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)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Hiatus in Posting to the Blog

Dear Friends,

Due to work and travel commitments, I will not be able to add any new posts to our blog until about November 18. In the meantime, please enjoy the many earlier posts and rest assured we will be back with new material in November! Thank you.

Michael McClellan
Inner Light Productions

Sunday, October 13, 2013

ST. JOHN THE DWARF - Teachings on Asceticism


On November 9, the Eastern Churches commemorate one of the greatest of the ancient Desert Fathers, "St. John the Dwarf." This remarkable father left for Scetis at the age of 18 and was trained there by Abba Ammoes for twelve years. One of the most vivid characters in the Egyptian Desert, he attracted many disciples and in order to preserve his own solitude, he dug himself a cave underground. Abba John was later ordained priest and the number of his sayings that are recorded and preserved point to his importance among his disciples. After 407, he went to Suez and the Mountain of St. Anthony. We have a photo in our Egypt Gallery that shows the door of a very old Coptic Church in Upper Egypt on which an image of Abba John has been carved. This church is over the cave where he spent much of his life.  St. John has long been considered one of the greatest of the ascetics, a disciple of Abba Pambo and a teacher of St. Arsenius the Great.

Some two and a half years ago, this newsletter ran a two-part study of St. John's teachings on asceticism, a study we would like to repeat here today and next week, as many of our readers have probably not read them. They are simply superb.

TEACHINGS OF ST. JOHN THE DWARF ON ASCETICISM

BEGIN:  -- It was said of Abba John the Dwarf that he withdrew and lived in the desert at Scetis with an old man of Thebes. His abba, taking a piece of dry wood, planted it and said to him, "Water it every day with a bottle of water, until it bears fruit." Now the water was so far away that he had to leave in the evening and return the following morning. At the end of three years the wood came to life and bore fruit. The old man took some of the fruit and carried it to the church saying to the brethren, "Take and eat the fruit of obedience."

-- It was said of Abba John the Dwarf, that one day he said to his elder brother, "I should like to be free of all care, like the angels who do not work, but ceaselessly offer worship to God." So he took off his cloak and went away into the desert. After a week he came back to his brother. When he knocked on the door, he heard his brother say, before he opened it, "Who are you?" He said, "I am John, your brother." But he replied, "John has become an angel, and henceforth he is no longer among men." Then the other begged him saying, "It is I." However, his brother did not let him in, but left him there in distress until morning. Then, opening the door, he said to him, "You are a man and you must once again work in order to eat." Then John made a prostration before him, saying, "Forgive me." (NOTE: this story is, according to most sources, from Abba John's youth when he was still living with his family)

-- Abba John the Dwarf said, "If a king wanted to take possession of his enemy's city, he would begin by cutting off the water and the food and so his enemies, dying of hunger, would submit to him. It is the same with the passions of the flesh; if a man goes about fasting and hungry the enemies of his soul grow weak."

-- Some old men were entertaining themselves at Scetis by having a meal together; amongst them was Abba John. A venerable priest got up to offer drink, but nobody accepted any from him, except John the Dwarf. They were surprised and said to him, "How is that you, the youngest, dared to let yourself be served by the priest?" Then he said to them, "When I get up to offer drink, I am glad when everyone accepts it, since I am receiving my reward; that is the reason, then, that I accepted it, so that he also might gain his reward and not be grieved by seeing that no one would accept anything from him." When they heard this, they were all filled with wonder and edification at his discretion.

-- The brethren used to tell how the brethren were sitting one day at an agape* and one brother at table began to laugh. When he saw that, Abba John began to weep, saying, "What does this brother have in his heart, that he should laugh, when he ought to weep, because he is eating at an agape?"

-- Some brethren came one day to test him to see whether he would let his thoughts get dissipated and speak of the things of this world. They said to him, "We give thanks to God that this year there has been much rain and the palm trees have been able to drink, and their shoots have grown, and the brethren have found manual work." Abba John said to them, "So it is when the Holy Spirit descends into the hearts of men; they are renewed and they put forth leaves in the fear of God."

-- Abba John said, "I am like a man sitting under a great tree, who sees wild beasts and snakes coming against him in great numbers. When he cannot withstand them any longer, he runs to climb the tree and is saved. It is just the same with me; I sit in my cell and I am aware of evil thoughts coming against me, and when I have no more strength against them, I take refuge in God by prayer and I am saved from the enemy."

-- Abba Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he had prayed God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from care. He went and told an old man this: "I find myself in peace, without an enemy," he said. The old man said to him, "Go, beseech God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress." So he besought God and when warfare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but said, "Lord, give me strength for the fight."

-- The old man also said this to a certain brother about the soul, which wishes to be converted, "There was in a city a courtesan who had many lovers. One of the governors approached her, saying, "Promise me you will be good, and I will marry you." She promised this and he took her and brought her to his house. Her lovers, seeking her again, said to one another, "That lord has taken her with him to his house, so if we go to his house and he learns of it, he will condemn us. But let us go to the back, and whistle to her. Then, when she recognizes the sound of the whistle she will come down to us; as for us, we shall be unassailable." When she heard the whistle, the woman stopped her ears and withdrew to the inner chamber and shut the doors." The old man said that this courtesan is our soul, that her lovers are the passions and other men; that the lord is Christ; that the inner chamber is the eternal dwelling; those who whistle are the evil demons, but the soul always takes refuge in the Lord.

-- One day when Abba John was going up to Scetis with some other brothers, their guide lost his way for it was night time. So the brothers said to Abba John, "What shall we do, Abba, in order not to die wandering about, for the brother has lost the way?" The old man said to them, "If we speak to him, he will be filled with grief and shame. But look here, I will pretend to be ill and say I cannot walk any more; then we can stay here till the dawn." This he did. The others said, "We will not go on either, but we will stay with you." They sat there until the dawn, and in this way they did not upset the brother. END

*agape: the primary meaning of this Greek word is "love." Here, it refers to the common meal taken by the fathers after the celebration of the Liturgy. It can also refer to the Liturgy itself.

from Sr. Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1975), pp. 85-89

Sunday, October 6, 2013

STS. BARSANUPHIUS AND JOHN - Directions in Spiritual Life: Part III


In this issue, we will continue our reading of the counsels of Sts. John and Barsanuphius.

Sts. Barsanuphius and John lived in the sixth century as fellow spiritual strugglers in Palestinian monasteries and in isolation in the desert. We are blessed today to have a wonderful collection of their teachings on the spiritual life which should be studied by every serious student of the Christian faith. St. Barsanuphius spent some fifty years in his cell, forbidding himself the sight of another person. A great ascetic, he was brought three loaves of bread a week by the monastery purser, but often did not eat even that. St. John was his equal in asceticism and was blessed with the additional gift of prophecy.

The book written by these two fathers contains 850 answers to various questions asked by a wide variety of people. Some were written by St. John, but the vast majority were give by St. Barsanuphius. He did not actually write the answers down himself, but dictated them to Abba Serid. When the saint first began to give his answers to questions, he asked Abba Serid to write it down. Not expecting to retain in his memory all the words said to him by the great desert father, Abba Serid was in a quandary how to write down so many words and expected the saint to tell him to bring paper and ink in order to take dictation as he listened. By his gift of clairvoyance, St. Barsanuphius read the secret thought of Serid. His face became like a flame and he said to Serid, "Go, write it down and fear not. Even if I say innumerable words for you to write down, know that the Holy Spirit will not you write one single word more or less than what I have said, even though you wish it, but will guide your hand in writing down everything correctly and in right order."

Obviously, we cannot put all 850 of their answers in our newsletter, but we will share some of our favorites with you I these newsletters. Today we will look at some of their teachings on humility.

DIRECTIONS IN SPIRITUAL WORK -- PART III

-- If you cannot discourse about faith, do not try to. If a man is firm in faith he will never be confused in discussions and disputes with heretics or unbelievers, because he has in him Jesus, the Lord of peace and quiet. After a peaceful discussion, such a man can lovingly bring many heretics and unbelievers to the knowledge of Jesus Christ our Savior. As for you, since discoursing on some subjects is beyond you, keep to the royal road, that is to the faith of the 318 holy fathers (and for us now, to the faith established by the seven ecumenical councils), into which you were baptized. It contains everything stated exactly for perfect understanding. But most of all have attention in yourself, meditating on your sins and on how you will be received by God.

-- When you hear someone praising you, remember the words of the Scriptures: "O my people, they which lead thee cause thee to err, and destroy the way of thy paths" (Isaiah 3:12). Such praise prevents us from seeing the abomination of our actions; it probably does harm even to those who have attained a measure (of spiritual achievement) and separates man from faith in God, Who says: "How can ye believe, which receive honor one of another?" (John 5:44). He who accepts the humility of the Apostle will rather choose to be "a fool, that he may be wise" later (I Corinthians 3:18). But if a man shows himself clever rather than spiritual, it would surprise me if he escaped the judgment reserved for boastfulness.

-- The Lord has taught us how to acquire wise humility, saying: "Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Matthew 11:29). If you too want to find perfect rest, understand what the Lord has endured and suffer the same; and cut off your will in all things. The Lord Himself says: "For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me" (John 6:38). And perfect humility consists in enduring blame and abuse and other things which our Teacher, Christ Jesus, has suffered. The same is also a sign that a man has touched perfect prayer -- namely the fact that he is no longer troubled even if the whole world were to abuse him.

-- The approach to perfect prayer is when a man is freed from dispersion of thoughts and sees his mind, enlightened in the Lord, filled with joy. A man has attained perfection in prayer if he makes himself dead to the world with its ease. But when a man does his work diligently for the sake of God, it is not a distraction but a thoroughness, which pleases God.

-- The Lord wishes you to regard every man as superior to yourself. Show obedience to your staretz in all things and do all that he tells you, whether it refers to food or drink or some other matter. If they slander you, rejoice -- it is most useful. If they insult you, endure it, for "he that endureth to the end shall be saved" (Matthew 10:22). Give thanks to God for all things, because thanksgiving is intercession before God for our weakness. Judge yourself always and in everything as a sinner and as one seduced -- and so God will not judge you; be humble in everything and you will receive grace.

-- Let us have recourse to humility on all occasions; for the humble lie prone on the ground, and how can a man fall if he lies on the ground? But a man who stands on a height can easily fall. If we have been converted and have mended our ways, it did not come from ourselves but was a gift of God, for "The Lord openeth the eyes of the blind; the Lord raiseth them that are bowed down" (Psalms 146:8).

-- He who wants to be a monk must in no way have any will of his own. Christ our Lord taught us this when He said: "I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will" (John 6:38). But if you obey in one thing and refuse to obey in another, you will show by this that you are wiser than him who directs you, and this is the same as being mocked by the demons. So you must obey in everything, even if it should seem to you that what is ordained is not without sin. The Abba who ordains you to do it will bear your sin and will have to answer for you. If something is extremely difficult and dangerous for you, or above your strength, explain this to the Abba, and do what he decides.

-- If anyone, while keeping fast, adds something to it by his own will, or if he fasts seeking men's praise or some gain from it, such a fast is abomination in the eyes of God. And so it is in all things. Every good action, which is done not merely from love of God, but is mingled with one's own will, is unclean and unpleasing to God. The same can also be seen from the Divine law which says: "Thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woolen come upon thee" (Leviticus 19:19; Deuteronomy 22:9-11). END

Kadloubovsky, E., and Palmer, G.E.H., trans., Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, (London: Faber and Faber, 1983, pp. 350 - 367.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

STS. BARSANUPHIUS AND JOHN - Directions in Spiritual Work: Part II


In today's reading, we will continue our reading of the counsels of Sts. John and Barsanuphius.

Sts. Barsanuphius and John lived in the sixth century as fellow spiritual strugglers in Palestinian monasteries and in isolation in the desert. We are blessed today to have a wonderful collection of their teachings on the spiritual life which should be studied by every serious student of the Christian faith. St. Barsanuphius spent some fifty years in his cell, forbidding himself the sight of another person. A great ascetic, he was brought three loaves of bread a week by the monastery purser, but often did not eat even that. St. John was his equal in asceticism and was blessed with the additional gift of prophecy.

The book written by these two fathers contains 850 answers to various questions asked by a wide variety of people. Some were written by St. John, but the vast majority were give by St. Barsanuphius. He did not actually write the answers down himself, but dictated them to Abba Serid. When the saint first began to give his answers to questions, he asked Abba Serid to write it down. Not expecting to retain in his memory all the words said to him by the great desert father, Abba Serid was in a quandary how to write down so many words and expected the saint to tell him to bring paper and ink in order to take dictation as he listened. By his gift of clairvoyance, St. Barsanuphius read the secret thought of Serid. His face became like a flame and he said to Serid, "Go, write it down and fear not. Even if I say innumerable words for you to write down, know that the Holy Spirit will not you write one single word more or less than what I have said, even though you wish it, but will guide your hand in writing down everything correctly and in right order."

Obviously, we cannot put all 850 of their answers in our newsletter, but we will share some of our favorites with you over the next couple of newsletters.

Today, we will look at several wonderful selections on fasting and controlling the appetite, an especially relevant topic now that we are in the period of Great Lent before the Feast of the Lord's Resurrection.

DIRECTIONS IN SPIRITUAL WORK -- PART II

-- About the measure of abstinence in food and drink, the fathers say that one should partake of the one and the other in a measure somewhat less than one's actual need, that is, not to fill the stomach completely. Everyone should establish a measure for himself, whether in cooked food or in wine. Moreover the measure of abstinence is not limited to food and drink but embraces also conversations, sleep, garments and all the senses. Each of these should have its own measure of abstinence.

-- How to establish a measure of food and drink, at less than one needs? Take away about one ounce from the total quantity of bread and other foods. As regards water and wine taken together, take away less than half a cup. If you have attention in yourself and it is not hard for you to drink only once a day, it would be well to do so; if you cannot, drink twice a day, but each time less than you need. At times when thoughts are troubled and at war, even the customary quantity of food and drink should be reduced, that is, food by another ounce and all drink by a cup, so that in all food is reduced by two ounces and drink by one cup.

-- How to establish the needful measure or to find out how much a man should eat and drink? By observing himself over several days in relation to the total amount of food, that is, bread, other foods and vegetables, a man can learn by experience how much food and drink his body requires (to be satisfied without overloading it). This measure he should reduce by one ounce of food and half a cup of drink. And at times of struggle he should reduce it by another ounce and another half cup.

-- What does it mean to abstain according to one's strength? To abstain according to one's strength means precisely to use food and drink as I said, namely: to take slightly less than one needs. The same applies to sleep. But if owing to hardship and exhaustion a man somewhat increases the measure, this will not mean an infringement of the rule: "according to one's strength." You will ask: What should be the measure of sleep? The Fathers set it as half the night. As regards food, stop eating when you would like to have a little more, and in this way always take it in moderation.

-- What does it mean to take food to satisfy a whim, and what to satisfy natural requirements? To satisfy a whim means to want to take food not because the body needs it but to pander to the belly (and the palate). But if you notice that your body takes some foods more willingly than others, not for pleasure, but because it is lighter, then to take it would not be a whim. If the nature of some demands sweet food, the nature of others -- salt food and the nature of yet others -- acid food, that is not a whim. But to be particularly fond of some kind of food and to lust for it is a whim -- serving gluttony. If you wish to find out whether you are addicted to the passion of gluttony, you can find it out in the following manner. If food captures your thought (so that you cannot resist it) -- you are a glutton. If you are not possessed by it and partake freely of all kinds of food to the extent your body requires it, you are not a glutton.

Another sign of gluttony is to have a craving for food before the appointed time. This should never be allowed, unless there is some valid reason for it.

-- If the passion (of gluttony) does not trouble me beforehand but appears when I am taking food, what should I do -- leave off eating or not? If you are having a meal with someone else, do not leave off but, calling on the name of God for help, banish lust and eat a little, bearing in mind that the food will soon be transformed into stench. But when you are alone and hungry, eat bread and some other food towards which you are not drawn.

-- I want to curb my belly and reduce the amount of food -- and cannot. Even if sometimes I reduce it, I very soon return again to the old measure. It is the same with drink. Why is this so? No one is freed from this except a man who has attained to the measure of him who said: "I forget to eat my bread. By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin" (Psalms 102: 4-5). Such a man quickly succeeds in reducing his food and drink; for tears serve him as bread -- and he finally reaches a state when he is fed by the Holy Spirit. Believe me, brother -- I know a man of such stature; once or twice in the course of a week, and sometimes more often he is transported towards spiritual food, and its sweetness makes him forget physical food. When he is about to eat bread, he is like one fully satiated and has no desire for it; and, when he does eat it, reproaches himself saying: Why as I not always in that state? And so wishes to attain to still greater achievement.

-- How to reach such a state? When all man's thoughts form one whole in God, then the flesh too follows the thought of God and the joy of the Spirit comes to the heart, feeding the soul and strengthening the body, and so fortifies both. Such a man no longer weakens or grows despondent, for from then onwards Jesus becomes his Intercessor and sets him at the door of that place where "sorrow and mourning shall flee away" (Isaiah 51:11). And so the word of the Scriptures becomes fulfilled in him: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:21). And what brings a man to such a state is humility.

-- How to distinguish a natural infirmity of the flesh (brought about by abstinence) from one simulated by the demons, and how much food should one eat? About infirmity I should say: if receiving daily food (with the habitual measure of abstinence) the body grows weak -- it is from the demons. In the opposite case (if the measure of abstinence is increased) -- the infirmity is natural. The usual measure of abstinence is to get up from the meal slightly hungry, as the fathers laid down for beginners. Later when a man becomes firmly established in this and in a still greater measure of abstinence, experience will have taught him to know clearly how much he should eat.

-- "Pray for me; I am sorely tired." Those who completely die to the world come to the measure of stature through patience and trials, O beloved brother! The Lord has suffered on the cross. Should you not rejoice in sufferings, the endurance of which leads you to the kingdom of heaven? That you suffer is a good sign. Do you not know what sufferings and temptations become multiplied when the Lord prepares His mercy? And, generally, do not seek bodily ease if the Lord does not grant it to you, for bodily ease if abomination in His eyes. And the Lord has said: "In the world ye shall have tribulation" (John 16:33).

-- How to allot oneself daily food? If you allot yourself daily food in the cell, it will lead you to cares and struggles. Be content with what God provides. "He that walketh uprightly walketh surely" (Proverbs 10:9). END

Kadloubovsky, E., and Palmer, G.E.H., trans., Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, (London: Faber and Faber, 1983, pp. 350 - 355.