friend of St. Bernard and of Peter the Venerable, both of whom have left accounts of the impression of sanctity which he made upon them. His name is inscribed in certain martyrologies on 27 July, and he is sometimes called “Venerable” or “Blessed”, yet the Bollandists can find “no trace whatever of any ecclesiastical cultus”.

Guigues edited the letters of St. Jerome, but his edition is lost. Of his genuine writings there are still in existence, besides the “Consuetudines,” a “Life of St. Hugh of Grenoble”, whom he had known intimately, written by command of Pope Innocent II after the canonisation of the saint in 1134; “Meditations”, and six letters (P.L., CLIII). These letters are all that remain of a great number, many of them addressed to the most distinguished men of the day. Guigues’s letters to St. Bernard are lost, but some of the saint’s replies are extant.


Taken from the study notes prepared for the Novices by the Ven. Fr. Dom Ugo Ginex ESB in March 1989 and edited by Brother Pablo di San Martin.

God be Praised.

Christian monasticism began in the Egyptian deserts. In Lower Egypt a semi – eremitical monasticism flourished while Upper Egypt saw the growth of a more cenobitic form under the leadership of Pachomius. It is my experience that the literature that witnesses to these forms of monastic life deserves our attention today. In this paper I hope to share something I have tasted or glimpsed. It is not the product of a thorough and organised study; I am in no way an expert. But I do believe that their tradition is ours, and to meet them is to know ourselves better.

Taken from the study notes prepared for the Novices by the Ven. Fr. Dom Ugo Ginex ESB in March 1989 and edited by Brother Pablo di San Martin.

God be Praised.

Christian monasticism began in the Egyptian deserts. In Lower Egypt a semi-eremitical monasticism flourished while Upper Egypt saw the growth of a more cenobitic form under the leadership of Pachomius. It is my experience that the literature that witnesses to these forms of monastic life deserves our attention today. In this paper I hope to share something I have tasted or glimpsed. It is not the product of a thorough and organised study; I am in no way an expert.[1] But I do believe that their tradition is ours, and to meet them is to know ourselves better.

The literature of Pachomian monasticism[2] is quite primitive, by our standards of literary sophistication, and in some ways it is similar to the style of the New Testament, particularly the Synoptic Gospels. This is true not only of the literary style which tends to be associative in its construction, but of its purpose as well, which is to invite the next generation into the experience of those who are writing, the experience of being transformed by the Spirit, by the Gospel. The purpose of the writings is not information but formation and transformation. When we go to these records of the past we go to enter into their experience of the Spirit so we can discover and live more consciously our own experience, for there is but one Spirit.

Pachomian monasticism presents us with perhaps the earliest model, of which we have record, of monks coming together, not around the abba for spiritual formation, but together to seek God in community. In this Pachomius gave concrete expression to a form of monastic life which had gradually been evolving, an expression of the evangelical value of community, where the primary relationships of the monks are with one another. These two models, on the one hand, the monks gathered about the spiritual father and on the other, the monks who have come together to form a community,[3] at this early stage in monastic history had this essential difference: the young monks who grouped themselves about the spiritual father came to learn to be monks, so that having been formed by the abba they could leave him to live as monks on their own. This eventually gave rise to a cenobitic form of monasticism, but one in which each monk’s relationship with the spiritual father was primary. Pachomius, however, took the Jerusalem community of Acts 2 and 4 as the model for community. Those who came to him came not for a time, but they gave the whole of their lives and all that they had to seek God in common, and to love and serve one another, as they saw that these are inextricably bound together for those who seek to live the Gospel.[4] The essential aspect of Pachomian life was κοινωνία [koinonia], unity in love. In this especially, Carthusian monasticism can look to Pachomian monasticism, for we, as they, have come together to seek God in community, and to love and serve one another. The opening chapter of the Rule of St. Augustine emphasizes the goal of unity in love.

  1.  Before all else, beloved, love God and then your neighbor, for these are the chief commandments given to us. (cf. Matthew 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-34)
  2. The following are the precepts we order you living in the monastery to observe.
  3. The main purpose for your having come together is to live harmoniously in your house, intent upon God, with one heart and one soul (Acts 4:32).[5]

Pachomius’ great charism was to be the center of a community, to teach monks to love and serve one another; but like most of us he learned through trial and error.

The Coptic Lives[6] report that when his first group of followers joined him, he understood that the will of God for him was to serve the others. So he took the burden of all the practical necessities upon himself and freed the others to study the Scriptures. Pachomius, through the whole of his life, was one to be very patient with the newcomer and there are many examples of how he would not demand something of a young monk, even though it was something quite important, until he could see the monk was ready to meet the demand. His patience in this initial venture lasted something like five years. When he saw that his monks were not maturing as monks he, after a night in prayer, drew up three rules: common prayer, common meals and common work. They refused and he expelled them. The second time young monks joined him, he was more conscious of their spiritual formation and made these demands at once.

From the beginning of their lives together, Pachomius consciously set about teaching the monks to love and serve one another, arid established a community wherein each monk had the responsibility of serving the rest in a specific capacity.[7]  The first member of the Pachomian community, however, was always God. This is everywhere in the writings, and on his deathbed the Life has Pachomius say, “I am going to the Lord who has created us and brought us together.”[8]

The Pachomian monks understood well that their lives were part of a continuing history.  This history began when God first spoke to the human race and one of its members responded; since that moment the dialogue has never stopped. Just as the Word of God was the source of Abraham’s life of faith, the Word of God was the source of their own lives and faith. They express this clearly when, in the Prologue to The Life of Pachomius, they locate monastic life within the whole of salvation history. It is a response to the creative Word of God and results from the fervor of the Church, especially of the martyrs.

True is the Word of God, who made all things, the Word that came to our father Abraham, in order to show him his favour, concerning the sacrifice of God’s only son.  The Lord said, “Truly I will bless you and multiply you as the stars of heaven in multitude;” and again “Because in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”  For this Word, speaking after Moses his servant and the other prophets, appeared as man and as Abraham’s seed, and fulfilled the promise of blessing to all the nations, saying to his disciples, “Go forth and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  And, as the gospel spread throughout the earth by divine assent and with proof of his faithfulness, pagan kings stirred up a great persecution against the Christians everywhere.  Because many martyrs along with Peter, the archbishop of Alexandria, through many and sundry tortures were crowned with a victorious death, the Christian faith gained much ground and was strengthened in every land and every island throughout all the churches.  As a result monasteries started coming into being and places for ascetics who prided themselves in their chastity and the renunciation of their possessions. When monks who were former pagans saw the struggles and the patience of the martyrs, they started a new life.  Of them it was said, “Destitute, afflicted, ill treated, wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”  Thus they found retreats with proper piety and a harder regimen, holding before their eyes day and night not only the crucified Christ, but also the martyrs whom they had seen struggle so much.[9]

The Life also presents Pachomius himself, and therefore the monks who joined him, as part of an ongoing tradition, begun in the Old Testament and continued in the New.

The life of our truly virtuous and most ascetic father Anthony was like that of the great Elijah and Elisha and of John the Baptist.  The most holy archbishop Athanasius gives as much written evidence about him after his death, and at the same time states that the behaviour of our holy father Amoun, the chief abbot of the brothers on Mount Nitria, and of Theodore, his companion, was the same. And we know that, since grace poured from the lips of the Blessed one who blesses all – for he visited the earth, and instead of filling it with grief and sighs, he infused it with an intoxicating spirit – throughout the country from among those who took to monastic life many became admirable fathers, as has already been said, and their names are in the book of the living. In Egypt and in the Thebaid not many had turned to the monastic life up to the time of the persecutions by Diocletian and Maximian, but after that, the bishops led people to God according to the teachings of the apostles and the repentance of the nations yielded a rich harvest. There was a man name Pachomius, born of pagan parents in the Thebaid, who, having received great mercy, became a Christian. He made progress and achieved perfection as a monk. It is necessary to recount his life from childhood on to the glory of God, who calls everyone from everywhere to his wondrous light.[10] 

Because of the primitive style of the Pachomian Literature and its fairly unsystematic development, much of the wisdom it contains is perhaps less accessible to us than it would be if it were arranged in accord with the patterns of our Western logic. Of course, the price of this logic would be the beautiful simplicity that is everywhere in the writings.  When I first read The Life of Pachomius , though I was quite taken with the charm of the work, I wasn’t sure anything relevant or unified would emerge. For this reason I would like to suggest an approach which I believe can be quite helpful in getting closer to the heart of Pachomian monastic life.  If we choose a specific topic, such as common life, ascesis, prayer, leadership, obedience or poverty and read through the Pachomian works in search of what each has to say about, or how it presents or understands whatever is being considered, and do the same for another topic on the above list, very soon we can see how all aspects of their monastic life are complementary and support its single aim solidly and practically.  Also by noticing how the Rules are lived out in incidents related in the Life, we see how the strict or even harsh sounding rules actually were applied in genuinely human and loving ways.[11]  In the remaining section of this paper, in a modified way, I hope to illustrate this method with examples from the Pachomian sources.

In the Life , it says of Pachomius, “When he started reading or reciting God’s words by heart, he did not do it in the fashion of many other people, but he strove to comprehend inside himself each and every thing through humility and gentleness and truth, according to the Lord’s word, ‘Learn from me because I am gentle and humble of heart.'”[12]  This paragraph can be taken as a paradigm of the Pachomian approach to the Scriptures and to prayer.

Pachomius and his monks shared the dynamic concept of the Word of God of the ancient Hebrew.  They believed that it effected what it asserted, and they desired to be transformed by this living Word.  The Word of God, they understood, had been planted in their hearts at baptism; when they read the Scriptures, they read to uncover the Word which had been hidden there.[13]  Pachomius’ way, as shown above, is also the way given in the Scriptures. If the Lord said, “Learn from me because I am gentle and humble of heart,” then Pachomius, even in his approach to the Scriptures and to the Lord, will make every effort to be humble and gentle and true.  Lastly, the paragraph refers to reciting the Scriptures.  Meditation for the Pachomian monk was reciting the Scriptures he had memorised.  The incoming novice committed to memory at least the Psalter and the New Testament.[14]  Pachomius taught the unlettered Copts to read precisely so they could read and memorise the Scriptures.[15]

It is hard to separate the Pachomian concept of Scripture from their concept of prayer, for there was little or no difference.  The one was the other.  Meditation on Scripture actually meant reciting memorised passages not just with the lips and mind, “but with attention of the heart as well.  The monks memorised the Scriptures in pericopes which they called “by hearts.”  (This phrase, “by hearts,” eventually became a technical term so that they will describe their night office as consisting of “six by hearts.”)[16]  Prayer to the Pachomian monk was the continual recitation of Scripture.  His way of fulfilling the New Testament mandate, “Pray always,” was very simply to recite or meditate Scripture all day and all night, if possible.

So when the monk was at work or on his way to the assembly or to his cell at night, he was to meditate on some text from Scripture which, because of his memory, he had always at hand.  There are many precepts in the Rules which explain this. Here are some examples:

When he hears the sound of the trumpet summoning him to the assembly he is to leave his cell immediately, meditating on something from scripture to the very door of the assembly hall. (3)

The one who hands out sweets to the brothers should meditate on something from the Scripture as he does so. (37)

When the assembly is dismissed, all leaving for their cells or for the refectory shall meditate on something from Scripture. (28)

(On leaving the monastery for work) . . . they shall not speak together, but each one shall meditate on something from Scripture. (59)

Perhaps the most developed expression of this is found in The Book of Our Father Horsiesi who is exhorting a community which had lost its fervor to return to the way Pachomius had given them:

Let us cultivate the reading and the learning of the Scripture, and let us always be employed in pondering on them, knowing that it is written: From the fruit of his mouth a man will be filled, and the wages of his labour is returned.  These are the things that lead us to eternal life, which our father Pachomius handed down to us and commanded to be meditated upon perpetually in order that what is written may be completed in us:  These will be the words which I give you today into your hearts and into your minds. . . . Consider with how many testimonies the word of the Lord exhorts us to meditate on the sacred scriptures, that by faith, we may possess what we say. . . . Timothy too, while still a boy was learned in sacred letters so that he arrived at faith of the Lord and Saviour by way of them. . . . (51)

The Word of God in the Scriptures is given so that we may uncover the Word God has spoken in our hearts in baptism. Prayer or reciting the words of Sacred Scriptures is the way to the Word in our heart. Likewise, ascesis was seen in its relation to what God has already done in baptism, for all the fruits of the Spirit are given to us in this sacrament.[17].  Ascesis is the cultivation of these fruits; ascesis is a means to uncovering the Word in our hearts.  In his Catechesis Concerning a Spiteful Monk, Pachomius writes:

My son, flee concupiscence.  It beclouds the Spirit and prevents it from getting to know the secrets of God.  It makes you foreign to the language of the Spirit and prevents you from carrying the cross of Christ.  It does not permit the heart to be attentive to honouring God.

It is precisely in the fight against concupiscence, or anything which distracts the attention of the heart from God, that ascesis has its place.  Thus ascesis is always an act of love which has its source in God’s love.

Perhaps here we can examine a few of the Pachomian statements on the asceticism of silence.  In speaking of prayer we already mentioned one (see rule 59 above).  There are others:

Those at work shall speak of nothing secular; they shall either meditate on holy things, or for that matter, keep silence. (60)

As for the bakery: no one may speak during the evening kneading, nor in the morning, those who are busy with the baking or with the boards; but they shall recite together until they have finished.  If they need anything they shall not speak, but shall rap sensibly. (ll6)

While they are sitting at home they are not permitted to engage in secular talk; but if the housemaster has taught something from Scripture they ought, on the other hand, to ruminate on it among themselves, relating what they have heard, or what they can remember. (122)

It is true that not every rule that mentions silence explicitly orients the silence to the Word of God, but most do; it is quite evident that in Pachomian life the ascesis of silence was seen as a main support for meditation on the Scriptures.

The Pachomian understanding of leadership was, in part, that the leader was the one whose responsibility it was to be watchful or vigilant for the spiritual wellbeing of all. Horsiesus addresses the superiors:

All those to whom the care of the brothers has been entrusted will prepare themselves for the coming of the Saviour and his dreadful tribune.  For if to give a report for one’s self is full of danger and fear, how much more painful it will be to answer for the fault of another and to fall into the hands of the living God.

We also have a God given responsibility, the training of the brothers. (10, passim)

Or, looking at it the other way round, Pachomius’ understanding of the superior’s role can also be seen in his advice to the Spiteful Monk:

If you cannot get along alone, join another who is working according to the Gospel of Christ, and you will make progress with him.  Either listen [i.e., to the Word of God], or submit to one who listens, or be strong and be called Elias, or obey the strong and be called Eliseus: for obeying Elias Eliseus received a double portion of Elias’ spirit.

In short the advice is, if you can’t hear the Word of the Lord spoken in the Scripture yourself, go and find a man who can, and then listen to him. The other side of the coin, then, is that one who is a leader has the responsibility of hearing the Word of God for those who have submitted themselves to him.

There is a story by which I hope to tie these elements together.  It is rendered in different translations dating from different periods.  Each edition reflects the viewpoint of its own time, as they altered texts freely in those days to assert what they wanted to say.  Taken together these texts are quite interesting because they show how the aspects of monastic life I have already mentioned, scripture, prayer, ascesis and leadership, serve one another and form a whole.  They also vividly depict evolving concepts of the rule and obedience, and show how it is part of human nature to become alienated in the course of time from its original inspiration.  The original understanding was that obeying the rule was an act of love and that God dwells in the heart of one who loves.  This concept was so pure that it was rapidly lost.[18]

The monks are making bread and chatting as they work, instead of reciting the Scriptures.  Pachomius learns of it and blames Theodore, the monk in charge at the time, severely reprimanding him.  If the monks chat and do not recite the Scriptures, Theodore is responsible and Theodore must do penance.  This is the earliest account.  In the second version, Pachomius still “blames Theodore but asks him why he did not see that the “brothers respect the rule, since the rule is given them for the good of their souls.  The idea of serving the rule usurps the primary place that reciting the Scriptures had held.  In the third account, Pachomius does not “blame Theodore (by the time of this account he has to respect the authority of his assistant) but tells him to teach the brothers that the rule has been given for the good of their souls and they should obey it.[19]  In the latest version, Pachomius asks Theodore whether the brothers realise that when he (Pachomius) gives them a rule, it is God speaking to them through him.  The rule of silence gradually becomes identified with the will of God and its original purpose, to recite the Scriptures, is no longer mentioned.  On paper, at least, their silence has grown empty.

There are many lessons we can draw from this incident and the differing historic interpretations. There is only one, however, that I want to focus on here. It is the understanding and practical insight that is inherent in the earliest account. In it all the elements, the common work, the ascesis of silence, the role of the leader or superior, Theodore, and his responsibility of watchfulness for all, the recitation of the Scriptures, all of these are seen in their relationship to the end of monastic life, the transformation of the monk, by the Word of God, in Christ. In my judgement, it is this evident comprehension of the unity of our life, which they were able to effectively portray and hand down that makes the legacy of Pachomius valid for us today.


  1. My introduction to Pachomian monasticism came through the tapes of a seminar Father Armand Veilleux, OCSO, gave at Gethsemani Abbey.  The seminar contained three evening lectures to the whole community and six morning lectures given to the seminar participants only.  My notes then will read “tape 1 evening” or “tape 6 morning” according to when the lecture was given.
  2. There are four basic texts in the Pachomian corpus that I refer to.  Unfortunately only one has been published in English to my knowledge.  It is: The life of Pachomius: (vita prima Graeca).  Author:  Apostolos N Athanassakis; Society of Biblical Literature.  Editor:  Missoula, Mont: Published by Scholars Press for the Society of Biblical Literature, ©1975.  There are many extant Lives, from both Coptic and Greek sources.  This first Greek Life or G1, is the only Life available in English.  References to the Coptic Lives in this paper are taken from information that Father Armand Veilleux gives in the seminar and will be noted accordingly. Each paragraph in the Life is numbered and all references to it will be identified in the note or the text by this paragraph number, not the page number.

  3. The other texts of the Pachomian corpus to which I refer, I have seen only in translations that have been made and circulated privately.  There is, however, an edition being prepared by Father Veilleux which I’m currently unable to source, I have though added a link to Father Veilleux’s web page. The texts I cite are:
  4. The Book of Our Father Horsiesi, Sister Mary Charles Walsh, OSB, trans. Horsiesus was a successor to Pachomius after the latter’ s death, and this work is a call to communal conversion during a period of strife and decadence.  Like the Life it is subdivided into numbered sections and my references are to those numbers.

  5. The Rules of St. Pachomius, Dom Amand Boon, ed., Pachomiona latina, Louvain Bureau de la Revue, 1932.  Jerome translated a Greek translation of the Coptic original of the Pachomian Rules into Latin.  The text I use is an English translation of Jerome’s text.  Also extant are fragments of the Coptic Rules. Like the two preceding works each rule is numbered and I cite Jerome’s numeration.

  6. Catechesis Concerning a Spiteful Monk (from Oevres de S. Pachȏme et de ses disciples, Louvain: CSCO l60, Coptic Series No. 24, L. Th. Lefort, translator and editor, 1956).  Written by Pachomius himself, this catechesis was composed not for his own monks but for a monk from outside the community.  The monk was brought to Pachomius because he bore a grudge toward one who “darted a word” at him (tape 6 morning)

  7. 3.  Keating, Thomas, “The Two Streams of Cenobitic Tradition in RSB,” Cistercian Studies XI, 1976:4, pp. 257-68. This article cites the evolution of both forms, complete with appropriate diagrams and mention of Pachomius.

  8. 4.  An example of how much the monks were for one another what the abba was in the semi-eremitical tradition is found in this item from the Rules:  In the morning, in the individual houses, once the prayers have been finished, they shall not return to their own cells, but they shall share among themselves what they have heard the Masters giving out; then they shall go to their cubicles. (19)

  9. 5.  Constitutions of the Nuns of the Sacred Order of Preachers (Polygot Vatican Press, 1930), p. 1.

  10. 6. Tape 2 evening. An altered account of this is in the Life, para. 24-5, 37.

  11. 7. Life, para. 28.

  12. 8. Tape 3 evening.

  13. 9. Para. 1.

  14. 10. Para. 2.

  15. 11. The monks did not eat meat.  Note, however, the following incident from the Life:  There was another brother who was mortally ill and bedridden in a nearby cell.  He requested from the father of the monastery to be fed a small portion of meat — the length of his illness had reduced his body to skin and bones —, and because the meat was not given him, he told one of the brothers, “Support me and take me to our father Pachomius.” When he approached Pachomius, he fell on his face and told him the reason.  Pachomius realised that the man deserved the request, and he sighed.  At meal time Pachomius was served his portion, as were all the other brothers.  He did not eat, but said, “You are respecters of persons.  What has happened to the scripture, ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’?  Do you not see that this man is practically dead?  Why did you not take good care of him at all before he made his request?  And you will say, ‘We neglected him, because that sort of food is not customary among us.  ‘But does the disease not make a difference?  Are not all things pure to those who are pure?  And if you were unable to see without my advice that this would be good, why did you not tell me?” Tears came to his eyes, as he was saying these things. For tears are a mark of sensitivity. And even if tears do not come to a man who is sensitive while something is happening, there is such a thing as inner weeping. When they heard these things they hastened to buy the meat in order to feed the enfeebled man. Then Pachomius himself ate the customary boiled vegetable. (53)

  16. 12.  Para. 9.

  17. 13.  Tape 2 morning.  Horsiesi , para. 49, “… Let us follow the odour of wisdom always hiding her words in our hearts.”

  18. 14.  From the Rules:

  19. No one whosoever shall be in the monastery who . . .does not retain something from Scripture: the minimum is the New Testament and the Psalter. (l40)
    If someone comes to the gate of the monastery wishing to renounce the world and be added to the number of the brothers … he shall remain outside for a few days, at the door, and be taught the Lord’s prayer and as many psalms as he can learn. (49)

  20. 15.  Whoever has come into the monastery uninstructed shall first be taught what he must observe, and when so [in]formed, he has agreed to it all, they shall give him twenty psalms, or two of the Apostle’s epistles, or some other part of scripture.  And if he is illiterate he shall, at the first, third and ninth hours go to the teacher so delegated and stand before him; and shall learn with the greatest of eagerness and gratitude.  Afterwards the fundamentals of syllable, verb, and noun shall be written out for him, and even if unwilling he shall be compelled to read. (139)
  21. No one whosoever shall be in the monastery who does not learn to read. . . . (l40)

  22. 16.  Tape 2 morning.

  23. 17.  Tape 2 evening.
  24. 18.  Father Veilleux makes this statement joining obedience, love and God’s indwelling presence on tape 3, evening.   The bread making incident is related in this connection on the same tape.

19.  Life, para. 89