Saturday, October 27, 2012


If Saint Pachomius (d. 346) had known Greek then maybe yesterday’s lunchroom encounter between Glenn and Dominick would never have happened.


Pachomius (292-348 A.D.)
Novice Br. Thomas and I have been studying the life of Saint Pachomius, the fourth century father of the branch of monasticism called “cenobitic” (communal). He was an Egyptian, a Copt who had spend time in the military and had been converted to Christianity by the loving example of some Christians who had been kind to him and some fellow soldiers. At the time, the monastic experiment was starting to develop in several places in Syria, Palestine and Egypt, but it was always deeply colored by the Greek world view which was highly intellectual (the goal of the first monks was to achieve contemplation of God) and also very individualistic (you sought out a quiet place free from all distraction from other people and material concerns). The deserts started becoming populated with individuals pursuing this “anchoritic” (hermit) style of Christian living.

But Pachomius, a Copt, did not know Greek, and so was not influenced by the main-line Greek-influenced monasticism of the day with its emphasis on intellectualism and individualism. Instead he went right to the New Testament and modeled his brand of monastic life on the life of the Early Church as recounted in Acts 4:32-34:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. 

Pachomius put a great emphasis on the horizontal, communal dimension of the life. Thus the second stream of monastic tradition began: Not a bunch of sovereign individuals each doing his or her own thing, perhaps loosely attached to some elder or to some small collection of hermits (anchorites), but rather people who chose to live together (cenobites) in a life of shared goods, common prayer and work under an abbot and following a common set of rules. This latter stream of monasticism would be articulated by St. Basil (with his primary emphasis on love) and by many others over the years, including Benedict.

This might seem pretty abstruse and unrelated to modern life, but I was reminded yesterday that it’s actually very much alive here in inner-city Newark.


Yesterday I was in our school cafeteria at lunch time chatting with Glenn, the teacher in charge of our freshman “formation” program. The entire class is divided into 18 groups, each under the care of its own specially trained sophomore who meets with his little group a few times a week and is responsible for “his” freshmen. So as I was sitting there Glenn said, “Excuse me, Father,” and then called out to Dominick, a sophomore who is one of Glenn’s “Freshman Counselors” who was walking by. The interchange was amazing.
Glenn: Dominick, sit here a minute. What kind of a relationship do you have with Larry [fictional name of a freshman in Dominick’s group]?
Dominick: Good. We talk; a while back he told me some pretty private things. He trusts me.
Glenn: Great! He’s in some trouble right now because of an incident this morning. Can you sit with him and me and maybe you can help us sort it out?
Dominick: Sure. Absolutely.

Glenn then asked another student to go and fetch Larry, who was sitting in the hot seat upstairs awaiting his fate. I got up and excused myself, confident that Larry was in good hands.

What was amazing to me was that this conversation was treated as so matter-of-fact and ordinary. This adult was asking a sophomore for help in dealing with a freshman on the basis of a trust relationship that had been built up as a direct result of the freshman program. Dominick’s response was really gratifying to me, but I’m sure he saw it as just an everyday part of his job responsibility: Sure, Larry trusts me; we’ve spoken about some serious stuff before. That's what I'm spozed to do.


I guess you might say that our approach with freshmen around here is not very Greek (individualistic and abstract), but more New Testament (communal and interpersonal). This is no accident, of course -- it’s our Benedictine cenobitic tradition being lived out in our school. Kind of makes me glad that Pachomius never learned any Greek, you know?

I'd like to think that Pachomius, Basil and Benedict would be delighted to see the way Glenn, Dominick and Larry care about each other as members of a community.


The following passage from Ephesians, part of the first reading at mass this past Tuesday, seems an appropriate way to end this post.

So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God in the Spirit. (Eph. 2:19-22)

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