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, December 23, 2012

ABBA AMMONAS - Obey Not Your Own Will, But God's

In this issue, we will conclude our reading of some of the letters of Abba Ammonas. This collection of letters is a small spiritual treasury of the great desert father's teachings that have been preserved for over 16 centuries. One of our readers kindly supplied some additional information about Abba Ammonas which you may find of interest. Abba Ammonas is mentioned in two works, the "Sayings of the Desert Fathers" and Rufinus's collection on the history of monasticism. From these works we may deduct that Ammonas lived in Scetis, he needed fourteen years to overcome his anger, and he found St. Anthony the Great who predicted his advancement. Furthermore these books also show that Ammonas followed Anthony and succeeded him as hegoumenos (abbot), that he killed a basilisk, and that also on the ferry he continued to work. It appears that he was made a bishop who ruled laymen and monks with the same goodness. Further he maintained a relationship with Abba Poemen.

We know 14 letters he wrote which speak "a fresh unbiased mysticism". He taught that the spirit of contemplation must be the target of the monk, and that he reaches it if he is persevering, believing, and through tears asks for that charisma.

In today's letter from Abba Ammonas, the great teacher discusses the problem following one's own will instead of submitting to God's Will:



Now my brethren, my beloved in the Lord, whom I love with my whole heart, I hear that temptation is troubling you, and I am afraid it may come from yourselves. For I have heard that you want to leave your place, and I was grieved to hear it, though it is a long time since I have been seized by grief. For I know of a surety that if you go away from your place now, you will make no progress at all. For it is not the will of God, and if you go out acting on your own authority, God will not work together with you nor go out with you, and I fear we shall fall into a multitude of evils.


If we follow our own will, God no longer sends His power which prospers and establishes all the ways of men. For if a man does something, imagining that it comes from God, when really his own will is involved in it, then God does not help him and you will find his heart embittered and feeble in everything in which he sets his hand. It is on the pretext of better progress that the believer can go wrong and end up being mocked. For Eve was deceived on no other pretext than that of good and progress. For when she heard, "You shall be as gods" (Genesis 3:5), by failing to discriminate the voice of the speaker, she disobeyed the commandment of God, and thus not only came by no good, but under the curse.


Solomon says in the Proverbs, "There are many ways which appear good unto men: but the end thereof leads to the pit of hell" (Proverbs 14:12). He says this of those who do not understand the will of God, but follow their own will. For such people, not knowing the will of God, at first receive from Satan a fervor which is like joy, but is not joy; and afterwards it turns to gloom and lays them open. But he who follows the will of God endures great labor in the beginning, but afterwards finds rest and gladness. Do nothing therefore on your own, until I have come to talk to you.


There are three motivations which accompany a man everywhere, and most monks are ignorant of them, excepting only those who have become perfect, of whom Scripture says, "Solid food is for the perfect, who by reason of their conscience have their senses exercised to discern good and evil" (Hebrews 5:14). What then are these three? One is introduced by the enemy, another is begotten by the heart, while the third is sown by God in a man. Of these three, God only accepts that which is His own.

Examine yourselves, therefore, which of these three is impelling you to leave your place. Do not go away until God permits you. I am aware what is God's will for you; but it is difficult for you to recognize the will of God. Unless a man denies himself and his own will, and obeys his spiritual parents, he will not be able to recognize God's will; and even if he does recognize it, he needs God's help in giving him strength to carry it out.


So you see it is a great matter to recognize the will of God, and an even greater one to do it. But Jacob had these powers, because he obeyed his parents. For when they told him to go to Mesopotamia, to Laban (Genesis 28:2), he obeyed readily, even though he did not want to be separated from his parents. It was because he obeyed that he inherited the blessing. And if I, who am your spiritual father, had not formerly obeyed my spiritual parents, God would not have revealed His will to me. For it is written: "The blessing of a father establishes the houses of children" (Ecclesiastes 3:9). And if I endured great labor in the desert and the mountains, asking God day and night until God revealed His will to me, do you too now listen to your father in this, so that it may be for your rest and progress.


But I have heard that you have been saying, "Our father does not know our labor, and how Jacob fled from Esau." But we know he did not run away of himself, but was sent away by his parents. Do you therefore imitate Jacob, and remain until your father sends you away, that he may bless you when you go, and then God will prosper your affairs.

Farewell in the Lord. Amen. END

from Derwas J. Chitty (trans), "The Letters of Ammonas," (Oxford: SLG Press, Convent of the Incarnation, 1979), pp. 14 - 16