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

PHOTO - Cross and Dome at St. Paul's Monastery in Egypt


More photos can be found at www.michaelmcclellan.com

"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.

DIRECTIONS IN SPIRITUAL WORK -- PART III

-- 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!

"Directions in Spiritual Life - Part II" -- 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.

Today, we will look at several wonderful selections on fasting and controlling the appetite, an especially relevant topic now that we are in the period of Great Lent before the Feast of the Lord's Resurrection.

DIRECTIONS IN SPIRITUAL WORK -- PART II 

-- About the measure of abstinence in food and drink, the fathers say that one should partake of the one and the other in a measure somewhat less than one's actual need, that is, not to fill the stomach completely. Everyone should establish a measure for himself, whether in cooked food or in wine. Moreover the measure of abstinence is not limited to food and drink but embraces also conversations, sleep, garments and all the senses. Each of these should have its own measure of abstinence.

-- How to establish a measure of food and drink, at less than one needs? Take away about one ounce from the total quantity of bread and other foods. As regards water and wine taken together, take away less than half a cup. If you have attention in yourself and it is not hard for you to drink only once a day, it would be well to do so; if you cannot, drink twice a day, but each time less than you need. At times when thoughts are troubled and at war, even the customary quantity of food and drink should be reduced, that is, food by another ounce and all drink by a cup, so that in all food is reduced by two ounces and drink by one cup.

-- How to establish the needful measure or to find out how much a man should eat and drink? By observing himself over several days in relation to the total amount of food, that is, bread, other foods and vegetables, a man can learn by experience how much food and drink his body requires (to be satisfied without overloading it). This measure he should reduce by one ounce of food and half a cup of drink. And at times of struggle he should reduce it by another ounce and another half cup.

-- What does it mean to abstain according to one's strength? To abstain according to one's strength means precisely to use food and drink as I said, namely: to take slightly less than one needs. The same applies to sleep. But if owing to hardship and exhaustion a man somewhat increases the measure, this will not mean an infringement of the rule: "according to one's strength." You will ask: What should be the measure of sleep? The Fathers set it as half the night. As regards food, stop eating when you would like to have a little more, and in this way always take it in moderation.

-- What does it mean to take food to satisfy a whim, and what to satisfy natural requirements? To satisfy a whim means to want to take food not because the body needs it but to pander to the belly (and the palate). But if you notice that your body takes some foods more willingly than others, not for pleasure, but because it is lighter, then to take it would not be a whim. If the nature of some demands sweet food, the nature of others -- salt food and the nature of yet others -- acid food, that is not a whim. But to be particularly fond of some kind of food and to lust for it is a whim -- serving gluttony. If you wish to find out whether you are addicted to the passion of gluttony, you can find it out in the following manner. If food captures your thought (so that you cannot resist it) -- you are a glutton. If you are not possessed by it and partake freely of all kinds of food to the extent your body requires it, you are not a glutton.

Another sign of gluttony is to have a craving for food before the appointed time. This should never be allowed, unless there is some valid reason for it.

-- If the passion (of gluttony) does not trouble me beforehand but appears when I am taking food, what should I do -- leave off eating or not? If you are having a meal with someone else, do not leave off but, calling on the name of God for help, banish lust and eat a little, bearing in mind that the food will soon be transformed into stench. But when you are alone and hungry, eat bread and some other food towards which you are not drawn.

-- I want to curb my belly and reduce the amount of food -- and cannot. Even if sometimes I reduce it, I very soon return again to the old measure. It is the same with drink. Why is this so? No one is freed from this except a man who has attained to the measure of him who said: "I forget to eat my bread. By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin" (Psalms 102: 4-5). Such a man quickly succeeds in reducing his food and drink; for tears serve him as bread -- and he finally reaches a state when he is fed by the Holy Spirit. Believe me, brother -- I know a man of such stature; once or twice in the course of a week, and sometimes more often he is transported towards spiritual food, and its sweetness makes him forget physical food. When he is about to eat bread, he is like one fully satiated and has no desire for it; and, when he does eat it, reproaches himself saying: Why as I not always in that state? And so wishes to attain to still greater achievement.

-- How to reach such a state? When all man's thoughts form one whole in God, then the flesh too follows the thought of God and the joy of the Spirit comes to the heart, feeding the soul and strengthening the body, and so fortifies both. Such a man no longer weakens or grows despondent, for from then onwards Jesus becomes his Intercessor and sets him at the door of that place where "sorrow and mourning shall flee away" (Isaiah 51:11). And so the word of the Scriptures becomes fulfilled in him: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:21). And what brings a man to such a state is humility.

-- How to distinguish a natural infirmity of the flesh (brought about by abstinence) from one simulated by the demons, and how much food should one eat? About infirmity I should say: if receiving daily food (with the habitual measure of abstinence) the body grows weak -- it is from the demons. In the opposite case (if the measure of abstinence is increased) -- the infirmity is natural. The usual measure of abstinence is to get up from the meal slightly hungry, as the fathers laid down for beginners. Later when a man becomes firmly established in this and in a still greater measure of abstinence, experience will have taught him to know clearly how much he should eat.

-- "Pray for me; I am sorely tired." Those who completely die to the world come to the measure of stature through patience and trials, O beloved brother! The Lord has suffered on the cross. Should you not rejoice in sufferings, the endurance of which leads you to the kingdom of heaven? That you suffer is a good sign. Do you not know what sufferings and temptations become multiplied when the Lord prepares His mercy? And, generally, do not seek bodily ease if the Lord does not grant it to you, for bodily ease if abomination in His eyes. And the Lord has said: "In the world ye shall have tribulation" (John 16:33).

-- How to allot oneself daily food? If you allot yourself daily food in the cell, it will lead you to cares and struggles. Be content with what God provides. "He that walketh uprightly walketh surely" (Proverbs 10:9). 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 - 355.

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!

"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.

DIRECTIONS IN SPIRITUAL WORK

-- 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!