St Pachomius of Egypt

Gregory DiPippo

On May 9th, the Coptic Church commemorates one of the great early monastic patriarchs, St Pachomius. He was one of the most influential figures on the organization of monastic life in the 4th century; this is true even in the West, where his feast has only been kept very rarely, since St Benedict adopted many of his ideas into his Rule.

He was born in 292 to a pagan family in Upper Egypt; at the age of twenty, he was conscripted into the Roman army, and sent up the Nile with other conscripts under very unpleasant conditions. When the boat stopped at a place called Latopolis, the local Christians came out to take care of them, and Pachomius was so impressed by their kindness that he determined to embrace their faith as soon as he was able. When his unit was disbanded, he returned to his native place, where there was a Christian church, was accepted as a catechumen, and baptized soon thereafter.

He then chanced to hear of a very holy and austere hermit named Palaemon who was living nearby in the desert. Pachomius became his disciple, observing with him a life of strict fasting and abstinence, keeping long vigils, frequently reciting the entire Psalter at one go, and performing a good deal of manual labor. After several years, he visited a place called Tabennisi, about nine miles up the river, and heard a voice telling him to establish a monastery in that place. He is also said to have been visited by an angel, who confirmed this order, and gave him certain instructions as to how the monastic life was to be lived there. With his master’s encouragement, he built a cell at Tabennisi, and having settled there, soon began to attract many disciples.

A fresco on the wall of the Trinity Chapel in Lublin, Poland, with several of the early monastic Saints: Pachomius furthest to the left, with his rule in hand, then Anthony, Macarius, Spyridon of Trimythous, and Daniel the Stylite. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Hans A Rosbach, CC BY-SA 3.0.)

As with many of the early ascetics, Pachomius’ personal austerity was very astonishing. He is said to have gone fifteen years taking only brief rests, always sitting, never lying down, and never to have eaten a full meal. But he had a finely-honed discretion as to what others could bear, and turned no one away from joining his community, adjusting the discipline according to what was appropriate for each man’s condition and temperament, both spiritual and physical. In due course, he established other monasteries; when he died in 348, there were a total of three thousand monks in the nine houses he had founded.

The lives of the first monks sometimes degenerated into a competition of asceticism, with men vying with each other to think up ever more bizarrely miserable ways of living; one Egyptian document even speaks of a “hermit” who lived like an animal in the midst of a herd of wild buffalo. St Pachomius had the wisdom to see that this offered a strong temptation to pride, which was best checked by a communal life under a rule and an authority, and he is therefore credited as the founder of cenobitic monasticism.

St Jerome was a very small child when Pachomius died, but when he visited Egypt in the later decades of the fourth century, the communities which the latter had founded were still thriving. Jerome, who had a great deal of interest in and admiration for the monks, visited several of these communities, and, working through a Coptic-speaking translator, produced a Latin version of Pachomius’ rule. This Latin translation is considered to be the first and most faithful to the Coptic original, which is now lost, and it was through it that St Benedict came to know of Pachomius’ ideas about the monastic life. Scholars have rightly noted a great many references and even direct quotes of the Pachomian Rule in that of Benedict, who, not by coincidence, calls cenobites the best kind of monk.

Here is an excerpt from the prologue.

“… accepi libros ab homine Dei Silvano presbytero mihi directos, quos ille Alexandria missos susceperat, ut etiam injungeret transferendos. Aiebat enim quod in Thebaidis coenobiis, in monasterio Metanoeae, quod de Canopo in poenitentiam felici nominis conversione mutatum est, habitarent plurimi Latinorum, qui ignorarent Aegyptiacum Graecumque sermonem, quo Pachomii et Theodori et Orsiesii praecepta conscripta sunt. Qui primi per Thebaidem et Aegyptum coenobiorum fundamenta jecerunt juxta praeceptum Dei, et Angeli, qui ad eos ob hanc ipsam institutionem missus venerit. … quas nos Epistolas ita ut apud Aegyptios Graecosque leguntur, in nostram linguam vertimus, eadem ut reperimus elementa ponentes, et qua simplicitatem Aegyptii sermonis imitati sumus, … ne viros apostolicos et totos gratiae spiritalis sermo rhetoricus immutaret.

(St Jerome Reading in the Desert, ca. 1476, by the Venetian painter Alvise Vivarini (1447 ca. – 1503/5). 

… I received books sent to me by a man of God, the priest Silvanus, which he had received from Alexandria, so that he might send them on to be translated. For he told me that in the monasteries of the Thebaid, in the monastery of Metanoia, (the name of which was happily changed from Canope to “conversion”, ) there live very many Latins who do not know the Egyptian or Greek languages, in which the Rule of Pachomius, Theodore and Orosius were written. These men are the ones who first laid the foundation of the “cenobia” throughout the Thebaid and Egypt, according to the command of God, and of an angel who was sent to them for this very purpose. … and we have translated these letters as they are read among the Egyptians and Greeks, setting down the same elements that we found, and imitating the simplicity of the Egyptians language …  lest learned speech should change (the readers’ impression of) those apostolic men, who were completely full of spiritual grace.”

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