Timeless Spiritual Wisdom Found in the Sayings and Stories of the Early Christian Monks of the Desert
The earliest Christian monks inhabited the desert land of the Middle East starting at the end of the second century AD. Known as the “Desert Fathers”, they left everything in search of knowing Jesus Christ by making the Gospels absolutely integral to their daily lives. They wanted to commit themselves totally (body, soul, mind, and will) to being a disciple of the Lord Jesus with a profound holy zeal moving them to become ever more like Christ. These monks practiced integrity of character with an unrelenting courage that required their whole being to remain in the state of constant humility that comes from knowing that they were loved by God. Paradoxically, their extraordinarily harsh penances often resulted in gentleness and patience towards others, especially other monks but also visitors who came seeking an understanding of the essence of spiritual life. These monks sought most of all to experience union with God in the quiet of the desert and in the silence of their hearts.
The Monastery of Christ in the Desert offers for your spiritual edification a short alphabetical collection of sayings from various Desert “Abbas” and a topical collection of such stories and sayings that list a number of monastic and Christian virtues that are integral to an authentic spiritual life.
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 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.’
Abba Daniel said, ‘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.’
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 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 Hyperechius said, ‘It was through whispering that the serpent drove Eve out of Paradise, so he who speaks against his neighbor will be the serpent, for he corrupts the soul of him who listens to him and he does not save his own soul.’
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.’