Chapter I (continued), Life of John, Book II (Life of Hor begins nearer the bottom of this page)
"Therefore, my beloved, inasmuch as you have chosen to try and please God and come to his love, take care to distance yourself from all boasting, all vices of the soul, all bodily delights. And don't think that 'bodily delights' are limited to what pleases worldly people. Anyone who practices abstinence must realize that 'delights' comprise all things which he might have sought after with greediness, even such commonplace things as might be normally used by an abstainer. For even bread and water, if taken to satisfy greed rather than for mere bodily need, can lead to the vice of gluttony. One must be accustomed in all things to keep the soul free from vice. The Lord wishes to teach us how to resist the devices and desires of our own heart, and so he says, 'Enter in by the narrow gate, for the way to death is broad and spacious, but the way to life is strait and narrow'. (Matthew 7.13,14). The way of the soul is broad when every desire is pandered to, the narrow way means denying satisfaction to your own desires. A somewhat isolated dwelling and a solitary way of life can be of great profit in grasping these things, for if there are a lot of fraternal visits and much coming and going, the yoke of abstinence and frugality may be relaxed and little by little one is led into the habit of enjoying 'delights'. Even the perfect can sometimes be taken prisoner in this way. So at last hear what David says, 'See, I have fled far off to dwell in solitude'". (Psalms 55.7).
(cf VIII.xliv) Afterwards, however, the holy John discussed with us many aspects of the vice of boasting and other matters of special benefit. Finally he gave us this warning, "Let me reveal to you what happened recently to one of our brothers, as a precedent and example to make you more cautious yourselves.
"There was a monk living nearby in the desert - his dwelling place was a cave - a man of great abstinence, seeking his food by the daily labour of his hands, persevering in prayer day and night, adorned with all the virtues of the soul. But he began to feel happy and proud about how successful he was. Feeling confident of his own powers he was not putting his trust in God, but imputing all his success to himself. When the Tempter of the soul realised this he came near to prepare a trap for him. One day at vesper time, he caused the appearance of a beautiful woman to come wandering through the desert. She looked weary, as if she had been working hard, and came to the monk's door pretending to be worn out with fatigue. She went inside and threw herself at his knees.
"'Have pity on me,'" she said. "'Night has unfortunately overtaken me as I seek refuge in this desert. Pray let me rest in a corner of your cell, lest I be attacked by nocturnal beasts.'
"Overcome with compassion he welcomed her into the cave and began to ask her why it was that she was wandering through the desert. She pitched him a sufficiently plausible tale, and mixed it all up with sly flattery, and seductive poisons. She portrayed her plight to be truly pitiful, and desperately in need of help. By the smooth beauty of her way of talking she insinuated her way into the monk's affections, and aroused in him illicit desire. She introduced a few jokes and laughter into her talk, and then protesting how much she admired his bearded chin she wantonly stroked it, then gently caressed his neck and shoulders. What more need I say? She led the soldier of Christ on towards his inevitable captivity.
"Now he began to be internally disturbed, and burn with surges of lust, completely forgetful of all his former labours and his monastic profession. He did not fight against the concupiscence in his heart, but welcomed deceitful pleasure into his secret thoughts. In his foolishness he disfigured his own life, and became as a horse or a mule with no understanding (Psalms 32.9). But as he tried to take the woman into his obscene embraces, she gave a terrifying howl, a bloodcurdling shriek, and slipped from his enfolding arms like the insubstantial shade she was, and with foul mockery left him clutching the empty air with shameless gestures.
"Now a crowd of demons gathered in the air to watch this sight, shouting loudly, exulting with cacophonous derision.
"'You who exalted yourself to the high heavens,' they cried, 'Oh how cast down you are now to the lowest depths! Learn the lesson that whoever exalts himself will be humbled' (Luke 14.11).
"Almost out of his mind, and unable to bear the shame, he proceeded to deceive himself to an even greater extent than the demons had done, What he ought to have done was to repair the damage and renew the contest, and make satisfaction by the fruits of tears and humility in order to wipe out the blame of his former conceitedness. But he did not do this. Instead he handed himself over in despair to lasciviousness and iniquity, as the Apostle says (Ephesians.4.19), and went back to the world, conquered by the demons, avoiding the company of all the saints, so that nobody was able to give him any useful advice which might have drawn him back from the precipice. If only he had made up his mind to return to his former abstemious way of life he would without doubt have regained his former state of grace.
"Now hear about what happened to another man who was similarly tempted, but who had a different outcome to his temptation. This man lived a disgraceful and disreputable life in a neighbouring state, committing all kinds of wicked deeds, so that he was universally held in opprobrium. But by the mercy of God he was drawn to repentance, and enclosed himself in a sepulchre, where day and night with his face on the earth he bathed his former polluting deeds with fountains of tears. He would not dare so much as lift up his eyes to heaven (Luke 18.13), nor use his voice to call upon the name of the Lord, but never ceased groaning and weeping. Dead and buried, he offered up from the mouth of hell the lamentations and groans of his heart. After a week of this the demons came by night into his sepulchre, clamouring and shouting.
"'What do you think you are doing, you unclean and disgraceful person? After being sated with all that filthiness and impurity do you think that you can now become chaste and religious? After having immersed yourself in wickedness, do you think there is any power that can wipe out those deeds? You, wanting now to be recognised as a Christian, modest and penitent! As if any other place is possible for you, steeped in evil as you are, than that which is owed to you by us! You are one of us. You can't be anything else. Come back, come back to us, and for whatever time there is left to you don't miss out on the pursuit of pleasure. We shall prepare a flood of delights for you, most excellent harlots, and all kinds of other things to restore you to the flowering of your graceful youth. Why make vain and useless crosses for yourself? Why hand yourself over to punishment before the time? Can the sufferings of hell be any worse than what you are going through now? If punishment gives you pleasure, just wait for it a little bit longer until you are really prepared for it. In the meantime enjoy what we can give you, which you have always found sweet and pleasant.'
"They castigated him with many more similar taunts, but he lay there without moving, paying them no attention and saying nothing in reply. Over and over again they repeated even fiercer taunts, but he still made no response, till at last, realising they were being despised, they fell into a fury and attacked him with rods, leaving him half dead with a multiplicity of crucifying wounds. Even in the midst of such torments he moved not a jot from where he had lain down to pray.
"The next day some of his friends sought him out, simply from human kindness, and found him grievously wounded. They asked him what had happened, and when they were told, suggested that they take him back home where he could be cared for properly. He refused, and stayed where he was. The following night the demons sought him out again and tortured him with even more severe beatings, but even so he would not move from the place.
"'Better to die than listen to the demons,' he said.
"The third night, nevertheless, a great crowd of demons gathered and fell upon him without mercy, inflicting many grievous wounds. His body was almost dead because of the wounds, but from the depths of his spirit he still refused to obey the demons. Faced with this the demons at last cried, 'You have conquered, you have conquered!' and departed in great haste as if pursued by power from heaven, and brought no more of their wiles and wickedness to bear upon him.
"But he progressed so much in spiritual virtues, and came to live such a lovely life, full of the power of every divine grace, that the whole region came to believe he was one of the holy Angels who had dropped down from heaven, and cried aloud with one voice, 'This is the change of the right hand of the Most High' (Psalms 77.10) What a great example he was to those who had fallen into despair, and then returned to a hope of salvation, and laid their hopes upon emendation of life where before there was despair! How great an admiration for him was felt by those who were snatched up from the inferno of sinners, with their virtuous nature restored. For his conversion was so monumental that anything seemed possible for everybody. And it was not only his emendation of life and the acquiring of virtues which adorned him, for even greater graces of God were given him. The many signs and wonders which he did testified how great were his merits in the eyes of the Lord. So it is that humility and conversion are the source of all goodness; conceitedness and despair are the cause of death.
"To avoid the danger of falling, and to acquire the grace of God, and to seize hold upon the knowledge of his manifest divinity, the most fruitful path is that of the hiddenness of dwelling in the desert. And this I think you may better learn not from my words but from actual deeds and examples.
"There was a monk who lived in a part of the desert more remote than any other. For many years he persevered in abstinence until time had brought him almost to the age of senility. But he was adorned with every virtue, inspirational for the greatness of his total continence, serving God sedulously with prayers and hymns. So great were the merits of this soldier that the Lord prepared for him a great gift, in that while still in the body he enjoyed the ministrations of an incorporeal Angel, judging him worthy to receive celestial food in the desert, as one who sleeplessly sang the praises of the heavenly King.
"God willed that he be given his promised reward even in this world, and took the provision of his daily food into the care of his divine providence for when ever he needed food as a necessity of nature he would go into his cave there he would find bread of marvellous quality and exceptional freshness laid out on his table. He would dine on this and give thanks to the divine presence and return again to this hymns and prayers. He received many divine revelations, and warnings of the future were given to him by God. In the midst of such manifold rewards he began to take pride in his accomplishments, reckoning that the merits of his life deserved such heavenly benefits, and gradually a sort of idleness entered his soul, so gradually that he did not even notice it. This developed into even greater negligence, he came to his hymn singing somewhat reluctantly, he no longer enjoyed getting up to pray, the psalms were not sung with the same attentiveness as that with which he used to sing them; having done a small proportion of what he used to do his soul was tired out as if it had been overworked, and he hastily retired to rest.
"His senses dulled, he rapidly went from bad to worse, and his thoughts snatched him away into all sorts of dangerous regions. But he kept to his usual routine, even though there were thoughts of a disgraceful and contemptible nature hidden in his heart. For just as a ship continues to glide through the water after the oars have stopped rowing, because of its own momentum, so did his established routine carry him through the usual offices. So it seemed as if he was still in the same state as before. So after his prayers he looked for his food at vespertime as usual, he went to the usual dining place, found the usual bread on the table, which he ate without taking any attempt to amend the thoughts of his heart. He was not aware of any change or deterioration, thought no less of himself, and did not understand how gradually he was falling.
"Inwardly he began to be stirred up by a fierce flame of desire, and with sordid eagerness began wanting to return to the world. But he restrained himself for the moment, went in to take his food which he found placed on the table as usual, although he found it a little stale. He wondered at this and felt a little sad, but although he looked upon it as a sort of divine omen, he nevertheless took the bread and ate it. After three days he was shaken by urges three times worse, they were ever present in his thoughts and almost tangible. He imagined there was a woman lying down with him, whom he seemed to embrace and with whom he performed indecent acts. As he went next day to his usual duties of psalmodising there seemed to be a cloud before his eyes, and his mind seemed to be held captive. When he went for his food at vespertime he found it as usual on the table, but it was mouldy and dried up, and looking as if mice or dogs had been at it. Seeing this, he groaned and shed tears, but they did not come from the heart and were not sufficiently copious to quench the flames of a great fire. But he took the food, though there was not as much of it as he would have liked, and it did not have its usual taste.
"Meanwhile his thoughts besieged him like a army of barbarians, hurling javelins at him from all directions, and once more took his mind captive to the thought of going back to the world. He went by night to begin his journey through the desert to the city. But when daylight came the city was still a long way off. He soon began to be overcome by the heat and was wearied, and as he looked about him his eyes began to register the fact that he was near a monastery. He saw the cell of some brothers, and went towards it hoping that there he might find some rest. When the brothers saw him approaching they immediately ran towards him, reverenced him as if he were an Angel of God, washed his feet, invited him to prayer, prepared food for him, and in fact did everything in accordance with the divine commandment of charity.
"When they had dined and rested a little they began, as is usual, to ask him for a word of encouragement, as if he were a skilled and well-known father, able to give them words of salvation. they asked him how to escape from the traps of the devil, and how to drive out and cast down the evil thoughts which the devil puts into the mind. Compelled to give the brothers some advice, and teach them something of the way of salvation, he talked to them about the wiles of the devil which assail the servants of God, and talked to them so plainly and forcefully that he was moved to compunction himself and said to himself, 'Here am I giving others good advice when I am in the depths of deception, myself. How do I dare tell others how to behave, when I have not amended my own life? Wretch! First do yourself what you are urging others to do.' Having cursed himself in this way and having realised how miserably he had fallen from grace, he said goodbye to the brothers and took sudden flight into the desert, returning to the cave he had left, prostrating himself in prayer before the Lord, saying, 'If the Lord had not been my helper, my soul would have almost been in hell.' (Psalms 94.17), and again, 'I had almost fallen into all kinds of evil, they had almost consumed me upon earth' (Psalms 119.85,87), and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, 'A brother giving aid to a brother shall be lifted up like a strong and fortified city. The brother who helps a brother is like a city of good standing where all his judgments are as strong as the city defences.' (Proverbs 18.19). From then on he spent his life in tears and mourning, lamenting that he no longer enjoyed the heavenly food which was formerly given him, and in the sweat of his own brow he began to eat his own bread. He shut himself up in his cave, lying in the dust wearing a hair shirt, and persevered weeping in prayer until the angel of the Lord came to his aid, saying, 'The Lord has accepted your penitence and restored you, but take care lest you become proud and fall again. See, even now there are brothers on the way to you, bringing you blessings for the teaching which you yourself gave them. Don't turn them away, but take food with them and give thanks to God.'
"I have told you these things, my little children, that you may understand how strong is humility and how greatly ruinous is self-conceit. Indeed our Saviour himself put humility at the top of the beatitudes, saying, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven' (Matthew.5.3). I have given you examples of this so that you may be on the alert against being seduced by demonic thoughts. Furthermore monks use a custom of saying a prayer and invoking the name of the Lord whenever anyone visits them, whether man or woman, old or young, well known or stranger, so that if it is only a demon in disguise it may be put to flight by continual prayer. If the demons suggest to your thoughts that there is something for which you deserve to praised and held up as an example don't listen to them, but humble yourself in the eyes of the Lord when they try to make you seek after praise.
"The demons have often plagued me at night, preventing me both from sleeping and praying by suggesting all kinds of phantasies to my thoughts and senses the whole night long. But in the morning they made an illusory prostration before me, saying, Forgive us, father, for causing you so much trouble all night. I replied, 'Depart from me you workers of iniquity, and so not tempt the servant of God'. (Psalms 6. 8) Therefore. my little children love silence and peacefulness (quies), seek after understanding, purify your mind before God by frequent study (collatio) to banish any impediment to your prayers before God.
"There are of course people living in the world who with a good conscience do good works and busy themselves in a holy and religious manner by hospitality, works of charity, visiting those in distress and other works of this kind. There is a lot of good in such people, who also keep themselves pure. Those who please God in good works are praiseworthy, very praiseworthy, and undoubtedly fulfil the commandments of God. Nevertheless their actions are all rooted in the earthly sphere, concerned with corruptible matter. But anyone who gives himself up to mental strife, and cultivates a sense of the spiritual in himself, must surely be considered to be following a much better way. For he prepares an interior dwelling place for the Holy Spirit, and oblivious of earthly matters gives all his care to what is heavenly and eternal. He places himself always in the presence of God, and casts all worry about the present behind him, driven by a fiery desire for God. He sets himself to praise God and never tires of singing hymns and psalms day and night."
With this and much more of the like the blessed John continued speaking to us for three whole days, refreshing and renewing our spirits. And when we began to feel it was time to go he gave us a blessing, "Depart in peace, my little children, and I would like you to know that on this very day the victory of the religious emperor Theodosius over the tyrant Eugenius has been proclaimed. It must also needs be that Theodosius himself will come to the end of his life before very long." After we had left him we found that these events had happened exactly as he had predicted.
A few days later some of the brothers followed after us to tell us that John himself was now resting in peace. This was the manner of his passing. He said that no one was to visit him for three days, and then knelt in prayer and gave up his spirit. Thus he passed to the Lord, to whom be glory unto the ages of ages. Amen
HOR (cf. VIII.9)
We visited another venerable man in the Thebaid called Hor. He wore the habit of the highest order of monks and was the father of many monasteries. He was ninety years old [when we saw him], with a very full and splendid silvery beard, a lively face and appearance, reflecting something greater than mere human nature. He had lived at first in a remote part of the desert, practising many works of abstinence, before founding a monastery not far from the city. In several places near where he lived he had planted young trees and thus established forests of various kinds of trees where there had been no cultivation at all before he came, as several of the holy fathers confirmed. His reason for planting these forests was so that brethren wishing to join him would not have far to go to get timber. He took thought not only for what was necessary for their bodily needs, but also for their faith and salvation. In the desert he had subsisted on herbs and roots, which he found quite acceptable. He drank water when he could find it, and occupied himself day and night with prayers and hymns of praise. But when he had got to a mature age an angel of the Lord appeared in the desert by a vision, saying, 'You will become a great people, and many through you will believe, many thousands of human beings will be saved through you. Those whom you convert to the way of salvation in this life will remain under your leadership for the future, Fear not, you will never lack any provision for the bodily needs which you ask the Lord to provide.'
Hearing this he moved to a more accessible neighbourhood, and began to live at first in a little hut which he had built for himself, mixing in a few vegetables to his diet, but sometimes vegetables alone, and then only after a long fast. To begin with he could not read. But when he moved from the desert to these more accessible places which we have described above a divine grace was given to him. For when he was given a book by his brothers he began to read it as if he had always been able to read. He had become very powerful in fighting demons, to such an extent that some possessed by demons would come to him without even being invited, protesting loudly about his supremacy. He also healed a great number of the sick.
He gathered about him great numbers of monks, but when he saw us arriving among them he turned towards us with a most warm welcome. He greeted us, said a prayer as was the custom, washed the feet of us guests with his own hands, and began to point out to us from the Scriptures many things to help build up our lives and our faith. God had given him a great gift for teaching. After giving us many wise interpretations of Scripture he turned again to prayer. For it was his custom never to take food until he had enjoyed a spiritual Communion with Christ. This done, he gave thanks and invited us to eat. He sat down with us himself, but never ceased conversing about spiritual subjects. This is one of the stories he told us:
"I know of a certain man living in the desert who ate no earthly food for the space of three years, for an angel brought him bread from heaven every three or four days, and this was meat and drink to him. And again there was another man like this to whom the demons came looking like the armies of heaven, dressed like angels, driving chariots of fire, sumptuously equipped as befitted the cohorts of some great king. The one whom the others seemed to regard as king said, 'You have fulfilled all things [required of you], O man. It remains only that you worship me and I will carry you up like Elijah.'
"At this, the monk said to himself, 'What is all this about? Daily I worship the Saviour who is my King. If this really be he, why is he asking me to do something which he knows I have never stopped doing?'
"And he replied, 'I know my King whom I worship daily without ceasing. You are not my King.'"
In actual fact he was inventing the character of some else to tell us about his own experiences as if they belonged to another. Others of the fathers present confirmed for us that it was he who had seen and heard these things.
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