Sayings of the
Sayings of the Desert Fathers, or Apophthegmata Patrum, is the name given to the various collections of stories and sayings attributed to the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers, which were passed down and eventually collected sometime around the 5th century.
(Abridged) Sayings of the
|Anthony the Great
Anthony the Great, called ‘The Father of Monks‘, was born in central Egypt about A. D. 251, the son of peasant farmers who were Christian. In c. 269 he heard the Gospel read in church and applied to himself the words: ‘Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor and come . . . .’ He devoted himself to a life of asceticism under the guidance of a recluse near his village. In c. 285 he went alone into the desert to live in complete solitude. His reputation attracted followers, who settled near him, and in c. 305 he came out of his hermitage in order to act as their spiritual father. Five years later he again retired into solitude. He visited Alexandria at least twice, once during the persecution of Christians and again to support the Bishop Athanasius against heresy. He died at the age of one hundred and five. His life was written by Saint Athanasius and was very influential in spreading the ideals of monasticism throughout the
1. When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by accidie, and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, ‘Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?’ A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, ‘Do this and you will be saved.’ At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.
2. When the same Abba Anthony thought about the depth of the judgements of God, he asked, ‘Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do wicked men prosper and why are the just in need?’ He heard a voice answering him, ‘Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgement of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.’
3. Someone asked Abba Anthony, ‘What must one do in order to please God?’ The old man replied, ‘Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.’
4. Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen, ‘This is the great work of a man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.’
5. He also said, ‘Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.’ He even added, ‘Without temp- tations no-one can be saved.’
6. Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, ‘What ought I to do?’ and the old man said to him, ‘Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.’
7. Abba Anthony said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.” ‘
8. He also said, ‘Some have afflicted their bodies by asceticism, but they lack discernment, and so they are far from God.’
9. He also said, ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.’
10 . He said also, ‘Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so the monks who loiter outside their cells or pass their time with men of the world lose the intensity of inner peace. So like a fish going towards the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for fear that if we delay outside we will lose our interior watchfulness.’
11. He said also, ‘He who wishes to live in solitude in the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech, and sight; there is only one conflict for him and that is with fornication.’
12. Some brothers came to find Abba Anthony to tell him about the visions they were having, and to find out from him if they were true or if they came from the demons. They had a donkey which died on the way. When they reached the place where the old man was, he said to them before they could ask him anything, ‘How was it that the little donkey died on the way here?’ They said, ‘How do you know about that, Father?’ And he told them, ‘The demons shewed me what happened.’ So they said, ‘That was what we came to question you about, for fear we were being deceived, for we have visions which often turn out to be true.’ Thus the old man con- vinced them, by the example of the donkey, that their visions came from the demons.
13. A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So he did. The old man then said, ‘Shoot another,’ and he did so. Then the old man said, ‘Shoot yet again,’ and the hunter replied ‘If I bend my bow so much I will break it.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.’ When he heard these words, the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.
14. Abba Anthony heard of a very young monk who had per- formed a miracle on the road. Seeing the old men walking with difficulty along the road, he ordered the wild asses to come and carry them until they reached Abba Anthony. Those whom they had carried told Abba Anthony about it. He said to them, ‘This monk seems to me to be a ship loaded with goods but I do not know if he will reach harbour.’ After a while, Anthony suddenly began to weep, to tear his hair and lament. His disciples said to him, ‘Why are you weeping, Father?’ and the old man replied, ‘A great pillar of the Church has just fallen (he meant the young monk) but go to him and see what has happened.’ So the disciples went and found the monk sitting on a mat and weeping for the sin he had committed. Seeing the disciples of the old man he said, ‘Tell the old man to pray that God will give me just ten days and I hope I will have made satisfaction.’ But in the space of five days he died.
15. The brothers praised a monk before Abba Anthony. When the monk came to see him, Anthony wanted to know how he would bear insults; and seeing that he could not bear them at all, he said to him, ‘You are like a village magnificently decorated on the out- side, but destroyed from within by robbers.’
16. A brother said to Abba Anthony, ‘Pray for me.’ The old man said to him, ‘I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.’ ‘
17. One day some old men came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said, ‘You have not under- stood it.’ Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, ‘How would you explain this saying?’ and he replied, ‘I do not know.’ Then Abba Anthony said, ‘Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: “I do not know.”‘
18. Some brothers were coming from Scetis to see Abba An- thony. When they were getting into a boat to go there, they found an old man who also wanted to go there. The brothers did not know him. They sat in the boat, occupied by turns with the words of the Fathers, Scripture and their manual work. As for the old man, he remained silent. When they arrived on shore they found that the old man was going to the cell of Abba Anthony too. When they reached the place, Anthony said to them, ‘You found this old man a good companion for the journey?’ Then he said to the old man, ‘You have brought many good brethren with you, father.’ The old man said, ‘No doubt they are good, but they do not have a door to their house and anyone who wishes can enter the stable and loose the ass.’ He meant that the brethren said whatever came into their mouths.
19. The brethren came to the Abba Anthony and said to him, ‘Speak a word; how are we to be saved?’ The old man said to them, ‘You have heard the Scriptures. That should teach you how.’ But they said, ‘We want to hear from you too, Father.’ Then the old man said to them, ‘The Gospel says, “if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.”‘ (Matt. 5.39) They said, ‘We cannot do that.’ The old man said, ‘If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck.’ ‘We cannot do that either,’ they said. So he said, ‘If you are not able to do that, do not return evil for evil,’ and they said, ‘We cannot do that either.’ Then the old man said to his disciple, ‘Prepare a little brew of corn for these invalids. If you cannot do this, or that, what can I do for you? What you need is prayers.’
20. A brother renounced the world and gave his goods to the poor, but he kept back a little for his personal expenses. He went to see Abba Anthony. When he told him this, the old man said to him, ‘If you want to be a monk, go into the village, buy some meat, cover your naked body with it and come here like that.’ The brother did so, and the dogs and birds tore at his flesh. When he came back the old man asked him whether he had followed his advice. He showed him his wounded body, and Saint Anthony said, ‘Those who renounce the world but want to keep something for themselves are torn in this way by the demons who make war on them.’
21. It happened one day that one of the brethren in the monas- tery of Abba Elias was tempted. Cast out of the monastery, he went over the mountain to Abba Anthony. The brother lived near him for a while and then Anthony sent him back to the monastery from which he had been expelled. When the brothers saw him they cast him out yet again, and he went back to Abba Anthony saying, ‘My Father, they will not receive me.’ Then the old man sent them a message saying, ‘A boat was shipwrecked at sea and lost its cargo; with great difficulty it reached the shore; but you want to throw into the sea that which has found a safe harbour on the shore.’ When the brothers understood that it was Abba Anthony who had sent them this monk, they received him at once.
22. Abba Anthony said, ‘I believe that the body possesses a natu- ral movement, to which it is adapted, but which it cannot follow without the consent of the soul; it only signifies in the body a movement without passion. There is another movement, which comes from the nourishment and warming of the body by eating and drinking, and this causes the heat of the blood to stir up the body to work. That is why the apostle said, “Do not get drunk with wine for that is debauchery.” (Ephes. 5.18) And in the Gospel the Lord also recommends this to his disciples: “Take heed to your- selves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunk- enness.” (Luke 21:34) But there is yet another movement which afflicts those who fight, and that comes from the wiles and jealousy of the demons. You must understand what these three bodily move- ments are: one is natural, one comes from too much to eat, the third is caused by the demons.’
23. He also said, ‘God does not allow the same warfare and temptations to this generation as he did formerly, for men are weaker now and cannot bear so much.’
24. It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.
25. Abba Anthony said, ‘A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, “You are mad, you are not like us.”‘
26. The brethren came to Abba Anthony and laid before him a passage from Leviticus. The old man went out into the desert, secretly followed by Abba Ammonas, who knew that this was his custom. Abba Anthony went a long way off and stood there pray- ing, crying in a loud voice, ‘God, send Moses, to make me under- stand this saying.’ Then there came a voice speaking with him. Abba Ammonas said that although he heard the voice speaking with him, he could not understand what it said.
27. Three Fathers used to go and visit blessed Anthony every year and two of them used to discuss their thoughts and the salva- tion of their souls with him, but the third always remained silent and did not ask him anything. After a long time, Abba Anthony said to him, ‘You often come here to see me, but you never ask me any- thing,’ and the other replied, ‘It is enough for me to see you, Father.’
28. They said that a certain old man asked God to let him see the Fathers and he saw them all except Abba Anthony. So he asked his guide, ‘Where is Abba Anthony?’ He told him in reply that in the place where God is, there Anthony would be.
29. A brother in a monastery was falsely accused of fornication and he arose and went to Abba Anthony. The brethren also came from the monastery to correct him and bring him back. They set about proving that he had done this thing, but he defended himself and denied that he had done anything of the kind. Now Abba Paphnutius, who is called Cephalus, happened to be there, and he told them this parable: ‘I have seen a man on the bank of the river buried up to his knees in mud and some men came to give him a hand to help him out, but they pushed him further in up to his neck.’ Then Abba Anthony said this about Abba Paphnutius: ‘Here is a real man, who can care for souls and save them.’ All those present were pierced to the heart by the words of the old man and they asked forgiveness of the brother. So, admonished by the Fathers, they took the brother back to the monastery.
30. Some say of Saint Anthony that he was ‘Spirit-borne’, that is, carried along by the Holy Spirit, but he would never speak of this to men. Such men see what is happening in the world, as well as knowing what is going to happen.
31. One day Abba Anthony received a letter from the Emperor Constantius, asking him to come to Constantinople and he won- dered whether he ought to go. So he said to Abba Paul, his disciple, ‘Ought I to go?’ He replied, ‘If you go, you will be called Anthony; but if you stay here, you will be called Abba Anthony.’
32. Abba Anthony said, ‘I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear.’ (John 4.18)
33. He also said, ‘Always have the fear of God before your eyes. Remember him who gives death and life. Hate the world and all that is in it. Hate all peace that comes from the flesh. Renounce this life, so that you may be alive to God. Remember what you have prom- ised God, for it will be required of you on the day of judgement. Suffer hunger, thirst, nakedness, be watchful and sorrowful; weep, and groan in your heart; test yourselves, to see if you are worthy of God; despise the flesh, so that you may preserve your souls.’
34. Abba Anthony once went to visit Abba Amoun in Mount Nitria and when they met, Abba Amoun said, ‘By your prayers, the number of the brethren increases, and some of them want to build more cells where they may live in peace. How far away from here do you think we should build the cells?’ Abba Anthony said, ‘Let us eat at the ninth hour and then let us go out for a walk in the desert and explore the country.’ So they went out into the desert and they walked until sunset and then Abba Anthony said, ‘Let us pray and plant the cross here, so that those who wish to do so may build here. Then when those who remain there want to visit those who have come here, they can take a little food at the ninth hour and then come. If they do this, they will be able to keep in touch with each other without distraction of mind.’ The distance is twelve miles.
35. Abba Anthony said, ‘Whoever hammers a lump of iron, first decides what he is going to make of it, a scythe, a sword, or an axe. Even so we ought to make up our minds what kind of virtue we want to forge or we labour in vain.’
36. He also said, ‘Obedience with abstinence gives men power over wild beasts.’
37. He also said, ‘Nine monks fell away after many labours and were obsessed with spiritual pride, for they put their trust in their own works and being deceived they did not give due heed to the commandment that says, “Ask your father and he will tell you.” ‘ (Deut. 32.7)
38. And he said this, ‘If he is able to, a monk ought to tell his elders confidently how many steps he takes and how many drops of water he drinks in his cell, in case he is in error about it.’
Arsenius the Great
Arsenius was born in Rome about 360. A well-educated man, of sena- torial rank, be was appointed by the Emperor Theodosius I as tutor to the princes Arcadius and Honorius. He left the palace in 394 and sailed secretly to Alexandria. From there he went to Scetis and placed himself under the guidance of Abba John the Dwarf. He became an anchorite near Petra in Scetis. He seems to have had only three disciples, Alexander, Zoilus and Daniel. He was renowned for his austerity and silence and this combined with his learning made him seem somewhat forbidding to the Coptic monks. After the second devastation of Scetis in 434 he went to the mountain of Troe where he died in 449.
1. While still living in the palace, Abba Arsenius prayed to God in these words, ‘Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.’ And a voice came saying to him, ‘Arsenius, flee from men and you will be saved.’
2. Having withdrawn to the solitary life he made the same prayer again and he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the source of sinlessness.’
3. It happened that when Abba Arsenius was sitting in his cell that he was harassed by demons. His servants, on their return, stood outside his cell and heard him praying to God in these words, ‘O God, do not leave me. I have done nothing good in your sight, but according to your goodness, let me now make a beginning of good.’
4. It was said of him that, just as none in the palace had worn more splendid garments than he when he lived there, so no-one in the Church wore such poor clothing.
5. Someone said to blessed Arsenius, ‘How is it that we, with all our education and our wide knowledge get no-where, while these Egyptian peasants acquire so many virtues?’ Abba Arsenius said to him, ‘We indeed get nothing from our secular education, but these Egyptian peasants acquire the virtues by hard work.’
6. One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, ‘Abba Arsenius, how is it that you with such a good Latin and Greek education, ask this peasant about your thoughts?’ He replied, ‘I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.’
7. Blessed Archbishop Theophilus, accompanied by a magistrate, came one day to find Abba Arsenius. He questioned the old man, to hear a word from him. After a short silence the old man answered him, ‘Will you put into practice what I say to you?’ They promised him this. ‘If you hear Arsenius is anywhere, do not go there.’
8. Another time the archbishop, intending to come to see him, sent someone to see if the old man would receive him. Arsenius told him, ‘If you come, I shall receive you; but if I receive you, I receive everyone and therefore I shall no longer live here.’ Hearing that, the archbishop said, ‘If I drive him away by going to him, I shall not go any more.’
9. A brother questioned Abba Arsenius to hear a word of him and the old man said to him, ‘Strive with all your might to bring your interior activity into accord with God, and you will overcome exterior passions.’
10. He also said, ‘If we seek God, he will shew himself to us, and if we keep him, he will remain close to us.’
11. Someone said to Abba Arsenius, ‘My thoughts trouble me, saying, “You can neither fast nor work; at least go and visit the sick, for that is also charity.” ‘ But the old man, recognising the sugges- tions of the demons, said to him, ‘Go, eat, drink, sleep, do no work, only do not leave your cell.’ For he knew that steadfastness in the cell keeps a monk in the right way.
12. Abba Arsenius used to say that a monk travelling abroad should not get involved in anything; thus he will remain in peace.
13. Abba Mark said to Abba Arsenius, ‘Why do you avoid us?’ The old man said to him, ‘God knows that I love you, but I cannot live with God and with men. The thousands and ten thousands of the heavenly hosts have but one will, while men have many. So I cannot leave God to be with men.’
14. Abba Daniel said of Abba Arsenius that he used to pass the whole night without sleeping, and in the early morning when na- ture compelled him to go to sleep, he would say to sleep, ‘Come here, wicked servant.’ Then, seated, he would snatch a little sleep and soon wake up again.
15. Abba Arsenius used to say that one hour’s sleep is enough for a monk if he is a good fighter.
16. The old man used to tell how one day someone handed round a few dried figs in Scetis. Because they were not worth anything, no-one took any to Abba Arsenius in order not to offend him. Learning of it, the old man did not come to the synaxis saying, ‘You have cast me out by not giving me a share of the blessing which God had given the brethren and which I was not worthy to receive.’ Everyone heard of this and was edified at the old man’s humility. Then the priest went to take him the small dried figs and brought him to the synaxis with joy.
17. Abba Daniel used to say, ‘He lived with us many a long year and every year we used to take him only one basket of bread and when we went to find him the next year we would eat some of that bread.’
18. It was said of the same Abba Arsenius that he only changed the water for his palm-leaves once a year; the rest of the time he simply added to it. One old man implored him in these words, ‘Why do you not change the water for these palm-leaves when it smells bad?’ He said to him, ‘Instead of the perfumes and aromatics which I used in the world I must bear this bad smell.’
19. Abba Daniel used to tell how when Abba Arsenius learned that all the varieties of fruit were ripe he would say, ‘Bring me some.’ He would taste a very little of each, just once, giving thanks to God.
20. Once at Scetis Abba Arsenius was ill and he was without even a scrap of linen. As he had nothing with which to buy any, he received some through another’s charity and he said, ‘I give you thanks, Lord, for having considered me worthy to receive this charity in your name.’
21. It was said of him that his cell was thirty-two miles away and that he did not readily leave it: that in fact others did his errands. When Scetis was destroyed he left weeping and said, ‘The world has lost Rome and the monks have lost Scetis.’
22. Abba Mark asked Abba Arsenius, ‘Is it good to have nothing extra in the cell? I know a brother who had some vegetables and he has pulled them up.’ Abba Arsenius replied, ‘Undoubtedly that is good but it must be done according to a man’s capacity. For if he does not have the strength for such a practice he will soon plant others.’
23. Abba Daniel, the disciple of Abba Arsenius, related this: ‘One day I found myself close to Abba Alexander and he was full of sorrow. He lay down and stared up into the air because of his sorrow. Now it happened that the blessed Arsenius came to speak with him and saw him lying down. During their conversation he said to him, ‘And who was the layman whom I saw here?’ Abba Alexander said, ‘Where did you see him?’ He said, ‘As I was coming down the mountain I cast my eyes in this direction towards the cave and I saw a man stretched full length looking up into the air.’ So Abba Alexander did penance, saying, ‘Forgive me, it was I; I was overcome by sorrow.’ The old man said to him, ‘Well now, so it was you? Good; I thought it was a layman and that was why I asked you.’
24. Another time Abba Arsenius said to Abba Alexander, ‘When you have cut your palm-leaves, come and eat with me, but if visitors come, eat with them.’ Now Abba Alexander worked slowly and carefully. When the time came, he had not finished the palm leaves and wishing to follow the old man’s instructions, he waited until he had finished them. When Abba Arsenius saw that he was late, he ate, thinking that he had had guests. But Abba Alexander, when at last he had finished, came away. And the old man said to him, ‘Have you had visitors?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘Then why did you not come?’ The other replied, ‘You told me to come when I had cut the palm-leaves; and following your instructions, I did not come, because I had not finished.’ The old man marvelled at his exactitude and said to him, ‘Break your fast at once so as to celebrate the synaxis untroubled, and drink some water, otherwise your body will soon suffer.’
25. One day Abba Arsenius came to a place where there were reeds blowing in the wind. The old man said to the brothers, ‘What is this movement?’ They said, ‘Some reeds.’ Then the old man said to them, ‘When one who is living in silent prayer hears the song of a little sparrow, his heart no longer experiences the same peace. How much worse it is when you hear the movement of those reeds.’
26. Abba Daniel said that some brothers proposing to go to the Thebaid to find some flax said, ‘Let us also take the opportunity to see Abba Arsenius.’ So Abba Alexander came to tell the old man, ‘Some brothers who have come from Alexandria wish to see you.’ The old man answered, ‘Ask them why they have come.’ Having learned that they were going to the Thebaid to look for flax, he reported this to the old man, who said, ‘They will certainly not see the face of Arsenius for they have not come on my account but because of their work. Make them rest and send them away in peace and tell them the old man cannot receive them.’
27. A brother came to the cell of Abba Arsenius at Scetis. Wait- ing outside the door he saw the old man entirely like a flame. (The brother was worthy of this sight.) When he knocked, the old man came out and saw the brother marvelling. He said to him, ‘Have you been knocking long? Did you see anything here?’ The other an- swered, ‘No.’ So then he talked with him and sent him away.
28. When Abba Arsenius was living at Canopus, a very rich and God-fearing virgin of senatorial rank came from Rome to see him. When the Archbishop Theophilus met her, she asked him to per- suade the old man to receive her. So he went to ask him to do so in these words, ‘A certain person of senatorial rank has come from Rome and wishes to see you.’ The old man refused to meet her. But when the archbishop told the young girl this, she ordered the beast of burden to be saddled saying, ‘I trust in God that I shall see him, for it is not a man whom I have come to see (there are plenty of those in our town), but a prophet.’ When she had reached the old man’s cell, by a dispensation of God, he was outside it. Seeing him, she threw herself at his feet. Outraged, he lifted her up again, and said, looking steadily at her, ‘If you must see my face, here it is, look.’ She was covered with shame and did not look at his face. Then the old man said to her, ‘Have you not heard tell of my way of life? It ought to be respected. How dare you make such a jour- ney? Do you not realise you are a woman and cannot go just anywhere? Or is it so that on returning to Rome you can say to other women: I have seen Arsenius? Then they will turn the sea into a thoroughfare with women coming to see me.’ She said, ‘May it please the Lord, I shall not let anyone come here; but pray for me and remember me always.’ But he answered her, ‘I pray God to remove remembrance of you from my heart.’ Overcome at hearing these words, she withdrew. When she had returned to the town, in her grief she fell ill with a fever, and blessed Archbishop Theophilus
was informed that she was ill. He came to see her and asked her to tell him what was the matter. She said to him, ‘If only I had not gone there! For I asked the old man to remember me, he said to me, “I pray God to take the remembrance of you from my heart.” So now I am dying of grief.’ The archbishop said to her, ‘Do you not realise that you are a woman, and that it is through women that the enemy wars against the Saints? That is the explanation of the old man’s words; but as for your soul, he will pray for it continually.’ At this, her spirit was healed and she returned home joyfully.
29. Abba David related this about Abba Arsenius. One day a magistrate came, bringing him the will of a senator, a member of his family who had left him a very large inheritance. Arsenius took it and was about to destroy it. But the magistrate threw himself at his feet saying, ‘I beg you, do not destroy it or they will cut off my head.’ Abba Arsenius said to him, ‘But I was dead long before this senator who has just died,’ and he returned the will to him without accepting anything.
30. It was also said of him that on Saturday evenings, preparing for the glory of Sunday, he would turn his back on the sun and stretch out his hands in prayer towards the heavens, till once again the sun shone on his face. Then he would sit down.
31. It was said of Abba Arsenius and Abba Theodore of Pherme that, more than any of the others, they hated the esteem of other men. Abba Arsenius would not readily meet people, while Abba
Theodore was like steel when he met anyone.
32. In the days when Abba Arsenius was living in Lower Egypt he was continually interrupted there and so he judged it right to leave his cell. Without taking anything away with him, he went to his disciples at Pharan, Alexander and Zoilus. He said to Alexander, ‘Get up, and get into the boat,’ which he did. And he said to Zoi- lus, ‘Come with me as far as the river and find me a boat which will take me to Alexandria; then embark, so as to rejoin your brother.’ Zoilus was troubled by these words but he said nothing. So they parted company. The old man went down to the regions of Alex- andria where he fell seriously ill. His disciples said to each other, ‘Perhaps one of us has annoyed the old man, and that is the reason why he has gone away from us?’ But they found nothing with which to reproach themselves nor any disobedience. Once he was better, the old man said, ‘I will return to my Fathers.’ Going up- stream again, he came to Petra where his disciples were. While he was close to the river, a little Ethiopian slave-girl came and touched his sheepskin. The old man rebuked her and she replied, ‘If you are a monk, go to the mountain.’ Alexander and Zoilus met him there. Then, when they threw themselves at his feet, the old man fell down with them also and they wept together. The old man said to them, ‘Did you not hear that I was ill?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ ‘Then,’ he
continued, ‘why did you not come to see me?’ Abba Alexander said, ‘Your going from us has not been good for us, and many have not been edified by it, saying, “If they had not disobeyed the old man, he would not have left them.”‘ Abba Arsenius said, ‘On the other hand, they will now be saying, “The dove, not finding anywhere to rest, returned to Noah in the ark.”‘ So they were confronted and he remained with them till his death.
33. Abba David said, ‘Abba Arsenius told us the following, as though it referred to someone else, but in fact it referred to himself. An old man was sitting in his cell and a voice came to him which said, “Come, and I will show you the works of men.” He got up and followed. The voice led him to a certain place and shewed him an Ethiopian cutting wood and making a great pile. He struggled to carry it but in vain. But instead of taking some off, he cut more wood which he added to the pile. He did this for a long time. Going on a little further, the old man was shown a man standing on the shore of a lake drawing up water and pouring it into a broken receptacle, so that the water ran back into the lake. Then the voice said to the old man, “Come, and I will shew you something else.” He saw a temple and two men on horseback, opposite one another, carrying a piece of wood crosswise. They wanted to go in through the door but could not because they held their piece of wood crosswise. Neither of them would draw back before the other, so as to carry the wood straight; so they remained outside the door. The voice said to the old man, “These men carry the yoke of righteousness with pride, and do not humble themselves so as to correct themselves and walk in the humble way of Christ. So they remain outside the Kingdom of God. The man cutting the wood is he who lives in many sins and instead of repenting he adds more faults to his sins. He who draws the water is he who does good deeds, but mixing bad ones with them, he spoils even his good works. So everyone must be watchful of his actions, lest he labour in vain.”
34. The same abba told of some Fathers who came one day from Alexandria to see Abba Arsenius. Amongst them was the aged Timothy, Archbishop of Alexandria, surnamed the Poor and he refused to see them, for fear others would come and trouble him. In those days he was living in Petra of Troe. So they went back again, feeling annoyed. Now there was a barbarian invasion and the old man went to live in lower Egypt. Having heard this they came to see him again and he received them with joy. The brother who was with them said to him, ‘Abba, don’t you know that we came to see you at Troe and you did not receive us?’ The old man said to him, ‘You have eaten bread and drunk water, but truly, my son, I tasted neither bread nor water nor did I sit down until I thought you had reached home, to punish myself because you had been wearied through me. But forgive me, my brothers.’ So they went away consoled.
35. The same abba said, ‘One day Abba Arsenius called me and said, “Be a comfort to your Father, so that when he goes to the Lord, he may pray for you that the Lord may be good to you in your turn.”‘
36. It was said of Abba Arsenius that once when he was ill at Scetis, the priest came to take him to church and put him on a bed with a small pillow under his head. Now behold an old man who was coming to see him, saw him lying on a bed with a little pillow under his head and he was shocked and said, ‘Is this really Abba Arsenius, this man lying down like this?’ Then the priest took him aside and said to him, ‘In the village where you lived, what was your trade?’ ‘I was a shepherd,’ he replied. ‘And how did you live?’ ‘I had a very hard life.’ Then the priest said, ‘And how do you live in your cell now?’ The other replied, ‘I am more comfortable.’ Then he said to him, ‘Do you see this Abba Arsenius? When he was in the world he was the father of the emperor, surrounded by thousands of slaves with golden girdles, all wearing collars of gold and garments of silk. Beneath him were spread rich coverings. While you were in the world as a shepherd you did not enjoy even the comforts you now have but he no longer enjoys the delicate life he led in the world. So you are comforted while he is afflicted.’ At these words the old man was filled with compunction and prostrated himself saying, ‘Father, forgive me, for I have sinned. Truly the way this man follows is the way of truth, for it leads to humility, while mine leads to comfort.’ So the old man withdrew, edified.
37. A Father went to see Abba Arsenius. When he knocked at the door the old man opened it, thinking that it was his servant. But when he saw that it was someone else he fell on his face to the ground. The other said to him, ‘Get up, Father, so that I may greet you.’ But the old man replied, ‘I shall not get up till you have gone,’ and in spite of much pleading he did not get up until the other had gone away.
38. It was told of a brother who came to see Abba Arsenius at Scetis that, when he came to the church, he asked the clergy if he could visit Abba Arsenius. They said to him, ‘Brother, have a little refreshment and then go and see him.’ ‘I shall not eat anything,’ said he, ’till I have met him.’ So, because Arsenius’ cell was far away, they sent a brother with him. Having knocked on the door, they entered, greeted the old man and sat down without saying anything. Then the brother from the church said, ‘I will leave you. Pray for me.’ Now the visiting brother, not feeling at ease with the old man, said, ‘I will come with you,’ and they went away together. Then the visitor asked, ‘Take me to Abba Moses, who used to be a robber.’ When they arrived the Abba welcomed them joyfully and then took leave of them with delight. The brother who had brought the other one said to his companion, ‘See, I have taken you to the foreigner and to the Egyptian, which of the two do you prefer?’ ‘As for me,’ he replied, ‘I prefer the Egyptian.’ Now a Father who heard this prayed to God saying, ‘Lord, explain this matter to me: for Thy name’s sake the one flees from men, and the other, for Thy name’s sake, receives them with open arms.’ Then two large boats were shown to him on a river and he saw Abba Arsenius and the Spirit of God sailing in the one, in perfect peace; and in the other was Abba Moses with the angels of God, and they were all eating honey cakes.
39. Abba Daniel said ‘At the point of death, Abba Arsenius sent us this message, “Do not trouble to make offerings for me, for truly I have made an offering for myself and I shall find it again.”‘
40. When Abba Arsenius was at the point of death, his disciples were troubled. He said to them, ‘The time has not yet come; when it comes, I will tell you. But if ever you give my remains to anyone, we will be judged before the dreadful seat of judgment.’ They said to him, ‘What shall we do? We do not know how to bury anyone.’ The old man said to them, ‘Don’t you know how to tie a rope to my feet and drag me to the mountain?’ The old man used to say to himself: ‘Arsenius, why have you left the world? I have often re- pented of having spoken, but never of having been silent.’ When his death drew near, the brethren saw him weeping and they said to him ‘Truly, Father, are you also afraid?’ ‘Indeed,’ he answered them, ‘the fear which is mine at this hour has been with me ever since I became a monk.’ Upon this he fell asleep.
41. It was said of him that he had a hollow in his chest channelled out by the tears which fell from his eyes all his life while he sat at his manual work. When Abba Poemen learned that he was dead, he said weeping, ‘Truly you are blessed, Abba Arsenius, for you wept for yourself in this world! He who does not weep for himself here below will weep eternally hereafter; so it is impossible not to weep, either voluntarily or when compelled through suffering.’
42. Abba Daniel used to say this about him: ‘He never wanted to reply to a question concerning the Scriptures, though he could well have done so had he wished, just as he never readily wrote a letter. When from time to time he came to church he would sit behind a pillar, so that no-one should see his face and so that he himself would not notice others. His appearance was angelic, like that of Jacob. His body was graceful and slender; his long beard reached down to his waist. Through much weeping his eye-lashes had fallen out. Tall of stature, he was bent with old age. He was ninety-five when he died. For forty years he was employed in the palace of Theodosius the Great of divine memory, who was the father of the divine Arcadius and Honorius; then he lived forty years in Scetis, ten years in Troe’ above Babylon, opposite Memphis and three years at Canopus of Alexandria. The last two years he returned to Troe where he died, finishing his course in peace and the fear of God. He was a good man “filled with the Holy Spirit and faith.” (Acts 11.24) He left me his leather tunic, his white hair-shirt and his palm-leaf sandals. Although unworthy, I wear them, in order to gain his blessing.’
43. Abba Daniel used to tell this also about Abba Arsenius: ‘One day he called my Fathers, Abba Alexander and Abba Zoilus, and by way of humiliating himself, said to them, “Since the demons attack me and I do not know if they will not rob me when I am asleep tonight, share my suffering and watch lest I fall asleep during my vigil.” Late at night they sat in silence, one on his right and the other on his left. My Fathers said, “As for us, we fell asleep, then woke again, but we did not notice that he had drowsed. Early in the morning (God knows if he did it on purpose to make us believe that he had slept, or whether he had really given way to sleep) he gave three sighs, then immediately got up, saying, ‘I have been to sleep, haven’t I?’ We replied that we did not know.”‘
44. Some old men came one day to Abba Arsenius and insisted on seeing him. He received them. Then they asked him to say a word to them about those who live in solitude without seeing anyone. The old man said to them, ‘As long as a young girl is living in her father’s house, many young men wish to marry her, but when she has taken a husband, she is no longer pleasing to everyone; despised by some, approved by others, she no longer enjoys the favour of former times, when she lived a hidden life. So it is with the soul; from the day when it is shown to everyone, it is no longer able to satisfy everyone.’
Basil the Great
Basil the Great (c. 330-79) was the brother of Gregory of Nyssa and Macrina. After an excellent education he became a monk in Syria and Egypt and settled for a time as a hermit in Neocaesarea (358). In 370 he succeeded Eusebius as Bishop of Caesarea and was the defender of Orthodoxy against the heresy of Arius. He organized monastic life in and around Caesarea, bringing structure and organization into the way of life learnt in Egypt. He put forward in two books precepts for the monastic life, called The Longer Rule and The Shorter Rule; this was revised by Theodore the Studite in the early ninth century, and is a basic document for Eastern monasticism.
1. One of the old men said, ‘When Saint Basil came to the monas- tery one day, he said to the abbot, after the customary exhortation, “Have you a brother here who is obedient?” The other replied, “They are all your servants, master, and strive for their salvation.” But he repeated, “Have you a brother who is really obedient?” Then the abbot led a brother to him and Saint Basil used him to serve during the meal. When the meal was ended, the brother brought him some water for rinsing his hands and Saint Basil said to him, “Come here, so that I also may offer you water.” The brother allowed the bishop to pour the water. Then Saint Basil said to him, “When I enter the sanctuary, come, that I may ordain you deacon.” When this was done, he ordained him priest and took him with him to the bishop’s palace because of his obedience.’
Ephrem the Syrian
Ephrem, or Ephraim, was a prominent Christian theologian and writer, who is revered as one of the most notable hymnographers of Eastern Christianity. He was born in Nisibis, served as a deacon and later lived in Edessa.
1. While yet a child, Abba Ephrem had a dream and then a vision. A branch of vine came out of his tongue, grew bigger and filled everything under heaven. It was laden with beautiful fruit. All the birds of heaven came to eat of the fruit of the vine, and the more they ate, the more the fruit increased.
2. Another time, one of the saints had a vision. According to the commandment of God, a band of angels descended from heaven, holding in their hands a kephalis (that is to say, a piece of papyrus covered with writing), and they said to one another, ‘To whom should we give this?’ Some said, ‘To this one,’ others, ‘To that one.’ Then the answer came in these words, ‘Truly, they are holy and righteous, but none of them is able to receive this, except Ephrem.’ The old man saw that the kephalis was given to Ephrem and he saw as it were a fountain flowing from his lips. Then he understood that that which came from the lips of Ephrem was of the Holy Spirit.
3. Another time, when Ephrem was on the road, a prostitute tried by her flatteries, if not to lead him to shameful intercourse, at least to make him angry, for no-one had every seen him angry. He said to her, ‘Follow me.’ When they had reached a very crowded place, he said to her, ‘In this place, come, do what you desire.’ But she, seeing the crowd, said to him, ‘How can we do what we want to do in front of so great a crowd, without being ashamed?’ He replied, ‘If you blush before men, how much more should we blush before God, who knows what is hidden in darkness?’ She was cov- ered with shame and went away without having achieved anything.
Epiphanius of Cyprus & Salamis
Epiphanius was a Palestinian who learned his monasticism in Egypt as a disciple of Abba Hilarion. His monastery was at Besanduk near Eleu- theropolis, between Jerusalem and Gaza. He was an opponent of Orige- nism. Saying 3 shows him upholding the traditions of Egypt against the abbot of his own monastery in Palestine with regard to prayer and psalmody. He, like Bessarion, was also concerned in the overthrow of the pagan temples in Alexandria. As a bishop, he set more store by books and reading than was usual with monks trained in Egypt.
1. The holy Bishop Epiphanius related that some crows, flying all around the temple of Serapis, in the presence of blessed Athanasius, cried without interruption, ‘Caw, caw.’ Then some pa- gans, standing in front of blessed Athanasius cried out, ‘Wicked old man, tell us what these crows are crying.’ He answered, ‘These crows are saying, “Caw, caw”, and in the Ausonion (or Latin) lan- guage, this word means “tomorrow”.’ He added, ‘Tomorrow you shall see the glory of God.’ Just afterwards, the death of the Emperor Julian was announced. At this news they all ran to the temple of Serapis crying out against him and saying, ‘If you did not want him, why did you accept his gifts?’
2. The same related that there was a charioteer in Alexandria, whose mother was called Mary. In an equestrian fight he had a fall. Then getting up again he surpassed the men who had overthrown him and carried off the victory. The crowd cried out, ‘The son of Mary has fallen; he has risen again and is the victor.’ While these cries were still being heard, an uproar ran through the crowd in connection with the temple of Serapis; the great Theophilus had gone and overthrown the statue of Serapis and made himself master of the temple.
3. The blessed Epiphanius, Bishop of Cyprus, was told this by the abbot of a monastery which he had in Palestine, ‘By your prayers we do not neglect our appointed round of psalmody, but we are very careful to recite Terce, Sext and None.’ Then Epiphanius corrected them with the following comment, ‘It is clear that you do not trouble about the other hours of the day, if you cease from prayer. The true monk should have prayer and psalmody continu- ally in his heart.’
4. One day Saint Epiphanius sent someone to Abba Hilarion with this request, ‘Come, and let us see one another before we depart from the body.’ When he came, they rejoiced in each other’s com- pany. During their meal, they were brought a fowl; Epiphanius took it and gave it to Hilarion. Then the old man said to him, ‘Forgive me, but since I received the habit I have not eaten meat that has been killed.’ Then the bishop answered, ‘Since I took the habit, I have not allowed anyone to go to sleep with a complaint against me and I have not gone to rest with a complaint against anyone.’ The old man replied, ‘Forgive me, your way of life is better than mine.’
5. The same old man said, ‘Melchizedek, the image of Christ, blessed Abraham, the father of the Jews; how much more does truth itself, which is the Christ, bless and sanctify all those who believe in it.’
6. The same old man said, ‘The Canaanite woman cries out, and she is heard; (Matt. 15) the woman with the issue of blood is silent, and she is called blessed; (Luke 8) the pharisee speaks, and he is condemned;(Matt. 9) the publican does not open his mouth, and he is heard.’ (Luke 18)
7. The same old man said, ‘David the prophet prayed late at night; waking in the middle of the night, he prayed before the day; at the dawn of day he stood before the Lord; in the small hours he prayed, in the evening and at mid-day he prayed again, and this is why he said, “Seven times a day have I praised you.”‘ (Ps. 119.164)
8. He also said, ‘The acquisition of Christian books is necessary for those who can use them. For the mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin, and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness.’
9. He also said, ‘Reading the Scriptures is a great safeguard against sin.’
10. He also said, ‘It is a great treachery to salvation to know nothing of the divine law.’
11. He also said, ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is a precipice and a deep abyss.’
12. The same abba said, ‘The righteous sin through their mouths, but the ungodly sin in their whole bodies. This is why David sings; “Set, O Lord, a watch before my mouth and keep the door of my lips.” (Ps. 141.3)And again, “I will take heed to my ways that I do not sin with my tongue.” ‘ (Ps. 39.1)
13. Someone asked him, ‘Why are there ten commandments in the Law and nine Beatitudes?’ He replied, ‘The Decalogue corre- sponds with the number of the plagues of Egypt, while the figure of the Beatitudes is three times the image of the Trinity.’
14. Someone else asked him, ‘Is one righteous man enough to appease God?’ He replied, ‘Yes, for he himself has written: “Find a man who lives according to righteousness, and I will pardon the whole people.”‘ (Jer. 5.1)
15. The same abba said, ‘God remits the debts of sinners who are penitent, for example, the sinful woman and the publican, but of the righteous man he even asks interest. This is what he says to his apostles, “Except your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”‘ (Matt. 5.20)
16. He also said, ‘God sells righteousness at a very low price to those who wish to buy it: a little piece of bread, a cloak of no value, a cup of cold water, a mite.’
17. He added, ‘A man who receives something from another because of his poverty or his needs has therein his reward, and because he is ashamed, when he repays it he does so in secret. But it is the opposite for the Lord God; he receives in secret, but he repays it in the presence of the angels, the archangels and the righteous.’
Gelasius trained as an ascetic in Egypt. He became abbot of Nilopolis in the mid fifth century. He was a scholar and a great abbot, involved both in the ecclesiastical politics of his time and in the law-suits of his monas- tery. He was a firm supporter of Juvenal, and held to the formularies of Chalcedon. The second story here introduces the famous Saint Symeon Stylites, on bis pillar outside Antioch. Symeon is shown in the important role of arbitrator, to whom secular disputes as well as religious matters
were brought in his role as prophet and holy man.
1. It was said of Abba Gelasius that he had a leather Bible worth eighteen pieces of silver. In fact it contained the whole of the Old and New Testaments. He had put it in the church so that any of the brethren who wished, could read it. A strange brother came to see the old man and, seeing the Bible, wished to have it, and stole it as he was leaving. The old man did not run after him to take it from him, although he knew what he was doing. So the brother went to the city and tried to sell it, and finding a purchaser, he asked thirteen pieces of silver for it. The purchaser said to him, ‘Lend it to me, first, so that I may examine it, then I will give you a price.’ So he gave it to him. Taking it, the purchaser brought it to Abba Gelasius for him to examine it and told him the price which the seller had set. The old man said to him, ‘Buy it, for it is beautiful, and worth the price you tell me.’ This man when he returned, said something quite different to the seller, and not what the old man had said to him. ‘I have shown it to Abba Gelasius,’ he said, ‘and he replied that it was dear, and not worth the price you said.’ Hearing this, he asked, ‘Didn’t the old man say anything else?’ ‘No,’ he replied. Then the seller said, ‘I do not want to sell it any more.’ Filled with compunction, he went to find the old man, to do penance and ask him to take his book back. But he did not wish to make good his loss. So the brother said to him, ‘If you do not take it back, I shall have no peace.’ The old man answered, ‘If you won’t have any
peace, then I will take it back.’ So the brother stayed there until his death, edified by the old man’s way of life.
2. A cell surrounded by a plot of land had been left to Abba Gelasius by an old man, also a monk, who had his dwelling near Nilopolis. Now a peasant farmer under Batacus, who was then living at Nilopolis in Palestine, went to find Batacus, asking to receive the plot of land, because, according to the law, it ought to return to him. Batacus was a violent man and he tried to take the field from Abba Gelasius by force. But our Abba Gelasius, not wishing that a monastic cell should be ceded to a secular, would not give up the land. Batacus, noticing that Abba Gelasius’ beasts of burden were carrying olives from the field that had been left to him, turned them by force from their course and took the olives for himself; scarcely did he return the animals with their drivers, having caused them to suffer outrages. The blessed old man did not reclaim the fruit, but he did not cede possession of the land for the reason we have given above. Furious with him, Batacus, who had other matters to deal with also (for he loved lawsuits), betook himself to Constantinople, making the journey on foot. When he came near to Antioch, where Saint Symeon’s fame was shining with great brilliance, he heard tell of him (he was indeed an eminent man) and, as a Christian, he desired to see the saint.
Blessed Symeon, from the top of his column, saw him as soon as he entered the monastery and asked him, ‘Where do you come from and where are you going?’ He replied, ‘I am from Palestine and I am going to Constantinople.’ He continued, ‘And for what reasons?’ Batacus replied, ‘About many matters. I hope, thanks to the prayers of your holiness, to return and bow before your holy footprints.’ Then Saint Symeon said to him, ‘Wretch, you don’t want to say that you are going to act against the man of God. But your way is not favourable for you and you will not see your house again. If you will follow my advice, leave these parts and hurry to him and ask his pardon, if you are still alive when you reach that place.’ Immedi- ately Batacus was seized with fever. His fellow travellers put him into a litter and he hastened, according to the word of Saint Symeon, to reach Abba Gelasius and to ask his pardon. But when he came to Beirut, he died without seeing his house again, according to the old man’s prophecy. It is his son, also called Batacus, who has told this to many trustworthy men, at the same time as he gave the account of his father’s death.
3. Many of his disciples used to relate the following also: One day someone had brought them a fish and when it was cooked, the cook took it to the cellarer. An urgent reason obliged him to leave the store-room. So he left the fish on the ground in a dish, asking a young disciple of Abba Gelasius to look after it for a short while until his return. The boy was seized with desire and began to eat the fish greedily. The cellarer, finding him eating it on his return, was angry with the boy who was sitting on the ground and without being careful about what he did he kicked him. Being struck on a mortal part, by demonic power the boy gave up his spirit and died. The cellarer, overcome with fear, laid him on his own bed, covered him and went to throw himself at Abba Gelasius’ feet, telling him what had happened. Gelasius advised him not to speak of it to anyone and ordered him to bring the boy, when everyone had gone to rest in the evening, to the diaconicum, place him before the altar and then to withdraw. Coming to the diaconicum, the old man continued in prayer; at the hour of the night psalmody, when the brethren assembled, the old man withdrew, followed by the little boy. No-one knew what had been done, save he and the cellarer, until his death.
4. Not only his disciples, but many of those who met him, often told this about Abba Gelasius. At the time of the ecumenical synod at Chalcedon, Theodosius who had taken the initiative in the schism of Dioscorus in Palestine, foreseeing that the bishops would return to their particular churches (for he was also present at Chalcedon, expelled from his fatherland because his fate was to stir up trouble), hastened to Abba Gelasius in his monastery. He spoke to him, opposing the synod, saying that the teaching of Nestorius had pre- vailed. By this means he thought to win over the holy man and bring him to his own delusion and schism. But he, because of the bearing of his interlocutor and the prudence with which God inspired him, understood the injurious nature of his words. Not only did he not join himself to this apostacy, as almost all the others did, but he sent him away covered with reproach. In fact, he made the young child whom he had raised from the dead come into their midst and he spoke thus, with great respect, ‘If you want to argue about the faith, you have those close to you who will listen to you and answer you; for my part, I have not time to hear you.’ These words filled Theodosius with confusion. Hurriedly he left for the holy city and there got all the monks on his side, under the pretext of fervent zeal. Then, using this as his aid, he seized possession of the throne of Jerusalem. He had prepared the position for himself by assassina- tions and he did many things contrary to divine law and canonical precept. Having become master and attained his goal, laying hands on many bishops to set them on the thrones of bishops who had not yet retired, he made Abba Gelasius come to him. He invited him into the sanctuary, endeavouring to win him over, even while fear- ing him. When Gelasius entered the sanctuary, Theodosius said to him, ‘Anathematize Juvenal.’ But he remained unmoved and replied, ‘I do not know any bishop of Jerusalem but Juvenal.’ Theodosius, fearing others would imitate his holy zeal, ordered him to be driven out of the church, covering him with ridicule. The schismatics took him and put faggots round him, threatening to burn him. But seeing that even that did not make him give in nor frighten him and fearing a popular rising, for he was very celebrated (all this had been given him by Providence from above), they sent our martyr, who had offered himself as a holocaust to Christ, safe and sound away.
5. It was said of him that in his youth he had led a life of poverty as an anchorite. At that time in the same region there were many other men who, with him, had embraced the same life. Among them there was an old man of very great simplicity and poverty, living in a single cell to the end, although in his old age he had disciples. This old man’s particular acts of asceticism had been to guard against having two tunics and till the day of his death not to think of the morrow whilst he was with his companions.
When Abba Gelasius, with the divine assistance founded his mon- astery, he was given many gifts and he also acquired beasts of burden and cattle, which were needed for the monastery. In the beginning he had discussed the foundation of a monastery with the divine Pachomius and had recourse to him throughout its founda- tion. The old man, of whom we have spoken above, seeing him engaged on this, and wishing to preserve the great love he had for him, said to him, ‘Abba Gelasius, I am afraid your spirit will become enslaved by the lands and all the other possessions of the monastery.’ But he replied, ‘Your spirit is more enslaved by the needle with which you work than the spirit of Gelasius by these goods.’
6. It was said of Abba Gelasius that he was often assailed by the thought of going to the desert. One day he said to his disciple, ‘Do me the favour, brother, of bearing with whatever I may do, and say nothing to me for the whole of this week.’ Taking a reed, he began to walk in his little atrium. When he was tired, he sat down a little, then stood up again to walk about. When evening came, he said to himself, ‘He who walks in the desert does not eat bread, but herbs; so because you are weary, eat a few vegetables.’ He did so, then said to himself again, ‘He who is in the desert does not lie in a bed, but in the open air; so do the same.’ So he lay down and slept in the atrium. He walked thus for three days in the monastery, eating a few chicory leaves in the evening and sleeping the whole night in the open air and he grew weary. Then, taking the thought which troubled him, he refuted it in these words, ‘If you are not able to perform the works of the desert, live patiently in your cell, weeping for your sins, without wandering here and there. For the eye of God always sees the works of a man and nothing escapes him and he knows those who do good.’
John the Dwarf
John the Dwarf, son of poor parents in Tese, was born about 339. The second story here clearly belongs to his youth at home before he became a monk, while he was living with his family. At the age of eighteen he went to Scetis and was trained by Abba Ammoes for twelve years. One of the most vivid characters in the desert, he attracted many disciples and in order to preserve his own solitude he dug himself a cave underground. He was ordained priest, and the number of his sayings, recorded and pre- served, points to his importance among his disciples. After 407 he went
to Suez and the Mountain of Anthony.
1. It was said of Abba John the Dwarf that he withdrew and lived in the desert at Scetis with an old man of Thebes. His abba, taking a piece of dry wood, planted it and said to him, ‘Water it every day with a bottle of water, until it bears fruit.’ Now the water was so far away that he had to leave in the evening and return the following morning. At the end of three years the wood came to life and bore fruit. Then the old man took some of the fruit and carried it to the church saying to the brethren, ‘Take and eat the fruit of obedience.’
2. It was said of Abba John the Dwarf, that one day he said to his elder brother, ‘I should like to be free of all care, like the angels, who do not work, but ceaselessly offer worship to God.’ So he took off his cloak and went away into the desert. After a week he came back to his brother. When he knocked on the door, he heard his brother say, before he opened it ‘Who are you?’ He said, ‘I am John, your brother.’ But he replied, ‘John has become an angel, and hence- forth he is no longer among men.’ Then the other begged him saying, ‘It is I.’ However, his brother did not let him in, but left him there in distress until morning. Then, opening the door, he said to him, ‘You are a man and you must once again work in order to eat.’ Then John made a prostration before him, saying, ‘Forgive me.’
3. Abba John the Dwarf said, ‘If a king wanted to take possession of his enemy’s city, he would begin by cutting off the water and the food and so his enemies, dying of hunger, would submit to him. It is the same with the passions of the flesh: if a man goes about fasting and hungry the enemies of his soul grow weak.’
4. He also said, ‘He who gorges himself and talks with a boy has already in his thought committed fornication with him.’
5. He also said, ‘Going up the road again towards Scetis with some ropes, I saw the camel driver talking and he made me angry; so, leaving my goods, I took to flight.’
6. On another occasion in summertime, he heard a brother talk- ing angrily to his neighbour, saying, ‘Ah! you too?’ So leaving the harvest, he took to flight.
7. Some old men were entertaining themselves at Scetis by hav- ing a meal together; amongst them was Abba John. A venerable priest got up to offer drink, but nobody accepted any from him, except John the Dwarf. They were surprised and said to him, ‘How is it that you, the youngest, dared to let yourself be served by the priest?’ Then he said to them, ‘When I get up to offer drink, I am glad when everyone accepts it, since I am receiving my reward; that is the reason, then, that I accepted it, so that he also might gain his reward and not be grieved by seeing that no-one would accept anything from him.’ When they heard this, they were all filled with wonder and edification at his discretion.
8. One day when he was sitting in front of the church, the brethren were consulting him about their thoughts. One of the old men who saw it became a prey to jealousy and said to him, ‘John, your vessel is full of poison.’ Abba John said to him, ‘That is very true, abba; and you have said that when you only see the outside, but if you were able to see the inside, too, what would you say then?’
9. The brethren used to tell how the brethren were sitting one day at an agape and one brother at table began to laugh. When he saw that, Abba John began to weep, saying, ‘What does this brother have in his heart, that he should laugh, when he ought to weep, because he is eating at an agape?
10. Some brethren came one day to test him to see whether he would let his thoughts get dissipated and speak of the things of this world. They said to him, ‘We give thanks to God that this year there has been much rain and the palm trees have been able to drink, and their shoots have grown, and the brethren have found manual work.’ Abba John said to them, ‘So it is when the Holy Spirit descends into the hearts of men; they are renewed and they put forth leaves in the fear of God.’
11. It was said of him that one day he was weaving rope for two baskets, but he made it into one without noticing, until it had reached the wall, because his spirit was occupied in contemplation.
12. Abba John said, ‘I am like a man sitting under a great tree, who sees wild beasts and snakes coming against him in great num- bers. When he cannot withstand them any longer, he runs to climb the tree and is saved. It is just the same with me; I sit in my cell and I am aware of evil thoughts coming against me, and when I have no more strength against them, I take refuge in God by prayer and I am saved from the enemy.’
13. Abba Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he had prayed God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from care. He went and told an old man this: ‘I find myself in peace, without an enemy,’ he said. The old man said to him, ‘Go, beseech God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.’ So he besought God and when war- fare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but said, ‘Lord, give me strength for the fight.’
14. Abba John said, ‘Here is what one of the old men in ecstasy said: “Three monks were standing at the edge of the sea, and a voice came to them from the other side saying, ‘Take wings of fire and come here to me.’ The first two did so and reached the other shore, but the third remained, crying and weeping exceedingly. But later wings were given to him also, not of fire, but weak and without strength, so that with great difficulty he reached the other shore, sometimes under water, sometimes above it. So it is with the present generation; if they are given wings they are not of fire, but wings that are weak and without power.” ‘
15. A brother questioned Abba John saying, ‘How is it that my soul, bruised with wounds, does not blush to speak against my neighbour?’ The old man told him a parable relating to slander, ‘There was a poor man who had a wife. He saw another very beautiful woman and he took her. They were both quite naked. A feast was being held somewhere near and both women begged him to take them with him. Taking both of them, he put them into a barrel and put them aboard a ship and so they reached the place. When it became hot, the people lay down to rest. One of the women looked out of the barrel and seeing no-one, went to a pile of rubbish and joining old rags together, made herself a girdle and then walked about confidently. The other, sitting inside the barrel, naked, said, “Look at that courtesan who is not ashamed to walk about naked.” Grieved at this, her husband said to her, “This is truly wonderful! She at least hides her nakedness, but, as for you, you are completely naked; are you not ashamed to say that?” So it is when one speaks against one’s neighbour.’
16. The old man also said this to a certain brother about the soul which wishes to be converted, ‘There was in a city a courtesan who had many lovers. One of the governors approached her, saying, “Promise me you will be good, and I will marry you.” She promised this and he took her and brought her to his house. Her lovers, seeking her again, said to one another, “That lord has taken her with him to his house, so if we go to his house and he learns of it, he will condemn us. But let us go to the back, and whistle to her. Then, when she recognizes the sound of the whistle she will come down to us; as for us, we shall be unassailable.” When she heard the whistle, the woman stopped her ears and withdrew to the inner chamber and shut the doors.’ The old man said that this courtesan is our soul, that her lovers are the passions and other men; that the lord is Christ; that the inner chamber is the eternal dwelling; those who whistle are the evil demons, but the soul always takes refuge in the Lord.
17. One day when Abba John was going up to Scetis with some other brothers, their guide lost his way for it was night-time. So the brothers said to Abba John, ‘What shall we do, abba, in order not to die wandering about, for the brother has lost the way?’ The old man said to them, ‘If we speak to him, he will be filled with grief and shame. But look here, I will pretend to be ill and say I cannot walk any more; then we can stay here till the dawn.’ This he did. The others said, ‘We will not go on either, but we will stay with you.’ They sat there until the dawn, and in this way they did not upset the brother.
18. There was an old man at Scetis, very austere of body, but not very clear in his thoughts. He went to see Abba John to ask him about forgetfulness. Having received a word from him, he returned to his cell and forgot what Abba John had said to him. He went off again to ask him and having heard the same word from him he returned with it. As he got near his cell, he forgot it again. This he did many times; he went there, but while he was returning he was overcome by forgetfulness. Later, meeting the old man he said to him, ‘Do you know, abba, that I have forgotten again what you said to me? But I did not want to overburden you, so I did not come back.’ Abba John said to him, ‘Go and light a lamp.’ He lit it. He said to htm, ‘Bring some more lamps, and light them from the first.’ He did so. Then Abba John said to the old man, ‘Has that lamp suffered any loss from the fact that other lamps have been lit from it?’ He said, ‘No.’ The old man continued, ‘So it is with John; even if the whole of Scetis came to see me, they would not separate me from the love of Christ. Consequently, whenever you want to, come to me without hesitation.’ So, thanks to the endurance of these two men, God took forgetfulness away from the old man. Such was the work of the monks of Scetis; they inspire fervour in those who are in the conflict and do violence to themselves to win others to do good.
19. A brother questioned Abba John, saying, ‘What ought I to do? A brother often comes to fetch me for work, and since I am ill and weak, I get tired out working; what should I do, in order to keep the commandment?’ The old man answered him saying, ‘Caleb said to Joshua, the son of Nun: “I was forty years old when Moses, the servant of the Lord, sent me with you into the desert in this land; and now I am eighty-five years of age; as then, so now I can still take part in the battle and withdraw from it.” (cf. Jos. 14.7-11) In the same way you, too, if you are strong enough to go out and to come in, go to work; but if you cannot do it, sit down in your cell and weep for your sins and when they find you filled with compunc- tion, they will not compel you to go out.’
20. Abba John said, ‘Who sold Joseph?’ A brother replied saying, ‘It was his brethren.’ The old man said to him, ‘No, it was his humility which sold him, because he could have said, “I am their brother” and have objected, but, because he kept silence, he sold himself by his humility. It is also his humility which set him up as chief in Egypt.’
21. Abba John said, ‘We have put the light burden on one side, that is to say, self-accusation, and we have loaded ourselves with a heavy one, that is to say, self-justification.’
22. He also said, ‘Humility and the fear of God are above all virtues.’
23. The same abba was sitting in church one day and he gave a sigh, unaware that there was someone behind him. When he noticed it he lay prostrate before him, saying, ‘Forgive me, abba, for I have not yet made a beginning.’
24. The same abba said to his disciple, ‘Let us honour one only, and everyone will honour us; for if we despise one, that is God, everyone will despise us, and we will be lost.’
Macarius the Great
Macarius the Great (the Egyptian), born c. A.D. 300, was a former camel-driver, who traded in nitre. He was one of the pioneers of Scetis. He was ordained priest and lived as an anchorite in a village until he was falsely blamed for the pregnancy of a girl there; when he was clear he went to Scetis. Like many of the early monks, he travelled about and was not fixed in any one place, as these stories show. Cassian said of him ‘He was the first who found a way to inhabit the desert of Scetis. He was much influenced by Anthony the Great and visited him at least twice. He died in A.D. 390.
1. Abba Macarius said this about himself: ‘When I was young and was living in a cell in Egypt, they took me to make me a cleric in the village. Because I did not wish to receive this dignity, I fled to another place. Then a devout layman joined me; he sold my manual work for me and served me. Now it happened that a virgin in the village, under the weight of temptation, committed sin. When she became pregnant, they asked her who was to blame. She said, “The anchorite.” Then they came to seize me, led me to the village and hung pots black with soot and various other things round my neck and led me through the village in all directions, beating me and saying, “This monk has denied our virgin, catch him, catch him,” and they beat me almost to death. Then one of the old men came and said, “What are you doing, how long will you go on beating this strange monk?” The man who served me was walking behind me, full of shame, for they covered him with insults too, saying, “Look at this anchorite, for whom you stood surety; what has he done?” The girl’s parents said, “Do not let him go till he has given a pledge that he will keep her.” I spoke to my servant and he vouched for me. Going to my cell, I gave him all the baskets I had, saying, “Sell them, and give my wife something to eat.” Then I said to myself, “Macarius, you have found yourself a wife; you must work a little more in order to keep her.” So I worked night and day and sent my work to her. But when the time came for the wretch to give birth, she remained in labour many days without bringing forth, and they said to her, “What is the matter?” She said, “I know what it is, it is because I slandered the anchorite, and accused him unjustly; it is not he who is to blame, but such and such a young man.” Then the man who served me came to me full of joy saying, “The virgin could not give birth until she had said ‘The anchorite had nothing to do with it, but I have lied about him.’ The whole village wants to come here solemnly and do penance before you.” But when I heard this, for fear people would disturb me, I got up and fled here to Scetis. That is the original reason why I came here.’
a. One day Macarius the Egyptian went from Scetis to the mountain of Nitria for the offering of Abba Pambo. The old men said to him, ‘Father, say a word to the brethren.’ He said, ‘I have not yet become a monk myself, but I have seen monks. One day when I was sitting in my cell, my thoughts were troubling me, suggesting that I should go to the desert and see what I could see there. I remained for five years, fighting against this thought, saying, per- haps it comes from the demons. But since the thought persisted, I left for the desert. There I found a sheet of water and an island in the midst, and the animals of the desert came to drink there. In the midst of these animals I saw two naked men, and my body trembled, for I believed they were spirits. Seeing me shaking, they said to me, “Do not be afraid, for we are men.” Then I said to them, “Where do you come from, and how did you come to this desert?” They said, “We come from a monastery and having agreed together, we came here forty years ago. One of us is an Egyptian and the other a Libyan.” They questioned me and asked me, “How is the world? Is the water rising in due time? Is the world enjoying prosperity?” I replied it was, then I asked them, “How can I become a monk?” They said to me, “If you do not give up all that is in the world, you cannot become a monk.” I said to them, “But I am weak, and I cannot do as you do.” So they said to me: “If you cannot become like us, sit in your cell and weep for your sins.” I asked them, “When the winter comes are you not frozen? And when the heat comes do not your bodies burn?” They said, “It is God who has made this way of life for us. We do not freeze in winter, and the summer does us no harm.” That is why I said that I have not yet become a monk, but I have seen monks.’
3. When Abba Macarius dwelt in the great desert, he was the only one living as an anchorite, but lower down there was another desert where several brothers dwelt. The old man was surveying the road when he saw Satan drawing near in the likeness of a man and he passed by his dwelling. He seemed to be wearing some kind of cotton garment, full of holes, and a small flask hung at each hole. The old man said to him, ‘Where are you off to?’ He said, ‘I am going to stir up the memories of the brethren.’ The old man said, ‘And what is the purpose of these small flasks?’ He replied, ‘I am taking food for the brethren to taste.’ The old man said, ‘All those kinds?’ He replied, ‘Yes, for if a brother does not like one sort of food, I offer him another, and if he does not like the second any better, I offer him a third; and of all these varieties he will like one at least.’ With these words he departed. The old man remained watching the road until he saw him coming back again. When the old man saw him, he said to him: ‘Good health to you.’ The other replied: ‘How can I be in good health?’ The old man asked him what he meant, and he replied, ‘Because they all opposed me, and no one received me.’ The old man said, ‘Ah, you did not find any friends down there?’ He replied, ‘Yes, I have a monk who is a friend down there. He at least obeys me and when he sees me he changes like the wind.’ The old man asked him the name of this monk. ‘Theopemtus,’ he replied. With these words he went away. Then Abba Macarius got up and went to the desert below his own. When they heard of it the brothers took branches of palm to go to meet him. Each one got ready, thinking that it was to him the old man was coming down. But he enquired which was the one on the mountain called Theo- pemptus, and when he had found out he went to his cell. Theo- pemptus received him with joy. When he was alone with him the old man asked him, ‘How are you getting on?’ Theopemptus re- plied, ‘Thanks to your prayers, all goes well.’ The old man asked: ‘Do not your thoughts war against you?’ He replied: ‘Up to now, it is all right,’ for he was afraid to admit anything. The old man said to him, ‘See how many years I have lived as an ascetic, and am
praised by all, and though I am old, the spirit of fornication troubles me.’ Theopemptus said, ‘Believe me, abba, it is the same with me.’ The old man went on admitting that other thoughts still warred against him, until he had brought him to admit them about himself. Then he said, ‘How do you fast?’ He replied, ‘Till the ninth hour.’ ‘Practise fasting a little later; meditate on the Gospel and the other Scriptures, and if an alien thought arises within you, never look at it but always look upwards, and the Lord will come at once to your help.’ When he had given the brother this rule, the old man then returned to his solitude. He was watching the road once more when he saw the devil, to whom he said, ‘Where are you going this time?’ He replied, ‘To arouse the memories of the brothers,’ and he went away. When he came back the saint asked him, ‘How are the broth- ers?’ He replied that it had gone badly. The old man asked him why. He replied, ‘They are all obdurate, and the worst is the one friend I had who used to obey me. I do not know what has changed him, but not only does he not obey me any more, but he has become the most obdurate of them all. So I have promised myself not to go down there again at least not for a long time from now.’ When he had said this, he went away leaving the old man, and the saint
returned to his cell.
4. One day Abba Macarius the Great came to Abba Anthony’s dwelling on the mountain. When he knocked on the door, Anthony came out to him and said to him, ‘Who are you?’ He replied, ‘I am Macarius.’ Then Anthony went inside and shut the door leaving him there. Later, seeing his patience, he opened the door and re- ceived Macarius with joy, saying to him, ‘I have wanted to see you for a long time, having heard about you.’ He rendered him all the duties of hospitality and made him rest for he was very tired. When evening came, Abba Anthony soaked some palm-leaves for himself, and Abba Macarius said to him, ‘Allow me to soak some for myself.’ He replied: ‘Do so.’ Having made a large bundle, he soaked them. Then sitting down in the evening they spoke of the salvation of the soul, while they plaited the leaves. The rope which Macarius was making hung down through the window in the cave. Going in early, blessed Anthony saw the length of Abba Macarius’ rope and said, ‘Great power comes out of these hands.’
5. Concerning the devastation of Scetis, Abba Macarius said to the brethern, ‘When you see a cell built close to the marsh, know that the devastation of Scetis is near; when you see trees, know that it is at the doors; and when you see young children, take up your sheep-skins, and go away.’
6. Again, wishing to comfort the brethren, he said, ‘A mother came here with her little child, possessed with a devil, who said to his mother, “Get up, woman, let us go away from here.” She replied, “I cannot walk any further,” and the little child said to her, “I will carry you myself.” I wondered at the devil’s tricks and how eager he was to make them flee.’
7. Abba Sisoes said, ‘When I was at Scetis with Macarius, we went up, seven of us, to bring in the harvest. Now a widow cried out behind us and would not stop weeping. So the old man called the owner of the field and said to him, “What is the matter with the woman that she goes on weeping?” “It is because her husband re- ceived a deposit in trust from someone and he died suddenly with- out saying where he had hidden it, and the owner of the deposit wants to take her and her children and make slaves of them.” The old man said to him, “Tell her to come to us, when we take our mid-day rest.” The woman came, and the old man said to her, “Why are you weeping all the time like this?” She replied, “My husband who had received a deposit on trust from someone, has died and he did not say when he died, where he had put it.” The old man said to her, “Come, show me where you have buried him.” Taking then brethren with him, he went with her. When they had come to the place, the old man said to her, “Go away to your house.” While the brethren prayed, the old man asked the dead man, “So and so, where have you put the deposit?” The corpse replied, “It is hidden in the house, at the foot of the bed.” The old man said, “Rest again, until the day of resurrection.” When they saw this, the brethren were filled with fear and threw themselves at his feet. But the old man said to them, “It is not for my sake that this has happened, for I am nothing, but it is because of the widow and the orphans that God has performed this miracle. This is what is remarkable, that God wants the soul to be without sin and grants it all it asks.” He went to tell the widow where the deposit was. Taking it, she returned it to its owner and thus freed her children. All who heard this story gave glory to God.’
8. Abba Peter said this about the holy Macarius: ‘One day he came to the cell of an anchorite who happened to be ill, and he asked him if he would take something to eat, though his cell was stripped bare. When the other replied, “Some sherbet,” that courageous man did not hesitate, but went as far as Alexandria to fetch some for the sick man. The astonishing thing is that no-one knew about it.’
9. He also said that when Abba Macarius received all the breth- ren in simplicity, some of them asked him why he mixed with them like this. He replied, ‘For twelve years I served the Lord, so that he might grant me this gift, and do you all advise me to give it up?’
10. They said about Abba Macarius that when he visited the brethren he laid this rule upon himself, ‘If there is wine, drink some for the brethren’s sake, but for each cup of wine, spend a day without drinking water.’ So the brothers would offer him some refreshment, and the old man would accept it joyfully to mortify himself; but when his disciple got to know about it he said to the brethren, ‘In the name of God, do not offer him any more, or he will go and kill himself in his cell.’ When they heard that, the brethren did not offer him wine any more.
11. When Abba Macarius was returning from the marsh to his cell one day carrying some palm-leaves, he met the devil on the road with a scythe. The latter struck at him as much as he pleased, but in vain, and he said to him, ‘What is your power, Macarius, that makes me powerless against you? All that you do, I do, too; you fast, so do I; you keep vigil, and I do not sleep at all; in one thing only do you beat me.’ Abba Macarius asked what that was. He said, ‘Your humility. Because of that I can do nothing against you.’
12. Some Fathers questioned Abba Macarius the Egyptian, ‘Why is it that whether you eat, or whether you fast, your body is always emaciated?’ The old man said to them, ‘The little bit of wood that is used to poke the vinebranches when they are burning ends by being entirely burnt up by the fire; in the same way, man purifies his soul in the fear of God, and the fear of God burns up his body.’
13. One day Abba Macarius went up from Scetis to Terenuthis and went into the temple to sleep. Now there were some old coffins of the pagans there. Taking one, he put it under his head as a pillow. The devils, seeing his audacity, were filled with jealousy and to make him afraid they called out, as though addressing a woman, ‘So and so, come to bath with us.’ Another devil replied from beneath him, as though among the dead, ‘I have a stranger on top of me, and I cannot come.’ But the old man was not afraid. On the contrary, he knocked on the coffin with assurance, saying, ‘Awake, and go into the darkness, if you can.’ Hearing this, the devils began to cry out with all their might, ‘You have overcome us.’ Filled with confu- sion, they fled.
14. It was said of Abba Macarius the Egyptian that one day when he was going up from Scetis with a load of baskets, he sat down, overcome with weariness and began to say to himself, ‘My God, you know very well that I cannot go any further,’ and imme- diately he found himself at the river.
15. A man of Egypt had a paralytic son. He brought him to the cell of Abba Macarius, and put him down at the door weeping and went a good distance away. The old man stooped down and saw the child, and said to him, ‘Who brought you here?’ He replied, ‘My father threw me down here and went away.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘Get up, and go back to him.’ The child was cured on the spot; he got up and rejoined his father and they returned to their own home.
16. Abba Macarius the Great said to the brothers at Scetis, when he dismissed the assembly, ‘Flee, my brothers.’ One of the old men asked him, ‘Where could we flee to beyond this desert?’ He put his finger on his lips and said, ‘Flee that,’ and he went into his cell, shut the door and sat down.
17. The same Abba Macarius said, ‘If you reprove someone, you yourself get carried away by anger and you are satisfying your own passion; do not lose yourself, therefore, in order to save another.’
18. The same Abba Macarius while he was in Egypt discovered a man who owned a beast of burden engaged in plundering Macarius’ goods. So he came up to the thief as if he was a stranger and he helped him to load the animal. He saw him off in great peace of soul, saying, ‘We have brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.’ (1 Tim. 6.7) ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ (Job
19. Abba Macarius was asked, ‘How should one pray?’ The old man said, ‘There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hands and say, “Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.” And if the conflict grows fiercer say, “Lord, help!” He knows very well what we need and he shews us his mercy.’
20. Abba Macarius said, ‘If slander has become to you the same as praise, poverty as riches, deprivation as abundance, you will not die. Indeed it is impossible for anyone who firmly believes, who labours with devotion, to fall into the impurity of the passions and be led astray by the demons.’
21. It was said that two brothers at Scetis had fallen into sin and that Abba Macarius of Alexandria had excommunicated them. Some brethren came and told Abba Macarius the Great of Egypt about it. He said, ‘It is not the brothers who are excommunicated; it is Macarius (for he loved him).’ Hearing that he had been excom- municated by the old man, Abba Macarius fled to the marsh. Then Abba Macarius the Great went out and found him eaten up by mosquitoes. He said to him, ‘So you have excommunicated some brothers; and yet they live apart in the village. I myself have excommunicated you and like a pretty young girl to the utmost privacy of her chamber, you have fled here. I have summoned the two brothers, and have learnt from them what happened, and I have told them nothing has happened. Examine yourself, then, my brother, and see if you have not been the sport of the demons, for you have lacked perception in this matter. But repent of your fault.’ Then the other asked him, ‘Please give me a penance.’ Faced with his humility, the old man said, ‘Go, fast for three weeks, eating only once a week.’ For it was his usual custom to fast for the whole week.
22. Abba Moses said to Abba Macarius at Scetis, ‘I should like to live in quiet prayer and the brethren do not let me.’ Abba Macarius said to him, ‘I see that you are a sensitive man and incapable of sending a brother away. Well, if you want to live in peace, go to the interior desert, to Petra, and there you will be at peace.’ And so he found peace.
23. A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, ‘Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.’ So the old man said, ‘Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.’ The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, ‘Didn’t they say anything to you?’ He replied, ‘No.’ The old man said, ‘Go back tomorrow and praise them.’ So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, ‘Apostles, saints and righteous men.’ He re- turned to the old man and said to him, ‘I have complimented them.’ And the old man said to him, ‘Did they not answer you?’ The brother said no. The old man said to him, ‘You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.’
24. One day when Abba Macarius was going down to Egypt with some brethren, he heard a boy saying to his mother, ‘Mother, there is a rich man who likes me, but I detest him; and on the other hand, there is a poor man who hates me, and I love him.’ Hearing these words, Abba Macarius marvelled. So the brethren said to him: ‘What is this saying, abba, that makes you marvel?’ The old man said to them, ‘Truly, our Lord is rich and loves us, and we do not listen to him; while our enemy the devil is poor and hates us, but we love his impurity.’
25. Abba Poemen asked him weeping, ‘Give me a word that I may be saved.’ But the old man replied, ‘What you are looking for has disappeared now from among monks.’
26. One day Abba Macarius went to see Abba Anthony. He spoke to him and then returned to Scetis. The Fathers came to meet him, and as they were speaking, the old man said to them, ‘I said to Abba Anthony that we do not have an offering in our district.’ But the Fathers began to speak of other things without asking him to tell them the old man’s reply and he himself did not tell them. One of the Fathers said about this that when the Fathers see that the brethren fail to question them about something that would be use- ful, they ought to begin talking about it themselves; but if they are not urged on by the brethren, they should not say anymore about it, so that they shall not be found to have spoken without being asked, and to have said unnecessary words.
27. Abba Isaiah questioned Abba Macarius saying, ‘Give me a word.’ The old man said to him, ‘Flee from men,’ Abba Isaiah said to him, ‘What does it mean to flee from men?’ The old man said, ‘It means to sit in your cell and weep for your sins.’
28. Abba Paphnutius, the disciple of Abba Macarius, said, ‘I asked my Father to say a word to me and he replied, “Do no evil to anyone, and do not judge anyone. Observe this and you will be saved.”‘
29. Abba Macarius said, ‘Do not sleep in the cell of a brother who has a bad reputation.’
30. The brethren came one day to Abba Macarius at Scetis and they found nothing in this cell except stagnant water. So they said to him, ‘Abba, come up to the village, and we will get some clean water for you.’ The old man said to them, ‘Brothers, do you know so-and-so’s bakery in the village?’ and they said that they did. The old man said to them, ‘I know it, too. Do you know so-and-so’s field, where the river runs?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ The old man said to them, ‘I know it too. So when I want to, I can go there myself, without your help.’
Moses the Black
Moses the Black, also called the Robber, was a released slave who lived as a robber in Nitria; late in life he became a monk and was trained by Isidore the Priest. He was ordained priest and became one of the great fathers of Scetis. On the advice of Macarius he retired to Petra; he was martyred with seven others by barbarian invaders.
1. It happened that Abba Moses was struggling with the tempta- tion of fornication. Unable to stay any longer in the cell, he went and told Abba Isidore. The old man exhorted him to return to his cell. But he refused, saying, ‘Abba, I cannot.’ Then Abba Isidore took Moses out onto the terrace and said to him, ‘Look towards the west.’ He looked and saw hordes of demons flying about and mak- ing a noise before launching an attack. Then Abba Isidore said to him, ‘Look towards the east.’ He turned and saw an innumerable multitude of holy angels shining with glory. Abba Isidore said, ‘See, these are sent by the Lord to the saints to bring them help, while those in the west fight against them. Those who are with us are more in number than they are.’ Then Abba Moses, gave thanks to God, plucked up courage and returned to his cell.
2. A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him.
3. Another day when a council was being held in Scetis, the Fathers treated Moses with contempt in order to test him, saying, ‘Why does this black man come among us?’ When he heard this he kept silence. When the council was dismissed, they said to him, ‘Abba, did that not grieve you at all?’ He said to them, ‘I was grieved, but I kept silence.’
4. It was said of Abba Moses that he was ordained and the ephod was placed upon him. The archbishop said to him, ‘See, Abba Moses, now you are entirely white.’ The old man said to him, ‘It is true of the outside, lord and father, but what about Him who sees the inside?’ Wishing to test him the archbishop said to the priests, ‘When Abba Moses comes into the sanctuary, drive him out, and go with him to hear what he says.’ So the old man came in and they covered him with abuse, and drove him out, saying, ‘Outside, black man!’ Going out, he said to himself, ‘They have acted rightly con- cerning you, for your skin is as black as ashes. You are not a man, so why should you be allowed to meet men?’
5. Once the order was given at Scetis, ‘Fast this week.’ Now it happened that some brothers came from Egypt to visit Abba Moses and he cooked something for them. Seeing some smoke, the neigh- bours said to the ministers, ‘Look, Moses has broken the command- ment and has cooked something in his cell.’ The ministers said, ‘When he comes, we will speak to him ourselves.’ When the Satur- day came, since they knew Abba Moses’ remarkable way of life, the ministers said to him in front of everyone, ‘O Abba Moses, you did not keep the commandment of men, but it was so that you might keep the commandment of God.’
6. A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’
7. Abba Moses said, ‘The man who flees and lives in solitude is like a bunch of grapes ripened by the sun, but he who remains amongst men is like an unripe grape.’
8. The magistrate heard about Abba Moses one day and he went to Scetis to see him. They told the old man. He got up and fled to the marsh. Some people met him and said to him, ‘Old man, tell us where the cell of Abba Moses is.’ He said to them, ‘What do you want with him? He is a fool.’ So the magistrate went back to the church and said to the ministers, ‘I heard people talk about Abba Moses and I went to see him, but there was an old man going into Egypt who crossed our path and we asked him where Abba Moses’ cell is, and he said to us, “What do you want with him? He is a fool.”‘ When they heard this, the clergy were offended and said, ‘What kind of an old man was it who spoke like that about the holy man to you?’ He said, ‘An old man wearing old clothes, a big black man.’ They said, ‘It was Abba Moses himself and it was in order not to meet you that he said that.’ The magistrate went away greatly edified.
9. At Scetis Abba Moses used to say, ‘If we keep the command- ments of our Fathers, I will answer for it on God’s behalf that the barbarians will not come here. But if we do not keep the command- ments of God, this place will be devastated.’
10. One day, when the brethren were sitting beside him, he said to them, ‘Look, the barbarians are coming to Scetis today; get up and flee.’ They said to him, ‘Abba, won’t you flee too?’ He said to them, ‘As for me, I have been waiting for this day for many years, that the word of the Lord Christ may be fulfilled which says, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.” ‘ (Matt. 26.52) They said to him, ‘We will not flee either, but we will die with you.’ He said to them: ‘That is nothing to do with me; let everyone decide for himself whether he stops or not.’ Now there were seven broth- ers there and he said to them, ‘Look, the barbarians are drawing near to the door.’ They they came in and slew them. But one fled and hid under the cover of a pile of rope and he saw seven crowns decending and crowning them.
11. A brother questioned Abba Moses saying, ‘I see something in front of me and I am not able to grasp it.’ The old man said to him, If you do not become dead like those who are in the tomb, you will not be able to grasp it.’
12. Abba Poemen said that a brother asked Abba Moses how someone could consider himself as dead towards his neighbour. The old man said to him, ‘If a man does not think in his heart that he is already three days dead and in the tomb, he cannot attain this saying.’
13. It was said of Abba Moses at Scetis that when he had ar- ranged to go to Petra, he grew tired in the course of the journey and said to himself, ‘How can I find the water I need there?’ Then a voice said to him, ‘Go, and do not be anxious about anything.’ So he went. Some Fathers came to see him and he had only a small bottle of water. He used it all up in cooking lentils for them. The old man was worried, so he went in and came out of his cell, and he prayed to God, and a cloud of rain came to Petra and filled all the cisterns. After this, the visitors said to the old man, ‘Tell us why you went in and out.’ The old man said to them, ‘I was arguing with God, saying, “You brought me here and now I have no water for your servants.” This is why I was going in and out; I was going on at God till he sent us some water.’
Seven instructions which Abba Moses sent to Abba Poemen. He who puts them into practice will escape all punishment and will live in peace, whether he dwells in the desert or in the midst of brethren.
1. The monk must die to his neighbour and never judge him at all, in any way whatever.
2. The monk must die to everything before leaving the body, in order not to harm anyone.
3. If the monk does not think in his heart that he is a sinner, God will not hear him. The brother said, ‘What does that mean, to think in his heart that he is a sinner?’ Then the old man said, ‘When someone is occupied with his own faults, he does not see those of his neighbour.’
4. If a man’s deeds are not in harmony with his prayer, he labours in vain. The brother said, ‘What is this harmony between practice and prayer?’ The old man said, ‘We should no longer do those things against which we pray. For when a man gives up his own will, then God is reconciled with him and accepts his prayers.’ The brother asked, ‘In all the affliction which the monk gives himself, what helps him?’ The old man said, ‘It is written, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”‘ (Ps.46.1)
5. The old man was asked, ‘What is the good of the fasts and watchings which a man imposes on himself?’ and he replied, ‘They make the soul humble. For it is written, “Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.” (Ps.25.18) So if the soul gives itself all this hardship, God will have mercy on it.’
6. The old man was asked, ‘What should a man do in all the temptations and evil thoughts that come upon him?’ The old man said to him, ‘He should weep and implore the goodness of God to come to his aid, and he will obtain peace if he prays with discern- ment. For it is written, “With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can man do to me?” ‘ (Ps. 118.6)
7. A brother asked the old man, ‘Here is a man who beats his servant because of a fault he has committed; what will the servant say?’ The old man said, ‘If the servant is good, he should say, “For- give me, I have sinned.” ‘ The brother said to him, ‘Nothing else?’ The old man said, ‘No, for from the moment he takes upon himself responsibility for the affair and says, “I have sinned,” immediately the Lord will have mercy on him. The aim in all these things is not to judge one’s neighbour. For truly, when the hand of the Lord caused all the first-born in the land of Egypt to die, no house was without its dead.’ The brother said, ‘What does that mean?’ The old man said, ‘If we are on the watch to see our own faults, we shall not see those of our neighbour. It is folly for a man who has a dead person in his house to leave him there and go to weep over his neighbour’s dead. To die to one’s neighbour is this: To bear your own faults and not to pay attention to anyone else wondering whether they are good or bad. Do no harm to anyone, do not think anything bad in your heart towards anyone, do not scorn the man who does evil, do not put confidence in him who does wrong to his neighbour, do not rejoice with him who injures his neighbour. This is what dying to one’s neighbour means. Do not rail against anyone, but rather say, “God knows each one.” Do not agree with him who slanders, do not rejoice at his slander and do not hate him who slanders his neighbour. This is what it means not to judge. Do not have hostile feelings towards anyone and do not let dislike dominate your heart; do not hate him who hates his neighbour. This is what peace is: Encourage yourself with this thought, “Affliction lasts but a short time, while peace is for ever, by the grace of God the Word. Amen.”‘
Poemen (called the Shepherd)
The Sayings attributed to Poemen form one seventh of the whole of the Alphabetical Collection. It seems probable that this was the nucleus out of which the whole book grew. He figures also in many other Sayings in this book and in other collections. It is not certain that all these Sayings belong to one Poemen, since Poemen, ‘the Shepherd’, was a common title in Egypt. Nor is it certain which Poemen is meant: there is the Poemen who met Rufinus at Pispir in the 370s, and the Sayings connected with Anthony, Ammonas, Pior, Pambo and Joseph would fit in well with him,
as an elder in Scetis in the last decade of the fourth century. He may be the same, or he may not, as the Poemen who left Scetis with his seven brothers in 408, and outlived Arsenius (+449). His contacts were with those closer to the devastation of Scetis, John the Dwarf, Agathon, and Moses. It seems most probable that it is from this group that settled at Terenuthis that this collection comes; it would be appropriate for such a commemoration of the Sayings of the great Old Men to be begun when the first age seemed to have passed.
1. While he was still young, Abba Poemen went one day to an old man to ask him about three thoughts. Having reached the old man, he forgot one of the three and went back to his cell. But as he was stretching out his hand to turn the key, he remembered the thought which he had forgotten and leaving the key, he returned to the old man. The old man said to him, ‘You come quickly, brother.’ He told him, ‘At the moment when I was putting out my hand to grasp the key, I remembered the thought which I was trying to find; so I did not open the door, but have retraced my steps.’ Now the length of the way was very great and the old man said to him, ‘Poemen, Shepherd of the flock, your name will be known throughout Egypt.’
2. Once Paesius, the brother of Abba Poemen, made friends with someone outside his cell. Now Abba Poemen did not want that. So he got up and fled to Abba Ammonas and said to him, ‘Paesius, my brother, holds converse with someone, so I have no peace.’ Abba Ammonas said to him, ‘Poemen, are you still alive? Go, sit down in your cell; engrave it on your heart that you have been in the tomb for a year already.’
3. One day the priests of the district came to the monasteries where Abba Poemen was. Abba Anoub came and said to him, ‘Let us invite the priests in today.’ But he stood for a long time without giving him any reply, and, quite offended, Abba Anoub went away. Those who were sitting beside Poemen said to him, ‘Abba, why didn’t you answer him?’ Abba Poemen said to them, ‘It is not my business, for I am dead and a dead man does not speak.’
4. Before Abba Poemen’s group came there, there was an old man in Egypt who enjoyed considerable fame and repute. But when Abba Poemen’s group went up to Scetis, men left the old man to go to see Abba Poemen. Abba Poemen was grieved at this and said to his disciples, ‘What is to be done about this great old man, for men grieve him by leaving him and coming to us who are nothing? What shall we do, then to comfort this old man?’ He said to them, ‘Make ready a little food, and take a skin of wine and let us go to see him and eat with him. And so we shall be able to comfort him.’ So they put together some food, and went. When they knocked at the door the old man’s disciple answered, saying, ‘Who are you?’ They responded, ‘Tell the abba it is Poemen who desires to be blessed by him.’ The disciple reported this and the old man sent him to say, ‘Go away, I have no time.’ But in spite of the heat they persevered, saying, ‘We shall not go away till we have been allowed to meet the old man.’ Seeing their humility and patience, the old man was filled with compunction and opened the door to them. Then they went in and ate with him. During the meal he said, ‘Truly, not only what I have heard about you is true, but I see that your works are a hundred-fold greater,’ and from that day, he became their friend.
5. One day the magistrate of that district wanted to see Abba Poemen but the old man did not want to see him. So, he seized his sister’s son and threw him into prison, under the pretext that he was a criminal saying, ‘If the old man comes to intercede for him I will let him go.’ Then his sister came to weep at Poemen’s door, but he gave her no answer. Then she reproached him in these words, saying, ‘Heart of stone, have pity on me, for he is my only son.’ But he only said to her, ‘Poemen has not brought forth any sons.’ At that, she went away. When he heard this, the magistrate sent Poe- men this message, ‘If you only ask me by a word, I will let him go.’ The old man replied, ‘Judge him according to the law; if he is worthy of death, put him to death, if not, do what you choose.’
6. One day a brother sinned in a monastery. Now there was an anchorite in the district who had not gone out for a long time. The abba of the monastery went to see him and to give him the news that the brother had sinned. The anchorite said, ‘Drive him away.’ So the brother left the monastery and he went into a cave and wept there. Now it happened that some brothers were going to see Abba Poemen and they heard him weeping. They entered, found him in great misery and invited him to go to see the old man, but he refused, saying, ‘I am going to die here.’ So when they reached Abba Poemen’s cell they told him about the brother. And he exhorted them, and he sent them away saying, ‘Say to him, Abba Poemen sends for you.’ Then the brother came. Seeing he was in such distress, Abba Poemen stood up, embraced him and was kind to him and invited him to eat. Then he sent one of the brethren to the anchorite, saying, ‘For many years I have desired to see you, having heard of you. But because of our lethargy, we have not yet met. Now, however, if God wills it and you have the time, give yourself the trouble of coming here, and we will see one another.’ The old man had never left his cell but when he heard this he said, ‘If God had not inspired the old man, he would not have sent someone to summon me.’ So he got up and went to see Poemen. They embraced one another with joy and sat down. Abba Poemen said to him, ‘Two men dwelt in one place and someone belonging to each of them died; the first one, leaving his own dead, went to weep over the other’s.’ Hearing these words, the anchorite was filled with com- punction and he remembered what he had done and said, ‘Poemen, you have gone up to heaven and I have gone down to the earth.’
7. Many old men came to see Abba Poemen and one day it happened that a member of Abba Poemen’s family came, who had a child whose face, through the power of the devil, was turned backwards. The father seeing the number of Fathers present, took the child and sat down outside the monastery, weeping. Now it happened that one of the old men came out and seeing him, asked him, ‘Man, why are you weeping?’ He replied, ‘I am related to Abba Poemen, and see the misfortune which has overtaken my child. Though I want to bring him to the old man, we are afraid he does not want to see us. Each time he hears I am here, he has me driven away. But since you are with him, I have dared to come. If you will, Father, have pity on me, take the child inside and pray for him.’ So the old man took the child, went inside and behaved with good sense. He did not immediately present him to Abba Poemen, but began with the lesser brethren, and said, ‘Make the sign of the cross over this little child.’ Having had him signed by all in turn, he presented him at last to Abba Poemen. Abba Poemen did not want to make the sign of the cross over him, but the others urged him, saying, ‘Do as everyone else has done.’ So groaning he stood up and
prayed, saying, ‘God, heal your creature, that he be not ruled by the enemy.’ When he had signed him, the child was healed immediately and given back whole to his father.
8. A brother from Abba Poemen’s neighbourhood left to go to another country one day. There he met an anchorite. The latter was very charitable and many came to see him. The brother told him about Abba Poemen. When he heard of his virtue, the anchorite wanted to see him. Some time afterwards when the brother had returned to Egypt the anchorite went there to see the brother who had formerly paid him a visit. He had told him where he lived. When he saw him, the brother was astonished and very pleased. The anchorite said to him, ‘Please will you be so kind as to take me to Abba Poemen.’ So he brought him to the old man and presented him, saying, ‘This is a great man, full of charity, who is held in high estimation in his district. I have spoken to him about you, and he has come because he wants to see you.’ So Abba Poemen received him with joy. They greeted one another and sat down. The visitor began to speak of the Scriptures, of spiritual and of heavenly things. But Abba Poemen turned his face away and answered nothing. Seeing that he did not speak to him, the other went away deeply grieved and said to the brother who had brought him, ‘I have made this long journey in vain. For I have come to see the old man, and he does not wish to speak to me.’ Then the brother went inside to
Abba Poemen and said to him, ‘Abba, this great man who has so great a reputation in his own country has come here because of you. Why did you not speak to him?’ The old man said, ‘He is great and speaks of heavenly things and I am lowly and speak of earthly things. If he had spoken of the passions of the soul, I should have replied, but he speaks to me of spiritual things and I know nothing about that.’ Then the brother came out and said to the visitor, ‘The old man does not readily speak of the Scriptures, but if anyone consults him about the passions of the soul, he replies.’ Filled with compunction, the visitor returned to the old man and said to him, ‘What should I do, Abba, for the passions of the soul master me?’ The old man turned towards him and replied joyfully, ‘This time, you come as you should. Now open your mouth concerning this and I will fill it with good things.’ Greatly edified, the other said to him, ‘Truly, this is the right way!’ He returned to his own country giving thanks to God that he had been counted worthy to meet so great a saint.
9. One day the chief magistrate of the district seized one of the men of Abba Poemen’s village, and everyone came to beg the old man to go and have him released. He replied, ‘Leave me for three days and I will go.’ Abba Poemen prayed to the Lord in these words, ‘Lord, do not give me this grace, otherwise they will never let me stay in this place.’ Then the old man went to intercede with the magistrate, who replied, ‘Will you intercede for a brigand, abba?’ The old man rejoiced that he had not been granted this grace.
10. They said that one day Abba Poemen and his brethren were making ropes and the work was delayed because they had nothing with which to buy flax. One of their friends told a friendly mer- chant about this. Now Abba Poemen did not want to receive any- thing from anyone because of the trouble it causes. But the merchant wanted to do something for the old man, so he pretended to need ropes and brought a camel and took them away. When the brothers came to see Abba Poemen and learned what the merchant had done, they said, intending to praise him, ‘Truly, Abba, he has taken them though he did not need them so as to do us a service.’ Hearing that he had taken them without needing them, Abba Poe- men said to the brother, ‘Get up, hire a camel and bring them back, and if you do not bring them back, Poemen will no longer live here with you. I do not want to do wrong to someone who does not need those ropes, lest he should suffer loss by it and take my reward from me.’ The brother went away with much labour and brought them back; otherwise the old man would have gone away from them. When he saw the ropes, he rejoiced as though he had found a great treasure.
11. A priest of Pelusia heard it said of some brethren that they often went to the city, took baths and were careless in their behav- iour. He went to the synaxis, and took the habit away from them. Afterwards, his heart was moved, he repented and went to see Abba Poemen, obsessed by his thoughts. He brought the monastic habits of the brothers and told him all about it. The old man said to him, ‘Don’t you sometimes have something of the old Adam in you?’ The priest said, ‘I have my share of the old Adam.’ The abba said to him, ‘Look, you are just like the brethren yourself; if you have even a little share of the old Adam, then you are subject to sin in the same way.’ So the priest went and called the brothers and asked their pardon; and he clothed them in the monastic habit again and let them go.
12. A brother questioned Abba Poemen saying, ‘I have commit- ted a great sin and I want to do penance for three years.’ The old man said to him, ‘That is a lot.’ The brother said, ‘For one year?’ The old man said again, ‘That is a lot.’ Those who were present said, ‘For forty days?’ He said again, ‘That is a lot.’ He added, ‘I myself say that if a man repents with his whole heart and does not intend to commit the sin any more, God will accept him after only three days.’
13. He also said, ‘The distinctive mark of the monk is made clear through temptations.’
14. He also said, ‘Just as the king’s body-guard stands always on guard at his side, so the soul should always be on guard against the demon of fornication.’
15. Abba Anoub asked Abba Poemen about the impure thoughts which the heart of man brings forth and about vain desires. Abba Poemen said to him, ‘Is the axe any use without someone to cut with it? (Is. 10.15) If you do not make use of these thoughts, they will be ineffectual too.’
16. Abba Poemen also said, ‘If Nabuzardan, the head-cook, had not come, the temple of the Lord would not have been burned: (2 Kings 24.8f.) that is to say: if slackness and greed did not come into the soul, the spirit would not be overcome in combat with the enemy.’
17. It was said of Abba Poemen that if he was invited to eat against his will, he wept but he went, so as not to refuse to obey his brother and cause him pain.
18. Abba Poemen also said, ‘Do not live in a place where you see that some are jealous of you, for you will not make progress.’
19. Some brothers told Abba Poemen of a brother who did not drink wine. He said, ‘Wine is not for monks.’
20. Abba Isaiah questioned Abba Poemen on the subject of im- pure thoughts. Abba Poemen said to him, ‘It is like having a chest full of clothes, if one leaves them in disorder they are spoiled in the course of time. It is the same with thoughts. If we do not do anything about them, in time they are spoiled, that is to say, they
21. Abba Joseph put the same question and Abba Poemen said to him, ‘If someone shuts a snake and a scorpion up in a bottle, in time they will be completely destroyed. So it is with evil thoughts: they are suggested by the demons; they disappear through pa- tience.’
22. A brother came to see Abba Poemen and said to him, ‘I sow my field and give away in charity what I reap from it.’ The old man said to him, ‘That is good,’ and he departed with fervour and inten- sified his charity. Hearing this, Abba Anoub said to Abba Poemen, ‘Do you not fear God, that you have spoken like that to the brother?’ The old man remained silent. Two days later Abba Poe- men saw the brother coming and in the presence of Abba Anoub said to him, ‘What did you ask me the other day? I was not attend- ing.’ The brother said, ‘I said that I sow my field and give away what I gain in charity.’ Abba Poemen said to him, ‘I thought you were speaking of your brother who is in the world. If it is you who are doing this, it is not right for a monk.’ At these words the brother was saddened and said, ‘I do not know any other work and I cannot help sowing the fields.’ When he had gone away, Abba Anoub made a prostration and said, ‘Forgive me.’ Abba Poemen said, ‘From the beginning I too knew it was not the work of a monk but I spoke as I did, adapting myself to his ideas and so I gave him courage to increase his charity. Now he has gone away full of grief and yet he will go on as before.’
23. Abba Poemen said, ‘If a man has sinned and denies it, saying: “I have not sinned,” do not reprimand him; for that will discourage him. But say to him, “Do not lose heart, brother, but be on guard in future,” and you will stir his soul to repentance.’
24. He also said, ‘Experience is a good thing; it is that which tests a man.’
25. He also said, ‘A man who teaches without doing what he teaches is like a spring which cleanses and gives drink to everyone, but it not able to purify itself.’
26. Going into Egypt one day, Abba Poemen saw a woman who was sitting in a tomb and weeping bitterly. He said, ‘If all the delights of the world were to come, they could not drive sorrow away from the soul of this woman. Even so the monk would always have compunction in himself.’
27. He also said, ‘A man may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent; that is, he says nothing that is not profitable.’
28. A brother came to see Abba Poemen and said to him, ‘Abba, I have many thoughts and they put me in danger.’ The old man led him outside and said to him, ‘Expand your chest and do not breathe in.’ He said, ‘I cannot do that.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘If you cannot do that, no more can you prevent thoughts from arising, but you can resist them.’
29. Abba Poemen said, ‘If three men meet, of whom the first fully preserves interior peace, and the second gives thanks to God in illness, and the third serves with a pure mind, these three are doing the same work.’
30. He also said, ‘It is written: “As the hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for Thee, O God.” (Ps. 42.1) For truly harts in the desert devour many reptiles and when their venom burns them, they try to come to the springs, to drink so as to assuage the venom’s burning. It is the same for the monks: sitting in the desert they are burned by the venom of evil demons, and they long for Saturday and Sunday to come to be able to go to the springs of water, that is to say, the body and blood of the Lord, so as to be purified from the bitterness of the evil one.’
31. Abba Joseph asked Abba Poemen, ‘How should one fast?’ Abba Poemen said to him, ‘For my part, I think it better that one should eat every day, but only a little, so as not to be satisfied.’ Abba Joseph said to him, ‘When you were younger, did you not fast two days at a time, abba?’ The old man said: ‘Yes, even for three days and four and the whole week. The Fathers tried all this out as they were able and they found it preferable to eat every day, but just a small amount. They have left us this royal way, which is light.’
32. It was said of Abba Poemen that every time he prepared to go to the synaxis, he sat alone and examined his thoughts for about an hour and then he set off.
33. A brother asked Abba Poemen, ‘An inheritance has been left me, what ought I to do?’ The old man said to him, ‘Go, come back in three days and I will tell you.’ So he returned as it had been decided. Then the old man said, ‘What shall I say to you, brother? If I tell you to give it to the church, they will make banquets with it; if I tell you to give it to your relations, you will not receive any profit from it; if I tell you to give it to the poor, you will not do it. Do as you like, it is none of my business.’
34. Another brother questioned him in these words: ‘What does, “See that none of you repays evil for evil” mean?’ (1 Thess. 5.15) The old man said to him, ‘Passions work in four stages – first, in the heart; secondly, in the face; thirdly, in words; and fourthly, it is essential not to render evil for evil in deeds. If you can purify your heart, passion will not come into your expression; but if it comes into your face, take care not to speak; but if you do speak, cut the conversation short in case you render evil for evil.’
35. Abba Poemen said, ‘Vigilance, self-knowledge and discern- ment; these are the guides of the soul.’
36. He also said, ‘To throw yourself before God, not to measure your progress, to leave behind all self-will; these are the instruments for the work of the soul.’
37. He also said, ‘The victory over all the afflictions that befall you, is, to keep silence.’
38. He also said, ‘All bodily comfort is an abomination to the Lord.’
39. He also said, ‘Compunction has two sides: it is a good work and a good protection.’
40. He also said, ‘If a thought about bodily needs overtakes you, put the matter right at once; and if it comes a second time, put it right again, but the third time, if it presents itself, do not pay any attention to it, for it is not being any use to you.’
41. He also said that a brother questioned Abba Adonias saying, ‘What does it mean to become nothing?’ The old man said, ‘It means to place oneself beneath irrational beings and to know what they are without blame.’
42. He also said, ‘If man remembered that it is written: “By your words you will be justified and by your words you will be con- demned,” (Matt. 12.37) he would choose to remain silent.’
43. He also said, ‘The beginning of evil is heedlessness.’
44. He also said that Abba Isidore, the priest of Scetis, spoke to the people one day saying, ‘Brothers, is it not in order to endure affliction that we have come to this place? But now there is no affliction for us here. So I am getting my sheepskin ready to go where there is some affliction and there I shall find peace.’
45. A brother said to Abba Poemen, ‘If I see something, do you want me to tell you about it?’ The old man said to him, ‘It is written: “If one gives answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” (Prov.
18.13) If you are questioned, speak; if not, remain silent.’
46. A brother asked Abba Poemen saying, ‘Can a man put his trust in one single work?’ The old man said to him that Abba John the Dwarf said, ‘I would rather have a bit of all the virtues.’
47. The old man said that a brother asked Abba Pambo if it is good to praise one’s neighbour and that the old man said to him, ‘It is better to be silent.’
48. Abba Poemen said, ‘Even if a man were to make a new heaven and earth, he could not live free of care.’
49. He also said, ‘As the breath which comes out of his nostrils, so does a man need humility and the fear of God.’
50. A brother asked Abba Poemen, ‘What should I do?’ The old man said to him, ‘When Abraham entered the promised land he bought a sepulchre for himself and by means of this tomb, he inherited the land.’ The brother said to him, ‘What is the tomb?’ The old man said, ‘The place of tears and compunction.’
51. A brother said to Abba Poemen, ‘If I give my brother a little bread or something else, the demons tarnish these gifts saying it was only done to please men.’ The old man said to him, ‘Even if it is to please men, we must give the brother what he needs.’ He told him the following parable, ‘Two farmers lived in the same town; one of them sowed and reaped a small and poor crop, while the other, who did not even trouble to sow reaped absolutely nothing. If a famine comes upon them, which of the two will find something to live on?’ The brother replied, ‘The one who reaped the small poor crop.’ The old man said to him, ‘So it is for us; we sow a little poor grain, so that we will not die of hunger.’
52. Abba Poemen said that Abba Ammonas said, ‘A man can spend his whole time carrying an axe without succeeding in cutting down the tree; while another, with experience of tree-felling brings the tree down with a few blows. He said that the axe is discernment.’
53. A brother asked Abba Poemen, ‘How should a man behave?’ The old man said to him, ‘Look at Daniel: no-one found anything in him to complain about except for his prayers to the Lord his God.’
54. Abba Poemen said, ‘The will of man is a brass wall between him and God and a stone of stumbling. When a man renounces it, he is also saying to himself, “By my God, I can leap over the wall.” (Ps. 18.29) If a man’s will is in line with what is right, then he can really labour.’
55. He also said, ‘As the old men were sitting at a meal one day, Abba Alonius got up to serve and when they saw that, they praised him. But he answered absolutely nothing. So one of them said to him privately, “Why don’t you answer the old men who are compli- menting you?” Abba Alonius said to him, “If I were to reply to them I should be accepting their praises.” ‘
56. He also said, ‘Men speak to perfection but they do precious little about it.’
57. Abba Poemen said, ‘Just a smoke drives the bees away and also takes the sweetness out of their work, so bodily ease drives the fear of God from the soul and dissipates all its activity.’
58. A brother came to see Abba Poemen in the second week of Lent and told him about his thoughts; he obtained peace, and said to him, ‘I nearly did not come here today.’ The old man asked him why. The brother said, ‘I said to myself, “Perhaps he will not let me in because it is Lent.” ‘ Abba Poemen said to him, ‘We have not been taught to close the wooden door but the door of our tongues.’
59. Abba Poemen said, ‘You must flee from sensual things. In- deed, every time a man comes near to a struggle with sensuality, he is like a man standing on the edge of a very deep lake and the enemy easily throws him in whenever he likes. But if he lives far away from sensual things, he is like a man standing at a distance from the lake, so that even if the enemy draws him in order to throw him to the bottom, God sends him help at the very moment he is drawing him away and doing him violence.’
60. He also said, ‘Poverty, hardship, austerity and fasting, such are the instruments of the solitary life. It is written, “When these three men are together, Noah, Job, and Daniel, there am I, says the Lord.” (of. Ezek. 14.14) Noah represents poverty, Job suffering and Daniel discernment. So, if these three works are found in a man, the Lord dwells in him.’
61. Abba Joseph said, ‘While we were sitting with Abba Poemen he mentioned Agathon as “abba”, and we said to him, “He is very young, why do you call him ‘abba?’ ” Abba Poemen said, “Because his speech makes him worthy to be called abba.” ‘
62. A brother came to Abba Poemen one day and said to him, ‘What should I do, Father, for I am tempted to fornication? I went to Abba Ibiston and he said to me, “You must not let it stay with you.”‘ Abba Poemen said to him, ‘Abba Ibiston’s deeds are in heaven with the angels and he does not realise that you and I remain in fornication. If a monk controls his belly and his tongue and if he lives like an exile, be confident, he will not die.’
63. Abba Poemen said, ‘Teach your mouth to say that which you have in your heart.’
64. A brother questioned Abba Poemen saying, ‘If I see my brother committing a sin, is it right to conceal it?’ The old man said to him, ‘At the very moment when we hide our brother’s fault, God hides our own and at the moment when we reveal our brother’s fault, God reveals ours too.
Syncletica of Alexandria
Syncletica of Alexandria was a Christian saint and Desert Mother from Roman Egypt in the 4th century. She is the subject of the Vita S. Syncleticæ, a Greek hagiography purportedly by Athanasius of Alexandria.
1. Amma Syncletica said, ‘In the beginning there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing towards God and afterwards, ineffable joy. It is like those who wish to light a fire; at first they are choked by the smoke and cry, and by this means obtain what they seek (as it is said: “Our God is a consuming fire” [Heb. 12.24]): so we also must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work.’
2. She also said, ‘We who have chosen this way of life must obtain perfect temperance. It is true that among seculars, also, tem- perance has the freedom of the city, but intemperance cohabits with it, because they sin with all the other senses. Their gaze is shameless and they laugh immoderately.’
3. She also said, ‘Just as the most bitter medicine drives out poi- sonous creatures so prayer joined to fasting drives evil thoughts away.’
4. She also said, ‘Do not let yourself be seduced by the delights
of the riches of the world, as though they contained something useful on account of vain pleasure. Worldly people esteem the culinary art, but you, through fasting and thanks to cheap food, go beyond their abundance of food. It is written: “He who is sated loathes honey.” (Prov. 27.7) Do not fill yourself with bread and you will not desire wine.’
5. Blessed Syncletica was asked if poverty is a perfect good. She said, ‘For those who are capable of it, it is a perfect good. Those who can sustain it receive suffering in the body but rest in the soul, for just as one washes coarse clothes by trampling them underfoot and turning them about in all directions, even so the strong soul becomes much more stable thanks to voluntary poverty.’
6. She also said, ‘If you find yourself in a monastery do not go to another place, for that will harm you a great deal. Just as the bird who abandons the eggs she was sitting on prevents them from hatching, so the monk or the nun grows cold and their faith dies, when they go from one place to another.’
7. She also said, ‘Many are the wiles of the devil. If he is not able to disturb the soul by means of poverty, he suggests riches as an attraction. If he has not won the victory by insults and disgrace, he suggests praise and glory. Overcome by health, he makes the body ill. Not having been able to seduce it through pleasures, he tries to overthrow it by involuntary sufferings. He joins to this, very severe illness, to disturb the faint-hearted in their love of God. But he also destroys the body by very violent fevers and weighs it down with intolerable thirst. If, being a sinner, you undergo all these things, remind yourself of the punishment to come, the everlasting fire and the sufferings inflicted by justice, and do not be discouraged here and now. Rejoice that God visits you and keep this blessed saying on your lips: “The Lord has chastened me sorely but he has not given me over unto death.” (Ps. 118.18) You were iron, but fire has burnt the rust off you. If you are righteous and fall ill, you will go from strength to strength. Are you gold? You will pass through fire purged. Have you been given a thorn in the flesh? (2 Cor. 12.1) Exult, and see who else was treated like that; it is an honour to have the same sufferings as Paul. Are you being tried by fever? Are you being taught by cold? Indeed Scripture says: “We went through fire and water; yet thou has brought us forth to a spacious place.” (Ps. 66.12) You have drawn the first lot? Expect the second. By virtue offer holy words in a loud voice. For it is said: “I am afflicted and in pain.” (Ps. 69.29) By this share of wretchedness you will be made perfect. For he said: “The Lord hears when I call him.” (Ps. 4.3) So open your mouth wider to be taught by these exercises of the soul, seeing that we are under the eyes of our enemy.’
8. She also said, ‘If illness weighs us down, let us not be sorrowful as though, because of the illness and the prostration of our bodies we could not sing, for all these things are for our good, for the purification of our desires. Truly fasting and sleeping on the ground are set before us because of our sensuality. If illness then weakens this sensuality the reason for these practices is superfluous. For this is the great asceticism: to control oneself in illness and to sing hymns of thanksgiving to God.’
9. She also said, ‘When you have to fast, do not pretend illness. For those who do not fast often fall into real sicknesses. If you have begun to act well, do not turn back through constraint of the enemy, for through your endurance, the enemy is destroyed. Those who put out to sea at first sail with a favourable wind; then the sails spread, but later the winds become adverse. Then the ship is tossed by the waves and is no longer controlled by the rudder. But when in a little while there is a calm, and the tempest dies down, then the ship sails on again. So it is with us, when we are driven by the spirits who are against us; we hold to the cross as our sail and so we can set a safe course.’
10. She also said, ‘Those who have endured the labours and dangers of the sea and then amass material riches, even when they have gained much desire to gain yet more and they consider what they have at present as nothing and reach out for what they have not got. We, who have nothing of that which we desire, wish to acquire everything through the fear of God.’
11. She also said, ‘Imitate the publican, and you will not be condemned with the Pharisee. Choose the meekness of Moses and you will find your heart which is a rock changed into a spring of water.’
12. She also said, ‘It is dangerous for anyone to teach who has not first been trained in the “practical” life. For if someone who owns a ruined house receives guests there, he does them harm because of the dilapidation of his dwelling. It is the same in the case of someone who has not first built an interior dwelling; he causes loss to those who come. By words one may convert them to salvation, but by evil behaviour, one injures them.’
13. She also said, ‘It is good not to get angry, but if this should happen, the Apostle does not allow you a whole day for this passion, for he says: “Let not the sun go down.” (Eph. 4.25) Will you wait till all your time is ended? Why hate the man who has grieved you? It is not he who has done the wrong, but the devil. Hate sickness but not the sick person.’
14. She also said, ‘Those who are great athletes must contend against stronger enemies.’
15. She also said, ‘There is an asceticism which is determined by the enemy and his disciples practice it. So how are we to distinguish between the divine and royal asceticism and the demonic tyranny? Clearly through its quality of balance. Always use a single rule of fasting. Do not fast four or five days and break it the following day with any amount of food. In truth lack of proportion always cor- rupts. While you are young and healthy, fast, for old age with its weakness will come. As long as you can, lay up treasure, so that
when you cannot, you will be at peace.’
16. She also said, ‘As long as we are in the monastery, obedience is preferable to asceticism. The one teaches pride, the other humility.’
17. She also said, ‘We must direct our souls with discernment. As long as we are in the monastery, we must not seek our own will, nor follow our personal opinion, but obey our fathers in the faith.’
18. She also said, ‘It is written, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt. 10.16) Being like serpents means not ignoring attacks and wiles of the devil. Like is quickly known to like. The simplicity of the dove denotes purity of action.’
19. Amma Syncletica said, ‘There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.’
20. She also said, ‘In the world, if we commit an offence, even an involuntary one, we are thrown into prison; let us likewise cast ourselves into prison because of our sins, so that voluntary remem- brance may anticipate the punishment that is to come.’
21. She also said, ‘Just as a treasure that is exposed loses its value, so a virtue which is known vanishes; just as wax melts when it is near fire, so the soul is destroyed by praise and loses all the results of its labour.’
22. She also said, ‘Just as it is impossible to be at the same moment both a plant and a seed, so it is impossible for us to be surrounded by worldly honour and at the same time to bear heavenly fruit.’
23. She also said, ‘My children, we all want to be saved, but because of our habit of negligence, we swerve away from salvation.’
24. She also said, ‘We must arm ourselves in every way against the demons. For they attack us from outside, and they also stir us up from within; and the soul is then like a ship when great waves break over it, and at the same time it sinks because the hold is too full. We are just like that: we lose as much by the exterior faults we commit as by the thoughts inside us. So we must watch for the attacks of men that come from outside us, and also repel the interior onslaughts of our thoughts.’
25. She also said, ‘Here below we are not exempt from tempta- tions. For Scripture says, “Let him who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Cor. 10.12) We sail on in darkness. The psalmist calls our life a sea and the sea is either full of rocks, or very rough, or else it is calm. We are like those who sail on a calm sea, and seculars are like those on a rough sea. We always set our course by the sun of justice, but it can often happen that the secular is saved in tempest and darkness, for he keeps watch as he ought, while we go to the bottom through negligence, although we are on a calm sea, because we have let go of the guidance of justice.’
26. She also said, ‘Just as one cannot build a ship unless one has some nails, so it is impossible to be saved without humility.’
27. She also said, ‘There is grief that is useful, and there is grief that is destructive. The first sort consists in weeping over one’s own faults and weeping over the weakness of one’s neighbours, in order not to destroy one’s purpose, and attach oneself to the perfect good. But there is also a grief that comes from the enemy, full of mockery, which some call accidie. This spirit must be cast out, mainly by prayer and psalmody.’*
Theodora, Desert Mother
Theodora was one of the great women ascetics of the desert. Palladius mentions a Theodora ‘the wife of the tribune who reached such a depth of poverty that she became a recipient of alms and finally died in the monastery ofHesychas near the sea’. She consulted Archbishop Theophilus and appears as a woman consulted by many monks about monastic life.
1. Amma Theodora asked Archbishop Theophilus about some words of the apostle saying, ‘What does this mean, “Knowing how to profit by circumstances”?’ (Col. 4, 5) He said to her, ‘This saying shows us how to profit at all times. For example, is it a time of excess for you? By humility and patience buy up the time of excess, and draw profit from it. Is it the time of shame? Buy it up by means of resignation and win it. So everything that goes against us can, if we wish, become profitable to us.’
8. Amma Theodora said, ‘Let us strive to enter by the narrow gate. Just as the trees, if they have not stood before the winter’s storms cannot bear fruit, so it is with us; this present age is a storm and it is only through many trials and temptations that we can obtain an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven.’
3. She also said, ‘It is good to live in peace, for the wise man practises perpetual prayer. It is truly a great thing for a virgin or a monk to live in peace, especially for the younger ones. However, you should realize that as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once evil comes and weighs down your soul through accidie, faintheart- edness, and evil thoughts. It also attacks your body through sick- ness, debility, weakening of the knees, and all the members. It dissipates the strength of soul and body, so that one believes one is ill and no longer able to pray. But if we are vigilant, all these temptations fall away. There was, in fact a monk who was seized by cold and fever every time he began to pray, and he suffered from headaches, too. In this condition, he said to himself, “I am ill, and near to death; so now I will get up before I die and pray.” By reasoning in this way, he did violence to himself and prayed. When he had finished, the fever abated also. So, by reasoning in this way, the brother resisted, and prayed and was able to conquer his thoughts.’
4. The same Amma Theodora said, ‘A devout man happened to be insulted by someone, and he said to him, “I could say as much to you, but the commandment of God keeps my mouth shut.”‘ Again she said this, ‘A Christian discussing the body with a Mani- chean expressed himself in these words, “Give the body discipline and you will see that the body is for him who made it.”‘
5. The same amma said that a teacher ought to be a stranger to the desire for domination, vain-glory, and pride; one should not be able to fool him by flattery, nor blind him by gifts, nor conquer him by the stomach, nor dominate him by anger; but he should be patient, gentle and humble as far as possible; he must be tested and
without partisanship, full of concern, and a lover of souls.
6. She also said that neither asceticism, nor vigils nor any kind of suffering are able to save, only true humility can do that. There was an anchorite who was able to banish the demons; and he asked them, ‘What makes you go away? Is it fasting?’ They replied, ‘We do not eat or drink.’ ‘Is it vigils?’ They replied, ‘We do not sleep.’ ‘Is it separation from the world?’ ‘We live in the deserts.’ ‘What power sends you away then?’ They said, ‘Nothing can overcome us, but only humility.’ ‘Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?’
7. Amma Theodora also said, ‘There was a monk, who, because of the great number of his temptations said, “I will go away from here.” As he was putting on his sandals, he saw another man who was also putting on his sandals and this other monk said to him, “Is it on my account that you are going away? Because I go before you wherever you are going.” ‘
8. The same amma was asked about the conversations one hears; ‘If one is habitually listening to secular speech, how can one yet live for God alone, as you suggest?’ She said, ‘Just as when you are sitting at table and there are many courses, you take some but without pleasure, so when secular conversations come your way, have your heart turned towards God, and thanks to this disposition, you will hear them without pleasure, and they will not do you any harm.’
9. Another monk suffered bodily irritation and was infested with vermin. Now originally he had been rich. So the demons said to him, ‘How can you bear to live like this, covered with vermin?’ But this monk, because of the greatness of his soul, was victorious over them.
10. Another of the old men questioned Amma Theodora saying, ‘At the resurrection of the dead, how shall we rise?’ She said, ‘As pledge, example, and as prototype we have him who died for us and is risen, Christ our God.’*
Theophilus of Alexandria
Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria, was much opposed to Origenism and expelled those who held with Origen ‘s teaching from Nitria and Cells. His quarrel with the Four Tall Brethren was particularly fierce. He was however reconciled with the monks before his death in A.D. 412. The ambiguity of his relationship with the monks is mirrored in these sayings attributed to him.
1. One day blessed Theophilus the archbishop came to the mountain of Nitria and the abba of the mountain came to meet him. The archbishop said to him, ‘Father, in this way of life which you follow, what do you find to be best?’ The old man said to him, ‘The act of accusing myself, and of constantly reproaching myself to myself.’ Abba Theophilus said to him, ‘There is no other way but
2. The same Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, ‘Say something to the archbishop, so that he may be edified.’ The old man said to them, ‘If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.’
3. Theophilus the archbishop summoned some Fathers to go to Alexandria one day, to pray and to destroy the heathen temples there. As they were eating with him, they were brought some veal for food and they ate it without realising what it was. The bishop, taking a piece of meat, offered it to the old man beside him, saying, ‘Here is a nice piece of meat, abba, eat it.’ But he replied, ‘Till this moment, we believed we were eating vegetables, but if it is meat, we do not eat it.’ None of them tasted any more of the meat which was brought.
4. The same Abba Theophilus said, ‘What fear, what trembling, what uneasiness will there be for us when our soul is separated from the body. Then indeed the force and strength of the adverse powers come against us, the rulers of darkness, those who command the world of evil, the principalities, the powers, the spirits of evil. They accuse our souls as in a lawsuit, bringing before it all the sins it has committed, whether deliberately or through ignorance, from its youth until the time when it has been taken away. So they stand accusing it of all it has done. Furthermore, what anxiety do you suppose the soul will have at that hour, until sentence is pronounced and it gains its liberty. That is its hour of affliction, until it sees what will happen to it. On the other hand, the divine powers stand on the opposite side, and they present the good deeds of the soul. Consider the fear and trembling of the soul standing between them until in judgement it receives the sentence of the righteous judge. If it is judged worthy, the demons will receive their punishment, and it will be carried away by the angels. Then thereafter you will be without disquiet, or rather you will live according to that which is written: “Even as the habitation of those who rejoice is in you.” (Ps. 87.7) Then will the Scripture be fulfilled: “Sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isaiah 35.10). Then your liberated soul will go on to that joy and ineffable glory in which it will be established. But if it is found to have lived carelessly, it will hear that terrible voice: “Take away the ungodly, that he may not see the glory of the Lord.” (cf. Isaiah 26.10) Then the day of anger, the day of affliction, the day of darkness and shadow seizes upon it. Abandoned to outer darkness and con- demned to everlasting fire it will be punished through the ages without end. Where then is the vanity of the world? Where is vain-glory? Where is carnal life? Where is enjoyment? Where is imagination? Where is ease? Where is boasting? Riches? Nobility? Father, mother, brother? Who could take the soul out of its pains when it is burning in the fire, and remove it from bitter torments?
‘Since this is so, in what manner ought we not to give ourselves to holy and devout works? What love ought we to acquire? What manner of life? What virtues? What speed? What diligence? What prayer? What prudence? Scripture says: “In this waiting, let us make every effort to be found blameless and without reproach in peace.” (cf. I Cor. 1.7-8) In this way, we shall be worthy to hear it said: “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom pre- pared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matt. 25.34) Amen.’
5. The same Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, at the point of death, said, ‘You are blessed, Abba Arsenius, because you have always had this hour in mind.’