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)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

ABBA POEMEN - Love, Asceticism, and Salvation

Today's story is about an anonymous, holy layman who visited Abba Poemen and the brotherhood. It speaks very well to us about Christian love, asceticism, and how these relate to our salvation.

BEGIN: On one occasion, a certain excellent man, who feared God in his life and works, and who was living in the world, went to Abba Poemen. Some of the brethren, who were also with the old man, were asking him questions, wishing to hear a word from him.

Then Abba Poemen said to the man who was in the world, "Speak a word to the brethren," but he begged him saying, "Forgive me, father, but I came to learn." And the old man pressed him to speak and, as the force of his urging increased, he said, "I am a man living in the world, and I sell vegetables, and because I do not know how to speak from a book, listen ye to a parable.

"There was a certain man who had three friends, and he said to the first, 'Since I desire to see the Emperor come with me,' and the friend said unto him, 'I will come with thee half the way.' And the man said to the second friend, 'Come, go with me to the Emperor's presence,' and the friend said to him, 'I will come with thee as far as his palace, but I cannot go with thee inside.'

"And the man said the same unto his third friend, who answered and said, 'I will come with thee, and I will go inside the palace with thee, and I will even stand up before the Emperor and speak on thy behalf.'"

Then the brethren questioned him, wishing to learn from him the meaning of the riddle, and he answered and said unto them, "The first friend is abstinence, which leadeth as far as one half of the way. The second friend is purity and holiness, which lead to heaven. And the third friend is loving-kindness, which establishes a man before God and speaketh on his behalf with great boldness." END

from, E. A. Wallis Budge, "The Paradise of the Holy Fathers, vol. II," (Seattle: St. Nectarios Press, 1984), p. 102

Sunday, August 26, 2012

ST. JOHN CLIMACUS - PART II (Steps 1-6 of the Ladder of Divine Ascent)

Last week’s thought was a sermon on “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” by St. John Climacus (“St. John of the Ladder”).  This book outlines thirty steps of the ladder by which one ascends to salvation and gives practical guidance and advice to the spiritual struggler.  We will look at five of these steps each week over the next six weeks.  This is intended to give you only the briefest of overviews of this monumental work as St. John’s writings have far more detail and instructions than we can possibly reprint here.

Today we will look at the first six steps:

Step 1: On Renunciation of the World

-- God belongs to all free beings.  He is the life of all, the salvation of all ñ faithful and unfaithful, just and unjust, pious and impious, passionate and dispassionate, monks and laymen, wise and simple, healthy and sick, young and old - just as the effusion of light, the sight of the sun, and the changes of the seasons are for all alike; “for there is no respect of persons with God.”

-- Those of us who wish to go out of Egypt, and to fly from Pharaoh, certainly need some Moses as a mediator with God and from God, who, standing between action and divine vision, will raise hands of prayer for us to God, so that guided by him we may cross the sea of sin and rout the Amalek of the passions.  That is why those who have surrendered themselves to God deceive themselves if they suppose that they have no need of a director.  Those who came out of Egypt had Moses as their guide, and those who fled from Sodom had an angel.  The former are like those who are healed of the passions of the soul by the care of physicians; these are they who come out of Egypt.  The latter are like those who long to put off the uncleanness of the wretched body.  That is why they need a helper, an angel, so to speak, or rather, one equal to an angel.  For in accordance with the corruption of our wounds, we need a director who is indeed an expert and a physician.

-- Some people living carelessly in the world have asked me; “We have wives and are beset with social cares, and how can we lead the solitary life?”  I replied to them: “Do all the good you can; do not speak evil of anyone; do not steal from anyone; do not lie to anyone; do not be arrogant towards anyone; do not hate anyone; do not be absent from the divine services; be compassionate to the needy; do not offend anyone; do not wreck another man’s domestic happiness, and be content with what your own wives can give you.  If you behave in this way, you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Step 2: On Detachment

-- After our renunciation of the world, the demons suggest to us that we should envy those living in the world who are merciful and compassionate, and be sorry for ourselves as deprived of these virtues.  The aim of our foes is, by false humility, either to make us return to the world, or, if we remain monks, to plunge into despair.  It is impossible to belittle those living in the world out of conceit; and it is also possible to disparage them behind their backs in order to avoid despair and to obtain hope.

-- Let us listen to what the Lord said to the young man who had fulfilled nearly all the commandments: “One thing thou lackest; sell whatsoever thou hast and give to the poor and become a beggar who receives alms from others.”

-- Having resolved to run our race with ardor and fervor, let us consider carefully how the Lord gave judgment concerning all living in the world, speaking of even those who are alive as dead, when He said to someone: Leave those in the world who are dead to bury the dead in body.  His wealth did not in the least prevent the young man from being baptized.  And so it is in vain that some say that the Lord commanded him to sell what he had for the sake of baptism.  This is more than sufficient to give us the most firm assurance of the surpassing glory of our vow.

Step 3: On Exile or Pilgrimage

-- Exile means that we leave forever everything in our own country that prevents us from reaching the goal of piety.  Exile means modest manners, wisdom which remains unknown, prudence not recognized as such by most, a hidden life, an invisible intention, unseen meditation, desire for humiliation, longing for hardship, constant determination to love God, abundance of love, renunciation of vainglory, depth of silence.

-- Those who have come to love the Lord are at first unceasingly and greatly disturbed by this thought, as if burning with divine fire.  I speak of separation from their own, undertaken by the lovers of perfection so that they may live a life of hardship and simplicity.  But great and praiseworthy as this is, yet it requires great discretion; for not every kind of exile, carried to extremes, is good.

-- Run from places of sin as from the plague.  For when fruit is not present, we have no frequent desire to eat it.

-- Demons often transform themselves into angels of light and take the form of martyrs, and make it appear to us during sleep that we are in communication with them.  Then, when we wake up, they plunge us into unholy joy and conceit.  But you can detect their deceit by this very fact.  For angels reveal torments, judgments and separations; and when we wake up we find that we are trembling and sad.  As soon as we begin to believe the demons in dreams, then they make sport of us when we are awake too.  He who believes in dreams is completely inexperienced.  But he who distrusts all dreams is a wise man.  Only believe dreams that warn you of torments and judgments.  But if despair afflicts you, then such dreams area also from demons.

Step 4: On Blessed and Ever-Memorable Obedience

-- Obedience is absolute renunciation of our own life, clearly expressed in our bodily actions.  Or, conversely, obedience is the mortification of the limbs while the mind remains alive.  Obedience is unquestioning movement, voluntary death, a life free of curiosity, carefree danger, unprepared defense before God, fearlessness of death, a safe voyage, a sleeper’s progress.  Obedience is the tomb of the will and the resurrection of humility.  A corpse does not argue or reason as to what is good or what seems to be bad.  For he who has devoutly put the soul of the novice to death will answer for everything.  Obedience is an abandonment of discernment in a wealth of discernment.

-- The beginning of the mortification both of the soul’s desire and of the bodily members is much hard work.  The middle is sometimes laborious and sometimes not laborious.  But the end is insensibility and insusceptibility to toil and pain.  Only when he sees himself doing his own will does this blessed living corpse feel sorry and sick at heart; and he fears the responsibility of using his own judgment.

-- Blessed is he who, though maligned and disparaged every day for the Lord’s sake, constrains himself to be patient.  He will join the chorus of the martyrs, and boldly converse with the angels.  Blessed is the monk who regards himself as hourly deserving every dishonor and disparagement.  Blessed is he who mortifies his will to the end, and leaves the care of himself to his director in the Lord; for he will be placed at the right hand of the Crucified.  He who will not accept a reproof, just or unjust, renounces his own salvation.  But he who accepts it with an effort, or even without an effort, will soon receive the remission of his sins.

Step 5: On Painstaking and True Repentance Which
Constitute the Life of the Holy Convicts

-- Repentance is the renewal of baptism.  Repentance is a contract with God for a second life.  A penitent is a buyer of humility. Repentance is constant distrust of bodily comfort.  Repentance is self-condemning reflection, and carefree self-care.  Repentance is the daughter of hope and the renunciation of despair.  A penitent is an undisgraced convict.  Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the practice of good deeds contrary to the sins.  Repentance is purification of conscience.  Repentance is the voluntary endurance of all afflictions.  A penitent is the inflicter of his own punishments.  Repentance is a mighty persecution of the stomach, and a striking of the soul into vigorous awareness.

-- Nothing equals or excels God’s mercies.  Therefore, he who despairs is committing suicide.  A sign of true repentance is the acknowledgement that we deserve all the afflictions, visible and invisible, that come upon us, and even greater ones.  Moses, after seeing God in the bush, returned again to Egypt, that is, to the darkness and to the brick-making of Pharaoh, who was symbolical of the spiritual Pharaoh.  But he went back again to the bush, and not only to the bush, but also up to the mountain.  Whoever has known divine vision will never despair of himself.  Job became a beggar, but he became twice as rich again.

Step 6: On Remembrance of Death

-- Every word is preceded by thought.  And the remembrance of death and sins precedes weeping and mourning.

-- Not every desire for death is good.  Some, constantly sinning from force of habit, pray for death with humility.  And some, who do not want to repent, invoke death out of despair.  And some, out of self-esteem consider themselves dispassionate, and for a while have no fear of death.  And some (if such can now be found), through the action of the Holy Spirit, ask for their departure.

-- Some inquire and wonder: “Why, when the remembrance of death is so beneficial to us, has God hidden from us the knowledge of the hour of death?” - not knowing that in this way God wonderfully accomplishes our salvation.  For no one who foreknew his death would at once proceed to baptism or the monastic life; but everyone would spend all his days in iniquities, and only on the day of his death, would he approach baptism and repentance.  From long habit, he would become confirmed in vice, and would remain utterly incorrigible.

-- And I cannot be silent about the story of Hesychius the Horebite.  He passed his life in complete negligence, without paying the least attention to his soul.  Then he became extremely ill, and for an hour he expired.  And when he came to himself, he begged us all to leave him immediately.  And he built up the door of his cell, and he stayed in it for twelve years without ever uttering a word to anyone, and without eating anything but bread and water.  And, always remaining motionless, he was so rapt in spirit at what he had seen in his ecstasy, that he never changed this manner of life but was always as if out of his mind, and silently shed hot tears.  But when he was about to die, we broke open the door and went in, and after many questions, this alone was all we heard from him: “Forgive me!  No one who has acquired the remembrance of death will ever be able to sin.”  We were amazed to see that one who had before been so negligent was so suddenly transfigured by this blessed change and transformation.  We reverently buried him in the cemetery near the fort, and after some days we looked for his holy relics, but did not find them.  So by Hesychiusís true and praiseworthy repentance, the Lord showed us that He accepts those who desire to amend, even after long negligence.  END

from St. John Climacus, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), pp. 3 - 70.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

ABBA MOSES - Why Fast? Why Be An Ascetic?

Today's stories are from the life of Abba Moses, a freed slave who lived as a robber in Nitria, becoming a monk late in life. He was martyred with seven others by barbarian invaders.

BEGIN: The old man was asked, "What is the good of the fasts and watchings which a man imposes on himself?" and he replied, "They make the soul humble. For it is written, "Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins" (Psalm 25:18). So if the soul gives itself all this hardship, God will have mercy on it."

The old man was (also) asked, "What should a man do in all the temptations and evil thoughts that come upon him?" The old man said to him, "He should weep and implore the goodness of God to come to his aid, and he will obtain peace if he prays with discernment. For it is written, "With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can man do to me?" (Psalm 118:6). END

from "The Desert Christian," by Sr. Benedicta Ward, (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1975), p. 142

Sunday, August 19, 2012

ST. JOHN CLIMACUS - PART I (His Life and the Importance of Fasting)

Today we are beginning a new study of one of the most famous Desert Fathers of Egypt, St. John Climacus, also known as “St. John of the Ladder.”  This will be a seven-part series that will run every Sunday.  St. John was a monk on Mount Sinai at the Monastery of St. Catherine.  If you have time, you can visit our other website, and go to the “Egypt” gallery, where you will see a number of images there of this monastery, which, by the way, is the oldest continuously-inhabited Christian monastery in the world.

Our reading today is a sermon from the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan, Philaret, delivered on the feast day of St. John of the Ladder.  It gives us a nice overview of St. John’s teaching and his importance to every Christian seeking to live the Christian life according to the teachings of the Orthodox Church.

BEGIN: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

More than once, brethren, the fact has been mentioned that on each Sunday in the Great Fast (i.e., Lent) there are other commemorations besides that of the Resurrection.  Thus, on this day, the Church glorifies the righteous John of the Ladder, one of the greatest ascetics, which the Church, in speaking of them, calls “earthly angels and Heavenly men.”

These great ascetics were extraordinary people.  They commanded the elements; wild beasts willingly and readily obeyed them.  For them, there were no maladies they could not cure.  They walked on the waters as on dry land; all the elements of the world were subject to them, because they lived in God and had the power of grace to overcome the laws of terrestrial nature.  One such ascetic was St. John of the Ladder.

He was surnamed “of the Ladder” (Climacus) because he wrote an immortal work, the “Ladder of Divine Ascent.”  In this work, we see how, by means of thirty steps, the Christian gradually ascends from below to the heights of supreme spiritual perfection.  We see how one virtue leads to another, as a man rises higher and higher and finally attains to that height where there abides the crown of the virtues, which is called “Christian love.”

Saint John wrote his immortal work especially for the monastics, but in the past his “Ladder” was always favorite reading in Russia for anyone zealous to live piously, though he were not a monk.  Therein the Saint clearly demonstrates how a man passes from one step to the next.

Remember, Christian soul, that this ascent on high is indispensable for anyone who wishes to save his soul unto eternity.

When we throw a stone up, it ascends until the moment when the propelling force ceases to be effectual.  So long as this force acts, the stone travels higher and higher in its ascent, overcoming the force of the earth’s gravity.  But when this force is spent and ceases to act, then, as you know, the stone does not remain suspended in the air.  Immediately, it begins to fall, and the further it falls the greater the speed of its fall.  This, solely according to the physical laws of terrestrial gravity.

So it is also in the spiritual life.  As a Christian gradually ascends, the force of spiritual and ascetical labors lifts him on high.  Our Lord Jesus Christ said: “Strive to enter in through the narrow gate.”  That is, the Christian ought to be an ascetic.  Not only the monastic, but every Christian.  He must take pains for his soul and his life.  He must direct his life on the Christian path, and purge his soul of all filth and impurity.

Now, if the Christian, who is ascending upon this ladder of spiritual perfection by his struggles and ascetic labors, ceases from this work and ascetic toil, his soul will not remain in its former condition; but, like the stone, it will fall to the earth.  More and more quickly will it drop until, finally, if the man does not come to his senses, it will cast him down into the very abyss of Hell.

It is necessary to remember this.  People forget that the path of Christianity is indeed an ascetical labor.  Last Sunday, we heard how the Lord said: “He that would come after Me, let him take up his cross, deny himself, and follow Me.”  The Lord said this with the greatest emphasis.  Therefore, the Christian must be one who takes up his cross, and his life, likewise, must be an ascetic labour of bearing that cross.  Whatever the outward circumstance of his life, be he monk or layman, it is of no consequence.  In either case, if he does not force himself to mount upwards, then, of a certainty, he will fall lower and lower.

And in this regard, alas, people have confused thoughts.  For example, a clergyman drops by a home during a fast.  Cordially and thoughtfully, they offer him fast food (i.e., food prepared according to the rules of the Fast), and say: “For you, fast food, of course!”  To this, one of our hierarchs customarily replies: “Yes, I am Orthodox.  But who gave you permission not to keep the fasts?”  All the fasts of the Church, all the ordinances, are mandatory for every Orthodox person.  Speaking of monastics, such ascetics as St. John of the Ladder and those like him fasted much more rigorously than the Church prescribes; but this was a matter of their spiritual ardor, an instance of their personal ascetic labor.  This the Church does not require of everyone, because it is not in accord with everyone’s strength.  But the Church DOES require of every Orthodox the keeping of those fasts which She has established.

Oftentimes have I quoted the words of Saint Seraphim, and once again shall I mention them.  Once there came to him a mother who was concerned about how she might arrange the best possible marriage for her young daughter.  When she came to Saint Seraphim for advice, he said to her: “Before all else, ensure that he, whom your daughter chooses as her companion for life, keeps the fasts.  If he does not, then he is not a Christian, whatever he may consider himself to be.”  You see how the greatest saint of the Russian Church, Saint Seraphim of Sarov, a man who, better than we, knew what Orthodoxy is, spoke concerning the fasts?

Let us remember this.  Saint John Climacus has described the ladder of spiritual ascent: then let us not forget that each Christian must ascend thereon.  The great ascetics ascended like swiftly-flying eagles; we scarcely ascend at all.  Nonetheless, let us not forget that, unless we employ our efforts in correcting ourselves and our lives, we shall cease our ascent, and, most assuredly, we shall begin to fall.  Amen.  END

from St. John Climacus, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), pp. xxxi - xxxiii.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

ST. MACARIUS - Grapes and Asceticism

Today's story is from the life of St. Macarius. The lives of the ancient Desert Fathers are filled with examples of great men and women who fasted, practiced feats of asceticism, and rejected all worldly things. The following story, though, demonstrates how these practices were manifested in even small ways and how they served to teach others then -- and now -- by their example.

BEGIN: Another time he (St. Macarius) was sent some fresh grapes. He desired to eat them, but showing self-control, he sent them to a certain brother who was ill and who was himself fond of grapes. When the brother received them he was delighted, but wishing to conceal his self-mastery, he sent them to another brother, pretending that he had no appetite for any food. When the next brother received the grapes, he did the same in turn, although he too had a great desire to eat them.

When at length the grapes had been passed round a large number of the brethren without any of them deciding to eat them, the last one to receive them sent them again to Macarius, thinking that he was giving him a rich gift. Macarius recognized them and after inquiring closely into what had happened, marveled, giving thanks to the Lord for such self-control among the brethren. And in the end not even he partook of the grapes. END

from "The Lives of the Desert Fathers," trans. by Norman Russell, (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1980), p. 109

Sunday, August 12, 2012

ST ANTHONY THE GREAT - The Life of the Father of Monasticism

Today’s thought is a brief overview of the life of St. Anthony the Great.  As he is THE central figure in the development of monasticism in Egypt and the Holy Land, and a model and teacher for Desert Fathers of many generations, I think it is important for each of us to have the general outlines of his life and spiritual development in mind.  Next week, we will return to the teachings of the Desert Fathers.

BEGIN: The Life of St. Anthony the Great

St. Anthony is the founder of Christian monasticism. The chief source of information on St. Anthony is a Greek Life attributed to St. Athanasius, to be found in any edition of his works. A note of the controversy concerning this Life is given at the end of this article; here it will suffice to say that now it is received with practical unanimity by scholars as a substantially historical record, and as a probably authentic work of St. Athanasius. Valuable subsidiary information is supplied by such secondary sources as John Cassian and Palladius (ìLausiac Historyî) which are accepted as substantially authentic, whereas what is related concerning St. Anthony in St. Jerome's “Life of St. Paul the Hermit" cannot be used for historical purposes.

Anthony was born at Coma, near Heracleopolis Magna in Fayum, about the middle of the third century. He was the son of well-to-do parents, and on their death, in his twentieth year, he inherited their possessions. He had a desire to imitate the life of the Apostles and the early Christians.  One day, on hearing in the church the Gospel words, "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all thou hast", he received them as spoken to himself, disposed of all his property and goods, and devoted himself exclusively to religious exercises.

Long before this it had been usual for Christians to practice asceticism, abstain from marriage and exercise themselves in self-denial, fasting, prayer, and works of piety; but this they had done in the midst of their families, and without leaving house or home. Later on in Egypt, such ascetics lived in huts, in the outskirts of the towns and villages, and this was the common practice by about 270, when Anthony withdrew from the world.

He began his career by practicing the ascetical life in this fashion without leaving his native place. He used to visit the various ascetics, study their lives, and try to learn from each of them the virtue in which he seemed to excel. Then he took up his abode in one of the tombs, near his native village, and there it was that the Life records those strange conflicts with demons in the shape of wild beasts, who inflicted blows upon him, and sometimes left him nearly dead.

After fifteen years of this life, at the age of thirty-five, Anthony determined to withdraw from the habitations of men and retire in absolute solitude. He crossed the Nile, and on a mountain near the east bank, then called Pispir, now Der el Memum, he found an old fort into which he shut himself, and lived there for twenty years without seeing the face of man, food being thrown to him over the wall. He was at times visited by pilgrims, whom he refused to see; but gradually a number of would-be disciples established themselves in caves and in huts around the mountain. Thus a colony of ascetics was formed, who begged Anthony to come forth and be their guide in the spiritual life.

At length, about the year 305, he yielded to their request and emerged from his retreat, and, to the surprise of all, he appeared to be as when he had gone in, not emaciated, but vigorous in body and mind. For five or six years he devoted himself to the instruction and organization of the great body of monks that had grown up around him; but then he once again withdrew into the inner desert that lay between the Nile and the Red Sea, near the shore of which he fixed his abode on a mountain where still stands the monastery that bears his name, Der Mar Antonios. Here he spent the last forty-five years of his life, in seclusion, not so strict as in Pispir, for he freely saw those who came to visit him, and he used to cross the desert to Pispir with considerable frequency.

The Life says that on two occasions he went to Alexandria, once after he came forth from the fort at Pispir, to strengthen the Christian martyrs in the persecution of 311, and once at the close of his life (c. 350), to preach against the Arians. The Life says he died at the age of 105, and St. Jerome places his death in 356-357. All the chronology is based on the hypothesis that this date and the figures in the Life are correct. At his own request his grave was kept secret by the two disciples who buried him, lest his body should become an object of reverence.

Of his writings, the most authentic formulation of his teaching is without doubt that which is contained in the various sayings and discourses put into his mouth in the Life, especially the long ascetic sermons spoken on his coming forth from the fort at Pispir. It is an instruction on the duties of the spiritual life, in which the warfare with demons occupies the chief place. Though probably not an actual discourse spoken on any single occasion, it can hardly be a mere invention of the biographer, and doubtless reproduces St. Anthony's actual doctrine, brought together and coordinated. It is likely that many of the sayings attributed to him in the "Apophthegmata" really go back to him, and the same may be said of the stories told of him in Cassian and Palladius. There is a homogeneity about these records, and a certain dignity and spiritual elevation that seem to mark them with the stamp of truth, and to justify the belief that the picture they give us of St Anthony's personality, character, and teaching is essentially authentic.

The authorities are agreed that St Anthony knew no Greek and spoke only Coptic. There exists a monastic Rule that bears St Anthony's name, preserved in Latin and Arabic forms. While it cannot be received as having been actually composed by Anthony, it probably in large measure goes back to him, being for the most part made up out of the utterances attributed to him in the Life and the "Apophthegmata"; it contains, however, an elements derived from the "Pachomian Rules". It was compiled at an early date, and was in great vogue in Egypt and the East. To this day it is the rule followed by the Uniate Monks of Syria and Armenia, of whom the Maronites, with sixty monasteries and 1,100 monks, are the most important; it is followed also by the scanty remnants of Coptic monachism.

The monasticism established under St Anthony's direct influence became the norm in Northern Egypt, from Lycopolis (Asyut) to the Mediterranean. In contradistinction to the fully coenobitical system, established by Pachomius in the South, it continued to be of a semi-eremetical character, the monks living commonly in separate cells or huts, and coming together only occasionally for church services; they were left very much to their own devices, and the life they lived was not a community life according to rule, as now understood. This was the form of monastic life in the deserts of Nitria and Scete, as portrayed by Palladius and Cassian. Such groups of semi-independent hermitages were later on called Lauras, and have always existed in the East alongside the Basilian monasteries; in the West St Anthony's monachism is in some measure represented by the Carthusians. Such was St Anthony's life and character, and such his role in Christian history. He is justly recognized as the father not only of monasticism, strictly so called, but of the technical religious life in every shape and form. Few names have exercised on the human race an influence more deep and lasting, more widespread, or on the whole more beneficent.

It remains to say a word on the controversy carried on during the present generation concerning St Anthony and the Life. In 1877 Weingarten denied the Athanasian authorship and the historical character of the Life, which he pronounced to be a mere romance; he held that up to 340 there were no Christian monks, and that therefore the dates of the "real" Anthony had to be shifted nearly a century. Some imitators in England went still further and questioned, even denied, that St Anthony had ever existed. To anyone conversant with the literature of monastic Egypt, the notion that the fictitious hero of a novel could ever have come to occupy Anthony's position in monastic history can appear nothing less than a fantastic paradox. As a matter of fact these theories are abandoned on all hands; the Life is received as certainly historical in substance, and as probably by Athanasius, and the traditional account of monastic origins is reinstated in its great outlines. The episode is now chiefly of interest as a curious example of a theory that was broached and became the fashion, and then was completely abandoned, all within a single generation.

From “The Catholic Encyclopedia”

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

ABBA GELASIUS - The Value of Material Things

Today's story is from the life of Abba Gelasius who lived in Egypt in the fifth century. He was a scholar and a great abbot, two particularly important facts to bear in mind as you read the following story:

BEGIN: It was said of Abba Gelasius that he had a leather Bible worth eighteen pieces of silver. In fact it contained the whole of the Old and New Testaments. He had put it in the church so that any of the brethren who wished, could read it.

A strange brother came to see the old man and, seeing the Bible, wished to have it, and stole it as he was leaving. The old man did not run after him to take it from him, although he knew what he was doing. So the brother went to the city and tried to sell it, and finding a purchaser, he asked thirteen pieces of silver for it. The purchaser said to him, "Lend it to me, first, so that I may examine it, then I will give you a price." So he gave it to him.

Taking it, the purchaser brought it to Abba Gelasius for him to examine it and told him the price which the seller had set. The old man said to him, "Buy it, for it is beautiful and worth the price you tell me." This man, when he returned, said something quite different to the seller, and not what the old man had said to him. "I have shown it to Abba Gelasius," he said, "and he replied that it was dear, and not worth the price you said."

Hearing this, he asked, "Didn't the old man say anything else?" "No," he replied. Then the seller said, "I do not want to sell it any more." Filled with compunction, he went to find the old man, to do penance and ask him to take his book back. but he did not wish to make good his loss.

So the brother said to him, "If you do not take it back, I shall have no peace." The old man answered, "If you won't have any peace, then I will take it back." So the brother stayed there until his death, edified by the old man's way of life. END TEXT.

from "The Desert Christian," by Sr. Benedicta Ward, (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1975), p. 46

Sunday, August 5, 2012

STS. BARSANUPHIUS AND JOHN - PART V (Dreams, Demons, and Distractions)

Today we will conclude our look at the teachings of two Desert Fathers of sixth century Palestine, Sts. Barsanuphius and John.  These writings of these two holy fathers goes right to the heart of the questions each of us faces in our own individual pilgrimages. Our series of teachings from these two fathers has only scratched the surface of their wonderful writings - this little volume is truly a “must have” in everyone’s spiritual library!  Today’s questions focus on the discerning of dreams, delusion by the demons, and how to fight distractions during worship:

BEGIN: Q: Can the demons communicate anything good?  And how does one discover that it is demonic?  And what distinguishes it from something good from God?

A: To someone it might seem that he receives something good, but this is from the evil one for his deception.  For every good thing which comes from the devil for the deception of a man, being precisely examined, turns out to be unreal; for the devil is a liar, and there is no truth in him (John 8:44), as is shown by the consequences of that (false good).  His light ends in darkness, according to the Apostle’s word which speaks about diabolic heralds transformed into the servants of righteousness “whose end will be according to their deeds” (II Corinthians 11:15); and the Savior says: “From their fruit ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:16).  If you investigate with understanding and judgment, you will find in the false good (which comes) from the devil, there was not even a trace of good, but either vainglory, or disturbance, or something similar; but the good which comes from God always increases enlightenment and humility of heart and gives a man quietness.  But when, out of ignorance, we suffer in something from the deception of the evil one, and later we recognize in this a temptation, then let us call ourselves and hasten to Him Who is powerful to do away with this temptation.  One should know that to some the difference (between the good of the devil and that of God) is understandable from the very beginning; while to sinners, only at the end (of the temptation), just as a skilled master in gold work can take gold (in his hand) and tell before it is tested with fire of what sort it is, while an unskilled one does not find this out until it has been tested with fire.

-- Q: When I do something good, how should I humble my thoughts?  And how does one reproach oneself after doing something good?

A: For humility of thoughts, even though you might have performed all good deeds and kept all the commandments, remember Him Who said: “When you have done all this, say that we are unprofitable slaves, for we were obliged to do what we have done” (Luke 17:10) - and all the more when we have not even attained as yet to the fulfilling of a single commandment.  Thus one should always think and reproach oneself at every good deed and say to oneself: I do not know whether it is pleasing to God.  It is a great work to do according to God’s Will, and yet greater to fulfill the Will of God: this is the joining of all the commandments; for to do something according to God’s Will is a private matter and is less than fulfilling the Will of God.  Therefore the Apostle said: “Forgetting what is behind, and stretching forth to what is ahead” (Philemon 3:13).  And no matter how much he stretched out to what was ahead, he did not stop and always saw himself as insufficient, and he advanced; for he said: “whatever is perfect, think on this"(Philemon 3:15), that is, so as to advance.

-- Q: Tell me, Master, how can the devil dare in a vision or a fantasy during sleep to show the Master Christ or Holy Communion?

A: He cannot show the Master Christ Himself, nor Holy Communion, but he lies and presents the image of some man and simple bread; but the holy Cross he cannot show, for he does not find means of depicting it in another form.  Inasmuch as we know the true sign and image of the Cross, the devil does not dare to use it (for our deception); for on the Cross his power was destroyed, and by the Cross a fatal wound was given him.  The Master Christ we cannot recognize by the flesh, which is why the devil tries to
convince us by lying that it is He, so that having believed the deception as if it were truth, we might perish.  And thus, when you see in a dream the image of the Cross, know that this dream is true and from God; but strive to receive an interpretation of its significance from the Saints, and do not believe your own idea.  May the lord enlighten the thoughts of your mind, O brother, so that you might escape every deception of the enemy.

-- Q: A thought says to me: “If the holy Cross appears to you, you, being unworthy of this, will fall into high-mindedness.”  This thoughts brings fear and terror upon me.

A: Do not be disturbed about this, because, if the holy Cross will truly appear to you, it will abolish the pride of high-mindedness: where God is, there is no place for evil.

-- Q: I have heard that if one and the same dream appears to someone three times, one should recognize it as true; is this so, my Father?

A: No, this is wrong; such a dream also one need not believe.  He who has appeared once to anyone falsely can do this three times and more.  Watch, lest you be put to shame (by the demons), but pay heed to yourself, brother.

-- Q: If, during the time of psalm-singing, or prayer, or reading, a bad thought comes, should one pay attention to it and leave off (for a while) the psalm-singing, prayer, or reading in order to oppose it with pure thoughts?

A: Disdain it and enter more carefully into the psalm-singing, prayer, or reading, so as to gain strength from the words you pronounce.  But if we shall begin to be occupied with hostile thoughts, we will never be in a condition to do anything good, heeding what the enemy instils.  But when you see that his cunning fabrications hinder psalm-singing, prayer, or reading, even then do not enter into dispute with them, because this matter is beyond your strength; but strive to call on the Name of God, and God will help you and do away with the cunning of the enemies, for His is the power and the glory unto the ages.  Amen.  END

from “Saints Barsanuphius and John: Guidance Toward Spiritual Life,” trans. by Fr. Seraphim Rose, (Platina, California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1990), pp. 98 - 106 (selections).

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

ABBA EVAGRIUS - Remembering the Resurrection

Greetings to all of you on this highest of Orthodox Holy Days, the Glorious and Bright Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Today's message is from the writings of St. Evagrius, born about AD 345-6. He was ordained a reader by St. Basil and deacon by St. Gregory Nazianzen. He moved to Egypt in 383 and lived there as a monk in Nitria for two years. He then spent ten years as a disciple of St. Macarius and was renowned for his learning and ascetic life. St. Evagrius was well-educated and wrote about the spiritual life. He was also the center of a group supporting Origen, but died in 400 before the matter reached the crisis point in Egypt.

Today's thought concerns the Resurrection and how remembrance of that Blessed Event enriches the Christian life.

BEGIN: Abba Evagrius said, "Sit in your cell, collecting your thoughts. Remembering the day of your death. See then what the death of your body will be; let your spirit be heavy, take pains, condemn the vanity of the world, so as to be able to live always in the peace you have in view without weakening. Remember also what happens in hell and think about the state of the souls down there, their painful silence, their most bitter groanings, their fear, their strife, their waiting. Think of their grief without end and the tears their souls shed eternally.

"But keep the day of resurrection and of presentation to God in remembrance also. Imagine the fearful and terrible judgment. Consider the fate kept for sinners, their shame before the face of God and the angels and archangels and all men, that is to say, the punishments, the eternal fire, worms that rest not, the darkness, gnashing of teeth, fear and supplications. Consider also the good things in store for the righteous: confidence in the face of God the Father and His Son, the angels and archangels and all the people of the saints, the kingdom of heaven, and the gifts of that realm, joy and beatitude.

"Keep in mind the remembrance of these two realities. Weep for the judgment of sinners, afflict yourself for fear lest you too feel those pains. But rejoice and be glad at the lot of the righteous. Strive to obtain those joys but be a stranger to those pains. Whether you be inside or outside your cell, be careful that the remembrance of these things never leaves you, so that, thanks to their remembrance, you may at least flee wrong and harmful thoughts." END TEXT.

from "The Desert Christian," by Sr. Benedicta Ward, (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1975), pp. 63-64