Discretion (continued) Book V
(Living Soberly begins nearer bottom of this page)
V.x.82. An old man said, "Just as the monastic order is more to be held in honour than the secular way, so should the pilgrim monk be in all respects as a mirror for those he comes among."
V.x.83. One of the fathers said, "If a diligent person lives with those who are not, he does not make any progress, for the whole point of being diligent is to prevent yourself by means of your work from becoming second rate. But if a lazy person lives with those who are diligent, he does make progress, or if he doesn't at least he cannot get any worse."
V.x.84. An old man said, "One who has plenty of words but no deeds is like a tree with leaves but no fruit. Just as a tree with plenty of fruit is sure to be one with plenty of leaves, so good words follow on from good deeds."
V.x.85. An old man told how a certain monk who had fallen into serious sin and repented went to consult one of the old men. However, he didn't actually say in so many words what he had done, but put it in the form of a question, "If someone had fallen victim to such and such a thought could he find salvation?"
The old man was one with no discernment and replied, "You've lost your soul."
At this the brother said, "Well if I am perishing anyway I might as well go back to the world."
He didn't give up however but decided to go and consult abba Silvanus, a man of great discretion. When he got there he again did not actually say what he had done, but put in the form of the same question which he had put to the former old man, "If someone had fallen victim to such and such a thought could he find salvation?"
Abba Silvanus opened his mouth and began to speak to him from the Scriptures, "Judgment on thoughts is not always the same as on sins."
When the brother heard this he took to heart what was being said and with renewed hope he confessed his actual sins. Having heard what he had done, abba Silvanus like a good doctor applied a bandage to his soul from the Scriptures, by saying that there is always repentance for those who from genuine love turn to God (Ezekiel 18.27).
A few years later it so happened that this distinguished father visited the old man who had nearly driven the brother to despair and after telling him what had happened went on to say, "See now, this brother who would have despaired and gone back to the world because of what you said is now like a shining star in the midst of his brothers."
This story is told so that we may realise that it is dangerous to consult someone with no discernment about either sinful thoughts or sinful deeds.
V.x.86. An old man said, "We shall not be condemned because our thoughts are evil, but only if we make evil use of them. Through our thoughts we can either suffer shipwreck or be crowned with glory."
V.x.87 An old man said, "Don't have commerce with worldly men, don't be familiar with women, and don't put excessive trust in boys."
V.x.88. A brother asked an old man what he should do about the multitude of thoughts which bothered him for he didn't know how to fight them.
The old man said, " Don't fight against all of them, but only against one. All the thoughts that a monk might have stem from one principal source. You need to decide which one it is and what it is like, and concentrate on that. The others will then also be beaten down."
V.x.89. An old man spoke against evil thoughts thus, "I beg you, brothers, just as you repress evil acts so also repress evil thoughts."
V.x.90. (Also in VII.xix.6) An old man said, "The one who lives in the desert should be a teacher rather than one who needs to be taught, lest he come to harm."
V.x.91. An old man was asked by a brother how to find God, by fasting, by work, by vigils or by compassion.
And he replied, "By all those things which you mention, plus discretion. I tell you, there are many who afflict their flesh, but because they do it indiscreetly they end up empty, profiting nothing. Our mouths may be dried up through fasting, we may have studied the Scriptures and learned the psalms by heart and yet lack what God requires, humility."
V.x.92. A brother asked an old man, "Father, what is the point of asking the seniors and getting good spiritual advice from them if I don't remember anything of what they say? Why ask seeing I don't profit by it? I feel as if I'm totally unclean."
There were two empty bowls near at hand, and the old man said, "Take one of those bowls, pour some oil into it, burn some flax in it, pour the oil back and put the bowl back in its place."
And he did so.
"Do it again," said the old man.
And he did so.
After this had been done several times, the old man said, "Now pick up the other bowl and tell me which is the cleaner."
"The one I put the oil in," he said.
"It's the same with the enquiring mind," said the old man. "Although you can't remember what you have been told, nevertheless you become cleaner than those who never ask any questions at all."
V.x.93. A brother sitting silently in his cell was being pestered by demons disguised as angels who appeared to him in a bright light attempting to seduce him into going back to communal living. He went to a certain old man and said, "Father, angels have appeared to me in a bright light, telling me to go back to communal living."
"Don't listen to them," said the old man, "for they are demons. When they come to tempt you say, 'I'll go when I decide, not at your bidding.'"
He listened to the old man's advice and went back to his cell. The next night the demons came as usual, pestering him, but he as he had been advised answered them, "I'll go when I decide, not at your bidding."
But they said to him, "That evil old man is a liar and has deceived you. We know this because one of the brothers went to him wanting to borrow some money, and although he had some he lied, saying that he didn't have any, and gave him nothing."
At daybreak the brother went to the old man and told him about this. And the old man said, "It is quite true that I had some money and wouldn't give any to the brother who wanted to borrow some, because I knew that if I were to give it to him it would only do harm to his soul. I judged that there was one commandment which took precedence over a bit of prevarication in all ten."
V.x.94. Three brothers once came to an old man in Scete, and one of them said, "Father, I have committed the old and new Testaments to memory."
And the old man replied, "You have made a cloud of words around yourself." (lit. 'you have filled up the air with words')
And the second one said, "I have copied out the old and new Testaments all by myself"
And the old man replied, "You have blocked up the windows (sc. 'of your mind'?) with books."
And the third said, "The grass is growing in my fireplace."
And the old man said, "You have saved yourself from having to receive guests." (lit. 'You have driven out hospitality from you')
V.x.95. One of the fathers told of how a certain highly respected old man would say very forcefully to anyone who came to ask him for advice, "See now, I take the nature of God upon myself and sit in the seat of judgment, and what would you that I do for you? If you say, 'Have mercy on me', God says, 'If you want me to have mercy on you have mercy yourself on your brothers, and then I will have mercy on you'. If you want me to forgive you, forgive your neighbours. Is God to be held responsible in this? Not at all. It is within ourselves that the will to walk in the path of salvation lies."
V.x.96. It was said of a certain very industrious old man in the Cells that when he was reciting his prayers in his cell it so happened that another holy old man passing by heard him arguing with his thoughts and saying, "How is it that I should have forgotten everything except one single word?"
The man standing outside thought that he was arguing with someone else and knocked on the door so that he could go in and make peace between them. But when he had gone in and seen that there was no one there with the old man, he took it upon himself to ask, "Who were you arguing with, father?"
"With my thoughts," he replied. "For although I have committed fourteen books to memory, when I came to say my office today I found that I could remember nothing except one word which I had heard outside, and therefore I was arguing with my own thoughts."
V.x.97. (A slightly shorter version of III.5) Some brothers from the monastery came to the desert and stayed with a hermit who gave them a friendly welcome. And as is the custom among hermits, when he saw that his guests were tiring in their manual work he gave them a chance to rest by having the meal earlier than usual, sharing with them what he had in his cell. They said twelve psalms when evening was come and likewise twelve at night. But when the old man was keeping vigil he overheard them saying, "These hermits rest a lot longer than we do in the monastery."
In the morning when they were about to depart to another hermit nearby he said to them, "Give him my greetings and tell him not to water the vegetables."
This other hermit knew what that meant, and so he kept the brothers working hard till the evening without any food. At evening time he first of all said a very long office and then said, "For your sake we'll stop there, because you are tired after your hard work. We don't usually eat today, but for your sake we'll eat a little."
And he gave them some dry bread and salt, and added, "Seeing you are here we will make a feast day", and he added a little vinegar to the meal, after which they got up and continued singing psalms till morning, when he said, "Seeing you are with us we won't fulfil our usual rule but we'll pause a little here, seeing you are pilgrims."
The brothers decided it was time to get away, but he urged them to stay a little longer.
"Stay three days with us as is usual among hermits, if for no other reason than to observe the custom." But when they saw that he was not going to give them any relaxation they slipped away while he wasn't looking.
V.x.98. A brother said to an old man, "If I happen to sleep in past the hour for saying the office I feel inhibited from saying it at all for very shame."
And the old man said, "If you happen to sleep in, get up when you do awake, shut the doors and windows, and say your office, for it is written, 'The day is thine and the night is thine' (Psalm 74.17). At all times therefore God is glorified."
V.x.99. (Also in III.48) An old man said, "One person might eat a lot and still feel hungry, whereas another might eat very little but be satisfied with it. The one who eats and still stays hungry has greater merit than the one who eats little and is satisfied."
V.x.100. An old man said, "If you and your brother get involved in a rather peevish conversation and he says, 'That's not what I said', don't argue with him and say, 'Yes, you did', for he will only get irritated and say, 'I did not.'"
V.x.101 A brother asked an old man, "I have a sister who is very poor. If I give her some money does that count as giving alms to the poor?"
"No", the old man said.
"Why not, father?" asked the brother.
And the old man said, "Because you are being swayed by your own flesh and blood."
V.x.102. An old man said, "A monk ought not to disparage others, nor listen to those who disparage, nor be easily shocked."
V.x.103. An old man said, "Don't be satisfied with all you hear or agree with everything that is said. Be careful about what you believe, but be eager to tell the truth."
V.x.104. An old man said, "Sometimes a saying comes into the mind of a brother as he sits in his cell, and he can't get at the meaning of it, however much he turns it over in his mind. If he has not been drawn in this direction by God the demons will put any sort of meaning they want into this saying."
V.x.105. An old man said, "Once when we used to meet together we talked of things which were to our mutual benefit and were lifted heavenwards thereby. Nowadays when we meet we get caught up in scandalous gossip and drag each other down to the depths."
V.x.106. Another old man said, "If a person maintains an inner discipline, he can also control his actions. But if this is not the case how can we possibly guard our tongues?"
V.x.107 The same person also added, "Spiritual work is necessary if we are to arrive at that state. For it is an impossible task to speak of anything which has not been arrived at by actual experience."
V.x.108. Another of the fathers said, "It is important that one should have work in the cell at which to labour. As long as one is occupied in the work of God the devil may come day after day and will not find room in which to lodge. But if the devil does overcome and leads someone into captivity the Spirit of God will often return, though if he finds no room in us because of our own malignity he departs."
V.x.109. Some Egyptian monks went down to Scete to visit the seniors of that place and were scandalised to find them so undone by hunger that they were impatient to get at their food after a long fast. The presbyter [of Scete] realised this and with the intention of teaching them something before sending them away he preached to the people in the church encouraging them to fast and cultivate abstinence. For the monks from Egypt had wanted to go but he kept them there. And when he had made them fast for two days they were shattered. The dwellers in Scete, however, had fasted for a week before they and the Egyptians sat down to a meal on the Sabbath. The Egyptians then rushed madly to get at the food and one of the old men restrained their hands and said, "Eat properly as a monk should."
One of the Egyptians shook his hand off saying, "Let me go for I am dying. I haven't eaten any cooked food for a week."
And the old man said, "If you are reduced to such straits after fasting for only two days, why are you so dismayed by these brothers who habitually consider abstinence to be of such importance that they fast for a week." This shamed them, and edified by their abstinence they went away in a happier frame of mind.
V.x.110. A certain brother who had renounced the world and taken the monastic habit, almost immediately shut himself up saying, "I want to be a solitary."
When the nearby seniors heard of this they went and dragged him out and made him go round the cells of all the brethren doing penance at each one, saying, "Pardon me, for I am not a solitary, since I am only at the beginning of my monastic life."
V.x.111. The old men had a saying, "If you see one of the young men going up to heaven by his own efforts, grab his heel and bring him down to earth, for it is not fitting."
V.x.112. A brother said to a highly respected old man, "Father I would like to find an old man of my own choice and stay with him." And the old man said, "A noble desire, sir."
He didn't understand the old man's sarcasm, and continued to say that was what he wanted.
When the old man saw that the young man thought he was approving his wishes he said, "And if you found such an old man of your own choice, would you really stay with him?"
And he replied, "Yes, indeed, if I could find someone of my own choice."
And the old man said, "Not so that you could follow the will of the old man, but that he could do what you want - and that would give you peace." The brother suddenly realised what was being said and prostrated himself in penitence, saying, "Forgive me, I was being vainglorious, and thought I was speaking on the right lines, when there was no real good in it at all."
V.x.113. Two brothers according to the flesh both left the world, but it was the younger of them who first began his monastic life. One of the fathers came to visit them and they brought out a basin (sc. to wash his feet). and the younger in age came to wash the old man's feet, but he reached out his hand and prevented him, giving that privilege to the elder, although it was usually the one who had entered the monastery first who did this. Some bystanders said, "Father, the younger one is the senior in monastic terms." And the old man replied, "And I take away the primacy of the younger and give it to the elder."
V.x.114. An old man said, "The prophets wrote books, our fathers who came after them carried out many of their precepts, and their successors committed them to memory. But this present generation has copied them out onto paper and parchment and leave them idly on their window sills."
V.x.115. An old man used to say, "The cowl that we wear is the sign of innocence, the garment that we wear round our shoulders and on our necks is the sign of the cross, the belt we are girded with is the sign of fortitude. Let us live then according to what our habit signifies; if we bend our desires to all these things we shall not be overcome."
Libellus 11: Living soberly.
V.xi. 1. A Brother came to abba Arsenius for advice and the old man said, "To the best of your ability try to live an interior life according to God's will and conquer your outward passions." He added, "If we seek God he will appear to us and if we grasp him he will stay with us."
V.xi. 2. Abba Agathon said, "A monk should not allow his conscience to accuse him in everything indiscriminately." When he was at the point of death this illustrious abba Agathon remained motionless for three days with his eyes open, and the brothers shook him and said, "Where are you, father?" "I am standing before the judgment seat of God," he replied. "Are you afraid?" they asked. "I have worked to the best of my ability at keeping the commandments of God," he replied, "but I am only human and I know not whether what I have done is pleasing in the sight of God." "You have no trust in what you have done, even though you have been following God?" they asked. And the old man said, "I would not presume so much, not before appearing before God, for the judgments of God are different from human judgments." They very much wanted to ask him more questions, but he said to them, "Please, don't talk any more for I am very busy." As soon as he had said this he cheerfully gave up his spirit, as they watched him assume the expression of one about to greet some dear friends. He had always been very disciplined in all things and used to say, "Without discipline it is not humanly possible to grow in virtue."
V.xi. 3. It was told of abba Ammoys that when he went to church he didn't allow his disciple to walk with him but to follow at some distance behind. If the disciple came closer to ask something he would answer him very briefly and then tell him to go back, saying , "Although we may be talking about something of spiritual benefit, it is just possible that we may get on to something which is totally irrelevant, so that is why I don't allow you to stay close."
V.xi. 4. When abba Ammoys first met abba Arsenius he asked, "In what light do you see me now?" And he replied, "Like an angel, father." At a later date he asked him again, "How do you see me now?" And he replied, "Like Satan, for even when you speak good words to me they pierce me like a sword."
V.xi. 5. Abba Allois said, "Unless you say, 'God and I are alone in the world' you will never find peace."
V.xi. 6. Again he said, "If you really wanted to, you could arrive at the measure of divinity (find union with God?) in the course of only one day before Vespers."
V.xi. 7. Abba Bessarion on his deathbed said, "A monk should be all eye, like the Cherubim and Seraphim."
V.xi. 8. Abba Daniel and abba Ammoys were going on a journey when abba Ammoys said, "Do you think we shall be sitting in our cell before long, father?" Abba Daniel replied, "Who shall separate us from God? God is now with us on our journey, and he will be with us again in the cell."
V.xi. 9. Abba Evagrius said, "It is a great thing to pray without distraction, and greater still to sing psalms without distraction."
V.xi. 10. He also said, "Remember you must die and forget not eternal judgment, and your soul will not slip."
V.xi. 11. Abba Theodore of Ennato said, "If God can accuse us of slackness in our times of prayer and distractions when we are singing psalms we are not on the path of salvation."
V.xi. 12. Abba Theonas said, "We are taken away captive by earthly passions because of mental blockages which withdraw us from the contemplation of God."
V.xi. 13. Some brothers once put John the Dwarf to the test because he had the reputation of never allowing his mind to be distracted by worldly affairs, nor did he argue over worldly controversies. "Thanks be to God," they said. "The rainfall has been good this year and the well-watered palm trees are putting forth fresh branches providing plenty of work for the brothers who work with their hands." "It's like what happens when the Holy Spirit descends into the hearts of his saints," abba John replied. "They are renewed in strength and become clothed in the fear of God."
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