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The Ancient Fathers of the Desert: Section 1

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V. Rev. Chrysostomos, trans.

Section 1

Abba Antonios said: "The time is coming when people will be seized by manias and will behave like madmen. And if they see anyone acting reasonably, they will rise up against him saying: 'You are insane.' And they will have accurately said this to him, for he will not be like them."

* * *

Several brothers went to Abba Antonios to relate to him certain visions which they beheld and to ascertain from him whether the visions were true or of demonic origin. They had along with them a small donkey which died on the way. Just as they reached Abba Antonios, he, expecting them, said: "How did the little donkey die on the road?"

"How did you know this, Abba?" they said to him.

"The demons revealed it to me."

And they answered him: "It is for this reason that we came to see you, for fear of being deceived, since we see visions and many times they come true."

Thus, with the foregoing example of the donkey, the elder made it known to them that their visions came forth from the demons.

* * *

The same Abba Antonios, pondering the ways of God, once asked: "Lord, how does it happen that many live very few years and yet others reach a ripe old age? And how is it that some live in poverty while others are rich? And how is it that the unjust continue to grow richer and the just are poor?" Then he heard a voice say to him: "Antonios, watch yourself, for those things which you ask about belong to the inscrutable ways of God's wisdom and it is not to your benefit to learn of them."

* * *

Once Abba Antonios received a letter from Emperor Constantine the Great which requested him to go to Constantinople. He wondered about what to do. So he said to his disciple, Abba Paul: "What do you say? Should I go?" And the Abba answered him: "If you go, you will be called 'Antonios'; however, if you do not go, 'Abba Antonios.'"

* * *

Once Abba Arsenios revealed his thoughts to an Egyptian elder and asked him about them. But a certain other Abba saw him and said to him: "Abba Arsenios, you have had so much education in Greek and Latin, yet you ask this man, so unlettered in worldly knowledge, about your thoughts?"

Abba Arsenios said to him: "Indeed, I know Roman and Greek letters well; but I have not yet learned even the alphabet of this simple man."

* * *

A young monk sadly said the following to the holy Poimen: "My body, Abba, has been weakened by ascetic practices, but my passions do not yield."

"The passions, my child," answered the wise Father, "are similar to tough thorns; in uprooting them, your hands of necessity bleed."

* * *

"What am I to do, Abba, since passions and demons beset me?" a young monk asked the holy Sisoes.

"Do not say that you are bothered by demons, child," answered the elder, "because the greater part of us are beset by our own evil desires."

* * *

While still a neophyte in monastic life, Moses the Black (the Ethiopian) was warring against carnal desire. So he went, in a state of turbulence, to confess to Abba Isidoros.

The elder listened to him sympathetically and, when he had given him words of appropriate counsel, told him to return to his cell. However, inasmuch as Abba Moses was still hesitant, for fear of the flame of evil desires rekindling during his return, Abba Isidoros took him by the hand and led him to a small roof atop his cell.

"Look here," he told him, directing him towards the West. Thereupon Moses saw an entire army of wicked spirits with drawn bows, ready for warfare, and was terrified.

"Look towards the East now," the elder told him once more. Myriads of angels in military formation were standing ready to confront the enemy.

"All of these," Abba Isidoros told him, "are assigned by God to help the struggler. Do you see how our defenders are many more and incomparably stronger than our enemies?"

Moses thanked God with his heart for this revelation and, taking courage, returned to his cell to continue his struggle.

* * *

Abba John the Short, advising the young brothers to love fasting, told them frequently: "The good soldier, undertaking to capture a strongly fortified, enemy city, blockades food and water. In this way the resistance of the enemy is weakened and he finally surrenders. Something similar happens with carnal impulses, which severely war against a person in his youth. Blessed fasting subdues the passions and the demons and ultimately removes them far from the combatant."

"And the powerful lion," he told them another time, "frequently falls into a snare because of his gluttony, and all of his strength and might disappear."

* * *

"If Nabuzardan, the court cook of the King of the Babylonians, had not gone to Jerusalem, then the Temple would not have burned (cf. 2 Kings 24)," said Abba Poimen. "That is to say, a person's mind is not attacked by the flames of carnal pleasures, if a person is not conquered by gluttony."

* * *

Once a demonized youth went to the skete of some Fathers in order to be cured by their prayers. Out of humility, however, they fled. For much time, the unfortunate man suffered thus, until a certain elder took pity on him, crossed him with a wooden cross he had on his belt, and cast out the evil spirit.

"Since you evict me from my abode," the spirit said, "I will enter you."

"Come," the elder courageously answered him.

So it is that the demon entered into him and tortured him for a full twelve years. The holy one endured the struggle with fortitude, but fought against his enemy with superhuman fasting and unceasing prayer. All of those years he never even once put food in his mouth, chewing rather a few date pits every evening and swallowing only the juice from them.

Finally, conquered by the incessant struggle of the elder, the demon freed him.

"Why are you leaving?" the elder asked him. "No one is casting you out."

"Your fasting destroyed me," answered the demon, becoming invisible.

* * *

"My brother, if your soul were pure and upright before the Lord, you would be able to profit from all things of this life. If you were to see a wandering peddler, you would say to yourself: 'my soul, from the desire to earn fleeting, earthly goods, the peddler toils a great deal and endures much, concentrating on things which will not ultimately remain under his domain. Why, then, do you not look after those things which are eternal and incorruptible?' Once again, if you were to see those who dispute in court over financial matters, you would say: 'My soul, these people, often having not a single need, show such ardor and quarrel with such shouting between themselves. You, who owe to God a myriad of talents, why do you not implore God, bowing down as one should, to obtain cancellation of that debt?'

"If you were to see a builder making houses, you would again say: 'my soul, these same, even if they build houses from mud, show such great zeal to finish the work they have laid out. You, why are you indifferent to eternal structures and why do you not struggle to erect the abode of God within the soul, forming and joining the virtues by the will?'

"Now, in order not to be prolix in citing various circumstances one by one, let us say that we must take care to transform our worldly thoughts and observations, which are born of our material perspective on things of the present life, to spiritual ones. Thereby, we shall profit from all things with the help and assistance of Divine Grace" (Saint Ephraim).

* * *

"I burn with the passion to be martyred for the love of Christ," a neophyte monk one day said to an experienced elder.

"If you gladly take up your brother's burden at a time of temptation," the elder answered him, "it is like being thrown into the furnace with the three Holy Children."

* * *

"When I was a child," the Holy Makarios once said, "I grazed cattle along with other children. One day they went to steal figs and took me along. When we returned to the herd, one of the figs fell from their basket and I picked it up and ate it. Even now that my hair has grown white, I remember that sin and I lament."

* * *

"In case we should ever fall into carnal sin," Abba Moses told his disciples, "let us repent and let us mourn now before the lamentation of our dread condemnation prevents us."

* * *

Yet another time he said: "The virtues are born with tears and through them forgiveness is given. But when we cry, we must not raise the voice of our groaning in order to be heard by others. Let not our left hand, that is, our vanity, know what our right hand, the sorrow of the heart, does."

* * *

To a certain brother, who asked what to do when he had temptations or evil thoughts in his mind, the same elder answered: "Run, weeping, to the goodness of God, crying out with all of the power of your soul, asking aid. God is near to one who appeals to Him, the Holy Scriptures tell us."

* * *

When you feel compunction in your heart," a certain elder counsels, "leave all other thoughts and say to your mind: 'Perhaps the hour of my death is approaching and God is sending me mourning and tears in order to save me.' For since the devil wars more strongly against a man at the last, in order to root him in evil, so God sends him such things within, in order to save him."

* * *

"Man's conscience is like a spring," the Fathers say, "which, the deeper you hollow it out, the more greatly you cleanse it. If, however, you cover it with soil, in little time it will be lost."

* * *

At the moment that a holy elder was in the throes of death, the devil appeared before him and shouted at him: "You destroyed me, you wretch."

"I am still not sure of that, " the Saint replied, and reposed.

* * *

When he was about to die, the holy Agathon remained in his bed motionless for three days, his eyes open and upturned towards heaven. On the third day, when he recovered some, his disciples, who had assembled around him, asked him to tell them where his soul was during all of that interval of time.

"Before the judgment of God," he murmured, trembling.

"And you are afraid, Father?" the brothers asked with perplexity.

"I tried, as best I could, to keep the laws of God all of my life. But I am a man. How do I know that I have pleased God?" the holy one responded with great pain.

"You are not sure that your works were pleasing to God?" said the astonished monks.

"Until I am before God, no," answered the holy one, "for man judges with one standard and God with another."

The brothers wanted to ask other things for the benefit of their souls, but the holy one nodded to them not to speak any further.

"I am preoccupied," his lips whispered.

His countenance began to shine! His disciples saw him leave this vain world for eternal life with the joy which one feels when he sets off to meet his most beloved acquaintance.

"The good Christian," says the wise Abba Nistheros, "must take account of himself morning and evening and say: 'What, from all that God desires, did I do, and what did I neglect to do?' Only in this manner will one succeed in conducting himself in accordance with the will of God."

* * *

An elder went to visit Abba Achillas and saw him spitting blood from his mouth.

"What happened, brother," he asked.

And this man of forbearance replied. "What you saw was the word of a brother who shortly ago upset me. I struggled with difficulty not to answer him and I asked God to take the bitterness from my soul. And see how his word became blood in my mouth. Spitting, I cast out with it the affliction in my heart."

* * *

The holy Theodora was in the habit of telling her disciples very frequently how neither great asceticism, nor extremely hard work, nor any other sufferings whatsoever can save a man as much as true humility of the heart. She also related the following anecdote:

A certain hermit had a gift from God to cast out evil spirits. One time he asked to learn what they feared most and what compelled them to flee.

"Perhaps it is fasting?" he asked one of them.

"We," the evil spirit replied, "neither ever eat nor ever drink."

"Sleepless vigils, then?"

"We do not sleep at all."

"Flight from the world?"

"Supposedly an important thing. But we spend the greater part of our time wandering around the deserts."

"I implore you to confess what it is that can subdue you," insisted the elder.

The evil spirit, compelled by a supernatural force, was pressed to answer: "Humility - which we can never overcome."

* * *

"The blacksmith, who pounds a piece of iron," says Saint Antonios the Great, "has previously thought about what he wants to make - a sickle, a knife, an axe - and works accordingly. And so let the man of God ponder in advance which virtue he wishes to acquire, in order not to toil aimlessly."

* * *

"All excesses," said another Father, "are products of the devil."

* * *

Two fellow ascetics struggled in the Thebaid desert. But they were young and inexperienced and the devil set a great many snares for them.

The younger one once was warring fervently against the flesh. It was thus that he lost his composure and patience and said resolutely to the older ascetic: "I cannot endure any longer; I am going to return to the world."

The older one, terribly distraught by the temptation which had befallen his brother, tried to constrain him.

"I will not let you leave here, to waste your efforts and to lose your purity."

But there was no convincing him!

"I am not staying," he said. "I am leaving. I will taste of everything and then we will see. If you want, come with me and we will either both return, or I will stay forever in the world."

The older brother, not knowing what to do, went to seek counsel from an elder who was their neighbor.

"Go with him," he told him after he had heard of the situation. "I do not think that God, for the sake of your efforts, will let him be lost."

And so the two fellow ascetics set off together to go down into the city. But just as they got near, the one who had been tempted suddenly said to his brother: "Suppose I were to fulfill my desire. What would I gain by it? Come, my brother, let us return to our solitude."

The older brother looked at him with confusion and could not believe his ears. Then he remembered the words of the holy elder: "God will see your efforts and will not let him come to harm."

And, indeed, the brother was relieved from his powerful battle and the two returned happily to their cells.

* * *

Abba Markos once asked the holy Arsenios why it is that the most pious and virtuous people pass through the world with numerous sorrows and in privation.

"Sorrows, for those who accept them with forbearance," the holy one answered, "are the salt which prevents putrefaction by sins and allows the soul to approach heaven cleansed."

* * *

It is said by the Fathers of Abba John the Persian that malefactors once went into his hut with the apparent intent of killing him. The blessed one prepared a basin and stooped down to wash their feet, as he would do for his best friends. At this, the malefactors, embarrassed, left him alone and departed.

* * *

One night thieves went to a certain hermit.

"We came to take your things," they said to him viciously.

Without losing composure, he said to them, "Come in and take whatever you like."

They emptied his poor hut of every last thing and left hurriedly. They forgot, however, to take a small flask that was hanging from a beam of the roof. The hermit took it down and, running behind the robbers, shouted for them to listen and to stop.

"Come back, brothers, to take this too." And he showed them from afar the small flask.

They were amazed by his forgiving nature and returned, not to take the flask, but to offer repentance and to return all of his things.

"This is, indeed, a man of God," they said among themselves.

* * *

"If our prayer is not in harmony with our deeds, we labor in vain," Abba Moses often told the young monks.

"How are we to accomplish such harmony?" they asked him one day.

"When we make that which we seek fitting to our prayer," explained the saint. "Only then can the soul be reconciled with its Creator and its prayer be acceptable, when it sets aside all of its own evil intentions."

* * *

And the very wise Abba Agathon said: "When I see that a person-even if he is very dear to me-is becoming the occasion for me to acquire some fault, I immediately cut off all ties with him."

* * *

"If you wish to progress in what is good," said another Father, "do not associate with a person of ill will."

* * *

A novice monk sought out the advice of a certain elder of discretion: "If the behavior of one of my brothers scandalizes me, should I ask his forgiveness?"

"Ask his forgiveness," the elder answered, "but cease associating with him. Have you not heard what Arsenios the Great advises? 'Have love for all, but be detached from everyone.'"

* * *

"If a man does not say with his heart, 'only God and I exist in this world,' he finds no peace," said Abba Alonios.

* * *

"Beware, Christian, never to wrong your brother, lest your prayer become unacceptable before God. If, nevertheless, you wrong someone, your prayer is not acceptable. The sighs of the one wronged do not allow it to reach heaven. If you learn that someone is speaking ill things of you and he should come at some time to visit you, do not show him in your mannerisms that you know of all this and that you are upset with him. Appear to him cheerful, with a calm face and a sweet way, so that your prayer might be bold before God," a certain Abba advises.

* * *

And see what Abba Moses says of prayer: "Take care to maintain deep in your heart cognizance of your sinful state, that your prayer might be acceptable. When you occupy your mind with your own sins, you will not have time to keep track of the faults of others."

* * *

"Do you wish God to hear your prayer immediately, brother?" asks Abba Zenon. "When you lift your hands up to heaven, pray first of all, with your heart, for your enemies and God will grant you speedily whatever else you request."

* * *

Then there was a woman who was suffering from cancer and, having heard of the reputation of Abba Longinos, decided to find him that he might restore her health. While she was looking for him here and there in the desert, she encountered an elderly monk cutting wood. She approached him and asked him where Abba Longinos stayed.

"What do you want with him?" the monk asked. "I advise you not to go to him because he is not a good man ... But maybe something is troubling you?"

The unfortunate woman then showed him an open sore which gave off an unbearable odor. The monk made the sign of the cross over her and told her: "Return to your home and God will heal you. Longinos cannot help you in anything."

She left, receiving the words of the unknown monk with faith. By the time she reached her home, not a trace of her fearful illness remained. She later learned from the other brothers that the one who made her well in this strange way was Abba Longinos himself.

* * *

A young monk asked Abba Moses to give him a piece of useful advice.

"Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you," the wise elder answered.

* * *

"It is impossible for a monk to have Christ continuously in his heart without silence, humility, and unceasing prayer," the same elder used to say.

* * *

Once the holy Makarios went to keep an ill hermit company. Casting an eye around the ill man's naked cell, he saw that there was nowhere even a scrap of food.

"What would you like to eat, brother?" asked the Saint.

The ill monk hesitated to answer. What was he supposed to ask for, since there was nothing in that wilderness? Finally, since the Saint was waiting for him to answer, he said that he had the desire for a little soup made with flour. But where was flour to be found?

The holy Makarios, so as to comfort his sick brother, went fifty miles on foot to Alexandria to find flour.

* * *

In the present time, a struggling Father went to a bishop of discernment and told him of a spiritual problem. It seems that the Father was so struck by spiritual words and Divine Services that he could not control the flow of tears from his eyes. Embarrassed by this phenomenon when it took place in the presence of others, the monk found it increasingly difficult to participate in public worship.

The wise bishop advised the Father that he was suffering from hidden pride and that the most efficacious tears spiritually were those hidden within the heart. The Father wrestled endlessly with the secret pride within him, sincerely asking for God's help, and his tears began to subside.

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