Chapter XII, Abba Ammon (continuied) Book VIII
(Life of Benjamin begins further down page)
They went back to Ammon again. He still refused, so they threatened to take him by force.
"If you keep on threatening to force me," he said, "I will even cut my own tongue out."
They could not do anything but let him go, and they returned to their own place.
Extraordinary to relate, he is also said to have burnt his own flesh with hot iron whenever any little bit of his body reacted to some illicit pleasure, with the result that he had scars all over him. And from his youth up till the day he died his food consisted of nothing but the barest essentials. He never ate anything cooked except bread.
He could recite both Old and New Testaments by heart, and was so well versed in the writings of Origen, Didymus, Pierus and Stephen that he could quote six million lines, as many of the venerable solitaries can testify. He also had the gift of prophecy, and was a greater strength to the brothers in solitude than anyone else.
Evagrius also gave this unsolicited testimony that he was a man outstanding in the power of discernment, and that he had never met anyone who was more serene, with a mind completely free of disturbing thoughts.
THE LIFE OF ABBA BENJAMIN
In Mount Nitria there was a wonderful man called Benjamin, who lived an upright and virtuous life for eighty years. At the height of his powers he was given the gift of healing, so that whomever he laid hands on, or anointed with blessed oil, was freed from any sickness from which he was suffering. Yet even though endowed with such a grace as this he began to suffer from dropsy for the last eight months before his death. His body swelled up so much that because of his sufferings he became known as the Job of our times. Dioscuros the presbyter of Mt Nitria at that time (who was later a bishop) took the blessed Evagrius and me to see him.
" Come and see this new Job," he said, "who in spite of being so sick in body and of such an immense size, by God's grace shows such great patience."
When we got there we could see that his body was so swollen that we could not even get the fingers of both hands round his little finger. We just could not bear to look upon such grievous affliction and turned our eyes away, whereupon that blessed Benjamin said to us, "Pray for me, my sons, that I may not be internally diseased. For this body has not been of much benefit to me even when behaving itself, and certainly of no lasting harm to me now it is not."
For those last eight months he had to stay seated on a very wide couch. He could not lie down on a bed by reason of his bodily necessities. Even while suffering from this untreatable disease he continued to minister to people suffering from all kinds of ailments.
I feel it is necessary to describe the illness of this holy man lest anyone should think that it is impossible for holy people to suffer ill fortune. After he died the lintel and doorposts of his cell had to be removed in order to get his body out, such was the size of this holy and renowned father Benjamin's body.
THE LIFE OF APOLLONIUS,
KNOWN AS 'THE EX-BUSINESSMAN'.
When Apollonius, 'the ex-businessman', (a negotiatoribus) left the world and came to live in Mount Nitria, he was too old to learn how to read or learn a craft, so for his twenty years in the mountain this is what he did.
He used his own money and energy to buy in Alexandria medical supplies of all kinds, and ministered freely to the illnesses of the whole brotherhood. You would see him from first light to the ninth hour all round the cells going in to see if anyone was ill. He carried with him dried grapes, pomegranates, eggs, fine white bread, and everything else needed for the sick. Handing out these things became the life work of this servant of Christ right up to old age. When he was about to die he handed over all his bits and pieces to someone else, asking him to carry on with the same ministry. With five thousand monks living in that mountain there was certainly a great need for such a service, desert place that it was.
Chapter XV & XVI
THE LIFE OF PÆESIUS & ISAIAH
Pæsius and Isaiah were the sons of a Spanish merchant, and when he died they divided up the disposable assets, which turned out to consist of five thousand sesterces, besides clothing and slaves. They had a meeting and took counsel together as to what sort of life they should lead from then on.
"If we carry on our father's business," they said, "we shall only end up leaving the fruit of our labours to someone else, quite apart from the risk of robbery, or shipwreck. Let us embrace the monastic life, and so make good use of our father's property and save our own souls."
So they each looked for a suitable type of solitary life, one of which turned out to be different from the other. They divided up the money and the rest of the goods, united in the intention to choose a way of life pleasing to God, but differing in the way they would go about it. One of them gave his money away to monasteries, churches and other charities, learned a craft whereby he could earn his bread and gave himself totally to a life of prayer and labour. The other gave nothing away, but founded a monastery with a few brothers, and took in travellers, cared for the sick, looked after the elderly and gave to the poor. On Saturday and Sunday he and the brothers set up three or four tables and provided food for the needy, and in this way he spent the rest of his life.
After they died various blessings upon them were uttered by the brothers, but they wondered among themselves which of them would be considered the more perfect in virtue, some saying the one who had given up everything, others the one who ministered to the needs of the poor. So there arose a contention among the brothers about the two different kinds of life which they had followed, each one being greatly praised in a different way. They went to abba Pambo and asked him to give them an answer to the question of which kind of life was of greater value.
"Both of them were perfect in God's eyes," he said. "One of them possessed the gift of Abraham in offering hospitality, the other had the steadfast, unshakeable zeal of Elijah the prophet who also pleased God."
"But how can that be?" some of them asked. "We fall at your feet and beg you to explain to us how they can be equal." And some of them made out a case for the man of prayer, saying how he had obeyed the gospel precept of selling all and giving to the poor, how he had persevered in prayer night and day, bearing the cross, and following the Saviour. Others however disagreed, pointing to how the other man had shown compassion to all the needy, gone out into the highways and gathered up all those in distress to give them relief, saving not only his own soul but that of others, curing the sick and providing aid.
"Let me repeat," said the blessed Pambo. "Both of them were equal in the sight of God, and I shall satisfy each one of you on this point. Granted, if it had not been that the first brother had laboured unceasingly I could not compare him with the goodness of the other. For this other brother showed himself on a par with the Lord who said 'I come not be ministered to but to minister', in so far as he received and refreshed the weary travellers and ministered to the needy. And although it may seem that to be this kind of minister involves nothing but burdens and hard work, yet it also forms an agreeable and satisfying way of life. Leave it with me for a little while until I can seek some guidance from God, which I will tell you about when you come again."
After a few days they returned to ask the great man what the outcome was. He replied, "In God's sight I tell you, I have seen them both standing together in Paradise."
THE LIFE OF MACARIUS THE YOUNGER.
When the younger Macarius was eighteen years old he accidentally killed someone while playing around with his companions when they were tending the cattle near Lake Mareotis. He did not tell anyone but fled to the desert and lived so deeply in fear of God and man that he stayed for three years in the desert without a roof over his head. As everyone knows, either by hearsay or from experience, that is a very arid part of the world.
This Macarius afterwards built himself a cell, and when he had lived there for a further twenty-five years he had grown so full of grace that he really enjoyed living in solitude and had nothing but contempt for the demons.
After I had been acquainted with him for quite a long time I learned how he had come to terms with his sin of murder. He said that far from wallowing in remorse about it he actually had cause to give thanks for this crime.
"That accidental death was a springboard for me into the way of salvation," he said. Look what the Scripture has to say about the murder which Moses, that great servant of God, committed in Egypt. If it had not been for that murder and his fear of Pharaoh he would never have been found worthy of the vision of God, or of his other great gifts, or of being numbered by the Spirit among the holy writers, for it was to Mount Sinai that he fled out of Egypt."
I mention this not to condone the sin of murder, but to show how virtue can sometimes come forth out of a great fall, when someone has had no previous desire to seek for goodness of his own free will. To make up your mind to follow the path of virtue of your own free will is one thing, to follow it from force of circumstances is another.
THE LIFE OF ABBA NATHANAEL
Among the holy men of old there was one other outstanding athlete of God named Nathanael. I never met him in the flesh for he died about fifteen years before I went up to the mountain. But when I met up with those who had worked with this holy man I questioned them eagerly about his virtues. They showed me a cell in which no one was living any longer as being too close to inhabited areas. But it was the cell which the blessed man had built for himself when as yet anchorites were few and far between. They told me what was truly noteworthy about his way of life, namely that he kept so firmly to his cell that nothing was able to prise him out of it.
At first he had been deceived by the deceiver of all, who caused him to slide gradually into laziness and bitterness of mind in order to drive him out of the cell. It seemed too gloomy and mind-constricting there for him so he abandoned it and built himself another closer to the village. After being there three or four months the demon came to him by night carrying a whip such as lictors do, looking like a soldier, but dressed in ragged clothes, and roaring like a bull.
[People in authority in imperial Rome were escorted by 'lictors' who carried a bundle of rods by which punishment might be administered, wrapped round an axe used for execution.]
"Who are you, carrying on like this in my refuge?" the blessed Nathanael asked him.
"I am the one who drove you out of your first cell," the demon cried, "and now I have come to make you run away from this one."
Nathanael realised how he had been deceived and went straight back to his first cell, and for thirty-seven years did not stir outside the door, striving with the demon, who made more efforts more often to try and drive him out than anyone could possibly count.
Among other things, the enemy of mankind tried to drive him away from his first good intentions by putting thoughts of shabby and unacceptable behaviour into his mind. Whether by God's providence or by the devil's temptation this holy man very nearly broke his rule when seven holy bishops visited him. For they came in and prayed together, but when they were leaving that holy man would not stir one step outside to see them on their way, lest he give place to the devil. The deacons said to him, "You conduct yourself rather arrogantly, abba, do you not, by refusing to accompany the bishops?"
"I have every respect for the bishops," he replied, "and, indeed, all the clergy. And I accept that I am the most sinful of men, but as far as I am able I consider myself to be as dead in the sight of all of them and of their way of life. God who knows the hidden depths of my heart knows that there are deep reasons for my not going out with them."
When this ruse of the devil did not succeed, about nine months before Nathanael died the devil disguised himself as a boy aged about twelve, driving an ass carrying bread in its panniers. He appeared late in the evening outside the cell, making a show of his ass having collapsed, and crying out to Nathanael to take pity on him and lend him a hand. When Nathanael heard what sounded like a boyish voice he opened the door of his cell and said without going out, "Who are you and what do you want me to do for you?"
The demon replied, "I am helping this monk who is a well known brother of yours by carrying bread which will be needed for the offering at Saturday's Lighting of the Lamps tomorrow. Please don't turn me away, lest I be devoured by the hyenas which abound in this place.'
[I have translated the word agape here by 'offering.' The practice was to have a vigil from the time of the Lighting of the Lamps on Saturday evening through the night, culminating in the offering of the Eucharist on the Sunday morning. This would include an agape or communal meal]
The blessed Nathanael stood saying nothing, sad at heart, stirred by a great compassion, and wondering what he ought to do. "Either I bend my rule or transgress against the Commandments," he thought. But then, having second thoughts, he rightly said, "It is better not to allow any compromise to my long standing rule of showering disgrace on the devil and defeating him."
He prayed to the Lord and then said, "Listen, boy, or whatever you are. I believe in God, the Lord of all spirits, and worship him only. If you really are in need of help, the Lord will come to your aid and neither the hyenas nor any other creature will do you any harm. But if you are Temptation the Lord will make this plain to me at this point." And he went inside and shut the door. Mortified at being thus beaten once again, the demon dissolved into a raging tornado and disappeared with a sound like the frenzied flight of wild asses.
Such was the struggle of the blessed Nathanael, and the power of his way of life and unconquered battle against the adversary. And here ends the life of this famous man.
Chapter XIX & XX
THE LIFE OF MACARIUS OF EGYPT AND MACARIUS OF ALEXANDRIA
(cf.II.xxviii &xxix) I am almost afraid of committing to writing the story of these holy and immortal fathers, those famous and unbeaten athletes, Macarius of Egypt and Macarius of Alexandria, lest I be labelled a liar. Their integrity of life and their many great battles would be unbelievable to anyone without faith. But just as God destroys liars (Psalms 5.6), so it is plain to be seen when the Holy Spirit speaks.
Since then by the grace of God, Lausus, I do not lie, let your deep faith prevent you being sceptical about the struggles of the fathers, but rather help you to glory in emulating the labours of those who indeed were Macarius, i.e., 'blessed'.
The first of these athletes of Christ called Macarius was born in Egypt. The other with the name of Macarius was born in Alexandria where he had been a dealer in precious objects. Although junior in years he was an outstanding monk, excelling all others.
I will deal first of all with the virtues of Macarius of Egypt, who lived for ninety full years, for sixty of which he was a solitary. From being still a young man of thirty he spent the next ten years bearing the rigours of the life with such grace that he gained a reputation for having great discernment and was spoken of as being in puerili aetate senex, that is, 'old head on young shoulders', since his virtues grew much more quickly than you would have thought possible for his age. By the time he was forty he had developed ascendancy over the spirits, the grace of healing, and the ability to see the future, and so was judged worthy of being ordained priest. Two disciples lived with him in the inner desert known as Scete, one of whom was his helper, always with him when people came to him for healing. The other remained always by himself in the cell.
This first helper was called John and later was ordained presbyter in Macarius' place (for the great Macarius had been an ornament to the presbyterate). As Macarius developed the gift of second sight in the course of time he said to John, "Listen to me, brother John. Accept a warning from me without getting upset but draw profit from it. You will be tempted, and your tempter will be the spirit of avarice. So I have seen; and I know that if you will accept this warning with an open mind you will overflow with the fear of God and in doing his will in this place. You will be praised, and no scourge will afflict your dwelling. But if you don't listen to me you will end up like Gehazi, suffering an affliction similar to his" (2 Kings 5.21).
And it so happened that after the holy man's death John did not take this warning to heart fell victim to the snare which entrapped Judas because of his avarice. After about fifteen or twenty years, when he had cheated the poor of their money, he became so badly attacked by leprosy that you could not have put a finger on a sound place in his whole body. This is what the holy Macarius had prophesied.
There was a certain lustful Egyptian who became infatuated with a free-born married woman, but he had no success in trying to seduce her, for she modestly maintained her chastity towards the husband she had had since her virginity. This repulsive man then consulted a sorcerer. "Either persuade her to love me," he said, "or by your arts make her husband divorce her." The sorcerer accepted his fee and began his spells and incantations. He found it impossible to make her give in to him, so instead he made it seem to anyone who looked at her as if she were a mare. When her husband went outside he saw his wife as if she were a mare; when he went to bed it seemed very strange to see a mare lying there. The husband wept, lamenting that he could not understand what was happening, imagining that he was talking to an animal but getting no answer except that she looked very angry. Tormented in his mind he at last realised that it really was his wife, changed into a mare by some extraordinary human wiles. So he approached the local presbyters, took them home with him and showed her to them, but they had no idea of how such a calamity could have happened. For three days she had eaten nothing, unable to eat either hay as a horse or bread as a human being. At last, that God might be glorified and that the power of Macarius might be seen, it occurred to the husband to put a halter on her and take her to the holy man in the desert. As he drew near the brothers standing in front of his cell confronted him and asked why he was bringing this mare with him.
"That mercy may come from the holy man's prayers," he said.
"Why, what's the matter?" they asked.
"This mare that you see is my unhappy wife," he said, "and I have not the faintest idea how she got changed into a mare, and it's now three days since she had anything to eat."
When they heard this they took him inside to where the holy Macarius was already praying, for God had already revealed the matter to him while they were still on the way to him, in answer to his prayers that he should be shown the reason for this visit. As the brothers told began to tell him about this person who was bringing a horse to him he said, "It's you are horses. You've got horses' eyes. This is simply a woman in her natural created state. She has not been transformed. It is just that she appears to be so to the eyes of people who are under a delusion."
He asked her to come near, blessed some water and poured it over her bare head, and prayed over her. At once it appeared to everyone that she was indeed a woman. He asked for bread to be brought, made her eat some and delivered her back, cured, to her husband, giving thanks to God. And the man of God admonished her, saying, "Never neglect the church. Don't stay away from the communion of the Sacraments of Christ. All this has happened to you because you have not been near the incomparable Sacraments of our Saviour for the last five weeks."
Here is another aspect of his extraordinary way of life. When he was in the prime of life he dug a tunnel a hundred yards long from his cell to where he hollowed out quite a large cave. When he was bothered by too large a crowd of people he would slip out of his cell while no one was looking and go into his cave where no one could find him. One of his devoted disciples told us that he would recite forty-four prayers on the way to this cave through the tunnel, and the same on the way back.
He also had the reputation of having brought a dead person back to life in order to discredit heretics who denied the Resurrection, and this story was well known throughout the desert.
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