From The Desert Fathers

· Essays · ,

Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, translated by Benedicta Ward

A Brother Said To A Hermit, “My thoughts wander, and I am troubled.” He answered, “Go on sitting in your cell, and your thoughts will come back from their wanderings. If a she-ass is tethered, her foal skips and gambols all round her but always comes back to the mother. It is like that for anyone who for God’s sake sits patiently in his cell. Though his thoughts wander for a time, they will come back to Him again.”

A Brother Was Restless in his community and he was often irritated. So he said, “I will go and live somewhere by myself. I will not be able to talk or listen to anyone and so I shall be at peace, and my passionate anger will cease.” He went out and lived alone in a cave. But one day he filled his jug with water and put it on the ground. Suddenly it happened to fall over. He filled it again, and again it fell. This happened a third time. In a rage he snatched up the jug and smashed it. Coming to his senses, he knew that the demon of anger had mocked him, and he said, “Here am I by myself, and he has beaten me. I will return to the community. Wherever you live, you need effort and patience and above all God’s help.” So he got up, and went back.

For Nine Years A Brother was assailed by the temptation to leave his community. Every day he got ready to go and picked up the cloak in which he used to wrap himself at night. At evening he would say, “I will go away tomorrow.” At dawn he would think, “I ought to stay here and bear this temptation just today for the Lord’s sake.” He did this every day for nine years, until the Lord took the temptation away.

The Brothers Said That Gelasius had a parchment book worth eighteen shillings, containing the whole of the Old and New Testaments. The book was put in the church, so that any monk who wanted to could read it. But a traveling monk came to visit the hermit and when he saw the book, he coveted it, stole it, and took it away. The hermit knew who the thief was, but he did not give chase or try to catch him. The thief went to a city and looked for a buyer. He found a man who wanted it, and began by asking sixteen shillings for it. The man, who wished to beat him down, said, “Let me have it first to show someone and get advice, and then I will pay whatever is the right price.” So the monk gave him the book for this purpose. He took the book to Gelasius to discover whether it was a good bargain and worth this high price. He told Gelasius the price the seller was asking. The hermit said, “Buy it. It is a good bargain, and worth that much.” So he went back to the seller, but instead of doing as the hermit had told him, he said, “I showed this book to Gelasius and he told me it was too highly priced and not worth what you said.” The thief said, “Did the hermit tell you anything else?” He answered: “Nothing.” Then the thief said, “I don’t want to sell it.” Stricken to the heart, he went to the hermit, did penance, and asked him to take the book back, but he did not want to take it. Then the monk said, “Unless you take it back, I shan’t have peace of mind.” Then the hermit said, “If you can’t have peace of mind unless I take it back, I will do so.” The brother remained with the hermit until his death, and made progress by learning from his patience.

There Was A Hermit In Scetis who lived in a satisfactory way, but he was not good at remembering what he heard. So he went to John the Short to ask him about his forgetfulness. He listened to John, went back to his cell and forgot what he had been told. He came a second time and asked him the same question, listened, went back and forgot what he had heard the moment he reached his cell. Many times he went backwards and forwards, but could never remember. He happened to meet John and said, “Do you know, Abba, I’ve forgotten all you told me? I didn’t want to disturb you, so I didn’t come again.” John said to him, “Go and light a lamp,” and he lit it. John said, “Bring more lamps and light them from the first”, and he did so. John said to him, “Was the first lamp harmed because you used it to light the others?” The hermit said, “No.” “In the same way,” he replied, “John would not be harmed. If all the monks of Scetis should come to me, it would not keep me from God’s love. So come to me whenever you want, and don’t hesitate.” So, by patience on both sides, God cured the forgetfulness of the hermit.

Agatho Said, “If An angry man were to raise the dead, God would still be displeased with his anger.”

Some Robbers Once Came to a hermitage and said, “We’ve come to take everything out of your cell.” The hermit said, “Take whatever you see, my sons.” So they took what they found in the cell, and went away. But they missed a little bag that was hidden in the cell. The hermit picked it up, and ran after them, shouting, “My sons, you missed this; take it.” They were amazed at his patience and restored everything, and did penance to him. They said to each other, “Truly this is a man of God.”

A Brother Asked Poemen, “What am I to do, for I become weak just by sitting in my cell?” He said, “Despise no one, condemn no one, revile no one: and God will give you quiet- ness, and you will sit at peace in your cell.”

Poemen Said, “There Is no greater love than that you should lay down your life for your neighbor. When you hear a complaint against you and you struggle with yourself and do not begin to complain in return, when you bear an injury with patience and do not look for revenge, that is when you lay down your life for your neighbor.”

The Desert Fathers were Christian hermits and ascetics who lived mainly in the Scetes desert in Egypt beginning around the third century AD.

Benedicta Ward is a sister in the community of the Sisters of the Love of God, based in Oxford, England and the author of a number of books on early monasticism and the Middle Ages.

From The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks. Copyright © 2003 by Benedicta Ward. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Books UK.

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