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)

Friday, February 24, 2012

ABBA OR - His Life and Miracles

Welcome to Inner Light's "Thought of the Week" for February 26, 2012!  We have been off-line for sometime, but I will try to publish regularly every Sunday again, so follow us and you'll be sure to get each thought as it comes out.

Today we will look at the life and miracles of Abba Or who was one of the early monks in Nitria (near present-day Alexandria, Egypt).  He died about 390.

BEGIN: Then we went to see another wonderful man in the Thebaid called Abba Or.  He was the father of the hermitages of a thousand brothers.  He looked just like an angel.  He was about ninety years old and had a snowy white beard down to his chest.  And his face was so radiant that the sight of him alone filled one with awe.

Earlier he had spent much time practising the ascetic life as a solitary in the further desert.  Afterwards he organized the hermitages in the nearer desert, and planted a marsh with his own hands - there had been shrubs there originally - so that there should be a plentiful supply of wood in the desert.

The fathers who lived near him said to us concerning him: "There was not a single green shoot here before the father came out of the desert."  He planted this grove so that the brothers who gathered round him should not be forced by some want or other to wander hither and thither.  On the contrary, he made provision for all their needs, praying to God and striving for their salvation, that they should not lack any necessity or have any excuse for indolence.

When the father first came to live in the desert he ate herbs and certain sweet roots.  He drank water whenever he found it, and spent all his time praying and singing hymns.  When he had entered fully into old age, an angel appeared to him in the desert in a dream, and said, "You will be a great nation, (cf. Genesis 46:3) and a numerous people will be entrusted to you.  Those who will be saved through you will be ten myriads.  For however many people you win in this world, that is the number you will lead in the age to come.  Do not hesitate at all," the angel told him.  "Provided you call upon God, you will never lack anything you need to the end of your life."

On hearing this, he hastened to the nearer desert, where he lived first as a solitary.  He built himself a small hut, and contented himself simply with pickled vegetables, frequently eating only once a week.  He was originally illiterate, but when he came out of the desert to the inhabited region, a special charism was given to him by God and he was able to recite the Scriptures by heart.  Indeed, when a book was given to him by the brothers, he was able to read it because he was familiar with the Scriptures.

He also received another charism, the ability to drive out demons so that many sufferers came to him even against their will, proclaiming publicly his ascetic virtues.  And he continued to perform other kinds of cures without ceasing so that monks flocked to him from all sides, gathering round him in their thousands.

When the father saw us, he was filled with joy, and embraced us, and offered a prayer for us.  Then, after washing our feet with his own hands, he turned to spiritual teaching.  For he was very well versed in the Scriptures having received this charism from God.  He expounded many key passages in the Scriptures for us, and having taught us the orthodox faith, invited us to participate in the Eucharist.  For it is a custom among the great ascetics not to give food to the flesh before providing spiritual nourishment for the soul, that is, the Communion of Christ.

When he had communicated and given thanks to God, he invited us to a meal.  He sat down with us and while we ate touched on a number of excellent topics.  He said to us, "I know a man in the desert who did not taste any earthly food for three years; every three days an angel used to bring him heavenly food and put it in his mouth.  For him this took the place of food and drink.  And I know with regard to this same man that the demons appeared to him in a vision and showed him hosts of angels and a chariot of fire and a great escort of guards, as if an emperor was making a visit.  And the 'emperor' said, 'You have succeeded in attaining every virtue, my good man; prostrate yourself before me and I shall take you up like Elijah.'  The monk said to himself, 'Every day I bow before my King and Saviour, and if this were he, he would not have asked this of me.'  No sooner had he expressed what was in his mind with the words, 'I have Christ as my King, whom I adore without ceasing; you are not my king,' than the demon disappeared."  He told these things as if speaking about someone else because he wished to conceal his own manner of life.  But the fathers who lived with him said that he was the one who had seen this vision.

This man, at any rate, was so renowned among many of the other fathers that when a large number of monks came to him, he called together everybody who lived near him and built cells for them in a single day, one delivering mortar, another bricks, another drawing water, and another cutting wood.  And when the cells had been completed, he himself saw to the needs of the newcomers.

Once when a false brother (i.e., a man who adopts monasticism for the wrong reasons) came to him who had hidden his clothes, he reproved him in public and produced the clothes for all to see.  No one, as a result, dared to lie to him any longer; such was the powerful charism which he came to possess through the number and quality of his virtues.  In the church one could see the vast number of monks who lived with him, robed in white like choirs of the just and praising God with ceaseless hymnody.  END

Selected Teachings of Abba Or:

BEGIN: They said of Abba Or that he never lied, nor swore, nor hurt anyone, nor spoke without necessity.

Abba Or said to his disciple Paul, "Be careful never to let an irrelevant word come into this cell."

Abba Sisoes asked Abba Or, "Give me a word," and he said to him, "Do you trust me?"  He replied that he did.  Then he said to him, "Go, and what you have seen me do, do also."  Abba Sisoes said to him, "Father, what have I seen you do?"  The old man said, "In my own opinion, I put myself below all men."

Abba Or said, "The crown of the monk is humility."

He also said, "He who is honoured and praised beyond his merits, will suffer much condemnation, but he who is held as of no account among men will receive glory in heaven."

He gave this counsel, "Whenever you want to subdue your high and proud thoughts, examine your conscience carefully: Have you kept all the commandments?  Have you loved your enemies and been kind to them in their misfortunes?  Have you counted yourself to be an unprofitable servant and the worst of all sinners?  If you find you have done all this, do not therefore think well of yourself as if you had done everything well but realize that even the thought of such things is totally destructive."

He used to say this, "Do not speak in your heart against your brother like this: 'I am a man of more sober and austere life than he is,' but put yourself in subjection to the grace of Christ, in the spirit of poverty and genuine charity, or you will be overcome by the spirit of vainglory and lose all you have gained.  For it is written in the Scriptures: 'Let him who stands take heed lest he fall.' (I Corinthians 10:12)  Let your salvation be founded in the Lord."

He also said, "If you have spoken evil of your brother, and you are stricken with remorse, go and kneel down before him and say: 'I have spoken badly of you; let this be my surety that I will not spread this slander any further.'  For detraction is death to the soul."

Abba Or's life is taken from "The Lives of the Desert Fathers," trans. by Normal Russell, (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1981), pp. 63-64.

Abba Or's teachings are taken from "The Desert Christian," by Sr. Benedicta Ward, (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1975), pp. 247-248.

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!