The Ancient Fathers of the Desert: Section 2
V. Rev. Chrysostomos, trans.
A highly respected elder of our own days was visited by a young man tempted with lustful desires. Questioning the man about the sincerity of his intent to overcome such temptation, the elder asked him if he was willing to obey without question the advice he was about to be offered.
"I will do whatever you say," the man answered.
The elder then advised him to take a certain bus to its last stop, get off the bus, and remove all of his clothes within sight of the bystanders there. With great hesitation, but nevertheless acting out of sincere obedience, the young man went to wait for the bus that he was instructed to take.
In the meantime, the wise elder sent a brother to fetch the waiting man, explaining to him that the elder wished to speak with him once more before he boarded the bus. When the young man again approached the elder, the elder asked him: "Do you still have your lustful thoughts?"
The formerly tempted man answered, "No, Father, they have left me."
* * *
Once I saw the devil lying in wait outside the cell of my disciple," said a sagacious elder. "So I cast an eye inside to see what my disciple was doing. He had the Holy Scriptures open in front of him and was plunged deep in study. As soon as he closed the book and ended his reading, the devil rushed in to tempt him.
* * *
"The sacred writers of the Old and New Testaments, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, authored books," said a certain elder. "The Fathers took care to apply the writings in their lives. The next generation knew them by heart. But those of modern times have copied them and shut them away in libraries."
"Come, my child, and taste of the blessed life of obedience," Abba Moses told a young man who was ready to follow the monastic life. "In this life, you will find humility, strength, joy, patience, and forbearance. Within it, contrition is born and love blossoms. It aids the good monastic disciple to keep all of the divine commandments throughout his life."
* * *
Likewise, Abba Iperechios calls obedience the invaluable treasure of the monk: "Let him who has attained it be assured that his prayer will always be heard and will be presented with boldness at the altar of Him Who was obedient even unto death."
* * *
Again, Abba Rouphos says that greater glory awaits the monk who is obedient to an elder than the hermit who lives by his own will in the solitude of the desert.
* * *
"There are three things especially pleasing to God," said Abba Joseph the Thebite. "Illnesses suffered with patience, works done without ostentation and for His love only, and submission to a spiritual elder with perfect self-denial. This last thing will gain the greatest crown."
* * *
Once some elders went to visit Abba Antonios. Along with them was Abba Joseph. The Great Father, to test them, chose a certain written maxim and asked each of them, one by one, to tell its meaning. So each one began to explain it according to his understanding
"You did not find its meaning," he answered each of them.
Then came Abba Joseph's turn.
"What do you have to say about this, Joseph?" Antonios the Great asked him.
"I do not know of such things," he replied.
"Abba Joseph gave the correct answer," the holy one then said, marveling at Abba Joseph's humility.
* * *
The Fathers of the skete once gathered to speak among themselves about spiritual things, and forgot to invite Abba Kopris. They began to discuss the person of Melchizidek and did not come to agreement in their opinions. Then they remembered Abba Kopris and sent summons to him so that they could get his opinion. When he heard of the cause of their disagreement and the subject about which they had idled away so many hours arguing, he struck himself three times on the mouth and said: "Woe to you, monk. You have set aside that which God has asked of you and you have sought to find those things which He will never ask of you."
Hearing his wise words, the other elders left their gathering and returned to their cells, pensive.
* * *
"Whosoever enters a perfume shop," a certain elder related, "even if he does not purchase any perfume, leaves filled with fragrance. The same thing happens to one who associates with holy people. He takes on himself the spiritual aroma of their virtue."
* * *
"If a person desires, he may attain holiness as much at the setting of the sun as at its dawning," Antonios the Great said, teaching his disciples thereby the power of repentance.
* * *
Three elders customarily went three times a year to the mountain of Abba Antonios to be taught by the Great Saint. Two of them would ask various questions concerning spiritual and bodily exercises. In this way they provided the occasion for the Saint to pour forth the river of wisdom flowing within him. The third elder always listened silently, without asking anything. Once the Saint asked him: "So many years you have visited me, brother, without making the slightest inquiry. Do you not wish to learn anything?"
"It is enough for me to see you, Abba. Indeed, this has taught me much," the elder answered reverently.
* * *
"For someone to teach another, he must be healthy in his soul and free of passions," says Abba Poimen. "There is no use in building the house of another, your own being destroyed."
"He who teaches others, without putting to practice any of that which he teaches," the same Father further says, "is like a spring which irrigates and flows over all that is around it, while it is filled with every sort of dirt."
* * *
"Truly wise," said Abba Iperechios, "is he who teaches, not with words, but with deeds."
Another wise Father compares one who teaches only with words, without doing works, with trees which have leaves, but bear no fruit.
One of the great Fathers of the desert told a certain elder, his neighbor, who always accepted visitors and taught them: "Be careful, brother, for while the oil lamp indeed gives light to many, its wick holder is usually burned."
* * *
"He who knows himself is a man," said Abba Poimen.
* * *
A desert elder set off for the nearest village to sell his baskets. On the road that he was going down, the devil found him and, out of the intense malice he had toward the elder, snatched the baskets from his hands and disappeared. The elder, without being at all upset, raised his eyes to heaven and said, "I thank you, my God, that you have relieved me of my burden and the trouble of going down to the village." Then the devil, not suffering the calmness of the hermit, threw the baskets in his face, shouting: "Take them back, old man."
The monk gathered them up again and continued on his way to the village.
* * *
"I once saw all of the snares of the devil spread out across the earth," said the Great Antonios, "and I became terrified."
"Is it possible that anyone can escape them?" he said, sighing.
He then heard a mysterious voice answering him: "He who is humble of mind."
* * *
While still a young monk, Abba Poimen asked to learn from Antonios the Great what he should do to find his salvation.
"Acknowledge your faults with a broken heart," this Father of Fathers answered, "and humble yourself before God. Also, endure patiently the temptations which occur to you and be sure that you will be saved."
* * *
The fathers relate to us that, besides other divine gifts, there was also bestowed by God upon Saint Euthymios the following: to perceive, from the external appearance, the internal activities of the souls of people, as though seeing them in mirror images; and to know in detail the thoughts with which each one battled, and, indeed, which among these thoughts he was defeating and by which, through the operation of the devil, he was being defeated.
It is further said of him that sometimes he confided to certain brothers, who went to visit him on their own, that many times he would see angels plainly in front of him, liturgizing and drawing near the Holy Gifts. At the time of the communion of the Master's Body, he saw some of the communicants as though they were shining, while others darkened in appearance - namely those who were not worthy of that light and of the brightness of Holy Communion.
Thus taking the occasion of these supernatural visions, he warned the brothers against participation in the communion of the Divine Gifts without proper preparation, and counseled them excellently, relying on the Apostle, saying that every Christian should take care to examine himself with exactness to see if he is worthy, thereby, of communicating the Holy Bread and the Holy Chalice with shuddering fear.
The communicant - Euthymios the Great continually taught - must know well that whoever approaches unworthily to communicate "eats and drinks" censure and condemnation unto himself.
So if anyone has been overcome by rancor or hate or envy, by pride, abusiveness, obscenity in expression, or indecent desires, or is in any way taken by any other passion whatsoever, let him not participate in Divine Communion, if first he has not cleansed his soul from all of these noxious things through repentance. Because, as the spirit of God says through the Liturgist, the Holy Things are not fitting to those who are profane, but only to the holy.
To the extent, then, that you have a clean conscience and it inspires in you the boldness to approach the Lord, "draw near to Him and be enlightened by Him, being also certain that you will not be chastened."
* * *
The following is said of the holy Archbishop John of San Francisco, a great luminary of our times: "So virtuous was his life on earth, that even after death he suffered the calumny of others."
* * *
A contemporary monk advised his brothers thus: "If you do not live by principles, do not pretend to adhere to them."
And again: "Today, when there is so little external monasticism, most monks must live within themselves. This means that there is no brother to admonish you or to be your example. You must admonish yourself and set an example for yourself. All of the goals, all of the rewards, and all of the standards have become internal. And while this may seem tragic, it is probably merciful."
* * *
The blessed Synkletike related to the Sisters that, "those who begin the life in God encounter much toil and struggles in the beginning, afterwards, however, finding indescribable joy.
"For," she said, "just as those who wish to light a fire are at first choked by smoke and their eyes water from the fumes, yet later succeed at their task, so we who wish to light the divine fire within us must know that we will succeed at this only by many struggles and toil; for the Lord also says, 'I came to cast fire upon the earth, and what else do I wish if the fire be more greatly kindled?'
"Indeed some," the blessed one continues, "while tolerating the bother and hindrance of the smoke in order to do a little work at the beginning, nonetheless, out of laziness, did not light a fire; for they went away quickly and did not have the forbearance to persist to the end."
* * *
The same Amma said: "Many live in the wilderness and behave as though they were in a town. The latter are wasting their time. It is possible to be a hermit in the mind while living among the masses; likewise, it is possible to be a hermit and live in the crowd of one's own thoughts."
* * *
The holy woman further said: "While a person is in a monastery, obedience is preferred to ascetic practice. The former teaches humility, the latter teaches pride."
* * *
The daughter of a certain rich man in Alexandria was suddenly seized by a wicked spirit and was tormented severely. Her father spent much money in order to make her well. But fruitlessly. The condition of the young girl became worse all the time. Somehow the Father learned that a hermit, who lived alone up on a mountain, had the gift from God to cast out demons. He was told, however, that the hermit was so humble that he would never agree to perform such a cure. So the nobleman had to find some other pretext by which to get him to his home.
One day the hermit went down to the city to sell his baskets. The father of the girl sent a servant to buy some and to invite the hermit home to be paid. He unsuspectingly went. As soon as he set foot in the door, the demonized girl, who was hidden behind the door, rushed at him and gave him a hard slap across the face. The holy hermit, without losing his calm, turned his other cheek, thus carrying out the commandment of the Lord.
Then this surprising incident took place: the demonized girl began to quiver wildly and to utter despairing cries: "O, hurry! I must leave. I cannot stay any longer. The commandment of Christ is casting me out."
With those words, the tormented creature was set free. The whole family, along with the daughter, who had regained her rational powers, glorified God for the great miracle which they had seen with their own eyes and looked for the holy elder so they could thank him. He, however, fleeing from all human praise, had totally disappeared.
When the Fathers in the desert were informed of these facts, they said among themselves that nothing so puts down the pride of the devil as humility and obedience to the divine commandments.
* * *
"He who has his mind under control when he prays, and is careful in what he says, keeps away the demons," says Saint Ephraim the Syrian. "He, however, who elevates himself is duped."
* * *
God requires these three things, which were bestowed in Holy Baptism, from every man: correct belief in his soul, truth on his tongue, and moderation in his body.
* * *
A certain industrious monk, who struggled for virtue with all of his powers, once weakened and fell into laziness. However, he quickly recovered and said to himself: "You poor man. Since when do you scorn your salvation? Do you not fear death and judgment?" With such thoughts, he became more eager in God's work.
One day, while he was praying, wicked spirits gathered around him and tried hard to distract him from his prayer.
"Why are you tormenting me?" the brother said with exasperation. "Was it not enough that you pulled me down into sloth so many times?"
When you were lazy, you did not give us the slightest trouble," the demons answered with malice, "and we ignored you. Now that you oppose us, we battle you."
When the brother heard these things, he pushed himself all the more in spiritual struggle and, with the grace of God, progressed in virtue.
* * *
A brother, who pointlessly passed his time neglecting his salvation, once went down to the city to sell his baskets. Evening fell while he was on his way, however, and so as not to be in danger in the dark night, he found improvised lodging in an old tomb. He lay down to rest and when, out of sleepiness, he was finally closing his eyes, he saw opposite him two demons scrutinizing him.
"Fancy that! Look there-that monk had the nerve to lie down on a grave," one of them said. "Let us vex him so that he has to leave our habitation."
"Let us not waste out time with him," the other demon answered contemptuously. "He belongs to us. He eats, drinks, gossips, neglects his duties, and serves us in almost all ways. Let us go tempt those who battle us day and night with their prayer and asceticism."
The brother, seeing that even the demons disregarded him, took control and became a good monk.
* * *
Saint Athanasios, when he found himself on the patriarchal throne of Alexandria, called Abba Pambo to go to the city on an ecclesiastical matter. The first person that the holy man met, on passing through the walls of the large city, was a woman dressed up so as to ensnare her victims. Seeing her, the elder became tearful.
"Why are you crying, Father?" the brother who was accompanying him asked.
"For two reasons," the elder answered, sighing. "First of all, for the loss of her soul, and then because I do not take as much care to please my Lord as she does to please licentious men."
* * *
And something similar happened to Bishop Nonos and Saint Pelagia, as her biographer relates to us.
Once the Patriarch of Antioch was sitting with his bishops in the courtyard of the church of Saint Julian. While they were engaged in discussion, they heard an unusual commotion in the street. At that moment a luxurious carriage was passing by outside the church. The courtesan Pelagia was pridefully seated inside. The road sparkled from the brilliance of the jewels which she wore. The air was filled with the scent of her expensive perfumes. The crowd of people cheered her as though they were out of their minds.
The bishops turned their heads aside in disgust, to avoid facing the satanic woman, who had led so many of the young aristocrats of the city into the mire of immorality. Only one, Bishop Nonos, followed her persistently with his gaze, until she disappeared at a turn in the road. Afterwards he turned to the other bishops and said to them with a sorrowful voice:
"Woe to us, brothers in Christ. This woman puts us to great shame. Did you see how much care she takes in dressing her body in order to lure her lovers? While we lazy people-what do we do to adorn our souls to attract the love of our heavenly Bridegroom?"
Saying these things, he prayed with fervor for that sinful soul. And his prayer was heard. Divine Grace restored her and Pelagia came to believe in Christ, repented her sinful life, was baptized by the holy Nonos, and came to a holy end.
* * *
A monk under obedience to a certain great elder also suffered from carnal desire and struggled hard without regard for his body. Seeing him struggle mercilessly, his elder felt sorry for him.
"Do you want me to ask God to deliver you from this torment, my child?" he asked him one day when he was especially sorrowful.
"No, Father," said the brave struggler. "For, though I am laboring severely, I see great benefit in my soul from the struggle. Pray only that God will give me the strength to endure."
"Indeed, you are doing well, my child," the elder then told him with admiration, "and you surpass me."
* * *
"My unclean thoughts are about to kill me," a brother confessed to a certain elder.
"Do you know what mothers do when they want to wean their babies? They put a bitter substance on their breast. Likewise, put in your mind, instead of some bitter substance, the memory of death and eternal damnation and immediately you will cut off any unclean thought," the wise elder advised him.
* * *
A certain young monk, who struggled arduously to preserve the purity of his body and his soul, when he happened to be bothered by carnal desire, would say to the evil spirit with rage: "Go to the outer darkness. Can it be that you do not know that, even though I am unworthy, I bear parts of Christ within me?"
With these words he would cast out temptation, in the same way that one blows on a lighted oil lamp and immediately it goes out.
* * *
An elder gave this advice to a certain young man who asked him to tell him how to be saved: "Force yourself, my child, to do whatever the condemned do in prison. Hear them asking continually, with agony written on their faces: 'Where is the Governor? When is he coming? Maybe he has granted a pardon.' They tremble and cry, waiting for the moment when they will be led to the place of execution. Say in your mind, too: 'My sins have condemned me. How shall I face the righteous Judge? How will I defend myself?' Grieve and weep over your sins, so as to be saved."
* * *
For nine years a monk was tormented by the thought of leaving his monastery. Each evening he packed his clothes and said to himself: "I will leave tomorrow without delay."
When day would break, he would reflect: "For the love of Christ, I will be patient today and leave tomorrow."
Since he struggled arduously for eight whole years and was not overcome by his thoughts, the Lord took the temptation from him.
* * *
A monk found a great deal of temptation in the place where he first began to struggle. Once he lost his patience and decided to go far away to find his peace. Just as he stooped to tie his sandals, he saw someone in front of him tying his sandals, too.
"Who are you?" he asked him.
"The one who is pushing you out of here. And I am making ready to precede you to where you plan to take refuge."
It was the devil who had tried to push him out; but he did not succeed at it, because the brother stayed in his cell after that and struggled with patience, until he conquered his temptations.
* * *
"When wicked thoughts war with me," Abba John the Short said, "I do what a wayfarer would do if he were walking in the wilderness and suddenly saw a wild beast pursuing him: find a tree and climb up to the top to be saved. And so I flee to God with prayer and escape from the attack of wicked thoughts."
* * *
A monk of our day said: "One commandment could cure the ills of those who cause turmoil in the Church today: 'judge no one.' This should be the motto of those who hold firm to Orthodox tradition."
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