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 III" -- 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 blog, but we will share some of our favorites with you. Today we will look at some of their teachings on humility.


-- If you cannot discourse about faith, do not try to. If a man is firm in faith he will never be confused in discussions and disputes with heretics or unbelievers, because he has in him Jesus, the Lord of peace and quiet. After a peaceful discussion, such a man can lovingly bring many heretics and unbelievers to the knowledge of Jesus Christ our Savior. As for you, since discoursing on some subjects is beyond you, keep to the royal road, that is to the faith of the 318 holy fathers (and for us now, to the faith established by the seven ecumenical councils), into which you were baptized. It contains everything stated exactly for perfect understanding. But most of all have attention in yourself, meditating on your sins and on how you will be received by God.

-- When you hear someone praising you, remember the words of the Scriptures: "O my people, they which lead thee cause thee to err, and destroy the way of thy paths" (Isaiah 3:12). Such praise prevents us from seeing the abomination of our actions; it probably does harm even to those who have attained a measure (of spiritual achievement) and separates man from faith in God, Who says: "How can ye believe, which receive honor one of another?" (John 5:44). He who accepts the humility of the Apostle will rather choose to be "a fool, that he may be wise" later (I Corinthians 3:18). But if a man shows himself clever rather than spiritual, it would surprise me if he escaped the judgment reserved for boastfulness.

-- The Lord has taught us how to acquire wise humility, saying: "Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Matthew 11:29). If you too want to find perfect rest, understand what the Lord has endured and suffer the same; and cut off your will in all things. The Lord Himself says: "For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me" (John 6:38). And perfect humility consists in enduring blame and abuse and other things which our Teacher, Christ Jesus, has suffered. The same is also a sign that a man has touched perfect prayer -- namely the fact that he is no longer troubled even if the whole world were to abuse him.

-- The approach to perfect prayer is when a man is freed from dispersion of thoughts and sees his mind, enlightened in the Lord, filled with joy. A man has attained perfection in prayer if he makes himself dead to the world with its ease. But when a man does his work diligently for the sake of God, it is not a distraction but a thoroughness, which pleases God.

-- The Lord wishes you to regard every man as superior to yourself. Show obedience to your staretz in all things and do all that he tells you, whether it refers to food or drink or some other matter. If they slander you, rejoice -- it is most useful. If they insult you, endure it, for "he that endureth to the end shall be saved" (Matthew 10:22). Give thanks to God for all things, because thanksgiving is intercession before God for our weakness. Judge yourself always and in everything as a sinner and as one seduced -- and so God will not judge you; be humble in everything and you will receive grace.

-- Let us have recourse to humility on all occasions; for the humble lie prone on the ground, and how can a man fall if he lies on the ground? But a man who stands on a height can easily fall. If we have been converted and have mended our ways, it did not come from ourselves but was a gift of God, for "The Lord openeth the eyes of the blind; the Lord raiseth them that are bowed down" (Psalms 146:8).

-- He who wants to be a monk must in no way have any will of his own. Christ our Lord taught us this when He said: "I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will" (John 6:38). But if you obey in one thing and refuse to obey in another, you will show by this that you are wiser than him who directs you, and this is the same as being mocked by the demons. So you must obey in everything, even if it should seem to you that what is ordained is not without sin. The Abba who ordains you to do it will bear your sin and will have to answer for you. If something is extremely difficult and dangerous for you, or above your strength, explain this to the Abba, and do what he decides.

-- If anyone, while keeping fast, adds something to it by his own will, or if he fasts seeking men's praise or some gain from it, such a fast is abomination in the eyes of God. And so it is in all things. Every good action, which is done not merely from love of God, but is mingled with one's own will, is unclean and unpleasing to God. The same can also be seen from the Divine law which says: "Thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woolen come upon thee" (Leviticus 19:19; Deuteronomy 22:9-11). END

Kadloubovsky, E., and Palmer, G.E.H., trans., "Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart," (London: Faber and Faber, 1983, pp. 350 - 367.

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!