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Apophthegmata Patrum: Sayings of the Desert Fathers, part I

In the 300s and 400s in Egypt, a number of men and women decided to live in the desert in order to escape the busyness of life and to focus on God. This was the beginning of the monastic (or monk) movement. Some lived singly in caves, while others built houses and lived in small communities. A number of teachings and sayings of these spiritual leaders have been passed down in what is known as the Apophthegmata Patrum, or Sayings of the Desert Fathers. This column will share some of these. (These sayings are each around 1600 years old. Also, the word "Abba" is used, which means "Father.")

1. Abba Poemen used to say, "A man will be always tripped up by that thing which he will not cut off from himself."

2. Abba John said, "If a king wishes to subdue a city belonging to enemies, he first of all keeps them without bread and water, and the enemy being in this way harassed by hunger becomes subject unto him; and thus it is in respect of the passions, for if a man endures fasting and hunger regularly, his enemies become stricken with weakness in the soul."

3. A certain brother was estranged from a fellow monk, and he came to Abba Sisoes the Theban, and said to him, "I am estranged from a fellow monk, and I wish to take vengeance for myself;" and the old man said, "Let us pray." And while he was praying, he said in his prayer, "O God, from now on we have no need of You to take care of us, for we will take vengeance for ourselves;" and when the brother heard these words he fell down at the feet of the old man and said unto him, "From now on I will not enter into judgment with that brother." And so Abba Sisoes healed that brother.

4. One of the old men used to say, "The Prophets compiled the Scriptures, and the [Desert] Fathers have copied them, and the men who came after them learned to repeat them by heart; then came this generation and its children have placed them in cupboards as useless things."

5. Abba Poemen used to say, "Teach your heart to keep that which your tongue teaches."

6. Certain of the old men went to Abba Poemen, and said unto him, "Do you wish us if we see brothers sleeping in the congregation, to hit them so that they wake up?" And he said unto them, "If I see my brother sleeping, I place his head upon my knees, and I give him a place to rest upon."

7. A certain brother committed an offense in Scete, the camp of the monks, and when a congregation was assembled on this matter, they sent after Abba Moses, but he refused to come; then they sent the priest of the church to him, saying, "Come, for all the people are expecting you," and he rose up and came. And he took a basket with a hole in it and filled it with sand, and carried it upon his shoulders, and those who went out to meet him said unto him, "What does this mean, O father?" And he said unto them, "It is my sins which are running down behind me and I cannot see them, and I, even I, have come this day to judge shortcomings which are not mine." And when they heard this they set free that brother and said nothing further to him.

2004 Mark Nickens

Questions/comments contact Mark at drnickens@triad.rr.com.

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