Traditional Christian spirituality put great emphasis on asceticism and ascetical practices. People were constantly reminded of the need for penance and mortification; their importance was stressed, their practice was recommended and laws were enacted by church authorities making certain penitential exercises obligatory. The severe and to us sometimes rather bizarre forms of penance undertaken by some of the Desert Fathers and some early Irish Christians illustrate this point quite well. In later times and down to quite recently, though the forms of penance adopted were more moderate, the importance attached to ascetical practices remained more or less the same. To such an extent was this the case in fact that the impression was at times given that the Christian life was basically an ascetical or penitential one and for many what was intended to be good news and a life of joy and peace appeared to be and was in danger of becoming an endurance test and a joyless journey to the kingdom of a strict and demanding God.
Today all this is changing in the lives of Christians, in the thought of theologians and in the teaching of the church. It is generally felt today that the understanding and role of asceticism in the Christian life had got somewhat out of focus. In the light of this we want to examine that understanding and that role a little more closely in the hope of arriving at a better appreciation of the ascetical or penitential dimension of our Christian lives.
There are many words in the vocabulary of Christian spirituality that describe the reality we are considering here, e.g., mortification, renunciation, penance, self-denial, asceticism, etc. Though each of them has its own particular shade of meaning, they all have the same basic meaning and hence are generally used interchangeably. I think, however, that the best word to describe the reality in question here is asceticism. This word, fundamentally, means training or exercise in preparation for some task or endeavour, for example, a sports contest. It was introduced into Christianity by St Paul, who transferred it from an athletic context to that of the Christian life, in order to emphasise the self-sacrifice, discipline and self-control involved in living as a dedicated and singleminded Christian (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 3:7-16; also Hebrews 12:1 ff.) The same basic idea is to be found in Jesus’ reference to the necessity of taking up one’s cross and losing one’s life in order to save it (cf. Mark 8:34 f.).
In this article we will, first of all, discuss asceticism in this broad or extended sense which is to be found in the New Testament. Later, we will consider it in its narrower sense of ascetical exercises or practices. To set the whole discussion in its proper context, however, it is necessary to begin with a brief reflection on the essence of the Christian life.
THE ESSENCE OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
To describe the essence of the Christian life, it suffices to point to the words of Jesus that one should love God and one’s neighbour as fully as one is able. In other words, the Christian life is one of love, so that to be a true follower of Christ, one is called to love others and God with all one’s heart. Now, since living as a Christian is to live a life of love, it is and ought to be a joyful way of life, bringing fulfilment, happiness and peace to the one who lives it here on earth, and, ultimately, eternal life with God in the fulness of love, joy and peace. To be called to live such a life and to share such a destiny is truly ‘good news’ and ‘tidings of great joy for all the people’.
Clearly, it would not be adequate or accurate to characterise this as simply an ascetical or penitential way of life. It is much more and much fuller than that. Yet experience, the New Testament and Christian tradition all tell us that asceticism has its place in Christian living. The question then is, what is that place? Where does asceticism come into our Christian lives? We will now move on to discuss this.
THE ASCETICISM OF DAILY LIVING
The basic thesis being put forward here may be stated briefly as follows: The Christian life is not simply or primarily an ascetical one; rather it is a life of love that of necessity involves and implies an asceticism (using the word in its broad sense), which I call the asceticism of daily living. What follows in this section is an effort to explain this fundamental contention.
Experience tells us that if we are to live the Christian life well by loving God and our neighbours as wholeheartedly as we are able, then inevitably and necessarily we will be involved in a great deal of struggle, self-sacrifice and renunciation. Loving others always contains important elements of self-denial, effort and discipline, though of course it is much more than just these. It will be helpful to spell this out a little more here. To respond wholeheartedly to the many demands of our relationships, our work and our spiritual life will require us to forego not merely evil and selfish pursuits but also many good and wholesome things which we might otherwise be able to have or engage in. It will demand too a great deal of effort, dedication, self-sacrifice and self-control to do well and consistently all we are called to do. In addition, we will have to face difficulties and obstacles from others, from our circumstances, from our limitations and selfish tendencies and from the nature and structure of the human condition itself, as we try to live as Christians should. In other words, there is an asceticism or an ascetical dimension built into the very heart of the Christian life which cannot be avoided as one endeavours to live it. Hence, while the Christian life is more than asceticism, it is still true that asceticism is intrinsic and essential to it. One could perhaps say that the ascetical dimension of life is the reverse side of the coin of Christian love.
Specific examples may help us to understand this better. A married woman with a husband and family, for example, is called to live a life that is basically one of love, joy and peace. But she soon finds that doing so makes many demands on her, e.g., in time and energy, in care and attention; it places many limitations on her and involves her in many sacrifices like staying at home to attend the family’s needs, giving up her job perhaps, using the money available for family purposes rather than personal enjoyment or attractive luxuries, etc. To take a second example, a priest, as he lives his life of love of his neighbours and of God, has the same basic experience of demands, sacrifices and limitations, even if they are often quite different from those of the married person. Similarly with the single person and the man or woman in religious life.
We may further illustrate our basic point by taking a brief look at some of the activities that Christians are called upon to do. Prayer, for example, is not an ascetical or penitential exercise. It is, or at least ought to be, a joyful conversation with one’s loving Father, which, however, is a basic necessity for the Christian and demands effort, self-discipline and perseverance. Loving one’s marriage partner is another activity that is not ascetical. On the contrary, it is, ideally at least, a freely chosen and joyful commitment, made in love, joy and peace. But once again, it too inevitably involves detachment, renunciation and self-control and hence has an ascetical aspect. To take a final example, helping a troubled person is a work of love and usually a very gratifying and enriching experience, but it also requires one to practise the disciplines of concentration, listening, understanding and patience as well as the sacrifice of one’s time and convenience.
More light may be thrown on this whole matter if we turn briefly from considering the Christian way of life to look at the Christian person living that life. A Christian person ought to be, above all else, a loving person, doing his best to care for, share with and bear the burdens of those people who enter his life. This is how he imitates Christ most perfectly. Now, if he is to do this and to keep on doing it, he will of necessity have to make a significant effort, sacrifice his own convenience, wishes and time, deny himself many legitimate and potentially enriching activities and experiences, as he concentrates his whole being on the good of others, his own moral and religious growth and the glory of God. In other words, he will inevitably have to practise a demanding asceticism every day, not one taken on now and again at will but one built into the very heart of his daily existence and hence much more demanding, if at times less attended to and less appreciated.
There can be no doubt, then, that the Christian must be an ascetical or penitential person, but, more importantly and more basically, he must be a loving person. If he is, then it follows that he is practising the asceticism of daily living that is necessarily involved in living a life of love.
Perhaps one could put the main point we have been making in another way and say that being a Christian in any state of life is both a gift and a task, or, more accurately, a gift involving a task. It is a gift or opportunity offered to one by the church and by God to be accepted, appreciated and lived joyfully in love and peace; it is a task or challenge to be undertaken and carried through with single-mindedness, courage and readiness to give of oneself without counting the cost. In biblical terms we might say that the following of Christ is a call to live a life of love, but this by its very nature, requires one to take up his cross daily.
One sometimes hears it said approvingly that X is a very ascetical person, meaning usually that he is very detached from material things and rather sparing in his use of them in his own life. No one would wish to detract from the merit of such a person but, in the light of what has been said earlier, one might wonder whether such a Christian had really got his priorities and emphases fully right and whether it would not be a better and a more Christian thing if he were to try to focus on being a more loving, i.e. a more understanding, concerned, compassionate and wholehearted, person. Such lovingness necessarily involves the asceticism of daily living already discussed and is more fully in line with what Jesus was and what we as his followers should be. Of course being loving and being ascetical are by no means opposed; on the contrary as we have made clear, being loving implies being ascetical. At the same time, however, they are not identical and Christianity clearly gives priority to love.
What we have been describing is the primary and indispensable form of asceticism for the Christian and it is rightly called the asceticism of daily living. However, to speak of a primary form of asceticism implies that there is another form and in what follows we will turn our attention to that.
ASCETICISM VOLUNTARILY ASSUMED
Here we are using the word asceticism in its narrow sense and hence are referring to ascetical practices or exercises which people engage in from time to time, particularly in Lent, e.g. fasting, giving up cigarettes, alcohol, sweets, etc., or taking on something difficult like getting up earlier, saying more prayers, doing more work, etc. These are voluntary mortifications or penances and are a quite familiar element in our Christian lives.
If we ask the precise purpose of these ascetical practices, we may answer as follows. In the first place, they can help a person in some degree to gain self-control and to be truly disciplined. This result does not follow automatically from their use but depends on the proper approach to and use of the penitential exercise in question. Secondly, these exercises can remind one of the need for moderation in the pursuit and use of material things and can help one to achieve that moderation. In other words, they can be a help in inculcating temperance. Thirdly, they can serve as a warning against over-valuing material realities, impressing on the person the relative unimportance of these things e.g. money, property, food and drink, success, power, etc., and that they are only of value in so far as they serve and promote the welfare of human persons. Finally ascetical practices can serve the more positive purpose of promoting growth in virtue by increasing one’s commitment to important Christian values e.g. prayer, work, service of others. The value of these ascetical practices is, then, significant but it must be remembered that, since the purposes they can achieve can be attained by other means, that value is relative, less than essential and dependent on the preferences, needs and circumstances of the individual person.
If we inquire about the place and importance of these ascetical practices in Christian living, it must be answered, firstly, that they are very secondary in comparison to the asceticism of daily living and can in no way be a substitute for it. Rather, their only value is to supplement and promote that more basic asceticism and only in so far as they do that are they to be practised and made use of. Secondly, they are voluntary and undertaken by the free choice of the individual person. Hence it must be said that no single one of them or no combination of them can be classed as necessary or essential for true Christian living in ordinary circumstances. Thirdly, however, they can be helpful to a particular person as he tries to live his Christian life. How helpful they will be will vary from person to person, and to be valuable they will need to be suited to the individual’s temperament, needs and situation in life. Otherwise, they may do more harm than good. In the light of this it is clear that one should choose his ascetical or penitential practices carefully and that the idea of imposing some of the them by general law is open to question. If it is done, it should only be by way of exception and in special cases.
It is important in this context to remember that an ascetical practice is not necessarily good or better than another one just because it is difficult or more uncongenial. What is in view in undertaking these practices is not the passing of an endurance test but the deepening of one’s ability to love through growth in self-control and the proper attitudes to material things. The ascetical practice that assists one most in this task is the one that is best for the person concerned.
Asceticism is an important and necessary element in our Christian living. In its primary and broader sense it is an inevitable accompaniment of following the Christian way of life, what we have called the reverse side of the coin of loving one’s neighbour and God. A subsidiary, optional but sometimes helpful form of asceticism is that of freely chosen penitential practices. These can be of assistance in one’s efforts to grow in Christian love and become a more loving and Christian person.
Daly, G, ‘Prayer & Asceticism’. The Furrow Vol. 29, No. 4 (Apr., 1978), pp. 219-224
Their influence is still present in the Church today and also in popular culture.
In the third century, thousands of Desert Fathers abandoned the cities on the Nile to seek out the paneremos – or inner desert.
At the end of the third century, a Christian named Paul the First Hermit (ca. 226 – ca. † 341), who lived in the city of Thebes, Egypt, was forced to flee into the desert (around AD 250) during the persecution of the Roman emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius (ca. 201 – † June 251) he was 24 years old. He remained and lived in a desert cave near a clear spring and a palm tree awaiting for an end to Decius’ persecution.
In the intervening period, Paul the First Hermit found that he actually enjoyed the solitude and freedom to fast and pray. He embraced this form of life in the desert and lived in that cave for many more decades as a hermit, dedicated to the worship of God.
Near the end of Saint Paul’s life, another man in Egypt, Antony (251 – † 356), received inspiration from the Gospel to renounce his possessions and serve God alone.
A radical change
His experience is recounted in the famous book Life of Antony, written by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria.
Anthony was born in Coma in Lower Egypt to wealthy landowner parents. When he was about 20 years old, his parents died and left him with the care of his unmarried sister. During a Mass service the pastor had read Matthew 19:21 which ingrained itself in his mind. Shortly thereafter, he decided to follow Matthew’s gospel exhortation “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Anthony gave away some of his family’s lands to his neighbours, sold the remaining property, and donated the funds to the poor.
Antony believed that the words were addressed directly to him, so immediately after Mass, he sold all of his possessions and tried to do God’s will.
Around this time, Antony heard about Paul the first hermit and went to visit him at his retreat in the mountains. Antony was deeply inspired by Paul’s way of life and was convinced that God was also calling him to become a hermit in the desert.
Antony dedicated the rest of his life to fasting and praying, to live a life of poverty for the glory of God.
His holiness became famous, and during Diocletian’s persecution, Christians were drawn to the desert as a way to escape the world and live a private Christian life.
Antony’s life and wisdom has inspired thousands of men and women for the last 50 generations to renounce their earthly ambitions and live in solitude, worshiping God alone.
Monasteries eventually developed over time and spread throughout Egypt. A pattern of life was established and other holy men and women heard the call to enter the desert.
Names that have impacted history
Among the first saints who developed this way of life and are considered part of the Desert Fathers are Saint Pachomius († 348), Saint Menas of Egypt († ca. 309), Saint Basil of Caesarea († 379), Saint Macarius of Egypt († 391) and Saint Moses the Ethiopian († 405).
Among those who were notably influenced by this early asceticism are Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, Saint John Chrysostom († 407), Saint Hilarion († 371), and Saint John Cassian († 435).
On AD 516, Saint Benedict of Nursia developed his own monastic rule based on the writings of these ancient Desert Fathers. As a result, modern religious orders can trace their spiritual ancestry all the way back to the first hermits in Egypt.
Saint John Cassian was one of those responsible for bringing the wisdom of the Desert Fathers to Europe and it was then that their influence reached the Celtic Christians in Ireland.
It was in the mid V century that an Irish version of desert asceticism began to develop, based essentially on the writings of Cassian and the example of Saint Antony the Great.
It was this same desert asceticism that influenced the VI century monks to sail to the remote Isle of Sceilg Mhichíl—Skellig Michael, establishing a monastery of ‘hive huts’ which came to life again in both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.
In a world full of worldly temptations and full of noise, the Desert Fathers are the guiding light which calls us to live differently.
Although our vocation is not to renounce all of our possessions and live in the desert, the Desert Fathers challenge us to make our own daily sacrifices, to live more simply, and to spend time each day in prayer and silence.
Pray for our fathers and our brethren who are traveling, or those who intend to travel anywhere, that God may straighten all their ways, whether by sea, rivers, lakes, roads, air, or those who are traveling by any other means, that Christ our God may bring them back to their own homes in peace, and forgive us our sins.
And those who intend to travel anywhere, straighten all their ways, whether by sea, rivers, lakes, roads, air, or those who are traveling by any other means, everyone anywhere. Lead them into a haven of calm, a haven of safety. Graciously accompany them in their departure and be their companion in their travel. Bring them back to their own, rejoicing with joy and safe in security. In work, be a partner with Your servants in every good deed. As for us, O Lord, keep our sojourn in this life without harm, without storm, and undisturbed to the end. Amen.
The Litany for the Travelers — أوشية المسافرين
5 sayings of the Desert Fathers to grow spiritually
These IV century monks can still teach us a lot today
Although the Desert Fathers lived in the IV century, their lives and writings remain an inspiration even to today’s world.
Many of his sayings (or apothegms or sentences) were compiled in a work entitled The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (The Apophthegmata Patrum), although the title may vary according to the edition. This work, from the V century, represents a small sample of the Desert Fathers and Mothers profound spiritual wisdom. It presents an immense treasure of small phrases with enormous spiritual power.
Here are five examples of these apothegms to help you maintain a good spirit.
Abba Poemen said: “A man who teaches without doing what he teaches is like a spring which cleanses and gives drink to everyone, but is not able to purify itself.” (SDF Poemen 25)
Said abba Antony: “I saw all the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning ‘what can get through such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me ‘humility.’ (SDF Antony 7)
Abba Poemen said: “If someone shuts a snake and a scorpion up in a bottle, in time they will completely destroyed. So it is with evil thoughts: they are suggested by the demons; they disappear through patience.” (SDF Poemen 21)
Abba Amoún from Nitria visited abba Antony and said to him: “Since my rule is stricter than yours how is it that your name is better known amongst men than mine is?” Abba Antony answered: “it is because I love God more than you.” (SDF Amoun of Nitria 1)
Saint Epiphanius Bishop of Cyprus 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.” (SDF Epiphanius 8)
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.
A PRAYER FROM THE DESERT
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.
NOT TO JUDGE
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.”
HOW TO BECOME A DISCIPLE
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.
THE KINGDOM WITHIN
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.”
BEASTS AND SAINTS
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 FOR ALL
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.”