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Anthony the Great, called ‘The Father of Monks’ was born in central Egypt, son of peasant farmers who were Christian. In c. 269 he heard the Gospel read in church and applied to himself the words. ‘Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor and come… He devoted himself to a life of asceticism under the guidance of a recluse near his village. In c. 285 he went alone into the desert to live in complete solitude. His reputation attracted followers, who settled near him, and in c. 305 he came out of his hermitage in order to act as their spiritual father. Five years later he again retired into solitude. He died at the age of one hundred and five. His life was written by Saint Athanasius and was very influential in spreading the ideals of monasticism throughout the Christian World.
Some elders came to St. Antony and asked him, “Which is the greatest of all virtues?” Each one then gave an opinion, some saying that “fasting and keeping of vigils” best help one come near to God; others said “voluntary poverty” and “detachment”; others said “compassion.” Last of all, Anthony gave his reply: “All that you have said is both necessary and helpful for those who are searching for God and wish to come to Him. But we cannot award the first place to any of these virtues; for there are many among us who have endured fasting and vigils, or have withdrawn into the desert, or have practiced poverty to such an extent that they have not left themselves enough for their daily sustenance, or have performed acts of compassion so generously that they no longer have anything to give; and yet these same monks, having done all this, have nevertheless fallen away miserably from virtue and slipped into vice. What was it, then, that made them stray from the straight path? In my opinion, it was simply that they did not possess the grace of discernment; for it is this virtue that teaches a man to walk along the royal road, swerving neither to the right through immoderate [excessive] self-control, nor to the left through indifference and laxity. Discernment is a kind of eye and lantern of the soul, as is said in the Gospel passage: ‘The light of the body is the eye; if therefore your eye is pure, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness’ (Matt. 6:22-3).
When Abba Anthony thought about the depth of the judgements of God, he asked, ‘Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do wicked men prosper and why are the just in need?’ He heard a voice answering him, ‘Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgement of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.’
Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen, ‘this is the great work of a man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.’ He also said, ‘Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. ‘He even added, ‘Without temptations no-one can be saved.’
A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So he did. The old man then said, ‘Shoot another,’ and he did so. Then the old man said, ‘Shoot yet again and the hunter replied ‘If I bend my bow so much I will break it.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.’ When he heard these words “the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.
A man asked abbot Antony, “What shall I keep, that I may please God?” Anthony said: “Wherever you go, have God ever before your eyes. In whatever you do, hold by the example of the holy Scriptures; and in whatever place you abide, don’t be swift to leave [out of restlessness]. These three things keep, and you will be saved.”
He said also, ‘just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so the monks who loiter outside their cells or pass their time with men of the world lose the intensity of inner peace. So like a fish going towards the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for fear that if we delay outside we will lose our interior watchfulness.’ He said also, ‘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.’
The brothers praised a monk before Abba Anthony. When 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.’
Some brothers were coming from Scetis to see Abba Anthony. When they were getting into a boat to go there, they found an old man who also wanted to go there. The brothers did not know him. They sat in the boat, occupied by turns with the words of the Fathers, Scripture and their manual work. As for the old man, he remained silent. When they arrived on shore they found that the old man was going to the cell of Abba Anthony too. When they reached the place, Anthony said to them, ‘You found this old man a good companion for the journey?’ Then he said to the old man, ‘You have brought many good brethren with you, father.’ The old man said, ‘No doubt they are good, but they do not have a door to their house and anyone who wishes can enter the stable and loose the ass.’ He meant that the brethren said whatever came into their mouths.
A brother renounced the world and gave his goods to the poor, but he kept back a little for his personal expenses. He went to see Abba Anthony. When he told him this, the old man said to him, ‘If you want to be a monk, go into the village, buy some meat, cover your naked body with it and come here like that.’ The brother did so, and the dogs and birds tore at his flesh. When he came back the old man asked him whether he had followed his advice. He showed him his wounded body, and Saint Anthony said, ‘Those who renounce the world but want to keep something for themselves are torn in this way by the demons who make war on them.’
Arsenius was born in Rome about 360. A well-educated man, of senatorial rank, he was appointed by the Emperor Tbeodosius 1 as tutor to the princes Arcadius and Honorius. He left the palace in 394 and sailed secretly to Alexandria. From there he went to Scetis and placed himself under the guidance of Abba John the Dwarf. He became an anchorite near Petra in Scetis. He was renowned for his austerity and silence. After the second devastation of Scetis in 434 he went to the mountain of Troe where he died in 449. It was said of Arsenius that, just as none in the palace had worn more splendid garments than he, when he lived there, so no one in the Church wore such poor clothing.
Someone said to blessed Arsenius, ‘How is it that we, with all our education and our wide knowledge get nowhere, while these Egyptian peasants acquire so many virtues?’ Abba Arsenius said to him, ‘We indeed get nothing from our secular education, but these Egyptian peasants acquire the virtues by hard work.’ One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, ‘Abba Arsenius, how is it that you with such a good Latin and Greek education ask this peasant about your thoughts?’ He replied, ‘I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.’
Someone said to Abba Arsenius, ‘My thoughts trouble me, saying, “You can neither fast nor work; at least go and visit the sick, for that is also charity.”‘ But the old man, recognising the suggestions of the demons, said to him, ‘Go, eat, drink, sleep, do no work, only do not leave your cell.’ For he knew that steadfastness in the cell keeps a monk in the right way.
The old man used to tell how one day someone handed round a few dried figs in Scetis. Because they were not worth anything, no one took any to Abba Arsenius in order not to offend him. Learning of it, the old man did not come to the liturgical office saying, ‘You have cast me out by not giving me a share of the blessing which God had given the brethren and which I was not worthy to receive.’ Everyone heard of this and was edified at the old man’s humility. Then the priest went to take him the small dried figs and brought him to the liturgical office with joy.
Abba Daniel used to tell how when Abba Arsenius learned that all the varieties of fruit were ripe he would say, ‘Bring me some.’ He would taste a very little of each, just once, giving thanks to God. 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.’
Abba Mark asked Abba Arsenius ‘Is it good to have nothing extra in the cell? I know a brother who had some vegetables and he has pulled them up.’ Abba Arsenius replied, ‘Undoubtedly that is good but it must be done according to a man’s capacity. For if he does not have the strength for such a practice he will soon plant others.’
John the Dwarf, son of poor parents in Tees, was born about 339. At the age of eighteen he went to Scetis and was trained by Abba Ammoes for twelve years. One of the most vivid characters in the desert, he attracted many disciples and in order to preserve his own solitude he dug himself a cave underground. He was ordained priest, and the number of his sayings, recorded and preserved, points to his importance among his disciples. After 407 he went to Suez and the Mountain of Anthony.
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 brothers ‘I should like to be free of all care, like the angels, who do not work, but ceaselessly offer worship to God.’ So he took off his cloak and went away into the desert. After a week he came back to his brother. When he knocked on the door, he heard his brother say, before he opened it ‘Who are you? ‘He said, ‘I am John, your brother. ‘But he replied, ‘John has become an angel, and henceforth he is no longer among men.’ Then the other begged him saying, ‘It is I.’ However, his brother did not let him in, but left him there in distress until morning. Then, opening the door, he said to him, ‘You are a man and you must once again work in order to eat.’ Then John made a prostration before him, saying, ‘Forgive me.’
Some old men were entertaining themselves at Scetis by having a meal together; amongst them was Abba John. A venerable priest got up to offer drink, but nobody accepted any from him, except John the Dwarf. They were surprised and said to him, ‘How is 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 Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he had prayed God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from care. He went and told an old man this: ‘I find myself in peace, without an enemy,’ he said. The old man said to him, ‘Go, beseech God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.’ So he besought God and when warfare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but said, ‘Lord, give me strength for the fight.’
Some brethren came one day to test Abba John to see whether he would let his thoughts get dissipated and speak of the things of this world. They said to him, ‘We give thanks to God that this year there has been much rain and the palm trees have been able to drink, and their shoots have grown, and the brethren have found manual work.’ Abba John said to them, ‘So it is when the Holy Spirit descends into the hearts of men; they are renewed and they put forth leaves in the fear of God.’
Macarius the Great (the Egyptian), born c. AD 300, was a former camel-driver, who traded in nitre. He was one of the pioneers of Scetis. He was ordained priest and lived as an anchorite in a village until he was falsely blamed for the pregnancy of a girl there; when he was cleared, he went to Scetis. Like many of the early monks, he travelled about and was not fixed in any one place. Cassian said of him, ‘He was the first who found a way to inhabit the desert of Scetis. He died in A. D. 390.
Abba Peter said this about the holy Macarius: ‘One day he came to the cell of an anchorite who happened to be ill, and he asked him if he would take something to eat, though his cell was stripped bare. When the other replied, “Some sherbet,” that courageous man did not hesitate, but went as far as Alexandria to fetch some for the sick man. The astonishing thing is that no-one knew about it.’ He also said that when Abba Macarius received all the brethren in simplicity, some of them asked him why he mixed with them like this. He replied, ‘For twelve years I served the Lord, so that he might grant me this gift, and do you all advise me to give it up?’ They said about Abba Macarius that when he visited the brethren he laid this rule upon himself, ‘If there is wine, drink some for the brethren’s sake, but for each cup of wine, spend a day without drinking water.’ So the brothers would offer him some refreshment, and the old man would accept it joyfully to mortify himself; but when his disciple got to know about it he said to the brethren, ‘In the name of God, do not offer him any more, or he will go and kill himself in his cell.’ When they heard that, the brethren did not offer him wine any more.
When Abba Macarius was returning from the marsh to his cell one day carrying some palm-leaves, he met the devil on the road with a scythe. The latter struck at him as much as he pleased, but in vain, and he said to him, ‘What is your power, Macarius, that makes me powerless against you? All that you do, I do, too; you fast, so do I; you keep vigil, and I do not sleep at all; in one thing only do you beat me.’ Abba Macarius asked what that was. He said, ‘Your humility. Because of that I can do nothing against you.’
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 shows us his mercy.’ Abba Macarius said, ‘If slander has become to you the same as praise, poverty as riches, deprivation as abundance, you will not die. Indeed it is impossible for anyone who firmly believes, who labours with devotion, to fall into the impurity of the passions and be led astray by the demons.’
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 returned 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.’
Moses, called the Robber or the Negro, was a released slave who lived as a robber in Nitria; late in life he became a monk and was trained by Isidore the Priest. He was ordained priest and became one of the great fathers of Scetis. On the advice of Macarius he retired to Petra; he was martyred with seven others by barbarian invaders.
It happened that Abba Moses was struggling with the temptation 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 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 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 ran 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.
Once the order was given at Scetis, ‘Fast the week.’ Now it happened that some brothers came from Egypt to visit Abba Moses and he cooked something for them. Seeing some smoke, the neighbours said to the ministers, ‘Look, Moses has broken the commandment and has cooked something in his cell.’ The ministers said, ‘When he comes, we will speak to him ourselves.’ When the Saturday came, since they knew Abba Moses’ remarkable way of life, the ministers said to him in front of everyone, ‘O Abba Moses, you did not keep the commandment of men, but it was so that you might keep the commandment of God.’
A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’ Abba Moses said, ‘The man who flees and lives in solitude is like a bunch of grapes ripened by the sun, but he who remains amongst men is like an unripe grape.’
Abba Serapion said, ‘When the soldiers of the emperor are standing at attention, they cannot look to the right or left; it is the same for the man who stands before God and looks towards him in fear at all times; he cannot then fear anything from the enemy.’
A brother went to find Abba Serapion. According to his custom, the old man invited him to say a prayer. But the other, calling himself a sinner and unworthy of the monastic habit, did not obey. Next Abba Serapion wanted to wash his feet, but using the same words again, the visitor prevented him. Then Abba Serapion made him eat and he began to eat with him. Then he admonished him saying, ‘My son, if you want to make progress stay in your cell and pay attention to yourself and your manual work; going out is not so profitable for you as remaining at home.’ When he heard these words the visitor was offended and his expression changed so much that the old man could not but notice it. So he said to him, ‘Up to now you have called yourself a sinner and accused yourself of being unworthy to live, but when I admonished you lovingly, you were extremely put out. If you want to be humble, learn to bear generously what others unfairly inflict upon you and do not harbour empty words in your heart.’ Hearing this, the brother asked the old man’s forgiveness and went away greatly edified.
One day Abba Isaac went to a monastery. He saw a brother committing a sin 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.”
There were two old men who dwelt together for many years and who never quarreled. Then one said to the other: “Let us pick a quarrel with each other like other men do.” “I do not know how quarrels arise,” answered his companion. So the other said to him: “Look, I will put a brick down here between us and I will say ‘This is mine.’ Then you can say ‘No it is not, it is mine.’ Then we will be able to have a quarrel.” So they placed the brick between them and the first one said: “This is mine.” His companion answered him: “This is not so, for it is mine.” To this, the first one said: “If it is so and the brick is yours, then take it and go your way.” And so they were not able to have a quarrel.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little rule of prayer, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
It was said of Abba John the Persian that when some evildoers came to harm him, he took a basin and wanted to wash their feet. But they were filled with confusion, and began to do penance.
A brother who had sinned was turned out of the church by the priest. Abba Bessarion got up and went out with him, saying, “I, too, am a sinner.”
Amma Theodora said that neither asceticism, nor vigils nor any kind of 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?”
A certain brother came to Abbot Silvanus at Mount Sinai, and seeing the hermits at work he exclaimed: Why do you work for the bread that perishes? Mary has chosen the best part, namely to sit at the feet of the Lord without working. Then the Abbot said to his disciple Zachary: Give the brother a book and let him read, and put him in an empty cell. At the ninth hour the brother who was reading began to look out to see if the Abbot was not going to call him to dinner, and sometime after the ninth hour he went himself to the Abbot and said: Did the brethren not eat today, Father? Oh yes, certainly, said the Abbot, they just had dinner. Well, said the brother, why did you not call me? You are a spiritual man, said the elder, you don’t need this food that perishes. We have to work, but you have chosen the best part. You read all day, and can get along without food. Hearing this the brother said: Forgive me, Father. And the elder said: Martha is necessary to Mary, for it was because Martha worked that Mary was able to be praised.
The monk Lucas was walking through a village accompanied by a disciple. An old man asked the man from Scete: – Holy man, how can I come closer to God? – Enjoy yourself. Praise the Creator with your joy – was the reply. The two went on their way. Just then, a young man came over. – What must I do to come closer to God? – Enjoy yourself less – said Lucas. When the young man left, the disciple commented: – It seems to me that you are not sure whether or not one should enjoy oneself. – A spiritual journey is a bridge with no railings across an abyss – replied Lucas, – If someone is too near the right hand side, I tell him ‘left a bit!’ If he approaches the left side, I say ‘right a bit!’ The extremes veer us away from the Path.
A hermit from the monastery of Scete went to Abbot Theodore: – I know precisely the objective of life. I know what God asks of man, and I know the best way of serving Him. Even so, I am incapable of doing everything I should in order to serve the Lord. Abbot Theodore remained silent for a time. Finally, he said: – You know that there is a city on the far side of the ocean. But you haven’t yet found the ship, nor have you loaded your bags, nor crossed the sea. Why spend time commenting on what it is like, or how one should walk through its streets? “Knowing the objective of life, or recognizing the best way of serving the Lord is not enough. Put into practice that which you think, and the way will be revealed all by itself.”
Abbot Pastor was walking with a monk from Scete when they were invited for a meal. The host, honored by the holy men’s presence, served only the finest dishes. However, the monk was fasting; as soon as the food arrived, he took a pea and chewed it slowly. He only ate that one pea, during the whole meal. As they left, Abbot Pastor called him: – Brother, when you pay a visit, do not render your holiness an offense. The next time you are fasting, do not accept an invitation to dine. The monk understood what Abbot Pastor said. From then on, whenever he was with others, he behaved as they did.
Abba Hilarion [founder of Palestinian monasticism] was asked, “How can it be right for a diligent brother not to be offended when he sees other monks returning to the world?” The old man said, “Let me tell you a story. Consider the hunting dogs which chase after hares; imagine one of these dogs sees a hare in the distance and immediately gives chase, the other dogs that are with him see this dog taking off and take off after him, even though they have not seen the hare. They will continue running with him, but only for a time; when at length the effort and struggle exhaust them, they give up the chase and turn back. However the dog that saw the hare continues chasing it by himself. He does not allow the effort or the struggle to hinder him from completing his long course. He risks his life as he goes on, giving himself no rest. He does not allow the turning aside of the other dogs behind him to put him off. He goes on running until he has caught the hare he saw. He is careless both of the stumbling blocks in his path, whether stones or thrones, and of the wounds they have afflicted. So also the brother who wishes to follow after the love of Christ must fix his gaze upon the cross until he catches up with him that was crucified upon it, even though he sees everone else has begun to turn back.”