I. The Pachomian fire in straw
II. The Life of Pachomius
III. Rules & Organisation of the 'Koinônia'
IV. Pachomian spirituality
1) Double aspect
2) Union with God
3) Union with the brethren
I.THE PACHOMIAN FIRE IN STRAW
This first form of the cenobitic life founded by Pachomius can perhaps be compared to fire in straw. In one sense this is true, in another it is not!
It is TRUE in the sense that a straw fire spreads quickly, generates much heat and light, but does not last long. In the same way Pachomian cenobitism grew very quickly. It seems that even from the beginning of cenobitism we must speak of an Order, that is, an organised whole having its own laws and structures, which is quite remarkable! It was a very large Order, Jerome speaks of fifty thousand monks, but he certainly exaggerates; ten thousand is nearer the mark. It is still very large!
It also generated heat and much light, for the Pachomian monks were the most famous at the time. They were the pick of the bunch, and if one had not seen them, because they lived a long way from Alexandria, one pretended one had done so, as did Cassian. Finally, like a straw fire, it did not last long; after extraordinary progress, Pachomian monasticism experienced a rapid decline. At the beginning of the fifth century, almost nothing was left!
It is not true, because unlike a straw fire which leaves only ashes, this first form of cenobitism had great influence in the Church; not so much because of its spirituality which was rather weak, but rather because of its legislative system. This has left its mark on later monasticism; the Oriental Rule, as we shall see, is taken in part from the Rules of Pachomius. Our Rule of St Benedict is strongly marked by it in at least twenty passages.
The Rules of Pachomius have even influenced Institutes which consider themselves quite the reverse of monasticism, like the Jesuits!
II. THE LIFE OF PACHOMIUS
Who was Pachomius? It is difficult to tell what sort of a man he was. We cannot do so from his writings, for very little has come down to us: a few instructions and the Rules, but there are four very different ones and it is very probable that Pachomius wrote none of them. Nor by his biography, because there is not one life of Pachomius, but eight or nine, written by his disciples. Very soon dissensions arose among them; they did not all have the same idea of monastic life and each group wrote a life of Pachomius to justify his own point of view. Each of the Lives presents Pachomius from a different aspect.
Among these eight or nine Lives, three are longer, for they have come down to us complete (or almost so). They are designated by the language in which they are written: the Bohaïric life, the Saïdic life, (these are both Coptic dialects); and the Greek life. The others are only fragmentary.
An Egyptian like Antony, Pachomius was not born a Christian like him, but a pagan. He was born in 292 of a family of well-to-do peasants at Sne on the borders of the Nile a little higher up than Thebes. He had at least one brother and one sister known to us through the Lives.
At that time Egypt was under Roman domination. In 312 the Emperor Maximin Daia needed soldiers to make war against Licinius. At that time, when one had no soldiers, one took them; people were conscripted by force. Some soldiers came to Pachomius' village and took him away with other young men. He was about twenty years old and so ready for military service whether he liked it or not. So he was taken to Alexandria. As prisoners, he and his companions took ship on the Nile and went down to Thebes, the first large town, where they stopped for the night. The soldiers took the conscripts to the prison in the town, and there, the Christians brought them food and assistance. (Text 1).
Pachomius, the pagan, was moved by the charity of these Christians. It remained with him all his life; for him, a Christian does good to everyone. This conviction which came home to him then influenced his conception of the monastic life in which the idea of the service of God and the brethren had great importance.
The war being over, Pachomius was set free at Antinoe. He went back up the Nile but he did not go home. He wanted to serve God and, like Antony, he settled near a village (Seneset) where he was baptised about 313. In accordance with the promise he had made to serve mankind, he helped the people round about in any way he could. Then, like Antony, he too became a disciple of an ascetic who lived nearby (Text 2). Again like Antony, he underwent many temptations. The founder of the cenobitic life had no thought of starting something new; he began in the same way as Antony. But God had other ideas.
About 323 Pachomius left Palamon to live in an abandoned village called Tabennesi, always with the intention of being a hermit. His brother John came to join him. Then one night Pachomius had a vision; God intervened (Text 3). During the following days a disagreement arose between the two brothers. John wanted to remain faithful to the eremitical way and continue to live in their little cell, while Pachomius, after his vision, wanted to build a monastery.
In fact, people came. Pachomius had the gift of gathering them round him "because of his goodness", say the Lives. Young people came to him, he instructed them and, faithful to his first inspiration, he served them (Text 4). One can see how his first experience of the charity of Christians had marked his life, he wanted to serve. As long as the novices were good, all went well; the young were spurred on by his example and wanted to share the work: "Let us live and die with this man" they said, "and he will lead us straight to God". But other less well-disposed people came and things went wrong. Pachomius suffered a set-back and learnt a lesson (Text 5). The lesson was this: a monastery is not a cooperative and a community must have an economic system capable of holding it together. At his first attempt, faithful to the light received at his conversion, Pachomius had become the servant of all, receiving in return something to pay for the food of his followers. He gave them the following rule: Each one must be self-sufficient and administer his own affairs but must contribute towards the material needs ogf the monastery, whether it was food for the monks or food for the guests. They brought their contribution to Pachomius and he made do with what he received It was like a boarding-house, there was no sharing of possessions. After his set-back, Pachomius realised that to have a stable community, everything must be held in common. From then on he organised things differently and asked those who came to him to renounce their families and their possessions to follow the Saviour. He proposed as the way to God: that they lead the common life (in Greek Koino-bios), and establish a Koinônia, a community.
From this time, Pachomius' Koinônia really started, and very quickly. The map shows the area in the Upper Nile where Pachomius lived: Sne, his birth-place; Thebes, the capital where he was imprisoned; Antinoe where he was set free. You can also see his foundations (small letters), a chain of monasteries in Upper Egypt on the borders of the Nile where the land could be cultivated. The first four, very near in time and space, are numbered: Tabennisi, the first and Phbew the second to which the central government of the Order was transferred. The crosses mark the communities of nuns.
Pachomius died in 346, during a plague. He was only 54.
The succession was very difficult and cliques sprang up. There was opposition between a group of elders and the new generation, all depended on who took power. Two great figures, disciples of Pachomius, Theodore, of the older generation, and Horsiesius of the new were for a time at the head of this immense Order. After the death of Theodore in 368 and of Horsiesius in 387 everything disintegrated. There was indeed an effort at reform by the white monks of Shenoudi (or Chenoute), but this was not a success. The brutal abba used the stick rather than the carrot and discouraged those of good will.
Fortunately, in 404 Jerome, then at Bethlehem, translated the 4 Rules into Latin, as well as the 11 letters of Pachomius, one of Theodore and the book of Horsiesius. Thanks to these translations the Pachomian experience left its mark on the West.
III. RULES & ORGANISATION OF THE KOINONIA
We have already seen in our 'Bird's-eye view' that the Pachomian monastery was a veritable little village protected from relations with the outside by a huge wall with only one door and a porter checking arrivals: this put a distance between it and the outside world. Thus it was a little world on its own.
Yet this little world was remarkably organised. In each house of this small village there lived about forty brothers all exercising the same craft; there was the house of bakers, the house of cooks, the house of cobblers; the house of scribes, etc. In each house the brothers lived under the authority of a housemaster, a 'superior' helped by a 'second'.
Three or four houses formed a 'tribe'. A monastery was composed of 10 tribes; thus 30 or 40 houses each with 40 brothers adds up to more than a thousand monks in a monastery (1200-1400).
At the head of each monastery there was an abbot and one or two stewards. There were 9 monasteries of men and 3 of women. Pachomius' sister Marie had founded a monastery for virgins near Tabennisi under his direction. Two others followed, one near Tsmine and the other near Phbew. Everything was well organised there too; the sisters had a copy of the Rule of the brothers. A chaplain, Peter, was there to give them spiritual help (Text 6).
These 12 monasteries formed an Order governed by an Abbot General, Pachomius, and a head steward who lived at Phbew. Each year, all the monks gathered at Phbew to celebrate Easter, and in August to hold a sort of chapter of faults and reconciliation.
This structure of the whole Order establishes that the life of the Koinônia was led under an Abbot, who was represented in each house by a superior - life under an Abbot, but also under a Rule. Pachomius had already put into writing some precepts taken from the Bible. As the Order developed, it became necessary to go into further detail, to elaborate rules. This resulted in 4 series of precepts which are called the "Rules of Pachomius", although very probably they were not written by Pachomius himself. Are there any guidelines for formation in these writings? Possibly, but it is not clear and the opinions of those who have studied the question differ.
They are: The Precepts (the longest part),
The Precepts and Institutions
The Precepts and Decisions
The Precepts and the Laws
They are clearly collections of commandments. These first rules written for a community are "usages" with very little spirituality. However the fact that they are based upon the Scriptures and are remarkable for their sense of proportion and freedom from exaggeration, earned them an important place in the tradition. St Benedict took up several points in his Rule.
IV. PACHOMIAN SPIRITUALITY
These 4 rules are collections of rather dry prescriptions; they do have Scripture as their basis, but the theology is fairly rudimentary, with little spirituality. However, from them, the Lives and the other writings, one can nevertheless discover some features of a Pachomian spirituality.
1) A double aspect
To get a better understanding, let us go back to the beginning. Pachomius was born 30 years after Antony and died 10 years before him. The man who might be considered as the founder of the first cenobitism started among anchorites. Cenobitism was not yet standardised, while the eremitical monasticism of Antony had already had quite a history in Egypt. Pachomius, like all those who wanted to become monks, was formed by a hermit. Then his dispute with his brother John arose because the latter wanted to keep his eremitic solitude while Pachomius, faithful to the voice he had heard, wanted to build up something for others.
The birth of a cenobitic Order among anchorites gives us a glimpse of two contrary aspirations at the root of Pachomianism which had to be brought into harmony: on the one hand, the concern for individual perfection as found in the desert Fathers where each one sought his own way according to temperament and the call of grace; and on the other the aspect of common life required by cenobitism.
The solution found by Pachomius, faithful to his intuition, was that each one should find his own perfection in serving others. He was convinced that personal individual perfection cannot be realised on this earth; this ideal of perfection can only be found in a community of brothers, the holy Koinônia, where all help each other in the spiritual combat.
So we have here the first paradoxical aspect by which Pachomian spirituality harmonises two contraries; personal perfection is brought about in community, in the service of the brethren.
Another paradox stemming from the strong personality of Pachomius is this: in the Pachomian Koinônia, which applied specifically to cenobites, there is one element taken from the anchorites of Lower Egypt where the beginner was formed by an Abba or Elder. Pachomius was the sort of man who attracted others to him, one on whom the Spirit rested. It was the desire to learn from such a man which was the cause of so many monks gathering round him. Thus on the one hand, we find a vertical cenobitism as in the monasticism of Lower Egypt, for the Pachomian monk wanted Pachomius for his Father (Text 7). Even later, when the Order had grown so enormous, Pachomius was still the Father, though the head of the monastery chosen by him was his intermediary. In practice, this vertical aspect of monasticism was expressed by the hierarchical organisation we have already seen.
Yet on the other hand, Pachomian spirituality was one of community; and here we have an horizontal cenobitism. Pachomius' conversion had been brought about by the charity of the Christians of Thebes, and he was haunted by the image of the primitive community in Jerusalem where everything was held in common. His vocation, confirmed by heaven, was to "gather men together". He would be the Father of the community even more than Father of his monks. The community of mutual service, the holy Koinônia, would have a very important place in his spirituality. Charity would be expressed in deeds.
In fact charity, the foundation of the Christian life, was also the basis of the Pachomian legislation; at the beginning of the Precepts and Sentences we read: "Charity sums up the whole Law". As charity has for its object both God and the brethren, Pachomian spirituality developed along two axes: union with God and union with the brethren.
2) Union with God
First union with God. Pachomius was a man animated by the Spirit, a man of prayer; he was able to spend the whole night in prayer, even several nights, as many passages from the Lives witness (Text 8). Union with God was all-important to him. To encourage it, the Rules insist above all on the Scriptures and the common Office. Asceticism was not forgotten, for Pachomius, a practical and experienced man, knew well that this encounter with God cannot come about without renouncing all that is not God: the world, one's family, and above all one's own will, the source of sin. All these elements were to be taken into account; they contain the essence of monastic conversion.
Prayer and reading of the Bible go together in Pachomian spirituality. At this time people had very good memories. On his arrival in the monastery the novice must first learn to read in order to learn certain passages of the Bible by heart so as to be able to meditate on them (Text 9). "To meditate" was not, for these first monks, to reflect on a text, but rather to "chew it over", either by recitation from memory or by reading in a whisper. The monk must meditate on the Word of God all the time, going to the Office, in the refectory or his cell, going to work and while at work (Text 10).
Scripture is the Rule of life of the Pachomian monk. Three times a week the various superiors comment upon it, and after having listened to their explanations, he shares with his brethren what he has remembered before going into his cell to meditate on it. The Lives of Pachomius have vividly preserved for us the profound impression Pachomius made on his brethren when he commented on the Gospel (Text 11).
B) The Divine Office
There were two assemblies in the church, called "synaxes" (sun = with, and ago = to go), one in the day and one at night, no doubt fairly long; there was also an assembly for prayer in the evening, but in each house rather than in the church.
The two great offices in the church were very simple, even rudimentary, little different from private prayer. The psalms or passages of Scripture were recited alternating with the Pater and silent prayers. They lasted a long time, but the monks were not idle, their hands were occupied in light work such as plaiting cords or making rush mats, as the Rules describe (Text 12).
But although they were simple, the offices had great importance for the Pachomians; it was a communion in prayer which had a very special value for them. They had great faith in the word of the Lord: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am in the midst of them".
The evening prayer in the houses was even simpler: six psalms and six prayers. This is how the Rule speaks of them (Text 13).
3) Union with the brothers: the Koinônia
This communion in prayer before God demonstrates what lay at the root of the Pachomian community: a group of brothers just like the primitive Christian community.
In practice, this is seen in the community of goods and the various consequences which flowed from it.
A) Community of goods
The symbol of this is the enclosure wall with only one well-guarded door. This wall defines two worlds; the exterior world and that of the life in common, the Koinônia. We have seen that after his painful experience in the beginning Pachomius demanded community of goods of every postulant; they could take it or leave it.
He meant not only material goods in common, but even one's own person by putting oneself at the service of others both concretely and physically. This idea of service - even of bondage - is the basis of Pachomian cenobitism and of its organisation in houses with housemasters and subordinates. This bondage to one another also constituted the practical expression of a monk's imitation of Christ who became the servant of all. For Pachomius, it was this service which made cenobitism superior to anchoritism. Basil took up the idea. So too for Horsiesius, Pachomius' successor, community life is itself the "Work of God", Opus Dei.
This community of goods brought with it mutual service, but, concretely, practical observances as well.
a) The same rule of life. This sought to give expression to a particlar quest and to bring about the same observance for all, even superiors.
b) Poverty. The poverty demanded by this ideal was characterised by dispossession. Pachomian poverty was not primarily privation, but rather life in common; not an ascetical exercise but a community exercise. It was the cement which bonded the community.
c) Work. This came from the idea of service and was intended for the support of the poor. Pachomius believed that dispossession. Pachomian poverty was not primarily the community's possessions really belonged to God; the community itself possessed nothing. Thus sharing with the poor is not a virtue, it is the normal thing to do.
d) Obedience To break the bonds of self-love which are injurious to love of the community, Pachomius insisted on obedience so that within the community each member learned to suppress his own rights, his own desires. But obedience itself had a community character. It meant not so much being dependant for a time on an ascetic whom one took as a spiritual master on the road to God, like the anchorites, but to enter into a regime of obedience which had value in itself. So it was not a school for beginners, but a way of love, a permanent and definitive state, on this earth at least.
From this come three characteristics of obedience:
1) Each superior has his own sphere of authority which he must not exceed.
2) The command does not come from a charism, but is a temporary appointment, by the authority of a higher superior.
3) It is above all the Rule which one obeys; and the Rule is incumbent upon the Superiors as well as the subordinates.
As the Pachomian Order developed, the Rule became more central. In his writings, Pachomius gave great importance to Scripture; there one reads: "According to the Scriptures". But 40 years later, in the Life of Pachomius, this expression is replaced by: "According to the Rule".
e) Mutual forgiveness Here we have the final aspect of community of goods, mutual forgiveness. At the beginning the Pachomians had two annual assemblies which were concerned with financial matters, they studied the accounts. Fairly quickly these two assemblies, especially the one in the Summer, became huge chapters of faults.
With Pachomius, we have the birth of a true cenobitic Order right at the beginning of monasticism, which is surely remarkable. At the head of the Order was a rich personality. a man of prayer, a man on whom the Spirit rested and who was gifted with abundant mystical graces. We are told that just before his death he saw heaven (Text 14). Yet he was a humble man who had his feet on the ground; he kept these visions in perspective. We read in Pachomius' writings: (Text 15).
This man who was a mirror of God wanted the Koinônia to be a mirror of the thousand facets of God. Pachomius had an exalted idea of cenobitism: he bequeathed it to us in three kinds of parables which are just as valid for ourselves (Text 16).
Yet after the death of Pachomius the whole body of the holy Koinônia which he had built up collapsed! How can we account for such a rapid decline? There seem to be three reasons:
It was too centralized; all depended on a man of exceptional personality who inspired confidence. After his death and that of his disciple Theodore the whole Order lost its focus.
Moreover, the Order had grown too rapidly. It had all been too quick. At the beginning it was Pachomius himself who had formed the young, but later he could do so no longer and this was taken over by the heads of the monastery or of the houses. Inevitably these men did not have the same ability or sanctity as Pachomius.
The Pachomian Rules which would have assured the future of the Order did not have a sufficiently solid theological and spiritual basis. They are regulations, prescriptions, the fruit of the founder's experience. Also, without a spiritual basis, factions were formed on the death of Pachomius each led by men who had their own conception of Pachomianism.
In spite of all, traces of Pachomius' experience lived on in later monasticism through this double axis of Pachomian spirituality - vertical and horizontal; and we ourselves are, to a certain extent, his heirs.
Veilleux, A. Pachomian Koinonia. 3 volumes. Cistercian Studies
St Pachomius, Patriarch of all Cenobites
St Pachomius, Patriarch of all Cenobites
in the East
and in the West