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

The Spiritual Teaching Of The Monks Of Egypt — The Formation Of A Tradition [1]

Antoine Guillaumont [2]

This Pennsylvania fragment contains an apophthegm concerning Abba Arsenius the Great.

Few writings, with the exception of the Gospels, have had in the history of Christian spirituality, a diffusion and an influence comparable to those of the collections of the Apothegmas, or Sayings of the Fathers (Apophthegmata Patrum, Verba Seniorum), which they transmitted to the Christian world the teaching of the monks of Egypt, invested, before numerous generations of monks, with a value in a certain way normative. There are testimonies of these collections not only in Greek, which was the language of the first great collections, and in Latin, but also, during the first millennium, in all the languages of the Christian East: Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Arabic, Ethiopian; Its diffusion extends from what was then the extreme West, Spain, the homeland of one of the Latin recensions, to Central Asia, as fragments with fragments of the Gospels have been found, in the vestiges of a Christian literature written in Sogdian, an Iranian language.

The place of origin of the apothegms is, on the contrary, well defined: the deserts of Lower Egypt, known by the names of Scetis (present-day Wadi El Natrun (“Valley of Natron” in Coptic: Ϣⲓϩⲏⲧ Šihēt, “measure of the hearts”); Nitria, about 37.2 miles to the north (the site is currently in the western Delta, about 31 miles southeast of Alexandria); the Kellia or Cells ( referred to as “the innermost desert”), is about 11.1 miles south of Nitria, at the entrance to the Libyan desert. Their time is that of the first three or four generations of monks from those deserts, from the founders, Macarius the Elder called the Egyptian in Scetis, Amun or Ammonius the Hermit in Nitria and in the Kellia, both disciples of Saint Anthony the Great; It is in fact a monasticism of the Anthonian style, different from the monasticism of Upper Egypt dominated by the figure of Saint Pachomius. In those deserts the way of life was semi-anacoretism: the monks lived as solitary, in cells quite distant from each other, and met, at the end of the week, for what was called the “synaxis”, a liturgy celebrated in common, accompanied by a meal, also taken in common. It was at the times of these weekly encounters that the apothegm could be born, but more often during the visits that could be made, during the week, to these loners who, with rare exceptions, were not inmates; it is also seen, quite often, a young monk living next to an elderly or sick monk, of whom he is both the servant and the disciple. The apothegm is the answer given by an old man, a “geronte” (gérôn, a quality that is not necessarily related to age!) To the question posed by a normally younger monk, and this question has an almost stereotypical form: “ Father, tell me a word (logos), a phrase (rèma), how can I save myself ”. The questioned elder is called “father” (pater), more often with the term of Aramaic origin “abba”. But he is not a hierarchical superior invested with some authority, nor a teacher or a doctor who has the function of teaching, much less, a skilled rhetorician in making speeches. He is asked for advice only because he knows that he is a man with experience, an “old man”, and above all a man of God, a spiritual person, gratified, as they said, with the “charisma of the word”, that is, whose The word is considered as inspired: he is a character considered charismatic, which is not necessarily typical of every old man, but can be – there are examples of this – a faculty of monks who are still young.

Those who are more so —and it may seem paradoxical that the apothegms were born in that monastic environment— are those monks who by their vocation consecrate themselves to silence: to Arsenius, while he was still a high official in the imperial palace before reaching Being a monk in Scete, a heavenly voice responded to his question: “How can I save myself?”: “Arsenius, flee from men, be silent and live in the hésychia” [3]. 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 [4], because if that advice had been taken literally, we would not have apothegms! [5] But that expression says a lot, I daresay, about the way those monks tended to teach. It is said that one day the bishop of Alexandria, Teófilo, came to visit the monks of Scete; To an elderly monk famous for his silence, they made this recommendation: “Abba, give the pope a word, so that it may be of benefit to him!”, to which the old monk replied: “If he does not take advantage of my silence, how would I benefit from my word? ”[6]. These monks in effect aimed to teach more by example than by word. The disciple is invited to imitate the teacher, rather than listen to him. A brother asks Abba Sisoes: “Tell me a word!”, And Sisoes responds: “Why do you force me to speak vainly? Look and do what you see! ” [7].

The old man therefore does not respond willingly; and when he does, he is, as is often said, “with regret”, “with great regret”; he makes him wait for his answer, sometimes for a long time: it is said that a monk came one day to meet Ammoes to ask him for a word, and only after seven days did Ammoès respond! [8] And when the old man responds, he does so in a few words: the character that most attracts the attention of the apothegm is, in effect, its conciseness; he takes the form of a sentence, sometimes turning towards the parable. The apothegm also has a concrete character: the old man easily adds to the word, the gesture, a symbolic gesture. When asked by a brother “How can I save myself?”, An old man, without saying anything, leaves his clothes, girdles his kidneys, extends his hands and then says: “This is how the monk must be, stripped of the matter of this life and crucified ”[9].

The apothegm is reduced first of all to the answer to a question; the question itself may be missing and there is an apothegm introduced only by the formula: “The abba so and so said …”. But very soon the apothegm tends to develop, and this more and more and in various ways. Sometimes the question is preceded by the evocation of the circumstances that led a brother to ask it: the apothegm then tends to take the form of a small anecdote. The answer itself may be more or less developed. Sometimes the answer given to the question posed leads to a second question; There is then a double apothegm, for example: Abba Isaías questioned abba Macarius saying: “Tell me a word!” The old man tells him: “Flee from men!” Abba Isaías tells him: “What is it to flee from men?” The old man tells him: “It is to remain seated in your cell and cry for your sins” [10]. Developing in this way, the apothegm can give rise to a true dialogue, and this can sometimes be inserted into a short story. Another form of development, more interesting for what we study: it happens that the old man, when estimating that he cannot answer by himself, responds by referring to another word; This may be a word taken from Scripture; thus: A brother questioned abba Poimén saying: “What shall I do?”, to which Poimén responds: “It is written: I will proclaim my iniquity and I will remember my sin” (Ps 37,19, Sept.) [11]. Another way, frequently used by the elder to respond obliquely, without making himself seen, is to respond by referring to the word of another elder. We thus have an apothegm in two degrees: “abba so and so said that abba so and so said …”, sometimes even in three degrees: “abba so and so said that abba so and so said that abba so and so said …” [12]. We thus see a tradition being formed by the transmission of the word of an elder, by means of a chain of transmitters. Instead of a word from the elder, it may be his conduct, this or that action of him, which is referred to: the apothegms, in effect, refer not only to the words of the elders, but also their actions and gestures through which are also expressed his teachings.

Another remarkable feature: originally, the apothegm is nominative and bears the name of a great old man: Anthony, Macarius or some other charismatic character, inspiring of the tradition. But quite quickly, anonymous apothegms appear, forming a very long series: “An old man said …” Finally, the singular is sometimes replaced by the plural: “The old men said …” [13] The teaching transmitted is no longer that of a great elder, but is that of tradition, represented, in a global and anonymous way, by the elders. This tradition, this transmission of the words of the elders, was experienced as all the more necessary when one had – and it was had very early – the feeling of a kind of degeneration in the practices and of a weakening, even of a loss, of the charism of the word, having stopped putting into practice the word of the inspired Fathers. It happens with that charisma of the word as it happened, in the Jewish tradition, with the charisma of prophecy, which ceased after Zacharias and Malachi. The parallel is explicitly made in an anonymous apothegm: “An old man said: the prophets made books; then our Fathers came, who put them into practice; those who came after them learned them by heart; then came this generation that has copied them and put them in the cupboards, without doing anything else ”[14]. The charisma of the word disappeared, because the word of the elders was no longer heard or put into practice. Hence the need to ensure the transmission of the inspired word of the elders, and that is the task of the elders of the present time: they are no longer “pneumatophores”, carriers of the Spirit, as they say of Anthony or Macarius, but who are from now on, carriers, transmitters of the word [15]. This fact is what explains the great development of the apothegms, as I said, in two or three degrees. It is noteworthy that apothegms of this type are particularly numerous among those attributed to abba Poimén, a monk from Scete who is situated towards the end of what can be considered as the living period of the apothegms, which runs roughly from the middle of the IV century to the middle of the V century. This is a very important phenomenon, since this is how the transmission of apothegms is ensured from one generation to another and how the apothegmatic tradition has been constituted.

This tradition, first purely oral, experienced, for the same reasons, the need to be put in writing. We have received two large collections, which were constituted in the second half of the 5th century: one is of an alphabetic type, more exactly alphabetical-anonymous: in it the apothegms are arranged according to the alphabetical order of the initial letter of the monks’ names. , from Anthony to Or (the Greek text of this series edited in PG 65); it is followed (incompletely edited in ROC 1907-1913) by a long series of anonymous ones; The other collection (whose Greek text is still unpublished) is known from a Latin version made around the middle of the 6th century (Pelagius and John, PL 73): the apothegms here are systematically arranged, classified by subject, with a certain number of rubrics. This second collection seems to have been made on top of the preceding one, more precisely on a state of the latter, prior to the one that has come down to us: in effect it has indications of an alphabetical pattern. Before the alphabetical-anonymous collection, there were other, smaller collections, from which the latter was constituted, as the same author warns us in his prologue: “Many already, at various times, have arranged in the form of stories these words and good deeds (note words and deeds!) of the holy elders, in a simple and unadorned style, for they had only in view the [spiritual] benefit of a great number. But, as the story of most of it is done in a confused way and without order, that created some difficulties for the mind of the reader … ”, and then explains that, to put order in this matter, he arranged it according to the order alphabetical of the names of the monks, placing at the end the apothegms that were not nominally attributed [16]. 


Of those small collections that were, it seems, quite numerous, two are known to us. The oldest is found in a book by Evagrius entitled Practical Treatise or The Monk, written in the Kellia towards the end of the 4th century: this treatise ends with a dozen apothegms, of which the first are nominative, attributed to Anthony, Macarius the Egyptian and Macarius the Alexandrian, and the others are anonymous; These apothegms are introduced by a formula that clearly indicates the objective of this small collection: “It is also necessary to question the paths of the monks who preceded us in good and order us according to them, since many beautiful things can be found said or done by them.” (“ Said or done ”, therefore words and actions!) [17]. This is the oldest testimony we have about the apothegms; there are other testimonies that are referred to in other works by the same author. They are also cited in some authors of the first half of the 5th century, Palladius, Cassian and the historian Socrates, proof that at that time the apothegms were already circulating, at least orally, in monastic circles. Another small collection is found in the writings of a monk Isaías who, originally from Egypt, lived in Palestine throughout the 5th century and who is the author of some thirty small treatises or logoi; the latter provides a series of apothegms introduced as follows: “Brothers, what I heard and saw among the elders, I refer to you without removing or adding anything” [18]; follow a fortnight of apothegms attributed to different Egyptian monks, which are found again in the alphabetical collection; but here they are related in the first person, as words spoken to Isaiah himself. It is difficult, at the moment, to pronounce on the exact date of this text, on the authenticity of these apothegms and on their relationship with those of the alphabetical collection; But, like those reported by Evagrius and the other authors I cited, they allow us to arrive, in the history of the formation of the apothegms, to a state prior to that of the great collections, by revealing a time in which tradition is still live.

We would like to be able to go back further, to the very origin of the apothegms, in other words, to be able to estimate their authenticity, appreciate their value as a testimony regarding the monks of whom they intend to relate the words and regarding the environment in which they lived. One thing at least is certain: that these apothegms, in so far as they are authentic, have been pronounced in Coptic, the only language that almost all of the monks whose words refer to the Apophthegmata Patrum had been able to speak; only some monks of foreign origin, like Arsenius or Evagrius, knew Greek; the others ignored it. This is explicitly said of Poimén, under whose name nearly fifty apothegms of the alphabetical series are placed [19]. Of Pambó, another great figure in the collection, Socrates tells us that he was “illiterate” (agrammatos), a term that Saint Athanasius also uses in relation to Anthony himself: this is why it must be understood that these monks were ignorant of Greek letters [20]. Cassian, who remained for many years, at the end of the fourth century, among the monks of Nitria and Scete, of whom he tries to relate the conversations he had with them, affirms that foreigners, like him and his companion Germán, cannot talk with these monks rather than through interpreters [21]. The original language of the apothegms could therefore be no more than Coptic. Now, we have precisely in Coptic a collection of apothegms: Would that be the primitive wording? Unfortunately it is not at all: that Coptic text, which preserves a large part of a collection related to the systematic collection, is a translation made on a Greek text, as shown by numerous errors that are indisputably from counter-senses made on a text Greek. The original text is therefore that of the great Greek collections, on which all versions have been made, directly or indirectly, including the Coptic version itself. Undoubtedly, this text contains several Copticisms, less numerous however than what has sometimes been claimed, but they are sufficiently explained by the oral substrata.

Furthermore, the first great Greek collections that we have are of works of a purely literary nature and could only have been written in a Greek cultural environment. Its very form indicates it, since the alphabetical collection, which is probably the first, is constituted according to the Greek alphabet, and not the Coptic one. These works, moreover, reveal themselves to be of a literary genre that is certainly very widely represented in the cultures of the Near East and in Judaism: I am thinking of the various books of wisdom, but more particularly of the famous treatise on the Mishna entitled Pirqê Abôth, “The chapters of the Fathers” where the teaching received by Moses is seen in parallel being transmitted from teacher to teacher, from rabbi to rabbi, with an always identical formula: “Rabbi such said (or said) …”, sometimes: “Rabbi tal says that, Rabbi tal said …”, which recalls what I have called the apothegm in two degrees; sometimes, as in the apothegms, there is a small representation, with the evocation of the circumstances in which the word has been pronounced. But the closest analogies are found in the Greek literary tradition, where collections of sentences proliferated; Let us think of the apothegms of the sages, in the Apophthegmata found in the moral works of Plutarch, “Apothegms of kings and generals”, more particularly the “Apothegms of the Lacedaemonians” (Apophthegmata lacónica) that they offer, regarding the form, the most impressive similarities with the Apophthegmata Patrum: as in the latter, in effect, the apothegms are divided into two series: a series of nominal apothegms, classified according to the alphabetical order of the names of the characters, then a series of apothegms anonymous. It seems clear that the alphabetical-anonymous collection of the Apophthegmata Patrum has been made on this model.

If we consider now, no longer the form of the collections, but the genre of the apothegms, we are led to the same conclusion. The “apothegm” reveals to be of a literary genre to which the sentence, the “chrie” and the maxim also belong; It is distinguished by its conciseness. The sophist Troilos de Side defines it as “a concise and forceful word”, logos suntomos kai eustochos, a formula that is found again almost as it is in an apothegm: the brothers ask an abba Juan about to die, to tell them logon tina suntomon kai sôtèrion, “a concise and salvific word” [22]; “Salvific” is the proper note of the Christian apothegm, which answers the question: “How can I be saved?”; but the apothegm itself is a short, concise, “laconica” word, like that of the Spartans referred to by Plutarch.

Finally, if we consider the very matter of apothegms, as it appears in the great collections (about which I cannot unfortunately elaborate), it is verified that these are tributaries, from that point of view too, of a rich literary tradition: one sees there taken up themes, comparisons, proverbs or apologues that were widely expanded at that time, especially among the Greek and Latin fabulists. Therefore, the great collections of apothegms were not constituted in the monastic environment, where the apothegms were born and where a certain anti-intellectualism prevailed, even a great distrust with respect to books (I refer them, among other texts, to the one who cited a moment ago, where those who, instead of putting their parents’ words into practice, put them in writing and ordered them in libraries are punished!). Certain indications lead to think that this happened in Palestine, more than in Egypt.

One can thus represent the history of the formation of collections of apothegms: at the origin there was a teaching, devoid of any didactic character, given in Coptic and which probably remained orally in that language, situated in a well-determined environment, evoking specifically Egyptian features (a certain Egyptian chauvinism is perceived in the oldest background of these collections), realistic and concrete observations in the representation of the monastic environment and of the places themselves. First transmitted orally, these words were consigned in small collections, later collected in large collections, where at the same time an abundant new material was introduced: apothegms of foreign origin, especially Palestinian; stories sometimes very extensively developed; extracts, artificially put in the form of apothegms, of literary works (for example, treatises of Isaiah, of Evagrius, with the name of him or with that of Saint Nilus, of Cassian translated into Greek, etc.). These great collections did not cease, subsequently, to be enriched and modified, since the matter of the apothegms was essentially malleable and always capable of growing, and this, not only in Greek, but also in the numerous versions that were made in different languages.

The history of the formation of the Apophthegmata Patrum seems to be analogous to that which New Testament criticism has been able to establish for the formation of the Gospels, starting from the logia or words of Jesus: in both cases, we find ourselves in the presence of texts in those who have been consigned a teaching delivered first in the form of “sayings”, in the vernacular, Aramaic logia or Coptic apothegms, transmitted orally over a more or less long period, at the end of which small collections of words have been constituted, such as those “logia of Jesus” that made known, very fragmentarily, at the beginning of that century, the Oxyrhynchos papyri and, more completely, in a Coptic version, the Gospel according to Thomas, discovered in 1945-1946, where each word de Jesus is simply introduced by the formula: “Jesus said …”. These collections were then used for the writing, in Greek as well as for the apothegms, of the texts that we know, where the words of Jesus are inserted in a story. But, unlike the gospels that quickly took the form of a closed “canon”, where the agrapha, that is, the words not inscribed in the canonical text, are always left out and any addition is excluded, the collections of the Apophthegmata Patrum they have always remained open, susceptible to receiving new apothegms from other media or from other times, as well as old apothegms that had first escaped them, but that were preserved in oral tradition or in independent writings. On the other hand, while the Gospels have preserved a ne varietur form, the matter of these collections has always remained fluid and malleable, taking the most diverse forms according to the regions and languages ​​in which they have expanded. But, although covered by these successive layers, the Egyptian background has remained, remaining as the essential element, and it is mainly thanks to them that the monasticism of the deserts of Lower Egypt was able to preserve an exemplary value alongside all subsequent monastic tradition. both in the West and in the East.

A IX century Arabic translation of the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” (“Apophthegmata Patrum”), this manuscript was found at the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai 
  1. From the book Études sur la spiritualité de l’Orient chrétien, Bégrolles-en-Mauges, Abbaye de Bellefontaine, 1996, pp. 81-92 (Col. Spiritualité Orientale, n. 66). Part III. Original published in: M. MESLIN (Ed.), Maître et disciples dans las traditions religieuses, Paris, Eds. du Cerf, 1990, pp. 143-154. Translation from French by Sr. María Graciela Sufé, osb. Gaudium Mariae Abbey, Córdoba, Argentina.
  2. Antonio Guillaumont (1915–2000) was a historian of ancient Eastern Christianity, especially Syriac and Coptic, and an archaeologist. He is also a doctor of letters. He served as Director of Studies at the Practical School of Higher Studies (chair of “Hebrew and Aramaic” and chair of “Eastern Christianity”). He was also a professor at the College of France (chair of “Christianity and Gnosis in the pre-Islamic East”). He chaired the French section of the International Association for the History of Religions.
  3. Arsenio 2 (88 C). The references refer, for nominative apothegms, to PG 65.1-440, and for anonymous ones, to ROC, years 1907-1913. Abbreviations used: CSCO = Corpus scriptorum chistianorum orientalium; PG = Migne, Greek Patrology; PL = Migne, Latin Patrology; ROC = Revue de l’Orient chrétien; SC = Sources chrétiennes.
  4. Cum grano salis: “with a pinch of salt” = of grace, of acuity (Ed.).
  5. Moses 6 (284 C).
  6. Theophilus 2 (197 D).
  7. Sisoes 45 (405 B)
  8. Ammoès 4 (128 A).
  9. Anonymous 143 (ROC 1908, p. 49).
  10. Macario Eg. 27 (273 B).
  11. Poimén [= Pastor] 153 (360 B). 
  12. Cf. Poimén 46 (333 A) y 87 (344 A). 
  13. Cf. Anonymous 96-132 (ROC 1907, pp. 401-404).
  14. Anonymous 228 (ROC 1909, p. 361).
  15. Cf. Antonio 30 (85 B) and Macario Eg. 38 (280 A).
  16. PG 65,73 A. 
  17. Cf. SC 171, pp. 692-693. 
  18. Cf. CSCO 293, pp. 28 ss. 
  19. Poimén 183 (365 D) 
  20. Cf. PG 67,513 A, and PG 26,841 A. 
  21. Cf. SC 54, pp. 222-223. 
  22. Cassian 5 (245 A).