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, September 5, 2012

ABBA ARSENIUS - Why Silence? Why the Desert?

Today's story is from Abba Arsenius who was born in Rome circa 360. He was well-educated, of senatorial rank, and served as a tutor to the sons of Emperor Theodosius I. At the age of 34, Arsenius sailed secretly from Rome to Alexandria and from there to Scetis where he became a monk under Abba John the Dwarf. Abba Arsenius went to the Lord in 449.

BEGIN: The brethren said, "What is the meaning of the words which one of the old men spake, saying, 'He who dwelleth with men, because of the commotion of worldly affairs is unable to see his sins; but if he dwell in the silent repose of the desert he will be able to see God in a pure manner?'"

The old man (Abba Arsenius) said, "The excellences which are cultivated in the world, and to which our Lord, speaking in the Gospel, ascribed blessing, are lovingkindness, peace-making and the other commandments which are like unto them, and it is quite possible for such virtues to be cultivated in the world by certain strenuous persons.

"But the purity of heart which seeth God, and to which our Lord ascribed blessing, saying, 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,' cannot be acquired without dwelling in the desert and solitary and silent contemplation. The monk must acquire it in the following way. First of all a man must go forth from the world, and dwell in a monastery, and after his training in a monastery and having gone into his cell, he must die through contemplation in silence, and through the other labors of his body, and through striving against the passions, and through conflict with devils.

"Then through the tranquillity of mind (which he will acquire) in silent contemplation, he will remember his sins, and when he hateth his passions, and hath petitioned for the remission of his sins, and hath suppressed his thoughts, and hath become constant in pure prayer, and hath cleansed his heart from odious thoughts, then shall he be worthy to see in his heart, even as in a polished mirror, the light of the revelation of our Lord (shining) upon it, even as the Fathers say.

"Well, then, did that holy man say to those brethren, 'Visit the sick, reconcile the men of wrath,' for he who cultivateth spiritual excellences in the world cannot, by reason of the commotion of the affairs thereof, see his sins; but if he continue in silent contemplation and prayer he shall see God." END

from E. A. Wallis Budge, "The Paradise of the Holy Fathers, vol. II," (Seattle: St. Nectarios Press, 1984), pp. 319-320