The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Sunday, April 1, 2012

ST. PACHOMIUS - "Place" as a Factor in Salvation

Readers of our blog are scattered around the world. People come for a variety of reasons, but the most obvious reason is to learn more about the teachings of the ancient Desert Fathers and Mothers, those holy men and women who forsook earthly life for a life of hardship and struggle so they could focus their entire beings on God and seek to become one with God.  Although many of these men and women lived in monasteries, many of them did not.  From the beginning of their spiritual struggles, they were truly alone in the world with no spiritual guides; if they were lucky, they had their Bible and perhaps a couple of writings from earlier saints.  Usually they did not have even this.

In many ways, we are like those holy men and women of the Early Church.  In today’s world, people who seek the spiritual life are often alone in their quest with no spiritual guides except books or other writings they may have been blessed to collect.  We often wonder how we can find salvation where we are.  St. Pachomius addressed this issue and assures us that, indeed, one’s “place” does not determine one’s salvation.

St. Pachomius lived from 292 to 346, but his relatively brief life had a profound impact on the development of monasticism.  Although Pachomius was a contemporary of St. Anthony the Great, the two apparently never met.  A pagan boy born in the present-day Egyptian city of Esneh, he was drafted into the army to fight in a war at the age of twenty.  In a camp for conscripts near Luxor, Pachomius was visited one night by local Christians who came to the camp to give food and water to the conscripts since life in the camps was very miserable.  After a fruitful conversation with one of the visitors, Pachomius prayed to God that He would deliver him from his plight, he would dedicate his life to serving Him.  Within a few months, the war was over and Pachomius returned to Luxor where he was baptised.  It was in this region of Upper Egypt that Pachomius was to establish the idea of cenobitic monasticism, a sort of “half way point” between living in the world and being a recluse.  Over the ensuing years, thousands of men and women would embrace the monastic life in communities scattered up and down the Nile Valley.

Let us look then at the letters of Pachomius to his disciples and ponder on his teachings of the importance of “place” in the spiritual life.

BEGIN:  Become guileless and be like the guileless sheep whose wool is sheared off without their saying a word.  Do not go from one place to another saying, “I will find God here or there.”  God has said, “I fill the earth, I fill the heavens” (Jeremiah 23:24).  And again, “If you cross over water, I am with you” (Isaiah 43:2); and again, “The waves will not swallow you up” (Isaiah 43:2).  My son, be aware that God is within you, so that you may dwell in his law and commandments.  Behold, the thief was on the cross, and he entered Paradise; but behold Judas was among the Apostles and he betrayed his Lord.  Behold, Rahab was in prostitution, and she was numbered among the saints; but behold, Eve was in Paradise, and she was deceived.  Behold, Job was on the dung heap, and he was compared with his Lord; but behold, Adam was in Paradise, and he fell away from the commandment.

Behold, the angels were in heaven, and they were hurled into the abyss; but behold Elijah and Enoch who were raised into the kingdom of heaven.  “In every place, then, seek out God; at every moment seek out his strength” (Psalms 105:4). Seek Him out like Abraham, who obeyed God, who called Him “my friend.”  Seek Him out like Joseph, who did battle against impurity, so that he was made ruler over his enemies.  Seek him out like Moses, who followed his Lord, and He made him lawgiver and let him come to know His likeness.  Daniel sought Him out, and He taught him great mysteries; He saved him from the lion’s gullet.  The three saints sought Him out, and found Him in the fiery furnace.  Job took refuge with Him and He cured him of his sores.  Susanna sought Him out, and He saved her from the hands of the wicked.  Judith sought Him out, and found Him in the tent of Holofernes.  All these sought Him out and he delivered them; and he delivered others also.  END

from “Pachomian Koinonia vol III,” trans. by Fr. Armand Veilleux, a monk of Mistassini, (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, no. 47, 1982), pp. 23-24