Also known as Abba Pachomius and Pakhom, is generally recognized as the founder of cenobitic (communal) Christian monasticism.
His innovative monastic structure and teaching methods made the ascetic Christian life a reality for tens of thousands of Christians. All later Catholic and Orthodox religious orders (from Franciscans to Cistercians) are, to an extent, products of his initial innovation.
In all world religions, Saints (from the Latin: “sanctus” meaning “holy” or “consecrated”) are known for their spiritually exemplary character and love of the divine.
Saints are known for their devotion to God as well as for their commitment to virtuous living. They encourage ordinary believers to strive to become closer to God and to be better people by providing an uplifting example of spiritual and moral conduct.
In the third and fourth centuries C.E., a new spiritual innovation began to become popular among devoted Christians. The deserts of Egypt and Syria, which had once been a refuge for the persecuted, began to be considered a home, a destination where devoted Christians could – in imitatio Christi – prove their dedication to Jesus and the Gospel through intense ascetic sacrifice.
Though the actual persecution of Christians had largely ceased by this time, these “‘athletes of Christ’ … regarded their way of life as simply carrying on the norm of Christian life in pre-Constantinian times, when to be a Christian was a matter of real seriousness.”
These early religious heroes, of whom Saint Anthony (251-356) is likely the most prominent example, became the new spiritual ideals for the lay public: people whose devotion to the Lord allowed them to accomplish superhuman feats of courage, faith and stamina.
Pachomius was born in 292 in Thebes (Luxor, Egypt) to pagan parents. According to his hagiography, he was swept up in a Roman army recruitment drive at the age of 20 against his will and held in captivity, a common occurrence during the turmoils and civil wars of the period.
It was here that he first came into contact with Christianity, in the form of local Christians who visited each day to provide succor to the inmates. This made a lasting impression on the imprisoned Pachomius and he vowed to investigate this foreign tradition further when he was freed.
As fate would have it, he was soon released (when Constantine took control of the Roman army in the area), and, remembering his vow, Pachomius was soon converted and baptized (314). Hearing tales of the spiritual excellence of the Desert Fathers, he decided to follow them into the desert to pursue the ascetic path. In doing so, he sought out the hermit Palamon and came to be his follower (317).
In his travels through the desert, Pachomius chanced upon an abandoned town called Tabennesi. There, he heard a message from the Heavens: “Pachomius, Pachomius, struggle, dwell in this place and build a monastery; for many will come to you and become monks with you, and they will profit their souls.”
After receiving this calling, he converted the town into a monastic community (318(?)-323(?)). The first to join him was his elder brother John, but soon more than 100 monks had taken up residence there. In the years to follow, he came to build an additional six or seven monasteries and a nunnery.
Though Pachomius sometimes acted as lector for nearby shepherds, neither he or any of his monks became priests. Regardless, he remained abbot to the cenobites for some forty years, until he fell victim to an epidemic disease (probably plague). Knowing that the end of his life was at hand, he called the monks, strengthened their faith, and appointed his successor.
He then departed in peace on May 15, 346.
From his initial monastery, demand quickly grew and, by the time of his death in 346, one count estimates there were 3000 monasteries throughout Egypt from north to south. Within a generation after his death, this number grew to 7000 and then spread into Palestine, the Judean Desert, Syria, North Africa and eventually Western Europe.
Until the time of Pachomius, Christian asceticism had been solitary or eremitic. Male or female monastics lived in individual huts or caves and met only for occasional worship services. The Pachomian innovation was to create the community or cenobitic organization, in which male or female monastics lived together and had their possessions in common under the leadership of an abbot or abbess. Indeed, his genius was to transform the monastic fervor of the Desert Fathers into a socialized and sustainable religious lifestyle. Further, this approach enabled the monastics (themselves religious exemplars) to interact (and thus positively impact) surrounding Christians, who settled around the monks as lay disciples. In this way, he set the stage for the Christian monastic movements that followed, the vast majority of which existed in concert with a surrounding and supportive lay community.
The Pachomian community was initially created using its founder’s personal charisma to maintain structure and order. Pachomius himself was hailed as “Abba” (father), and his followers “considered him trustworthy,” [and that] “he was their father after God.”
However, in the years that followed (especially after the death of their founder), the Pachomian monks began to collect and codify his edicts, a process that eventually yielded the collected Rules of his order. Intriguingly, a parallel process of rule development was occurring simultaneously in Caesarea, where St. Basil, who had visited the Pachomian order, was in the process of adapting the ideas he inherited from Pachomius into his own system of monastic order.
His rules, the Ascetica, are still used today by the Eastern Orthodox Church, and are comparable to the Rule of Saint Benedict in the West.
As mentioned above, Pachomius strove to indoctrinate his brother monks (and the resident laity) into a righteous lifestyle. One of the innovative means that he used to achieve that end was an extensive use of moral exemplars in his pedagogy.
Intriguingly (and unlike many earlier teachers), it is notable that he did not restrict this to the imitation of Christ. To demonstrate the proper attitude when facing solitude, he uses an Old Testament example: “Let us then draw courage from these things, knowing that God is with us in the desert as he was with Joseph in the desert. Let us … , like Joseph, keep our hearts pure in the desert.”
In describing the psychic preparations that must take place before Passover, he suggests a constant remembrance of Christ: “Let those who practice askesis labour all the more in their way of life, even abstaining from drinking water…; for he asked for a bit of water while he was on the cross and he was given vinegar mixed with gall.”
Finally, concerning the proper mode of moral instruction, he says to his monks: “My son, emulate the lives of the saints and practice their virtues.”
In all of these cases, Pachomius demonstrates the importance of living an ascetic life, constantly striving for moral rectitude.
He helps to make this difficult process more accessible by using exemplars from within the religious tradition of his listeners, showing that this ascetic devotion to God is, in fact, an achievable human reality.