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The Paradise Of The Holy Fathers Volumes 1 and 2 by Saint Athanasius Of Alexandria

FROM the Histories related by Palladius and by the author of The History of the Monks we can gain a very clear idea of the manner of the lives of the solitary dwellers in the desert and of those who dwelt in monasteries. The first thing to be done by the man who determined to become an ascetic was to flee from the world, that is to say, to forsake the habitation of men, and to avoid all intercourse with men, and especially with women. At first the strong-willed man left his town or village, and seeking out a lonely spot in the desert or mountains took up his abode there. Later, when men like Anthony, and Paul, and Ammon lived in the desert, the man who would be a monk joined their followers, and learned from them the fundamental principles of the ascetic life. Those who, for various reasons, felt themselves unequal to the labours of the solitary life, remained in the company of their fellow-monks, and usually lived blameless lives until they died. The solitary dweller, having chosen his place of abode, at once began to eat sparingly with the view of reducing the strength of the passions of his body, and he drank nothing but water. Those who lived in the mountains and near the river had little difficulty in obtaining water, but many of them lived at considerable distances from a stream or well, and deliberately made the task of obtaining a supply of water as difficult as possible. The chief article of food of the solitaries was bread made in the form of thin cakes; many of them ate these dry, but some soaked them, or dipped them in water first. When one father asked another if he would not dip his bread-cake in water, his companion replied, “When a possession increaseth set not thy heart upon it” (Vol. II, p. 18). Abbâ Isaac, the priest of the Cells, ate the ashes of the censer which was before the altar with his bread (Vol. II, p. 18), and another father used to make the Sign of the Cross over his food instead of mixing oil with it (Vol. II, p. 23). A monk usually ate bread and salt once a day, in the evening, but some only ate every second day, others every third or fourth day, and men of might often fasted for a week at a time. Moderate men thought it best for a man to eat a very little bread each day. A limited number of monks never ate bread at all, for they agreed with Theodotus, who said, “Abstinence from bread quieteth the body of a monk” (Vol. II, p. 21). And Poemen said, “The soul can be humbled by nothing except thou make it feeble by eating bread” (Vol. II, p. 22). Some monks never ate bread at all, others ate nothing else, and the former lived upon vegetables and fruit, and, when they could find it, wild honey. The greater number of the monks “cooked with fire,” that is, boiled their vegetables, and the rest ate them dried. One stern monk advised a brother who consulted him about monastic comforts, to “Eat grass, wear grass, and sleep on grass,” adding, “then thy heart will become like iron” (Vol. II, p. 17). A counsel of this kind could be followed but by few, but there are recorded some cases in which monks actually lived on grass. Thus a certain monk went a journey of three days into the desert, and looking down from a rock he saw an old man “grazing like the beasts”; he went down and gave chase to him, and when he came up with him he asked him to “speak a word.” The old man replied, “Flee from the children of men, keep silence, and thou shalt live” (Vol. I, p. 236). Elsewhere we read of another monk who fed on grass by the Jordan (Vol. I, p. 239).

The rule of Pachomius permitted monks to eat when they pleased, and to a limited degree what they pleased, but the solitaries were very strict in the matter of food. Isidore never took a full meal seated comfortably at a table, and flesh he never ate; Dorotheos lived on dry bread; Macarius the Alexandrian for seven years ate no boiled food, and lived on herbs and vegetables which had been soaked in water, and for a long period his daily allowance of bread was four or five ounces, and of water he only drank enough to enable him to eat his bread. During the Lenten fast his only food was a few cabbage leaves which he ate each Sunday. For fifteen years Ptolemy of the “Klimax” in Nitria drank nothing but the dew which he collected in sponges during the months of December and January each year. The solitaries who passed their nights in prayer and contemplation, and their days in plaiting palm-leaf mats, needed less food than the monks who lived in monasteries and performed hard manual labour. Sometimes they were so much occupied in repeating the Psalms that they forgot their food altogether; at other times they fought against their inclination to eat, and their hunger left them (Vol. II, p. 17).

As to the use of wine various views were held. Macarius the Egyptian liked wine, but if he drank one cup he would not drink water for a whole day afterwards. Paphnutius drank a cup of wine to escape death at the hand of a robber chief. Sisoes would drink two cups, but always refused the third, saying, “The third cupful is of Satan.” One old man handed back his cup of wine to the brethren, saying, “Take away this death from me”; and Poemen said, “The nature of wine is not such as to make it useful to the dwellers in monasteries.” Abbâ Abraham only thought three cups of wine too much to drink because Satan existed. Solitaries and coenobites alike agreed that, “As the body groweth the soul becometh weak; the more the body becometh emaciated, the more the soul groweth” (Vol. II, p. 22).

Of the clothing worn by the solitaries little is said in the Book Paradise, but we are justified in assuming that it was small in quantity. Some, like Anthony, wore leather tunics, and others rough, untanned skins of goats, with the hair next their skin. Large numbers of them possessed no clothing except loin-clothes, and many went naked. Macarius says (Vol. I, p. 234) that he saw two naked monks, one an Egyptian and the other a Libyan, who had lived with the beasts for forty years; they told him that they were not burnt up in the summer and that in the winter they did not freeze. Another naked old man was seen grazing like the beasts, and he had lived so long in the desert that he could not endure the smell of man (Vol. I, p. 235). Another old man had lived naked near the Red Sea for thirty years, and his hair had grown so long during this period that it covered him (Vol. I, p. 237). The dwellers in monasteries were better clad, and from the Rule of Pachomius we know that they wore skull-caps, and slept in a kind of shirt which was without sleeves. The solitaries and some other kinds of monks wore cloths over their heads, which served the double purpose of preventing them from seeing the faces of their fellows, and of keeping off the keen winds from their faces. In places where the monks worked at the weaving of flax, they, no doubt, wore garments made of linen. The coverings of their beds were pieces of coarse linen, or, as in the case of Anthony, the skin of a sheep or goat. Some monks possessed cloaks.

The beds of the monks who lay down to sleep were mats made of plaited palm leaves.

It is laid down over and over again in The Sayings of the Fathers that a man is kept from sin by three things: flight from men, silence, and contemplation. Arsenius said that the sound of the twittering of a sparrow would prevent a monk from acquiring repose of heart, and the rustling of the wind in the reeds made it absolutely impossible (Vol. II, p. 4). Poemen told a brother that he did not learn to shut a door of wood, but the door of the tongue (Vol. I, p. 7), and when a brother asked Macarius how it was possible for them to flee further than the desert they were in, he laid his hand upon his mouth, and said, “Flee in this manner” (Vol. II, p. 11). “Lay hold on silence,” “Keep silence,” were sayings that were always in the mouths of the old men; and Poemen said, “A monk’s victory is only assured when he holdeth his peace” (Vol. II, p. 13). Agathon only learned to keep silent by holding a stone in his mouth for three years (Vol. II, p. 16).

Almost as important for the monk as keeping silent was dwelling in the cell. “Eat, drink, sleep, and toil not, but on no account go out of thy cell,” was the advice of Arsenius to a brother (Vol. II, p. 5); and Sarmâtâ said to a brother, “Sit thou in thy cell, and whatsoever thou canst do, that do, and trouble not thyself.” Anthony said, “As a fish dieth when it is taken out from the water, so doth the monk who tarrieth outside his cell” (Vol. II, p. 8). He also said, “The cell of a monk is the furnace of Babylon wherein the Three Children found the Son of God, and it is also the pillar of cloud wherefrom God spake with Moses” (Vol. II, p. 14).

The monk who sat in his cell and kept silent was enabled to pass his waking hours in the contemplation of spiritual matters, and this occupation was held to be of the highest importance. By meditating upon the dealings of God with man as exhibited in the histories of the saints given in the Old and New Testaments, the monk was enabled to apply their spiritual lessons to his own needs and circumstances, and to correct his thoughts and to make his deeds harmonize with those of the prophets. The time not spent in contemplation was devoted to the reading and learning of the Scriptures, and to prayer. If the monk ceased his contemplation the devils at once entered his cell, and one old man actually saw a devil standing outside the door of a brother’s cell, and waiting until he ceased his contemplation; when he did so the devil was able to enter (Vol. II, p. 24). When a monk read the Divine Books the devils were afraid (Vol. II, p. 24). The principal work of the prudent monk was “constant prayer”; he was taught to pray “in his heart, or in a carefully prepared service, or in that service which he performed with his will and understanding” (Vol. II, p. 27). He was to speak to God in a quiet voice and say, “Lord, Thou knowest full well that I am a beast, and that I know nothing. O Lord, by Thy Will vivify Thou me” (Vol. II, p. 27). A certain monk prayed always, and each evening he found bread in his cell for his evening meal; when he joined in manual labour with another monk no bread appeared in his cell. To him a voice said, “Whilst thou occupiedst thyself in converse with Me, I fed thee; but now thou hast begun to work thou must demand thy food from the labour of thy hands” (Vol. II, p. 30). The prayers of the brethren formed a “glorious pillar of brilliant light which reached from the place where the brethren were congregated to the heavens” (Vol. II, p. 30).

The strenuous monk slept little, and Arsenius used to say that one hour’s sleep was sufficient for him. Arsenius prayed from sunset on Saturday to sunrise on Sunday, and Pachomius tried to do without sleep altogether. For fifteen years he and Abbâ John snatched a little sleep after their all-night vigils, as they sat in the middle of their cell, without leaning against a wall (Vol. II, p. 25). Abbâ Sisoes, to drive away sleep, used to stand all night on the precipitous peak of a mountain, to fall from which in a moment of unconsciousness meant certain death. The angel of the Lord, however, removed him from the peak, and forbade him to stand there again (Vol. II, p. 26).

The accompaniments of true prayer were mourning and weeping, mourning for the crucifixion of our Lord, and weeping for sins committed and general unworthiness. Muthues said, “Weep and mourn, for the time hath come,” and Ammon said, “Laugh not, O brother, for if thou dost, thou wilt drive the fear of God from thy soul.” Paul sank in the mire up to his neck, and he wept before God, and said, “Have mercy on me.” Isidore sat in his cell and wept always, and Poemen said, “He who weepeth not for himself in this world must weep for ever in the next,” and “There is no other path except that of tears.” And Macarius thought that the words “Flee from men” meant, “Sit in thy cell and weep for thy sins” (Vol. II, pp. 31–34).

The poverty of the monk was absolute. Serapion saw a hollow in a wall in a monk’s cell filled with books, and he said, “That which belongeth to the orphans and widows thou hast laid up in a hole in the wall.” Theodore of Parmê had three books, and he sold them and gave the proceeds to the poor. An old man took off his garment, and standing up, said, “A monk must be as destitute of this world’s goods as I am of clothing.” When Arsenius lived in Scete his apparel was inferior to that of everyone else, and a monk’s apparel ought to be so worthless that if it were cast outside his cell for three days no man would consider it worth taking away. A monk once came to the church of the Cells wearing a head-cloth, and Abbâ Isaac said, “Monks dwell here, but thou art a man in the world, and canst not live here.” Nastîr was ready to give away all his apparel, for he was certain that God would give him something wherewith to cover his body (Vol. II, pp. 35–40).

The virtue most cultivated, and, perhaps, the most admired by the monks themselves, was patient endurance. Agathon bore quietly every accusation except that of being a heretic. When thieves came to plunder the cell of Macarius he helped them in their work, so little did he love possessions; and when thieves were robbing the cell of another brother, he said, “Haste, be quick, before the brethren come” (Vol. II, p. 43). Another brother, when attacked in his cell by evil-doers, brought a basin and entreated them to wash their feet; the thieves were ashamed and repented. Abbâ John nursed Ammon for twelve years, and abated nothing of his own great labours (Vol. II, p. 44). Twelve brethren were led out of their road for a whole night by a brother who had lost the way, but none of them thought it right to tell him. Arsenius changed the water in which he soaked the palm leaves only twice each year, and endured its foul smell in return for the scents and oils which he had enjoyed when he was in the world (Vol. II, p. 46). Through the agency of Satan a monk went blind; he did not pray that his sight might be restored, but only that he might be able to bear his trial patiently (Vol. II, p. 48). “What shall I do?” cried a brother to an old man, and the answer he received was, “Go and learn to love putting restraint upon thyself in everything” (Vol. II, p. 51). “Bear everything, endure everything from every man, except any attempt to separate thee from God,” said Poemen.

Obedience was another virtue which the monks cultivated. Abbâ Paule told his disciple Abbâ John to go into a tomb wherein was a savage panther, and bring out some things, and when John asked what he was to do with the panther, Paule said, “Tie him up, and bring him here.” Though horribly afraid John did as he was told, and brought out the panther (Vol. II, p. 52). Mark the Scribe, on hearing his master’s call, left his copying with the letter “O” unfinished. A life of obedience is better than a life of voluntary poverty, and once when a monk famed for obedience stood up in the river among many crocodiles the creatures “worshipped him” (Vol. II, p. 54). Sisoes told a man who wanted to become a monk to throw his only son into the river, and the man went and was about to do so, when a messenger from the holy man told him not to do so; the man obeyed and, through his obedience, “became a chosen monk.” “Obedience begetteth obedience,” said the Abbâ of Îlîû, and “If a man obeyeth God, God will obey him” (Vol. II, p. 55).

Above all things a monk was ordered to watch his thoughts, words, and deeds, and especially his thoughts. The desert shut a man from the sights and sounds of the world, and from speech with men, but it could not save him from his thoughts. “I have died to the world,” said one brother, and his friend replied, “Though thou sayest, I have died to the world, Satan is not dead” (Vol. II, p. 59). Any thought which filled the heart with pride or vainglory was to be regarded as fornication (Vol. II, p. 77). Paphnutius said, “A monk is bound to keep not only his body pure, but his soul free from unclean thoughts” (Vol. II, p. 86).

To each other and to all men the monks were bound to show love and charity, and to entertain strangers was one of their first duties. On one occasion two brethren visited an old man, and he gave them his daily portion of food and fasted himself (Vol. II, p. 90). A certain brother had a woman in his cell, and the monks wished to bring the matter home to him. Bishop Ammon knew of this, and going into the cell he made the woman get under a large earthenware jar, and then took his seat upon it. At his order the monks searched the cell and did not find the woman, and when they had all gone out Ammon said to the erring brother, “Take heed to thy soul” (Vol. II, p. 92). Macarius once visited a sick monk, and when he asked him if he wanted anything to eat, the brother replied, “Yes, I want some honey-cakes.” Thereupon Macarius set out for Alexandria, which was sixty miles distant, and brought back the sweetmeats and gave them to the monk (Vol. II, p. 92). Theodore was wont to make his own bread, and one day finding at the bakery a brother who did not know how to make bread, made bread for that brother and for two others, and last of all for himself (Vol. II, p. 93). Another holy man entreated God to let the devil which vexed his companion come to him; his prayer was answered, and the evil spirit departed after a few days (Vol. II, p. 95). When Agathon went into the city to sell his work one day, he found a stranger lying sick in the market with none to care for him. He hired a room and lived in the city for four months, and spent what he earned in nursing the sick man, and when he was healed he returned to his cell (Vol. II, p. 98). A brother once admired a small knife which Agathon had, and the holy man did not let him depart until he had taken it. “If I see a brother asleep in church I place his head on my knees, and I give him a place to rest upon,” said Poemen. A brother said, “And what dost thou say unto God?” Poemen replied, “I say: Thou Thyself hast said, First of all pluck the beam out of thine own eye, and thou wilt be able to see to take out the mote which is in the eye of thy brother” (Vol. II, p. 103).

With the cultivation of patient endurance grew humility, and this virtue was esteemed very highly by the monks, for the devils told Anthony that humility made a man to escape from the snares of the Evil One, because they could not attain to it, pride being their chief characteristic. A monk when praised should always think upon his sins and say, “I am unworthy of the things which are said about me” (Vol. II, p. 108). “The greatness of a man consisteth of humility,” said a holy man; and Abbâ John used to say, “We relinquish a light burden when we condemn ourselves.” A monk once fasted for seventy weeks, and his labour did not reach God, but because he humbled himself afterwards the Lord came and gave him rest (Vol. II, p. 110). “Be humble in word and in “deed,” said another old man.” Abbâ Longinus described himself to an old woman whom he healed of cancer, but who did not know him by sight, as a “lying hypocrite,” and, praying that our Lord would heal her, told her that Longinus, who was a liar, could do her no good whatsoever (Vol. II, p. 111). Abbâ John said that humility was the most excellent of the virtues (Vol. II, p. 113), and another old man said, “Humility is salted with salt” (Vol. II, p. 113). Abbâ John, through his humility, “held all Scete suspended on his finger” (Vol. II, p. 116). “The perfection of a monk is humility,” said one old man, and another said, “I would rather have defeat with humility than conquest with boasting” (Vol. II, p. 117). And Poemen said, “He who abaseth himself shall never fall” (Vol. II, p. 119). Zechariah took his cloak and laid it beneath his feet, saying, “Except a man let himself be trodden upon thus he cannot be a monk” (Vol. II, p. 123).

The above selection from The Sayings of the Fathers is sufficient to show the high aims and lofty ideals of the Christian monks of Egypt, and we know from the book Paradise that many devout women led a life of asceticism as strenuous as that of the Fathers. We see from the lives of the holy men and women printed in these volumes that the labours which they performed and their fastings and prayers made most of them kind and considerate to their fellow men, slow to anger, unwilling to judge others, and patient to bear silence, solitude, hunger, heat and cold, nakedness and poverty and the scorn and contempt of the world. One of their characteristics, which shows itself every here and there in their histories, is the kindliness with which the great solitaries regarded animals. One day a female hyena came and knocked with her head at the door of the court in which Macarius was sitting, and came and dropped a whelp at his feet. He took up the whelp, saw that it was blind, and when he had prayed and spit in its eyes, the little creature was able to see. Its mother suckled it, and then took it up and carried it off. On the following day the hyena reappeared carrying the skin of a sheep which it had no doubt killed and eaten, and left it for the old man (Vol. I, p. 124), who accepted the gift and subsequently handed it on to the lady Melania. In the account of the burial of Mâr Paule we also have a pretty story of the two lions which came and dug his grave. As they stood before Anthony near the body of Paule, they wagged their tails, and rubbed their teeth together, and purred, and then they dug a hole in the ground with their paws; this done they drooped their heads and tails, and licked Anthony’s hands and feet. Having prayed over them he told them to depart, laying his hands on them as he did so (Vol. I, p. 203). When they had gone Anthony buried his friend. Whatever the facts of the case may be in this instance, it is clear that Anthony was accustomed to be with lions, and that kindly hermits in all countries have lived on friendly terms with beasts of all kinds is so well known as scarcely to deserve mention. Theon the monk was fond of animals, and loved the sight of buffaloes, goats and gazelle, and gave them water to drink (Vol. I, p. 339).

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