Timeless and contemplative sayings from the earliest Christian fathers of desert spirituality

From very early on, monks inhabited the desert lands of Egypt as a means of offering up their lives toward Christ. These early Christian monks left the world in search of a deeper relationship with Christ by astutely following the gospel. As the Lenten Fraction says “they dwelt in the mountains and deserts and holes of the earth because of their great love for Christ the King”. These monks in their simplicity of living experienced the deepest, most profound relationship with their Savior. Through their strife and life of repentance, they have experienced unity with God.

Alphabetical Collection

The brothers praised a monk before Abba Anthony the monk came to see him, Anthony wanted to know how he would bear insults; and seeing that he could not bear them at all, he said to him, ‘You are like a village magnificently decorated on the outside but destroyed from within by robbers.’

Abba Anthony the Great

“He who wishes to live in solitude in the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech, and sight; there is only one conflict for him and that is with fornication.”

“It is not seemly for us to remember the time which has passed, but let a man be each day as one who begins his toil, so that the excessive weariness (which we shall feel) may be to our advantage. And let him say, as Paul said, “That which is behind me I forget, and I reach out to that which is before me’ (Philippians 3:13). And let him also remember the word of Elijah who said, ‘As the Lord lives, before Whom I stand this day’” (1 Kings 17:1).

He also said, ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.’

“One should not say that it is impossible to reach a virtuous life; but one should say that it is not easy. Nor do those who have reached it find it easy to maintain. Those who are devout and whose intellect enjoys the love of God participate in the life of virtue; the ordinary intellect, however, is worldly and wavering, producing both good and evil thoughts, because it is changeful by nature and directed towards material things. But the intellect that enjoys the love of God punishes the evil which arises spontaneously because of man’s laziness.”

The brethren came to the Abba Anthony and said to him, “Speak a word; how are we to be saved?” The old man said to them, “You have heard the Scriptures. That should teach you how.” But they said, “We want to hear from you too, Father.” Then the old man said to them, “The Gospel says, ‘if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.’” (Matt. 5.39) They said, “We cannot do that.” The old man said, “If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck.” “We cannot do that either,” they said. So he said, “If you are not able to do that, do not return evil for evil,” and they said, “We cannot do that either.” Then the old man said to his disciples, “Prepare a little brew of corn for these invalids. If you cannot do this, or that, what can I do for you? What you need is prayers.”

“Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen, “This is the great work of man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.”

Abba Anthony said, “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will rise up against him, saying ‘You are mad, because you are not like us.’”

A brother said to Abba Anthony, “Pray for me.” The old man said to him, ” I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.

Somebody asked Abba Anthony, “By observing which [precept] shall I be well pleasing to God?” The elder answered, “Observe what I am telling you: Always have God before your eyes wherever you go. Whatever you are doing, have the testimony from Holy Scripture to hand. Wherever you are living, do not be in a hurry to move away. Observe these three [precepts] and you will be saved.”

Abba Arsenius

Once at Scetis Abba Arsenius was ill and he was without even a scrap of linen. As he had nothing with which to buy any, he received some through another’s charity and he said, ‘I give you thanks, Lord, for having considered me worthy to receive this charity in your name.’

The brethren said, “Abba Arsenius said unto one of the brethren, ‘Lead the ascetic life with all the strength that you have, and the hidden labour which is within, and which is performed for God’s sake, shall vanquish your external passions’; to what does he give the name of passions?”

The old man said, “In this case, Abba Arsenius call the labours of the body ‘passions,’ because they constrain those who toil, and make them feel pain, even as Abba Macarius said, “Constrain your soul with pains and labours of every kind in ascetic excellence.” And this is what Abba Arsenius said to that brother, “Labour with all your might in the work of righteousness, and toil with the labours of the mind more than with all the various kinds of work of the body. For the labours of the body only incite and gratify the passions of the body, but the labours of the mind, that is to say, the thought which is in God, and prayer without ceasing, and the suppression of the thought(s) with humility liberate a man from all the passions, and they vanquish devils, and purify the heart, and make perfect love, and make him worthy of the revelations of the spirit.’”

A certain brother came to Abba Arsenius, and said unto him, “My thoughts vex me, and say ‘You cannot fast, and you are not able to labour, therefore visit the sick, which is a great commandment.” Then Abba Arsenius, after the manner of one who was well acquainted with the war of the devils, said unto him, “Eat, drink, sleep and toil not, but on no account go out of your cell”; for the old man knew that dwelling constantly in the cell induces all the habits of the solitary life.

And when the brother had done these things for three days he became weary of idleness, and finding a few palm leaves on the ground, he took them and began to split them up, and on the following day he dipped them in water and began to work (i.e. to weave baskets); and when he felt hungry he said, “I will finish one more small piece of work, and then I will eat.” And when he was reading in the Book, he said, “I will sing a few Psalms and say a few prayers, and then I shall eat without compunction.”

Thus little by little, by the agency of God, he advanced in the ascetic life until he reached the first rank, and received the power to resist the thoughts and vanquish them.

It happened that when Abba Arsenius was sitting in his cell that he 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.’

Abba Daniel

‘The body prospers in the measure in which the soul is weakened, and the soul prospers in the measure in which the body is weakened.’

It was said concerning Abba Daniel, that when the barbarians invaded Scetis and the Fathers fled away, the old man said, ‘If God does not care for me, why still live?’ Then he passed through the midst of the barbarians without being seen. He said to himself therefore, ‘See how God has cared for me, since I am not dead. Now I will do that which is human and flee with the Fathers.’

A brother asked Abba Daniel, ‘Give me a commandment and I will keep it.’ He replied, ‘Never put your hand in the dish with a woman, and never eat with her; thus you will escape a little the demon of fornication.’

Abba Elias

Abba Elias said, ‘An old man was living in a temple and the demons came to say to him, “Leave this place which belongs to us,” and the old man said, “No place belongs to you.” Then they began to scatter his palm leaves about, one by one, and the old man went on gathering them together with perseverance. A little later the devil took his hand and pulled him to the door. When the old man reached the door, he seized the lintel with the other hand crying out, “Jesus, save me.” Immediately the devil fled away. Then the old man began to weep. Then the Lord said to him, “Why are you weeping?” and the old man said, “Because, the devils have dared to seize a man and treat him like this.’ The Lord said to him, “You had been careless. As soon as you turned to me again, you see I was beside you.” I say this, because it is necessary to take great pains, and anyone who does not do so, cannot come to his God. For He himself was crucified for our sake.

Abba Elias said, ‘For my part: I fear three things: the moment when my soul will leave my body, and when I shall appear before God, and when the sentence will be given against me.’

Abba Epiphanius

Abba Epiphanius said, ‘The acquisition of Christian books is necessary for those who can use them. For the mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin, and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness.’

He also said, ‘Reading the Scriptures is a great safeguard against sin.’

Abba John Colobos

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. Then 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 hence- forth 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.’

Some old men were entertaining themselves at Scetis by hav- ing 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 it 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.

Abba Isidore

It was said of Abba Isidore, priest of Scetis, that when anyone had a brother who was sick, or careless or irritable, and wanted to send him away, he said, ‘Bring him here to me.’ Then he took charge of him and by his long-suffering he cured him.

Abba Poemen used to say this about Abba Isidore: every night he plaited a bundle of palms, and the brethren pleaded with him saying, ‘Rest a little, for you are getting old.’ But he said to them, ‘Even if Isidore were burned, and his ashes thrown to the winds, I would not allow myself any relaxation because the Son of God came here for our sake.’

The same abba said concerning Abba Isidore that his thoughts said to him, ‘You are a great man.’ He said to them, ‘Am I to be compared with Abba Anthony; am I become like Abba Pambo, or like the other Fathers who pleased God?’ When he said this he was at peace. When the demons who are at war with men tried to make him afraid, suggesting that, after all this, he would still go to hell, he replied, ‘Even if I am sent there, I shall find you beneath me.’

Abba Isidore went one day to see Abba Theophilus, arch- bishop of Alexandria and when he returned to Scetis the brethren asked him, ‘What is going on in the city?’ But he said to them, ‘Truly, brothers, I did not see the face of anyone there, except that of the archbishop.’ Hearing this they were very anxious and said to him, ‘Has there been a disaster there, then, abba?’ He said, ‘Not at all, but the thought of looking at anyone did not get the better of me.’ At these words they were filled with admiration, and strengthened in their intention of guarding the eyes from all distraction.

The same Abba Isidore said, ‘It is the wisdom of the saints to recognize the will of God. Indeed, in obeying the truth, man surpasses everything else, for he is the image and likeness of God. Of all evil suggestions, the most terrible is that of following one’s own heart, that is to say, one’s own thought, and not the law of God. A man who does this will be afflicted later on, because he has not recognized the mystery, and he has not found the way of the saints in order to work in it. For now is the time to labour for the Lord, for salvation is found in the day of affliction: for it is written: “By your endurance you will gain your lives.” ‘ (Luke 21.19)

Abba Isaac

One day they came to make Abba Isaac a priest. Hearing this, he ran away to Egypt. He went into a field and hid himself in the midst of the hay. So the clergy went after him in pursuit. Reaching the same field, they stopped there to rest a little, for it was night. They unharnessed the ass to let it graze. The ass went close to the old man, so, when dawn came and they looked for her, they found Abba Isaac too, which filled them with astonishment. They wanted to bind him, but he did not allow it, saying, ‘I will not run away again. For it is the will of God, and wherever I flee, I find that.’

Concerning Abba Isaac it was said that when he was at the point of death the old men gathered round him saying, ‘What shall we do without you?’ He said to them, ‘See how I have walked before you; if you want to follow me and keep the commandments of God, God will send you his grace and will protect this place; but if you do not keep his commandments, you cannot remain in this place. We ourselves, when our Fathers were on the point of dying, were full of grief, but, keeping the Lord’s commandments and their admonitions, we have held fast as though they were still with us. Do the same in your turn, and you will be saved.’

Abba Lot

One of the old men came to Abba Lot’s dwelling, near to the little marsh of Arsinoe and he asked for a cell, which Abba Lot gave him. Now the old man was ill and Abba Lot took care of him. When anyone came to see Abba Lot, he made him visit the sick old man also. But the sick man began to quote the words of Origen to the visitors. This made Abba Lot anxious and he said to himself, ‘The Fathers must not think that we are like that too.’ However, he was afraid to drive him away because of the commandment. So Abba Lot got up and went to Abba Arsenius and told him about the old man. Abba Arsenius said to him, ‘Do not drive him away, but say to him: look, eat that which comes from God and drink as much as you like, only do not make such remarks any more. If he wants to, he will correct himself. If he does not want to change his ways, he will ask to leave this place of his own accord. Thus his departure will not come from you.’ Abba Lot went away and did this. When the old man heard these word he did not want to change, but he began to ask him, ‘For the Lord’s sake, send me away from here, for I can no longer bear the desert.’ So he got up and left, accompanied to the door by charity.

It was related of a brother who had committed a fault that when he went to Abba Lot, he was troubled and hesitated, going in and coming out, unable to sit down. Abba Lot said to him, ‘What is the matter, brother?’ He said, ‘I have committed a great fault and I cannot acknowledge it to the Fathers.’ The old man said to him, ‘Confess it to me, and I will carry it.’ Then he said to him, ‘I have fallen into fornication, and in order to do it, I have sacrificed to idols.’ The old man said to him, ‘Have confidence; repentance is possible. Go, sit in your cave, eat only once in two days and I will carry half of your fault with you.’ After three weeks, the old man had the certainty that God had accepted the brother’s repentance. Then the latter remained in submission to the old man until his death.

Abba Macarius the Great

1. Abba Macarius said this about himself: ‘When I was young and was living in a cell in Egypt, they took me to make me a cleric in the village. Because I did not wish to receive this dignity, I fled to another place. Then a devout layman joined me; he sold my manual work for me and served me. Now it happened that a virgin in the village, under the weight of temptation, committed sin. When she became pregnant, they asked her who was to blame. She said, “The anchorite.” Then they came to seize me, led me to the village and hung pots black with soot and various other things round my neck and led me through the village in all directions, beating me and saying, “This monk has denied our virgin, catch him, catch him,” and they beat me almost to death. Then one of the old men came and said, “What are you doing, how long will you go on beating this strange monk?” The man who served me was walking behind me, full of shame, for they covered him with insults too, saying, “Look at this anchorite, for whom you stood surety; what has he done?” The girl’s parents said, “Do not let him go till he has given a pledge that he will keep her.” I spoke to my servant and he vouched for me. Going to my cell, I gave him all the baskets I had, saying, “Sell them, and give my wife something to eat.” Then I said to myself, “Macarius, you have found yourself a wife; you must work a little more in order to keep her.” So I worked night and day and sent my work to her. But when the time came for the wretch to give birth, she remained in labour many days without bringing forth, and they said to her, “What is the matter?” She said, “I know what it is, it is because I slandered the anchorite, and accused him unjustly; it is not he who is to blame, but such and such a young man.” Then the man who served me came to me full of joy saying, “The virgin could not give birth until she had said ‘The anchorite had nothing to do with it, but I have lied about him.’ The whole village wants to come here solemnly and do penance before you.” But when I heard this, for fear people would disturb me, I got up and fled here to Scetis. That is the original reason why I came here.’

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, per- haps it comes from the 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 together, 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.’

When Abba Macarius dwelt in the great desert, he was the only one living as an anchorite, but lower down there was another desert where several brothers dwelt. The old man was surveying the road when he saw Satan drawing near in the likeness of a man and he passed by his dwelling. He seemed to be wearing some kind of cotton garment, full of holes, and a small flask hung at each hole. The old man said to him, ‘Where are you off to?’ He said, ‘I am going to stir up the memories of the brethren.’ The old man said, ‘And what is the purpose of these small flasks?’ He replied, ‘I am taking food for the brethren to taste.’ The old man said, ‘All those kinds?’ He replied, ‘Yes, for if a brother does not like one sort of food, I offer him another, and if he does not like the second any better, I offer him a third; and of all these varieties he will like one at least.’ With these words he departed. The old man remained watching the road until he saw him coming back again. When the old man saw him, he said to him: ‘Good health to you.’ The other replied: ‘How can I be in good health?’ The old man asked him what he meant, and he replied, ‘Because they all opposed me, and no one received me.’ The old man said, ‘Ah, you did not find any friends down there?’ He replied, ‘Yes, I have a monk who is a friend down there. He at least obeys me and when he sees me he changes like the wind.’The old man asked him the name of this monk. ‘Theopemtus,’ he replied. With these words he went away. Then Abba Macarius got up and went to the desert below his own. When they heard of it the brothers took branches of palm to go to meet him. Each one got ready, thinking that it was to him the old man was coming down. But he enquired which was the one on the mountain called Theo- pemptus, and when he had found out he went to his cell. Theo- pemptus received him with joy. When he was alone with him the old man asked him, ‘How are you getting on?’ Theopemptus re- plied, ‘Thanks to your prayers, all goes well.’ The old man asked: ‘Do not your thoughts war against you?’ He replied: ‘Up to now, it is all right,’ for he was afraid to admit anything. The old man said to him, ‘See how many years I have lived as an ascetic, and am praised by all, and though I am old, the spirit of fornication troubles me.’ Theopemptus said, ‘Believe me, abba, it is the same with me.’ The old man went on admitting that other thoughts still warred against him, until he had brought him to admit them about himself. Then he said, ‘How do you fast?’ He replied, ‘Till the ninth hour.’ ‘Practise fasting a little later; meditate on the Gospel and the other Scriptures, and if an alien thought arises within you, never look at it but always look upwards, and the Lord will come at once to your help.’ When he had given the brother this rule, the old man then returned to his solitude. He was watching the road once more when he saw the devil, to whom he said, ‘Where are you going this time?’ He replied, ‘To arouse the memories of the brothers,’ and he went away. When he came back the saint asked him, ‘How are the broth- ers?’ He replied that it had gone badly. The old man asked him why. He replied, ‘They are all obdurate, and the worst is the one friend I had who used to obey me. I do not know what has changed him, but not only does he not obey me any more, but he has become the most obdurate of them all. So I have promised myself not to go down there again at least not for a long time from now.’ When he had said this, he went away leaving the old man, and the saint returned to his cell.

Abba Macarius was asked, ‘How should one pray?’ The old man said, ‘There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hands and say, “Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.” And if the conflict grows fiercer say, “Lord, help!” He knows very well what we need and he shews us his mercy.’

A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, ‘Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.’ So the old man said, ‘Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.’ The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, ‘Didn’t they say anything to you?’ He replied, ‘No.’ The old man said, ‘Go back tomorrow and praise them.’ So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, ‘Apostles, saints and righteous men.’ He re- turned to the old man and said to him, ‘I have complimented them.’ And the old man said to him, ‘Did they not answer you?’ The brother said no. The old man said to him, ‘You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.’

One day Abba Macarius went to see Abba Anthony. He spoke to him and then returned to Scetis. The Fathers came to meet him, and as they were speaking, the old man said to them, ‘I said to Abba Anthony that we do not have an offering in our district.’ But the Fathers began to speak of other things without asking him to tell them the old man’s reply and he himself did not tell them. One of the Fathers said about this that when the Fathers see that the brethren fail to question them about something that would be use- ful, they ought to begin talking about it themselves; but if they are not urged on by the brethren, they should not say anymore about it, so that they shall not be found to have spoken without being asked, and to have said unnecessary words.

Abba Moses the Strong

It happened that Abba Moses was struggling with the tempta- tion of fornication. Unable to stay any longer 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 mak- ing 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 courage and returned to his cell.

A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him.

One day, when the brethren were sitting beside him, he said to them, ‘Look, the barbarians are coming to Scetis today; get up and flee.’ They said to him, ‘Abba, won’t you flee too?’ He said to them, ‘As for me, I have been waiting for this day for many years, that the word of the Lord Christ may be fulfilled which says, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.” ‘ (Matt. 26.52) They said to him, ‘We will not flee either, but we will die with you.’ He said to them: ‘That is nothing to do with me; let everyone decide for himself whether he stops or not.’ Now there were seven broth- ers there and he said to them, ‘Look, the barbarians are drawing near to the door.’ They they came in and slew them. But one fled and hid under the cover of a pile of rope and he saw seven crowns decending and crowning them.

Seven instructions which Abba Moses sent to Abba Poemen. He who puts them into practice will escape all punishment and will live in peace, whether he dwells in the desert or in the midst of brethren.

1. The monk must die to his neighbour and never judge him at all, in any way whatever.

2. The monk must die to everything before leaving the body, in order not to harm anyone.

3. If the monk does not think in his heart that he is a sinner, God will not hear him. The brother said, ‘What does that mean, to think in his heart that he is a sinner?’ Then the old man said, ‘When someone is occupied with his own faults, he does not see those of his neighbour.’

4. If a man’s deeds are not in harmony with his prayer, he labours in vain. The brother said, ‘What is this harmony between practice and prayer?’ The old man said, ‘We should no longer do those things against which we pray. For when a man gives up his own will, then God is reconciled with him and accepts his prayers.’ The brother asked, ‘In all the affliction which the monk gives himself, what helps him?’ The old man said, ‘It is written, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”‘ (Ps.46.1)

5. The old man was asked, ‘What is the good of the fasts and watchings which a man imposes on himself?’ and he replied, ‘They make the soul humble. For it is written, “Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.” (Ps.25.18) So if the soul gives itself all this hardship, God will have mercy on it.’

6. The old man was asked, ‘What should a man do in all the temptations and evil thoughts that come upon him?’ The old man said to him, ‘He should weep and implore the goodness of God to come to his aid, and he will obtain peace if he prays with discern- ment. For it is written, “With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can man do to me?” ‘ (Ps. 118.6)

7. A brother asked the old man, ‘Here is a man who beats his servant because of a fault he has committed; what will the servant say?’ The old man said, ‘If the servant is good, he should say, “For- give me, I have sinned.” ‘ The brother said to him, ‘Nothing else?’ The old man said, ‘No, for from the moment he takes upon himself responsibility for the affair and says, “I have sinned,” immediately the Lord will have mercy on him. The aim in all these things is not to judge one’s neighbour. For truly, when the hand of the Lord caused all the first-born in the land of Egypt to die, no house was without its dead.’ The brother said, ‘What does that mean?’ The old man said, ‘If we are on the watch to see our own faults, we shall not see those of our neighbour. It is folly for a man who has a dead person in his house to leave him there and go to weep over his neighbour’s dead. To die to one’s neighbour is this: To bear your own faults and not to pay attention to anyone else wondering whether they are good or bad. Do no harm to anyone, do not think anything bad in your heart towards anyone, do not scorn the man who does evil, do not put confidence in him who does wrong to his neighbour, do not rejoice with him who injures his neighbour. This is what dying to one’s neighbour means. Do not rail against anyone, but rather say, “God knows each one.” Do not agree with him who slanders, do not rejoice at his slander and do not hate him who slanders his neighbour. This is what it means not to judge. Do not have hostile feelings towards anyone and do not let dislike dominate your heart; do not hate him who hates his neighbour. This is what peace is: Encourage yourself with this thought, “Affliction lasts but a short time, while peace is for ever, by the grace of God the Word. Amen.”‘

Abba Paphnutius

Abba Paphnutius said, ‘When I was walking along the road, I happened to lose my way and found myself near a village and I saw some people who were talking about evil things. So I stood still, praying for my sins. Then behold an angel came, holding a sword and he said to me, “Paphnutius, all those who judge their brothers perish by his sword, but because you have not judged, but have humbled yourself before God, saying that you have sinned, your name is written in the book of the living!”‘

There was at Scetis with Paphnutius a brother who had to fight against fornication and he said, ‘Even if I take ten wives, I shall not satisfy my desire.’ The old man encouraged him, saying, ‘No, my child, this warfare comes from the demons.’ But he did not let himself be persuaded and he left for Egypt to take a wife. After a time it happened that the old man went up to Egypt and met him carrying baskets of shell-fish. He did not recognize him at all, but the other said to him, ‘I am so and so, your disciple.’ And the old man, seeing him in such disgrace, wept and said, ‘How have you lost your dignity and come to such humiliation? No doubt you have taken ten wives?’ And groaning, he said, ‘Truly I have only taken one, and I have a great deal of trouble satisfying her with food.’ The old man said, ‘Come back with us.’ He said, ‘Is it possible to repent, abba?’ He said that it was. And leaving everything, the brother followed him and returned to Scetis, and thanks to this experience he became a proved monk.


Abba Or said to his disciple Paul, ‘Be careful never to let an irrelevant word come into this cell.’

One of the Fathers used to tell of a certain Abba Paul, from Lower Egypt, who lived in the Thebaid. He used to take various kinds of snakes in his hands and cut them through the middle. The brethren made prostration before him saying, ‘Tell us what you have done to receive this grace.’ He said, ‘Forgive me, Fathers, but if someone has obtained purity, everything is in submission to him, as it was to Adam, when he was in paradise before he transgressed the commandment.’

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 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.’

Abba Poemen said to Abba Joseph, ‘Tell me how to become a monk.’ He said, ‘If you want to find rest here below all circumstances say, ‘Who am I? and do not judge anyone.’

A brother lived in the cells and in his solitude he was troubled. He went to tell Abba Theodore of Pherme about it. The old man said to him, ‘Go, be more humble in your aspirations, place yourself under obedience and live with others.’ Later, he came back to the old man and said, ‘I do not find any peace with others.’ The old man said to him, ‘If you are not at peace either alone or with others, why have you become a monk? Is it not to suffer trials? Tell me how many years you have worn the habit?’ He replied, ‘For eight years.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘I have worn the habit seventy years and on no day have I found peace. Do you expect to obtain peace in eight years?’ At these words the brother went away strengthened.

He also said, ‘In these days many take their rest before He gives it them.’

Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, ‘Say something to the archbishop, so that he may be edified.’ The old man said to them, ‘If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.’

He also said that there were three philosopher who were friends. The first died and left his son to the care the others. When he grew up he had intercourse with the wife of his guardian, who found them out and turned the boy out of doors. Although the young man came and asked his guardian to forgive him, he would not receive him, but said, ‘Go and work for three years as a ferryman and I will forgive you.’ After three years the young man came to him again, and this time he said, ‘You still have not done penance; go and work for three more years, and give away all you earn, bearing all insults.’ So he did this, and then his guardian said to him, ‘Now go to Athens and learn philosophy.’ There was an old man who sat at the philosophers’ gate and he used to insult everyone who entered it. When he insulted this young man, the boy began to laugh, and the old man said, ‘Why are you laughing, when I have insulted you?’ He told him, ‘Would you not expect me to laugh? For three years I have paid to be insulted and now I am insulted free of charge. That is why I laughed.’ Abba John said, ‘The gate of the Lord is like that, and we Fathers go through many insults in order to enter joyfully into the city of God.’

Abba Zeno said, ‘If a man wants God to hear his prayer quickly, then before he prays for anything else, even his own soul, when he stands and stretches out his hands towards God, he must pray with all his heart for his enemies. Through this action God will hear everything that he asks.’