Sunday, 17 September 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 6 — Early Egyptian Coenobitical Monasticism

The very first coenobite in Egypt was St Pachomios, and he is credited with beginning Christian coenobitical monasticism. A very good collection of his Lives, along with the various rules and regulations of his monasteries, can be found here:

Pachomian Koinonia. Volume I: The Life of St. Pachomius and His Disciples. Trans. Armand Veilleux, OCSO. Cistercian Studies 45. Kalamazoo, MI, USA: Cistercian Publications, 1980.

Pachomian Koinonia. Volume II: Pachomian Chronicles and Rules. Trans. Armand Veilleux, OCSO. Cistercian Studies 46. Kalamazoo, MI, USA: Cistercian Publications, 1981.

Pachomian Koinonia. Volume III: Instructions, Letters, and Other Writings of St. Pachomius and His Disciples. Trans. Armand Veilleux, OCSO. Cistercian Studies 47. Kalamazoo, MI, USA: Cistercian Publications, 1982.

What should be understood, however, and what becomes clear from the Lives, is that St Pachomios was very much in the tradition of the solitary desert ascetic with his single disciple. St Pachomios’ coenobitical monasticism is essentially the use of certain ideas from the army of the day to organize monks into large groups of solitary ascetics. That is to say, the spirituality and life of St Pachomios’ monasteries is much more like the life of the solitary desert ascetics than it is like the life of the coenobitical monasteries of the Medieval West (Benedictine monasticism after the reform of Benedict of Aniane, friend of Charlemagne) or even the coenobitical monasteries of that great legislator of coenobitical monasticism, St Basil the Great. The emphasis in the Pachomian monastery was on providing a place where the somewhat weaker ascetic could engage in Egyptian desert asceticism, as briefly described in an earlier post, without all the difficulties associated with a completely solitary life. Most coenobitical monks today would find Pachomian coenobitical monasticism fearsomely ascetical and psychologically isolating.

It is noteworthy that St John Cassian, writing in France in about 420 ad, indicates in one of his narratives that there were other coenobitical foundations in Egypt besides the Pachomian ones. In fact, he himself started out in a coenobitical monastery in the Holy Land. He does not describe the way of life of the monasteries he knew except to indicate that they had a liturgical rule (or, typikon). He himself, clearly drawing on his experience in Egypt but also adapting it to conditions in France and drawing on St Basil the Great, lays down the principles of coenobitical monasticism for his own monasteries. It is noteworthy that he foresees that the coenobite will eventually become a hermit, a solitary ascetic: the coenobitical monastery is a preparation for the eremitic life.

Virtually all the women who were monastics in Egypt in this period were coenobites living in parthenones: houses of virgins. In general, it is only by exception in Christian monasticism that the woman enters into the solitary life.

We will next see what changes St Basil the Great introduced into monasticism.

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