Acts of the Apostles 2:42-47a
In the calendar of the church we remember today a monk named Pachomius who lived years 290-346. Pachomius is the founder of coenobitic Christian monasticism. The name coenobitic comes from the Greek, κοινός (meaning “common”) and βίος (meaning “life”), and so, a form of monasticism where monks live a common life of prayer and work, which is our own version of monasticism here: coenobitic.
Pachomius was born in a small village in northern Egypt to a family who worshipped the ancient gods. As a young man Pachomius was pressed into military service in the Roman army. His fifth-century biography, the Vita Prima, recalls that where he was billeted, he for the first time met Christians who did “all manner of good… treating [everyone] with love for the sake of the God of heaven.” Pachomius prayed to this Christian God, promising that he would serve his fellows in the same way. He was baptized was inspired by the koinonia, the fellowship, of Christian believers, which he found described in the Acts of the Apostles: “They were one heart and one soul.”i In a series of visions he heard a call from God to become a monk. Other men, with a similar call, found their way to Pachomius. Monks in his care would live a disciplined life of corporate and personal prayer, pool their resources, and eat meals in common. They were taught to memorize scripture, and they were formed to work together in their daily tasks, and to encourage one another in their spiritual goals.
Anyone who wished to enter the monastery was required to wait a few days at the gate, during which time they had to learn the Lord’s Prayer and memorize psalms. These entering postulants were then asked whether they were in a position to leave their families (which was a legal question about financial indebtedness and ownership of property, and whether they had any paternity responsibilities). Were they legally and spiritually free to enter? If so, they were admitted and instructed in the Rule of the monastery, clothed in the monastic habit, and reminded of the radical way they were leaving the world. Pachomius’ biographer writes about holiness and Pachomius’ monks: his first disciples being surprised, then disappointed, then relieved to discover that holiness was not something determined at birth or bestowed at entry in the monastery, but rather realized through continual repentance. Monks are prone “to fall and fall again,” which was true in Pachomius’ own conversion.
The clerestory windows above us here in this monastery chapel depict founders of Christian monastic movements. The second window from the rear depicts Pachomius, shown in a monastic habit, bearing the cross of faith. Tradition has it he very much loved animals, and he is shown here standing on the back of a crocodile, legend being that this “pet” would ferry him across the Nile whenever he needed transportation. In the circular medallion, Pachomius is pictured on the banks of the Nile in Upper Egypt called Tabennisi, which is where he founded his first of many monasteries. Here we see Pachomius being inspired by an angel to write a monastic Rule of Life that balances the communal life with solitude. The palm trees and pyramid (shown in the lower window) depict the life in the Egyptian desert.
The Pachomian monasteries attracted bright and gifted men who, if they arrived illiterate (which was the norm), were taught to read. They were trained in manual trades, in administrative tasks, and in matters of the heart. As bright as these monks were, they were also formed in a spirit of compassion, which is so necessary for those with whom we closely live and work, and whom we come to know well. There is a very tender phrase in Pachomius’ Rule of Life about having a compassionate heart toward weakness in others. The Pachomian Rule of Life states: “anyone who sins through ignorance shall be easily forgiven.” Forgiveness figures quite prominently into Pachomius’ Rule of Life, very much in the spirit of the Gospels. You may recall Peter’s asking Jesus, “how many times are we to forgive,” and Jesus’ answer: seventy-seven times, which is code language for an infinite number.ii Forgiveness is a way of praying without ceasing. Life certainly affords endless opportunities to be disappointed by others, to be offended or hurt by others, whether or not you live in a monastery. Some of these “assaults” in life require confrontation or intervention; all of them ultimately require forgiveness, something to which Pachomius speaks with clarity, inspiration, and experience almost 1,700 years ago. Forgiveness, as a distinctively Christian way of life. Forgiveness.
Blessed Pachomius the monk, whom we remember today.
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