Abba Pachomios The Great
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Pachomios The Great?
Abba Pachomios uttered these words at the outset of his spiritual life. He had been born in 292 AD to pagan parents and was raised on Egyptian mythology. At the age of 20 he was enlisted into the Roman emperor’s army. As he and the other recruits were being sent down the Nile to serve the emperor, they happened to stay in a predominantly Christian city in northern Egypt. The conditions the troops were subjected to were very poor. The Christians in the city, upon learning of the poor state of the soldiers, took compassion on them and showed them kindness. This incident had such a remarkable impact upon Pachomios that a few short years later, after the emperor’s army had been disbanded, Pachomios made his way back home, committed his life to Christ and was baptized at a local church.
As a young man, his heart burned with love for God. He lived for intimacy with Christ. Some of his disciples said this as he grew older, “Whenever we listened to the words of our Father, Abba Pachomius, we were greatly helped and spurred on with zeal for good works; we saw how, even when he kept silence, he taught us by his actions.”
He served Christ with absolute sincerity.
"Indeed, man experiences no other satisfaction on earth, except that of doing good and what is pleasing to God."
Pachomios’ Life Calling
Shortly after his baptism, he sought out Abba Palamon, a desert hermit. Palamon became his spiritual father and taught him the spiritual life. It was during his stay with Palamon that Abba Pachomios discovered his life’s calling.
One night, while seeking the will of God for his life, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him and said,
“God's Will is for you to serve Him and reconcile the human race to God. From now on welcome to yourself those who approach God in repentance, and advise them according to the rule that I shall give you."
The angel promised him that countless souls would be saved by him. Pachomios left with Palamon to begin the work of planting monasteries and raising other monks in the spiritual life. If Abba Anthony inspired Christian monasticism, Pachomios normalized it. At the time of his death, Pachomios oversaw 7,000 monks at monasteries he had begun and planted two convents, the first of their kind.
He was known for his humility. While he was sitting in a workshop weaving mats, a young boy observed him and said, “Do not spin the thread that way; you are not doing it properly.” Abba Pachomios rose from his work and said to the boy, “My son, teach me the other way.”
He was tender towards those who were just beginning:
“My brother, there is no harm, in the beginning, in accommodating someone newly arrived here; for, as a newly planted tree requires a great deal of water, so too is consideration required for one who is beginning the ascetic life, until he can, by the Grace of God, establish roots and support himself in the Faith.”
At the outset of building their first monastery, Pachomios called to mind the incredible promise of the Angel, that many would be saved through him. He expanded the size of the buildings, but his older brother interpreted his ambition as pride and told him,
“Stop being prideful and giving yourself airs.” On hearing these words, Pachomios was angry for a moment, because he had been insulted for no reason. However, he did not contradict his brother at all, but-meek as he was-restrained himself. The following night, he went down into the basement which he had built in one part of the dwelling and began to weep inconsolably and confess to God: "Woe is me, for the mind of the flesh is still in me, and I am behaving having like all other men. I have undertaken such great asceticism, and yet I am seized once again by anger. Have mercy on me Lord.”
Our emotional responses to the painful accusations of others can be turned into moments of cleansing for our hearts if we will humble ourselves and hear the gentle correction of Christ. He disciplines those He loves, and through Pachiomos’s brother, it was revealed to Pachiomos the depth of anger that lingered in his heart.
What can we learn from Pachomios?
Pachomios recognized that God would use the faults of another to test his own heart. He in turn raised his disciples in the same way. His favorite disciple, Theodore, was growing in wisdom and strong in spirit. One afternoon, he asked Theodore to teach the other monks in their community. The older monks were indignant that a young upstart like Theodore would be asked to teach them, after all, they were more experienced than he.
Pachomios was caught up in the rapt attention to the teaching of his disciple, saying,
“l listened to him so devotedly that I did not know my right from my left.”
Upon recognizing the pride in the older monks, Abba Pachomios said,
”Do you know where evil came into the world?”
”Where?” they asked.
”From pride, for which cause Lucifer, who rises at dawn, fell from Heaven and was dashed to the earth.”
One by one, the old monks had left when Theodore began teaching and Pachomios rebuked their pride.
“You did not abandon Theodore when you withdrew, but in fleeing from the word of God, you were separated from the Holy Spirit.”
Pachomios revealed in the humility of God.
“He Who by nature is sublime and infinite benefited the world through His humility, though He could consume the universe with His glance; whereas we who are earth and ashes, and still more insignificant than these, become puffed up, unaware that in so doing we send ourselves off to the nether regions of the earth.”
He understood the nature of a true vision from God based upon the effects it would have upon him:
”The mystical and inexplicable presence of Christ’s holiness fills one’s soul with joy and frees it from every fear. Simultaneously, at such a vision, all human thoughts disappear. Yet I am now disconcerted and my mind is filled with human thoughts, contrary to what should be occurring within me if this vision were of a Divine nature.”
The true vision overwhelms the thoughts and inspires one to awe and reverence for Christ.
His disciple Theodore recounted this lesson from Abba Pachomios.
“For without the help of the Lord, a man’s works are dust and ashes, especially when he bases them on self-assurance.”
Pachomios held Theodore to a higher standard than most, he refused to settle for less than what Theodore was capable of accomplishing. He would criticize Theodore’s work in order to teach Theodore to live not on the praise of man, but on the praise of God.
Abba Pachomios had a remarkable influence on Christian spirituality. He both elevated the desert movement and gave the expression of community to the fathers and mothers. He was both kind and compassionate, as well as hard and austere. In an age when many were concerned about supernatural phenomena, he was never counted it worthwhile to be known for great miracles:
“My struggle and my whole purpose in life is not to walk across a river without getting wet, to fly over mountains, or to give orders to wild beasts, but to understand the Will of God and to overcome the wiles of the Devil by the power of the Lord.”
He subjected himself to harsh discipline but was incredibly humble and soft. In wisdom he would correct his disciples, in humility he would learn from them. In his community, he was responsible for gathering wood from a nearby hill. It was his custom to travel barefoot, as such the thorns on the path would pierce his feet as he strode along. Pachomios was familiar and comfortable with this pain, after all, if Christ suffered and was pierced, ought not he to suffer and be pierced?
He was 57 years old when he passed away, nearly half of Abba Anthony’s age with just as much influence.