In the calendar of the church we remember today an Egyptian monk named Pachomius, who lived years 290-346. Pachomius was born in a small village in northern Egypt to a family who worshipped the gods of the Pharaohs. As a young man Pachomius was conscripted into military service. 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 was smitten by the kind and generous camaraderie, the koinonia, of Christian believers, the very thing described in the Acts of the Apostles: “They were of one heart and one soul,” and who essentially practiced three things: these Christians lived together in community, they prayed and worshipped, and they served others. This experience for Pachomius was life-changing. He prayed to this Christian God, promising that he would live his life in the same way. When he was discharged from military service, he was baptized, and for several years was formed in the Christian life by one of the desert hermits.
Pachomius had a series of visions, something he had never experienced before. The visions were about his becoming a monk, but not alone. Christian hermits had already been living in solitude in the Egyptian desert for about 50 years, since the late 3rdcentury. But Pachomius’ visions were about his living as a monk in community. He had as a model the words which we just heard from the Acts of the Apostles: “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.”[i]And “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Sure enough: it happened. A stream of men wanting to become monks found their way to Pachomius, his first follower being his own older brother, John. Drawing on his military experience, Pachomius set out to create a pattern and discipline for these men, these monks, to share life, prayer, worship, and work in common. Pachomius organized every detail of life, literally from the ground up. Pachomius ended up becoming the father-founder of coenobitic Christian monasticism: coenobitic, from the Greek, meaning “common life,” a common life of prayer and work, which is our own version of monasticism right here: coenobitic, a common life.[ii]
The clerestory windows above us here in this monastery chapel depict founders of Christian religious life down through the centuries. The second window from the rear depicts Pachomius wearing a monastic habit, and bearing the cross of faith. Tradition has it he very much loved animals, and they, him. He is shown here standing on the back of a crocodile – isn’t that marvelous!? – legend being that this “pet” crocodile would ferry him across the Nile whenever he needed transport. In the circular medallion at his feet, Pachomius is pictured in Upper Egypt on the banks of the Nile, in Tabennisi, which is where he founded his first of many monasteries. We see Pachomius being inspired by an angel to write a monastic Rule of Life, a rule that balances prayer with work, the communal life with solitude. The palm trees and the pyramid (shown in the lower part of the window) depict the life in the Egyptian desert.
The Pachomian monasteries attracted devoted and gifted young men who, if they arrived illiterate (which was typical), were taught to read. Some became administrators, but most were trained in manual trades: as cooks or bakers, carriage-makers or boatmen, tailors or shoemakers, metalworkers, carpenters, camel drivers, fullers, gardeners, smiths, and as copyists of manuscripts. They were also trained in matters of the heart, so important in life together. 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 that ignorance, as well as weakness, was always accepted as an excuse for failure: “anyone who sins through ignorance shall be easily forgiven.” Forgiveness figures prominently into Pachomius’ Rule of Life, very much in the spirit of the Gospels. How many times will you need to forgive your brother-monks? Pachomius pointed to St. Peter’s asking Jesus this very question. Jesus’ answer was “seventy-seven times,” which translates as an infinite number of times.[iii] Forgiveness is a way of praying without ceasing. There will be that much stuff that will offend or disappoint. The catechism of prayer for Pachomius was based on generosity, discipline, forgiveness, and thanksgiving.
I’ll suggest how Pachomius may inspire us today:
- What do you make of these visions Pachomius had about God’s calling him to be a monk in the Egyptian desert? Have you ever had a vision, or dream, or some kind of deep revelation about your life: what you were to be, or do, or become? Something very personal, something undeniable, though maybe you didn’t know what to do with it at the time. What is your experience having a deep vision or sense of calling, perhaps years ago or in the recent past? I had a dream when I was age 12. I can still remember the dream. The dream was about two monks. I can still picture them and their setting. I awoke from the dream knowing that I was to be a monk. I had never met a monk. I had never been to a monastery. But I knew I was to become a monk. Who to tell? No one. No one would possibly believe this. I couldn’t think of anyone to tell, not for more than ten years. And it took yet another ten years to find out whereto be a monk (which is here). What about you? What has been your experience of a vision, or a dream, or some kind of deep knowing about your life: what you were to be, or do, to bear or to become? What has become of that? Bring that memory or those memories into the light.[iv]
- Secondly, Pachomius almost-immediately set out to write a Rule of Life for his burgeoning monastic community. The principles behind a Rule of Life are that life is fleeting: you don’t want to miss life and you don’t want to waste life: yours or others’. You don’t want to live life with regret, living with sadness or guilt that you missed the mark on what your life is to be about. A Rule of Life “front loads” your priorities and helps you clarify life’s invitations and your responses. We here have a Rule of Life with 49 chapters. You don’t have to do all that. But you could find it very clarifying, very freeing, very enabling to name your three most-important life principles, and write those three principles on an index card. Look at that index card at the beginning of the day, during the day, and at the end of the day. If you don’t have a Rule of Life, start with three principles that you want and need to remember as you navigate life day-by-day. Use an index card to “bullet point” your principles.
- Thirdly, we glean from Pachomius the need to surrender, to surrender what we cannot and perhaps should not control. One of the hardest things in monastic life is that we don’t choose one another. God does! This was a reality for Pachomius’ monks; it’s a reality for us Brothers in this monastery. We say in our own Rule of Life: “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.” You may not be a monk, but you inevitably belong to people whom you did not choose: family members, professional colleagues, parishioners, fellow volunteers, neighbors…. In many circumstances of life, we end up sharing life with people we would not have chosen, some of whom we inevitably find quite challenging. The monastic tradition has a name for these sometimes-quite-difficult people: “teachers.” They teach us about ourselves, they expose us to what otherwise we may not see in ourselves or show to others. There’s no better inspiration for our life-long conversion than to be sharing life with someone who gets under our skin. So it was for Pachomius and his monks, and for us all. God will bring teachers into our lives, teachers in many forms. This is the sometimes-severe grace of life together. Who are your teachers?
- Lastly, there’s the endearing medallion with Pachomius riding on the back of a crocodile. What is your medallion? How would you want to be remembered? Of course, we cannot control how we are perceived in life or after our death; however we may have a picture of who we are to become. What’s the picture you have for yourself? What’s your medallion?
Back to Pachomius. In his lifetime, Pachomius founded nine coenobitic monasteries for men, and two for women. At the time of his death in year 346, Pachomius was 56 years old. It’s estimated there were over 5,000 monks and nuns who had followed him. And it is this tradition of coenobitic monasticism which was translated to the West, and which found its greatest champion in Saint Benedict and in many other forms of the religious life, including the founders of our own Society of Saint John the Evangelist in 1866.
[ii]“Coenobitic,” from the Greek, κοινός (“common”) and βίος (“life”).
[iv]If we were to tabulate the Bible, the amount of the scriptural text given over to the report of dreams, and visions, and prophecies, and angelic visitations, and other indirect references to God’s mysterious and yet undeniable leading of people (like with the wisemen being guided by a star), we would find these phenomena comprise approximately one-third of the Bible. See Windows of the Soul; A Look at Dreams and Their Meanings,by Paul Meier and Robert Wise.
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