The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

"Directions in Spiritual Work - Part I" -- Sts. Barsanuphius and John

Sts. Barsanuphius and John lived in the sixth century as fellow spiritual strugglers in Palestinian monasteries and in isolation in the desert. We are blessed today to have a wonderful collection of their teachings on the spiritual life which should be studied by every serious student of the Christian faith. St. Barsanuphius spent some fifty years in his cell, forbidding himself the sight of another person. A great ascetic, he was brought three loaves of bread a week by the monastery purser, but often did not eat even that. St. John was his equal in asceticism and was blessed with the additional gift of prophecy.

The book written by these two fathers contains 850 answers to various questions asked by a wide variety of people. Some were written by St. John, but the vast majority were give by St. Barsanuphius. He did not actually write the answers down himself, but dictated them to Abba Serid. When the saint first began to give his answers to questions, he asked Abba Serid to write it down. Not expecting to retain in his memory all the words said to him by the great desert father, Abba Serid was in a quandary how to write down so many words and expected the saint to tell him to bring paper and ink in order to take dictation as he listened. By his gift of clairvoyance, St. Barsanuphius read the secret thought of Serid. His face became like a flame and he said to Serid, "Go, write it down and fear not. Even if I say innumerable words for you to write down, know that the Holy Spirit will not you write one single word more or less than what I have said, even though you wish it, but will guide your hand in writing down everything correctly and in right order."

Obviously, we cannot put all 850 of their answers in our newsletter, but we will share some of our favorites with you over the next couple of newsletters.


-- Dispose yourself to give thanks to God for everything, hearkening to the word of the Apostle: "In every thing give thanks" (I Thessalonians 5:18). Whether you are assailed by tribulation, or suffer want or persecution, or have to bear physical hardships and infirmities, give thanks to God for all that befalls for "we must through tribulation enter into the kingdom of god" (Acts 14:22). So let not your soul be assailed by doubt, nor your heart weaken; but remember the word of the Apostle: "Though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day" (II Corinthians 4:16). If you do not endure sufferings, you will not be able to mount the cross and share its fruit which brings salvation.

-- While the ship is at sea, it is a prey to dangers and winds. When it reaches a calm and peaceful harbor, it no longer fears dangers, calamities or winds, but remains safe. In the same way, while you are among men you must expect tribulation, dangers and mental buffetings. But when you reach the harbor of silence prepared for you, then you will have no fear.

-- You have no peace from thoughts, which impel you to trouble others, and in turn to be troubled by others. But know, my brother, that if we offend by word or deed, we are thereby ourselves offended a hundredfold. By longsuffering in all things and refrain from letting your own will enter into anything. Carefully examine your thoughts lest they infect your heart with deadly poison (ill temper) and make you take a gnat for a camel, a pebble for a cliff, and lest you become like a man who has a beam in his own eye but beholds the mote in the eye of another.

-- You call yourself a sinner, but in effect you show that you do not feel yourself to be one. A man, who admits himself to be a sinner and the cause of many evils, disagrees with no one, quarrels with no one, is not wroth with anyone, but considers every man better and wiser than himself. If you are a sinner, why do you reproach your neighbor and accuse him of bringing afflictions upon you? It seems that you and I are as yet far from regarding ourselves as sinners. Look brother, how base we are: we speak with our lips only; our actions show something different. Why, when we oppose thoughts, do we not receive the strength to repulse them? Because, previously, we have surrendered to criticizing our neighbor and this has weakened our spiritual strength. So we accuse our brother, being ourselves guilty. Put all your thoughts in the Lord, saying: God knows what is best, and you will be at peace and, little by little, will be given the strength to endure.

-- Churn the milk and you will bring forth butter; but if you wring the nose, you will bring forth blood (Proverbs 30:33). If a man wants to bend a bough or a vine into a hoop, he bends it gradually, lest it break, for if he suddenly bends it too much, it snaps. (This refers to strict measures of abbots and excessive asceticism of monks.)

-- Do you wish to be free of afflictions and not to be burdened by them? Expect greater ones, and you will find peace. Remember Job and other saints, and the afflictions they suffered. Acquire their patience, and comfort will come to your spirit. Be of good courage, stand firm and pray.

-- While we have time, let us have attention in ourselves and learn to be silent. If you wish to be untroubled by anything, be dead in relation to every man, and you will find peace. I speak here touching thoughts, touching all kinds of activities, relationships with men and cares.

-- You wrote me asking me to pray for your sins. And I will say the same: pray for my sins. For it is said: "As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise" (Luke 6:31). Although I am accursed and lower than all men, I continue to do so as much as I can, according to the commandment: "Pray one for another, that ye may be healed" (James 5:16). END

Kadloubovsky, E., and Palmer, G.E.H., trans., "Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart," (London: Faber and Faber, 1983, pp. 346 - 350.

Our book, "Monasticism in Egypt," has been out-of-print for several years. However, I am happy to say now that it is available in Kindle! Click here to check it out!