03 March 2011

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (4)


You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

Saint Pakhom, also known as Pachomius, is recognized by most as the founder of Christian monasticism of the cenobitic type, the type of monasticism with which we are most familiar.

Pachomius was born in Thebes in 292 to pagan parents and during difficult times for the Roman Empire (i.e., the Crisis of the third century, 235-395), during which twenty-five emperors reigned and the empire experienced extreme military, political, and economic crises.

From what we know, we believe he was pressed into military service at the age of 20, during a Roman army recruitment drive -- a common occurrence -- and somehow ended up in prison.

During his imprisonment, Christians brought food and comforts to the inmates. This ministry to the captives made an indelible impression on him, and he vowed to learn all about Christianity when he was released. As things turned out, he was able to get out of the army without ever having to fight. He was converted and baptized in 314 in the city of Tabennisi; and became totally committed to his new faith.

He then came into contact with a number of well known ascetics and decided to pursue that path. He sought out the hermit Palaemon, who was living on the Nile River, and came to be his follower in 317. After studying seven years with Elder Palaemon, Pachomius set out upon the life of a hermit near St. Anthony of Egypt, whose practices he imitated until realizing that he was not called to the solitary life of the hermit. According to one story, he had a dream in which God told him to build a monastery and wait for God to fill it with men of prayer, desiring to become cenobitic monks like himself. According to another story he had a dream in Tabennisi in which a voice told him to build a dwelling to which hermits could come. (An earlier ascetic named Macarius had earlier created a number of proto-monasteries -- "larves" -- where holy men physically or mentally unable to achieve the rigors of St. Anthony's solitary life could live in a more community-like setting.)

Whichever story we accept as true, Pachomius's contribution to monasticism was the organizing of monks into communities of monastics living under a common rule, adding a social dimension to Christian monasticism which it did not have before him.

His first cenobitic monastery was in Tabennisi, Egypt and was established between 318 and 323. The first to join him was his elder brother John, and soon more than 100 monks lived at his monastery. By the time of his death he had built nine of these comminities in Egypt.

Given my own "flirtation" (if you will) with monasticism, I can't help but wondering how these hermit-cenobites lived. Pachomious divided his monks into twenty-four groups, which he named after the letters of the greek alphabet, ranking them according to his assessment of the depth of their spirituality. "Alphas" were beginner monks; and "Omegas" were the most advanced and spiritually mature.

The monks shared all things in common. They worked and prayed together. They ate together. And they practiced the rule which Pachomius had devised for them. They supported themselves by making and selling baskets, giving some of the proceeds to the poor. And, being monks, they engaged in all sorts of good works.

Getting back to the fact that these men and women went out to the desert as a radical solution to the radical problem of the worldliness that they believed had permeated the church, we might point out the obvious: Very likely, every Christian who wished to resist worldliness could not leave for the desert. Clearly that is still true. Nevertheless, there remains much to learn from Pachomius's lifestyle. I'll mention just three.

First, and this is of particular interest to Protestant and Reformed Christians, Pachomius was a man of the Scriptures. The Scriptures played a tremendous role in his life and in the life of his monasteries. We read in his biography: "When he began reading and reciting God's word by heart, he attempted to comprehend it inside himself according to the Lord's word, 'Learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart.'" So Pachomius not only read the Scriptures; he knew them by heart. He required all his monks to memorize twenty psalms, and two Pauline epistles -- just to join his monasteries!

I think that last point requires some emphasis. The Scripture memorization was just to get into one of his monasteries. We can contrast this purpose with that of contemporary memorization, which is mostly of comforting verses, or proof-texts for whatever theological ax one wishes to grind. The Scriptures are not only sources of doctrine. They are the guide for our lives. It seems almost pointless to say, but the fact is, while evangelical Christians say that the Scriptures are the only rule for faith and practice that isn't always how it works out.

During the course of drafting this post, I read an article about a church in Colorado that has moved its main worship service to Tuesday evenings. The reason is that the people to whom this church ministers (to be generous) are out-door types who like to have their full weekends off, including Sundays.

And yet, the Scriptures -- the rule of both faith and practice -- say:
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy (Exodus 20.8-11).

If I were a betting man, I'd wager that these people would give to monasticism the same out-of-hand dismissal as your garden variety sabbath-keeping Calvinist. And if they were arguing with a Roman Catholic over justification by faith, they'd be able to quote chapter and verse, asserting that the scriptures clearly teach justification by faith, and insisting upon it during their Tuesday evening sabbath keeping.

And yet, whatever its ultimate excesses, especially in the West, monasticism was an attempt by serious Christians to practice what the Scriptures require, especially the so-called evangelical counsels of chastity, charity and obedience.

Second, Pachomius was known for his humility, particularly in regard to positions of authority in the Church. Very early in The Life of Pachomius we learn of a monk who came to visit Pachomius. This anonymous monk attempted the monastic life but ultimately was driven to insanity by the attempt, eventually committing suicide by burning himself to death. As it turns out, this monk was an arrogant man. More than likely, it was his arrogance which destroyed him. The incident left a great impression upon Pachomius, making him adament about not accepting any position of authority or power which might lead one to such suidical heights of arrogance. This included even the priesthood. We are told that the Bishop Athanasius desired to make Pachomius "father and priest" over all the monks within his episcopal territory. But Pachomius would not accept the position. For Pachomius, clerical offices were the beginnings of the lust for power. Furthermore, Pachomius placed all his monks under the same prohibition. Despite his refusal of authority, Pachomius was still a spiritual leader and father far beyond the confines of his monastery.

We can contrast this office-refusing humility with the sort of kingdom building one often sees even in particular churches. I don't know how many complaints I've heard in the twenty-three years I've been a Christian (I'm pushing 46) about choirs. Always someone in the choir is being slighted somehow. Some choir-members' talents are recognized and rewarded with a solo, others' are not. One can't help wondering who such choir-members think they are singing for. A solo? Really? Because God -- the supposed audience -- won't be able to hear you sing otherwise? Morons. Worse, kingdom builders. Trust me: even if you are one of a thousand singing in unison, you are indeed singing a solo.

Obviously, this sort of kingdom building activity isn't limited to choir members. In fact, they probably learn that garbage from their church leaders, who just may be worse in their kingdom building. I try not wonder too much, since I don't really know, but I often wonder if megachurches are not the result of attempts at kingdom building. If so, it need not be simply the pastoral leadership of these churches, but in some cases even more on the part of the congregation. One often feels as if members of those churches aren't a little proud of their large numbers, seeing in those numbers a work of God rather than of men. They should be quaking in their little booties.

Third, Pachomius and his monks did not give their attention solely to the evangelical counsels, hiding behind monastery walls and minimizing sound doctrine and theological controversy. They took part in those controversies. Pachomius is well-known for his defenses of orthodoxy against the Arians. (It was probably his defenses of orthodoxy which led Anthanasius to attempt to ordain him.) Pachomius and his monks were therefore also theologians par excellence.

"Unity" is the watch word d' jour and is often employed to minimize the importance of doctrinal differences. "Doctrine divides," we are told, and we need to not be divisive. We should be focusing on the evangelical counsels, feeding the poor and otherwise caring for ones forgotten by society. But Pachomius had no such sentiment. Yes, we should do those things; but we should also, and equal energy and devotion hold the orthodox ground. He had vowed, as a prisoner, to learn about and to serve Christ. And it made a difference whether the Christ he served was truly God and truly Man, or not.

Pachomius himself was eventually hailed as "Abba" (father) which is where we get the word Abbot. As I mentioned above, he came to found nine monasteries in his lifetime, and after 336, Pachomius spent most of his time at his Pabau monastery. From his initial monastery, demand quickly grew and, by the time of his death in 346, one count estimates there were 3000 monks in his monasteries, dotting Egypt from north to south. Within a generation after his death, this number had grown to 7000 and then moved out of Egypt into Palestine and the Judea Desert, Syria, North Africa and eventually Western Europe.

He is also credited with being the first Christian to use and recommend use of a prayer rope. He was visited once by Basil of Caesarea who took many of his ideas and implemented them in Caesarea, where Basil also made some adaptations that became the ascetic rule, or Ascetica, the rule still used today by the Eastern Orthodox Church, and comparable to that of the Rule of St. Benedict in the West.

Pachomius remained abbot about forty years. When he caught an epidemic disease, he called his monks, encouraged them in their faith, and appointed his successor. He then departed the world on 9 May 348 A.D.

His reputation as a holy man has endured. No surprise, therefore, that he is currently commemorated in several liturgical calendars, and thought of fondly by a few Calvinists as well.

Part 1, Legitimacy of Monastic Life

Part 2, Rise of the Monastic Movement

Part 3, Theology of the Desert

Part 5, St. Anthony of Egypt


Steve Martin said...

You are obviously a thinker.

You may enjoy some of the things on my site.

a sample:


I'm late for church, but I'll come back and peruse your site some more.


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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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