CENOBITIC BEGINNINGS: THE PACHOMIAN MONASTIC EXPERIENCE

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.

Notes

  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