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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 38. Pachomius and the Cloister life.


On St. Pachomius we have a biography composed soon after his death by a monk of Tabennae, and scattered accounts in Palladius, Jerome (Regula Pachomii, Latine reddita, Opp. Hieron. ed. Vallarsi, tom. ii. p. 50 sqq.), Rufinus, Sozomen, &c. Comp. Tillemont, tom. vii. p. 167–235, and the Vit. Sanct. sub Maj. 14.


Though the strictly solitary life long continued in use, and to this day appears here and there in the Greek and Roman churches, yet from the middle of the fourth century monasticism began to assume in general the form of the cloister life, as incurring less risk, being available for both sexes, and being profitable to the church. Anthony himself gave warning, as we have already observed, against the danger of entire isolation, by referring to the proverb: “Woe to him that is alone.” To many of the most eminent ascetics anchoretism was a stepping stone to the coenobite life; to others it was the goal of coenobitism, and the last and highest round on the ladder of perfection.

The founder of this social monachism was Pachomius, a contemporary of Anthony, like him an Egyptian, and little below him in renown among the ancients. He was born about 292, of heathen parents, in the Upper Thebaid, served as a soldier in the army of the tyrant Maximin on the expedition against Constantine and Licinius, and was, with his comrades, so kindly treated by the Christians at Thebes, that he was won to the Christian faith, and, after his discharge from the military service, received baptism. Then, in 313, he visited the aged hermit Palemon, to learn from him the way to perfection. The saint showed him the difficulties of the anchorite life: “Many,” said he, “have come hither from disgust with the world, and had no perseverance. Remember, my son, my food consists only of bread and salt; I drink no wine, take no oil, spend half the night awake, singing psalms and meditating on the Scriptures, and sometimes pass the whole night without sleep.” Pachomius was astounded, but not discouraged, and spent several years with this man as a pupil.

In the year 325 he was directed by an angel, in a vision, to establish on the island of Tabennae, in the Nile, in Upper Egypt, a society of monks, which in a short time became so strong that even before his death (348) it numbered eight or nine cloisters in the Thebaid, and three thousand (according to some, seven thousand), and, a century later, fifty thousand members. The mode of life was fixed by a strict rule of Pachomius, which, according to a later legend, an angel communicated to him, and which Jerome translated into Latin. The formal reception into the society was preceded by a three-years’ probation. Rigid vows were not yet enjoined. With spiritual exercises manual labor was united, agriculture, boat building, basketmaking, mat and coverlet weaving, by which the monks not only earned their own living, but also supported the poor and the sick. They were divided, according to the grade of their ascetic piety, into four and twenty classes, named by the letters of the Greek alphabet. They lived three in a cell. They ate in common, but in strict silence, and with the face covered. They made known their wants by signs. The sick were treated with special care. On Saturday and Sunday they partook of the communion. Pachomius, as abbot, or archimandrite, took the oversight of the whole; each cloister having a separate superior and a steward.

Pachomius also established a cloister of nuns for his sister, whom he never admitted to his presence when she would visit him, sending her word that she should be content to know that he was still alive. In like manner, the sister of Anthony and the wife of Ammon became centres of female cloister life, which spread with great rapidity.

Pachomius, after his conversion never ate a full meal, and for fifteen years slept sitting on a stone. Tradition ascribes to him all sorts of miracles, even the gift of tongues and perfect dominion over nature, so that he trod without harm on serpents and scorpions, and crossed the Nile on the backs of crocodiles!334334   Möhler remarks on this (Vermischte Schriften, ii. p. 183): “Thus antiquity expresses its faith, that for man perfectly reconciled with God there is no enemy in nature. There is more than poetry here; there is expressed at least the high opinion his own and future generations had of Pachomius.” The last qualifying remark suggests a doubt even in the mind of this famous modern champion of Romanism as to the real historical character of the wonderful tales of this monastic saint. Soon after Pachomius, fifty monasteries arose on the Nitrian mountain, in no respect inferior to those in the Thebaid. They maintained seven bakeries for the benefit of the anchorets in the neighboring Libyan desert, and gave attention also, at least in later days, to theological studies; as the valuable manuscripts recently discovered there evince.

From Egypt the cloister life spread with the rapidity of the irresistible spirit of the age, over the entire Christian East. The most eminent fathers of the Greek church were either themselves monks for a time, or at all events friends and patrons of monasticism. Ephraim propagated it in Mesopotamia; Eustathius of Sebaste in Armenia and Paphlagonia; Basil the Great in Pontus and Cappadocia. The latter provided his monasteries and nunneries with clergy, and gave them an improved rule, which, before his death (379), was accepted by some eighty thousand monks, and translated by Rufinus into Latin. He sought to unite the virtues of the anchorite and coenobite life, and to make the institution useful to the church by promoting the education of youth, and also (as Athanasius designed before him) by combating Arianism among the people.335335   Gregory Nazianzen, in his eulogy on Basil (Orat. xx. of the old order, Orat. xliii. in the new Par. ed.), gives him the honor of endeavoring to unite the theoretical and the practical modes of life in monasticism, ἲνα μήτε τὸ φιλόσοφον ἀκοινώνητον ᾗ, μήτε τὸ πρακτικὸν ἀφιλόσοφον. He and his friend Gregory Nazianzen were the first to unite scientific theological studies with the ascetic exercises of solitude. Chrysostom wrote three books in praise and vindication of the monastic life, and exhibits it in general in its noblest aspect.

In the beginning of the fifth century, Eastern monasticism was most worthily represented by the elder Nilus of Sinai, a pupil and venerator of Chrysostom, and a copious ascetic writer, who retired with his son from a high civil office in Constantinople to Mount Sinai, while his wife, with a daughter, travelled to an Egyptian cloister;336336   Comp. Neander, iii. 487 (Torrey’s translation, vol. ii. p. 250 sqq.), who esteems Nilus highly; and the article of Gass in Herzog’s Theol. Encykl. vol. x. p, 355 sqq. His works are in the Bibl. Max. vet. Patr. tom. vii., and in Migne’s Patrol. Gr. t. 79. and by the abbot Isidore, of Pelusium, on the principal eastern mouth of the Nile, from whom we have two thousand epistles.337337   Comp. on him Tillemont, xv., and H. A. Niemeyer: “De Isid. Pel. vita, scripet doctrina,” Hal. 1825. His Epistles are in the 7th volume of the Bibliotheca Maxima, and in Migne’s Patrol. Graeca, tom. 58, Paris, 1860. The writings of these two men show a rich spiritual experience, and an extended and fertile field of labor and usefulness in their age and generation.



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