The Spiritual Teaching Of The Monks Of Egypt — The Formation Of A Tradition

“How can I save myself?”: “Arsenius, flee from men, be silent and live in the hésychia”. These monks are, indeed, “hesychasts” par excellence, and the hésychia by which their way of life is defined is simultaneously solitude and silence; it is also, as is often said, “to remain seated in the cell”, since the guarding of the cell is the fundamental precept. To a young monk who comes to ask for a word to save himself, the old man replies: “Remain seated in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything!” advice would have been taken literally  cum grano salis… Continue reading The Spiritual Teaching Of The Monks Of Egypt — The Formation Of A Tradition

The Paradise of the Desert Fathers

The Paradise of the Desert Fathers


The following are excerpts from what is widely known as “The Monks’ Garden” (called “Bustan al-rohbaan” by the Copts), also referred to in English as the “Paradise of the Desert Fathers”. Bustan al-rohbann is not a single book, rather it is a collection of sayings and accounts written by and about the Desert Fathers of Egypt. The excerpts presented here are adopted from an abbreviated book edited by Sr. Benedicta Ward SLG.

In the desert of the heart,  let the healing fountain start;

In the prison of his days, teach the free man how to praise. 

Another Time by W. H. Auden


Lord Jesus Christ, whose will all things obey: pardon what I have done and grant that I, a sinner, may sin no more. Lord, I believe that though I do not deserve it, you can cleanse me from all my sins. Lord, I know that man looks upon the face, but you see the heart. Send your spirit into my inmost being, to take possession of my soul and body. Without you I cannot be saved; with you to protect me, I long for your salvation. And now I ask you for your salvation. And now I ask you for wisdom, deign of your great goodness to help and defend me. Guide my heart, almighty God, that I may remember your presence day and night.

++ Amen ++


In the fourth century, an intensive experiment in Christian living began to flourish in Egypt, Syria and Palestine. It was something new in Christian experience, uniting the ancient forms of monastic life with the Gospel. In Egypt the movement was soon so popular that both the civil authorities and the monks themselves became anxious: the officials of the Empire because so many were following a way of life that excluded both military service and the payment of taxes, and the monks because the number of interested tourists threatened their solitude.

The first Christian monks tried every kind of experiment with the way they lived and prayed, but there were three main forms of monastic life: in Lower Egypt there were hermits who lived alone; in Upper Egypt there were monks and nuns living in communities; and in Nitria and Scetis there were those who lived solitary lives but in groups of three or four, often as disciples of a master. For the most part they were simple men, peasants from the villages by the Nile, though a few, like Arsenius and Evagrius, were well educated.

Visitors who were impressed and moved by the life of the  monks imitated their way  of  life  as far  as  they  could, and  also  provided  a literature that explained and  analysed this way  of life  for those outside it.  However, the primary written accounts of  the monks of Egypt are  not these, but records of their words and actions by their close disciples.

Often, the first thing that struck those who heard about the Desert Fathers was the negative aspect of their lives. They were people who did without: not much sleep, no baths, poor food, little company, ragged clothes, hard work, no leisure, absolutely no sex, and even, in some places, no church either — a dramatic contrast of immediate interest to those who lived out the Gospel differently.

But to read their own writings is to form a rather different opinion. The literature produced among the monks themselves is not very sophisticated; it comes from the desert, from the place where the amenities of civilisation were at their lowest point anyway, where there was nothing to mark a contrast in lifestyles; and the emphasis is less on what was lacking and more on what was present. The outsider saw the negations; disciples who encountered the monks through their own words and actions found indeed great austerity and poverty, but it was neither unbelievable nor complicated. These were simple, practical men, not given either to mysticism or to theology, living by the Word of God, the love of the brethren and of all creation, waiting for the coming of the Kingdom with eager expectation, using each moment as a step in their pilgrimage of the heart towards Christ.

It was because of this positive desire for the Kingdom of heaven which came to dominate their whole lives that they went  without things: they  kept silence, for instance, not because of a proud and  austere preference for aloneness but because they were  learning to listen to  something more  interesting than the talk of men, that is, the  Word of God.  These men were  rebels,  the ones who broke the rules of the world which say that  property  and goods are essential for life, that the one who accepts the direction of another  is not free, that no one can  be  fully human without sex  and  domesticity.  Their name itself, anchorite, means rule-breaker, the one who does not fulfil his public duties.

In the solitude of the desert they found themselves able to live in a way that was hard but simple, as children of God.

The literature they have left behind is full of a good, perceptive wisdom, from a clear, unassuming angle. They did not write much; most of them remained illiterate; but they asked each other for a “word”, that is, to say something in which they would recognise the Word of God, which gives life to the soul. It is not a literature of words that analyse and sort out personal worries or solve theological problems; nor is it a mystical literature concerned to present prayers and praise to God in a direct line of vision; rather, it is oblique, unformed, occasional, like sunlight glancing off a rare oasis in the sands.

These life-giving “words” were collected and eventually written down by disciples of the first monks, and grouped together in various ways, sometimes under the names of the monks with whom they were connected sometimes under headings which were themes of special interest, such as “solitude and stability”, “obedience”, or “warfare that lust arouses in us”. Mixed in with these sayings were short stories about the actions of the monks, since what they did was often as revealing as what they said. These collections of “apophthegmata” were not meant as a dead archaism, full of nostalgia for a lost past, but as a direct transmission of practical wisdom and experience for the use of the reader. Thus it is as part of tradition that this small selection has been made from some of the famous collections of desert material, most of which have been translated and published in full elsewhere. They are placed in pairs, so that a “word” faces a story and illustrates its central, though not its only meaning. Each saying-and-story pair has been given a heading; these are arranged in two series, the first part relating to the commandment to love one’s neighbour, the second to the commandment to love God.

This material first appeared among uneducated laymen; it is not “churchy” or specifically religious. It has its roots in that life in Christ which is common to all the baptised, some of whom lived this out as monks, others who did not. There is common a universal appeal in these sayings, in spite of much which is at first strange. I have not tried to eliminate all the strangeness of the material, but to present a very small part of it as it is, in the belief that the words and deeds of these men can still make the fountain of life spring up in the arid deserts of lives in the twentieth century as they did in the fourth. “Fear not this goodness”, said abba Antony, “as a thing impossible, nor the pursuit of it as something alien, set a great way off; it hangs on our own choice. For the sake of Greek learning, men go overseas. But the City of God has its foundations in every seat of human habitation. The kingdom of God is within. The goodness that is in us asks only the human mind.” Benedicta Ward, Oxford.


The editor has retained the words “abba” and “amma” which are used in these texts for addressing and describing certain men and women of the desert;“Abba” is a term of respect, and to translate it by “abbot” would be misleading.



The old men used to say, “there is nothing worse than passing judgement.”

They said of abba Macarius that he became as it is written  a  god upon earth, because just as  God  protects the  world, so   abba Macarius would  cover the faults that he saw as though he did not see them, and  those which he heard as though he did not hear them.

Abba Pastor said,  “Judge not  him who is guilty  of fornication,  if  you are chaste, or you will break the  law  like him”. For He who  said ‘do not commit fornication’ said also “Do not judge.”

A brother asked  abba  Poemen, “If  I see my brother sin,  is it right  to say nothing about it?” The old man replied, “whenever we cover  our brother’s sin, God will cover  ours; whenever we tell people  about our brother’s guilt,  God will do the same about ours.”


A  brother in 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 him, saying, “Come, for everyone is waiting for you”.  So he got  up and went. He took  a leaking jug and filled  it with water and carried  it with him. The others came  out to meet him  and said, “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.

A  brother sinned and  the priest  ordered him to go  out of  the church; abba Bessarion got up and went out with him, saying, “I, too, am a sinner.”



One of  the brothers asked  abba Isidore,  a  priest  of scetis,  “Why are the demons so terrified of you?” And the old man said, “Ever since I became a monk I have tried never to let anger rise as far as my mouth.”

Abba Joseph asked  abba Nisteros, “What  should I do about  my  tongue, for  I cannot control it?”  The old man  said to  him,  “When you speak,  do you find peace?” He replied, “No.” The old man said to him, “If you do  not find peace, why do you  speak? Be silent, and when  a conversation takes  place, prefer to listen rather to talk.”


Two old men had lived together for many years and they had never fought with one another. The first said to the other, “Let us also have a fight like other men.” The other replied, “I do not know how to fight.” The first said to him, “Look, I will put a brick between us and I will say: it is mine; and you will reply: no, it is mine; and so the fight will begin. ” So they put a brick between them and the first said, “No, it is mine”, and the other said, “No, it is mine.” And the first replied, “If it is yours, take it and go.” So they gave it up without being able to find a cause for an argument.

A brother asked abba Poemen, “How should I behave in my cell in the place where I am living?” He replied, “Behave as if you were a stranger, and wherever you are, do not expect your words to have an influence and you will be at peace.”



The holy Syncletia said, “I think that for those living in community obedience is a greater virtue than chastity, however perfect. Chastity carries within it the danger of pride, but obedience has within it the promise of humility.”

The old men used to say, “If  someone has faith  in  another and hands himself over to him in complete submission, he does not need to pay attention to God’s commandments but he can entrust his whole  will to his  father. He will suffer no reproach  from God, for  God looks  for nothing from   beginners so much as renunciation through obedience.”

Abba Mios of Belos said, “Obedience responds to  obedience. When someone obeys God, then God obeys his request.”


They said that abba Sylvanus had a disciple in Scetis, named Mark, who possessed in great measure the virtue of obedience. He was a copyist of old manuscripts, and the old man loved him for his obedience di lui. He had eleven other disciples who were aggrieved that he loved more than them.

When the old men nearby heard that he loved Mark above the others, they took it ill. One day they visited him and abba Sylvanus took them with him and, going out of his cell, began to knock on the door of each of his disciples, saying, “Brother, come out, I have work for you.” And not one of them appeared immediately.

Then he came to Mark’s cell and knocked,  saying, “Mark”. And  as soon as Mark heard the voice of the old man  he came outside  and  the old man sent  him on some errand.

So abba Sylvanus said to the old men, “Where are the other brothers?”, And he went into Mark’s cell and found the book in which he had been writing and he was making the letter O; and when he heard the old man’s voice, he had not finished the line of the O. And the old men said, “Truly, abba, we also love the one whom you love; for God loves him, too.”



Some old men said, “If you see a young man  climbing up to  the heavens by his own will, catch him by  the foot and throw  him down to the  earth; it  is not good for him.”

At first abba Ammoe said to abba Isaiah, “What do you think of me?” He said to him, “You are an angel, father.” Later on he said to him, “and now, what do you think of me?” He replied, “You are like Satan. Even when you say a good word to me, it is like steel.”

Abba Moses asked abba Sylvanus,  “Can a  man lay a new foundation  every day?” The  old man said,  “If he works hard,  he can  lay a new  foundation at every moments.”


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 leave of his brother di lui and went away into the desert. After a week he came back to his brother di lui. When he knocked on the door he heard his brother di lui say, “Who are you?” before he opened it. He said, “I am John, your brother.” But he replied, “John has become an angel and henceforth he is no longer among men.” Then John besought him, saying, “It is I.” However, his brother di lui 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.”

Abba John said, “A monk is toil. The monk toils in all he does. That is what a monk is.”



An old man was asked, “What is humility?” and he said in reply, “Humility is a great work, and a work of God. The way of humility is to undertake bodily labor and believe yourself a sinner and make yourself subject to all. ” Then a brother said, “What does it mean, to be subject to all?” The old man answered, “To be subject to all is not to give your attention to the sins of others but always to give your attention to your own sins and to pray without ceasing to God.”

An old man said, “Every time a thought of superiority or vanity moves you, examine your conscience to see if you have kept all the commandments, whether you love your enemies, whether you consider yourself to be an unprofitable servant and the greatest sinner of all. Even so, do not pretend to great ideas as though you were perfectly right, for that thought destroys everything.” 


As  abba    Macarius was returning  to   his  cell  from the   marsh  carrying palm-leaves, the devil met him  with a sharp sickle and  would have struck him but he  could not. He cried  out, “Great is the violence  I  suffer  from you, Macarius, for when I want to hurt you, I cannot. But whatever you do, I do and more also. You fast now and then,  but I am  never refreshed by any  food; you often keep vigil, but I never  fall asleep.  Only in one  thing are you better than I am and I acknowledge that.”  Macarius said to  him, “What is that?” and he replied, “It is because of your humility alone that I cannot overcome you.”

The old men used to say, “When we do not experience warfare, we ought so much the more to humiliate ourselves. For God seeing our weakness, protects us; when we glorify ourselves, he withdraws his protection and we are lost.”



Abba Theodore, surnamed Pherme, had three good books. He went to abba Macarius and said to him, “I have three good books, and I am helped by reading them; other monks also want to read them and they are helped by them. Tell me, what am I to do?” The old man said, “Reading books is good but possessing nothing is more than all.” When he heard this, he went away and sold the books and gave the money to the poor.

Someone asked amma Syncletica of blessed memory, “Is absolute poverty perfect goodness?” She replied, “It is a great good for those capable of it; even those who are not capable of it find rest for their souls in it though it causes them anxiety. As tough cloth is laundered pure white by stretched and trampled underfoot, so a tough soul is stretched by freely accepting poverty.”


When abba Macarius was in Egypt, he found a man who had brought a beast to his cell and he was steeling his possessions. He went up to the thief as though he were a traveller who did not live there and helped him  to load the  beast and led him on his way in peace, saying to himself, “We brought nothing into this world; but the Lord gave; as he willed, so is it done; blessed  be the Lord in all things.”

Someone brought money to an old man and said, “Take this and spend it for you are old and ill”, for he was a leper. The old man replied, “Are you going to take me away from the one who has cared for me for sixty years? I have been ill all that time and I have not needed anything because God has cared for me. ” And he would not accept it.

Once abba Arsenius fell ill in Scetis and in this state he needed just one coin. He could not find one so he accepted one as a gift from someone else, and he said, “I thank you, God, that for your name’s sake you have made me worthy to come to this pass, that I should have to beg.”



Amma Syncletica said, “We ought to govern our souls with discretion and to remain in the community, neither following our own will nor seeking our own good. We are like exiles: we have been separated from the things of this world and have given ourselves in one faith to the one Father. We need nothing of what we have left behind. There we had reputation and plenty to eat; here we have little to eat and little of everything else.”

Abba Antony said, “Our life and our death are with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained our God; but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.”

A brother asked, “I have found a place where my peace is not disturbed by the brethren; do you advise me to live there?” Abba Poemen replied, “The place for you is where you will not harm the brothers.”


There was an anchorite who was gazing with the antelopes and who prayed to God, saying, “Lord, teach me something more.” And a voice came to him, saying, “Go into this monastery and do whatever they tell you.” He went there and remained in the monastery, but he did not know the work of the brothers. The young monks began to teach him how to work and they would say to him, “Do this, you idiot,” and “Do that, you fool.” When he had borne it, he prayed to God, saying, “Lord, I do not know the work of men; send me back to the antelopes.” And having been freed by God, he went back into the country to graze with the antelopes.

A beginner who goes from one monastery to another is like a wild animal who jumps this way and that for fear of the halter.



Having withdrawn from the palace to the solitary life, abba Arsenius prayed and heard a voice saying to him, “Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the source of sinlessness.”

A brother in scetis went to ask for a word from abba Moses and the old man said to him, “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”

Abba Nilus said, “The arrows of the enemy cannot touch one who loves quietness; but he who moves about in a crowd will often be wounded.”


Theophilus of holy memory, bishop of Alexandria, journeyed to Scetis and the brethren coming together said to abba Pambo, “Say a word or two to the bishop, that his soul may be edified in this place.” The old man replied, “If he is not edified by my silence, there is no hope that he will be edified by my words.”

This place was called Cellia, because of the number of cells there, scattered about the desert. Those who have already begun their training there [i.e. in Nitria] and want to live a more remote life, stripped of external things, withdraw there. For this is the utter desert and the cells are divided from one another by so great a distance that no one can see his neighbour nor can any voice be heard. They live alone in their cells and there is a huge silence and a great quiet there. Only on Saturday and Sunday do they meet in church, and then they see each other face to face, as men restored to heaven.



It was revealed to abba Antony in his desert that there was one in the city who was his equal. He was a doctor by profession, and whatever he had beyond his needs di lui he gave to the poor and every day he sang the sanctus with the angles.

Amma Matrona said, “There are many in the mountains who behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is better to have many people around you and to live the solitary life in your will than to be alone and always longing to be with a crowd.”

Abba Isidore said, “If you fast regularly, do not be inflated with pride; if you think highly of yourself because of it, then you had better eat meat. It is better for a man to eat meat than to be inflated with pride and glorify himself.”


When blessed Antony was praying in his cell, a voice spoke to him, saying, “Antony, you have not yet come to the measure of the the tanner who is in Alexandria.” When he heard this, the old man arose and took his stick di lui and hurried into the city. When he had found the tanner … he said to him, “Tell me about your work, for today I have left the desert and come here to see you.”

He replied, “I am not aware that I have done anything good. When I get up in the morning, before I sit down to work, I say that the whole of this city, small and great, will go into the Kingdom of God because of their good deeds, while I alone will go into eternal punishment because of my evil deeds. Every evening I repeat the same words and believe them in my heart.”

When blessed Antony heard this he said, “My son, you sit in your own house and work well, and you have the peace of the Kingdom of God; but i spend all my time in solitude with no distractions, and i have not come near the measure of such words.”



Once three brothers came to visit an old man in Scetis and one of them said to him, “Abba,  I have committed  to memory the  Old and New Testaments.” And the old man answered, “You have filled the air with words.” The second one said to him,  “I have written out the  Old and New Testaments with  my  own hands.” He said, “And you have filled the window-ledge with  manuscripts.” Then the third said, “The grass is growing up my chimney.” And the old man replied, “You have driven away hospitality.”

Once two  brothers came to  a certain old man. It  was  his custom not  to eat every day but when he saw them he received them joyfully and said, “A fast has its own reward, but he who eats for the sake of love fulfils two commandments: he leaves his own will and he refreshes his brothers.”


A brother came  to  see a  certain  hermit and,  as he was  leaving,  he said, “Forgive  me  abba  for preventing you   from  keeping your  rule.” The hermit replied, “My rule is to welcome you with  hospitality and to  send you away in peace.”

It was said of  an old man that he  dwelt in Syria on the  way to  the desert.

This was his work: whenever a monk came from the desert, he gave him refreshment with all his heart. Now one day a hermit came and he offered him refreshment. The other did not want to accept it, saying he was fasting. Filled with sorrow, the old man said to him, “Do not despise your servant, I beg you, do not despise me, but let us pray together. Look at the tree which is here; we will follow the way of whichever of us causes it to bend when he kneels on the ground and prays. ” So the hermit knelt down to pray and nothing happened. Then the hospitable one knelt down and at once the tree bent towards him. Taught by this, they gave thanks to God.



Abba Nilus said, “Prayer is the seed of gentleness and the absence of anger.”

We came from Palestine to Egypt and went to see one of the fathers. He offered us hospitality and we said, “Why do you not keep the fast when visitors come to see you? In Palestine they keep it. ” He replied, “Fasting is always with me but I cannot always have you here. It is useful and necessary to fast but we choose whether we will fast or not. What God commands is perfect love. I receive Christ in you and so I must do everything possible to serve you with love. When I have sent you on your way, then I can continue my rule of fasting. The sons of the bridegroom cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them; when he is taken away from them, then they will fast. “


A hunter in the desert saw abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brothers, and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brothers, the old man said to him, “Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.” So he did. And the old man 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 brothers beyond measure, they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.”

Some  monks came to see abba  Poemen  and said to  him,  “When we see brothers dozing in the church, should we rouse them  so that they  can be watchful?” He said, “For my  part, when I  see a brother dozing, I  put his head on my knees and let him rest.”



Abba  Antony said,  “Obedience  with abstinence gives  men  control over  wild beasts.”

Abba Theon ate vegetables, but only those that did not need to be cooked. They say that he used to go out of his cell at night and stay in the company of the wild animals, giving them drink from the water he had. Certainly one could see the tracks of antelopes and wild asses and gazelles and other animals near his hermitage. These creatures always gave him pleasure.

Once when a hippopotamus was ravaging the neighbouring countryside the fathers called on abba Bes to help them. He stood at the  place and waited and when he saw the beast, which was of  enormous size, he commanded it  not to ravage the countryside any more, saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I order you not to ravage this countryside  anymore.” The  hippopotamus vanished completely  from that district as if driven away by an angel.

Abba  Xanthios said, “A dog is  better than I am, for  he has love and he does not judge.”


We came near to a tree,  led by our kindly host,  and there we stumbled upon a lion. At the sight of him my guide and I quaked,  but the saintly old man went unfaltering on and we followed him. The  wild beast —you would say it was at the  command of God— modestly  withdrew a little  way and sat down, while the old man plucked the fruit from the lower branches.  He held out his hand, full of dates; and up the creature ran and took them as frankly  as any tame animal about the  house; and  when  it had  finished  eating, it  went away. We stood watching and trembling; reflecting as well  we might what  valour of faith was in him and what poverty of spirit in us.

While abba Macarius was praying  in his cave  in the desert, a hyena  suddenly appeared and began to lick  his feet and taking him  gently by the hem of  his tunic, she drew  him towards her own cave.  He followed her, saying, “I wonder what this animal wants me to  do?” When she had led  him to her cave, she went in and brought her cubs  which had been  born blind. He  prayed over them  and returned  them to the hyena with  their sight healed. She in  turn, by way of thanks offering, brought  the man the  huge skin of  a ram  and  laid it  at his feet. He smiled at her as if  at a kind  person and taking  the skin spread it under him.



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 with smoke and cry, until they obtain what they seek. As it is written, “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:24); so we also must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work.”

Abba Hyperichius said, “Praise God  continually with spiritual hymns and always remain in meditation and  in this way  you will be  able to bear the burden of the temptations that  come upon you. A traveller  who is carrying a heavy load pauses from  time to time  and  draws in  deep  breaths; it makes  the journey easier and the burden lighter.”


When abba Apollo heard the sound of singing from the monks who welcomed us, he greeted us  according to  the custom which  all  monks  follow… He  first lay prostrate on the ground, then got up and kissed us and having brought us in he prayed for us; then, after washing our feet with  his own hands, he invited us to partake of some refreshment…

One could see his monks were filled with joy  and a bodily contentment such as one cannot see on earth. For nobody among them was gloomy or downcast.

If anyone  did appear a   little downcast, abba  Apollo at  once asked him the reason and told each one what was the secret recesses of his heart. He used to say,  “Those  who are  going to inherit   the Kingdom of  heaven  must  not be despondent about their salvation… we  who have been  considered worthy of  so great a  hope,  how shall we  not  rejoice without ceasing, since  the Apostle urges us always, “Pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks?”



Abba Poemen said, “There is no greater love than that a man lays down his life for his neighbour.  When you hear   someone complaining and  you struggle with yourself and  do not answer him back  with complaints; when   you are hurt and bear it patiently, not looking for revenge; then you are laying down your life for your neighbour.”

One of the beloved of Christ who had  the gift of mercy used  to say, “The one who is filled with mercy ought to offer it in the  same manner in which he has received it, for such is the mercy of God.”

Abba Antony said, “I no longer fear God, I love him; for love casts out fear.”


Abba Agathon said, “If I could meet a leper, give him  my body and take his, I should be very happy.” That is  perfect charity. It  was also said of him that when he came into the town one day to sell his goods, he  met a sick traveller lying in the  public place with  no one to care for  him. The old man rented a room and  lived with him  there, working with  his hands to  pay the  rent and spending the rest on the  sick man’s needs.  He stayed there four months until the sick man was well again.  Then he went back to his cell in peace.

A soldier asked abba  Mios if God  accepted repentance. After  the old man had taught him many things, he said, “Tell me, my dear, if your  cloak is torn, do you throw it away?” He replied, “No, I mend it and  use it again.” The old man said to him, “If you are so careful about your  cloak, will not god be equally careful about his creature?”



God is the life of  all free beings. He is  the salvation of all, of believers or  unbelievers, of the just or  the unjust, of the  pious  or the impious, of those freed from passions or those caught up in them, of monks or those living in the world, of the educated and the illiterate,  of the healthy and the sick, of the  young or the old. He  is like the  outpouring of light, the glimpse of the sun, or the changes of the weather which are the same for everyone without exception.

Abba Pambo said, “If you have a heart, you can be saved.”


There was an old man living in the desert who served God for so many years and he said, “Lord, let me know if I  have pleased you.”  He saw an angel who said to him, “You have not  yet become like  the gardener in  such and such place.” The old man marvelled and said, “I will go off to the city to see both him and what it  is that  he  does that surpasses all  my  work and toil of  all these years.”…

So he went to the city and  asked the gardener about his  way of life… When they were getting  ready to  eat in the   evening, the  old  man heard  people singing in  the  streets, for   the cell of   the gardener   was in a   public place. Therefore the old man said to him, “Brother, wanting as  you do to live according to God, how do you remain in this place and not be troubled when you hear them singing these songs?”

The man said, “I tell  you, abba, I have never  been troubled or scandalised.” When he heard this the old man said, “What,  then, do you  think in your heart when you hear these things?”  And he replied, “That they are all going into the Kingdom.” When he heard this,  the old man   marvelled and said, “This is  the practice which surpasses my labour of all these years.” 



They asked  abba  Macarius, “How should  we  pray?” And the old  man  replied, “There  is no need  to speak much in prayer;  often stretch out your hands and say, ‘Lord, as  you will and as you  know, have mercy on me.’  But if there is war in your soul, add, ‘Help me!’ and because he  knows what we need, he shows mercy on us.” 

Abba Lot went to see abba Joseph and he said to him, “Abba, as far as I can, I say my  little office, I fast a  little, I pray  and meditate, I live in peace and as  far as I can I  purify my thoughts. What else  can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven; his fingers became like ten lamps of  fire and he said to  him, “If you will, you  can become  all flame.”

Abba Paul said, “Keep close to Jesus.”


Some monks came to see abba Lucius and they said to him, “We  do not work with our hands;  we  obey Paul’s command  and  pray without  ceasing.”  The old man said, “Do you not eat or sleep?” They said, “Yes, we do.”  He said, “Who prays for you while you are asleep?… Excuse me, brothers, but  you do not practice what you claim. I will show you how I pray without ceasing, though I work with my hands.”

“With God’s  help, I collect  a few palm-leaves and sit down and weave them, saying, “Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great  goodness; according to the multitude of thy  mercies do away with mine  offences.”  He said to them,  “Is this prayer or not?” They said, “Yes, it is.” 

And he continued, “When I have worked and prayed  in my heart  all day, I make about sixteen pence. Two of these I put outside my door and with the rest I buy food. And he who finds the two coins outside the door prays for me while I eat and sleep. And so by the help of God I pray without ceasing.”



It is clear  to all who dwell in  Egypt that it is through  the monks that the world is kept in being and that through them  also human life is preserved and honoured by God… There is no town or village in Egypt that is not surrounded by hermitages as if by walls, and all the people  depend on the prayers of the monks as if on God himself.

Palladius said,  “One day when  I was  suffering from boredom   I went to abba Macarius and said, “What shall  I do? My thoughts afflict  me, saying, you are not  making any progress, go away  from here.” He said to  me, “Tell them, for Christ’s sake, I am guarding the walls.”

Continue reading “The Paradise of the Desert Fathers”
The hermits of  Holy Trinity Hermitage Valldemossa… the last of their kind!

The hermits of Holy Trinity Hermitage Valldemossa… the last of their kind!

The view from the hermitage is breathtakingly beautiful. On the right is a small stone chapel, in front of it the cemetery, in the garden covered with cypress trees there is a statue of the founder of the order, Fra. Joan Mir Vallès. The monks grow most of their food themselves; citrus trees and vegetables grow in a small field. Continue reading The hermits of Holy Trinity Hermitage Valldemossa… the last of their kind!

Celtic spirituality in Druidic Europe

Celtic spirituality in Druidic Europe

Strong Celtic connotations were retained by Brittany, Scotland and Ireland for centuries, keeping that torch of Ancient Tradition ablaze and Celtic music being the conveyer by which the most sensitive individuals and those less conditioned by political and religious ideas were brought back into the collective conscience, a new stimulus and the driving force to action according to the Ancient Code of the Western world. Continue reading Celtic spirituality in Druidic Europe

Words From Mount Athos

Words From Mount Athos

These ‘words’ of the monks are a synthesis of numerous conversations I was able to have with them on the Holy Mountain, more particularly with the hegumenoi of Stavronikita, Simonos Petras and Aghios Panteleimonos; the monk Chrysostomos of Xenophontos Skete; and a staretz or elder whose name I no longer know — he lived in the neighbourhood of Aghia Anna. The word isn’t only in the mouth of the one who speaks, it is also in the ear of the one who listens. Since my memory is not a built-in tape-recorder, you won’t find here a literal transcription of our talks. Here, rather, is the ripening fruit these words were able to awaken in me. Continue reading Words From Mount Athos

H.E. Yves Marie-Joseph Card. Congar O.P., Dominican friar, priest,  theologian and contemplative.

H.E. Yves Marie-Joseph Card. Congar O.P., Dominican friar, priest, theologian and contemplative.

To contemplate and to give to others the fruit of your contemplation.

Yves Congar O.P.

He was a remarkable Dominican, Yves Cardinal Congar, O.P., who entered the Lords loving embrace on 22 June 1995. The man is as voluminous as his years. He has been a bastion of the Church, and a marvellous manifestation of ‘Laudare, benedicere, praedicare—to praise, to bless and to preach” maxim of the Order of Preachers within his personal life and in his conveyance of theology: to contemplate and to give to others the fruit of your contemplation. His meditations on God and revealed truth in the light of the past helped to usher in a new light which flowed into the Church when Pope John XXIII decided to “throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in” and convened the Second Vatican Council on 11 October 1962.

It is important for me to emphasise right form the start that Yves Congar was not just a theologian, but a contemplative theologian. “What” you would ask “is the difference”, and why should it make a blind bit of difference? The study of divine Wisdom can take one of two directions: judging through inclination (per modum inclinationis) or judging through knowledge (per modum cognitionis). St. Thomas teaches that judging (theologising) by inclination is the work of the Holy Spirit within the soul with the individual’s response to grace in faith. To judge by knowledge is simply man’s  effort through study alone. [1] Put the two together and you have Yves Congar, you have a contemplative theologian.

Congar’s theological approach reflects the influences of his initial theological training and the influence of people and events of his early years. Before the age of twenty he was studying Thomism at a Parisian seminary whilst the study of Aquinas had not yet been well received. It was his good fortune to have the early influence of great Thomistic philosophers such as Jacques Maritain  († 1973) and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange O.P. († 1964) Neither of them, however, approved of the historical approach known as “palaeo-thomism” [which I consider to be to strict-observance Thomism], which Congar progressively comprehended so passionately. The young Frenchman, Congar, discovered the Dominicans and subsequently entered the Order, taking his studies at the Dominican House “Le Saulchoir” in Belgium.

Étienne Gilson

Historical theology, highly criticised by so many within the Church at that time, was expounded at Le Saulchoir and laid the sound foundations within Congar’s mind. Today we can clearly distinguish the different disciplines of theology and attribute particular functions to each. Positive theology, is a division that studies the data of revelation in a critico-historical method, was not universally accepted. All the same, these areas of theological pursuit were stepping stones for the developing mind of the young friar. He meditated on them, exercised these inner theories intellectually, learned more about them with his interactions with people and gradually wrote about them. Congar was busy all his life going from theological seed which germinates, into a young viridescent plant, to mature and fruitful teaching—theologising.

With reference to the historical method, the French historian of medieval philosophy Étienne Henri Gilson († 1978) greatly influenced Congar, but perhaps his most prominent guide, particularly in ecumenism, was his  teacher, Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P. This led to an inner yearning for among Christians that has lasted all his life:

Congar selected as the subject of his ‘lectoral’ thesis (an internal Dominican degree) in 1928 [Johann Adam] Fr. Möhler’s favoured theme, the unity of the church. On the eve of his ordination to the priesthood on July 25, 1930, he prepared himself by meditating upon Jesus’ high-priestly prayer for the unity of his disciples in John 17, with the help of the commentaries of Thomas and the contemporary biblical scholar Marie-Joseph Lagrange. This he recognised in retrospect as the true launching of his ecumenical vocation. [2]

In Germany he absorbed fully a knowledge of the heterodox Martin Luther O.S.A. († 1546) and Lutheranism. In Paris he attended lectures by theologians of the Reformed Church, who had been most heavily influenced by Calvinism. Within Protestantism, the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth’s emphasis on the powerful here and now [3] influence of the Word of God fed the fire in his soul.

Dom L Beauduin OSB

Yves Congar’s teaching gifts were applied to establishing the Institute of Medieval Studies at  Toronto. He picked the Modernists’ “animal” apart to reject the bad and accept the good. At first he concentrated on fundamental theology in his lectures, but gradually ecclesiology became the song of his heart and lips. Ecclesiology was his springboard for ecumenism. The man Congar was a mixer and not one to limit his experience, so it was natural that he associate himself with the bi-ritual Byzantine-Latin monastery of Chevetogne in Amay Belgium and its founder Dom Lambert Beauduin OSB († 1960). He had made friends with Protestant and Eastern Orthodox and maintained ecumenical contacts in others. He consumed himself in the history of the Church of England on one front and, accomplished Dominican preacher that he was, he went from one French city to another preaching on the Christian Unity Octave.[4]

Just as Father Congar became fully established in his theological concepts and pursuits of teaching, preaching and writing, he was drafted into France’s Army for military service as a chaplain Lieutennant. He was captured and held by the Germans from 1940 to 1945 as a POW in Oflag X Colditz due to his repeated attempts to escape from other POW camps. He was made a Chevalier of Légion d’honneur and also received the Médaille des Évadés—Escapees’ Medal for his repeated escape attempts. 

Soon after, and just as swiftly, yet another event occurred which caused Congar’s inner war, his Dark Night of the Soul. It was an interior war of the soul, engulfed in the darkness of suffering, a purification of the theologian. In a word, in 1947 he was censured and silenced with his fellow French Dominican confreres who taught and thought just as he did. Rome concluded that Congar and his confreres had made a leap of truth too far ahead of their time.

What precisely had occurred? These good men were severely admonished for what was considered by the Roman Curia to be ‘Semi-Modernism’. A Dominican, the master of the sacred palace and and by Pius XII appointed as “Theologian ad personam” of the Secretariat of State no less, Fr. Mariano Cordovani († 1950), protested stating “that the emphasis of the Saulchoir men on historical context would end up by turning theology into cultural anthropology, deprived of any real hold on its divine subject-matter, revelation”.[5]

The Curia’s decision was farcical! When told he could no longer be allowed to lecture, write or have any communication with Le Saulchoir, his contemplative grounding served him well, his obedience was immediate, humble and resolute. His books, volumes that would become milestones of theological thought for the entire twentieth century and were to become the very bedrock foundation of the spirit and documentation of the Second Ecumenical Council, were, in 1954, on the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office’s infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum—Index of Prohibited Books!

Congar knew the Holy Office had various objections to his writings on ecumenism, the laity, the organic nature of tradition and reforms needed within the church. These writings, whose second editions had inevitably been blocked by Rome’s censors, were advocating the ecclesiology of Johann Adam Möhler.

Möhler’s thought marked a return to the patristic sources of theology, a historical conception of Revelation, an openness to the thought of his time and to the doctrines of other Christian denominations. Möhler saw the Church as a living organism [6] which is animated by the Holy Spirit, extending the mystery of the Incarnation and not primarily as a structure of juridical power. By making unity the organic principle and the foundation of the Church, Möhler approached the question of confessional differences in a new spirit. [7]

He is considered today as a forerunner of Vatican II ecclesiology and one of the fathers of modern ecumenism. He influenced several theologians of the twentieth century, including Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Joseph Ratzinger.[8]

Congar was obedient. All the same, he would be less a Dominican if he shrank from the truth. He simply said “in all honesty, I don’t take back what I have written and have taught. I accept the full weight of the truth which I have spoken.” [9]

When Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli ascended the throne of Peter as John XXIII and inaugurated the Second Vatican Council, Congar and other censured theologians of his calibre were fully reinstated. So, too, was their teaching voice. Yves was quickly enlisted as a theological consultant to the preparatory commission for the Ecumenical Council. At the Council he helped write the ‘Message to the World’ at its commencement, and worked on such major documents as Dei verbum — Dogmatic constitution on Divine Revelation (1965), Lumen gentium — Dogmatic constitution on the Church (1964), Gaudium et spes — Pastoral coinstitution on the Church in the modern World (1965), Ad gentes divinitus — on the missionary activities of the Church (1965), Unitatis redintegratio  — Decree on Ecumenism (1964), Presbyterorum ordinis — Decree on the monistry and life of Priests (1965), and Dignitatis humanae — on the right of the person (1965). [10]

 Opening Session of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican 11 October 1962

If that isn’t astonishing enough, Pope Paul VI appointed him to be a member of the official Catholic-Lutheran commission in 1965. That same Pope appointed him to the Pontifical International Theological Commission to widen the vision for the work on the Doctrine of the Faith. Saint John Paul II set his seal on Congar’s theological brow by inviting him to participate at the Second Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 1985, but ill health and his advanced years prevented him from participating.

We could very well be at the end of our lengthy resume, but a word must be said about the Ressourcement movement “return to the sources” which reclaimed the great tradition of the past. Congar and theologians of his ilk felt that by picking up on the sources they could enliven the faith in the twentieth century. I mention this here, because at the inception of the Vatican II, Ressourcement gained prominence; and was suddenly overshadowed by yet another movement the Aggiornamento “bringing up to date”. This movement was imbued with modernisation and veiled tradition and the sources. With reference to Ressourcement, George Lindbeck wrote:

“Its power was most dramatically evident on the Roman Catholic side. De Lubac, Congar, Rahner, Kung and Ratzinger, to mention some of the better-known progressives of the Ecumenical Council, all joined at the time in seeking renewal first through return to the patristic and biblical roots. This was their way of updating the church, of escaping from the post-Tridentine rigidities which had been intensified by the anti-modernist reactions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Paradoxically, they triumphed over the conservatives and advanced the cause of modernity by being more traditional than anyone else: they appealed to traditions earlier than the medieval and counter-Reformation ones which the traditionalists favoured. Without their mastery of both the spirit and the letter of Scripture and the fathers, it would have been impossible to formulate and defend the reforms of the liturgy, of the understanding of the church and of ecumenism, of the place of the laity, and of religious liberty.” [11]

Only today, we begin to see significant and growing signs of a return to the Ressourcement, a movement which Yves Congar so strongly and adeptly championed for the Church’s own good.

Fr. Yves Congar of the Order of Preachers, a prolific theological and spiritual author, presented wonderful authoritative works in his field; and perhaps his Tradition and Traditions: An historical and a theological essay (1960), I Believe in the Holy Spirit (1979) and My Journal of the Councilm(2012) are his most noteworthy. 

Who can tell? As a contemplative and man of prayer, he may fail to recall his earlier theological discernment. He only remembers that God alone is supreme:

The psalms mean so much to me. They are the daily bread that nurtures my hope, they give voice to my service of God and my love of him. Would that I could penetrate all the wealth they contain as my lips shape their words. [12]

Would that we could say the same after our long labours of love and testimony of God’s action in our lives. Would that we could live a theology that engenders so much faith. For Congar had written of theology that “all the light comes to it from the premise of faith. Theology is truly the scientific development of faith, the science of faith.” [13

Continue reading “H.E. Yves Marie-Joseph Card. Congar O.P., Dominican friar, priest, theologian and contemplative.”
St. Patrick Man of God

St. Patrick Man of God

The Island of Ireland had never been brought within the Roman Empire; consequently the Latin language, the common tongue of the Christian Church, the customary vehicle of learning and liturgy was not known in Ireland. There was, then, from the start that very considerable barrier to rapid progress, the absence of a common tongue. There was the further difficulty that the Irish of the fifth century were not literate, at least in the conventional sense of the word.  Continue reading St. Patrick Man of God