Solitaries in the Thebaid

In the third century the Thebaid in Egypt was full of solitaries. They lived each in his own cell, but there was no community life. Paul, the Hermit, was the most celebrated of them. St. Antony (264-356) trained these Solitaries to live in common, but as yet there was no rule, nor acknowledged superior, and they only assembled together at stated times for prayer. The hermits lived in cells and ate and worked alone. They partook of only one meal daily, at sunset. Herbs and roots supplied the necessaries of life. Their duties were fasting, prayer, and labour. They wove mats which they made of the reeds that grew in the district, and bought for the price food and clothing. Their needs were few and easily supplied.

Pachomius (292-348) was the first who framed a code of laws for the Solitaries of the Thebaid. He was a Roman soldier, and offered himself after his conversion as a disciple to Palemon, who was one of Antony’s disciples. Palemon at first refused. “My food,” said he, “is bread and salt; I abstain from wine altogether; I watch half—sometimes the whole night, praying and reading the Divine Word.” Palemon then received him, enjoining on him to “labour and watch.”

Later on Pachomius founded the celebrated monastery of Tabena on an island in the Nile. It contained 5,000 brethren. He framed a rule, of which these were the principal heads: The postulant should labour with his hands for three years before entering on more sacred studies; he was to say twelve prayers in the day, twelve in the evening, and twelve at night. Additional prayers may be said in the cells by the more perfect. Each was to eat and drink as much as he thought sufficient, but he was compelled to labour in proportion to what he ate. Heavier work should be imposed on the stronger and those who used a greater quantity of food. Each was to be clothed at night with a linen tunic girdled. Cells should be built and three members to occupy each cell. Each was to wear a melotes (a white, dressed goat-skin) both eating and sleeping, but when he approached the Sacraments he was to lay aside his melotes and wear only his cuculla (cowl).

He divided the brethren into regiments, and appointed an overseer over each, those of the same craft living together in the same house (all trades were represented in the community). Accounts of the work done by the different trades were rendered weekly to the Father of the Monastery, and there was a yearly audit by the economus of all the monasteries.

There were two general assemblies every year, in August and at Easter, and according to St. Jerome there used to be in attendance 50,000 monks. Pachomius remained superior-general of all the monasteries till his death, and designated his successor.

From Egypt monasticism spread to the west. St. Martin founded a monastery at Marmoutier, near Tours, 374. St. Victor, near Marseilles, was founded by Cassian, 416. One at Aries was founded by St. Caesarius, 490. St. Honoratus founded a monastery at Lerins, 410; St. Benedict, Monte Cassino, 529.

The French rule prescribed poverty, obedience, stability, that is perseverance to death. The monk should read till the third hour, 9 o’clock, and then do the other work he was ordered. Flesh and fowl were prohibited, except in case of sickness. Fasting and daily work was the same as in Ireland.

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