Chapter XLIII, Abba John (continued) Book VIII (A Tale of Abba John begins further down page)
"Think now, is this venture of yours so praiseworthy, after all? It is as if you are putting your trust in some splendid thing that you have done, when what is really needed is to search for the virtues which your fathers sought. And even if you possessed them all, a rare thing indeed, you would still not have anything in yourselves to boast about. For some who are confident that they have arrived at the very pinnacle of virtue have fallen at last from their high estate. Take care rather that your prayer is sound. Is the purity of your heart disturbed? When you pray is your mind distracted with all kinds of other things? Does some thought or other in your mind jump about to something else? Is there some thought in your memory which is doing damage to your soul? Ask yourself whether you have truly renounced the world. Have you come here simply to gaze at our freedom of spirit? Are you chasing after virtue simply for the sake of vainglory? - as if you could then show off to people by imitating what we are doing?
"Take care that you do not become entirely governed by turbulent thoughts, by honour and glory and human praise, by putting on a show of your concern for holy things, by self love. Don't consider yourself to be righteous, for if you glory in your own righteousness you are liable to be puffed up above yourself by a sense of your own virtue. Don't even think about your family when you are praying. Don't dwell on thoughts of mercy or indeed of anything else in the whole world. For if you do your prayer comes to nothing. Anyone seeking God is dragged down by these thoughts which come against you. These mental wanderings happen to anyone who has not entirely renounced the world but chases after subserving it. Because of the multitude of matters occupying his attention his mind is fragmented by earthly and bodily worries, and for as long as he is arguing away with his disturbed thoughts he cannot see God. But even your knowledge of God should never be considered full and exact, for you may not really be worthy of such a prize. Or perhaps in getting part of the way you may wrongly think you have attained it all and so fall into destruction.
"Your progress towards God should be gentle and devout, tempered to the mind and human potential of each individual person. Those who would seek God must free their minds from all other things. 'Be still,' he said, 'and know that I am God' (Psalms 46.10). Anyone who gains even in part the knowledge of God (for no one can gain it in full), gains with it an insight into everything else. He understands the mysteries which God shows him, he sees into the future, grasps such revelations as are fitting for a saint, grows in virtue, and obtains from God all his petitions."
He had much to say also on the subject of the ascetic way, and how to think of death as a change to a better life. We should not worry about the weakness of the body, nor should we indulge it with every passing fancy.
"For," he said, "anyone who satisfies every desire is the same as someone living in luxury. Rather, it is necessary to deaden the appetites by the exercise of discipline. There is no need to relax your mind with everything on offer. Let us now be weak, afflicted and oppressed if only we may possess the inheritance of the kingdom of God in all its breadth. We can enter the kingdom of God only through many afflictions. 'It is a narrow gate and a constricted way which leads to life,' he said, 'and there are few that find it. And it is a broad way which leads to destruction and there are many who go in by it.' (Matthew 7.13 & 14). It is necessary to berate ourselves here, for after a little while we go to eternal life. Neither can we boast about what we have done that is right, but must always be humble, and seek for longer periods of solitude if ever we get conceited. For even those who were perfect have often been led astray by living in the midst of the city, as happened to David causing him to say, 'Behold I have fled far away and lived in solitude, and have looked for him who saves me from terror and tempest.' (Psalms 55.7&8). Many of our brothers have had this happen to them and because of their arrogance they have fallen out of sight."
A TALE OF ABBA JOHN ABOUT SOMEONE WHO FELL
(included in II.i) There was a certain monk," he said, "who lived in the nearer desert, keeping every proper discipline and working for his daily bread. After he had persevered for a long time in prayer and grown in virtue he began to trust in himself alone and in the beauty of his own settled life. The tempter then began to try him as he tried Job, and one evening showed him the image of a beautiful woman wandering in the wilderness. Finding the door open she came right in to his cell, knelt at his feet and begged to be allowed to stay, overtaken as she was by the night. He took pity on her and let her in, which he ought not to have done.
"A further mistake was to question her closely. She told him a long story, sprinkled with all sorts of flattery and falsehood, and spun out the conversation at great length. Little by little, she somehow enticed him on to thoughts of love. They chattered together, laughing and giggling. The way she talked fascinated him; she began to hold his hand, his beard, his neck, and finally captivated this athlete completely. His mind was in a turmoil, a safe opportunity of pleasure was presenting itself, the deed was as good as done, and he gave consent in his mind to all these thoughts. He tried to have intercourse with her like a foolish horse breaking out wildly in search of a mare. She suddenly cried out with a loud voice and vanished out of his hands, as nothing but a sort of shadow. The crowd of demons who had deceived him could now be heard in the air mocking him and laughing, and crying with a loud voice, '"He who exalts himself will be humiliated" (Luke 14.11). You were once lifted up into heavenly things, so now will you be cast down into the lowest depths.'
"He spent the night weeping, got up in the morning and continued to lament the whole day through. Despairing of his own salvation (which he ought not to have done) he went back to the world. This is what the devil wants. As soon as he makes a mock of anyone he reduces him to a foolishness from which it is not possible to escape. Wherefore, my sons, it is not good for us to live near the towns, nor to converse with women, lest images of them stay in your mind which you cannot get rid of, images which have been put there by what you have seen and heard. But neither should we let our minds be weighed down, driving us into despair, for those who do not lose hope will not be deprived of the mercy of the merciful God."
A TALE OF THE SAME ABBA JOHN ABOUT SOMEONE WHO WAS LED TO REPENT.
(also part of II.i) There was a certain young man in the city who had done many evil things and sinned gravely. He began to be sorry for his sins, inspired by God, and went into a graveyard where he fell on his face, weeping for his past life, speechless, not daring so much as to call upon God to ask pardon, so little did he estimate his life to be worth. So having shut himself up in a tomb and faced up to the sort of life he had been leading, he groaned from the depths of his being. At the end of a week the demons who had been leading his former life into damnation came shouting at him by night.
"Where is this profane wretch, sated with lust and pleasure-seeking, who now suddenly pretends to be honest and moderate in this untimely manner? Has he got beyond it? Does he now want to be a Christian, with upright and clean habits? As if you could expect anything good to become of you in future, stuffed full as you are with the wickedness we have given you. You are going to get out of here quickly, aren't you, and return to what we are accustomed to give you. There are lots of brothels and taverns left for you yet. Will you not come and indulge your desires, since there is no other hope left for you? Doubtless judgment will come swiftly, but you are destroying yourself. Why rush madly towards your own punishment? Why are you so intent on being punished before the due time?"
They said much more. "You belong to us. You are enrolled in our company. You are familiar with every kind of wickedness. We all find you disgusting, but will you dare to flee? Aren't you going to listen to us? Won't you answer? And come away with us as well?"
He just kept weeping, shutting his ears, replying never a word, however much the demons kept on at him. When they saw that all their continued urgings were having no effect these wicked and disgusting demons took him and laid about him heavily with whips, beating every inch of his body. When they had finished their torment they went away leaving him half dead. He lay where they had left him, unable to move more than anything else. He came to his senses and began groaning again.
When his family came to look for him and learned the reason for what had happened to his body they begged him to return home, but he refused, even when they tried to force him. The next night the demons tormented him again worse than before. To prevent his relations persuading him to go back home they kept telling him that it would be better to die than return to his former sinful ways. On the third night they invaded him with such cruel torments that they pushed him to the limits of endurance and nearly made him give up the ghost. But they saw that he would not give in and they departed leaving him lifeless. As they went they cried, "You have won, you have won, you have won."
No further harm came to him. For the rest of his life he dwelt simply in that tomb, cleansed of all evil, displaying nothing but pure virtue. He was very precious in the sight of God for his virtues and for the miracles that he did, for he led many to admire him and awakened their zeal to emulate the integrity of his way of life. Thus it came about that many of those who had given up hope for themselves were led into doing good things, and conducted their lives properly. In them the Scripture was fulfilled, 'He who humbles himself will be exalted.' (Luke 24.11).
So let us practise humility, my sons, the foundation of all virtues. A long spell of solitude at a distance also brings many benefits.
ANOTHER TALE OF ABBA JOHN ABOUT SOMEONE WHO FELL AND WAS LED TO REPENT
(included in II.i) There was another monk who lived in the Inner Desert, conducting himself properly and scrupulously for many years. When he was already getting to be quite elderly he was severely tested by the wiles of the demons. His usual practice consisted of passing his days in silence, with many prayers and psalms and periods of contemplation. He had clear insights into many divine visions, sometimes waking, and sometimes even when asleep, although he actually slept hardly at all, living a life apart from the body. He did not till the ground, he took no thought for the necessities of life, he cultivated no garden to supply his bodily needs. Nor did he catch birds or hunt any other animal, but full of the faith in which he had abandoned human community he cared nothing for whether or not his body would be nourished. Forgetful of all else he was sustained solely by his desire for God, waiting for his call to depart from this world, feeding above all on those unhoped for delights which cannot be perceived with the senses. Throughout all this time his body did not waste or show any ill effects, nor was he gloomy in spirit, but he continued to appear his normal attractive self. And God truly honoured him indeed, for after a due interval of time he supplied his table with bread for two or three days, not just apparently but actually, for him to use. He would go into his inner room when he felt the pangs of hunger and find this food there. And having praised God and taken some food he would again sing psalms, persevering in prayers and contemplation, growing daily, giving himself to the pursuit of virtue in hope of the future. He went on progressing more and more, until he almost got to the stage of putting his trust in his own powers of improvement - and thereby came to his downfall, almost perishing in the temptations which then came upon him.
Why should we not spell out the very cause of his fall? His thoughts had arrived at such a pass that he was little by little imprudently beginning to think more of himself than anyone else, and that he possessed much more than other men, and for this reason he began to put his trust solely in himself. Not long after he first thought like this his vigilance relaxed slightly, but so little that he did not even notice that there had been any relaxation. But his negligence grew until it progressed to the extent that he could not fail but notice it. He was later in waking up to sing psalms, his prayers became shorter, his psalm singing did not last so long, his soul said to him that he wanted to rest and his mind agreed with that, his thoughts wandered and scattered, his secret meditations were vapid.
But the impetus of his earlier routine still motivated him, and kept him safe for a while, so that when he went in after his usual prayers of an evening he found the bread supplied by God on his table and refreshed himself accordingly. But he still did not cut off his unworthy thoughts, he despised the idea that his soul was being damaged, he made no attempt to seek a remedy for these evils. Little by little he fell into omitting many of the things which he ought to have been doing. In thought he began to develop a desire for human company. The next day he put a temporary restraint on himself, and returned to his usual exercises, but after he had prayed and sung his psalms he went into the storeroom, and found that the bread placed there was not so well baked or wholesome as usual, but was dirty and polluted. He wondered about this and was very sad about it, but nevertheless picked it up and ate it.
Came the third night and with it a third evil. For thoughts suddenly erupted in his mind, activating his memory so much that he imagined there was a woman lying with him. This image persisted in front of his eyes, and he actively encouraged it. But on this third day he went out to his work and his prayers and his psalms, although his mind was not clean any more, and strayed frequently. He lifted up his eyes to the heavens, turning them this way and that, but the images in his memory prevented his work from being unspoiled. In the evening when he returned feeling hungry, he found that the bread looked as if it had been chewed by mice or dogs, and the scraps left over were dried up as if left outside.
He began to groan and weep, but not so much as to make him want to correct his faults. Having eaten less than he would have wished he prepared himself for rest, but at once his thoughts went wild, dancing around in every direction, battling for possession of his mind, and taking it captive into uncleanness. He got up and began to go to the inhabited regions, walking through the desert by night. Daylight came and he was still a long way off from any habitation. He began to be overcome by the heat and felt very tired. He gazed around him in a complete circle, and saw at some distance what appeared to be a monastery where he might go in and get some refreshment. And so it was. He was accepted in by some good and faithful brothers, who treated him as a real father and washed his face and his feet. They prayed with him, put food before him, and invited him most kindly to partake of what they were offering him.
After he had eaten, the brothers asked him for a word of salvation, and what means there were of being able to be safe from the wiles of the devil, and how to overcome unclean thoughts. Like a father admonishing his sons he urged them to be strong and constant in their labours, in order to arrive quickly to a state of being at peace. He discussed many other aspects of their discipline with them and helped them greatly.
When he had finished he thought for a while and marvelled at how he was giving advice to others without looking to himself and trying to amend. He acknowledged he was beaten and straightaway went back to the desert, weeping for himself, and saying, "'Unless the Lord had been my helper my soul had remained in hell' (Psalms 94.17). I have almost been overcome by evil. They have brought me back to earth." Thus were fulfilled in him the words, 'A brother who is helped by a brother is like a city built up on high, whose wall cannot be breached.' (Proverbs 18.19). Whereas before he used to spend all his time without doing any physical work, now he was deprived of the bread provided by the Lord and laboured for his daily bread. And when he had shut himself up in his inner room and covered himself in sackcloth and ashes he did not get up from the ground or cease from weeping until he had heard the voice of the angel saying to him in a dream, "The Lord has accepted your repentance and has had mercy on you. From now on live in such a way that you will not be deceived. The brothers you gave advice to you will come to you and will show the high opinion they have of you. Accept them, live with them, and give thanks to God always."
I have told you these things, my sons, that you may always cultivate humility and be seen to do so in small things as in great. This was the first of the Saviour's precepts, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven' (Matthew 5.3). And do not be deceived by the demons, stirring you up with visions and fantasies. If anyone approaches you, whether brother, friend, woman, father, teacher, mother or sister, first lift up your hands in prayer. If they are fantasies they will flee. And if either demons or human beings would deceive you by agreeing with you and flattering you, don't listen to them or get carried away by them. For the demons would often try to deceive me at night also, preventing me from praying, disturbing my peace, presenting fantasies to me the whole night through, and mockingly prostrating themselves in the morning, saying, "Forgive us, abba, for giving you such hard work all night." I just say to them, "Depart from me, all you who work evil, do not put the servant of the Lord to the test." (Psalms 6.8).
Do you likewise, O my sons, seek peace. Direct your whole self always towards contemplation, begging God that your mind may be purified. Anyone practising his faith in the world may also be a good workman, engaged in doing good, showing humanity and pity, hospitality and charity, giving alms, blessing those who come to him, helping those in difficulties and avoiding giving offence to anyone. Such a person is to be commended, for he keeps the commandments and gets things done, even while busy with earthly affairs. But a greater and more excellent thing is to be turned towards contemplation, given not to action but to thought, leaving to others the production of material goods. Denying himself he will contemplate heavenly things, completely forgetful of self, standing before the God of all completely free and unencumbered, turning away for no other consideration whatsoever. Someone like this may not yet enjoy God yet turns always towards God in eager songs of praise.
I know someone in the desert who never tasted earthly food for a space of ten years. An angel fed him every third day with heavenly food, placing it directly into his mouth. To him it was as good as food and drink. I know also that the demons came to this man in the form of fantasies, showing him heavenly armies, chariots of fire, a crowd of followers, as if some king were coming, and saying, "You have done all things well and virtuously, O Man. All you need now is to worship me and I will take you up like Elias." But the monk replied, "Daily I worship my King and Saviour, but if he were here now that is not a demand that he would make of me." From the bottom of his heart he then cried, "God is my Lord and King whom I ever adore. My king you are not." And the vision vanished immediately. Unlike some, he strove to keep secret his way of life and the things he did. It was the fathers with him who said that he had seen these things.
These and many other things the blessed John told us, nourishing our souls up to the ninth hour for three days. And as he blessed us, bidding us go in peace, he also gave us a prophecy. "It has been announced today in Alexandria," he said, "that the most devout Theodosius has won a victory over the tyrant Eugenius, [in the year 394] who has died his own well-deserved death", which came to pass exactly as he had said.
We were also aware of a great number of monks who were with him in the church, like a great choir of the righteous, dressed in white robes, glorifying God in fervent psalms.
After we saw many other fathers, some brothers came and told us that the blessed John had died a wonderful death. For he had given orders that no one should visit him for three days, during which, as he knelt in prayer, he passed away into the presence of God, to whom be glory for ever.
Poemenia, a servant of the Lord, once went to visit abba John. He did not speak to her but sent her a warning message not to turn aside to Alexandria when going down from the Thebaid, lest she be put to very severe trials. But either she simply ignored this or else forgot all about it, for she did go down towards Alexandria in order to see the city. As she was on the way near the town of Nicia some boats passed by in which she was offered a passage. But they were all fiercely attacked by some workmen, aggressive and destructive people living locally. They cut off the finger of one of the eunuchs and killed another. In their ignorance they threw the holy bishop Dionysius into the river, treated Poemenia to abusive curses and severely wounded all the other servants.
THE LIFE OF ABBA AMMON, AND HIS COMPANIONS
(cf. II.iii) We also saw another man of the Thebaid called Ammon, the father of three thousand monks. They were called Tabennisiites and had an impressive way of living their lives. They all wore sheepskins with which they covered their faces when eating, leaning forward so that no one could see the person next to him. They practised silence so thoroughly that they seemed to be entirely alone, each one pursuing his own hidden order of life, only making an appearance to sit at table, where even there they tried to hide from each other. Some of them once or twice picked up some bread or an olive to eat, or whatever else was set out for them. When they had tasted from each dish they reckoned they had had enough. Some just quietly persevered in eating some bread, while only pretending to taste other things. Others tasted three only and abstained from the others. I admired the way in which each ate what was right for himself, aware of the benefit each one was gaining.
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