Life No 4, Book 1a
The Life of Saint Malchus, (Also St Onuphrius, further down page)
[Celebrated in the Roman Martyrology on October 21.
This Life appears in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, op.cit. not as a letter addressed to anyone in particular. Written probably in 391.]
Monk and Captive
by Jerome, presbyter
Sailors contemplating a naval battle first of all steer their ship into the calm waters of a harbour, ship the oars, get the grappling hooks ready, arrange the troops in order, take up their station, accustom themselves to stand firm as the ship glides on, so that what they learn in a simulated battle will hold no fears for them when it comes to the real thing. So, seeing that I have been silent for a long time (for the person who complained about my writings made me keep silent), I thought perhaps I might get in some practice, by writing just a brief article, before engaging in a longer history. If the Lord gives me time, and if my enemies won't follow me now that I am a fugitive and enclosed in a monastery, I plan to cover events from the coming of the Saviour until the present age, that is, from the Apostles to the latest minute of our time, how and by whom the Church was born and nourished, how it suffered under persecutions and has been crowned with martyrs, after which we come to the age of Christian princes, greater in power and riches, but meaner in virtues. But that can await another time. [This project apparently never came to fruition, though doubtless these Lives would have formed part of it.] For the present, let us do as we have just said.
Maronias is a quite unimportant little village about thirty miles to the east of Antioch in Syria. When I was a youth in Syria it used to be ruled by many different masters or patrons until it came into the possession of Pope Evagrius, [Bishop of Antioch at that time, well known to Jerome.] a necessary move in my opinion. I mention this to prove how I know the details of what I am writing about.
In those days there was an old man called Malchus, of Syrian nationality and language and, as I understand, a native of that place. I suppose in the Latin language 'Malchus' would become 'King'. There was an old woman who was associated with him, very infirm, not far away from death, as it seemed, and both of them were very devout in their religious practices. They spent so much time in the church that you would have thought they were another Zacharias and Elisabeth as described in the Gospel (Luke 1.5), except that there wasn't any John in evidence. I asked some of the local people about them, curious about their links with each other, whether they were actually married, or related, or just soul-mates. Everyone I asked declared with one voice that they were holy and pleasing to God and had done who knows how many miracles. Devoured with curiosity I went to see the man himself, hoping to find out the truth of the matter. This is what he told me:
I was born in the hamlet of Nisibenus, the only child of my parents. Because I was the heir and the only hope of the family name continuing, they wanted me to marry, but I told them that I would rather become a monk. My father threatened me, my mother tried to soft-soap me into losing my virginity, which resulted in my running away from both home and family. I could not go east to Persia because it was occupied by the Roman army, so I went west, carrying with me a little food to keep me from starvation. I arrived at length at a desert near Chalcidos [a town in Syria], between Beroea and Imma, and slightly to the south of them. Here I found some monks, and I gave myself over into their governance, earning my bread by the labour of my hands and curbing my youthful lusts by fasting.
Many years later, thoughts of returning to my native land began to come into my mind, for I had heard that my father had died, though my mother was still alive. I thought I might care for her in her widowed state, and eventually sell the property, give some to the poor, build a monastery with some and keep enough to live on. How I blush to confess this faithlessness! My Abbot objected that this was a temptation of the devil. It was an occasion of sin presented by the ancient enemy under the guise of a good intention. It would be like a dog returning to his own vomit (Proverbs 26.11). Many monks were deceived in this way, for the devil never betrayed anyone by a frontal attack. He put many examples from Scripture before me, Adam and Eve to start with (Genesis 3.5), who were brought down by expecting to become gods.
When he could not dissuade me by argument he went down on his knees and begged me not to desert him, not to lose my own soul, for, having put my hand to the plough, I ought not to look back (Luke 9.62). Miserable wretch that I am, the worst possible course of action won the day, for I thought he was simply seeking his own advantage, not my own welfare at all. He followed me out of the monastery as if he were at a funeral paying his last respects.
"I see you, my son," he cried, "caught up in the snares of the devil. I brook no argument, I accept no excuses. He who leaves the sheepfold can expect to get bitten by wolves!"
On the way from Beroea to Edessa, the public pathway passes through a deserted region, where the Saracens emerge from various hidden dens to make raids here and there. The risk they pose leads travellers to band together in these places, in order to minimise the danger. In the group that I was with there were men, women, old and young, as well as little children, to the number of about seventy. Suddenly there appeared a band of half naked Ishmaelites, riding camels and horses, wearing headbands, trailing long scarves behind them, quiverfuls of arrows hanging from their shoulders, and waving long bows and spears. They had come not to kill but to rob.
They seized us, divided us up into small groups, and carried us off in various different directions. So there was I, already repenting of my plans, heir to a considerable property, finding my only inheritance was to be slavery, in which I found my chance companion was to be a young woman. We were led, or rather carried on camels, through a vast desert, hanging on to them rather than just sitting on them, frightened of falling off. Our food was half-cooked meat, our drink camel's milk. We came at last to a wide river, over which we crossed to an inner desert, where, according to their custom, we were made to bow our heads before their leader, who was a woman, and her children. We had to learn how to accept that we were prisoners, with different clothing, that is, we were left almost bare, apart from a loincloth, such was the climate of the place.
I was put in charge of keeping the sheep, which was a great comfort to me in my misfortune, for it meant that I saw my masters and fellow slaves only rarely. It seemed to me that I had something in common with holy Jacob (Genesis 29). I also remembered Moses, both of whom in former times tended cattle in the desert. I was fed on cheese and milk. I prayed diligently, I sang the psalms which I had learned in the monastery. I began to enjoy my captivity, and I was glad of the judgment of God, in that the monastic life which I have been about to lose in my native land I had found again in the desert.
But one is never safe from the devil. O, the multiplicity and unexpectedness of his tricks! A malicious disaster was lying in wait for me. Now I had been following the precepts of the Apostle by faithfully serving my master as I would God (Ephesians 6.5, Colossians 3.22), and when my master saw that his flock was flourishing and that there was no deceit in me, he decided to reward me by giving me the woman with whom I had been taken captive. Now this woman's husband had also been taken captive, but had been given to a different master. So I refused his gift, telling him that as a Christian it was not lawful for me to have the wife of a man still living. My master changed in an instant from someone magnanimous to someone in a rage, and came at me with drawn sword. If I had not hastily taken the woman's gentle hand, blood would have flowed. A deeper darkness, gloomier than ever, had come upon me.
I was forced to take my new wife into my rough shelter, both of us filled with misery rather than nuptial joy, each of us detesting the other, neither of us speaking. Now I felt the full force of my captivity, and I threw myself on the ground and mourned the monastic life which I had lost.
"How did I get into this miserable plight? Is this what my sins have brought me to, that I, a virgin, should now have my hair grow grey as a husband? If I do that now, what point was there in giving up parents, native land and family life for the sake of the Lord? For I gave those things up for the very purpose of not following that course. Perhaps it is because I gave in to a desire to seek my native land again that I am suffering these things now. What are you going to do, O my soul? Are you going to perish, or conquer? Wait for the hand of the Lord, or dig a grave for yourself with your own sword? Turn the sword against yourself; the death of your soul is more to be feared than the death of your body. Shamefastness has brought its own martyrdom. Let this unsung witness to Christ lie here in the desert. I shall be my own persecutor and martyr."
And then in my darkness I drew a gleaming sword and turned the point against myself.
"Farewell, unhappy woman," I said. "You now have a martyr instead of a husband."
She threw herself at my feet.
"I beg you in the name of Jesus Christ," she said, "There is no need for your blood to be mingled with mine. Better for you to delay a while and turn the sword against me, that we may be united in that way. For even if my own husband is reunited with me I would still preserve the chastity that I have learned about in captivity. I would rather die than perish eternally. Why do you delay being joined to me? Take me as a wife of chastity, joined together in soul but not in body. Our masters can believe we are married, Christ knows you are my brother. They will easily be convinced that we are married, when they see how much we love each other."
I was absolutely dumbfounded, I can tell you, lost in admiration for the virtue of this woman, whom I have loved even more as wife. I have never seen her naked, I have never laid a finger on her, fearing even in times of peace to lose sight of the goals I have striven after in the time of battle. Many days passed by in this 'marriage', and by our appearing to be married our masters looked upon us with greater favour. There was no question of my trying to escape, though sometimes I would spend as much as a whole month in solitude looking after the sheep.
After having been alone in the desert for quite some time with nothing to see apart from earth and sky, I began to turn things over in my mind, especially thinking of the monastic community I had left. I envisaged the features of my spiritual father who had instructed me, cherished me, and lost me. As I was thinking, I noticed some ants swarming out of a narrow cleft in the rock, dealing with burdens bigger than their own bodies. Some were dragging grass seeds in their pincers, others digging earth out of their narrow entrance and heaping it up into ramparts intended to keep out water. They were obviously mindful of the coming winter, and were making sure their storehouses would not be damp and encourage seeds to germinate. Others were having a funeral, dragging along an ant's dead body. And what was even more wonderful to me was that those going out did not get in the way of those going in, and if one of them was struggling under the weight of its burden, another would come and lend extra strength. What a beautiful sight that day brought to my eyes! I thought of Solomon, urging us to consider the industry of the ant as an example to stir up sluggish minds (Proverbs 6.6), and I began to feel weary of my captivity, longing for the monastic cell and the sort of care shown for each other by those ants, where all work is undertaken together, no one has any private property, and everything belongs to all.
My wife met me as I returned home, unable to conceal the sadness in my face. She asked why I looked so depressed. When I told her, she did not laugh me to scorn but suggested that we should escape.
"Hush, hush!" I said. "Though I must say I admire your faith." And we whispered together half way between hope and fear.
There were two wonderfully large he-goats in my flock. I slaughtered them both, made bags out of their skins, and prepared the meat as food for the journey. Early one evening, when our masters thought we had gone to sleep, we began our journey, carrying the bags and some of the meat. When we came to the river, ten miles away, we inflated the bags, grasped hold of them, and entrusted ourselves to the waters, paddling with our feet, so that little by little the stream would carry us to a place on the opposite bank a long way further down than the place where we entered, in the hope that any pursuers would lose the trail. Our meat got thoroughly soaked while we were doing this, besides which we dropped some of it, so that we scarcely had three days food left. Mindful that we might be thirsty later on, we drank till we could drink no more, and fled as fast as we could, constantly looking over our shoulders. We moved mostly at night, not only because of the burning heat of the sun, but also because of the ever-present threat of wandering Saracens. I tremble miserably even to think of it, and even though I am now quite secure, my whole body shudders.
On the third day we could just about make out two men on camels, following us quickly in the distance. Night was beginning to fall, we were terrified, we thought it must be our master, we thought we must be near death. Our fear was increasing as we thought of our footprints plainly there in the sand, when we noticed a cave on our right, going back into the cliff. We went inside, in spite of our fears that poisonous beasts might be seeking the shadows there as daylight faded - vipers, spiders, scorpions and such like. Just inside the entrance we took refuge in a side passage on the left. Going in any further would be in vain, for by fleeing from death we could equally easily be running to meet death. With that thought in mind we knew that if the Lord takes pity on miserable wretches we would be safe, though if he condemns the sinner we were in our tomb.
Imagine our state of mind, imagine our terror, when we saw our master and another of his slaves not far away outside the cave, and led by our footprints approaching our hiding place. We knew we could expect a fate far more awful than death. With stammering tongue I breathed a prayer to the Lord in great fear, not daring to move. He sent his slave in to drag us out of the cave, while he held on to the camels with drawn sword, waiting for us to come out. The servant went in for about three or four cubits. We could see his back as we looked out of our hiding place. He sent his voice echoing down the passage.
"Come out, you wretches, come out, you gallows fodder, come out and die! Don't just stand there. What are you waiting for? It is your lord and master who summons you."
He had hardly spoken when suddenly we saw a lioness rush out of the darkness, grip the man by the throat, and drag him back all covered in blood. O good Jesus! What was our terror! And yet what was our joy! We had seen our enemy perish without the master being aware of it. The master began to wonder why the servant was taking so long, and thought that perhaps there was a fight of two against one going on. Unable to restrain his anger any longer he entered the cave, trusting in his drawn sword, berating furiously his servant's stupidity, until he too was laid low by the wild beast, which had evidently been hiding there before us. Who ever would have believed that a beast would have fought for us before our very eyes!
With a second slaughter having taken place before our eyes we were still very frightened, wondering whether it was really safer to be threatened by a raving lioness than by an angry human. We were inwardly shattered, and dared not move, waiting to see what would happen in the midst of such great danger, but trusting in our own innocence as a wall of defence. In the morning the lioness picked up her cub in her mouth and went out, very cautiously, as if in danger, as if she were being observed. We were left in sole possession of our guesthouse. We could not believe it firmly enough to come out of our hiding place. We hesitated for a long time, wondering whether to go on, imagining that we might still be attacked again.
We spent the whole day in fear before we finally emerged and found the camels outside, chewing the cud. We mounted them, refreshed ourselves by a new supply of food, and on the tenth day of our journey through the desert arrived at a Roman fort. We reported to the tribune, to whom we gave a full account of what had happened to us. He sent us to Sabianus, the duke of Mesopotamia. Here we sold the camels. I found that my old abbot had fallen asleep in the Lord, but I rejoined the monks of his community. I saw my 'wife' safely into a community of virgins, caring for her as I would for a sister, though I would not have trusted myself to live with her as a sister.
* * * * * * *
So that was what Malchus told me when I was young. I am telling you the story now I am old, a celibate man expounding a story of chastity. I urge all virgins to preserve their chastity. And tell those who come after you how modesty was never compromised in the midst of swords and deserts and beasts, and how a man dedicated to Christ can die but can never be overcome.
The Life of Saint Onuphrius, Hermit [Celebrated in the Roman Martyrology on June 12.]
by Abba Paphnutius
translated anonymously into Latin from the Greek
by the anonymous translator.
Quite recently in looking through some Greek writings I came across this Life of Onuphrius. I already knew about it from what I was told by Gregory, that venerable and most prudent man. Having found it, I translated it by the grace of God into Latin, so that his commendable life, as far as my own powers might allow, should be better known, and provide an object of admiration and imitation for the reader. I beg you to overlook my untutored style, and exercise some forbearance as you ponder how great a labour the man of God patiently and generously took upon himself, as he spurned all the glory of worldly vanity, and by the straitness of his living gained for himself the inheritance of the kingdom of heaven.
Paphnutius of blessed memory reveals some of his private acts and thoughts as follows:
One day as I, Paphnutius, was meditating in solitude and silence, it came into my mind that I should make a visit to all the places in the desert where there were holy monks, to shed light on how they habitually lived their lives of devotion, and learn to understand the way in which they served God. So it was that I quietly began my journey, eager to make this pleasurable venture into the desert. I carried some bread and water with me to sustain me in the labour of my journey, but by the end of the fourth day it had all gone. My limbs were beginning to lose their strength for lack of sustenance. However by the light of divine grace my imminent death was staved off, and gathering up my strength I resumed my journey, carrying on for another four days, eating nothing. At the end of this I was completely exhausted, and lay prostrate on the ground as if dead.
And suddenly I was gladdened by help from heaven, for I saw a man in front of me who was unbelievably glorious, splendidly terrifying, impressively beautiful, colossally tall, illustrious of appearance. I was powerfully overcome at the sight, but with untroubled countenance he came close to me, and touched first my hands and then my lips. My strength flowed back strongly into me, and I rose to my feet immediately. By God's good favour I kept on going through the desert for seventeen days, to arrive at whatsoever place the Lord wished to show me, unworthy servant though I am, until such time as I might cease from my labour.
As I was wearily resting, and thinking of how I had struggled to arrive at where I was, I saw in the distance a man terrible to behold. He was covered all over in hair like a wild beast. His hair was so thick that it completely concealed the whole of his body. His only clothing was a loincloth of leaves and grasses. The very sight of him filled me with awe, whether from fear or wonder I was not quite sure. I had never before set eyes on such an extraordinary sight in human shape. I didn't know what to do, but as I valued my life I took refuge
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