Book VIII (continuied)
THE VIRGIN WHO WAS FALSELY ACCUSED.
The following incident occurred in the women's monastery. A secular shoemaker crossed the river in ignorance, looking for work. He made his request to a junior sister who happened to meet him when she was outside in a rather isolated place.
"We have our own shoemaker," she replied.
They were seen by another sister who had a mind burning with malice. Inspired by the devil she made this conversation a cause of scandal and blackened the name of the brothers. Others believed her, though not moved by malice.
The junior sister was grief stricken at being accused of a wrong which had not even entered her mind. Unable to bear it she secretly threw herself into the river and died. When the sister who had started the calumny realised that her scandal-mongering was unfounded and that she had committed a grievous crime she too was unable to bear it and hanged herself.
When the presbyter came and the sisters told him about it, he said that no mass should be said for either of them, and he excommunicated for seven years those who had been party to the calumny by not recognising it for what it was and believing the false tale.
THE VIRGIN WHO PRETENDED TO BE A HALFWIT
(Also in V.xviii.19) There was a virgin in this monastery who for Christ's sake pretended to be a halfwit and possessed by a demon. She thought by this to practise the best way of developing that most desirable of virtues, that of being downtrodden and humble. The others looked down on her to such an extent that they would not even eat with her, which she quite happily accepted. She worked in the kitchen, doing all kinds of menial tasks for the others, so that there was never a moment when she was not slaving away for somebody. She was, as the saying goes, the 'blessed sponge' of the monastery, believing truly that in this she was fulfilling what was written in the Gospels: 'Whosoever would be great among you, let them be as slaves and servants of all' (Matthew 20.26), and again, 'If anyone among you seems to be wise in this world, let them become foolish in order to be wise ' (1 Corinthians 3.18). The other virgins wore proper monastic hoods on their heads, she went about her task of serving others covering her head with only a scrap of old rag. No one ever saw her eating for all the forty years of her life. She never sat down at table, never even ate the broken bread, but gathered up the crumbs from the table with a sponge, and cleaned up what was left in the pots. She was content with that. She never wore shoes, never spoke angrily to anyone, never complained, made no reply either small or great when treated with anger, or even with blows and curses, despised by all.
(Also in V.xviii.19, called Pyoterius) A revelation about this holy woman was given by an Angel to a holy anchorite called Pitirum, who was very experienced in practising the virtues, and who lived in Porphyrites.
"Why are you so pleased with yourself," the Angel said, "sitting in this place so grandly satisfied with the things which you quite rightly and virtuously do? Would you like to see a woman far more pious and religious than you? Go to the women's monastery at Tabennisi and you will find there a woman much better than you, crowned with a chaplet. In the midst of much turmoil and at the beck and call of all, her heart is never turned away from God, though the rest of them spurn her in their pride. But you just sit here, visiting in your thoughts all the cities of the world, though you have never walked there on your own two feet."
So the great Pitirum came to the monastery at Tabennisi and asked those in charge if he might cross over to the women's monastery. He was held in high regard by the fathers, who agreed to this proposal in a happy and trusting frame of mind. They crossed the river and introduced him. After they had prayed together, the great Pitirum asked to be allowed to see all the virgins face to face. So they all came before him, with, of course, only one exception.
"I wanted them all to be brought to me," said the holy Pitirum.
""But we are all here," they said.
"There is one missing here," he replied, "who was described to me by an Angel."
"There is only one other. She is in the kitchen, but she is a Sale." (For so they called anyone not quite right in the head.)
"Bring her here, nevertheless," he said, "I must end up by seeing her."
So they went and called her. She did not want to come, either because she sensed what was gong on, or else, perhaps, because it had been revealed to her. So they forcibly dragged her.
"Holy Pitirum wants to see you," they said, "and he is a man of great reputation."
So she arrived, and the great man saw her face, and the old bit of rag covering her head, and he fell down at her feet.
"Bless me, Amma," he said.
"No sir, you bless me," she said, falling down before him.
All the others were horrified at this sight.
"Don't allow her to behave in this shameful and vicious way. She is a Sale!"
"It's you who are Sale," said the holy Pitirum, "she is better than I and all you others. She is an Amma" (for so they call spiritual mothers), "and I expect she will be found worthy in the day of judgment."
Hearing this they all fell at his feet weeping, and confessed all the various ways in which they had persecuted her.
"I have always mimicked her funny ways."
"I've always laughed at her low status."
"I've often been rude to her, even though she has said nothing."
"I've often poured the washing up water over her."
"I have struck her."
"I stirred up animosity against her."
"I pulled her nose."
One and all admitted to the various ways in which they had maltreated her. He listened to their confessions, prayed with them all, and spent a long time in giving comfort to the venerable servant of Christ, before going back home.
She was from then on respected and honoured by all, but after a few days she found that she was unable to bear all the glory and honour bestowed upon her by the whole community, and making that her excuse she slipped out secretly, but where she went, or where she lived, or how she died, no one knows to this day.
Such were the righteous deeds and works of this generous, humble and blessed virgin.
ABBA JOHN OF THE CITY OF LYCUS
(cf II.i) There was a certain John in the city of Lycus who from his boyhood had learned the building trade. He had a brother who was a dyer. When he was about twenty-five years old he renounced the world, and after five years in a monastery went alone from Lycus into the mountain. On the top of the mountain he built a three-roomed cell with three domes and walled himself into it. One of the rooms was a latrine, one was where he worked and one was where he prayed. After living like this for thirty years, with the help of someone who brought the necessities of life to him through the window, he was found worthy of receiving the gift of foretelling the future. It proved obvious from what he did that this gift of prophecy had been given him. He was able to tell the pious Emperor Theodosius what God was bringing into the world before anyone else did, and could foretell future events, in particular the revolts of the two tyrants, their subsequent speedy downfall, and the destruction of the people who rebelled against him.
[Theodosius the Great c.346-395. Emperor in Constantinople from 378. There was a revolt in Britain by Maximus in 383, and by Eugenius in the Western empire in 392.]
When the Ethiopians burst out over their borders and laid waste the neighbouring regions as far as Syene in the Thebaid, a certain general asked him whether he would be able to defeat them.
"If you go up against them," said John, "you will surround them, conquer and subdue them and you will be most famous among generals." And so it happened. The event confirmed the prediction.
He also used to say that the most Christian Emperor Theodosius would die at the same time as he did.
This admirable man excelled in the gift of prophecy. This was endorsed by all the fathers who had anything to do with him, men whose reputation stood high among the community. They did not exaggerate anything about him, but were inclined to say even less than he deserved. For there was a certain tribune who came to see him and begged permission for his wife to pay a visit. She had suffered a great deal and longed to come to him at Syene so that he could pray for her and send her away with his blessing. He was now ninety years old and had not even seen a woman for forty years. He never went outside his cell, he would never allow a woman to be seen, and certainly did not want to see the tribune's wife. No man had even been inside his cell. He simply used to give blessings from his window, and deal kindly with visitors, dealing with each one according to their needs. So when the tribune arrived asking if he could send for his wife (for John lived five miles into the desert) he would not agree, said it could not be done, and sent him sadly away.
But the wife would not stop nagging her husband day and night about it and swore that she would never give up until she had seen the prophet. The husband returned and told John of her determination.
"In that case," said John, recognising her faith, "She shall see me tonight in a dream. But she won't get any nearer than that to seeing my face in the flesh."
The husband told his wife what the father had said, and in her dreams she saw the prophet coming towards her.
"Why should a woman bother about me?" he said. "Why should you want to see my face? Am I a prophet who has obtained a place among the elect? I am just a sinful man, vulnerable as you are, but I have prayed for you and your husband's house that it may be to you according to your faith. Now go in peace." Having said this he departed.
When the woman awoke she told her husband what the prophet had said and described to him what he looked like and what he wore. She sent her husband back to him to give him thanks. When blessed John saw him he welcomed him and said, "See now, I have done what you asked. So having seen her, I have warned that she should not see me any more. Go in peace."
The wife of another prefect went into labour while her husband was absent. The baby was born at the exact time that her husband was consulting Father John, while she herself became dangerously ill with mental depression. And the holy man was able to tell the husband about this.
"Just think what God has given you. A son is born to you this day, so you may glorify God. But his mother is in some danger. When you get back, however, you will find that your son is seven days old. Name him John, bring him up strictly, and when he is seventeen send him to the monks in the desert." This sort of miracle he often showed to people who came from afar.
His own local community frequently resorted to him also to their own advantage. He foresaw and predicted the future for them and counselled them on all the secrets with which they entrusted him, as well as (predicting the Inundation of) the Nile, and the fertility of the approaching year. In like manner he forewarned his clients of the judgments of God, and justified his reasons for doing so.
The blessed John did not openly perform cures on anyone, but he did give them oil which relieved many of their complaints. There was a senator's wife who had lost her eyesight because of a white film which covered her eyes. She asked her husband to take her to John. When he told her that John never received women, she begged that if only he would ask John on her behalf he would do something for her. He did so; he sent her some oil. After she had treated her eyes with the oil for only three days, she recovered her sight and gave thanks to God.
I hardly need add that there were many other things he did which we saw with our own eyes. There were seven of us brothers wandering in Nitria, including the blessed Evagrius, and Albinus and Ammon. We sought diligently to determine accurately the power of this man's life.
"I would gladly learn what this man is like," said the great Evagrius, "from someone skilled in mental and spiritual assessment. For if I can't see him myself, I could learn accurately about his way of life from what somebody else tells me. I will find out if I can visit him, and if I can't I won't go to his mountain."
Hearing this I said nothing to anyone for a whole day, then gave up my cell to someone else, and commending myself and my cell to God, I set out for the Thebaid. I arrived there after eighteen days, travelling sometimes on foot, sometimes on the river. It was the time of the Inundation, when many become ill, which indeed happened to me.
When I got there I found the door of his vestibule locked (for the brothers had later built this great vestibule holding about a hundred people which they kept locked and opened up only on Saturdays and Sundays). When I learned why it was locked I kept silence until the Sunday. I got there at about the second hour and found that he was sitting in his window, listening to people and counselling them.
"Where are you from and why have you come?" he said to me through an interpreter, after greeting me. "I do know that you belong to the congregation of Evagrius."
"I am a stranger from Galatia," I said, "and I do belong to Evagrius' company."
While we were speaking, the governor of the region, Alypius by name, came running in and he stopped talking to me. I yielded my place and withdrew out of earshot. They seemed to be talking together for such a long time that I was very upset and resented the way in which this venerable person had treated me with contempt while honouring this other man. I was so irritated that I was on the point of going off in disgust, when he called the interpreter, Theodore by name, to tell me not to be upset for he would soon be finished with the governor after which he would be talking with me. It struck me that although I had been criticising him he really was a spiritual man and was dealing with me very gently.
"Why were you angry with me?" he asked me, when he summoned me after the governor had gone. "What was there that you could swear on oath had offended you? You were imputing to me things which were totally absent from my mind, and which did you no credit at all. Don't you know the Scripture, 'It is not the healthy who need a physician but the sick' (Matthew 9.12) ? I can come to you whenever I want, just as you can come to me. And if I can't help you, you have many other brothers and fathers who can. But this man who is bedevilled by pressing worldly affairs has managed to snatch a small space of time to seek for some help, like a slave escaping from a severe master. It would have been ridiculous for me to have ignored him in order to attend to you when you have all the time in the world to work out your own salvation."
I asked him to pray for me. I had established that he was indeed a spiritual man. He then playfully struck me on the right cheek and said,
"There are many difficulties ahead of you. You have already gone through many struggles about whether or not you should leave the desert. You have become fearful and you have changed. The demon has put many pious excuses into your mind, with many apparent good reasons, such as longing to go to back home so that you can initiate your brother and sister into monastic life. Well, I have got good news for you. They are both seeking salvation and will renounce the world. And your father will live for another seven years. So don't go back home for their sakes but be strong and persevere in the desert. It is written, 'No one who has put his hand to the plough and has turned back is fit for the kingdom of God.'"
These words greatly helped and strengthened me, and I gave thanks to God when I realised that the motives which had been driving me had been shown up as excuses.
"Would you like to be made a bishop?" he asked, playfully teasing me again.
"Not possible." I said. "I already am one."
"Where?" he asked.
"I am bishop over a flock of kitchen utensils, food supplies, dining tables, storage jars. I watch over them diligently. If the wine is sour I excommunicate (segrego) it. I only drink it if it is good. I likewise keep a careful eye on the canisters, and if the salt or spices are low I replenish then ready to be used. This is my episcopacy, my jurisdiction. It is towards these things that my inclination is drawn."
"Joking aside," he said, laughing, "Your future is to be made a bishop, along with many labours and troubles. But if you wish to avoid these troubles don't leave the desert. You can't be made a bishop if you stay in the desert."
But I forgot his words. Three years later I fell ill from spleen and stomach disorders. The brothers sent me to Alexandria, for the disease was developing into dropsy. The doctors advised that I should go from Alexandria to Palestine, for the sake of the air, for they thought that what I needed was a more temperate, mellow climate. From Palestine I went to Bithynia, where somehow or other, whether by a human decision or by divine will I don't know, God knows, I was found worthy of being ordained, given a higher strength than my own, and so it happened to me as John had predicted.
I spent eleven months in a cheerless cell, taking note of this blessed man who foretold my future. Towards the end he told me that he had been in his cell for forty years without seeing either women or money. He had not seen anyone while they were eating, nor had anyone ever seen him either eating or drinking. He told me this to help me bear my own solitude.
After I left him I went back to my own usual place of solitude and told all these things to the blessed fathers, who after a couple of months went to see him themselves. And this is what they told me:
"When we arrived he received us and welcomed us most warmly, with a cheerful word for each one of us. We asked him immediately if he would offer prayers - for this is the custom among the Egyptian fathers. He asked whether there was a cleric among us. We all said that there wasn't, but he looked us all over and singled out one of us who had a secret, in that he had in fact been found worthy of being ordained deacon. There was only one other brother who was aware of this but the deacon had asked him not to tell anyone. In his humility he was so far from wanting any particular honour that in comparison to the fathers he felt he was hardly even worthy to be called Christian.
"This man is a deacon," said John, pointing him out to everyone. He denied it vigorously and tried to escape, but John grasped his hand through the window.
"Don't spurn the grace of God, my son," John admonished him, "lest by telling a falsehood you tarnish God's gift. Christians should not tell lies. Whether in big things or small it is always reprehensible. The Saviour himself says, 'Lying is of the devil'" (John.8.44).
His guilt exposed he accepted this paternal rebuke and protested no more.
After prayers were done one of our brothers asked to be cured of a fever which had been plaguing him for three days. He told the brother that he was suffering this illness because of the weakness of his faith, but nevertheless gave him some oil and told him to anoint himself with it. When he had done so he vomited out what was in his stomach, his fever subsided, and he went back to the guest house on his own two feet.
John was obviously about ninety years old, very frail of body, and as a result of his regime no beard grew on his face. For he ate nothing but fruit and that not till after sunset even in his extreme old age. He observed a very strict regime, eating neither bread nor anything else cooked.
He asked us to sit down and we gave thanks to God that we were to enjoy a conference with him. He accepted us as if we were beloved long lost sons, and smiled as he spoke.
"Where are you from, my sons? What country have you left in order to come and see this frail and unimportant old man?"
We told him our native land, and added, "We have come to you from Jerusalem for the good of our souls, so that what we have heard with our ears we might see with our eyes. For ears are not so reliable as eyes. It is easy to forget what you hear, but what you see is not easily erased from the memory; it is somehow imprinted on the mind as part of your history."
"And what marvels were you hoping to see, my beloved sons," said the blessed John, "undergoing such a long journey with great hardship in order to get here? Was it really some frail and unimportant human beings you wanted to see, who have nothing worth looking at or admiring? After all, there are admirable and praiseworthy prophets and apostles of God appointed in all the churches, good examples for you to follow. I am amazed at your enthusiasm and how you have braved all kinds of dangers to come to us hoping for some kind of benefit, when we ourselves are so lazy that we have never even wanted to travel outside our cell.
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