Life No 15, Book Ib
Life No 15
The Life of St Frontonius, abbot,
Prologue(End of Book 1b.
You have often asked me to tell you about holy things, which I have been quite willing to do. So I have decided to provide an outline of a temple of God, about people no longer clothed in sheepskins, but who are now clothed in gold and silver and precious gems, so that we also, as living stones, may be built up into a spiritual house (1 Peter 2.5), by profiting in Jesus Christ our Lord from the examples of those who are better than us. I am, of course, talking about what was done in the Nitrian desert, and I will not miss out any of the truths by which this present little work may serve as edification for monks.
Frontonius, then, was a true servant of God, and as he progressed from day to day in the fear of God he became less and less at ease with public community life and grew in desire for the trackless desert. He called about seventy like minded people to him, and said to them:
"What have we got in common with this sordid world, whose works it is only right for us to renounce in order that we might follow a path to heaven? So, taking nothing with us, let us go to the desert to seek for the glory of heaven, and practice a higher discipline of virtuous living."
They all agreed with what he said, and went forth to the desert taking with them a few olive tree seeds, and forks and hoes to till the ground.
"The Lord says in the Gospel," Frontonius said, "'Take no thought what you shall eat or what you shall drink or what you shall wear, for all the nations of the world seek after these things, but seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you' (Matthew 6.31-33) Let us hold fast to that promise, and we shall find that the work of the Lord will be fulfilled in us."
So they all dwelt in the desert, labouring constantly in the work of the Lord, and the Lord came to the aid of his servants as they progressed in the spiritual struggle. Frontonius himself prayed not only on his own behalf but on behalf of all, knowing that it was written, 'Not seeking after what is profitable for me alone but what is for the salvation of many' (1 Corinthians 10.33).
After they had lived in the desert for quite some time, the enemy of Christians began to tempt them, making them think that they ought to go back to the world, for the Anchoretic life was too severe and more than anyone should have to put up with, and they murmured in their hearts.
"What is the point," they asked, "of living in the desert as our father Frontonius wants us to do? Can't those who live in towns and walled cities see God? Are desert-dwellers the only ones to see him? Don't their good actions speak for them? Who can exist on the bread of Angels? Here are we, dying of hunger. The hard work of vigils does not get done, we are weakened by over severe fasting, our knees are so weak that we can hardly stand."
Frontonius was aware of their murmuring, but before they came to him to say anything he got in first.
"Why are you angering God," he said, "by murmuring among yourselves, questioning whether desert-dwellers are the only ones to see God, and saying that it is impossible to exist on the bread of Angels? You have been planning to come to me as abbot, asking to live in the city, where people could see us, and as a sacrifice to God supply us with food to eat, according to how much each one of them is inspired by God. But know this: the Lord does not slay the soul of the righteous by hunger, for the eyes of the Lord are always over those who fear him and he keeps them alive in famine (Psalms 33.18-19). And have you forgotten what the Apostle says: 'In hunger and thirst' (2 Corinthians 11.27)? But living here in the desert you have never lacked root vegetables to eat, and you have not always been fasting.
"So remember what has been said to you before: 'Take no thought what you shall eat or what you shall drink or what you shall wear, for all the nations of the world seek after these things. The Lord knows how to give food to those who fear him. Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you' (Matthew 6.31-33). If the Lord feeds the crows and all winged creatures, how shall he not feed those who bear his yoke and pray to him constantly? If we were really dying from hunger in the desert, then we might run to him accusingly and say: 'We believed in your Gospel where you said that you would give bread from heaven to all who believed in you. We have done all you asked, we hoped in you, and now you have just deserted us. But if you have just been testing us, now prove yourself to be truthful and fulfil your promises.' So don't go on murmuring against God, lest you perish from serpents as our fathers did in this desert (Numbers 21.6). If you wait on the Lord he will give good things to those who fear him when he wills."
These words stilled their murmuring a little, for they had been in deep gloom.
Now I have promised to deal briefly with everything in my own untutored way, and cover all the things which it would be right to include under that heading, and, in a little book like this, to run through all the opinions and arguments in simple speech such as any Reader might be able to understand. So let us go back to the reason why this work was begun, and show that I don't claim any credit for it.
An Angel came to a certain rich person one night and said:
"You dine in rich splendour, but my servants in the desert lack bread. Rise then at daybreak and take some food to my servants out of all that I have given you. I have given you the task of feeding this flock of mine. You have always been filled with awe at the blessings which heaven has poured out on you; I have never deserted you. It is my pleasure therefore that you should refresh by your almsgiving my poor people living a spiritual life in the desert, who have entrusted themselves to me as their Lord. So you must tell them that I speak to you as one sent from the Lord. Unless you do this you will spoil your peaceful accord with the Lord your God."
In some trepidation he rose from sleep, and went out in the morning to call together some faithful friends and some of his trusted servants.
"I had fallen asleep in bed last night," he said to them, "when suddenly a messenger appeared who said: 'You dine in rich splendour, but my servants in the desert lack bread. Rise then at daybreak and take some food to my servants out of all that I have given you. I have given you the task of feeding this flock of mine'. I would very much like to send them some food, but I don't know where these servants of God are. I am very eager to do what I have been asked, but who can tell me where I should go? I must be obedient to the Angel, and therefore to God. You are all people of some standing. Surely you can tell me where they are."
But nobody could tell him, because the monks lived in an unknown part of the mountain, and nobody knew where it was.
The next night that rich man was subjected to a much more threatening visit. He was buffeted severely and censured, and once more urged to take food to the servants of God. Again he rose up at daybreak and consulted his friends.
"If you can't tell me where these servants of God are," he said, "then ask around from other people."
He accompanied his request with floods of tears, and showed them the bruises which he had suffered at the hands of the Angel that night. But still nobody was able to tell him where the servants of God dwelt. Then one of his friends, wiser than the rest, came up with an idea.
"If you are willing to accept my advice, my dear friend," he said, "perhaps you might find this idea useful. You have got seventy camels. Load them up with all kinds of provisions which you know that the servants of God would eat, and drive the camels out on to the highway with no one in charge of them. If what you have been told really comes from God you can be sure that you will get your camels back again safely. But if this turns out to have been a blow directed against you by the devil, you will just have to accept humbly that this time you have been whipped by the devil, to avoid you having to suffer an even more severe fate. If you don't like this idea, see if you can find someone else with a better one."
The rich man and his companions thought this idea was a good one. So they loaded up sixty camels with food that the servants of God would be able to eat, except that five of them carried loads of animal fodder.
"Whoever comes across them," they said, albeit with some anxiety, " when they examine the loads and see the fodder, will surely take pity on the beasts and feed them."
They tied all the beasts one behind the other with leading ropes, and tearfully sent them on their way, committing them into the care of the Lord, trusting that if this was of God they would come back safely. There was to be no one in charge if them.
After going out of the city gates a servant loosed hold of the leading camel. Followed by the rest of them the leading camel moved into the neighbourhood of the mountains, totally unaccompanied. I doubt, however, that the camels could have arrived where they did by such a direct route unless the messenger of the Lord had gone before them (as we later understood). For, as we were later told, on the fourth day, as the brothers were doing the work of God at the ninth hour, the leading camel came and knelt down outside the monastery door. The brothers could not hear the sound of the camel's little bell for the noise of the hymns they were singing. But the abbot was placed near the gateway, and he was the first to notice them, to his overwhelming joy. The entrance to the monastery was quite a narrow one, and it was the abbot, because of his authority, who was in charge of the doors. But placed as he was in the midst of the other brothers, he said nothing until the singing had finished. Then, in almost indecent haste, he called out to the brothers.
"Where is your murmuring now?" he cried. "See, the Lord has speedily sent us food from on high. He has issued his commands to some wise person and sent us these laden camels. Come, let's unload them and give these weary beasts some relief."
They all rejoiced with an exceeding great joy, and all together gave thanks to God, as they happily unloaded the camels. As they unloaded five of the camels they found the loads of animal fodder. They washed the animals' feet, and using the saddles for mangers, they fed them out of the food which they had brought with them. The animals had been able to find some food from vegetation as they were following their tortuous route through the mountains, so they were refreshed by several different kinds of food.
Next morning, the abbot chose the wise course of not giving way to greed, and divided the food into two. He reloaded the camels with one portion, giving an equal weight to each one, so that none of them was disadvantaged, and gave thanks to the God of all for not giving way to greed, since he was intending to return half the food to the rightful owner of the camels.
Meanwhile, the owner of the camels and his friends were trying to reassure each other about the possible risk the camels were being subjected to, and praying to the Lord that this honourable man would not suffer loss. They were gathered together, fasting, on the eighth day, when one of them who had sensitive ears caught the sound of the tinkling of bells being carried towards them on the breeze. He said nothing at first, until he was sure that it really was bells that he was hearing.
"I think," he then said, "that the sound of bells can be heard coming from up the mountain."
They went outside and saw the camels returning. They were filled with a marvellous joyfulness at being able to congratulate their friend. Whereas before they had been mourning the probable loss or death of the animals, now they were delighted at receiving them back completely unharmed, looking well, and not having lost condition. So the owner took them back with great thanksgiving, and was even more amazed when he examined their loads.
He then invited all his friends, as well as a great number of the poor, to a splendid banquet, and distributed to the needy the goods which had come back with the camels. He was given lavish gifts by his friends, blessings which he accepted graciously, giving thanks to the Lord.
From that time onwards, right up till the time of Frontonius' death, he would mark the anniversary of his first consignment by sending another lot of basic foods to the same people. And the Lord inspired other rich people also, so that the servants of God with Frontonius never lacked for anything, but were provided for by the generosity of all. They continued to keep vigil in the work of God, sons with their father who fed them with banquets of spiritual nourishment. He fed them daily with words of heavenly wisdom, rejoicing happily in the Lord who had inspired him with the intention of seeking out this precious place in the trackless desert.
When you have read this, pass it on, that many monks may be edified. He who not only reads it, but entrusts himself to the servants of God and does likewise, will be even more greatly blessed. For he will receive his reward from Christ Jesus our Lord, who loves those who give alms to the poor and cares for the servants of God with an open heart, to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be honour and glory unto the ages of ages. Amen.
These things all took place during the time of the Emperor Antoninus, in the thirteenth year of his reign.
Life No 16, Book 1c, Barlaam and Josaphat. not yet translated.
Book 1c , Lives of the Holy Women, begins on next page)
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