The Wisdom and Stories of the Ancient Desert Fathers

A certain elder, who was asked by the brothers what condemnation is and what it means to speak ill of another, gave the following explanation:

"In the case of speaking ill of someone, one reveals the hidden faults of his brother. In the case of condemnation, one censures something obvious. On the one hand, if someone were to say, for example, that such-and-such a brother is well-intentioned and kind, but lacks discretion, this would be to speak ill of him. If, however one were to say that so-and-so is greedy and miserly, this is condemnation, for in this way he censures his neighbor's deeds. Condemnation is worse than speaking ill of another."

* * *

A young monk went to consult a certain spiritual elder.

"I fulfill all of my monastic duties," he told him, "and then some; nevertheless, my soul finds no peace. I receive no consolation from God."

"You live according to your own will - for this reason all of these things occur to you," the elder explained to him.

"What must I do, then, Abba, to be at peace?"

"Go find an elder having the fear of God in his soul. Surrender yourself to him in all that he wishes and let him guide you, as he sees fit, to the path of God. Then your soul will find consolation."

The youth listened to the elder's advice and his soul found peace.

* * *

A modern elder said: "Any man who thinks that he can solve his own problems is like a bird which intends to fly without wings."

* * *

An inexperienced monk consulted a certain insightful elder regarding what rule of fasting he should follow.

"Avoid excesses, my child," he advised him. "Many have tried to fast beyond their powers and did not endure for very long."

* * *

A young monk, going down from the skete to the city, passed by the but of Abba Ammoun and confessed to him: "My elder, Abba, is sending me to the city on an errand. I, however, who am a man of weakness, fear temptation."

"Be obedient," the holy man advised him, "and if temptation should arise before you, say these words: 'O God of powers, through the intercession of my spiritual Father, deliver me.'"

The brother took courage from the words of the Abba and went immediately about his duty. The devil, however, who had been biding his time to bring harm to the monk, sent a woman of evil ways hastily to entrap him in her evil den. In his despair, the monk suddenly remembered the advice of Abba Ammoun and shouted with faith: "O God of powers, through the intercession of my spiritual Father, deliver me."

He then found himself, without knowing how, on the road that led to the desert.

* * *

The following is an excerpt from a letter of Saint Basil the Great to a certain noble patrician:

"It is good and profitable to communicate everyday and to partake of the holy Body and Blood of Christ, for He Himself tells us: 'Whoever eats my Body and drinks my Blood has eternal life!' Who, then, doubts that partaking continually of life means nothing other than having manifold life? We, here, have the custom of communicating four times a week; namely, Sunday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, or any other day on which the memory of a Saint falls."

"It is not wise," Abba Isaias the Anchorite writes, "for anyone to know how to converse masterfully. Wisdom is to know when to talk and what to say. Appear to be ignorant, in order to save yourselves many pains. He who thinks himself very learned has many fruitless worries. Do not boast of great learning, for the things which you do not know are more than those which you have learned."

* * *

A holy archbishop in our own times gave the following advice to a young monk regarding the monastic style he should follow:

"Seek humility at all costs. Those who have attained the highest degree of humility are the 'fools for Christ,' who, in order to hide their great spiritual gifts, let others believe that they are fools. But in these days, when arrogance is epidemic, there are many who, if they try this monastic path, will become proud in being fools. It is too easy for Satan to make their hidden motives public. And there is always the temptation for the fool to disclose his monastic style or podvig to a few, in order to release himself from this hard path. I would, therefore, advise anyone who wishes to undertake this path to do it in an even deeper way. Do foolish things, but be ever so obvious, so that others perceive that you are pretending foolishness. In this way you will be judged as spiritually naive and deluded. Everyone will curse you. And you will have succeeded in the very thing to which the 'fools' of times past aspired. At every moment you must know that the warfare of the devil against the monk is especially strong today."

* * *

"However much you may toil in scattering seed on the path that you walk on, not a green leaf will grow. As well, as much as you labor to cultivate a heart weighed-down with worldly cares, you toil in vain; it is impossible to foster virtues there. For this reason the Fathers chose to leave the world," a certain Abba says.

"When the Hebrews ceased being occupied with labors for the Egyptians, and lived in tents, they learned to worship God," said a wise Father. "And ships do business and make profits in the harbor, not on the open seas. It is the same with the soul; if it does not cease being occupied with worldly things and does not stay in a quiet place, it neither finds God nor acquires virtues."

* * *

"True escape from the world is for a person to know how to control his tongue, wherever he might be," Abba Tithoes said.

* * *

A young disciple, seeing his elder frequently withdraw deep into the desert, asked him with perplexity: "Why, Abba, do you avoid people? Is it not of greater value when, staying in the world and facing evil and sin, one abhors them?"

"Listen, my child," the kind elder explained to him: "Until one reaches the stature of Moses, becoming deified, he receives no profit from his relations with the world. I, the unfortunate offspring of Adam, suffer frequently that which my father suffered. The moment I behold the fruit of my disobedience, I desire it, I taste it, and I suffer. In the desert, one does not easily find material things to feed the passions and they are, therefore, more likely to die."

One of the Fathers at a certain skete had the gift of clairvoyance. When a gathering (monastic council) took place and the Fathers discussed spiritual matters, he would see angels around him, applauding them. When the discussion turned to worldly matters, the angels withdrew, saddened.

* * *

It was often said of Abba Or by his fellow ascetics that neither a falsehood nor an oath ever came out of his mouth. He never judged another man, nor was he at any time heard to speak, unless it was absolutely necessary.

To his young disciple he used to say: "Take great care, Paul, never to bring outside talk to this cell."

* * *

"With what difficulty I work to control my tongue," a young monk agitatedly said one day to Abba Nistheros.

"When you talk, do you find peace?"


"Then why do you talk? Learn to be silent. When it is a matter of something of profit, it is better to listen to others than to speak," the wise elder advised him.

* * *

"He who has learned to be silent has found peace in all things." Abba Poimen likewise says.

* * *

"If you succeed in having God always before you eyes," another Father says, "whether you are lying down to sleep, or rising from your bed, or doing some kind of work, the devil will not dare to harm you. The grace of God will protect you, to the extent that your mind is united with Him."

"What wretches we are," laments one elder. "We are ashamed to commit some evil act before men, but we are not afraid or ashamed to act impiously and to sin before God, who knows all of the hidden things of our hearts."

* * *

A certain holy elder once saw the devil with his own eyes and he boldly asked him: "Why do you battle me with such persistence?"

"Because you resist me continuously with your humility," the devil answered, becoming invisible.

* * *

Just as Saint Makarios was returning to his cell one day, loaded down with palm leaves for his handicraft work, the devil stopped him, ready to assault him; but he could not. Some invincible force prevented him.

"You have tormented me a great deal, Makarios," the devil shouted at him fiercely. "I have battled you so many years and yet I cannot pull you down. But what more have you accomplished than I? Perhaps fasting? I, of course, do not eat. Vigils? I do not even need sleep. You have only one threat that frightens me."

"What is that?" the Saint asked with great interest.

"Humility," he unwillingly acknowledged, disappearing.

* * *

"Why does the devil battle monks so passionately?" the brothers asked a spiritual elder. "How does he have such effrontery?"

"If the monks knew immediately how to raise defensive weapons - humility, poverty, and patience - the devil would never dare to approach them," the elder replied.

* * *

In the last moments of his life, Abba Pambo said these words to the brothers, who surrounded him: "From the time that I became a monk, not even once did I not repent for the words that came out of my mouth. Nevertheless, now that I am going to my Lord, I realize that I have not even made a beginning."

* * *

"Why, Abba, do today's monks, though they toil, not receive the same gifts from God that the ancient Fathers received?" a certain brother asked an elder.

"In ancient times," the venerable elder replied, "there was love between the monks, and each one showed readiness to aid his brother in ascending to higher things. Now love has grown cold and one monk leads another to lower things, and for this reason God no longer grants spiritual gifts."

* * *

Abba John, who was the Abbot of a large monastery in Egypt, once went deep into the desert to meet Saint Paisios, the renowned ascetic, who had struggled alone there for a full forty years.

"What have you accomplished, living so far from people, Father?" Abba John asked him.

"From the time I came here, the sun has never seen me eat," replied the Saint.

"As for me, it has never seen me angry," the Abba said.

* * *

The Patriarch Theophilos of Alexandria once set out to go visit the ascetics at Nitria. On the road, he met an elderly ascetic.

"What have you gained, Abba, living in this solitude?" the Patriarch asked.

"I have come to know myself well," the elder answered, "and I have learned to reproach myself."

"It is impossible for a man to attain any greater profit than this in his life," the Patriarch acknowledged.

When he reached the skete, the Fathers came out to greet him, and each found some word to say to him. Only the holy Pambo stood out of the way, silent.

"Are you not going to say anything to the Patriarch for his benefit?" the elders asked.

"If he does not benefit from my silence, brothers, neither will he benefit from my words," answered the wise Father.

* * *

"Many people," a modern spiritual writer says, "have the virtue of humility in some circumstances. They then succumb to a supposed demand of their social stature or profession and, under the guise of 'social necessity' or 'professionalism,' become arrogant in other circumstances. This is much like mixing soil and water in a container. When the container is untouched and at rest, the soil will settle and the water will remain sweet. But if the container is agitated, then the water and the soil are mixed and become mud. The mud then dries, the water evaporates, and only soil is left. Thus only a person of true peace, incapable of agitation, can actually maintain humble virtue, meanwhile tolerating in himself any ostensibly worldly behavior."

* * *

Yet another spiritual man of our time has said: "When we look down upon any man, because of his color, nationality, or some other shallow thing, we destroy our own souls. Since we are one with all men in Christ, we condemn ourselves when we condemn others. And since the Holy Spirit dwells in all people, when we denigrate anyone for what he is, we blaspheme the Holy Spirit, which indwells him. It is wise for a man, therefore, to avoid anyone who speaks against others because of the color of their skin or because of any other external attribute which God has given them."

* * *

"My dog," Abba Isidoros once said, "is in a more advantageous position than I; for, he has love and he does not have to give a defense for his deeds."

* * *

"I, too, will go to the place to which the devil will be condemned," Abba Poimen said, humbling himself.

Another time he said: "Man needs humility and the fear of God as much as he needs the air which he breathes."

On another occasion, he said: "The most useful tools for the soul are humility, self-reprobation, and disdain for one's own will."

* * *

The devil appeared to a very humble monk as an angel of light and told him, in order to pull him down into arrogance: "I am Gabriel and I came to salute you, for you have many virtues and are worthy."

"Look, you must have made a mistake," the humble monk answered, without losing his composure. "I am still living in sin, and for this reason I am not worthy to see angels."

* * *

In modern times, a novice told his elder: "I am especially prepared for spiritual life, since my family has a history of mystical gifts."

The elder said, "Apparently the only thing that your family has inherited is the condemning pride of Adam. This is the legacy they have left you."

* * *

A certain Christian man went to consult Abba Silouan.

"I have a deadly enemy, Father," he confessed. "The evils which he has brought upon me are innumerable. A short time ago he gained a large piece of my land by deceit. He slanders me wherever he is and he speaks ill of both me and my family. He has made my life unbearable. Now, finally, he is even plotting to take my life. A few days ago, I learned that he attempted to poison me. But he is not getting away with anything else. I have decided to hand him over to the law."

"Do as you like," Abba Silouan told him with indifference.

"Do you not think, Father, that when he is punished, and especially severely, as he should be, his soul will be saved?" asked the man, who was now beginning to show concern for the welfare of his enemy's soul.

"Do whatever gives you peace," the Saint continued to say, with the same air.

"I am going straight to the judge, then," the Christian said, getting up to leave.

"Do not hurry off so," the Saint told him calmly. "Let us first pray for God to bring success on your action."

He began the "Our Father."

"And do not forgive us our trespasses, as we do not forgive those who trespass against us," he heard the Saint saying in a loud voice, as if making an error in this verse.

"You made an error, Abba. The Lord's Prayer is not said that way," the Christian hastened to correct him.

"Nevertheless, that is the way it is," the elder answered in all of his impassivity. "Inasmuch as you have decided to hand over your brother to the court, Silouan is offering no other prayer."

* * *

A young monk went to Abba Theodoros of Fermi, to tell him his troubles.

"In the world, Abba, I fasted a great deal, I held frequent vigils, I had tears and contrition in my prayers, and I had in my heart a great passion for every act pleasing to God. Here in the desert I have lost all of these things, and I fear that I will not save my soul."

"That which you did in the world, my son," the wise elder said to him, "was nothing more than a work of vanity, for human praise. God did not accept it. There in the world, the devil did not battle you, nor did he impede your eagerness, since it brought you no profit. Now, however, that you are more decisively enlisted in the army of our Christ, the devil, too, has armed himself against you. You must learn that one psalm said with humility here in the desert is more pleasing to the Lord than the thousands that you said there with vanity; moreover, He receives more gratefully the one day of fasting that you do here secretly than the many entire weeks of fasting that you did in front of others in the world."

"I do nothing now," insisted the youth. "I was better there."

"It is arrogance," Abba Theodoros sternly told him, "that you still think you were better in the world. The Pharisee in the parable of Jesus had the same opinion of himself, and he was censured. Say, my child, that you have never accomplished any good. It is in this way that the tax collector was justified. The sinner, with a broken heart and humble thoughts, is more pleasing to God than a proudly virtuous man."

The elder's lesson, replete with practical experience, brought the young monk to his senses.

As he was saying farewell and leaving, he told him, "Thanks to you, Abba, I have saved my soul."

* * *

A certain elder was asked when one attains humility. "When he remembers his sins continuously," he replied.

* * *

"As the ground on which we walk has no fear of falling," a certain elder said, "so is the humble man."

* * *

Abba Agathon was asked how one manifests sincere love towards his neighbor, and that blessed one, who had attained the queen of the virtues to a perfect degree, answered: "Love is for me to find a leper and gladly to give him my body, and, if possible, to take his."

* * *

"The ancient Fathers," a certain elder said, "when their spiritual work became known to others, saw this not as a virtue, but as a sin."

* * *

"If you are troubled by evil spirits," another Father advises, "reveal them in confession, so as to be released from them quickly. Just as a snake is destroyed as soon as it comes out of its burrow, so an evil thought comes to ruin as soon as it is openly expressed.

"A brother was tormented by carnal desire. For many years, he labored alone, but saw no profit to himself. Finally, in order to conquer his passion, he stood in the middle of the church one Sunday after Liturgy and said loudly, so that all the monks could hear: 'Pray for me, brothers, that God may have mercy on me, because for fourteen whole years I have warred against the flesh.'

"Saying these things, he felt immediately freed from the passion. What he could not do with years of toil and asceticism, confession accomplished in one moment."

* * *

One modern bishop is so accomplished in obedience that, before he celebrates the Divine Liturgy, he venerates the relics of his elder, contained in the cap of his episcopal walking stick, and asks his blessing to serve. His years of obedience to his spiritual father, who was a simple monk with no priestly orders, have never ceased, even with his elder's death.

* * *

Another holy bishop in our day confided to a monk that, when his spiritual children kiss his hand, he imagines himself under their feet.

* * *

A present-day monk, lamenting the spiritual poverty of the modern age, said that the greatest sin of all is that today we receive the words of the desert Fathers as beautiful rhetoric, yet never heed or live them.

Translated by the V. Rev. Chrysostomos

Source: https://www.goarch.org/-/the-ancient-fathers-of-the-desert-section-7