During the present Great Fast, as many faithful across our Diocese and indeed the world find themselves increasingly housebound on account of the epidemic, we provide here additional spiritual reading in order that this time, rather than a loss of normal productivity or activities, may be a time of spiritual nourishment, prayer and ‘life in the cell’ which is the home of prayer and the vision of God. We begin by offering a selection of ‘sayings’ from three of the Desert Fathers: St Anthony the Great of Alexandria, St Arsenius, and St John the Dwarf. While their words apply to our Christian lives at all times, much that is contained in the present sayings is especially relevant to our present Lenten ascesis, discipline and hope, and thus we share these words with the prayer that they will encourage the deep spiritual labours of the heart necessary as we work towards Holy Pascha. -Eds.
Abba Anthony the Great
1. When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by accidie and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, ‘Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?’ A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, ‘Do this and you will be saved.’ At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.
2. When the same 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.’
3. Someone asked Abba Anthony, ‘What must one do in order to please God?’ The old man replied, ‘Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.’
4. 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.’
5. 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.’
6. Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, ‘What ought I to do?’ and the old man said to him, ‘Do not trust in your own righteousness do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.’
7. Abba Anthony said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”‘
8. He also said, ‘Some have afflicted their bodies by asceticism, but they lack discernment, and so they are far from God.’
9. He also said, ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.’
10. 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.’
11. 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.’
12. Some brothers came to find Abba Anthony to tell him about the visions they were having, and to find out from him if they were true or if they came from the demons. They had a donkey, which died on the way. When they reached the place where the old man was, he said to them before they could ask him anything, ‘How was it that the little donkey died on the way here?’ They said, ‘How do you know about that, Father?’ And he told them, ‘The demons showed me what happened.’ So they said, ‘That was what we came to question you about, for fear we were being deceived, for we have visions which often turn out to be true.’ Thus the old man convinced them, by the example of the donkey, that their visions came from the demons.
13. 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.
14. Abba Anthony heard of a very young monk who had performed a miracle on the road. Seeing the old men walking with difficulty along the road, he ordered the wild asses to come and carry them until they reached Abba Anthony. Those whom they had carried told Abba Anthony about it. He said to them, ‘This monk seems to me to be a ship loaded with goods but I do not know if he will reach harbour.’ After a while, Anthony suddenly began to weep, to tear his hair and lament. His disciples said to him, ‘Why are you weeping, Father?’ and the old man replied, ‘A great pillar of the Church has just fallen (he meant the young monk) but go to him and see what has happened.’ So the disciples went and found the monk sitting on a mat and weeping for the sin he had committed. Seeing the disciples of the old man he said, ‘Tell the old man to pray that God will give me just ten days and I hope I will have made satisfaction.’ But in the space of five days he died.
16. A brother said to Abba Anthony, ‘Pray for me.’ The old man said to him, ‘I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.’
17. One day some old men came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said, ‘You have not understood it.’ Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, ‘How would you explain this saying?’ And he replied, ‘I do not know.’ Then Abba Anthony said, ‘Indeed Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: “I do said, not know.”‘
18. 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.
19. The brethren came to the Abba Anthony and said to him, ‘Speak a word; how are we to be saved?’ The old man said to them, ‘You have heard the Scriptures. That should teach you how.’ But they said, ‘We want to hear from you too, Father.’ Then the old man said to them, ‘The Gospel says, “if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5.39). They said, ‘We cannot do that.’ The old man said, ‘If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck.’ ‘We cannot do that either,’ they said. So he said, ‘If you are not able to do that, do not return evil for evil,’ and they said, ‘we cannot do that either.’ Then the old man said to his disciple, ‘Prepare a little brew of corn for these invalids. If you cannot do this, or that, what can I do for you? What you need is prayers.’
22. Abba Anthony said, ‘I believe that the body possesses a natural movement, to which it is adapted, but which it cannot follow without the consent of the soul; it only signifies in the body a movement without passion. There is another movement, which comes from the nourishment and warming of the body by eating and drinking, and this causes the heat of the blood to stir up the body to work. That is why the Apostle said, “Do not get drunk with wine for that is debauchery” (Ephesians 5.18). And in the Gospel the Lord also recommends this to his disciples: “Take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness” (Luke 21.34). But there is yet another movement, which afflicts those who fight, and that comes from the wiles and jealousy of the demons. You must understand what these three bodily movements are: one is natural, one comes from too much to eat, the third is caused by the demons.’
23. He also said, ‘God does not allow the same warfare and temptations to this generation as he did formerly, for men are weaker now and cannot bear so much.’
24. It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.
1. While still living in the palace, Abba Arsenius prayed to God in these words, ‘Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.’ And a voice came saying to him, ‘Arsenius, flee from men and you will be saved.’
2. Having withdrawn to the solitary life he made the same prayer again and he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the source of sinlessness.’
3. It happened that when Abba Arsenius was sitting in his cell that he was harassed by demons. His servants, on their return, stood outside his cell and heard him praying to God in these words, ‘O God, do not leave me. I have done nothing good in your sight, but according to your goodness, let me now make a beginning of good.’
5. 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.’
6. 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.’
9. A brother questioned Abba Arsenius to hear a word of him and the old man said to him, ‘Strive with all your might to bring your interior activity into accord with God, and you will overcome exterior passions.’
10. He also said, ‘If we seek God, he will show himself to us, and if we keep him, he will remain close to us.’
11. 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.
12. Abba Arsenius used to say that a monk travelling abroad should not get involved in anything; thus he will remain in peace.
13. Abba Mark said to Abba Arsenius, ‘Why do you avoid us?’ The old man said to him, ‘God knows that I love you, but I cannot live with God and with men. The thousands and ten thousands of the heavenly hosts have but one will, while men have many. So I cannot leave God to be with men.’
17. Abba Daniel used to say, ‘He lived with us many a long year and every year we used to take him only one basket of bread and when we went to find him the next year we would eat some of that bread.’
19. 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.
20. 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.’
22. 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.’
24. Another time Abba Arsenius said to Abba Alexander, ‘When you have cut your palm leaves, come and eat with me, but if visitors come, eat with them.’ Now Abba Alexander worked slowly and carefully. When the time came, he had not finished the palm leaves and wishing to follow the old man’s instructions, he waited until he had finished them. When Abba Arsenius saw that he was late, he ate, thinking that he had had guests. But Abba Alexander, when at last he had finished, came away. And the old man said to him, ‘Have you had visitors? “No, ‘he said. ‘Then why did you not come? ‘The other replied, ‘You told me to come when I had cut the palm-leaves; and following your instructions, I did not come, because I had not finished.’ The old man marvelled at his exactitude and said to him, ‘Break your fast at once so as to celebrate the synaxis untroubled, and drink some water, otherwise your body will soon suffer.’
Abba John the Dwarf
1. 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.’
3. Abba John the Dwarf said, ‘If a king wanted to take possession of his enemy’s city, he would begin by cutting off the water and the food and so his enemies, dying of hunger, would submit to him. It is the same with the passions of the flesh: if a man goes about fasting and hungry the enemies of his soul grow weak.’
5. He also said, ‘Going up the road again towards Scetis with some ropes, I saw the camel driver talking and he made me angry; so, leaving my goods, I took to flight.’
7. Some old men were entertaining themselves in 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.
8. One day when he was sitting in front of the church, the brethren were consulting him about their thoughts. One of the old men who saw it became a prey to jealousy and said to him, ‘John, your vessel is full of poison.’ Abba John said to him, ‘That is very true, Abba; and you have said that when you only see the outside, but if you were able to see the inside, too, what would you say then?’
9. The brethren used to tell how the brethren were sitting one day at an agape and one brother at table began to laugh. When he saw that Abba John began to weep, saying, ‘What does this brother have in his heart that he should laugh when he ought to weep, because he is eating an agape?’
10. Some brethren came one day to test him 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.’
11. It was said of him that one day he was weaving rope for two baskets, but he made it into one without noticing, until it had reached the wall, because his spirit was occupied in contemplation.
12. Abba John said, ‘I am like a man sitting under a great tree, who sees wild beasts and snakes coming against him in great numbers. When he cannot withstand them any longer, he runs to climb the tree and is saved. It is just the same with me; I sit in my cell and I am aware of evil thoughts coming against me, and when I have no more strength against them, I take refuge in God by prayer and I am saved from the enemy.’
13. 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.’
14. Abba John said, ‘Here is what one of the old men in ecstasy said: “Three monks were standing at the edge of the sea, and a voice came to them from the other side saying, ‘Take wings of fire and come here to me.’ The first two did so and reached the other shore, but the third remained, crying and weeping exceedingly. But later wings were given to him also, not of fire, but weak and without strength, so that with great difficulty he reached the other shore, sometimes under water, sometimes above it. So it is with the present generation; if they are given wings they are not of fire, but wings that are weak and without power.”
15. A brother questioned Abba John saying, ‘How is it that my soul, bruised with wounds, does not blush to speak against my neighbour?’ The old man told him a parable relating to slander, ‘There was a poor man who had a wife. He saw another very beautiful woman and he took her. They were both quite naked. A feast was being held somewhere near and both women begged him to take them with him. Taking both of them, he put them into a barrel and put them aboard a ship, and so they reached the place. When it became hot, the people lay down to rest. One of the women looked out of the barrel and seeing no one, went to a pile of rubbish and joining old rags together, made herself a girdle and then walked about confidently. The other, sitting inside the barrel, naked, said, “Look at that courtesan who is not ashamed to walk about naked.” Grieved at this her husband said to her “This is truly wonderful! She at least hides her nakedness, but, as for you, you are completely naked; are you not ashamed to say that?” So it is when one speaks against one’s neighbour.’
17. One day when Abba John was going up to Scetis with some other brothers, their guide lost his way for it was nighttime. So the brothers said to Abba John, ‘What shall we do, Abba, in order not to die wandering about, for the brother has lost the way?’ The old man said to them, ‘If we speak to him, he will be filled with grief and shame. But look here, I will pretend to be ill and say I cannot walk any more; then we can stay here till the dawn.’ This he did. The others said, ‘We will not go on either, but we will stay with you.’ They sat there until the dawn, and in this way they did not upset the brother.
18. There was an old man in Scetis, very austere of body, but not very clear in his thoughts. He went to see Abba John to ask him about forgetfulness. Having received a word from him, he returned to his cell and forgot what Abba John had said to him. He went off again to ask him and having heard the same word from him he returned with it. As he got near his cell, he forgot it again. This he did many times; he went there, but while he was returning he was overcome by forgetfulness. Later, meeting the old man he said to him, ‘Do you know, Abba, that I have forgotten again what you said to me? But I did not want to overburden you, so I did not come back.’ Abba John said to him, ‘Go and light a lamp.’ He lit it. He said to him, ‘Bring some more lamps, and light them from the first.’ He did so. Then Abba John said to the old man, ‘Has that lamp suffered any loss from the fact that other lamps have been lit from it?’ He said, ‘No.’ The old man continued, ‘So it is with John; even if the whole of Scetis came to see me, they would not separate me from the love of Christ. Consequently, whenever you want to, come to me without hesitation.’ So, thanks to the endurance of these two men, God took forgetfulness away from the old man. Such was the work of the monks of Scetis; they inspired fervour in those who are in the conflict and do violence to themselves to win others to do good.
22. He also said, ‘Humility and the fear of God are above all virtues.’