Sulpitius (continued), Book IV (Cassian begins half way down this page)Chapter 9 (Sev.Sulp., Dial.1, chap.10)
On the fourth day he had escorted them a little way on their return journey when they saw an extremely large lioness coming towards them. The beast had no doubts about which one she was looking for, even though there were three of them, for she went straight to the feet of the anchorite. Then she went off a little way, and stopped and looked back, clearly giving them to understand that she wanted the anchorite to follow her. So they did all follow her as she set off. What more can I say? They arrived at the beast's cave, where the unfortunate mother had been caring for five fully grown cubs, whose eyes had naturally been closed on coming forth from their mother's womb but which had never opened. One by one she brought them forth from the cliff and laid them at the anchorite's feet. The holy man realized what she was asking, and calling upon the name of Christ he touched the cubs' eyes. At once their blindness was healed, and with open eyes they enjoyed the light so long denied them.
And so the brothers, having fulfilled their desired visit to the anchorite, were able to return to the monastery bearing a great reward for their trouble, for they were able to tell of the faith of that holy man, and the glory of Christ which they had seen in him.
A brother learns from the example of an ibex what plants to eat and what to avoid.
There was another anchorite in that region, living in the part of the desert known as Syene. When he first went to the desert he had intended to live on the sweet and tasty plants and their roots, which the desert sometimes brings forth, but he did not know how to choose between these plants, and often picked those which were harmful. It was not easy to discern the effect of any particular root for they all seemed to be equally palatable, though they often contained a hidden poison. After he had eaten them they tortured his insides, all his vital organs shivered in extreme pain, he frequently vomited in great agony, threatening the very basis of his life. His stomach completely exhausted, he was like to die. Terrified of eating anything at all, he didn't dare pick anything to eat. Chapter 10 (Sev.Sulp., Dial.1, chap.11)
After fasting for seven days with his strength gradually failing, an animal called an ibex appeared, who came and stood near a heap of plants which the hermit had picked the previous day but had thrown away, not daring to taste them. The wild beast cast aside the poisonous ones with his mouth and chose the ones which were harmless. The holy man learned from this example what to eat and what to avoid, and so escaped the danger of hunger by avoiding the plants which were poisonous.
A brother who had been in Mt Sinai for fifty years is annoyed by the arrival of some other brothers.
It would be a long task to tell of what I learnt about all the hermits in the desert. I spent a whole year and almost seven months in these solitudes, more often than not with the old man who had the well with the ox. I visited two of the monasteries of the blessed Antony, which today are kept up by his disciples, and I got to the place where the most blessed Paul the first hermit lived. I saw the heights of Mt Sinai whose peak almost touches the heavens, too steep to be climbed. Chapter 11 (Sev.Sulp., Dial.1, chap.12)
An anchorite was said to be hidden away in this mountain, whom I did not manage to see, although I searched very hard for him for quite a long time. He had lived apart from human intercourse for almost fifty years, wearing no clothes, bristling hair the only covering to his body. Whenever any religious people came near him he quickly took to the trackless ways to avoid meeting other humans. It is said that he did allow a meeting with one person about five years ago, and I believe it was granted to that man by the power of his faith. When he was asked, among many other things, why he so vigorously fled from human beings, he is reported as saying, "The company of human beings prevents you from being visited by Angels." Not surprisingly in the opinion of many people, his reputation for being visited by Angels was widely spread abroad.
Leaving Mt Sinai, I came back to the river Nile, whose banks are thronged with many monasteries. I wandered about among them all. As I have already said, I found that the monks generally lived in groups of a hundred. It is well known that there are two or three thousand living in these little townships. And don't imagine for a minute that the virtue of those living in these various monasteries is any less than those who, as you know, live cut off from human company. As I have already said, their first and greatest virtue is obedience. Nobody seeking to be accepted into a monastery could expect anything else than to be tested and proved, and never to refuse anything the abbot ordered, however difficult, arduous and even humiliating it might be.
The incredibly great miracles of obedience.
I must tell you about two incredibly great miracles of obedience. There was a brother who renounced the ways of the world and sought admittance to a monastery with a very strict rule. The abbot warned him what hard work it was to live under their discipline, what heavy demands it made, such that nobody found it easy to endure with patience. Better to go to another monastery where the rule was not so severe, than to attempt to take on something which he would not be able to fulfil. Undeterred by these terrors, he began to promise such obedience that even if the abbot should order him to walk through a fire he would do so. The abbot lost no time in putting this claim to the test, and told him to go into a furnace which was being prepared to cook bread. He did not hesitate about obeying, but without delay jumped into the middle of the flames. Conquered by such bold faith, the flames died down and the fire went out, as it had done for the Hebrew children of old (Daniel 3. 24-25). He who jumped in had expected to burn, but was amazed to find that he was drenched in a cold dew. But what great wonder is it, O Christ, that the fire did no harm to your young novice (tiro), that the abbot had no cause to regret having given such hard commands, nor that the disciple had cause to regret his obedience! It shows how much God values obedience. He who came that day as a weak person to be tested was found by his ready obedience to be perfect, deservedly blessed, deservedly glorified by the test of obedience, glorified by suffering.Chapter 12 (Sev.Sulp., Dial.1, chap.13)
Another miracle of obedience
(cf. V.xiv.3) Another young man came to the same monastery to be received by the abbot. When this most important law of obedience was outlined to him, he promised to obey everything, even the most extreme, with unfailing patience. It so happened that the abbot was holding a withered rod of storax in his hand. He planted it in the ground and told this newcomer to keep on watering this dry stick until it began to take root in the desert soil. Quite contrary to nature, of course! But the brother gave himself to this impossible command, and daily carried water on his own shoulders from the Nile almost two miles away.Chapter 13 (Sev.Sulp., Dial.1, chap.14)
A year went by while he persisted in this work. There was no hope of his work bearing any fruit, but the virtue of obedience sustained him in his labours. Another year went by; mockery was the only result of the brother's useless labour. At last, as the third year was coming to its close, with the brother never ceasing to water night and day, the rod began to throw forth a shoot. I myself saw the little tree which that rod grew into. It remains today in the forecourt of the monastery, spreading its branches in testimony to the merits of obedience and the power of faith.
One casting out demons is possessed himself by a demon. He is restored, but not without agony
One of the holy fathers performed many miracles with his incredible powers of casting out demons from the bodies of the possessed. He could cure possessed bodies not only when present but also when absent, by a word, or even by sending them a letter or some threads from his garment. As his fame spread among the people, crowds came to him from many different places. Prefects, courtiers, judges of various ranks, without mentioning the many people of humbler origin, all came to lie at his doors. He hardly ever had anything to drink, and for food he was contented with seven dry figs. Chapter 14 (Sev.Sulp., Dial.1, chap.15)
But in time his virtue was undermined by the respect in which he was held, and respect grew into vanity. When he first felt this evil growing in him, he tried hard for a long time to dispel it, but was completely unable to do so, for the demons were spreading his fame about everywhere. He did not have the strength to drive away the people who flowed towards him. A hidden poison festered in his breast. He was able by a word to put to flight the demons in other people, but could not liberate himself from his own hidden thoughts of vanity. So he prayed with all his heart to the Lord, begging that the power of the devil might be so directed against him, that he should become like those whom he had cured.
What more can I say? This pre-eminent man, famed throughout the East for his signs and wonders, around whose doors the people had been in the habit of crowding, was himself snatched up by the devil, and was kept locked up in chains. It was only after having suffered all the trials that those possessed have to endure, that at length, after five months, he was freed not only from the demon, but of that which was even more beneficial and desirable, his vanity.
The punishment of a hermit who went back to the world
There was a very rich young man belonging to a leading family, with a wife and small son of his own, who as a tribune in Egypt fought numerous campaigns against the Blembi, in the course of which he came into contact with various parts of the desert. Having seen many of the dwellings of the holy hermits, he embraced the word of salvation given him by the blessed John, turning his back on his profitless military service with its empty honour. Once into the desert he very soon developed every kind of virtue. He fasted severely, he was conspicuously humble, his faith was unshakeable. In his zeal for virtue he was the equal of the monks of old time. But then the devil insinuated a thought into his head that it would be more honourable to go back to his native land and preach salvation to his wife and child and his whole household, rather than continue to renounce the world all by himself and neglect their salvation. Overcome after four years by the pressure of this false notion of what was right, he abandoned the work of the desert.
He arrived at a nearby monastery where there were many brothers, and in reply to their questions he told them why he had left the desert and where he was going. In spite of the urgings of them all and especially of the abbot of that place, his fixed determination could not be eradicated from his mind. His unfortunate obstinacy drove him forth, and he left, to the distress of all the brothers. Hardly was he out of sight when he was attacked by a demon. He began to froth at the mouth and spit blood and bite himself most cruelly.
The brothers carried him back to the monastery on their shoulders. Finding that they could not prevail against the demon, they restrained him of necessity with iron chains, hand and foot, a well deserved punishment for a fugitive. It took two years for him to be delivered by the prayers of the brothers from the evil spirit, after which he returned to the desert he had left, fully cured. He served as a warning to others in the future, that once anyone has begun something, he should not vainly and lightly abandon it in a fit of inconstancy, using a spurious righteousness as an excuse
Chapter 15 (Cassian, Institutes, Bk.1, chap.4)
The habit, or clothing, worn by the monks of Egypt
The characteristic Egyptian habit is designed not so much for bodily protection as being a statement about their way of life. They constantly wear very small hoods by day and by night, to remind them that by wearing the clothing of little children they should constantly imitate their innocence and simplicity. Chapter 16 (Cassian, Institutes, Bk.2, chap.3)
(ibid. chap.5) Their tunics are of linen, hardly reaching to the elbows, leaving their hands bare. By cutting off the sleeves they are reminded that they have cut themselves off from all the deeds and values of the world.
(ibid. chap.7) They cover their necks and shoulders with a little cape, which in our language as well as theirs is known as a mafors. It is quite inexpensive, and the wearing of it emphasises their lowly status.
(ibid. chap.8) The last item of all is the goatskin, or melotes in their language. The wearing of a goatskin signifies that by the mortification of their members from all the impulses of the carnal passions they ought to clothe themselves with the highest degree of virtue.
(ibid. chap.10) Although the precepts of the Gospel forbid shoes (Matthew 10.10, Luke 10.4), the frailty of the body demands that they put something on their feet against the morning cold of winter and the fierce midday heat. So they quite rightly use sandals, as permitted by the Lord's command (Mark 6.9, Acts 12.8), except when celebrating or being present at the holy mysteries, for they think that what was said to Moses and Joshua the son of Nun should be taken literally: 'Undo the buckles on your shoes, for the place where you are standing is holy ground' (Exodus 3.5 & Joshua 5.15)
The canonical observance of prayer, and the complete renunciation of the world.
Throughout the whole of Egypt and the Thebaid, wherever there are monasteries, a uniform rule of prayer is adhered to when they come together for vespers or for the vigils of the night. No one is permitted to become part of this community of brothers unless he has put all his previous life and possessions behind him, and on entering he must know that, as the Lord said, he must become as a little child (Matthew 18.3), and be obedient to everyone else. He must not expect to be given any special consideration on account of his age or the number of years he has spent in the world. Rather he should consider them as having been unprofitable and lost. He must consider himself a beginner, a new apprentice, and learn how to conduct himself as a soldier of Christ. Chapter 17 (Cassian, Institutes, Bk.2, chap.5)
As we have said, throughout Egypt the number of psalms at vespers and at the night vigils is fixed at twelve, and after the psalms there should be space for two lessons, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. It has been done like this from of old, and has survived unchanged for such a long time because it was not set up by human invention but handed down from heaven to the ancient fathers by the ministry of angels.
How an Angel was seen to be singing the twelve psalms in the gathering of the seniors.
In the very earliest days of the faith, there were some men, few in number but very highly respected, who are reckoned to be known as monks, and who learned their way of living from the successors of the apostles. They went apart into secluded places on the outskirts of the cities, practising a life of such rigorous abstinence that everyone was amazed at how they could voluntarily give themselves to an arduous life of this sort. These venerable fathers took considerable thought for the welfare of those who should come after them, and wanted to come to a decision about how the daily worship should be conducted among the whole body of the brotherhood. They gathered together, therefore, in a convenient place, with the intention of being able to hand on to their successors a heritage of peace and piety free from any suspicion of controversy. They feared lest any differences and disagreements which might arise among people in the daily conduct of their worship might later result in the growth of dangerous errors. Chapter 18 (Cassian, Institutes, Bk.2, chap.10)
They discussed the way in which each of them had different customs in deciding the number of the psalms, some fifty, some sixty, and even some not content with that number who thought there should be even more. So they got into such a holy argument for the glory of their religion that the time for the solemnity of the most sacred vespers was upon them before they had come to a decision. Suddenly one of their number got up in the midst of them and began to sing psalms to the Lord. He sang eleven psalms, interspersed with prayer after each one, with equal emphasis given to each succeeding verse, but when he got to the twelfth psalm he finished it with a response of Alleluia and suddenly disappeared from sight, putting an end to both the worship and the arguments.
(ibid. chap.6) The seniors present understood from this that by the message of an angel it was the Lord who had decided upon the universal rule for the communities of brothers, and issued a decree that they should keep to this number both for vespers and night vigils.
(ibid. chap.7) The prayers that we mentioned above are begun and ended in this way: When the psalm is finished, followed by a Gloria, they are in no hurry to bend the knee but pray for a little standing up, in which position they spend the greater part of the time. There is then a brief pause before they prostrate themselves on the ground, to show they are begging for the divine mercy, then they rise again fairly quickly. With hands outstretched, they pray standing in the same way as before, concentrating upon the words of their prayer. For they maintain that a monk who prostrates himself for a long time, as if earnestly striving in his prayer, is liable to be attacked not only by wandering thoughts but also by sleep. We have learnt this from experience, that many people drag out their prostrations not so much for the sake of prayer but for the sake of having a rest!
Decency and due order to be observed in prayer.
When gathered together to celebrate these solemnities, which they call synaxes, silence is enjoined upon all, so that with such a large number of brothers gathered together, no voice is to be heard except that of the cantor. At the time of prayer, no one may spit, clear the throat, or yawn sleepily at great length; no voice except that of the presiding priest is heard. No one presumes to have prostrated themselves before he does, nor does anyone get up before he gets up from the ground to say the collect. The prayers are then brought to a swift conclusion, lest by lingering too long over them any residual sputum or phlegm disrupt the end of the service. And so the fervour of prayer is quickly snatched away from the jaws of the enemy - for although he is hostile towards us at all times, he is never so hostile as when he sees us offering prayers to the Lord against him.
(ibid. chap.11) For this reason they think it is better for the prayers to be short, and said in quick succession. They say that it is better for ten verses of a psalm to be sung with contrition of heart and careful attention than to pour out a complete psalm with the mind in a state of confusion.
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