Chapter XLII (continued), Book VII
"Forgive me, father," he said, "but when I first entered, I said to my thoughts, 'Look, you are just the same as a donkey. A donkey brays but doesn't speak, it is insulted but doesn't reply, so you be like that too, as the psalmist says "I am become as a beast of burden before you, and I am always with you" ' " (Psalms 73.22-23).
VII.xlii.4. (Also in III.199 & V.xv.11) When the Mazices invaded Scete and killed many of the fathers, abba Pimenius and another senior abba called Anub, together with five others fled to Terenuthin, where they came upon an ancient deserted temple. They stayed there for seven days until they could decide whereabouts in Egypt each one of them would settle.
They decided among themselves to keep to themselves for seven days, without speaking to each other.
Now there were some statues of idols in the temple, and every morning Anub would batter one of them about the face, and in the evening would go up to it and say "Forgive me. I have sinned". And he did this for the whole seven days.
"Why," said abba Pimenius to him on the Saturday when they met together, "did you, a man of the faith, ask pardon from a statue for the whole seven days?"
"I did this for your sakes," he said. "Tell me, when I was striking this idol, did it say anything? Was it angry? Or again when I asked its pardon did it get conceited and start boasting?"
"No, it didn't," said abba Pimenius.
"Look, brothers," said the old man, "we are seven brothers. If you decide that we should stay together, we should follow the example of this idol if we are take thought for our own souls. Let us not be angry if we have a grievance, and if anyone asks our pardon, let us not be conceited or boastful. But if we are not capable of this let each of us go our separate ways."
And they prostrated themselves, saying that they would keep to this plan, and so they remained together for many years in humility and patience, deputing one of them to be treasurer. They had one desire, and that was perfection. Whatever was put on the table they ate without saying, 'Take this stuff away', or 'I can't eat that'. During the night they slept four hours, psalmodised for four hours and worked with their hands for four hours. During the day they interspersed the divine offices with work and prayer, pouring out showers of psalms till the ninth hour, and after that prepared their food, collecting herbs from the earth.
Observing Spiritual discipline
VII.xliii.1. A brother sought help from the holy Abba Serapion, who had charge of ten thousand monks.
"A certain group of the brothers have chosen me to be prior," he said. "Tell me, how do you go on about being in charge?"
"For me, to be in charge is perhaps a burden," he said. "For our Lord Jesus Christ tells us in the Gospel, 'If you love me keep my commandments' (John 14.15). And when the disciples argued among themselves about who was the greatest, he said, 'If anyone wishes to become great among you he shall be your minister, and whoever wants to be chief shall be the servant of all.' (Mark.10.43). The apostle Peter has this warning for pastors, 'Feed the flock of God which is given to you, providing for them not by force but voluntarily, and not for the sake of filthy lucre. Be an example to the flock, and when the prince of shepherds shall appear you will receive an imperishable crown of glory' (1 Peter 5.2). Practice what you preach in such a way that you don't just give them commands, but show them by your example what to do. Don't have favourites but be a shepherd to all, for our Saviour said, 'Blessed is he who rules over his family and gives them meat in due season' (Matthew 24.45).
VII.xliii.2. Abba Moses asked abba Silvanus this question, "Is it possible to make a fresh beginning to your way of life every single day?"
He replied, "Each person should grasp hold of some particular aspect of the whole. When he rises in the morning let him begin to seek wisdom in every virtue, in all the commandments of God, with great patience and forbearance and godly love, with humility of body and soul, persevering in staying within the cell, in prayer and intercession, with groanings, with purity of heart and eyes, custody of the tongue and speech, indifference towards material comforts, battling to crucify the desires of the flesh, in spiritual continence and the strife of battle, in penitence and mourning, in simplicity of mind and sparing of words, in fasts and nightly vigils, in manual work as the apostle Paul says - working with your hands, in hunger and thirst, in cold and nakedness, in labours, difficulties and persecutions, in holes and caves and caverns (2 Corinthians 11.26). Be doers of the word, not mere hearers (James 1.22), giving double measure in all things, dressed in your wedding garment, founded firmly on the rock.
"Keep faithful and don't neglect almsgiving. Reflect each day that death is never far away, and take no thought for the things of this world as if you were already buried in the tomb, for the cares of this world and desire for riches are the thorns choking the good seed, which the Lord warns us against in the gospel. Be sparing in what you eat, don't abandon humility and mourning, for the Lord breaks the bones of those who please only themselves. Let the fear of God be in you always, as it is written, 'In fear of thee, O Lord, we have conceived in the womb, we have been in pain and brought forth the spirit of salvation' (Isaiah 26.17). Look to these things - and as for anything else worthwhile, don't reckon yourself to be amongst the great or consider yourself to be righteous, but put yourself lower than any other creature, that is, more wretched than any other human sinner. For whoever thinks himself to be somebody when really he is nothing, deceives himself (Galatians 6.3). Don't sit in judgment on your neighbour, nor pour scorn on the sins of others, but weep for your own sins, and don't busy yourself with the affairs of anyone else. Be gentle in spirit and not angry. Bear no hatred in your heart, nor any baseless anger against your neighbour; don't look down on him when he is in trouble, nor render evil for evil, but be at peace with all people. This is the mark of perfection. Don't give any credence to the evildoer or rejoice with anyone who does evil to his neighbour. Don't slander anyone, for God is the judge and witness in all things. Don't bear hatred to anyone because of their sins, for it is written, 'Judge not that you be not judged' (Matthew.7.1). If you point out anyone's faults, beware lest you commit something worse. Don't despise the sinner, but pray for him, that God may grant him conversion and repentance, and if you hear of any one who has been doing wrong say, 'Am I a judge over these things? For I too am a sinner, slain by my own sins.' For a dead person has no claim against anyone.
He who takes all these things and ponders them is able to advance the cause of everything that is righteous, since the prophet declares of Christ our Redeemer himself, 'I am a worm and no man' (Psalms 22.6). The prophet Habbakuk also says, 'The stone has cried out of the wall, and the beam has spoken from the woodwork' (Hab.2.11). In very truth, the more we are exalted the more we are put down. He who observes all these things lives in the grace and power of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The thoughts of the twelve anchorites
Once when twelve wise holy and spiritual anchorites were gathered together they asked each other to speak about what each one had found to be the best way of living in the cell, and what spiritual paths each one had travelled.
VII.xliv.1. The oldest one spoke first. "Since the time that I began to live in solitude, brothers, I have nailed to the Cross all stimuli which come from outside, mindful of what is written, 'We shall burst their chains asunder and cast away their yoke from us' (Psalms.2.3). I erect as it were a barrier between my mind and my bodily functions and say to myself, 'Just as anyone inside a house cannot see what is outside, so you need not gaze on external stimuli but turn inwards, looking to God for your hope. Hold all evil thoughts and disordered desires as serpents and the offspring of scorpions.' And if I ever feel them beginning to arise in my heart I crush them with angry condemnation, and never cease from keeping my body and soul ready for battle, lest I fall into sin."
VII.xliv.2. The second said, "I also, since the day that I renounced the world, have said, 'Today you are born anew, today you have begun to serve God, today you have begun to live like this. In this way you daily begin a pilgrimage, it is not till tomorrow that you will achieve freedom.' This is how I daily admonish myself.
VII.xliv.3. The third said, "At daybreak I rise up to my God and adore him, prostrating myself and confessing my sins. I then come down to adore the angels of God, asking them to pray for me and all creatures. Having done that I go down to the depths, and just as the Jews did going up to Jerusalem, I fall down weeping and mourning for the sins of my forefathers. In watchfully going about doing this I discipline my members and lament in tears."
xliv.4. The fourth one said, "I live as if always sitting in the Mount of Olives with the Lord and his disciples. And I have said to myself, 'Seek to know nothing after the flesh but copy their heavenly way of life. Be like the blessed Mary Magdalene sitting at the Lord's feet and hearing his words, "Be holy and perfect as your father in heaven" (Matthew 5.48) and "Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart"'" (Matthew.11.29).
VII. xliv.5. The fifth one said, "I think of the angels ascending and descending as they summon souls (sc. to heaven), and I look to my own ending, saying, 'My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready' (Psalms 108.1)
VII.xliv.6. The sixth one said, "Every day I am convinced the Lord hears every word I say, knowing that he says to me, 'Strive for my sake and I will give you rest. In due measure as you strive so will you see my salvation and my glory. If you love me, if you are my children, come to me with your requests as to a father. If you are my brothers, be put to shame for the many things I have suffered for you. If you are my sheep, follow the Lord in his passion.'"
VII.xliv.7. I pay earnest attention to faith hope and charity, and meditate on them constantly. Through hope I have cause for rejoicing, through charity I hope never to cause harm to anyone, through faith I build up my strength.
VII.xliv.8. The eighth said, "I look out for the devil going about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter.5.8). Wherever he goes I count on following him with my inward eye and I interpose the Lord God against him, to neutralise him so that he has no power against anyone, especially those who fear God."
VII.xliv.9. The ninth said, "I daily fix my attention on the gathered Powers which the mind can perceive (ecclesiam intellectualium virtutum, lit. 'the assembly of intellectual virtues'), and I see the glory of the Lord in their midst, shining above all others. Leaving them behind I ascend into the heavens, looking for the marvellous beauties of the Angels, and the hymns and sweet songs which they offer to God without ceasing. I listen to their differing sounds, melodies and expressions, reminding me of the words of Scripture, 'The heavens tell of the glory of God, and the firmament displays the works of his hands' (Psalms.19.1). And I reckon everything on earth to be as ashes and refuse."
VII.xliv.10. The tenth said, "I look to my guardian angel who is always with me and I take heed to myself, mindful of the Scripture, 'I will set God always before me in my sight, for he is on my right hand, therefore I shall not be moved.' (Psalms.16.8). Therefore I revere my guardian angel, who guards my steps and takes my deeds and words with him as he daily ascends to heaven.
VII.xliv.11. The eleventh said, "I stand fast in myself by thinking of the virtues as characters who surround me, such as abstinence, chastity, kindness and love, and wherever I go I say to myself, 'Where are your followers now? Don't be fearful, don't falter, for they are always with you. Entertain the virtues and whatever is pleasing, so that after your death they may bear witness for you before the throne of God that in you they were able to find a dwelling place.'"
VII.xliv.12. The twelfth said, "Indeed, fathers, you have your conversation in heaven and it is not surprising that you are in possession of heavenly wisdom. I can see that you follow higher things and that you are highly placed because of your good works. What shall I say? By your virtues you have been transported far above the things of the world and exiled yourselves from it completely. What shall I say? If I were to call you earthly angels and heavenly human beings I should be telling no lie. For myself, judging myself unworthy of such things I see my sins going before me on the right hand and on the left wherever I go. I think I am worthy of nothing but hell. This is where I deserve to be. I shall be numbered among its denizens in due course. There I see as many incessant tears as there are groans, which no one is able to relieve. I see gnashing of teeth, bodily writhings, trembling from head to toe. I throw myself on the ground and embrace the dust, and pray God that I may never have to undergo such things. I see an immensely large boiling sea of fire, roaring and tossing about, such that anyone might think that its waves were about to reach up to the heavens. In that tremendous sea there are innumerable people who have been cast into it from all lands, and with one voice they raise such a shouting and groaning together as has never been heard by anyone else on earth, and all of them burning like dry brushwood, with the mercy of God cut off from them because of their sins. And I mourn for the type of person who rashly boasts and indulges every whim and fancy, causing so many evils in the world. I concentrate my mind on mourning, adjudging myself unworthy of either heaven or earth, thinking of the words of Scripture, 'Tears have been my meat day and night'"(Psalms.42.3).End of Book VII
These are the answers which the wise spiritual fathers gave. And may it be remembered favourably of us that we have been able in what we have done to set out the account of their way of life, that we may become blameless, perfect, sinless and pleasing to our Saviour. To whom be honour and glory unto the ages of ages. Amen.
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