The goal of the Christian life is sanctification, union with God. We are to follow holy Scripture and the traditions of the Fathers, we are to pray fervently and partake of the Sacraments in striving for holy living. In our quest for “deification” we are to abstain from all that is sinful and which leads us away from God.
In the first centuries of the Church, martyrdom was often the shortest path to union with God, but as Christianity became accepted and favored in the Roman Empire, some chose to be “martyrs” to the world through monasticism.
St. Anthony of Egypt, in the late 3rd century, established the path of monasticism – of leaving the world for the desolation of the desert and the struggle to overcome temptation in isolation from others. St. Anthony is known as the “father of monasticism”; his way is known as the “eremitical” way.
A generation later, St. Pachomius of Egypt developed a different kind of monasticism, one in which sanctification was worked out in community with others. He is known as the founder of “cenobitic” monasticism.
Pachomius was born into a pagan family. At the age of 20, he was drafted into the Imperial army and during his service as a soldier, he was stationed in a Christian town and came in contact with the local people. He was impressed most of all by their kindness and generosity. When he was discharged from the army in 313, Pachomius became a catechumen and learned everything he could about the one True God. After his baptism, he decided to dedicate his whole life to God, so he sought out the hermit Palamon to learn how to live the ascetic life. Palamon at first refused the young man, testing his determination, but Pachomius’ perseverance convinced the elder of his sincerity.
After several years of austere desert living, Pachomius had a vision in which an angel instructed him to build a monastery outside the deserted village of Tabennisi – a monastery with cells for many monks. Following these instructions on faith, Pachomius soon found himself surrounded by seekers. Out of necessity, he began to formulate a “rule” for these men, based partly on what he had learned from Palamon and partly on the needs of a group of people living together as a monastic community. The men were organized into groups based on their work skills and everything about their lives (including what they ate, how they dressed and slept) was determined by referring to holy Scripture. Pachomius, as the father of the community, entered completely into the life of service which he expected of the other monks – he waited on tables, tended the vegetable garden, cared for the sick.
Abbot Pachomius was known as a healer and miracle worker, but he also knew that God did not always grant healing. He prayed for God’s will, not his own. He had many visions (like the one which began his monastic community) but warned his monks against seeking visions, as some were not from God but from the devil. He declared that the greatest vision was to see the “invisible God in the visible man who is his temple.” [quoted in Vida Prima Graeca, written c. 390 to record the memory of St. Pachomius by those who had known him.]
As the community grew, more monastic houses were founded by Pachomius, eventually totaling eleven (nine for men and two for women), and many who struggled to live a holy life in these communities also became venerated as saints (St. Silvanus the actor, St. Paphnutius, and many others). His rule influenced later monastic leaders (such as St. Basil and St. Benedict) as they developed rules for their communities.
Plague struck the monks in the year 345 and Abba Pachomius was among those who died. He was 60 years old and had given the greater part of his life in humble devotion to God. His first impressions of Christian love – witnessed in the community he met while a young soldier – had inspired him to show his followers that it is in service to others that we most clearly achieve sanctification. Holy Pachomius, pray for us.