Some "Sayings of the Desert Fathers"
(The following are some representative examples of the sayings
and stories attributed
to the first several generations of ascetics in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and elsewhere. They
are meant to give the reader some of the flavor of this spiritual movement that helped
transform the late antique world.)
A brother who had sinned was turned out of the church by the priest.
Bessarion got up and went out with him, saying, "I, too, am a sinner."
Abba Anthony said: "From our neighbor is life and death. If we
brother, we gain God, but if we cause our brother to stumble, we sin against
Amma Theodora said that neither asceticism, nor vigils nor any kind
suffering are able to save, only true humility can do that. There was an
anchorite who was able to banish the demons; and he asked them, "What makes
you go away? Is it fasting?" They replied, "We do not eat or drink." "Is
it vigils?" They replied, "We do not sleep." "Is it separation from the
world?" "We live in the deserts." "Then what power sends you away?" They said,
"Nothing can overcome us, but only humility." Amma Theodora concluded by
saying, "Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?"
One day Abba Isaac went to a monastery. He saw a brother committing
and he condemned him. When he returned to the desert, an angel of the Lord came
and stood in front of the door of his cell, and said, "I will not let you
enter." But he persisted saying, "What is the matter?" And the angel
replied, "God has sent me to ask you where you want to throw the guilty
brother whom you have condemned." Immediately he repented and said, "I have
sinned, forgive me." Then the angel said, "Get up, God has forgiven you.
But from now on, be careful not to judge someone before God has done so."
Amma Syncletica said: "Imitate the Publican and you will not be condemned
with the Pharisee. Choose the meekness of Moses and you will find your heart
which is a rock changed into a spring of water."
A brother once went out on a pilgrimage
from the monastery of Abba
Poemen, and came to a hermit, who lived in love towards all and received
many visitors. The brother told the hermit stories of Abba Poemen. And when he
heard of Poemen's strength of character, he longed to see him.
The brother returned to Egypt. And after some little time, the hermit
rose and went from his country to Egypt to see the brother who had visited
him: for he had told him where he lived. When the brother saw the hermit,
he was astonished, and very glad. The hermit said to him, "Of your charity
towards me, take me to Abba Poemen." And the brother rose up and showed him
the way to the old man.
And the brother told Abba Poemen this about the hermit, "A great man
of much charity, and particular honor in his own province, has come here
wanting to see you." So the old man received him kindly. And after they
had exchanged greetings, they sat down.
But the hermit began to talk of the Holy Scripture, and of the things
of the spirit and of heaven. But Abba Poemen turned his face away, and
answered nothing. When the hermit saw that he would not speak with him, he
was distressed and went out. And he said to the brother who had brought him
there, "My journey was useless. I went to the old man and he does not deign
to speak to me."
The brother went to Abba Poemen, and said, "Abba, it was to talk with
you that this great man came here, a man of much honor in his own land. Why
did you not speak to him?" The old man answered, "He is from above, and
speaks of the things of heaven. I am from below, and speak of the things of
the earth. If he had spoken with me on the soul's passions, I would
willingly have replied to him. But if he speaks of the things of the spirit, I know
nothing about them."
So the brother went out and told the hermit, "The reason is that the
old man does not easily discuss Scripture. But if anyone talks to him about
the soul's passions, he answers."
Then the hermit was stricken with penitence, and went to the old man
and said, "What shall I do, Abba? My passions rule me." And the old man
gazed at him with gladness and said, "Now you are welcome. You have only to
ask and I will speak with understanding." And the hermit was much
strengthened by their discourse, and said, "Truly, this is the way of love."
And he thanked God that he had been able to see so holy a man, and returned
to his own country."
It was said of Abba John the Persian that when some evildoers came to
him, he took a basin and wanted to wash their feet. But they were filled
with confusion, and began to do penance.
A brother came to see Abba Poemen and said to him, "Abba, I have many
thoughts and they put me in danger." The old man led him outside and said to him,
"Expand your chest and do not breathe in." He said, "I cannot do that."
Then the old man said to him, "If you cannot do that, no more can you prevent
thoughts from arising, but you can resist them."
Abba Xanthias said, "The thief was on the cross and he was justified
single word; and Judas who was counted in the number of the apostles lost
all his labor in one single night and descended from heaven to hell. Therefore
let no one boast of his good works, for all those who trust in themselves fall."
To uproot sin and the evil that is so imbedded in
our sinning can
be done only by divine power, for it is impossible and outside man's
competence to uproot sin. To struggle, yes, to continue to fight, to
inflict blows, and to receive setbacks is in your power. To uproot,
however, belongs to God alone. If you could have done it on your own,
what would have been the need for the coming of the Lord? For just as
an eye cannot see without light, nor can one speak without a tongue,
nor hear without ears, nor walk without feet, nor carry on works without
hands, so you cannot be saved without Jesus nor enter into the
Kingdom of Heaven.
St, Macarius, Homily 3.4
Then we saw another old man, called Abba Bes, who
in meekness. The brothers who lived round about him assured us that he
had never sworn an oath, had never told a lie, had never been angry at
anyone, and had never scolded anyone. For he lived a life of the
utmost stillness, and his manner was serene, since he had attained
the angelic state. He was extremely humble and held himself of no
account. We pressed him strongly to speak a word of encouragement
to us, but he only consented to say a little about meekness, and was
reluctant to do even that.
Once when a hippopotamus was ravaging the neighboring countryside
the farmers called on this father to help them. He stood at the place
and waited, and when he saw the beast, which was of enormous size, he
commanded it in a gentle voice, saying, "In the name of Jesus Christ,
I order you not to ravage the countryside anymore." The hippopotamus,
as if driven away by an angel, vanished completely from that district.
On another occasion he got rid of a crocodile in the same way.
Historia Monachorum in Aegypto 4
The story is told of Blessed Basil that, making a
his monasteries, he said to one of the hegemons, "Have you got any
saints here?" The Abba said, "Through your prayers, my lord, we all
desire to be saints." And again, Blessed Basil said to him, "No, I
mean have you GOT any saints here?" And the Abba tumbled to it (for
he, too had spiritual insight). "Yes," he says, and he sent for a
certain brother. When he arrived, the Saint said to him, "Wash my
feet," and he went and fetched what was necessary. And after his
feet were washed, Basil said to the brother, "Wait till I wash your
feet." And without a murmur he allowed himself to be washed by the
holy man. After testing the brother in this way, he said, "When I
enter the sanctuary, you come too! And remind me to ordain you."
Again without a murmur, the brother obeyed, and when he saw the holy
Basil in the inner sanctuary, he went up and reminded him, and Basil
ordained him and took him with him, for who else but this blessed
brother was suitable to be with the holy god-bearing father? You do
not have experience of this unmurmuring obedience; neither do you
know what real internal peace is.
Dorotheos of Gaza, On Renunciation
Abba Isidore said, "If you fast regularly, do not be inflated with
pride, but if you think highly of yourself because of it, then you had
better eat meat. It is better for a man to eat meat than to be
inflated with pride and to glorify himself."
When Abba Romanus was at the point of death, his
gathered round him and said, "How ought we to conduct ourselves?"
The old man said to them, "I do not think I have ever told one of
you to do something, without having first made the decision not to
get angry, if what I said were not done; and so we have lived in
peace all our days."
(At the consecration of a monastic church dedicated
to St. Macarius,
the Coptic patriarch Benjamin I, 622-661, relates) When I had finished
the divine service and communicated the clergy, I saw again a great
grace which I must not hide from thee. For when the old men came up
for communion, I saw a vapour of incense ascending like perfume from
their mouths, so that I thought that each one of those fathers and
monks carried incense when he came up to communion. Then the roof
of the church opened, and that perfume ascended from it. And I
observed their mouths as they prayed when they approached the Lamb,
and I saw the words and the incense which issued from their mouths
ascending to heaven. So I was assured then that it was their
petitions and their prayers, which they uttered when the received
the Holy Mysteries, which are the Body and Blood of the pure Lord
Jesus Christ. And I saw the angels receiving those prayers of theirs,
and carrying them up before the throne of the Lord. And, on account
of the power of their prayers and supplications, I thought: Verily this
is the golden candlestick holding the lamp; and this is the precious
jewel; and this is the morning star which rises and shines upon the whole
world. And I sang the hymn of the three young men, Ananias, Azarias,
and Misael, which they recited in the furnace of burning fire: Blessed art
Thou O Lord, God of our fathers, and praised and glorified for ever.
And blessed in truth is the Lord, the God of these saints, by whom and by
whose like He directs the world. This is the meeting-place of angels,
and the harbor of all the souls which flee to God, the Deliverer of all
souls. Then I glorified and thanked the Lord Jesus Christ, who made me
worthy to witness what I saw.
from Severus ibn al-Muqaffa, History of the Patriarchs, 14 (247-248)
A man should know that a devil's sickness is on him if he is
seized by the urge in conversation to assert his opinion, however
correct it may be. If he behaves this way while talking to his
equals, then a rebuke from his elders may heal him. But if he
carries on in this way with those who are greater and wiser than
he, his sickness cannot be cured by human means.
St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent 4
One day the patriarch John (the Almsgiver) gave to one
of his servants who had
been reduced to extreme poverty two pounds of gold with his own hands
so that no one might know of it. When his servant said, "After this
gift I shall no longer have the courage to look you in the face, a
face so dear, so like an angel's," he made this wise and praiseworthy
answer, "I have not yet shed my blood on your behalf, brother, as
Christ, our God, my Master and the Master of us all, commanded me."
While there was a crowd of refugees in the city,
one of the
strangers, noticing John's remarkable sympathy, determined to test
the blessed man. So he put on old clothes and approached him as he
was on his way to visit the sick in the hospitals (for he did this
two or three times a week) and said to him, "Have mercy on me for I
have been a prisoner of war."
John said to his purse-bearer, "Give him six nomismata." After the
man had received these he went off, changed his clothes, met John again
in another street, and falling at his feet said, "Have pity on me for I
am in want." The Patriarch again said to his purse-bearer, "Give him
six nomismata." As he went away the purse-bearer whispered in the
Patriarch's ear, "By your prayers, master, this same man has had alms
from you twice over!" But the Patriarch pretended not to understand.
Soon the man came again for the third time to ask for money and the
attendant, carrying the gold, nudged the Patriarch to let him know that
it was the same man, whereupon the truly merciful and beloved of
God said, "Give him twelve nomismata, for perchance it is my Christ
and He is here to test me."
Now it happened one year that the Nile did not rise
water all our fields, and a multitude of the poor came to Abba Aaron
weeping and saying, "Our holy father, we and our children are going to
die because the waters have not risen!" He said to them,"Believe in God
and He will deliver you. As it is written, 'The prayer of the poor man
who is downhearted, he pours out entreaty before the Lord.' Again it
says, 'The Lord has heard the desires of the poor.'" He quoted them
numerous other passages from scripture and explained them to them,
and he comforted them, and in this way they departed from him praising
God. Now the holy man Aaron was not unconcerned about their distress,
and he would go to the river each evening and immerse himself in the
water up to his neck and he would pray to God, saying, "My good Christ,
compassionate one, have compassion upon your image and likeness."
Indeed, he continued this practice until God had compassion for his
tears and made the waters of the Nile flow over the face of the whole
Paphnutius, Life of Abba Aaron, 131 (trans. Tim Vivian)
Hold me worthy, O Lord, to behold your mercy in my soul before I depart
from this world; may I be aware in myself at that hour of your comfort,
along with those who have gone forth from this world in good hope.
Open my heart, O my God, by your grace and purify me from any
association with sin.
Tread out in my heart the path of repentance, my God and my Lord,
my hope and my boast, my strong refuge, by whom may my eyes be
illumined, and may I have understanding of your truth, O Lord.
Hold my worthy, Lord, to taste the joy of the gift of repentance,
by which the soul is separated from cooperating with sin and the
will of flesh and blood. Hold my worthy, O Lord, to taste this
state, wherein lies the gift of pure prayer.
O my Saviour, may I attain to this wondrous transition at which
the soul abandons this visible world, and at which new stirrings
arise on our entering into the spiritual world and the experience
of new perceptions.
St. Isaac the Syrian
Abba Agathon said, "If I could meet a leper, give him my
take his, I should be very happy." That indeed is perfect charity.
It was said concerning Abba Agathon that some monks came to find him,
having heard tell of his great discernment. Wanting to see if he would
lose his temper, they said to him, "Aren't you that Agathon who is said
to be a fornicator and a proud man?" "Yes, it is very true," he
answered. They resumed, "Aren't you that Agathon who is always talking
nonsense?" "I am." Again they said, "Aren't you Agathon the heretic?"
But at that, he replied, "I am not a heretic." So they asked him,
"Tell us why you accepted everything we cast you, but repudiated
this last insult." He replied, "The first accusations I take to
myself, for that is good for my soul. But heresy is separation from
God. Now I have no wish to be separated from God." At this saying
they were astonished at his discernment and returned, edified.
Someone asked Abba Agathon, "Which is better, bodily asceticism or
interior vigilance?" The old man replied, "Man is like a tree, bodily
asceticism is the foliage, interior vigilance the fruit. According to
that which is written, 'Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit
shall be cut down and cast into the fire' (Matt.3:10) it is clear that
all our care should be directed towards the fruit, that is to say,
guard of the spirit; but it needs the protection and the embellishment
of the foliage, which is bodily asceticism."
Look what good things occur to someone as a result
of divine care!
Sometimes, when a person is on his knees at the time of prayer, with
his hands outspread or extended heavenwards, his eyes gazing on the
Cross, and with the whole movement of his mind, as it were, stretched
towards God in entreaty, during the time while such a person is thus
engaged in supplication and groanings, all of a sudden a fountain of
sweetness is stirred up from his heart. His limbs become feeble, his
sight dim, he bows his head; his thoughts are altered and he can no
longer kneel on the ground as a result of the exultation at the sign
of grace which surges through his entire body.
Therefore, my reader, pay attention to what you are reading.
Indeed, can such things as these be known from writings in ink?
Can the taste of honey pass over from a written text to the palate
of the reader?
If you do not strive, you will not find; and if you do not knock
eagerly at the door and keep long vigil before it, you will not receive
St. Isaac the Syrian (of Nineveh), 7th century
Moses, the Libyan, was a very gentle and exceedingly lovable
who was accounted worthy of the gift of healing. He told me: When I
was a youth in the monastery, we dug a large cistern twenty feet
across. Eighty of us had been digging away there for three days
and we had gone about a cubit farther than usual. We had expected
to find a spring but had not found water. Deeply disappointed, we
were considering giving up the task. Abba Pior happened along then
from the Great Desert at the sixth hour, in the heat of the day,
and the old man was wearing a cloak. He greeted us and then said,
"Why have you become faint of heart, O ye of little faith? For
since yesterday I have seen you losing heart."
And he went down into the pit of the cistern on a ladder and
prayed along with them. He took up the pickaxe and said while
striking the third blow, "O God of the holy Patriarchs, do not
bring to naught the labor of your servants, but send them the water
they need." And at once water spouted forth so as to sprinkle them.
Then he said another prayer and left. They tried to get him to eat,
but he did not accede to their wishes, however, but said, "That for
which I was sent is accomplished. I was not sent for this."
Palladius, Historia Lausiaca, 39
An Athonite elder said: "A monk does not just study dogmas; he lives
by them. When he reads the Holy Scripture or the patristic writings,
he is not doing it to gain knowledge but to learn a language of
ineffable words with which God speaks through one's prayer.
Let what we call quicksilver (mercury) be a paradigm of perfect
obedience. Roll it with any substance you wish, and it will
nevertheless run to the lowest place and mix with nothing defiled.
St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 4
A brother questioned Abba Motius, saying, "If I go
somewhere, how do you want me to live?" The old man said to him,
"If you go live somewhere, do not seek to be known for anything
special; do not say, for example, I do not go to the synaxis; or
perhaps, I do not eat at the agape. For these things make an empty
reputation and later you will be troubled because of this. For men
rush where they find these practices." The brother said to him,
"What should I do, then?" The old man said, "Wherever you live,
follow the same manner of life as everyone else, and if you see
devout men whom you trust doing something, do the same thing and
you will be at peace. For this is humility: to see yourself to be
the same as the rest. When men see you do not go beyond the limits,
they will consider you to be no different than anyone else, and no
one will trouble you."
The story is told that at the Monastery of St. George
was blessed with monks who did not have beautiful voices. The
annual pilgrimage on the feast day of St. George was not very
impressive with the rather awful sounds coming from the choir. So
the Abbot called together all the monks and said, "Look, this year
I am going to invite the famous choir from the cathedral for the
feast." Word went out and thousands of people came to the Monastery
of St. George for the feast day, and it was a glorious event. The
famous choir from the cathedral was in superb form and used its best
voices. The Abbot was thrilled and even the humble monks who were
not allowed to sing that day were thrilled. Following the day's
festivities the monks went off to sleep, and the Abbot was soon
sound asleep after all the excitement of the day. While he was
sleeping, St. George came to him and said, "Father, I think you
missed my feast day! Today is my feast day and here you are, you
didn't do anything. Have I not blessed you this past year?" And
the Abbot said, "O, Saint George, I do not know where you were, but
we had a glorious feast today. How could you not be here?" St.
George said, "I was in the church and I saw a great multitude of
people, but I heard nothing."
Italicus, a citizen of Gaza and a Christian, was
for the chariot races against the duumvir (co-mayor), a worshiper of
the idol Marnas... Chariots ran seven times around the circus and
victory went to that side which succeeded in breaking down the
horses of their opponent. Now, as Italicus' rival had a magician
who by certain demoniacal imprecations could impede his opponent's
horses and at the same time spur on his own to the race, Italicus
went to blessed Hilarion and begged for help, not so much to injure
his adversary as to protect himself. It seemed foolish to the
venerable old man to waste prayer on this kind of nonsense. He
smiled and said, "Why don't you rather spend the price of horses
on the poor for the salvation of your soul?" He answered that the
contest was his public duty and it was not that he wanted to do
it but that he was forced to. He urged, furthermore, that a
Christian could not employ magical arts, but that he could petition
help from the servant of God, especially against the people of Gaza,
who were enemies of God and were not so much insulting him as they
were insulting the Church of Christ. At the request of the brothers
who were present, Hilarion ordered the cup from which he usually
drank to be filled with water and given to Italicus, who took it
and sprinkled his stable, horses, charioteers, carriage and ever
the bars of the starting stalls.
On the day of the contest, the expectation of the mob was at
high tension, for Italicus' opponent had mocked and belittled him.
On the other hand, his own partisans were in high spirits, promising
themselves certain victory. The signal was given. His horses flew;
his opponent's horses became entangled and hindered each other. The
wheels of the chariot glowed and his opponents scarcely caught sight
of the horses' backs as they flew by. The clamor of the crowd was so
great that the heathens themselves joined in the shout of triumph with:
"Marnas is conquered by Christ!" Furious, Italicus' adversaries
demanded that Hilarion, the magician of the Christians, be punished,
but the victory was incontestable and became the occasion of faith
for a great many at this and subsequent contests.
Jerome, Life of St. Hilarion, 20
Abba Theodore of Pherme said: "In these days many take their rest before
gives it to them."
A possession ought to belong to the possessor, not the possessor to
the possession. Whosoever, therefore, does not use his patrimony as
a possession, who does not know how to give and distribute to the
poor, he is the servant of his wealth, not its master; because like
a servant he watches over the wealth of another and not like a master
does he use it of his own. Hence, in a disposition of this kind, we
say that the man belongs to his riches, not the riches to the man.
St. Ambrose of Milan
Aristaenete, the wife of Elpidius, who later became praetorian
prefect <chief administrator of the eastern provinces, 360 AD> , a
woman well known among her own people and even more renowned among
the Christians, returning with her husband and her children from
visiting the blessed Anthony, was detained at Gaza by the illness of
her sons. There, either because of the infected atmosphere or, as
it later appeared, for the glory of the servant of God, Hilarion,
they were seized with a semitertian ague which the physicians
pronounced incurable. The distraught mother was crushed with grief
and ran from one to the other of what seemed to be the corpses of
her three children, not knowing which one to mourn for first. Then,
hearing that there was a certain monk in the desert nearby who might
help her, she laid aside her matronly dignity and, remembering only
that she was a mother, set out on foot to find him, accompanied by
maid-servants and eunuchs. With difficulty, her husband finally
persuaded her to ride on an ass.
When she found Hilarion, pleading for his intercession, she said,
"I beseech you through the most merciful Jesus our Lord, through His
Cross and His Blood, that you restore to me my three sons, that the
name of the Lord our Savior may be glorified in the city of the pagans,
and that His servant may enter Gaza and overthrow the idol, Marnas."
He refused, saying that he had never left his cell, and that it was
not his custom to enter even a small village, much less the city. The
desperate woman prostrated herself before him, crying out again and
again, "Hilarion, servant of Christ, give me back my children!
Anthony watched over them in Egypt, you must save them in Syria."
All who were present wept, and Hilarion himself wept too, in pity,
but he continued to refuse to go.
To make a long story short, the woman would not leave until he
promised her that he would enter Gaza after sundown. In Gaza, he
stopped at the bedside of each child, and gazing sorrowfully at
the feverish body, he called upon Jesus. O wonderful virtue! As
from three fountains, perspiration burst forth from each one. In
the same hour, the children took food, recognized their moaning
mother and, blessing God, they covered the hands of the saint with
kisses. When word of this miracle spread far and wide, people from
Syria and Egypt flocked to him eagerly, with the result that many
believed in Christ and many decided to become monks. Up to that
time, there had been no monasteries in Palestine nor had anyone known
of any monk in Syria before St. Hilarion. He was the founder,
inspiration, and teacher there of monastic life and service to God.
Our Lord Jesus had his senior servant Anthony in Egypt and his
junior, Hilarion, in Palestine.
Jerome, Life of St. Hilarion, 14
Venerable Hilarion, commemorated 21 October
Abba Zosimos the Cilician said: When I was a young man, I left Mt. Sinai
went to Ammoniac to stay there in a cell. There I found an elder dressed in
a short-sleeved shirt of palm-fibre. When the elder saw me, before greeting
me, he said, "Why have you come here, Zosimos? Get away from here. You cannot
stay in this place." I thought he knew me. I made a prostration before him
saying, "Of your charity, elder, whence do you know me?" He said to me,
"Two days ago, a being appeared to me who said, 'A monk is coming to you whose
name is Zosimos. Do not allow him to stay here. It is my will to entrust him
the church of the Egyptian Babylon (Old Cairo - CJH).' He fell silent and left
me, going about a stone's throw from me. There he spent some two hours in
prayer. Then he came back to me and kissed me on the forehead, saying,
"Naturally, child, you are welcome, for God has brought you here to bury my
body." I asked him, "How many years have you been here, abba?" "I am
completing my forty-fifth year," he replied. It looked to me as though his
face were of fire. He said to me, "Peace be with you, child; pray for me."
And with that, the servant of the Lord lay down and fell asleep. I dug a
grave and buried him. Two days later I went on my way, glorifying God.
John Moschus, Leimonarion (The Spiritual Meadow) 123
While he was still living in the imperial palace, Abba Arsenius prayed
God in these words, "Lord lead me in the way of salvation." And a voice came to
him saying, "Arsenius: flee from men and you will be saved."
Having withdrawn to the solitary life he made the same prayer again
heard a voice saying to him, "Arsenius: flee, be silent, pray ceaselessly,
for these are the sources of sinlessness."
It happened that when Abba Arsenius was sitting in his cell one day
was harassed by demons. His servants, on their return, stood outside his
cell and heard him praying to God in these words, "O God, do not leave me. I
have done nothing good in your sight, but according to your goodness, let me now
make a beginning of good."
You have heard from many all about the blessed Innocent,
of the Mount of Olives. Nevertheless you will also hear from us, who
lived with him for three years. He was simple beyond measure. Once he
had been one the palace dignitaries in the early days of Emperor
Constantius... This Innocent was so kindhearted that I shall seem
silly when I tell the truth. Often he himself stole from the brethren
and gave it to those in need. He was extremely guileless and simple
and was deemed worthy of the gift of power against demons. Once we
ourselves saw brought to him a young man who was paralyzed and possessed.
I reprimanded the young man's mother for bringing him, as I doubted he
could be cured.
Meanwhile the old man chanced to come up and see her standing there
weeping and bewailing the unspeakable misfortune of her son. Then the
venerable old man wept; deeply moved, he took the young man into the
shrine which he himself had erected and in which were kept the relics
of St. John the Baptist. And he prayed over the young man from the
third to the ninth hour and then returned him healed to his mother the
same day, as he had driven out both the paralysis and the demon.
Palladius, Historia Lausiaca, 44.1,3-4
We should be careful lest it should happen to us that while we are
talking about the journey along the narrow and hard road we may
actually wander onto the broad and wide highway.
St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 1
One of the fathers who had gone to Constantinople to attend to some
necessary business said:
Whilst I was sitting in the church, a man who was illustrious in the
worldly sense but also a great lover of Christ came in; and when he saw me,
he sat down. He then began asking about the salvation of the soul. I told him
that the heavenly life is given to those who live the earthly life in a
befitting way. "You have spoken well, abba," he said. "Blessed is the man
whose hope is in God and who presents himself as an offering to God. I am
the son of a man who was very distinguished by the standards of the world. My
father was very compassionate and distributed huge sums amongst the poor.
One day he called me. Showing me all his money, he said to me, "Son,
which do you prefer; that I leave you my money, or that I give you Christ as
your guardian?" Grasping the point he was making, I said I would rather
have Christ. For everything that is here today shall be gone tomorrow. Christ
remains forever. So from the moment he heard me say that, he gave without
sparing, leaving very little for me when he died. So I was left a poor man
and I lived simply, putting my hope in the God whom he bequeathed to me.
There was another rich man, one of the leading citizens, who had a wife
who loved Christ and feared God. And he had one daughter, his only child.
The wife said to the husband, "We have only this one daughter, yet the Lord
has endowed us with so many goods. What does she lack? If we seek to give
her in marriage to somebody of our own rank whose way of life is not
praiseworthy, it shall be a continual source of affliction to her. Let us
rather look for a lowly man who fears God; one who will love her and cherish
her according to God's holy law." He said to her, "This is good advice. Go
the church and pray fervently. Sit there, and whoever comes in first, he it
is whom the Lord has sent."
This she did. When she had prayed, she sat down and it was I who came
in at that moment. She sent a servant to call me straightaway and she began
asking me where I was from. I told her that I was from this city, the son
of such-and-such a man. She said, 'He who was so generous to the poor? And
have you a wife?' I said that I had not. I told her what my father had said to
me and what I had said to him. She glorified the Lord and said, 'Behold, the
Good Guardian whom you chose has sent you a bride -- and riches, so that you
may enjoy both in the fear of God.' I pray that I might follow in my
father's footsteps to the end of my days."
John Moschos, Leimonarion (The Spiritual Meadow) 201
It is no great thing not to judge, and to be sympathetic
to someone who is
in trouble and falls down before you, but it is a great thing not to judge
or to strike back when someone, on account of his own passions, speaks
against you. Likewise, it is a great thing not to disagree when someone
else is honored more than you are.
Dorotheos of Gaza
A certain monk nearly sixty years old, having heard
tell of these good
deeds of the Blessed Man (John the Almsgiver, Patriarch of Alexandria
610-619), wished to put him to the test, to see if he was quick to listen to
calumnies and be scandalized, and if that would be the case, if he would
condemn him. He had first lived in the monastery of Abba Seridon. And in
this manner, he came to Alexandria and adopted a lifestyle designed, without
doubt, to scandalize men, but approved by God who "gives to each," as David
says, "according to what is in his own heart."
Having thus entered the city, he wrote down for himself a list of
names of all the prostitutes, and he worked as a laborer in a workshop
(kamnein ergateias), and each day he earned a keration. When the sun went
down, he ate some warm beans for a follis (a quantity of bronze coins), took
the rest of the follis, went into one of the prostitutes, gave her the
follis and said: "Grant to me this night, but there will be no fornication." And he
remained at her side during the evening watching her so that she wouldn't go
fornicate. Late at night, he stood up in a corner of the small room near
the place where the woman laid, and he began a psalm, praying for her, saying
matins until dawn. Then he left, but he made the woman swear that she would
not tell anyone what he did. So that, when one of the prostitutes had
denounced him, that is to say revealed his conduct, saying, "He did not come
to us in order to fornicate, but to save us," the monk prayed, and the woman
was possessed by a demon, so that after this day the others were afraid and
did not unmask him for the rest of his life. Some people said to the
demoniac, "What is the matter? God has recompensed you because you have
lied. For it was in order to fornicate and not for any other reason that this
most vile man (kakes-chatos) came to you."
This holy Vitalios -- for that was his name -- wishing to flee from
human glory and to call back souls from the darkness, said in the hearing of
all as he labored in the workshop and left in the evening with his small
pay, "Come along, my lords, to Lady So-and-So who awaits you." Thus he spoke in
the place where he worked. And when many of them accused him and mocked him
he answered, "Haven't I a body like everyone else, or is it only upon monks
that the wrath of God descends so that they die from the troubles that they
bring upon themselves? Truly, they are also men, like those in the rest of
the world." Then certain ones said to him: "Get yourself a wife, Abba, and
change your habit, lest God be blasphemed because of you and lest you be
condemned for the souls you have caused to stumble." Again he replied to
them with oaths, even pretending to be angry, "As God lives, I am not going to
listen to you. Leave me alone. Must I now change my way of life, so that
you won't be scandalized? -- and as for taking a wife, (should I take one) for
the worries of a family and spend my days miserably? No, by God! If anyone
wants to be scandalized, let him be so. Let him beat his head against a wall.
What do you want of me? Did God set you up as my judges? Go on, look after your
own affairs. It isn't you who will defend me before God. There is only one
Judge, only one holy day of judgement; it is this Judge who will render to
each one according to his deeds. And if God had not willed it, I would not
be in Alexandria." He said this and created such a tumult by his shouting,
that everyone refrained from speaking to him. And he kept saying, "Truly, if you
don't stop, I will see that you do, and you will regret it!"
Then some of the church disciplinary officials (ekklesiekdikon), after
having learned of these things, reported this affair to the Papa. But God
knew that the saint did not wish to offend Abba Vitalios. The Papa turned a
deaf ear to this, and he did not believe anyone but he shook off those who
had said evil of Abba Vitalios, and reproached them greatly, saying, "Stop
bringing me accusations against monks. Do you know what writers tell us
about the late emperor Constantine, how some impious men, including some bishops
and monks, gained access to his holy council and gave to him denunciations
against one another before the Blessed Emperor? The saintly emperor Constantine
summoned these people before him two by two, the accuser and the accused,
and made them speak face to face, the plaintiff accusing the defendant of the
sin that he had committed, whether it was adultery or something worse, a murder
or whatever else. And when he had ascertained that the majority of these
accusations were well-founded, remembering that it was said, "Who is weak,
and I am not weak?" and that the Lord Himself had not condemned the adulterous
woman caught in flagrante delicto, he followed their example. He had a
lighted candle brought, and before the eyes of everyone, the accusers and
the accused, he burned all the accusations that had been given to him and said,
"In truth, if with my own eyes I had seen a priest of God or someone wearing
the garments of an angel committing a sin, I would undo my cloak and cover
him, so that none could see him. That is the very design you have had on
this eunuch who is a servant of God. You would have turned me from the path, and
would have brought a terrible condemnation on my soul." Having thus made
them greatly ashamed, he dismissed them.
However Vitalios, the servant of God, did not alter his conduct.
After all, this was the very thing he had asked of God. Thus after his
death he revealed in a dream to several people that one should not count as a
transgression the fact that someone is scandalized by his behavior, since,
he said, his own practices lent themselves so well to scandal, "and I will
condemn no one if he said something against me." Whatever the case, his
behavior brought compunction to many of these women, especially at night
when they saw him stretch his hands toward heaven and pray for each one of them.
Some abandoned prostitution, some married and corrected their behavior in
that way, while others renounced the world completely and pursued an eremetical
life. But no one knew until his death that his admonitions and prayers had
caused these improper young women to break with their sin.
Once toward dawn, when he was leaving the house of the chief/first one
of such women (tes protes ton toiouton gunaikon) he was met by a rake who
was coming there to fornicate with her. As soon as he saw master Vitalios leaving the
woman's establishment, the man slapped him and said, "You miserable mocker of
Christ, when will you stop abandoning yourself to these activities?" The monk said
to him, "Believe me, you poor little creature, someday you will be slapped so
hard that nearly all of Alexandria will congregate to hear your cries."
Just a short while later the blessed Vitalios fell asleep peacefully in his cell,
with absolutely no one knowing that he had. He had a tiny cell at the city
gate called the Gate of the Sun, so that often, when he celebrated the
Divine Liturgy in the Church of St. Metras next to his cell, some of the young
women would meet each other and say, "Let's go to Liturgy! Abba Vitalios is
celebrating again.!" When they came to church, he was very solicitous of
them, eating and joking with them until other people were irritated and
would say, "All these women love the pseudo-abbot so much, and they yield to his
designs on them," because, as stated above, they did not know his secret
mode of life. Doubtless they had seen him enter each one of (those women's)
houses, but they were unaware that his generous, chaste man was on an errand
to save them.
Thus, as we have said, when unknown to anyone he had fallen asleep in
his cell, a demon in the guise of an evil-eyed Ethiopian appeared alongside
the man who had slapped Abba Vitalios, and struck him also, saying, "Take
this blow that you gave to Abba Vitalios." The man immediately fell to the
ground and began to foam at the mouth. As Abba Vitalios had prophesied, a large
crowd assembled from all over the city of Alexandria, drawn by the violence
this man was suffering at the hands of the demon, and especially since the
sound of that slap was heard by some as far as an arrow can travel. When he
regained consciousness several hours later, he possessed man tore his
clothes from his chest and ran to the saint's cubicle, shouting and saying, "I have
sinned against you, O Vitalios, servant of God. Have pity on me!" All
those who heard him ran with him, and when they arrived at the saint's cubicle the
demon came out of him in the sight of all, tearing him mightily. And when
those who accompanied him entered the cell, they found the saint on his
knees in prayer, having commended his soul to the Lord, while on the ground this
inscription was seen: "Men of Alexandria, do not judge before the time,
until the Lord comes." At this, the demon immediately left the man, who then
began to confess how he had wronged the saint and to report what the saint had
said to him.
All this was reported immediately to the Papa (patriarch). Then he left,
accompanied by the clergy, to view the remains of Saint Vitalios. When he
saw the inscription on the ground, he said, "In truth, it is by God's grace that
humble John has escaped this inscription, seeing that the blow dealt to this
possessed man was one that I might have received." Then all the prostitutes
who had renounced the world and those who had married led the saint's
funeral procession with candles and torches, weeping and saying, "We have lost our
savior and our teacher." "He did not enter our houses for any shameful
activity. We never say him sleep except on his side, and he took only one
of us by the hand." Some of the people reproached them and said, "Why didn't
you say this to the rest of us? He scandalized the whole city!" Then they told
them what had happened to the demon-possessed woman. "We were afraid the
same thing would happen to us, and so we kept our peace."
When he had been buried with high honors, the man who had obtained
punishment and healing from the saint remained behind, giving unceasing
testimony to his memory. In the end, he renounced the world and joined that
same monastery of the Abba Seridon in Gaza, and by faith he occupied the
cubicle of Abba Vitalios, where he remained until his death.
Meanwhile, the most holy Patriarch performed great acts of
thanksgiving to God, that he had not been permitted to sin against God's
servant Vitalios. And since that time, many men and women have given aid to
the monks in Alexandria, forever afterward showing them hospitality, and
always careful not to condemn anyone when a similar occasion arose. May the
Lord, by this man's prayers, justify us and take pity upon us, until that
day when He reveals the hidden depths of men and bares the designs of their
Leontius, Life of John the Almsgiver, 36
It happened that Abba Moses the Ethiopian was struggling with the temptation
of fornication. Unable to stay any long in the cell, he went and told Abba
Isidore. The old man exhorted him to return to his cell. But he refused,
saying, "Abba, I cannot." Then Abba Isidore took Moses out onto the terrace
and said to him, "Look towards the west." He looked and saw hordes of
demons flying about and making a noise before launching an attack. Then Abba
Isidore said to him, "Look towards the east." He turned and saw an innumerable
multitude of holy angels shining with glory. Abba Isidore said, "See, these
are sent by the Lord to the saints to bring them help, while those in the
west fight against them. Those who are with us are more in number than they
are." Then Abba Moses gave thanks to God, plucked up his courage, and returned to
Abba Isidore said, "One day I went to the marketplace to sell some small
goods. When I saw anger approaching me, I left the things and fled."
If any of them committed a fault, many of the brothers would seek his
permission to take the matter to the abbot and to accept both the
responsibility and the punishment. When the great man found out that his
disciples did this, he inflicted easier punishments, in the knowledge that
the one punished was actually innocent. And he made no effort to discover the
St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 4
In this monastery there was another maiden
who feigned madness and
demon-possession. The others felt such contempt for her that they never ate
with her, which pleased her entirely. Taking herself to the kitchen, she
used to perform menial service and she was, as the saying goes, the sponge of the
monastery, really fulfilling the Scriptures, "If any man among you seems to
be wise in this world, let him become a fool that he may be wise." She wore a
rag around her head. All the others had their hair closely cropped and wore
cowls. In this way she used to serve. Not one of the four hundred ever saw
her chewing all the years of her life. She never sat down at table or
partook of a particle of bread, but she wiped up with a sponge the crumbs from the
tables and was satisfied with scouring pots. She was never angry at anyone,
nor did she grumble or talk, either little or much, although she was
maltreated, insulted, cursed, and loathed.
Now an angel appeared to St. Piteroum, the famous anchorite dwelling
at Porphyrities, and said to him, "Why do you think so much of yourself for
being pious and residing in a place such as this? Do you want to see
someone more pious than yourself, a woman? Go to the women's monastery at Tabennisi
and there you will find one with a rag on her head. She is more advanced
than you. While being cuffed about by such a crowd, she has never taken her
heart off God. But you dwell here and wander about cities in your mind."
And he who had never gone away left that monastery and asked the
prefects to allow him to enter into the monastery of women. They admitted
him, since he was well on in years and, moreover, had a great reputation.
So he went in and insisted upon seeing all of them. She did not appear.
Finally he said to them, "Bring them all to me, for she is missing." They told him,
"You have seen them all, except for one we have in the kitchen who is mad."
He told them, "Bring her to me. Let me see her."
They went to call her, but she did not answer, either because she knew
of the incident or because it was revealed to her. They seized her forcibly
and told her, "The holy Piteroum wishes to see you," for he was renowned.
When she came, he saw the rag on her head and, falling down at her feet, he
said, "Bless me!" In a similar manner, she too fell down at his feet and
said, "Bless me, lord." All the women were amazed at this and said,
"Father, take no insults. She is mad." Piteroum then addressed the women, "You are
the ones who are mad! This woman is a spiritual mother (amma) to both you
and me, and I pray that I may be deemed as worthy as she on the Day of
Hearing this, they fell at his feet, confessing various things - one
how she had poured the leavings of her plate over her head; another had
beaten her with her fists; another had blistered her nose. So they confessed
various and sundry outrages. After praying for them, he left. And after a few days
she was unable to bear the praise and honor of the sisters, and all their
apologizing was so burdensome to her that she left the monastery. Where she
went and where she disappeared to, and how she died, nobody knows.
Palladius, Historia Lausiaca 36
early 5th century
Abba Hyperchius said, "He who does not control his tongue when he is
will not control his passions either."
Abba Isaiah said, "A beginner who goes from one monastery to another
an animal who jumps this way and that, for fear of the halter."
A brother asked one of the elders, "What shall I do? My thoughts
turned to lust without allowing me an hour's respite, and my soul is
tormented by it." He said to him, "Every time the demons suggest these thoughts to
you, do not argue with them. For the activity of demons always is to suggest,
and suggestions are not sins, for they cannot compel. But it rests with you to
welcome them, or not to welcome them. Do you know what the Midianites did?
They adorned their daughters and presented them to the Israelites. They did
not compel anyone, but those who consented, sinned with them, while the
others were enraged and put them to death. It is the same with thoughts." The
brother answered the old man, "What shall I do, then, for I am weak and
passion overcomes me?" He said to him, "Watch your thoughts, and every time
they begin to say something to you, do not answer them but rise and pray;
kneel down, saying, 'Son of God, have mercy on me.'"
Another father, called Abba Helle, had persevered
since childhood in
the ascetic life. He often carried fire to his neighboring brethren in the
fold of his tunic, and stimulated them to advance to the point of performing
miracles, saying to them, "If you practice true ascesis, then you will show
the supernatural signs of virtue."
Once on a Sunday he went to see some monks and said to them, "Why have
you not celebrated the Divine Liturgy today?" When they replied that it was
because the priest had not come from the other side of the river, he said to
them, "I shall go and call him." But they said it was impossible for anyone
to cross the ford, partly because of the depth, but most of all because
there was a huge beast at that spot, a crocodile which had devoured many people.
The father did not hesitate. At once he jumped up and rushed into the ford.
And immediately the beast took him onto its back and set him down on the
other side. On finding the priest at his place, he entreated him not to neglect
the community of brothers. The priest, seeing that he was dressed in a rag with
many patches, asked him where he had found it, saying, "You have a most
beautiful mantle for your soul, brother," for he was amazed at his humility
and poverty. He followed Helle back to the river. As they failed to find a
ferry, Helle let out a cry calling the crocodile to him. The animal obeyed
him instantly and offered its back as a raft. Helle asked the priest to
climb on with him. But the priest was terrified at the sight of the beast and
backed away. While he and the brothers who lived on the other bank watched,
seized with dread, he crossed the ford with the beast, came ashore, and
hauling the beast out of the water, said to it, "It is better for you to die
and make restitution for all the lives you have taken." Whereupon the
animal at once sank onto its belly and died.
Historia Monachorum in Aegypto 12.1,6-9
Abba Evagrius said: If you know how to practice patience, you shall
pray with joy.