Tuesday, May 09, 2023

St Pachomius of Egypt

On May 9th, the Coptic Church commemorates one of the great early monastic patriarchs, a native Egyptian called Pachom, whose name is Latinized as Pachomius. He was one of the most influential figures on the organization of monastic life in the 4th century; this is true even in the West, (where his feast has only been kept very rarely), since St Benedict adopted many of his ideas into his Rule.

Pachomius was born in 292 to a pagan family in the Thebaid, the Roman province which had formerly been the kingdom of Upper Egypt, with its capital at Thebes, the modern city of Luxor. At the age of twenty, he was conscripted into the Roman army, and sent up the Nile with other conscripts under miserable conditions. When the boat stopped at Latopolis (the modern Esnah), the local Christians came out to take care of them, and Pachomius was so impressed by their kindness that he determined to embrace their faith as soon as he was able. When his unit was disbanded, he returned to his native place, a village called Khenoboskion where there was a Christian church, was accepted as a catechumen, and baptized soon thereafter.

A fresco on the wall of the Trinity Chapel in Lublin, Poland, showing several of the early monastic Saints: Pachomius furthest to the left, with his Rule in hand, then Anthony, Macarius, Spyridon of Trimythous, and Daniel the Stylite. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Hans A Rosbach, CC BY-SA 3.0.)
He then chanced to hear of a man named Palaemon, a very holy and austere hermit living nearby in the desert, much like his contemporaries and fellow-countrymen, Ss Paul the First Hermit and Anthony the Great. Pachomius became his disciple, observing with him a life of strict fasting and abstinence, keeping long vigils, frequently reciting the entire Psalter at one go, and performing a good deal of manual labor. After several years, he visited a place called Tabennisi, about nine miles up the river, and heard a voice telling him to establish a monastery in that place. He is also said to have been visited by an angel, who confirmed this order, and gave him certain instructions as to how the monastic life was to be lived there. With his master’s encouragement, he built a cell at Tabennisi, and having settled there, soon began to attract many disciples, the first among them being his own elder brother. (Palaemon himself, however, withdrew back to his solitude.)

As with many of the early ascetics, Pachomius’ personal austerity was very astonishing, especially to our modern sensibilities. He is said to have gone fifteen years taking only brief rests, always sitting, never lying down, and never to have eaten a full meal. But he had a finely-honed sense of what others could bear, and turned no one away from joining his community, adjusting the discipline according to what was appropriate for each, as determined by his condition and temperament, both spiritual and physical. In due course, he established other monasteries, one of which, at a place called Pabau, grew to be even greater than its mother house, much as in the days of St Bernard, Clairvaux eclipsed Citeaux as the most important house of the Cistercian Order. When Pachomius died in 348, there were a total of three thousand monks in the nine houses he had founded. In the monastic tradition, both eastern and western, the Thebaid has long had a mythical role as a kind of early monastic Paradise. On the last Saturday before the beginning of Great Lent, the Byzantine Rite commemorates “All of the God-bearing Fathers and Mothers Who Shone Forth in the Ascetic Life,” singing the following hymn at Vespers.

“Rejoice, faithful Egypt; rejoice, holy Libya; rejoice, o chosen Thebaid; rejoice, every place, and city, and land that nourished the citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and raised them in self-discipline and toil, and showed them forth to God as men perfect in their desires. They were revealed as those who give light to our souls; these very same, by the glory of their miracles, and the wonders of their deeds, shone forth to our minds, unto every corner of the world. Let us cry out to them, ‘All-blessed fathers, pray that we may be saved!’ ”

Scenes from the Lives of the Desert Fathers, or “Thebaid”, by Blessed Fra Angelico, 1420; now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.
The lives of the first monks sometimes degenerated into a competition of asceticism, with men vying with each other to think up ever more bizarrely unpleasant ways of living; one Egyptian document even speaks of a “hermit” who lived like an animal in the midst of a herd of wild buffalo. St Pachomius had the wisdom to see that this made for strong temptations to pride, which were best checked by the living of a communal life under a rule and an authority. He is therefore credited as the founder of “cenobitic” monasticism, monasticism “of the common life.” (κοινὸς βίος)

St Jerome was a very small child when Pachomius died, but when he visited Egypt in the later decades of the fourth century, the communities which the latter had founded were still thriving. Jerome, who had a great deal of interest in and admiration for the monks, visited several of these communities, and, working through a Coptic-speaking translator, produced a Latin version of Pachomius’ rule. This Latin translation is considered to be the first and most faithful to the Coptic original, which is now lost, and it was through it that St Benedict came to know of Pachomius’ ideas about the monastic life. Scholars have rightly noted a great many references and even direct quotes of the Pachomian Rule in that of Benedict, who, not by coincidence, calls cenobites the best kind of monk. (cap. 1 in fine)

In his own prologue to this translation, St Jerome writes, “… while I was grieving over the death of the holy and venerable Paula… I received books sent to me by a man of God, the priest Silvanus, which he had gotten from Alexandria, so that he might send them on to be translated. For he told me that in the cenobia of the Thebaid, … there live very many Latins who do not know the Egyptian or Greek languages, in which the Rule of Pachomius, Theodore and Orosius were written. These men are the ones who first laid the foundation of the cenobia throughout the Thebaid and Egypt, according to the command of God, and of an angel who was sent to them for this very purpose. … and we have translated these letters as they are read among the Egyptians and Greeks, setting down the same elements that we found, and imitating the simplicity of the Egyptian language … lest learnèd speech should change (the readers’ impression of) those apostolic men, who were completely full of spiritual grace.”
St Jerome in the Desert, ca. 1476, by the Venetian painter Alvise Vivarini (1447 ca. – 1503/5)

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