Book III (continued)
15. There was a certain brother living in the Cells who was being grievously tormented by a demon of fornication. So he thought to himself, "Perhaps I should do more manual labour in order to extinguish these carnal thoughts." Now this brother was a potter, and he took some clay and moulded for himself a female figure and said to himself, "Now you have a wife so you will have to work harder that you used to". A few days later he took some clay and made as it were a daughter figure, and he said to himself, "Now look your wife has given birth to a daughter. You will need to work harder and harder in order to clothe and feed not only yourself but also your wife and daughter". And so by excessive labour he so weakened his body that he was not able to keep up with so much work any more. Then he said to himself, "Seeing that you cannot sustain this level of working it is obvious that to have a wife is not for you." And the Lord saw and accepted this mental struggle to preserve his chastity and took away from him the onslaughts of the demons. And he gave glory to God for his powerful grace.
16. A brother asked blessed Abba Poemen, "What shall I do, for the passion of fornication is attacking me and I get carried away by passionate anger. And the holy old man replied, "Hear what David the prophet said, 'I smote the lion and strangled the bear' (1 Sam.17.36). By this you must understand that anger has to be cut off out of your mind, and that you must extinguish fornication by hard work."
17. (A longer version of V.xv.31) The senior holy fathers told how a certain monk in the desert, who was also a senior, was actually a slave, and every year he would leave the desert and go down to Alexandria where his masters lived, in order to give them that due proportion of what he had earnt which slaves usually give to their masters. But his masters, who feared God, had a great reverence for him, and met him and welcomed him with great honour, and begged him to pray to the Lord for them. But he poured water into a bowl and hastened to wash the feet of these masters of his, wishing to show them all humility and respect. But they were unwilling to let him wash their feet.
"No, beloved father," they said. "That would seriously embarrass us."
"But I am your slave," he replied. "It is almighty God who has given you to be my masters, and I am grateful for your authority over me, for you have seen fit to let me serve the true and living God, the creator and master of heaven and earth. So naturally, I bring you the accustomed price of my servitude."
The masters remonstrated with him, unwilling to accept the money he had brought.
"If you are unwilling to accept the money," the slave replied, "I tell you I will not go back to the desert, but remain here and serve you."
Hearing this made the masters decide to accept the money, not only so as not to disappoint him, but also to make sure that he would go back to his own cell in the desert. And the money, which he forced upon them even though they did not want it, was no sooner in their possession than they gave it to the poor.
The other brothers questioned this same senior.
"Tell us, please, father," they said, "Why are you so keen on your slavery that you forced that money upon your masters, even though they were unwilling to accept it and resisted very strongly?"
"I am punctilious about paying every year the money that I owe my masters in respect of my slavery, so that whatever I can do with the help of the Lord by way of fasts and prayers, holy vigils, and every kind of spiritual labour, Christ being my helper, will be of benefit to me in the life to come and in the salvation of my soul. If I had neglected to pay that slavery money all that spiritual labour of mine might well have been credited to their account, for it was they who sent me to serve Christ the Lord, and change my life."
18. (A longer version of V.xv.89) There were two brothers according to the flesh who lived the monastic life together, and the evil devil was doing his best to sow discord between them. One day the younger brother went as usual to light the lamp at vespers, and by the machinations of a demon he knocked the candlestick over and the light was extinguished. The evil devil used this occasion to sow strife between them, for the older brother began to scold his brother angrily. But the younger brother prostrated himself, and apologized to his brother.
"Forgive me, brother," he said. "I will go and light the lamp again."
Because the brother had not given an angry response, the evil spirit was confused and departed immediately, and he reported that same night to the prince of the demons.
"I have not been able to prevail against these two, because of the humility of this monk who prostrated himself on the ground before his brother. God saw his humility and poured out his grace upon him, and I am now tortured and tormented because I have not been able to split them up."
Now a pagan priest who lived nearby overheard this demonic conversation and he was pierced with the fear of God and love for Jesus Christ. Realising how the cult of idols seduced souls and led them to perdition, he left everything and hastened to the holy fathers in the monastery and told them everything that the malicious demons were talking about. The holy fathers instructed him in the wholesome doctrines of our Lord and Saviour, he was baptized and accepted the monastic holy rule of life. As he advanced with the help of the grace of God he became a most exemplary monk, excelling especially in the virtue of humility, so that he was greatly venerated, and everyone wondered at how great his humility was. He used to say that the practice of humility put to flight all the power of our adversaries the demons. The Lord Jesus Christ triumphed over the devil through his humility and brought all his power to naught. He added that he had often heard the demons talking among themselves, saying, "Whenever we arouse anger in a human heart, and someone suffers the injury patiently, preferring to try and make peace, saying, 'Sorry, I have sinned', we immediately feel all our power vanish at the approach of divine grace."
19. (A longer version of V.xv.66) The blessed senior monk Poemen told the brothers the following account of a monk who lived in Constantinople in the time of the Emperor Theodosius.
"He had a little cell in the suburb called Septimum, just outside the city, where the Emperors used to come out from the city to relax. When the Emperor heard that there was a solitary monk living there who never went out of his cell, he took a walk over to the place where the monk lived, warning the eunuchs who were with him to prevent anyone following him to the monk's cell. He went on alone and knocked on his door, and the monk got up and opened the door but did not recognize that his visitor was the Emperor, for he had taken off his crown to prevent recognition. After the prayer of welcome they sat down and the Emperor began to question him.
"'How do the holy fathers in Egypt spend their time?' he asked.
"'They all pray for your salvation,' he replied.
"The Emperor looked around the cell and saw nothing except a few loaves of dry bread hanging up in baskets.
"'Give a blessing, father,' he said, 'and let us have something to eat.'
"'The monk immediately brought water and salt, and a few little loaves and they ate together. He offered the Emperor water, and he drank.
"'Do you know who I am?' the Emperor Theodosius then asked.
"'No sir, I don't,' the monk replied.
"'I am the Emperor Theodosius,' he said, 'but I have come here simply as a pilgrim.'
"At this the monk prostrated himself.
"'Blessed are you monks' said the Emperor, 'for you are free and safe from all the worries of the world and go through life in peace and quietness, concentrating on the salvation of your souls and how you may gain the heavenly reward of eternal life. I was born into royalty, and I live in royalty, and I tell you truly that I can never eat my food free from care.'
"The Emperor then showed him every mark of respect before taking his leave. That same night the servant of God began to turn things over in his mind.
"'I don't think I ought to live here any longer, for there will be many not only from the common people but also from the palace and the senators who will want to follow the Emperor's example and come to visit me, and honour me as some servant of God who deserves adulation. And although they will be doing this in the name of the Lord, I am fearful that the malignant devil will take advantage of this, I shall begin to enjoy welcoming them in, and my heart will be led astray by their praises and respect, and gradually I shall lose the virtue of humility, and I shall revel in their praises and respect.'
"Turning these things over in his mind, the man of God that same night fled to the holy fathers in the desert of Egypt.
"So, my dear brothers, just think how much value that servant of God placed in the virtue of humility, by which he might be found worthy to receive from Christ the Lord eternal glory in the kingdom of heaven, because of the labours of a holy life, lived in the name of the Lord."
20. (A longer version of V.viii.13) On this subject, others among the holy fathers made the following mention of the holy Poemen himself.
"Once when the provincial judge arrived and heard of Poemen's reputation for holiness, he tried to pay him a visit, and sent a messenger to ask if Poemen would be willing to receive him. Poemen was not very pleased.
"'If the nobility are going to start coming to see me and pay me, respect,' he thought to himself, 'all sorts of other people will also want to come, and that will mean that the hidden quality of my life will be destroyed, and by the workings of the malignant devil I shall lose the grace of humility that with so much labour I have striven to cultivate, with the help of the Lord, from my youth up.'
"After a long struggle with himself he decided to excuse himself and refuse to accept a visit from the judge. The judge was very disappointed at his refusal to see him.
"'I suppose it is because of my sins that I am not good enough to see the man of God,' he said to his deputy. Nevertheless he still fervently desired to see the holy man by any means that he possibly could. So he thought up a plan which would provide an excuse for seeing him; he arrested the son of blessed Poemen's sister and put him in prison, hoping that this would make Poemen willing to see him, or even to make him come and make a plea before the judge.
"'To save the old man any worry', he said to his deputy, 'tell him that he must make up his mind to come and see me. That is what is needed if we are to free the young man from prison. His case is such that we cannot pass over it unpunished.'
"When the young man's mother, holy Poemen's sister, heard of this she went out into the desert where Poemen was, stood at the door of his cell with much sobbing and weeping, begging him to go down to the judge and plead for her son. But the blessed Poemen not only said nothing to her, but he would not even open the door and go out to her. So she began to curse him.
"'You are wicked and hard-hearted,' she said. 'You've got guts of iron. Can't my great grief fill you with pity? I only have the one son, who now stands in danger of death.'
"Poemen sent her a message by the brother who ministered to him.
"'Go and tell her that Poemen has no sons and so therefore it is no concern of his.'
"When the judge got to hear of all this, he spoke to his scribes,
"'Write him a letter to say that if only he will write to me with a request, I might be able to release the young man.'
"Faced with so many people urging him, the holy old man at last did write to the judge.
"'May your honour inquire diligently into his case and if he has done anything worthy of death, let him die, so that by paying the penalty for his sin in this present life he may be spared the eternal punishments of everlasting hell. But if he has done nothing worthy of death, do you decide what is right according to the law.'"
21. (A longer version of V.x.10) Prominent among the great fathers was a man called Agathon, noted for his humility and patience. Some brothers once came to see him who had heard how very humble he was supposed to be and wanted to prove how humble and patient he really was.
"Many people are scandalized at you, father," they said, "because you are so proud, you despise others and count them nothing worth, and you never cease defaming your brothers. Many people say that you act like this because you are a fornicator, and lest you should seem to be the only one you are always accusing others of it as well."
"I know only too well," he replied, "that I have all these vices that you mention. I cannot deny my many wickednesses," and prostrating himself on the ground in front of the brothers, he continued, "I beg you. brothers, that you cease not to pray to Christ the Lord for the wretch that I am, loathsome as I am for my many sins. Pray that he will forgive me for my many great iniquities."
The brothers added a few more things
"And you can't deny," they said, "that many people are keen to accuse you of heresy."
"However hateful I may be for my many sins," he said in reply to this, "at least I am not a heretic. God keep my soul from that."
Then the brothers showed him respect by prostrating themselves on the ground in front of him.
"Please tell us, father," they said, "how it is that you were not angry when we accused you of so many vices and crimes, but you were visibly moved at the accusation of heresy and detested the idea, and could not even bear the thought of it?"
"I accepted the guilt of the sins you first mentioned in humility, so that you could believe that I really am a sinner. For we know that to preserve the virtue of humility is very wholesome for the soul. For when our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ suffered many insults and reproaches from the Jews he bore them all patiently, to give us an example of humility. They sent false witnesses against him and said many things about him falsely, and he bore with them all even unto death upon the cross. The apostle Peter bears witness to this, saying, 'Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example that we should follow in his footsteps.' (1 Peter 2.21). So we also must bear patiently everything said against us. But I would not accept your accusation of heresy, which I detest, for heresy separates you from God. A heretic is cut off from the true and living God and joined with the devil and his angels. Alienated even from Christ, he no longer has God to whom he can pray for his sins, and so perishes utterly. But if he is converted to the true Catholic faith of the holy Church he is accepted by our good and loving Saviour Christ, the Son who is ever in the Father with the Holy Spirit. To him be the glory unto the ages of ages. Amen"
22. (Also in VII.xxxiii.2) The seniors and all the monks living in the desert of Scete held a meeting and agreed that Abba Isaac should be ordained presbyter for them in the church of that desert, and when the day and hour had been agreed a large crowd of the monks who lived there gathered. When Abba Isaac heard about all this, however, he fled into Egypt and hid in a thickly wooded region because he considered himself to be unworthy of the presbyterate. Many of the monks followed after him to try and find him. Tired with their journey, late in the evening they loosed the baggage ass they had brought with them to let it feed. As the ass was feeding it came near to the place where Abba Isaac was hiding. When daylight came the monks went in search of the ass and so came to that place where the old man was hidden. Marvelling at the way God had guided them, they seized him and would have bound him in order to compel him to come with them, but he prevented them, saying "Perhaps it is God's will that although unworthy I should be ordained presbyter".
23. There were two brothers living together in a cell whose patience and humility were universally praised by many of the holy fathers. Hearing about this a certain holy man decided to find out whether their humility was really perfect and went to visit them. They greeted him gladly and after the customary psalms and prayers he went out from the cell and saw a little garden where they had grown a few vegetables. He picked up a stick and fiercely attacked the vegetables, cutting them down and mutilating them so that hardly anything remained. When the brothers saw this they said nothing at all, nor did they look angry or sad. They all went back into the cell for the Vesper prayers, after which the brothers bowed to the visitor and said, "If it's all right with you, sir, we will now go and cook what is left of the vegetables, for it is time that we ate." The old man was amazed, and said, "I give God thanks that I have seen the Holy Spirit dwelling in you, and I urge you, beloved brothers, to take heed that you guard these virtues of holy humility and patience, for in the kingdom of heaven it will make you appear great and sublime in the sight of God."
24. There was a certain highly regarded old monk in the coenobium who fell seriously ill. A long period of extremely painful, burdensome and debilitating weakness followed, and the brothers were unable to find anything they could do to help him, since the monastery did not possess the necessary remedies for him. A certain devout virgin who heard about his illness asked the father of the monastery if she could take him to her own little cell to be nursed, where it would be easier to get the medicines for him in the nearby town. So the abbot gave instructions that the brothers should carry him to the woman's cell. She received the old man with great respect and nursed him in the name of the Lord, looking for reward only to the eternal life which she would receive from Christ our Saviour. She had looked after this servant of God for three years and more, when certain nasty-minded men in the lewdness of their own thoughts began to suspect that the intentions of the old man towards this woman who was nursing him were not above reproach. The old man heard about this and prayed to Christ, saying,
"O Lord our God who alone know all things and see the great pain and misery of my illness and are aware of the burden of such a great affliction which has been with me for such a long time that I haven't been able to do without the help of this servant of yours who nurses me in your name, grant her, O Lord, a fitting reward in the life to come such as you are accustomed in your goodness to promise to those who minister to the poor and needy in your name."
When the time came for him to die many of the holy senior brothers of the monastery gathered round him and he said to them, "I beg you, my lords, fathers and brothers, that when I am dead you take my staff and plant it over my grave, and if it roots and bears fruit then you will know that my conscience is clean as regards this servant of God who has been nursing me. If it doesn't grow you will know that I am not guiltless towards her. When the old man died the holy fathers planted the staff above his grave as he had asked, and it grew and in due time bore fruit, and all wondered, glorifying God. Many came from the regions round about and praised the grace of the Saviour for this miracle. We saw this little tree ourselves, and blessed the Lord who cares for all those who serve him in sincerity and truth.
25. (A longer version of V.xv.65) There were some people who brought to the blessed abba Apollonius someone grievously vexed and tormented by a demon. They tended to his needs for three days while constantly beseeching the old man to cure him by pouring out prayers to God in the name of Christ. At last the old man replied.
"I am not of sufficient merit to be able to command demons," he said.
But when they persisted, weeping and earnestly begging him, he finally agreed to speak to the demon.
"In the name of the Lord our Saviour," he cried, "depart, O unclean spirit, from this man created in the image of God."
"If commanded by the power of Christ," replied the demon, "I would depart. But I challenge the validity of what you have said to me by asking you what is the meaning of what is written in the Gospel, 'Who are the goats and who are the sheep?'" (Matthew 25.32)
"The goats are the wicked," replied the old man, "among whom am I, a sinner, guilty of many sins. God knows who are the sheep."
"Because of your humility I am powerless," cried the demon, and he straightway went out of the man whom he had possessed. When they saw this all those who were there gave glory to God.
26. The holy seniors tell of how a certain monk of the desert of Scete came to visit the holy fathers in the Cellia where there were many monks living in separate cells. When it appeared that there wasn't a cell to put him in, one of the seniors who had a spare cell empty let him have it saying, "Stay in this cell for the meantime until you can find somewhere permanent". Many of the brothers came to speak to him, wanting to hear from him a word to help them find eternal salvation, for he had a great spiritual gift of being able to speak the word of God. When the senior who had lent him the cell became aware of this his heart was filled with envious spite, and he began to fume and complain, "Look how long I have been living in this place and now the brothers come to me only rarely, and that only on holy days, and yet lots of brothers are going to this impostor almost daily."
So he said to his disciple, "Go and tell him that he has to get out of that cell because I need it."
But when the disciple went to that brother what he said was, "My abba has a message for your holiness. He enquires through me how you are getting on, for he has heard that you are ill."
He replied, "Pray for me, father, for I have a nasty stomach upset." When the disciple got back he said to the abba, "He earnestly begs your holiness to give him two or three days grace so that he can find another cell."
After three days he sent the disciple again, saying, "Go and tell him that he must get out of my cell, and if he delays any more tell him I will come with a big stick and drive him out of my cell."
But when the disciple came to the brother, what he said was, "My abba is very concerned about your illness and he has sent me to ask if you are feeling better".
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