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)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

ST. JOHN CASSIAN and ABBA MOSES -The Ascetic Life Part II

Today we will continue with our reading from St. John Cassian's "Conferences."  As you will remember from last week, St. John Cassian and his travelling companion, the monk Germanus, were visiting Abba Moses in Scetis.  The subject of their conversation?  The goal of the ascetic life.  Let’s listen in as Abba Moses continues his explanation:

BEGIN: “To cling always to God and to the things of God, this must be our major effort, this must be the road that the heart follows unswervingly.  Any diversion, however impressive, must be regarded as secondary, low-grade, and certainly dangerous.  Martha and Mary provide a most beautiful scriptural paradigm of this outlook and of this mode of activity.  In looking after the Lord and His disciples Martha did a very holy service.  Mary, however, was intent on the spiritual teaching of Jesus and she stayed by His feet, which she kissed and anointed with the oil of her good faith.  And she got more credit from the Lord because she had chosen the better part, one which could not be taken away from her.  For while Martha was working hard, responsibly and fully intent on her job, she realized that she could not do all the work herself and she demanded the help of her sister from the Lord.  ‘Does it not bother you that my sister leaves me to do the work alone?’ she said.  ‘Tell her to come and help me’ (Luke 10:40).  Certainly she summons Mary to a task that is not inconsequential but is a praiseworthy service.  Yet what does she hear from the Lord?  ‘Martha, Martha, you are full of worry and are upset over many things where actually it should be over a few or even one thing.  Mary has chosen the good part and it will not be taken away from her’ (Luke 10:41-42).

“You will note that the Lord establishes as the prime good contemplation, that is the gaze turned in the direction of the things of God.  Hence we say that the other virtues, however useful and good we may say they are, must nevertheless be put on a secondary level, since they are all practiced for the sake of this one.  ‘You are full of worry and are upset over many things when actually it should be over a few or even one.’  In saying this the Lord locates the primary good not in activity, however praiseworthy, however abundantly fruitful, but in the truly simple and unified contemplation of Himself.  He says that not much is needed for perfect blessedness.  He means here that type of contemplation which is primarily concerned with the example of a few saints.  Contemplating these, someone still on the upward road comes at last to that which is unique, namely the sight of God Himself, which comes with God’s help.  Having passed beyond the activities and the ministry of holy men he will live solely on the beauty and the knowledge of God.  ‘Mary therefore chose the good part and it will not be taken away from her.’  But one must look carefully at this.  In saying ‘Mary chose the good part,’ He was saying nothing about Martha and in no way was He giving the appearance of criticizing her.  Still, by praising the one He was saying that the other one was a step below her.  Again, by saying ‘it will not be taken away from her’ He was showing that Martha’s role could be taken away from her, since the service of the body can only last as long as the human being is there, whereas the zeal of Mary can never end.”

We were deeply stirred by this.  “So then,” we said, “the toil of fasting, the constant scriptural reading, the works of mercy, justice, piety, and humanity will be taken away from us and will not remain as we remain?  And this when the Lord Himself promised the reward of heaven to the people who do these things?  ‘Come you blessed of my Father,’ He said, ‘Take possession of the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world.  I was hungry and you gave me to eat.  I was thirsty and you gave me to drink’ (Matthew 25:34-35).  And all the rest.  These things which bring the people who do them into the kingdom of heaven, how can they be taken away?”

Moses: “I did not say that the reward of a good deed must be taken away, for the same Lord said, ‘Whoever will give even a glass of cold water to one of these little ones because he is one of my disciples, Amen I tell you, he will not lose his reward’ (Matthew 10:42).  But what I do say is that an activity which takes place as a result of the needs of the body, the onslaught of the flesh, or the inequality of this world must come to an end.  The dedication to scriptural reading or the infliction of fasts only serve the useful purpose of purifying the heart and punishing the flesh in this present life as long as it is the case that ëthe flesh indulgent itself against the spirit’ (Galatians 5:17).  These activities are sometimes lifted from those who, wearied out by too much hard work, by sickness or by old age, are unable to practice them continuously.  All the more reason, therefore, for these to cease in the next life when “this corruption” will take on “incorruptibility” (I Corinthians 15:53), when this body which is now animal will rise as “spirit” (I Corinthians 15:44), when flesh will no longer indulge in conflict with the spirit.  The blessed apostle spoke clearly about all this when he said that “the exercising of the body has a limited value, whereas piety” and no doubt he means love, “is useful for everything, holding as it does the promise of life both now and in the future” (I Timothy 4:8). What is said here about limited value is clearly right, since this is something which cannot be done for all time nor can it by itself bring us to the summit of perfection.  The notion of limit can also indicate either the brevity of time, for bodily exercise is not something to last throughout the present and the future life, or else it refers to the minimal value of such exercise.  The demands made on the body are actually only the beginning of the road to progress.  They do not induce that perfect love which has within it the promise of life now and in the future.  And so we consider the practice of such works to be necessary only because without them it is not possible to reach the high peaks of love.

“As for those works of piety and charity of which you speak, these are necessary in this present life for as long as inequality prevails.  Their workings here would not be required where it not for the superabundant numbers of the poor, the needy, and the sick. These are there because of the iniquity of men who have held for their own private use what the common Creator has made available to all.  As long as this inequity rages in the world, these good works will be necessary and valuable to anyone practicing them and they shall yield the reward of an everlasting inheritance to the man of good heart and concerned will.

“But all of this will cease in the time to come when equality shall reign, when there shall no longer be the injustice on account of which these good works must be undertaken, when from the multiplicity of what is done here and now everyone shall pass over to the love of God and to the contemplation of things divine.  Men seized of the urge to have a knowledge of God and to be pure in mind devote all their gathered energies to this one task.  While they still live in the corruption of the flesh they give themselves to that service in which they will persevere when that corruption has been laid aside.  And already they come in sight of what the Lord and Savior held out when He said, ‘Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God’ (Matthew 5:8).”  END

from St. John Cassian’s “Conferences,” (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), pp. 42 - 45.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

ANONYMOUS DESERT FATHER - Prayer and Meditation

Today's selection is from an anonymous father of the Egyptian desert:

BEGIN: A brother asked one of the Fathers, "What shall I do? My thoughts are always turned to lust without allowing me an hour's respite, and my soul is tormented by it." He said to him, "Every time the demons suggest these thoughts to you, do not argue with them. For the activity of demons always is to suggest, and suggestions are not sins, for they cannot compel; but it rests with you to welcome them, or not to welcome them. Do you know what the Midianites did? They adorned their daughters and presented them to the Israelites. They did not compel anyone, but those who consented, sinned with them, while the others were enraged and put them to death. It is the same with thoughts."

The brother answered the old man, "What shall I do, then, for I am weak and passion overcomes me?" He said to him, "Watch your thoughts, and every time they begin to say something to you, do not answer them but rise and pray; kneel down, saying, 'Son of God, have mercy on me.'"

Then the brother said to him, "Look, Abba, I meditate, and there is no compunction in my heart because I do not understand the meaning of the words." The other said to him, "Be content to meditate. Indeed, I have learned that Abba Poemen and many other Fathers uttered the following saying, 'The magician does not understand the meaning of the words which he pronounces, but the wild animal who hears it understands, submits, and bows to it. So it is with us also; even if we do not understand the meaning of the words we are saying, when the demons hear them, they take fright and go away.'" END

from "The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers," by Benedicta Ward, (Oxford: SLG Press, 1986), pp. 16-17

Sunday, April 22, 2012

ST. JOHN CASSIAN and ABBA MOSES - The Ascetic Life Part I

Now that Orthodox Lent is finished, let us look to the road ahead and ask ourselves, “What is the point of the ascetic life?  What is the point of fasting and vigils and prayer and deprivation?  Why should the Christian endure these things?”

St. John Cassian and his travelling companion, Germanus, asked such a question in “Conferences.”  Abbot Moses in Scetis answered his questions in the following way:

BEGIN: [St. John Cassian asked] “So tell me then what is the end and the objective which inspires you to endure all these trials so gladly?”  Since he [Abbot Moses] really wanted to know our answer to this question we replied that we had taken on all this for the sake of the kingdom of God.

“A good answer insofar as it concerns your goal,” he said, “But now what should be our aim, what direction should we take which, if closely followed, will bring us to our objective?  This, above all, is something of which you ought to be aware.”

We admitted, in all honesty, that we did not know.  “As I have remarked already, every art and discipline is preceded by some objective,” he said, “The spirit points in a certain direction.  There is an unwavering purpose in the mind.  If this is not held on to with all eagerness and dedication there can be no coming to the longed-for fruits of the goal.  The farmer, as I remarked, has the goal of living peacefully in sure abundance thanks to good rich harvests, and in order to reach that end he sets himself to clearing the brambles and the useless grasses from his land.  He knows well that he will not enjoy that restful ease toward which he is striving unless somehow his work and his aspirations themselves become a sort of foretaste of what he hopes to actually enjoy one day.

“The merchant does not put aside his urge to amass goods, for it is through these that he can grow wealthy on the proceeds.  It would be useless for him to have a wish for profit if he did not follow the road heading there.

“And there are those who have a wish for the honors of this world.  They take on this job or follow that career, depending on the honor they want, and they do so in order to arrive at their wished-for plan by way of the right path along which hope leads them.

“In the same fashion the objective of our life is the kingdom of God, but we should carefully ask what we should aim for.  If we do not look very carefully into this we will wear ourselves out in useless strivings.  For those who travel without a marked road there is the toil of the journey ñ and no arrival at a destination.”

Seeing our amazement at all this, the old man resumed: ìAs we have said, the aim of our profession is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven.  But our point of reference, our objective, is a clean heart, without which it is impossible for anyone to reach our target.  If we keep to this point of reference we will proceed with all assurance, as though along a carefully drawn line.  If our minds wander a little form this we can come back to it again and keep our eye on it, using it as a standard by which to give ourselves sure guidance.  This standard will draw all our efforts toward the one point and will serve as a warning to us if our minds waver even a little from the proposed route.”

. . . “Everything we do, our every objective, must be undertaken for the sake of this purity of heart.  This is why we take on loneliness, fasting, vigils, work, nakedness.  For this we must practice the reading of the Scripture, together with all the other virtuous activities, and we do so to trap and to hold our hearts free of the harm of every dangerous passion and in order to rise step by step to the high point of love.

“It may be that some good and necessary task prevents us from achieving fully all that we set out to do.  Let us not on this account give way to sadness or anger or indignation, since it was precisely to repel these that we would have done what in fact we were compelled to omit.  What we gain from fasting does not compensate for what we lose through anger.  Our profit from scriptural reading in no way equals the damage we cause ourselves by showing contempt for a brother.  We must practice fasting, vigils, withdrawal, and the meditation of Scripture as activities which are subordinate to our main objective, purity of heart, that is to say, love, and we must never disturb this principal virtue for the sake of those others.  If this virtue remains whole and unharmed within us, nothing can injure us, not even if we are forced to omit any of these other subordinate virtues.  Nor will it be of any use to have practiced all these latter if there is missing in us that principal objective for the sake of which all else is undertaken.

“A worker takes the trouble to get hold of the instruments that he requires.  He does so not simply to have them and not use them. Nor is there any profit for him in merely possessing the instruments.  What he wants is, with their help, to produce the crafted objective for which these are the efficient means.

“In the same way, fasting, vigils, scriptural meditation, nakedness, and total deprivation do not constitute perfection but are the means to perfection.  They are not themselves the end point of a discipline, but an end is attained through them.  To practice them will therefore be useless if someone instead of regarding these as means to an end is satisfied to regard them as the highest good.  One would possess the instruments of a profession without knowing the end where the hoped-for fruit is to be found.

“And so anything which can trouble the purity and the peace of our heart must be avoided as something very dangerous, regardless of how useful and necessary it might actually seem to be.  With this for a rule we will be able to avoid the lack of concentration which comes as the mind follows highways and byways and we will be able to go with an assured sense of direction toward our longed-for goal.”  END

from St. John Cassian's “Conferences,” (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), pp. 38-40, 41-42.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

ANONYMOUS DESERT FATHER - Is Solitude Good for the Spirit?

This selection is from an anonymous father of the Egyptian desert:

BEGIN TEXT: A certain man said that there were once three men who loved labors, and they were monks. The first one chose to go about and see where there was strife, which he turned into peace; the second chose to go about and visit the sick; but the third departed to the desert that he might dwell in quietness. Finally the first man, who had chosen to still the contentions of men, was unable to make every man to be at peace with his neighbor, and his spirit was sad. He went to the man who had chosen to visit the sick; he found him in affliction because he was not able to fulfill the law which he had laid down for himself.

Then the two of them went to the monk in the desert, and seeing each other they rejoiced, and the two men related to the third the tribulations which had befallen them in the world. They entreated him to tell them how he had lived in the desert. He was silent, but after a little he said unto them, "Come, let each of us go and fill a vessel of water." After they had filled the vessel, he said unto them, "Pour out some of the water into a basin, and look down to the bottom through it," and they did so. He then said unto them, "What do you see?" And they said, "We see nothing." After the water in the basin had ceased to move, he said to them a second time, "Look into the water," and they looked, and he said unto them, "What do you see?" They said unto him, "We see our own faces distinctly."

He said unto them, "Thus is it with the man who dwelleth with men, for by reason of the disturbance caused by the affairs of the world he cannot see his sins; but if he live in the peace and quietness of the desert he is able to see God clearly." END TEXT.

from "The Paradise of the Holy Fathers," trans. by E. A. Wallis Budge, (Seattle: St. Nectarios Press, 1984)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM - The Paschal Sermon

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Today is Orthodox Easter, or “Pascha” as it is known within the Church; to all of our readers, Inner Light Productions wishes you the very best in this Paschal season.  It is our hope and prayer that the Light of our Lord will fill your heart and soul as you continue forward in your study of the Desert Fathers and Mothers and seek to apply their teachings to your life.

Our text today comes not from a Desert Father, but from St. John Chrysostom who was born in Antioch in 347.  It is the text of his Paschal Sermon which is read in every Orthodox Church during the Paschal Liturgy.  Although most Eastern Orthodox Christians are well familiar with this text, those of other Christian traditions may not be, so we want to share it with you today.  It is truly one of those “classic” texts that cannot be read enough!  The Joy of the Resurrection which St. John Chrysostom feels shines through in every word of this joyous text; we are pleased to share it with you here.

BEGIN: Christ is Risen!  He is Risen Indeed!

If any man is a devout lover of God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast.  If any man is a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of the Lord.  If any has labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense.  If any has wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward.  If any has come at the third hour, let him have no misgivings; because he will in no wise be deprived thereof.  If any has delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing.  If any has tarried even until the eleventh hour let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; He give rest to him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as to him who has wrought from the first hour.  And he shows mercy on the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he giveth, and upon the other he bestoweth gifts.  And he accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering.

Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second.  You rich and poor together, hold high festival.  You sober and you heedless, honor the day.  Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast.  The table is full-laden; feast you all sumptuously.  The calf is fatted; let no one go away hungry.  All of you, enjoy the feast of faith: receive all the riches of loving-kindness.  Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.  Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shone forth from the grave.  Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.  He who was held prisoner of it, has annihilated it.  By descending into Hell, he has made Hell captive.  He angered it when it tasted of his flesh.  And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was angered, when it encountered You in the lower regions.  It was angered for it was abolished.  It was angered, for it was mocked.  It was angered, for it was slain.  It was angered for it was overthrown.  It was angered, for it was fettered in chains.  It took a body, and met God face to face.  It took earth, and encountered Heaven.  It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.  O Death, where is your sting?  O Hell, where is your victory?

Christ is risen, and you are overthrown.  Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.  Christ is risen, and the Angels rejoice.  Christ is risen, and life reigns.  Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.  For Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.  To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages.  Amen.

Trans. by Isabel F. Hapgood, from “The Bible and the Holy Fathers for Orthodox,” ed. By Johanna Manly, (Menlo Park, California: Monastery Books, 1990), p. 11

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


This week's selection is from the life of an unknown father of the desert who lived near Thebes (present-day Luxor) in Upper Egypt. Many of the sayings of the early desert fathers are unattributed as they were often passed down orally before being committed to writing.

BEGIN: One of the old men of the Thebaid used to tell the following story: "I was the son of a pagan priest. When I was small I would sit and watch my father who often went to sacrifice to the idol. Once, going in behind him in secret, I saw Satan and all his army standing beside him; and behold one of the chief devils came to bow before him. Satan said, 'Where have you come from?' He answered, 'I was in a certain place and made much blood flow, and I have come to tell you about it.' Satan asked, 'How long did it take you to do this?' He replied, 'Thirty days.' Then Satan commanded him to be flogged, saying, 'In so long a time have you done only that?'

And behold, another demon came to bow before him. Satan asked him, 'And you, where have you come from?' The demon replied, 'I was on the sea, and I made the waves rise, and small craft foundered, and I have killed many people, and I have come to inform you of it.' He said to him, 'How long did it take you to do this?' and the demon said, 'Twenty days.' Satan commanded that he also should be flogged, saying, 'That is because in such a long time you have only done this.'

Now, a third demon came to bow before him. he asked, 'And where have you come from?' The demon replied, 'There was a marriage in a certain village, and I stirred up a riot, and I have made much blood flow, killing the4 bride and bridegroom, and I have come to inform you.' He asked him, 'How long have you taken to do this?' and he replied, 'Ten days.' Satan commanded that he also should be flogged because he had taken too long.

After this, another demon came to bow before him. He asked, 'And where have you come from?' He said, 'I was in the desert forty years fighting against a monk, and this night I made him fall into fornication.' When he heard this, Satan arose, embraced him, and put the crown he was wearing on his head and made him sit on his throne, saying, 'You have been able to do a very great deed!'

The old man said, 'Seeing this, I said to myself, "Truly it is a great contest, this contest of the monks," and with God assisting me for my salvation, I went away and became a monk.'"

from "The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers," by Benedicta Ward, (Oxford: SLG Press, 1986)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

ABBA NILUS and ABBA NISTERUS - Prayer and the Virtues

Today we will look at the teachings of Abba Nilus and Abba Nisterus.  Unfortunately, there is no biographical information on either of these Desert Fathers available, beyond the fact that they lived in the Egyptian desert.  First, a few thoughts from Abba Nilus on prayer, and then some teachings from Abba Nisterus on several of the spiritual virtues:

BEGIN:  Abba Nilus said, "Everything you do in revenge against a brother who has harmed you will come back to your mind at the time of prayer."

"Prayer is the seed of gentleness and the absence of anger."

"Prayer is a remedy against grief and depression."

"Go, sell all that belongs to you and give it to the poor and taking up the cross, deny yourself; in this way you will be able to pray without distraction."

"Whatever you have endured out of love of wisdom will bear fruit for you at the time of prayer."

"If you want to pray properly, do not let yourself be upset or you will run in vain."

"Do not be always wanting everything to turn out as you think it should, but rather as God pleases; then you will be undisturbed and thankful in your prayer."  END

Abba Nisterus on the spiritual virtues:

BEGIN: Abba Nisterus the Great was walking in the desert with a brother.  They saw a dragon and they ran away.  The brother said to him, "Were you frightened too, Father?"  The old man said to him, "I am not afraid, my child, but it is better for me to flee, so as not to have to flee from the spirit of vainglory."

A brother questioned an old man saying, "What good work should I do so that I may live?"  The old man said, "God knows what is good.  I have heard it said that one of the Fathers asked Abba Nisterus the Great, the friend of Abba Anthony, and said to him, "What good work is there that I could do?"  He said to him, "Are not all actions equal?  Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable and God was with him.  David was humble, and God was with him.  Elias loved interior peace and God was with him.  So, do whatever you see your soul desires according to God and guard your heart."

Abba Joseph said to Abba Nisterus, "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, "If you do not find peace, why do you speak?  Be silent and when a conversation takes place, it is better to listen than to speak."

A brother saw Abba Nisterus wearing two tunics and he questioned him saying, "If a poor man came to ask you for a tunic, which would you give him?"  He replied, "The better one."  And if someone else asked you for one, what would you give him?"  The old man said, "Half of the other one."  The brother said, "And if someone else asked for one, what would you give him?"  He said, "I should cut the rest, give him half, and gird myself with whatever was left."  So, the brother said, "And if someone came and asked you for that, what would you do?"  The old man said, "I would give him the rest and go and sit down somewhere, until God sent me something to cover myself with, for I would not ask anyone for anything."

Abba Nisterus said that a monk ought to ask himself every night and every morning, "What have we done that is as God will and what have we left undone of that which he does not will?"  "He must do this throughout his whole life.  This is how Abba Arsenius used to live.  Every day strive to come before God without sin.  Pray to God in his presence, for he really is present.  Do not impose rules on yourself; do not judge anyone. 

Swearing, making false oaths, lying, getting angry, insulting people, laughing, all that is alien to monks, and he who is esteemed or exalted above that which he deserves suffers great harm."

They said of Abba Nisterus when he lived at Rhaithou that for three weeks of the year he would weave baskets, making six each week."  END

From Sr. Benedicta Ward, "The Sayings of the Desert Fathers," (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1975), pp. 153-155

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

ST. SISOES - Repentance

This selection is from the life of St. Sisoes who lived in Scetis. After the death of St. Anthony, Abba Sisoes left Scetis saying that it had become too popular and went instead to St. Anthony's mountain where he settled for 72 years.

BEGIN: When Abba Sisoes was about to die, and the fathers were sitting with him, they saw that his face was shining like the sun. He said unto them, "Behold, Abba Anthony has come." After a little while he said again, "Behold, the company of prophets has come," and his face shone twice as bright. Suddenly, he became as one speaking with someone else, and the fathers sitting there asked him, "Show us with whom you are speaking, father."

Immediately, Abba Sisoes said to them, "Behold, the angels came to take me away and I asked them to leave me so that I might tarry here a little longer and repent." And the old men said unto him, "You have no need to repent, father." And Abba Sisoes said to the fathers, "I do not know in my soul if I have rightly begun to repent," and they all realized that the old man was perfect.

Then, suddenly, his face beamed like the sun and all who sat there were afraid and he said to them, "Look! Look! Behold, the Lord has come and he says, 'Bring unto me the chosen vessel which is in the desert,'" and he at once delivered up his spirit and became like lightning and the whole place was filled with a sweet fragrance. END

from "The Paradise of the Holy Fathers, vol II," translated by E. A. Wallis Budge, (Seattle, Washington: St. Nectarios Press, 1984)

Sunday, April 1, 2012

ST. PACHOMIUS - "Place" as a Factor in Salvation

Readers of our blog are scattered around the world. People come for a variety of reasons, but the most obvious reason is to learn more about the teachings of the ancient Desert Fathers and Mothers, those holy men and women who forsook earthly life for a life of hardship and struggle so they could focus their entire beings on God and seek to become one with God.  Although many of these men and women lived in monasteries, many of them did not.  From the beginning of their spiritual struggles, they were truly alone in the world with no spiritual guides; if they were lucky, they had their Bible and perhaps a couple of writings from earlier saints.  Usually they did not have even this.

In many ways, we are like those holy men and women of the Early Church.  In today’s world, people who seek the spiritual life are often alone in their quest with no spiritual guides except books or other writings they may have been blessed to collect.  We often wonder how we can find salvation where we are.  St. Pachomius addressed this issue and assures us that, indeed, one’s “place” does not determine one’s salvation.

St. Pachomius lived from 292 to 346, but his relatively brief life had a profound impact on the development of monasticism.  Although Pachomius was a contemporary of St. Anthony the Great, the two apparently never met.  A pagan boy born in the present-day Egyptian city of Esneh, he was drafted into the army to fight in a war at the age of twenty.  In a camp for conscripts near Luxor, Pachomius was visited one night by local Christians who came to the camp to give food and water to the conscripts since life in the camps was very miserable.  After a fruitful conversation with one of the visitors, Pachomius prayed to God that He would deliver him from his plight, he would dedicate his life to serving Him.  Within a few months, the war was over and Pachomius returned to Luxor where he was baptised.  It was in this region of Upper Egypt that Pachomius was to establish the idea of cenobitic monasticism, a sort of “half way point” between living in the world and being a recluse.  Over the ensuing years, thousands of men and women would embrace the monastic life in communities scattered up and down the Nile Valley.

Let us look then at the letters of Pachomius to his disciples and ponder on his teachings of the importance of “place” in the spiritual life.

BEGIN:  Become guileless and be like the guileless sheep whose wool is sheared off without their saying a word.  Do not go from one place to another saying, “I will find God here or there.”  God has said, “I fill the earth, I fill the heavens” (Jeremiah 23:24).  And again, “If you cross over water, I am with you” (Isaiah 43:2); and again, “The waves will not swallow you up” (Isaiah 43:2).  My son, be aware that God is within you, so that you may dwell in his law and commandments.  Behold, the thief was on the cross, and he entered Paradise; but behold Judas was among the Apostles and he betrayed his Lord.  Behold, Rahab was in prostitution, and she was numbered among the saints; but behold, Eve was in Paradise, and she was deceived.  Behold, Job was on the dung heap, and he was compared with his Lord; but behold, Adam was in Paradise, and he fell away from the commandment.

Behold, the angels were in heaven, and they were hurled into the abyss; but behold Elijah and Enoch who were raised into the kingdom of heaven.  “In every place, then, seek out God; at every moment seek out his strength” (Psalms 105:4). Seek Him out like Abraham, who obeyed God, who called Him “my friend.”  Seek Him out like Joseph, who did battle against impurity, so that he was made ruler over his enemies.  Seek him out like Moses, who followed his Lord, and He made him lawgiver and let him come to know His likeness.  Daniel sought Him out, and He taught him great mysteries; He saved him from the lion’s gullet.  The three saints sought Him out, and found Him in the fiery furnace.  Job took refuge with Him and He cured him of his sores.  Susanna sought Him out, and He saved her from the hands of the wicked.  Judith sought Him out, and found Him in the tent of Holofernes.  All these sought Him out and he delivered them; and he delivered others also.  END

from “Pachomian Koinonia vol III,” trans. by Fr. Armand Veilleux, a monk of Mistassini, (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, no. 47, 1982), pp. 23-24