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Sayings of the Desert Fathers

If you find the stories here interesting, then I highly recommend this book to you. The Introduction is a must for understanding the settings and attitudes of some of the stories. The stories featured here are ones that are easily enough understood with what little I've written (see below). I've chosen these for the wisdom they display and for their entertainment value. I hope that they are also spiritually provocative. I bought my book through Amazon, used, and it was in wonderful condition until I marked it all up! There are other editions out there, but the one I have is Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection translated, with a foreword by Benedicta Ward, SLG and Preface by Metropolitan Anthony; published by Cistercian Publications.

Abba John the Dwarf is my favorite of the monks in the book because of his wisdom and character.

This story may be a parable he created or it may have been thought to have been an actual event. To me, it reads like a parable. The emphasis here is on humility, a virtue prized among the monks. It also shows the great length the "old man" (probably a term for an Abba) was ready to go to try and preserve his own spiritual peace.

Abba John the Dwarf said, 'There was a spiritual old man who lived a secluded life. He was held in high estimation in the city and enjoyed a great reputation. He was told that a certain old man, at the point of death, was calling for him, to embrace him before he fell asleep. He thought to himself, if I go by day, men will run after me, giving me great honour, and I shall not be at peace in all that. So I will go in the evening in the darkness and I shall escape everyone's notice. But lo, two angels were sent by God with lamps to give him light. Then the whole city came out to see his glory. The more he wished to flee from the glory, the more he was glorified. In this was accomplished that which is written: "He who humbles himself will be exalted."' (Luke 14:11)

Of all of the Abba John stories, this may be my favorite.

There was an old man at Scetis, very austere of body, but not very clear in his thoughts. He went to see Abba John to ask him about forgetfulness. Having received a word from him, he returned to his cell and forgot what Abba John had said to him. He went off again to ask him and having heard the same word from him he returned with it. As he got near his cell, he forgot it again. This he did many times; he went there, but while he was returning he was overcome by forgetfulness. Later, meeting the old man he said to him, 'Do you know, abba, that I have forgotten again what you said to me? But I did not want to overburden you, so I did not come back.' Abba John said to him, 'Go and light a lamp.' He lit it. He said to him, 'Bring some more lamps, and light them from the first.' He did so. Then Abba John said to the old man, 'Has that lamp suffered any loss from the fact that other lamps have been lit from it?' He said, 'No.' The old man continued, 'So it is with John; even if the whole of Scetis came to see me, they would not separate me from the love of Christ. Consequently, whenever you want to, come to me without hesitation.' So, thanks to the endurance of these two men, God took forgetfulness away from the old man. Such was the work of the monks of Scetis; they inspire fervour in those who are in the conflict and do violence to themselves to win others to do good.

Abba Ephrem is possibly Ephrem the Syrian, the hymn writer

Another time, when Ephrem was on the road, a prostitute tried by her flatteries, if not to lead him to shameful intercourse, at least to make him angry, for no-one had ever seen him angry. He said to her, 'Follow me.' When they had reached a very crowded place, he said to her, 'In this place, come, do what you desire.' But she, seeing the crowd, said to him, 'How can we do what we want to do in front of so great a crowd, without being ashamed?' He replied, 'If you blush before men, how much more should we blush before God, who knows what is hidden in darkness?' She was covered with shame and went away without having achieved anything.

Abba Poemen (called the Shepherd)

It appears that this monk miraculously was enabled to speak Greek

Abba John, who had been exiled by the emperor Marcian, said, 'We went to Syria one day to see Abba Poemen and we wanted to ask him about purity of heart. But the old man did not know Greek and no interpreter could be found. So, seeing our embarrassment, the old man began to speak Greek, saying, 'The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the man who hears the word of God often, opens his heart to the fear of God.'

Abba Arsenius

Abba David said, 'Abba Arsenius told us the following, as though it referred to someone else, but in fact it referred to himself. An old man was sitting in his cell and a voice came to him which said, "Come, and I will show you the works of men." He got up and followed. The voice led him to a certain place and shewed him an Ethiopian cutting wood and making a great pile. He struggled to carry it but in vain. But instead of taking some off, he cut more wood which he added to the pile. He did this for a long time. Going on a little further, the old man was shown a man standing on the shore of a lake drawing up water and pouring it into a broken receptacle, so that the water ran back into the lake. Then the voice said to the old man, "Come, and I will shew you something else." He saw a temple and two men on horseback, opposite one another, carrying a piece of wood crosswise. They wanted to go in through the door but could not because they held their piece of wood crosswise. Neither of them would draw back before the other, so as to carry the wood straight; so they remained outside the door. The voice said to the old man, "These men carry the yoke of righteousness with pride, and do not humble themselves so as to correct themselves and walk in the humble way of Christ. So they remain outside the Kingdom of God. The man cutting the wood is he who lives in many sins and instead of repenting he adds more faults to his sins. He who draws the water is he who does good deeds, but mixing bad ones with them, he spoils even his good works. So everyone must be watchful of his actions, lest he labour in vain."

One of the things that I've found both entertaining and uplifting is my reading of a book, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. This book is a collection of stories and sayings from the early monastic movement in Egypt. Below I've listed a few jot-notes to help the uninitiated come to a bit of an understanding about the early monastic movement. I will also include notes with an excerpt as I see fit.

  • The early monks were driven by their desire to wholly devote themselves to seeking and knowing God. For them, this included some drastic measures. They chose, based on their understanding of Scripture, to seclude themselves in the wilderness regions. Jesus went to the wilderness to fast and fight temptations, so did they.

  • They would fast for long periods of time, pray for hours or days on end, and contemplate God at all times. Other humans, even other monks, could be a distraction and break that contemplation process, thus isolation was the preferable way of life.

  • They lived in what were called "cells," which were primitive quarters they built themselves. Originally monks sought to live alone, but over time they attracted disciples who lived nearby and monastic communities arose.

  • A prominent monk would be addressed as "Abba" (father) and if the monk were female, "Amma" (mother). The seasoned monks were often sought out by their disciples for their advice or instruction about how to live properly (often called a "word").

  • The reputation of these people was such that they were sometimes asked to intervene in secular problems or to help settle disputes within the monastic community. Some were even sought for their valued opinions during certain theological controversies during church councils.

  • Secular officials would often travel great distances to visit a noted Abba, but the Abba would not always agree to meet the visitor because it was a distraction.

  • The monks strove to be humble and to not love anything of this world, including their meager possessions. Often stories are told of robbers coming to the monk's cell and the monk helping the robber to load his goods. By this they demonstrated that they did not love the things of this world.

    These were people of great discipline and great devotion. They struggled with their human inner thoughts. They wrestled with the issue of sin. They fought with demons, talked with Satan, and performed miracles. While I cannot vouch for the historical truthfulness of the accounts, I can vouch for the truthful historicalness of these stories. They were told and recorded as if they were true. It is only in our modern age that such things are called into question.

    For more reading see Christianity Today's Links about the desert life.
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