Reading: The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

The following readings are from the records of the spirituality of the desert fathers. It runs topically with first a saying or two and the follows a story or two which demonstrates how the saying was lived out. Meditate on some of the insights you will find here!




The old men used to say, "There is nothing worse than passing judgment."

They said of abba Macarius that he became as it is written a god upon earth, because just as God protects the world, so abba Macarius would cover the faults that he saw as though he did not see them, and those which he heard as though he did not hear them.

Abba Pastor said,  "Judge not  him who is guilty  of fornication,  if  you are chaste, or you will break the  law  like him. For  He who  said "do not commit fornication" said also "Do not judge"."

A brother asked  abba  Poemen, "If  I see my brother sin,  is it right  to say nothing about it?" The old man replied, "whenever we cover  our brother's sin, God will cover  ours; whenever we tell people  about our brother's guilt,  God will do the same about ours."


A  brother in Scetis  committed  a fault. A council was   called to which abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to him, saying, "Come, for everyone is waiting for you".  So he got  up and went. He took  a leaking jug and filled  it with water and carried  it with him. The others came  out to meet him  and said, " what is  this,  father?" The old man said to them, "My sins run out behind me, and  I do not see  them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another." When they heard that,  they said no more to the brother but forgave him.

A  brother sinned and  the priest  ordered him to go  out of  the church; abba Bessarion got up and went out with him, saying, "I, too, am a sinner."



An old man was asked, "What is humility?" and he said in reply, "Humility is a great work, and  a  work of God. The way of  humility is to  undertake  bodily labor and believe yourself a sinner and make yourself subject to all." Then a brother said, "What does it mean, to be subject to all?" The old man answered, "To be subject to all is not to give your attention to the sins  of others but always to give your attention to your own sins and to  pray without ceasing to God."

An old man  said, "Every time  a thought of   superiority or vanity moves you, examine your conscience to see if you have kept all the  commandments, whether you  love your enemies,  whether you consider   yourself to be an unprofitable servant  and the greatest  sinner of  all.  Even so,  do not  pretend to great ideas  as though  you  were  perfectly   right,  for  that   thought  destroys everything."


As  abba    Macarius was returning  to   his  cell  from the   marsh  carrying palm-leaves, the devil met him  with a sharp sickle and  would have struck him but he  could not. He cried  out, "Great is the violence  I  suffer  from you, Macarius, for when I want to hurt you, I cannot. But whatever you do, I do and more also. You fast now and then,  but I am  never refreshed by any  food; you often keep vigil, but I never  fall asleep.  Only in one  thing are you better than I am and I acknowledge that."  Macarius said to him, "What is that?" and he replied, "It is because of your humility alone that I cannot overcome you."

The old men used to say, "When we do not experience warfare, we  ought so much the more to  humiliate  ourselves.  For God seeing  our weakness, protects us; when we   glorify ourselves, he  withdraws  his  protection and we  are lost."

                                                             TRUE POVERTY


Abba Theodore, surnamed Pherme, had three good books. He went to abba Macarius and said to him,  "I have three good  books, and I am  helped by reading them; other monks also want to read them and they are helped by  them. Tell me, what am I to do?" The old man said, "Reading  books is good but possessing nothing is more than all.' When  he heard  this, he  went  away and sold the books and gave the money to the poor.

Someone asked amma Syncletica of blessed  memory, "Is absolute poverty perfect goodness?" She replied, "It  is  a great  good  for those capable of  it; even those  who are  not capable of  it find rest for  their souls in  it though it causes them anxiety. As tough cloth is laundered pure  white by  stretched and trampled underfoot, so a tough soul is stretched by freely accepting poverty."


When abba Macarius was in Egypt, he found a man who had brought a beast to his cell and he was stealing his possessions. He went up to the thief as though he were a traveller who did not live there and helped him  to load the  beast and led him on his way in peace, saying to himself,  "We brought nothing into this world; but the Lord gave; as he willed, so is it done; blessed  be the Lord in all things."

Someone brought money to an old man and said, "Take this and  spend it for you are old and ill", for he was a  leper. The old  man replied, "Are you going to take me away from the one who has cared for me for sixty  years?  I  have been ill  all that time  and  I have not needed anything  because God has cared for me." And he would not accept it.

Once  abba Arsenius fell  ill in Scetis  and in this state he  needed just one coin.  He could not  find one  so he accepted one as a gift from someone else, and he said,  "I thank you, God, that for your name's  sake you have  made  me worthy to come to this pass, that I should have to beg."



Having withdrawn  from the palace  to the solitary  life, abba Arsenius prayed and heard a voice saying to him, "Arsenius,  flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the source of sinlessness."

A  brother in scetis went to  ask for a word from  abba  Moses and the old man said  to   him,  "Go and sit   in   your cell  and your  cell   will teach you everything."


Abba  Nilus  said, "The   arrows of  the   enemy cannot  touch  one  who loves quietness; but he who moves about in a crowd will often be wounded."


Theophilus of holy memory, bishop  of Alexandria, journeyed  to Scetis and the brethren coming together said to abba Pambo, "Say a word or two to the bishop, that his soul may  be edified in this place."  The old man  replied, "If he is not edified by my  silence, there is  no hope that  he  will be edified  by my words."

This place was called Cellia, because of the number  of cells there, scattered about the desert. Those  who have already begun their  training there [i.e. in Nitria] and  want  to live a  more  remote life,  stripped of external things, withdraw there. For this is  the utter desert  and the cells are divided  from one another by so great a distance  that no one can see  his neighbor nor can any voice be   heard.  They live   alone in their  cells and  there is a  huge silence and a great quiet there. Only on  Saturday and Sunday  do they meet in church, and then they see each other face to face, as men restored to heaven.

                                                   THE KINGDOM WITHIN


It was revealed to  abba Antony in  his desert that there was  one in the city who was his equal.  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.

Amma Matrona said, "There are many in the mountains who behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is better to have many people around  you and to  live the solitary  life in your will than  to be alone and always longing to be with a crowd."

Abba Isidore said, "If you fast regularly,  do not be  inflated with pride; if you think highly of yourself because  of it, then you had  better eat meat. It is better for a  man to eat  meat than to be inflated  with pride  and glorify himself."


When blessed Antony was praying  in his cell,  a voice  spoke to him,  saying, "Antony, you  have not yet come to  the measure  of the the  tanner who  is in Alexandria." When  he heard this, the old   man arose and   took his stick and hurried into the city. When he had found the tanner...he said to him, "Tell meabout your work, for today I have left the desert and come here to see you."

He replied, "I am not aware that I  have done anything  good. When I get up in the morning,  before I sit down to  work, I say that the   whole of this city, small and great, will go into the Kingdom of  God because of their good deeds, while I alone will go into eternal punishment  because of my evil deeds. Every evening I repeat the same words and believe them in my heart."

When blessed Antony heard this he said, "My son, you sit in your own house and work well, and you have  the peace of  the Kingdom of God; but  I spend all my time in solitude with no distractions, and I have not come near the measure of such words."



Once three brothers came to visit an old man in Scetis and one of them said to him, "Abba,  I have committed  to memory the  Old and New Testaments." And the old man answered, "You have filled the air with words." The second one said to him,  "I have written out the  Old and New Testaments with  my  own hands." He said, "And you have filled the window-ledge with  manuscripts." Then the third said, "The grass is growing up my chimney." And the old man replied, "You have driven away hospitality."


Once two  brothers came to  a certain old man. It  was  his custom not  to eat every day but when he saw them he received them joyfully and said, "A fast has its own reward, but he who eats for the sake of love fulfils two commandments: he leaves his own will and he refreshes his brothers."


A brother came  to  see a  certain  hermit and,  as he was  leaving,  he said, "Forgive  me  abba  for preventing you   from  keeping your  rule." The hermit replied, "My rule is to welcome you with  hospitality and to  send you away in peace."

It was said of  an old man that he  dwelt in Syria on the  way to  the desert. This was his    work: whenever a monk came     from the desert,   he gave  him refreshment with all his heart. Now  one day a  hermit came and he offered him refreshment.  The  other  did not    want   to  accept   it,  saying  he   was fasting. Filled  with sorrow, the old man  said to him,  "Do not  despise your servant, I beg you, do not despise me, but  let us pray  together. Look at the tree  which is here; we will  follow the way  of whichever of  us causes it to bend when he kneels on the ground and prays." So the hermit knelt down to pray and nothing happened. Then the hospitable one knelt  down and at once the tree bent towards him.  Taught by this, they gave thanks to God.



Abba Poemen said, "There is no greater love than that a man lays down his life for his neighbor.  When you hear   someone complaining and  you struggle with yourself and  do not answer him back  with complaints; when   you are hurt and bear it patiently, not looking for revenge; then you are laying down your life for your neighbor."

One of the beloved of Christ who had  the gift of mercy used  to say, "The one who is filled with mercy ought to offer it in the  same manner in which he has received it, for such is the mercy of God."

Abba Antony said, "I no longer fear God, I love him; for love casts out fear."


Abba Agathon said, "If I could meet a leper, give him  my body and take his, I should be very happy." That is  perfect charity. It  was also said of him that when he came into the town one day to sell his goods, he  met a sick traveler lying in the  public place with  no one to care for  him. The old man rented a room and  lived with him  there, working with  his hands to  pay the  rent and spending the rest on the  sick man's needs.  He stayed there four months until the sick man was well again.  Then he went back to his cell in peace.

A soldier asked abba  Mios if God  accepted repentance. After  the old man had taught him many things, he said, "Tell me, my dear, if your  cloak is torn, do you throw it away?" He replied, "No, I mend it and use it again." The old man said to him, "If you are so careful about your  cloak, will not God be equally careful about his creature?"

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Last modified: Thursday, August 9, 2018, 1:12 PM