Pachomius the Great: Fuga Mundi Series, Part 2

FM Post Image Pt2

Welcome to the second installment of the Fuga Mundi Series.  

Christians have always been faced with the challenge of how to be “in the world, but not of the world.”  The Latin phrase for this is fuga mundi, which literally translates as “flight from the world.”  This series explores how famous monastic persons or groups lived out the fuga mundi.  Last week we learned about the life of St. Antony the Great.

St. Pachomius the Great is very likely someone you’ve never heard of.   He is acknowledged as a saint in both Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches and has a very compelling life story.  He is best known as father of cenobitic (communal) monasticism.  Prior to Pachomius, monasticism was largely a solitary affair. He started out as an anchorite (solitary), but discerned a call from God to shift to a more communal form of living.  

He was born to pagan parents in 292 in Thebes (Egypt) and pressed into service in the Roman army (a common occurence) at 21 in 313.  There he encountered the charity and hospitality of Christians during his forced service.  In 314 after escaping the army, he was so impressed by the witness of these Christians that he converted to Christianity and was baptized.  He embarked on the anchoritic (solitary) monastic life shortly thereafter in 317.  Pachomius then discerned a call by God to shift to a more communal form of monastic living.  By 323, he had established a monastery with around 100 near by monks.  Parenthetical page citations below are from the book Pachomian Koinonia: The Life of Saint Pachomius.

In the Life of Pachomius we are introduced to a shift in how the monastic movement engaged the world.  Pachomius’ initial monastic formation and life was anchoritic, yet he gradually transitioned to a cenobitic form of life.  One factor seems to have been the governing force in Pachomius’ life.  Throughout the early narration of his life we find his vocation to be marked by what can be called a Christian humanism, a broad and deep concern for all mankind (xvii, 27, 47, 138).  This humanism first leads Pachomius to an “active” life of charity toward the needy but this leaves him desiring a more solitary life of prayer (29).  After what seems to be a strong and successful anchoritic life lived with Palamon, a local hermit, Pachomius embarks upon the beginnings of his cenobitic life (39).  At this point it is important to note the presence of the same paradoxical fuga mundi dynamic that characterized Antony’s life: Pachomius’ initial humanistic vocation was formed and enhanced by his solitude to the point where he was called to found a communal monastic life.  A key factor of Pachomius’ cenobitic life also arises at this point in the narrative: a concern over material possessions.  We are told that Pachomius and his brother John “lived in great renunciation, for they gave away everything they earned through their manual work except what they absolutely needed” (41).

It is no accident that we find this strong statement concerning renunciation very shortly before Pachomius builds his first monastery (47).  One of the unique challenges of cenobitic monasticism and its fuga mundi is that it creates what I have called a “little world” that that must be contended with in addition to the broader world outside of the monastery.  The principal concern in this “little world” is often over material possessions, which dominates the latter half of the narrative, especially after Pachomius’ death.  The material growth of the Pachomian system of monasteries is testified to in a series of stories about boats gifted to the monks, one from a wealthy man (73), and the other from a bishop (74).  These vignettes capture the nature and scale of the material growth of the Pachomian monasteries.  Their influence and fame had spread through many sectors of the secular world, to the point where wealthy men and bishops solicited their attention.  Following the death of Pachomius we find a sustained concern over material possessions begin to manifest itself.  Theodore, who is given the charge of a large monastic system, expresses this concern on at least three occasions: once in a lengthy exhortation at a gathering of brothers (205-209); next, in back to back stories concerning the evils of material possessions (215-216); finally, we learn of Theodore’s outright distress over the monasteries’ many possessions (244-247).

Stay tuned next week when we will look at St. Benedict and his fuga mundi.

%d bloggers like this: