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 29, 2012

STS. BARSANUPHIUS AND JOHN - PART IV (Choosing Between Right and Wrong)

Today we will continue our look at the teachings of two Desert Fathers of sixth century Palestine, Sts. Barsanuphius and John.  This series will continue over several issues as much of what they have to teach us goes right to the heart of the questions each of us faces in our own individual pilgrimages. Today’s questions focus on choosing between right and wrong:

BEGIN: Q: If before the soul there are two harmful things, and it is absolutely impossible to avoid one of them, what should one do?

A: Of two harmful things, one should choose the less harmful.  In the stories of the Fathers it is written: Someone came to ask of another a dinar, and the other did not give it, saying: “I have nothing to give you.”  When he was asked why he did not give it to him, he replied: “If I had given him one, it would have caused harm to his soul, and therefore I preferred to violate one commandment rather than allow something ruinous for the soul.”

-- Q: I was sent on business to the Holy City (Jerusalem), and from there I went down to pray at the Jordan, without asking permission for this from the Abba.  Did I do well or not?

A: Without being commanded, one should not go anywhere.  That which we do according to our own thoughts, even if it seems good to us, is not pleasing to God.  But in keeping the commandment of your Abba who sent you is both prayer and pleasing to God, Who said: “I came down not to do My own will, but the will of the Father Who sent Me” (John 6:38).

-- If it happens (in some case) that you do not have at hand one from whom to ask counsel, then, naming your Elder, pray thus: “God of ______ (Elder)!  Do not allow me to incline away from Thy will and the counsel of Thy slave, but instruct me how to act.”  And what God shall inform you, that do.

-- Q: My Master!  How many times should one pray so that one’s thoughts might receive assurance about this?

A: When you cannot ask the Elder, one should pray three times about every matter, and after this look to see where the heart is inclined, even though it might be fallen, and act in this way.  For (this) assurance is noticeable and in every understandable to the heart.

-- Q: How should one pray these three times - at different times, or all at the same time?  For it also happens that one cannot put off some matters.

A: If you have free time, pray three times in the course of three days; but if there is extreme need, when there is a difficulty, as at the time of the Savior’s betrayal ñ then take as your example that He went away three times for prayer and prayed pronouncing the same words three times (Matthew 26:44).  Even though, as it seemed, He was not heard, for it was absolutely essential that that dispensation should be fulfilled, still by this example He instructs us also not to become sorrowful when we pray and are not heard at that time; for He knows better than we what is profitable for us.  But in any case let us not leave off giving thanks.

-- Q: And if after prayer I do not quickly receive assurance, what should I do?  And when this happens by my own fault, but is hidden from me, how can I understand this?

A: If after the third prayer you do not receive assurance, know that you yourself are to blame for this; and if you do not recognize your transgression, reproach yourself, and God will have mercy on you.

-- Q: A thought instigates me not to ask the Saints so as to understand what is profitable, lest, having disdained this in my infirmity, I should sin.

A: This thought is very harmful; in no way listen to it.  For one who, having understood what is profitable, sins, condemns himself in every way; but he who sins without having understood what is profitable, never condemns himself, and his passions remain unhealed.  And this is why the devil instils in him (such a thought), so that his passions will remain unhealed.  But when the thought instils into you that you cannot fulfill the answer (of the Elder) out of infirmity, then ask in this way: “My Father!  I desire to do such and such; tell me what is profitable, although I know that even if you tell me I cannot fulfill and keep what is said; but I wish to learn only so as to condemn myself for having disdained what is profitable.”  This will lead you to humility.  May the Lord preserve your heart by the prayers of the Saints.  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. 94 - 96 (selections).

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

THE WAY OF THE ASCETICS - Dealing With Spiritual Depression and Anxiety


This selection is from "Way of the Ascetics," by Tito Colliander. This small, wonderful book is a superb guide to the spiritual life that can be read over and over again without ever becoming "old." Today's selection is the chapter entitled, "On Times of Darkness," those times of spiritual depression and abandonment that we all experience from time to time.

BEGIN: The weather shifts from cloudy to clear and then back to rain; thus it is with human nature. One must always expect clouds to hide the sun sometimes. Even the saints have had their dark hours, days and weeks. They say then that "God has left them" in order that they may know truly how utterly wretched they are of themselves, without His support. These times of darkness, when all seems meaningless, ridiculous and vain, when one is beset by doubt and temptations, are inevitable. But even these times can be harvested for good.

The dark days can best be conquered by following the example of St. Mary of Egypt. For forty-eight years she dwelt in the desert beyond Jordan, and when temptations befell her and memories of her former sinful life in Alexandria beckoned her to leave her voluntary sojourn in the desert, she lay on the ground, cried to God for help and did not get up until her heart was humbled. The first years were hard; she sometimes had to lie this way for many days; but after seventeen years came the time of rest.

On such days stay quiet. Do not be persuaded to go out into social life or entertainment. Do not pity yourself, seek comfort in nothing but your cry to the Lord: "Haste thee, O God, to deliver me! Makes haste to help me, O Lord (Psalm 70:1)! I am so fast in prison that I cannot get forth (Psalm 88:8)," and other such appeals. You cannot expect real help from any other source. For the sake of chance relief do not throw away all your winnings. Pull the covers over your head; now your patience and steadfastness are being tried. If you endure the trial, thank God who gave you the strength. If you do not, rise up promptly, pray for mercy and think: I got what I deserved! For the fall itself was your punishment. You had relied too much on yourself, and now you see what it led to. You have had an experience; do not forget to give thanks. END

from "Way of the Ascetics," by Tito Colliander, San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1982, pp. 84-85

Sunday, July 22, 2012

STS. BARSANUPHIUS AND JOHN - PART III (Relations with Others and the Workplace)


Today we will continue our look at the teachings of two Desert Fathers of sixth century Palestine, Sts. Barsanuphius and John.  This series will continue over several issues as much of what they have to teach us goes right to the heart of the questions each of us faces in our own individual pilgrimages. Today’s questions focus on the relations with other people and the workplace:

BEGIN: Q: When a brother asks me about some word or matter which I do not know, should I reply to him or not?  Likewise, when I am not asked, but I myself see that someone is doing something badly, should I at least once speak about this to the one who is doing badly, or not?

A: To all these questions there is a single answer: be careful not to speak out of vainglory, but speak with humility and the fear of God.  In all the cases (about which you ask), speak and remind another, if necessary - but only in your own monastery, and not in a different place; because those who live in one community are as it were one body.  But when you are in a different place, say nothing of yourself, so as not to show yourself a teacher; but when you are asked, speak with humility, and God will instruct you, O brother.

-- Q: Tell me, my Father, what it means to pay heed to one’s thoughts?  Should one be occupied with this at a definite time?  And how does one do this?

A: The Fathers have assigned a time for paying heed to one’s thoughts saying: “In the morning test yourself, how you spent the night; and in the evening likewise, how you spent the day.  And in the middle of the day, when you are weighed down by thoughts, examine yourself.”

-- Q: If I speak a sarcastic word to someone, and he doesn’t understand it, should I repent before him, or be silent and give him no thought about this?

A: If the brother does not understand that you spoke to him in sarcasm, be silent and do not disturb him; but strive to repent over this before God.

-- Q: Since you have assigned me to be in this service, in the infirmary, tell me, my Father: should I read certain medical books and teach myself to make medicines, or is it better not to be concerned about this, as something that causes the mind to wander, and abandon it (so that it will not arouse vainglory in me) and be satisfied with what I already know, doing whatever is possible with the aid of oil, flour, ointments, and in general simple remedies such as are used by those who do not read (medical books).  How should I act?  For my heart trembles in this service lest I sin in something and add to my passions yet other sins.

A:  Inasmuch as we have not yet come to perfection, so as to be entirely delivered from the captivity of passions, it is better to occupy ourselves with medicine than with passions.  But we should place our hope not in medicines but in God, Who kills and
brings to life and says: “I will strike and I will heal” (Deuteronomy 32:39).  While reading medical books or asking someone about them, do not forget that without God no one receives healing.  And thus, he who devotes himself to the medical art should give himself over to the Name of God, and God will grant him help.  The medical art does not hinder a man from being pious; but make use of it like a handiwork for the benefit of the brethren.  Whatever you do, do with the fear of God, and you will be preserved by the prayers of the Saints.  Amen.

-- Q: You told me before that the cutting off of one’s own will consists also of not arguing out of a desire to stand on one’s own.  But what should I do, my Father: sometimes it happens that I bring a sick man something that is apparently beneficial; but often it harms him, and I grieve that in this I have done my own will.  I see likewise that I am occupied the whole day, and this somehow does not allow me to remember God.  Also, gluttony disturbs me.  Tell me, what should I do?  For I believe that in these things is my salvation.

A: If, thinking that something will bring benefit to the sick, you act according to your will, and the opposite happens, that it brings them harm - God, who beholds your heart, will not judge you; for He knows that you have done harm while desiring to bring benefit.  But if someone who knows (about this matter) should tell you about it beforehand, and you should disdainfully disobey him, this would be pride and self-will.  Many have constantly heard about some city or other and then they chance to enter it without knowing that it is that very city; so you also, O brother, spend the whole day in remembrance of God and do not know it.  To have a commandment and strive to keep it ñ this is submission to and remembrance of God.  Brother John has rightly said to you: first put on leaves, and then, when God commands, you will bear fruit.  If you do not know what is profitable, follow one who knows, and this is humility, and you will receive God’s grace.  You have rightly said that your salvation lies in this; for you did not come here of yourself, but God guided you here.  “Be strong in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:10): you receive not a little benefit from the occupation about which you complain.  As far as possible, struggle against gluttony.  And the Lord will help you to know and do what is profitable.  Be manful and strengthened in the Lord.

-- Q: I am apprehensive, my Father, because I am in charge of the infirmary, for this is something involving authority, and this might give occasion for vainglory and familiarity.  Likewise, from frequent eating of food I can be drawn into gluttony.  And so, do you not consider that, for a preliminary training of myself, I should be first in a lower obedience, and then, when it will be easier for me, I should again enter upon that service?

A: Listen, O brother, and be convinced in the Lord, that when we entrusted this matter to you, our hand and our heart are with you, or to be more precise, the hand of God, entreated by our prayers for the salvation of your soul, and that He has strengthened you in this matter and given you success and covered you in it.  You can be saved in no other way than through this (obedience).  And so, do not become discouraged, falling and rising up, crawling and reproaching yourself, until the Lord will show you the mercy which you desire.  Only do not be negligent.  Fear not, for the Lord, Who has placed you in this work, will put it in order, and we will share the concern with you.

-- Q: If one of the brethren or one of the sick should sin, and I, desiring to correct him, tell him something with disturbance: should I later bow down to him (asking for forgiveness)?  If it should happen that he leaves the infirmary being angry at me, what should I do?  And in general, for what faults should one make a prostration (to the other)?  For pride and self-justification darken the mind.  And when one makes a prostration, vainglory again finds an occasion for itself.

A: Do nothing with disturbance, because evil does not give rise to good.  But endure until your thought should become calm, and then speak in peace.  And if the brother should listen to you - well and good; but if not, tell him: “Would you not like me to reveal this to the Abba, and we will do as he judges,” and you will be at peace.  But if he goes away angry, tell the Abba, and he will enlighten him: but make no bow to him (that is, do not beg forgiveness), for through this you will give him occasion to think that you are actually guilty before him, and he will arm himself against you even more.  But from other people be careful to ask forgiveness, corresponding to the sin: as soon as you see that your sin is great, bow down; but when it is not great, say with your lips, with a feeling of heartfelt repentance: “Forgive me, brother.”  Beware of pride and self-justification, for they hinder repentance; and it also happens that a man gives a bow out of vainglory.  Despite these three passions (pride, self-justification, and vainglory); where necessary, make a bow with humility, fear of God, and understanding.  According to your strength, strive to remain in these virtues, and God will help you, by the prayers of the Saints.  END

from “Saints Barsanuphius and John: Guidance Toward Spiritual Life,” trans. by Fr. Seraphim Rose, (Platina, California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1990), pp. 82 - 91 (selections).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

ST. MACARIUS THE GREAT - How the Ancients Understood What It Meant to Be a Monk


This selection is from St. Macarius the Great, born about A.D. 300. A former camel driver, he spent most of his monastic life in Scetis where the Coptic Monastery of St. Macarius stands to this day with a very active community and monastic life.

BEGIN: One day, Macarius the Egyptian went from Scetis to the mountain of Nitria for the offering of Abba Pambo. The old men said to him, "Father, say a word to the brethren." He said, "I have not yet become a monk myself, but I have seen monks. One day when I was sitting in my cell, my thoughts were troubling me, suggesting that I should go to the desert and see what I could see there. I remained for five years, fighting against this thought, saying, perhaps it comes from demons. But since the thought persisted, I left for the desert.

"There I found a sheet of water and an island in the midst, and the animals of the desert came to drink there. In the midst of these animals I saw two naked men, and my body trembled, for I believed they were spirits. Seeing me shaking, they said to me, 'Do not be afraid, for we are men.' Then I said to them, 'Where do you come from, and how did you come to this desert?'

"They said, 'We come from a monastery and having agreed to gather, we came here forty years ago. One of us is an Egyptian and the other a Libyan.' They questioned me and asked me, 'How is the world? Is the water rising in due time? Is the world enjoying prosperity?'

"I replied it was, then I asked them, 'How can I become a monk?' They said to me, 'If you do not give up all that is in the world, you cannot become a monk.' I said to them, 'But I am weak, and I cannot do as you do.' So they said to me: 'If you cannot become like us, sit in your cell and weep for your sins.'

"I asked them, 'When the winter comes are you not frozen?' And when the heat comes do not your bodies burn?' They said, 'It is God who has made this way of life for us. We do not freeze in winter, and the summer does us no harm.'

"That is why I said that I have not yet become a monk, but I have seen monks." END

from, "The Desert Christian," by Sr. Benedicta Ward, New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1975, pp. 125-126

Sunday, July 15, 2012

STS. BARSANUPHIUS AND JOHN - PART II (Struggles Against the Sexual Passions)


Today we will continue our look at the teachings of two Desert Fathers of sixth century Palestine, Sts. Barsanuphius and John.  This series will continue over several issues as much of what they have to teach us goes right to the heart of the questions each of us faces in our own individual pilgrimages. Today’s questions focus on the struggle against sexual passions:

BEGIN: The question of Abba Dorotheus to the Great Elder:

-- Q: I am being strongly attacked by sexual passion; I am afraid that I may fall into despondency, and that from the infirmity of my body I will not be able to restrain myself; pray for me, for the Lord’s sake, and tell me, my Father, what I should do?

A: Brother!  The devil, out of envy, has raised up warfare against you.  Guard your eyes and do not eat until you are full.  Take a little wine for the sake of the body’s infirmity of which you speak.  And acquire humility, which rends all the nets of the enemy.  And I, who am nothing, will do what I can, entreating God that He might deliver you from every temptation and preserve you from every evil.  Do not yield to the enemy, O brother, and do not give yourself over to despondency, for this is a great joy to the enemy.  Pray without ceasing, saying: “Lord Jesus Christ, deliver me from shameful passions,” and God will have mercy on you, and you will receive strength by the prayers of the Saints.  Amen.

-- Q: The same brother, being attacked by the same sexual passion, asked the same Great Elder to pray for him and to tell him how to distinguish whether a man is being tempted by his own lusts or by the enemy.

A: Brother!  Without labor and contrition of heart no one can be delivered from passions and please God.  When a man is tempted by his own lust, this may be known from the fact that he is careless about himself and allows his heart to reflect about what he has done before; and then a man himself draws passion unto himself through his own lust.  His mind, being little by little blinded by passion, begins, unnoticeably for himself, to pay attention to someone for whom he feels attraction, or to speak with him, and he finds occasions on which to converse with him or to sit with him, and by all means he strives to fulfill his desire.  If one allows thoughts to pay heed in this, warfare will increase until a fall, albeit not in body but in spirit, in agreement with thoughts; and it turns that such a man lights the fire himself in his own substance.  But a sober and prudent man who desires to be saved, when he sees from what it is that he suffers harm, carefully preserves himself from evil remembrances, is not drawn into passionate thoughts, avoids meetings and conversations with those for whom he feels attraction and avoids every occasion for sin, fearing lest he himself ignite a fire within himself.  This is the warfare which proceeds from one’s own lust, which a man brings on himself . . .

Tame your steed with the bridle of knowledge, lest, looking here and there, he become inflamed with lust towards women and men and throw you, the horseman, to the ground.  Pray to God, that He may turn “your eyes, lest they see vanity” (Psalms 118:37).  And when you will acquire a manful heart, warfare will depart from you.  Cleanse yourself, as wine cleanses wounds, and do not allow stench and filthiness to accumulate in you.  Acquire weeping, so that it might remove from you freedom (looseness) in your relations, which destroys the souls that adopt it.  Do not throw away the implement without which fertile land cannot be worked.  This implement, made by the Great God, is humility: it uproots all the tares from the field of the Master and gives grace to those who dwell in it.  Humility does not fall, but raises from a fall those who possess it.  Love weeping with all your heart, for it also is a participant in this good work.  Labor in everything to cut off your own will, for this is accounted to a man for sacrifice.  This is what is meant by: “For Thee we are mortified all the day, we are accounted as sheep for slaughter” (Psalms 43:22).  Do not weaken yourselves by conversations, for they will not allow you to prosper in God.  Firmly bridle the organs of your senses: sight, hearing, smelling, taste, and feeling, and you will prosper by the grace of Christ.  Without tortures no one is a martyr, as the Lord also has said: “In your patience possess ye your souls” (Luke 21:19), and the Apostle says, “in much endurance, in sorrows” (II Corinthians 6:4).

-- Q: Pray for me, my Father, I am very much disturbed by thoughts of sexual sin, despondency, and fear; and a thought says to me that I should converse with a brother to whom I feel attracted when I see him, lest by my silence I give him occasion for suspicion.  I feel likewise that the demons are somehow pressing me, and I fall into fear.

A: Brother!  You are not yet instructed in warfare with the enemy, which is why there come to you thoughts of fear, despondency, and sexual sin.  Stand against them with a firm heart, for combatants, unless they labor, are not crowned, and warriors, unless they show the King their skill in battles, do not become worthy of honors.  Remember what David was like.  Do you not also sing: “Test me, O Lord, and try me, kindle my inwards parts and my heart” (Psalms 25:2).  And again: “If a regiment arm itself against me, I will hope in Him” (Psalms 26:3).  Likewise, concerning fear: “For if I should go in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me” (Psalms 22:4).  And concerning despondency: “If the spirit of the powerful one should come upon thee, do not leave thy place” (Ecclesiastes 10:4).

Do you not wish to be skilled?  But a man who is not tested by temptations is not skilled.  It is battles that make a man skilled.  The work of a monk consists of enduring battles and opposing them with manfulness of heart.  But since you do not know the cunning traps of the enemy, he brings thoughts of fear and weakens your heart.  You must know that God will not allow against you battles and temptations above your strength; the Apostle also teaches this, saying: “Faithful is the Lord, Who will not leave you to be tempted more than you can bear” (I Corinthians 10:13).

Brother!  I also in my youth was many times and powerfully tempted by the demon of sexual sin, and I labored against such thoughts, contradicting them and not agreeing with them, but presenting before my own eyes eternal tortures.  For five years I acted thus every day, and God relieved me of these thoughts.  This warfare is abolished by unceasing prayer with weeping.

And the fact that the demons are pressing you proceeds from their envy; if they could, they would chase you out of your cell also; but God does not allow them to take possession of you, for they do not have authority for this.  God could swiftly relieve you, but then you would not begin to oppose another passion (when it comes).  May the demons not weaken you so as to turn your attention to a brother (to whom you are attracted), or to converse with him; but If you should happen unexpectedly to come together with him, against your desire, restrain your glance with fear and decency and do not listen attentively to his voice.  And if this brother, out of ignorance, should himself begin to speak with you or sit next to you, then skillfully avoid him, but not suddenly, rather with decorum.  Say to your thought: “Remember the terrible Judgment of God and the shame which will then overtake those who are attracted by these shameful passions.”  Compel your thought, and you will receive help, by the prayers of the Saints, and God will have mercy on you.  Do not be a child in mind, “but a child in malice” (I
Corinthians 14:20); in mind, O brother, be perfect.  Pay heed to yourself, as to how you will meet God.  Amen.

-- If you wish to be delivered from shameful passions, do not behave with anyone familiarly, especially with those toward whom your heart is inclined by a lustful passion; through this you will be delivered also from vainglory.  For in vainglory is involved the pleasing of men, in the pleasing of men is involved familiarity of behavior, and familiarity of behavior is the mother of all passions.

-- Q: What should I do, my Father?  I suffer from sexual passion.

A: As much as you can, wear yourself out, but according to your strength; and have hope not in this, but in love from God and in His protection, and do not give yourself over to despondency, for despondency serves as the beginning of every evil.

-- Q: What do the words you have spoken mean: “See to it, lest you be drawn away by a thought of sexual sin?”

-- A: This happens not only with regard to sexual passion, but in other cases also.  The mind is subjected to this as a consequence of distraction, and when this happens a man should cry out to himself, saying: “O Lord!  Forgive me for the sake of Thy holy Name; I have been subjected to this for my negligence.  Deliver me from distraction and from every net of the enemy; for Thine is the glory unto the ages.  Amen.”  And let the following be for you the sign by which you may know that you are drawn away: if one is speaking with others and his mind is distracted here and there, it happens that when he speaks of one thing his thought passes over to something else; this is what it is to be drawn away.  Likewise, if anyone is doing something and passes over in thought to something else; in his forgetfulness he either ruins what he is doing or does something more than necessary, and this is likewise (a case of) being drawn away.  In the same way a sexual thought draws us away.  It happens that one is conversing with another, and if the enemy succeeds in drawing his mind away from God-pleasing sobriety, then, as a consequence of distraction, a sexual desire appears in the mind.  And this is likewise a drawing away, because it has happened not from reflection or remembrance, but a man is drawn away by it out of forgetfulness.  And such a one is like a traveller who, by reason of grief that comes upon him, goes away from the straight road and finds himself on another road.  But coming back to himself, a man should call out to himself, according to what has been said above, and hasten to God’s mercy.  The Lord is merciful and will accept him like the prodigal son; we know with what mercifulness He accepted the latter.  But when this warfare arises in the mind even without distraction, one must be sober, not take enjoyment of such thoughts, no tarry in them, but all the sooner hasten to God the Master.  END

from “Saints Barsanuphius and John: Guidance Toward Spiritual Life,” trans. by Fr. Seraphim Rose, (Platina, California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1990), pp. 71 - 76, 113, 126-127  (selections).

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

ANONYMOUS DESERT FATHER - Being Blessed by Giving Charitably


Today's selection is about showing mercy to others and is from an anonymous father of the desert:

BEGIN: A monk had a brother living in the world who was poor, and so he supplied him with all he received from his work. But the more the monk supplied, the poorer the brother became. So the monk went to tell an old man about it. The old man said to him, "If you want my advice, do not give him anything more, but say to him, 'Brother, when I had something I supplied you; now bring me what you get from your work.' Take all he brings you, and whenever you see a stranger or a poor man, give him some of it, begging him to pray for him."

The monk went away and did this. When his secular brother came, he spoke to him as the old man had said, and the brother went sadly away. The first day, taking some vegetables from his field, he brought them to the monk. The monk took them and gave them to the old men, begging them to pray for his brother, and after the blessing he returned home. In the same way, another time, the brother brought the monk some vegetables and three loaves, which he took, doing as on the first occasion, and having received the blessing he went away.

And the secular brother came a third time bringing many provisions, some bread, and fish. Seeing this, the monk was full of wonder, and he invited the poor so as to give them refreshment. The he said to his brother, "Do you not need a little bread?" The other said to him, "No, for when I used to receive something from you, it was like fire coming into my house and burning it, but now that I receive nothing from you, God blesses me."

Then the monk went to tell the old man all that had happened, and the old man said to him, "Do you not know that the work of the monk is of fire, and where it enters, it burns? It helps your brother more to do alms with what he reaps from his field, and to receive the prayers of the saints and thus to be blessed." END

from "The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers," by Sr. Benedicta Ward, (Oxford: SLG Press, 1986), pp. 43-44

Sunday, July 8, 2012

STS. BARSANUPHIUS AND JOHN - PART I (Various Teachings to Disciples)


Today we will continue our look at the teachings of two Desert Fathers of sixth century Palestine, Sts. Barsanuphius and John.  This series will continue over several issues as much of what they have to teach us goes right to the heart of the questions posed by our friend ñ a question many of us struggle with in our daily lives.

BEGIN: [to a sick monk] Concerning fasting, do not grieve, as I have said to you before: God does not demand of anyone labors beyond his strength.  And indeed, what is fasting if not a punishment of the body in order to humble a healthy body and make it infirm for passions, according to the word of the Apostle: “When I am weak, then am I strong” (II Corinthians 12:10).  And disease, more than this, is a punishment and takes the place of fasting and even more ñ for one who bears it with patience, thanks God, and through patience receives the fruit of his salvation; for instead of weakening his body by fasting, he is already sick without that.  Give thanks to God that you have been delivered from the labor of fasting.  Even if you will eat ten times in a day, do not grieve; you will not be judged for this, for you are doing this not at the demon’s instigation, and not from the weakening of your thought; but rather, this occurs to us for our testing and for profit to the soul.

-- To the Monk Andrew, when he became faint from the temptations that had come upon him:

Andrew!  My brother one in soul (with me), do not grow faint.  God has not abandoned you and will not abandon you.  But know that the sentence pronounced by the Master to our common father Adam: “In the sweat of your brow you shall earn your bread” (Genesis 3:19) is immutable.  And just as this commandment is given to the outward man, so to the inward man it is commanded to aid the prayers of the Saints by means of one’s own ascetic labors; and these prayers greatly help a man so that he will not remain fruitless.  For just as gold which is heated in a furnace, held with pincers and beaten with a hammer, becomes pure and fit for a royal crown, so also a man being supported by the mighty and much-performing prayer of the Saints is heated by sorrows, receives the blows of temptations and, if he endures everything with gratitude, becomes a son of the Kingdom.  And therefore, everything that might happen to you occurs for your benefit, so that you also might receive boldness before God, both through the intercession of the Saints and through your own labors.  And do not be ashamed to offer now to God the beginning of these labors, lest in place of spiritual joy, sorrow should overtake you; and believe that He who has given the promises will fulfill them (Hebrews 10:23).  Prosper in the Lord, my beloved.

-- And so, brother, hate perfectly so as to love perfectly.  Depart completely, so as to draw near completely.  Disdain one kind of adoption, in order to receive another adoption.  Cease to fulfill desires, and you will fulfill desire.  Wound yourself, and treat yourself.  Mortify yourself, and bring yourself to life.  Forget yourself, and know yourself.  And you will have the works of a monk.

-- Restrain your tongue from idle talking, your stomach from love of sweetness, and do not irritate your neighbor.  Do not be brazen, consider yourself as nothing, preserve love toward everyone, and have always God in your heart, remembering “When I shall appear before the face of God” (Psalms 41:3).  Keep this, and your soil will bring forth a hundred-fold fruit to God, to Whom may there be glory unto the ages.  Amen.

from “Saints Barsanuphius and John: Guidance Toward Spiritual Life,” trans. by Fr. Seraphim Rose, (Platina, California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1990), pp. 47 - 73 (selections)

Friday, July 6, 2012

ABBA EVAGRIUS - Instructions to Cenobites and Others


In this issue, we will look at more of Abba Evagrius's teachings, this time his "Instructions to Cenobites and Others":

BEGIN:  Faith is the beginning of love; the end of love is knowledge of God.

-- Man's patience gives birth to hope; good hope will glorify him.

-- He who keeps his flesh in strict subjection will reach passionlessness. He who feeds it will suffer from it.

-- Solitude with love purifies the heart. Withdrawal from others with anger agitates it.

-- It is better to be among thousands with love, than to hide alone in caves with hatred.

-- He dishonors God who transgresses His law. But he who obeys it glorifies his Creator.

-- Where sin enters, there too enters ignorance; but the hearts of the righteous are filled with knowledge.

-- Better poverty with knowledge than riches with ignorance.

-- The highest adornment of the head is the crown; the highest adornment of the heart is knowledge of God.

-- He who prays often will escape temptation; but thoughts will trouble the heart of the careless.

-- If the spirit of despondency attacks you, do not leave your cell, and do not turn aside in time of discontent. For as silver is purified (by friction), so will your heart be made bright if you stand firm.

-- The spirit of despondency takes away tears, and the spirit of discontent stifles prayer.

-- Love is preceded by passionlessness; knowledge is preceded by love.

-- Honor God and you will know the incorporeal; serve Him and He will show you the understanding of the ages.

-- The body of Christ is active virtues; he who tastes them will be free from passions.

-- The blood of Christ is discrimination of actions; he who drinks it will be illumined.

-- The bosom of the Lord is knowledge of God; he who rests therein will be a theologian.

-- When he who is filled with knowledge and he who practices good meet one another, the Lord is between them.  END

from "Early Fathers From the Philokalia," translated from the Russian text, "Dobrotolubiye," by E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer, eighth edition, (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1981), pp. 115 - 116.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

ABBA JOHN THE PERSIAN - Avoiding Attachment to Material Things


Today's selection is from the life of Abba John the Persian. This story shows very well how little attached the Holy Fathers were to the things of this world.

BEGIN: One of the fathers related of Abba John the Persian that his great charity had brought him to a profound innocence. He dwelt in Arabia of Egypt.

One day he borrowed some money from a brother and bought some flax for his work. Then a brother came and asked him, "Abba, give me a little flax so that I can make myself a cloak." He gave him some readily. Similarly, another brother came and asked him, "Give me a little flax, so that I can make some cloth." So he gave him some too. Others came and asked him for things and he simply gave them cheerfully.

Later, the owner of the money came to reclaim it. The old man said to him, "I will go and get it for you." Because he could not return it to him, he went to Abba James, who was a deacon, to ask him to give him some money so that he could return it to the brother. On the way, he found a coin on the ground but he did not touch it. He said a prayer and returned to his cell. But the brother came once more pestering him about the money, and the old man said to him, "I am very worried about it." Once again he went, found the coin on the ground where it was lying and once again he said a prayer and returned to his cell.

But the brother came back to pester him as before. The old man said to him, "This time I will certainly bring it to you." Once again he got up and went to the place where the coin lay on the ground. He said and prayer and went to tell Abba James, "Abba, as I was coming here, I found this coin on the road. Please make it known in the neighborhood, in case someone has lost it; and if its owner is found, give it to him."

So the old man went and asked about it for three days, but no one who had lost a piece of money came. Then the old man said to Abba James, "Then if no one has lost it, give it to this brother, for I owe it him. As I was coming to ask you for alms in order to give him his due, I found it."

The old man was astonished that, having a debt and finding that piece, he had not picked it up at once and given it to him. It was equally to his credit that when someone came to borrow something from Abba John, he did not give it him himself, but said to the brother, "Go and help yourself to whatever you need," and when someone brought anything back to him, he would say, "Put it back where it belongs." If the borrower did not return the thing he did not say anything to him."  END

from "The Desert Christian," by Sr. Benedicta Ward, (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1975), pp. 107-108

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.