Living Soberly (continued) Book V
(Prayer without Ceasing begins nearer bottom of this page)
V.xi. 14. It is also told of abba John that he once made enough plaits to weave two baskets but used them all up on one basket and didn't realise it until his weaving touched the wall, his mind was so taken up with the contemplation of God.
V.xi. 15. There was an old man in Scete who had great physical stamina, but was not very good at remembering anything. He went to abba John the Dwarf and asked him about forgetfulness, listened to what he had to say, went back to his cell and couldn't remember a thing of what abba John had said. He went back and asked again, listened and likewise returned, and still couldn't remember a thing once he had got back to his cell. He did this several times, but still could not master his forgetfulness. At last he came again and said, "Do you know, father, I have forgotten again what it was you said to me. I don't want to be a nuisance to you. I won't come again." Abba John replied, "Come, light this lantern (or 'candle') for me." And he did so. "Bring another lantern," he said, "and light it from this one." And he did so. "Is the light of the first lantern any the less," he asked, " because you have lit another lantern from it?" "No", was the reply. "Nor is John any the less," said John, "even if all of Scete came to me. Nor could that separate me from the love of God. So come whenever you like, don't hesitate." And so by their mutual forbearance God did take away the old man's forgetfulness. But this was the way they carried on in Scete, encouraging those who were beset by any kind of passion whatsoever and making demands on each other to their mutual advantage.
V.xi. 16. A brother asked abba John, "What shall I do? There is a certain brother who is always coming and asking me to help him in his work, but I'm afraid I'm not really strong enough for it and it's wearing me out. How do I fulfil the commandments of God?" The old man replied, "Caleb the son of Jephunneh said to Joshua the son of Nun, 'I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the Lord sent me with you to this land and I am now eighty, and I am just as strong and fit for warlike comings and goings now as I was then.' (Joshua 14.7, 10-11) But you, do what you can. If you are able to go out and come back, do. But if you can't, sit in your cell and weep for your sins. And then if he comes and finds you weeping he won't compel you to go."
V.xi. 17. Abba Isodore the presbyter of Scete said, "When I was young and sat in my cell I used to keep no count of how many psalms I said in serving God, for I just kept on saying them night and day."
V.xi. 18. Abba Cassian told of an old man living in the desert who begged God to grant that he might remain attentive when spiritual matters were being discussed, but that he might go to sleep if there were any slander or bad language, so that his ears might not be filled with such poison. He said that the devil was the enemy of all spiritual doctrine, and eager to incite people to bad language (or, 'harmful language' otiosa verba). As an example of this he offered the following, "Once when I was talking to certain brothers for the good of their souls they fell into such lethargy that they couldn't keep their eyelids apart. So in order to teach them what the work of the devil was like, I introduced an account of some very shameful things, upon which they woke up and became very interested. Then I groaned, and said, 'Up to now we have been talking of spiritual things and your eyes have been weighed down by irresistible sleep. But as soon as I start talking about anything shameful you all promptly begin to listen. I beg you therefore, brethren, be aware of the wiles of the devil, and pay attention and stay awake whenever you are doing or listening to anything spiritual.'"
V.xi. 19. When abba Pastor was young he went to an old man to seek advice on three matters. But when he got there he couldn't remember one of the three so went back to his cell. As he was reaching out his hand to open the door he remembered what it was that he had forgotten before and drawing back his hand he went back to the old man, who said, "You are soon back, brother." So he explained how, as he was about to open the door, he remembered his query and came straight back without going in. And it was a very long way that he had had to travel. And the old man said, "You are a real Pastor of the flock, and your name will be renowned throughout the whole land of Egypt."
V.xi. 20. Abba Ammon came to abba Pastor and said, "If I go to my neighbour's cell, or he comes to me about anything, we show consideration for each other by taking care not to allow any unsuitable stories or anything else contrary to a monastic profession." And the old man said, "Well done. When you are young you need to take great care." "How do the older men go on, then?" asked abba Ammon. "The older men, who are skilled and proven, take no thought for anything other than their pilgrimage, and they talk about that," he replied. Abba Ammon asked, "So if you have to talk with your neighbour do you think it is better to talk with him about Scripture or the sayings of the fathers?" And the old man said, "If you can't keep silence it is better to talk about the sayings of the fathers than about Scripture. There is not a little danger there."
V.xi. 21. When asked about impurity abba Pastor said, "Once we have established the conduct of our life in the fear of God and in sobriety (or 'steadfastness') there will be no room for impurity in us."
V.xi. 22. It is said of abba Pastor that before he went out to take part in the work of God he would first sit as if in harness for an hour, meditating on the meaning of the texts.
V.xi. 23. Abba Pastor told how someone asked abba Paysion what he should do about his inner feelings, for he had become benumbed and did not fear God. And the old man said, "Go and join yourself to someone who does fear God, and by cleaving to him you will learn to fear God."
V.xi. 24. Again he said, "The fear of the Lord is the be-all and end-all. For it is written, 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom' (Psalm 111.10) and again when Abraham had finished building an altar the Lord said to him, 'Now I know that you fear God'" (Genesis 22.12).
V.xi. 25. Again he said, "Have nothing to do with anyone who never stops talking contentiously (or 'who is always stirring up strife')."
V.xi. 26. Again he said, "I once consulted abba Peter, the disciple of abba Lot, about how my mind would be in a turmoil if another brother visited me and told me the gossip about all the others, whereas my soul would be at peace while sitting alone in my cell. And abba Peter replied that abba Lot had a saying 'It is you who have the key to my door'. 'What was the meaning behind that?' I asked. And he replied; 'If someone visits you and you ask him how he is, where he comes from, what's going on with this brother or that brother, whether you get on with them or not, then you open a door for your brother, and you hear things you would rather not.' And I said, 'Yes, that's quite true. How then should one behave when visited by another brother?' And he said, 'All sound doctrine is learned through serious thought (= 'luctus', lit. 'mourning', 'lamentation'). Where there is no serious thought it is impossible to have a calm mind.' And I said ( in the text 'he said' which surely must be a misprint) to him, 'I do have serious thoughts when I am in my cell, but when anyone comes to see me, or when I go out, they vanish.' And the old man said, 'You haven't yet got control of them, but are only able to make us of them temporarily.' 'How do you mean?' I asked. 'Whatever you work at, once you have mastered it, you can make use of it whenever you need.'"
V.xi. 27. (Also in VII.xxxii.2) A brother said to abba Sisois, "I would love to be able to keep guard over my heart (custodire cor meum). And the old man said, "How can we keep guard over our heart if our mouth is like an open door?"
V.xi. 28. The disciple of abba Silvanus of Mount Sinai once asked the old man to draw some water to water the garden while he went about another task of his. As the old man went to draw the water he wrapped his cowl closely about his face, looking only at his feet. Somebody else then coming along saw him from a distance and observed what he was doing. When he got near he asked, "Tell me father, why do you water the garden with your cowl so closely wrapped about you face?" And the old man said, "So that I can't see the trees, and in looking at them be distracted from what I am doing."
V.xi. 29. Abba Moses asked abba Silvanus, "Is it possible for anyone to begin a new way of life every day?" "Anyone who is a genuine workman., " replied abba Silvanus, "can begin a new way of life not only every day but every hour."
V.xi. 30. Once abba Silvanus was asked, "How have you lived your life that you have acquired such sagacity?" (prudentia) And he replied, "I have never harboured disturbing thoughts in my heart."
V.xi. 31. Abba Serapion said, "The soldiers of the Emperor stand before him looking neither to the right or the left. Even so should the monk stand in the sight of God, intent upon him, fearing him. None of the devil's wiles can then make him afraid."
V.xi. 32. Holy Syncletica said, "Let us live soberly. It is through our bodily senses that we can be despoiled if we are not careful. How can the house possibly not become darkened if we let smoke in from outside through an open window?"
V.xi. 33. She also said, "We must maintain everywhere an armed defence against the demons, for they attack us from outside and stir us up inside, according to our experience. Just as a ship is sometimes buffeted from the outside by the force of the waves, and sometimes sunk because of a build-up of bilge water inside, so we are sometimes lost because of the evil of the deeds we do outwardly, and sometimes betrayed by the maliciousness of our inner thoughts. We must therefore not only watch out for the external attacks of evil spirits, but also expel the uncleanness of our inner thoughts."
V.xi. 34. Again she said, "We have no security in this world. As the Apostle says, 'Let him who thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.' (1 Cor.10.12) We are sailing indeed in uncertain waters, like the psalmist who likens our life to the sea (Psalm 104). There are regions of the sea which are full of danger and others which are safe; we seem to travel in the safe areas of the sea, it is people in the world who seem to be in the areas of danger. We travel in the light, led by the sun of righteousness, they are tossed about in a night of ignorance. It often happens however that people in the world who travel in tempest and darkness are able to save their ship when afraid of danger by crying to the Lord and by renewed vigilance. We in our places of calm can be sunk by very complacency, having loosed our hold on the rudder of righteousness."
V.xi. 35. Abba Hyperichus said, "Let you thoughts be always of the kingdom of heaven, and you will soon receive it as your inheritance."
V.xi. 36. Again he said, "Let a monk live in imitation of the angels, burning and destroying all sin."
V.xi. 37. Abba Orsisius said, "Unless a man keeps guard over his heart he will forget and neglect all that he hears and sees, and the enemy will gain a foothold there and eventually take control. A lamp supplied with oil (and 'lychino') will give forth light; but if though neglect it has not been given oil it will soon go out and darkness will prevail. If a mouse should come looking for food before it has completely gone out he will be put off by its heat, but once he is certain that it no longer gives off either light or heat he will knock the lamp on to the floor in his efforts to get at the contents. If it is made of pottery it will break, but if bronze its owner will pick it up again. In the same way, if the soul gets careless the Holy Spirit will begin to depart until finally its heat will be totally extinguished, and then the enemy will grasp and devour the resolution of the heart and exterminate and render useless the sinful body. If however one basically has a good intention towards God, and has simply been trapped unawares into negligence, the merciful God will prick his conscience with the thought of the punishment which is prepared for sinners in the world to come. and he will study to live more soberly, and govern himself in all things with great circumspection until the time of his visitation.
V.xi. 38. When two old men were having a conversation one of them said, "I am dead to this world." The other said, "Don't be too sure. It's all very well saying you are dead to the world, but Satan is not."
V.xi. 39. An old man said, "A monk should be thinking early and late about what he has done according to God's will and what things he has left undone. In this way a monk should be directing his whole life towards doing penance. This is the way that abba Arsenius lived."
V.xi. 40. An old man said, "If you lose silver or gold it is possible to find it again (sc. but not salvation).
V.xi. 41. An old man said, "Soldiers and hunters going about the tasks set before them take no thought about whether they will be wounded or whether anyone else will be safe from harm. Each one strives on his own behalf alone (= pro se solo certat), and so it ought to be for the monk."
V.xi. 42. An old man said, "No one is able to cause harm to somebody who stays close to the Emperor; similarly Satan cannot harm us if our soul is rooted in God. For it is written, 'Return to me and I will return to you' (Zacharaiah 1.3) It is because we are often drawn away from him that the enemy is easily able to lead our miserable souls captive to shameful passions."
V.xi. 43. A brother said to an old man, "I don't have any conflicts in my heart." And the old man said, "You are like someone with forty different doorways and anyone from anywhere can go in and out as they please and you have not the least idea what's happening. If you had only one doorway, firmly shut, and forbade entry to evil thoughts, you would then be aware of them outside you, striving against you."
V.xi. 44. It was said of a certain old man that when his thoughts said to him, "Never mind today. Repent tomorrow," he gainsaid them, saying, "No, I will repent today and tomorrow let God's will be done."
V.xi. 45. An old man said, "I you can't conduct yourself properly in your outward behaviour, you certainly won't be able to govern yourself inwardly."
V.xi. 46. An old man said, "Satan has three weapons which are deployed before we get to committing any sin whatsoever. The first is forgetfulness, the second negligence, the third disordered desire. For forgetfulness breeds negligence and negligence breeds disordered desire from which human ruin proceeds. But if you maintain your mind in sobriety, casting out forgetfulness, you will not become negligent, and so your desires will not be disordered, and so with the help of the grace of Christ you will not fall."
V.xi. 47. An old man said, "Cultivate silence and think no vain thoughts. Whether sitting still or moving about govern your thoughts ( or 'turn to meditation') always in the fear of God. If you do this you will not fear the attacks of the enemy."
V.xi. 48. An old man said to a brother, "The devil is the enemy and you are like a house. The devil ceases not to assail you with whatever kind of murky thoughts he can find, pouring out all kinds of uncleanness into you. What you have to do is to take care to throw outside whatever he throws at you, and if you neglect this your house will be so filled with rubbish that you will strive to enter in vain. Right from the start throw out the things he throws at you and by the grace of Christ your house will stay clean."
V.xi. 49. And old man said, "If a beast is blindfolded he will more readily go round and round at the mill. The blindfold is taken off when he is not at the mill. Similarly the devil tries to blind us in order to subject us to all kinds of sin, but if our eyes are open we can more easily fly from him."
V.xi. 50. The old men told of how there were seven monks in abba Antony's mountain at the time of the fig harvest, one of whom had to drive the birds away from them. There was one of those old men who when it was his turn to guard the dactyls used to cry, "Be off you birds, and fly away all evil thoughts."
V.xi. 51. A brother in the Cells soaked his palms and sat down to make plaits, when his thoughts suggested to him that he should go and visit a certain old man. And he decided that he would go in a few days time. And his thoughts said to him, "What if he should die in the meantime? Go and see him now. It's summertime." But again he said, "It's not the right time." His thoughts again said, "But when you have cut the rushes up it will be the right time." And he replied, "I will spread these palms out and then I will go." Again his thoughts said, "It's such a fine day today." And he left his palms soaking, put on his sheepskin and went out. His neighbour however was an old man with discernment and when he saw him striding off so vigorously he shouted out, "Prisoner, prisoner, where are you off to? Come here to me." And when he had approached, the neighbour said, "Go back to your cell." And the brother having told him about the internal conflict he had had went back to his cell and entering in prostrated himself and did penance. When he had done this the demons suddenly shouted with a loud voice; "You have conquered us, monk, you have conquered us." And his bedding looked as if it had been singed with fire, but the demons vanished like a smoke. Thus the brother learned something of their wiles.
V.xi. 52. A certain old man in Scete was dying and his brothers stood around his bed and covered him with a garment and began to weep. He however, opened his eyes and laughed, and laughed again, and then a third time. When they saw this the brothers said, "Tell us, father, why do you laugh while we are weeping?" And he said to them, "I laughed the first time because you are frightened of death, the second time because you are not prepared for it, and the third time because after my labours I am now going to my rest, and you are weeping." Having said this he straitway closed his eyes in death.
V.xi. 53. A brother once came to one of the fathers and said that he was troubled by his thoughts. And the old man said, "You have cast away a stout staff tipped with iron, that is the fear of God, and have picked up a flimsy reed, that is evil thoughts. Take some fire, then, which is the fear of God, and then when evil thoughts like flimsy reeds come near you they will be burned in the fire of the fear of God, for the evil one will not prevail against those who have the fear of God."
V.xi. 54. One of the fathers said, "You can't love unless you first of all hate. For unless you hate sin you can't love righteousness, as it is written, 'Flee from evil and do the thing that is good.' (Psalm 37.27) Truly in everything and everywhere this commandment is required of your soul. Adam in paradise disobeyed the commandment of God; Job sitting in ashes obeyed. It follows therefore that God requires us to cleave to his commandments at all times.
Libellus 12 Prayer without ceasing
V.xii. 1. It was said of abba Arsenius that at sunset after the lighting of lamps at Saturday Vespers he would stretch out his hands to heaven in prayer until the sun rising on Sunday morning lit up his face. And then he would sit.
V.xii. 2. The brothers asked abba Agathon, "Father, What is the most important work in our way of life?" And he replied, "May I be allowed to say that there is no work like the work of prayer to God. When anyone decides to pray to God the demons always rush in to try and break up that prayer, knowing that nothing is a greater obstacle for them than prayer poured out to God. In every other sort of work which a religious person takes on, however important and lengthy it is, there does come a time to enjoy a rest from it, but the work of prayer must needs be a great battle until your very last breath."
V.xii. 3. Abba Dulas the disciple of abba Besarion said, "Once I went into his cell and found him standing at prayer with his hands stretched out to heaven, and he remained steadfastly in this position for fourteen days. After this he called me and said 'Follow me,' and led me out into the desert. When I told him I had got thirsty he took off his sheepskin and went off about a stone's throw and prayed. He came back with his sheepskin full of water. When we arrived at the city of Lyco we visited abba John, and after greeting each other we prayed. Then we sat down and they began to speak of the visions they had seen. Abba Besarion said, 'A command went out from the Lord that the temples should be destroyed, and it was done; they were destroyed.'"
V.xii. 4. Abba Evagrius said, "If you start to weaken in resolve, pray. But pray with fear and trembling, work at it seriously and vigilantly. You must pray like this because the hostile and invisible enemy is wickedly tempting us to evil, and above all tries to hinder our prayer."
V.xii. 5. Again he said, "When contrary thoughts come into your head, don't seek in prayer to drive them out by other thoughts. Wield the sword of tears against the one who is attacking you."
V.xii. 6. Epiphanius the bishop of Cyprus was urged by the abbot of his monastery in Palestine not to neglect the rule of observing carefully the third, sixth, ninth and evening hours of prayer. But he rebuked the abbot and said, "You may have decided not to pray during the other hours, but a true monk ought never to cease from prayer, or to sing psalms in his heart."
V.xii. 7. Abba Isaias said, "When the presbyter at Pelusium was celebrating an agape and the brothers were eating and talking among themselves, he rebuked them saying, 'Hush, brothers, for I perceive that the prayer of one of the brothers eating with you is rising up in the sight of God like fire.'"
V.xii. 8. Abba Lot came to abba Joseph and said, "Father, to the best of my ability I keep my little rule, and fast a little and pray and think and sit still, and to the best of my ability I try to purge my thoughts. What else should I do?" The old man rose and stretched out his hands to heaven and his fingers became like ten flames of fire. And he said, "If you will you can become like fire all through."
V.xii. 9. Abba Luke was visited once by some monks known as "euchitae", that is "pray-ers", and he asked them, "What manual work do you do?" And they replied, "We don't have anything to do with manual work, but pray without ceasing as the Apostle said." (1 Thess.5.17). "You don't eat then?" the old man asked. "Of course we eat", they said. "Who prays for you when you are eating, then?" he asked. "And don't you sleep at all?" "Yes, we do sleep," was the reply. "And who prays for you while you are asleep?" he asked. And they didn't know what to say in answer. "I'm sorry, brothers, but your deeds don't match your words. Now let me show you how to pray without ceasing while doing manual work. With God's help I sit here soaking palm leaves to make plaits and I say, 'Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness, and according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offences.' (Psalm 51.1) Is that prayer or not?" "Well, yes, it is," they said. "After I have stayed here all day," he said, "praying either silently or aloud, I have earned about sixteen coins. Two of them I place outside the door, and the rest I keep to buy food. Whoever takes those two coins prays for me while I am eating or sleeping, and thus by the grace of God I fulfil what is written, 'Pray without ceasing'"
V.xii. 10. Abba Macarius was asked how we ought to pray and the old man said, "There is no need for many words in our prayer. Just stretch out your hands from time to time and say, 'Lord as you will and as you know, have mercy upon me.' And if conflict arises in your heart say, 'Help'. And because he knows your needs he will have mercy upon you."
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