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, July 1, 2012

ABBA PAMBO - His Life and Works

Abba Pambo, a Desert Father of the fourth century who has always been one of my personal favorites.  Normally in these weekly postings, I like to focus on a particular theme, but in today’s edition we will focus on Abba Pambo himself.  First, a bit about his life and works, and then a look at his teachings on a variety of subjects.

HIS LIFE: An Egyptian ascetic on the Nitrian mountain, Abba Pambo was a contemporary of St. Anthony the Great and himself great in monastic asceticism.  Born about A.D. 303, he was one of the first to join Amoun in Nitria.  He was illiterate until he was taught the Scriptures as a monk and ordained priest in 340.  He had two characteristics by which he was especially known; by long training, he sealed his lips, so that no unnecessary word passed them, and he never ate any bread other than that which he gained by his own labour, plaiting rushes.  He was like an angel of God and, in old age, his face shone as did the face of Moses in ancient times, so that the monks could not look on it.  He did not give a quick answer even to a simple question, without prayer and pondering in his heart.  At one time, Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, was visiting the Nitrian monks.  The monks begged Pambo to “give a word” to the Patriarch.  The silent Pambo replied, “If  my silence is of no help to him, neither will my words be.”  Abba Pambo was once traveling around Egypt with some monks.  When they came to a group of people who remained seated as the monks passed them, St. Pambo said to them: “Get up and greet the monks, and ask their blessing, for they converse unceasingly with God and their lips are holy.”  This wonderful saint had clear discernment into the destiny of the living and the dead.  He entered into rest in the Lord in the year 374.

HIS TEACHINGS: There was a monk named Pambo and they said of him that he spent three years saying to God, “Do not glorify me on earth.”  But God glorified him so that one could not gaze steadfastly at him because of the glory of his countenance.

-- Two brethren came to see Abba Pambo one day and the first asked him, “Abba, I fast for two days, then I eat two loaves; am I saving my soul, or am I going the wrong way?”  The second said, “Abba, every day I get two pence from my manual work, and I keep a little for my food and give the rest in alms; shall I be saved or shall I be lost?”  They remained a long time questioning him and still the old man gave them no reply.  After four days they had to leave and the priests comforted them saying, “Do not be troubled, brothers.  God gives the reward.  It is the old man’s custom not to speak readily till God inspires him.”  So they went to see the old man and said to him, “Abba, pray for us.”  He said to them, “Do you want to go away?”  They said, “Yes.”  Then, giving his mind to their works and writing on the ground he said, “If Pambo fasted for two days together and ate two loaves, would he become a monk that way?  No.  And if Pambo works to get two pence and gives them in alms, would he become a monk that way?  No, not that way either.”  He said to them, “The works are good, but if you guard your conscience towards your neighbor, then you will be saved.”  They were satisfied and went away joyfully.

-- Four monks of Scetis, clothed in skins, came one day to see the great Pambo.  Each one revealed the virtue of his neighbor.  The first fasted a great deal; the second was poor; the third had acquired great charity; and they said of the fourth that he had lived for twenty-two years in obedience to an old man.  Abba Pambo said to them, “I tell you, the virtue of this last one is the greatest.  Each of the others has obtained the virtue he wished to acquire; but the last one, restraining his own will, does the will of another.  Now it is of such men that the martyrs are made, if they persevere to the end.”

-- Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, of holy memory, begged Abba Pambo to come down from the desert to Alexandria.  He went down, and seeing an actress he began to weep.  Those who were present asked him the reason for his tears, and he said, “Two things make me weep: one, the loss of this woman; and the other, that I am not so concerned to please God as she is to please wicked men.”

-- Abba Pambo said, “By the grace of God, since I left the world, I have not said one word of which I repented afterwards.”

-- He also said, “The monk should wear a garment of such a kind that he could throw it out of his cell and no-one would steal it from him for three days.”

-- They said of Abba Pambo that as he was dying, at the very hour of his death, he said to the holy men who were standing near him, “Since I came to this place of the desert and built my cell and dwelt here, I do not remember having eaten bread which was not the fruit of my hands and I have not repented of a word I have said up to the present time; and yet I am going to God as one who has not yet begun to serve him.”

-- He was greater than many others in that if he was asked to interpret part of the Scriptures or a spiritual saying, he would not reply immediately, but he would say he did not know that saying.  If he was asked again, he would say no more.

-- Abba Pambo said, “If you have a heart, you can be saved.”

-- The priest of Nitria asked him how the brethren ought to live.  He replied, “With much labor, guarding their consciences towards their neighbor.”

-- They said of Abba Pambo that he was like Moses, who received the image of the glory of Adam when his face shone.  His face shone like lightning and he was like a king sitting on his throne.  It was the same with Abba Silvanus and Abba Sisoes.

-- The said of Abba Pambo that his face never smiled.  So one day, wishing to make him laugh, the demons stuck wing feathers on to a lump of wood and brought it in making an uproar and saying, “Go, go!”  When he saw them, Abba Pambo began to laugh and the demons started to say in chorus, “Ha! Ha!  Pambo has laughed!”  But in reply he said to them, “I have not laughed, but I made fun of your powerlessness, because it takes so many of you to carry a wing.”

-- Abba Theodore of Pherme asked Abba Pambo, “Give me a word.”  With much difficulty he said to him, “Theodore, go and have pity on all, for through pity, one finds freedom of speech before God.”  END

NOTE: Two other holy fathers, Paisius and Isaiah, are commemorated on the same day as Abba Pambo.  Two Egyptian brothers, their parents died leaving them with a great inheritance.  They sold everything and each took half the money.  One of them immediately gave his share to the poor and, becoming a monk, he withdrew to the asceticism of the desert so that, by endurance, fasting and prayer and the purifying of his mind from all evil thoughts, he might save his soul.  The other brother also became a monk, but did not go into the desert.  He built a small monastery near the town, and also a hospital for the sick, a refectory for those in want and a rest house for the weary.  In this way, he gave himself utterly to the service of others.  When both brothers died, a dispute arose among the monks in Egypt as to which fulfilled the Law of Christ.  Being unable to reach agreement, they went to Abba Pambo and asked him about this.  Abba Pambo replied: “They are both perfect before God; the receiver of guests is like hospitable Abram and the hermit is like Elias the prophet, who were both equally pleasing to God.”  But they were not all satisfied with this answer.  Then Abba Pambo prayed to God to reveal the truth to him.  After several days of prayer, St. Pambo said to the monks: “As God is my witness, I say to you, I have seen both brothers, Paisius and Isaiah, together in Paradise.”  And thus the dispute was settled and they were all content.  END

Abba Pamboís “Life” is from Bishop Nilolai Velimovic, “The Prologue From Ochrid,” (Birmingham: Lazarica Press, 1986), pp. 77 - 79.

Abba Pamboís “Teachings” are from Sr. Benedicta Ward, “The Desert Christian,” (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1975), pp. 195 - 198.