By Nathan Carr
With an unobstructed view to Joy, let us go back to the first school tradition of the Christian Church—the monastery. How did the first attempt at formal Christian education enlist its students into the great “story being told?” Among the monastic schoolmasters of the 4th century—abbots and abbesses—one in particular gives profound insight into the formation of several abbeys throughout Egypt: St. Pachomius. Given to vivid description from the beginning, the scene of his calling is remarkable:
“‘And how will I teach those whom you call to choose this life with me, O Lord, if I have not first conquered myself?’ Having said this prayer, he spent the whole night weeping and repeating it until dawn. From his sweat the ground under his feet became like mud, for it was summer and the place was very warm. He also had the habit when he extended his hands in prayer, of not right away drawing them a little to himself for rest. Rather, by extending them as if on a cross he would wear the body down to stay awake for prayers.”
The emotional grandeur of the text is enough to inspire the most hardened administrator to reconsider the worthiness of the vocation. But its final appeal is not in this alone—this brief description, of which there are many similar, demonstrates the full sacramental nature of monastic convictions. Pachomius is not a dualist whose intensity of conviction is found awkwardly married to an otherwise laissez faire engagement of the body. Not only is the student not above his master; here we have the master certainly not above the discipline of his future students. Pachomius joins his confession and desire for wisdom together with the very posture of his body. He sees absolutely no distinction between the posture of body and soul—of form and content—of substance and symbol. He is anything but gnostic. In fact, gnosticism is not only heretical, it is unfathomable as a way forward for this school-planting monk of the 2nd century. If his school is to be cruciform, then his soul must be cruciform, and therefore the very outstretching of his arms must take the same. He engages the body to arouse the senses. He prays without ceasing to experience the Spirit in the same fashion. And his sweat commingled with tears and dirt become symbolic of the very reality he now embodies. The Church has been clear—the life of the body and the life of the Spirit are One. The substance and symbolism of the one are present in the other. Form and content are forever joined. To quote St. Paul:
“For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church” (Col 1:16-18).
The First Greek Life of Pachomius, Section 15, accessed at http://www.ldysinger.com/@texts/0330_pachomius/ 02a_1gk_li_sel.htm.