Christian monasticism began when, in 270 AD, Anthony, a wealthy young man, heard the Gospel story read in church of the rich young man who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.(MT 19:16-25; MK 10:17-25; LK 18:18-25) Jesus replied, “Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor – and come follow me.” Anthony did so, and followed Jesus out into the Egyptian desert and he became a hermit, or lived the eremitic life, from the Greek word for desert. Many others soon followed his example, and the desert became populated with hermits.
But it was dangerous living alone in the desert. Eventually, groups of hermits formed, who each lived alone, but in shouting distance of each other so that they could be helped if a wild animal attacked. These hermits also chose to group around a wise man – an abba – who would guide them in their life of prayer and discernment. Each hermit would speak to the abba on a regular basis, and on Sunday they would all come together to worship.
This way of life where a group of hermits lived close to each other around an abba was known as semi-eremitic, and the most famous area for these groups was Scetis, now called Wadi Natrun, a place deep in the desert between Alexandria and modern day Cairo. These monasteries are still there to this day. There are four of them, now each surrounded by great walls, protecting them. Each of them has over a hundred monks. I had the privilege of spending several weeks living in the semi-eremitic monastery of St. Macarios, because it grew up around the great Abba Macarios. The 100+ monks lived in separate dwellings built within the massive walls – and I lived in one. It was an extraordinary and life-changing experience.
Anthony represents the first form of monasticism – the beginnings of the eremitic life. Macarios and the other abbas of the Wadi Natrun represent the second form – the flowering of the semi-eremitic tradition.
Today we are remembering a man who introduced a third development in the monastic tradition. And it is a form of monasticism particularly important to us brothers of SSJE because it is the tradition which we follow. This third type of monasticism is known as cenobitic monasticism, from the Greek words which mean ‘the common life.’ And it is Pachomius who is honored as the first Christian monk not simply to bring hermits together in groups, but to actually organize them with a written Rule and detailed structures of a communal life – or cenobium.
Pachomius was born in Upper Egypt of pagan parents, and was a conscript in the imperial army. When he was discharged, he was converted and baptized. He became a disciple of a hermit and then in about 320 founded a monastery at Tabennisi, near the Nile. Lots of men wanted to join, and he used his military experience to organize them into a full monastic community. By the time of his death in 346 he had founded nine cenobitic monasteries for men, and two for women. It is thought that at his death there were over 5,000 monks and nuns. And it is this tradition of monasticism which was translated to the West, and which found its greatest champion in St. Benedict.
Pachomius organized every detail of this first ever model for living the common life. All the ingredients were there – a church, a refectory, an assembly room, which would become the chapter house, cells, an enclosure wall. He then wrote a Rule, and organized a daily rhythm of prayer and work, and established the spiritual disciplines of chastity, poverty and obedience. It was a remarkable achievement of planning, organization, and spiritual wisdom and discernment.
He had before him as a model the words which we just read from the Acts of the Apostles.(Acts 2:42-47a) “All who believed were together and had all things in common. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” So these first Christians essentially did two things: they lived together in community – and they worshipped. And it was those two things which drew others to them. “Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
That essential two-fold cenobitic model describes our life as brothers – living in community and worshipping. But I think that is essentially what all Christian communities, all Christian parishes, are called to do: to live in community and to worship God. Of course not everyone is called to physically live in the same place, to take monastic vows, but I would suggest that if Christian churches did nothing else in terms of mission than those two things, offering powerfully spiritual and beautiful worship and building up strong, welcoming and loving community, they would draw many to them, as in the Acts. But of course it is very hard work to build up Christian community. St. Paul struggled to do so all his life. It is very hard to live with others in community. In community no one gets everything they want!
I would say it’s the hardest thing in monastic life, and when I was a parish priest it was the hardest thing in a parish. It’s partly because in authentic Christian community we don’t choose the members – God does! The Rule of our Society says this: “The first challenge of community life is to accept whole-heartedly the authority of Christ to call whom he will. We are given to one another by Christ and he calls us to accept one another as we are.”
And that is very difficult. And yet the mystery is that it is precisely the individuals we find difficult who can well be the agents of our conversion. Just like rocks pounded by the sea on the seashore slowly lose their rough edges and get smoothed – so living in community can mould us and form us and help us grow up in Christ. Perhaps above all, community life draws out of us compassion and forgiveness and love for the other.
In fact, it was the great founder of cenobitic monasticism in Asia Minor – St. Basil of Caesarea – who went so far as to pour scorn on the eremitic life. He wouldn’t let anyone become a hermit. How could you, he said, as a hermit, fulfill the law of Christ to love your neighbor as yourself?
So, on this day, when we honor St. Pachomius, the founder of the cenobitic monastic life – life together – I invite you to reflect on the communities to which you belong: family, church, work. How have you been formed by community life? It’s perhaps easiest to identify those whom we love and admire, who have helped make us who we are: our mentors, the wise women and men who have guided and encouraged us. Who do you want to thank God for?
But what about those we have found difficult? In a mysterious way, by God’s providence, it can often be our ‘enemies,’ those whom we can’t stand, who can actually be our teachers. What is it about them that we can’t stand? How do they hook us, irritate us, drive us crazy? Do they tell us something about ourselves? Does the speck we see in their eye perhaps expose the log in our own eye? Who has helped form you in this way?
Pachomius was a man of profound wisdom and insight, and he recognized the power of community, koinonia, to help each of us to grow into the full stature of Jesus Christ. May his example and his prayers help us to build up the Christian communities to which we belong, that others may be drawn into our common life, the Body of Christ – that through us they may come to know the Lord himself, our Savior Jesus Christ.
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