For a while now, we’ve been learning about individual monks and their way of life, and it’s easy to compare it to things that we already know today. Usually today, we think of monks as being members of religious orders like Benedictines, Franciscans, Precious Blood Sisters, or otherwise. But in the time of the Desert Fathers, things were still very much in their infancy.
There were monasteries built in those times, but not as we would think of them now. Mostly, the monks lived solitary lives as hermits, but they would gather together once in a while to seek counsel or to pray. Some of the older monks or those who were physically unable to live the extreme lifestyle in the desert would stay at the monastery and live in the rooms there.
One great Desert Father changed all of this – St. Pachomius the Great. He was born in Thebes in Egypt around 292 to a pagan family. In his teens, Pachomius was forced into service in the Roman army, and was put on a ship to be sent down the Nile for training. It was there that he first experienced Christians. They reached out to the troops, giving them food, water, comfort and prayers. This had a lasting impression on him, and when he was able to leave the army, he immediately sought out the Church to be baptized.
As a new Christian, Pachomius came into contact with the hermits of the desert, and sought to pursue that path for his own life. He studied and imitated the life of Christ the best he could, and also the life of St. Anthony of the Desert. But after living as a hermit for a few years, he felt called to something different.
St. Pachomius liked the idea of having monasteries as St. Macarius had set them up, but he added a different spin to them. He is credited with founding cenobitic monasticism, which is similar to our approach to religious life today. Rather than living by themselves, the monks lived in community, sharing their resources and property, praying together, and promising obedience to their abbot or abbess. (“Abbot” sounds a lot like “abba”, am I right?) These monks didn’t train to become priests, despite some encouragement by others to do so, but they lived in communal religious life together.
St. Pachomius served as the abbot of his community for 40 years before dying around 348. By the time of his death, there were eight monasteries under his care, each holding hundreds of monks. His life and leadership attracted a lot of attention from other influential figures of the time. St. Athanasius and St. Basil, two Doctors of the Church, took St. Pachomius’ model and brought it back with them to their own homes. Eventually, cenobitic monasticism spread to Palestine, Syria, and eventually, Western Europe.
We’ll soon see what an impact this had on the world! St. Pachomius the Great, pray for us!