Soldier Saints: Pachomius of Thebes
Updated: Nov 4, 2019
Resurrection is counting down to Veteran's Day by featuring Soldier Saints. Logan Isaac created this countdown as a way for churches to support and welcome veterans. The excerpt below is reposted by permission from Logan's book For God and Country [in that order], © 2013 Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Va.
Today's featured Soldier Saint is Pachomius of Thebes.
Pachomius was the earliest saint with military history who was martyred.(1) At a young age, he was conscripted into the Roman army from North Africa. He underwent all the training that soldiers received, including how to convert villages throughout the empire into fortified enclaves from which to coordinate military affairs. Forts were all over the Roman provinces, and many were built upon villages that had been abandoned or were taken by force into Roman control. (2)
For reasons little known, Pachomius refused to serve in some capacity and was therefore imprisoned before he ever saw combat or military service. In jail, Christian visitors would bring prisoners food, water, and general hospitality. Pachomius took a liking to their illegal religion. Before long, he was converted, baptized, and released from jail and from his military service obligation, but he never forgot his training.
He had a great admiration for the desert fathers, especially Saint Anthony, who was famous for his isolation and ascetic rigor. Christian monks were largely eremitic, (3) leaving their urban lives behind in protest of both the state and the church, living alone in caves in the wilderness.
But Pachomius was not called to be a solitary figure. After studying for seven years with an elder monk, he heard a voice telling him to “build a dwelling where many eager to embrace the monastic life” would come to him. So he put his old military training to good use. He gained a small following while he went about converting abandoned villages into small monastic communities. In fact, he became the father of communal monasticism, known as cenobitic monasticism. All the hermits and monks before him lived alone, but Pachomius lived in the company of other holy people like him.
Military training is timeless in its emphasis on camaraderie, training men and women to recognize their dependence upon others and others dependence upon them. The phalanx of ancient Greece, which heavily shaped later Roman military strategy, was composed of soldiers tightly massed together for protection during an advance. The soldier on your left and right depended on you and you on them. Lone, isolated fighters were easily identified, engaged, and defeated.
Similarly, the Christian faith has emphasized that it is “where two or three gather”(4) that Christ lives. Believers worship and break bread together, wash the feet of and pray with hands upon one another. Pachomius’s formation first as a soldier and later as a Christian was essential to his understanding of the communality of our faith.
Not only was Pachomius the first soldier saint not martyred, he was also the first cenobitic monk, the founder of what is now a much more popular form of monastic life. Just like some branches of the military have core values expected of each soldier, sailor, marine, or airman, (5) Pachomius wrote a rule of life that would later be imitated by more famous monks, particularly Saint Benedict.
By the time he died, there were nine male communities for Pachomius’s order and two for women. Pachomius was so popular his bishop, Athanasius of Alexandria, tried to lay hands on him and coerce him into the priesthood, but Pachomius would have none of it and fled. None of the three thousand Pachomian monks in history were ever ordained; all have been lay people who answered the call to a radical community whose origins can be traced to the same communal standards with which soldiers are so familiar.
God, who is mysteriously one and yet three, your servant Pachomius blessed the lives of monastics old and new by his life in community, which was marked by ascetic rigor, simple piety, and emphasis on the laity. You alone, God, create from nothing, and we give thanks for Pachomius mining the depths of his military training and finding within it the virtue of a committed life together, building upon his martial experience in obedience to your Word, our Lord. Give us the virtues necessary to live lives similarly obedient, through Christ Jesus. Amen.
1. The Life of Saint Pachomius, Abbot of Tabennisi, by an Unknown Greek Author can be found online at http://www.vitae-patrum.org.uk/page11.html.
2. I owe much of this information to Dan Cantey’s article in Volume 32, Number 2 of Journal of the Society for Christian Ethics, “Can the Christian Serve in the Military? A Veteran Journal of the Society for Christian Ethics, “Can the Christian Serve in the Military? A Veteran Reflects on the Commensurability of the Christian Life and the Military Ethic,” which he presented at a conference in Washington, D.C., in January 2012. Dan is a veteran and a wonderful scholar and teaches at Bethel University in Tennessee.
3. Eremetic is a root of the word hermit, as well as implying a relationship to the desert. Prior to Pachomius, all monks lived alone in the desert like Anthony before them.
4. Matthew 18:20.
5. The United States “Army Values,” for example, roughly spell out the acronym “leadership”: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.