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A History Of The Church In Seven Books by Socrates

SINCE I have referred to the monasteries of Egypt, it may be proper here to give a brief account of them. They were founded probably at a very early period, but were greatly enlarged and augmented by a devout man whose name was Ammon. In his youth he had an aversion to matrimony; but when some of his relatives urged him not to contemn this ordinance, he was prevailed upon to marry. On leading the bride with the customary ceremonies from the banquet-room to the nuptial couch, after their mutual friends had withdrawn, he read to his wife Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians, and explained to her the apostle’s admonitions to married persons. Adducing many considerations besides, he descanted on the inconveniencies and discomforts attending matrimonial intercourse, the pangs of child-bearing, and the trouble and anxiety connected with rearing a family. He contrasted with all this the advantages of chastity; described the liberty, and immaculate purity of a life of continence; and affirmed that virginity places persons in the nearest relation to the Deity. By these and other arguments of a similar kind, he persuaded his virgin bride to renounce with him a secular life, prior to their having any conjugal knowledge of each other. Having taken this resolution, they retired together to the mountain of Nitria, and in a hut there inhabited for a short time one common ascetic apartment, without regarding their difference of sex, being according to the apostle, “one in Christ.” But not long after, the recent and unpolluted bride thus addressed Ammon: “It is unsuitable,” said she, “for you who practise chastity, to look upon a woman in so confined a dwelling; let us therefore, if it is agreeable to you, perform our exercise apart.” Both parties being satisfied with this arrangement, they separated, and spent the rest of their lives in abstinence from wine and oil, eating dry bread alone, sometimes passing over one day, at others fasting two, and sometimes more. Athanasius bishop of Alexandria asserts in his “Life of Antony,” that the subject of his memoir who was cotemporary with this Ammon, saw his soul taken up by angels after his decease. Ammon’s mode of life was adopted by a great number of persons, so that by degrees the mountains of Nitria and Scetis were filled with monks, an account of whose lives would require an express work. As however there were among them persons of eminent piety, distinguished for their strict discipline and apostolic lives, who said and did many things worthy of being recorded, I shall introduce a few particulars for the information of my readers. It is said that Ammon never saw himself naked, being accustomed to say that “it became not a monk to see his own person exposed.” And when once he wanted to pass a river, but was unwilling to undress, he besought God to enable him to cross without his being obliged to break his resolution; and immediately an angel transported him to the other side of the river. Another monk named Didymus lived entirely alone to the day of his death, although he had reached the age of ninety years. Arsenius, another of them, would not separate young delinquents from communion, but only those that were advanced in age: “for,” said he, “when a young person is excommunicated he becomes hardened; but an elderly one is soon sensible of the misery of excommunication.” Pior was accustomed to take his food as he walked along, assigning this as a reason to one who asked him why he did so: “That I may not seem,” said he, “to make eating a serious business, but rather a thing done by the way.” To another putting the same question he replied, “Lest in eating my mind should be sensible of corporeal enjoyment.” Isidore affirmed that he had not been conscious of sin even in thought for forty years; and that he had never consented either to lust or anger. Pambos being an illiterate man, went to some one for the purpose of being taught a psalm; and having heard the first verse of the thirty-eighth, “I said I will take heed to my ways, that I offend not with my tongue,” he departed without staying to hear the second verse, saying, this one would suffice, if he could practically acquire it. And when the person who had given him the verse, reproved him because he had not seen him for the space of six months, he answered that he had not yet learnt to practise the verse of the psalm. After a considerable lapse of time, being asked by one of his friends whether he had made himself master of the verse, his answer was, “I have scarcely succeeded in accomplishing it during nineteen years.” A certain individual having placed gold in his hands for distribution to the poor, requested him to reckon what he had given him. “There is no need of counting,” said he, “but of integrity of mind.” The same Pambos at the desire of Athanasius the bishop came out of the desert to Alexandria; and on beholding an actress there, he wept. When those present asked him the reason of his doing so, he replied, “Two causes have affected me: one is the destruction of this woman; the other is that I exert myself less to please my God, than she does to please obscene characters.” Another said that a monk who did not work, ought to be regarded as a covetous man. Petirus was well-informed in many branches of natural philosophy, and was accustomed to enter into an exposition of the principles sometimes of one department of science, and sometimes of another, but he always commenced his lectures with prayer. There were also among the monks of that period, two of the same name, of great sanctity, each being called Macarius; one of whom was from Upper Egypt, the other from the city of Alexandria. Both were celebrated for their ascetic discipline, the purity of their life and conversation, and the miracles which were wrought by their hands. The Egyptian Macarius performed so many cures, and cast out so many devils, that it would require a distinct treatise to record all that the grace of God enabled him to do. His manner toward those who resorted to him was austere, yet at the same time calculated to inspire veneration. The Alexandrian Macarius, while in many respects resembling his Egyptian namesake, differed from him in this, that he was always cheerful to his visitors; and the affability of his manners attracted many young men to enter upon a similar mode of life. Evagrius becoming a disciple of these men, acquired from them the philosophy of deeds, whereas he had previously known that which consisted in words only. He had been ordained deacon at Constantinople by Gregory of Nazianzen, and afterwards went with him into Egypt, where he became acquainted with these eminent persons, and emulated their course of conduct: nor were the miracles done by his hands less numerous or important than those of his preceptors. He also composed some valuable works, one of which is entitled “The Monk, or, On Active Virtue;” another “The Gnostic, or, To him who is deemed worthy of Knowledge:” this book is divided into fifty chapters. A third is designated “The Refutation,” which contains selections from the Holy Scriptures against tempting spirits, distributed into eight parts, according to the number of the arguments. He wrote moreover “Six Hundred Prognostic Problems,” and also two compositions in verse, one addressed “To the Monks living in Communities,” and the other “To the Virgin.” Whoever shall read these productions will be convinced of their excellence. It will not be out of place here, I conceive, to subjoin to what has been before stated, a few things mentioned by him respecting the monks. He thus speaks:—

“It becomes us to enquire into the habits of the pious monks who have preceded us, in order that we may correct ourselves by their example: for undoubtedly very many excellent things have been said and done by them. One of them was accustomed to say, that ‘a drier and not irregular diet combined with love, would quickly conduct a monk into the haven of tranquillity.’ The same individual freed one of his brethren from being troubled by apparitions at night, by enjoining him to minister while fasting to the sick. And being asked why he prescribed this: ‘Such affections,’ said he, ‘are by nothing so effectually dissipated as by the exercise of compassion.’ A certain philosopher of those times coming to Antony the Just, said to him, ‘How can you endure, father, being deprived of the comfort of books?’ ‘My book, O philosopher,’ replied Antony, ‘is the nature of things that are made, and it is present whenever I wish to read the words of God.’ That chosen vessel, the aged Egyptian Macarius, asked me, why we impair the strength of the retentive faculty of the soul by cherishing the remembrance of injury received from men; while by remembering those done us by devils we remain uninjured? And when I hesitated, scarcely knowing what answer to make, and begged him to account for it: ‘Because,’ said he, ‘the former is an affection contrary to nature, and the latter is conformable to the nature of the mind.’ Going on one occasion to the holy father Macarius about mid-day, and being overcome with the heat and thirst, I begged some water to drink: ‘Content yourself with the shade,’ was his reply, ‘for many who are now journeying by land, or sailing on the deep, are deprived even of this.’ Discussing with him afterwards the subject of abstinence, ‘Take courage, my son,’ said he: ‘for twenty years I have neither eaten, drunk, nor slept to satiety; my bread has always been weighed, my water measured, and what little sleep I have had has been stolen by reclining myself against a wall.’ The death of his father was announced to one of the monks: ‘Cease your blasphemy,’ said he to the person that told him; ‘my father is immortal.’ One of the brethren who possessed nothing but a copy of the Gospels, sold it, and distributed the price in food to the hungry, uttering this memorable saying—‘I have sold the book which says, Sell that thou hast and give to the poor.’ There is an island about the northern part of the city of Alexandria, beyond the lake Mareotis, where a monk from Parembole dwells, in high repute among the Gnostics. This person was accustomed to say, that the monks did nothing but for one of these five reasons;—on account of God, nature, custom, necessity, or manual labour. He moreover said that there was only one virtue in nature, but that it assumes various characteristics according to the dispositions of the soul: just as the light of the sun is itself without form, but accommodates itself to the figure of that which receives it. Another of the monks said, ‘I withdraw myself from pleasures, in order to cut off the occasions of anger: for I know that it always contends for pleasures, disturbing my tranquillity of mind, and unfitting me for the attainment of knowledge.’ One of the aged monks said that charity knows not how to keep a deposit either of provisions or money. He added, ‘I never remember to have been twice deceived by the devil in the same thing.’ Thus wrote Evagrius in his book entitled ‘Practice.’ And in that which he called ‘The Gnostic,’ he says, ‘We learn from Gregory the Just, that there are four virtues, having distinct characteristics:—prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice. That it is the province of prudence to contemplate abstractedly those sacred and intelligent powers, which are unfolded by wisdom: of fortitude to adhere to truth against all opposition, and never to turn aside to that which is unreal: of temperance to receive seed from the chief husbandman, but to repel him who would sow over it seed of another kind: and finally, of justice to adapt discourse to every one, according to their condition and capacity; stating some things obscurely, and others in a figurative manner, while for the instruction of the less intelligent the clearest explanations are given.’ That pillar of truth, Basil of Cappadocia, used to say that the knowledge which men teach is perfected by constant study and exercise; but that which the grace of God communicates, by the practice of justice, patience and mercy. That the former indeed is often developed in persons who are still subject to the passions; whereas the latter is the portion of those only who are superior to their influence, and who during the season of devotion, contemplate that peculiar light of the mind which illumines them. That luminary of the Egyptians, holy Athanasius, assures us that Moses was commanded to place the table on the north side. Let the Gnostics therefore understand what wind is contrary to them, and so nobly endure every temptation, and minister nourishment with a willing mind to those who apply to them. Serapion, the angel of the church of the Thmuïtæ, declared that the mind is completely purified by drinking in spiritual knowledge: that charity cures the inflammatory tendencies of the soul; and that the depraved lusts which spring up in it are restrained by abstinence. Exercise thyself continually, said the great and enlightened teacher Didymus in reflecting on providence and judgment; and endeavour to bear in memory whatever discourses thou mayst have heard on these topics, for almost all fail in this respect. Thou wilt find reasonings concerning judgment in the difference of created forms, and the constitution of the universe: sermons on providence comprehended in those means by which we are led from vice and ignorance to virtue and knowledge.”

These are a few extracts from Evagrius which I thought it would be appropriate to insert here. There was another excellent man among the monks, named Ammonius, who had so little interest in secular matters, that when he went to Rome with Athanasius, he paid no attention to any of the magnificent works of that city, contenting himself with examining the Cathedral of Peter and Paul only. And when they were about to compel this same Ammonius to enter upon the episcopal office, he cut off his own right ear, that by mutilation of his person he might disqualify himself for ordination. Evagrius, whom Theophilus bishop of Alexandria wished to force the prelacy upon, having effected his escape without maiming himself in any way, afterwards happened to meet Ammonius, and told him jocosely, that he had done wrong in cutting off his own ear, as he had by that means rendered himself criminal in the sight of God. To which Ammonius replied, “And do you think, Evagrius, that you will not be punished, who from self-love have cut out your own tongue, to avoid the exercise of that gift of utterance which has been committed to you?” There were at the same time in the monasteries very many other admirable and devout characters whom it would be too tedious to enumerate in this place, and besides if we should attempt to describe the life of each, and the miracles they did by means of that sanctity with which they were endued, we should necessarily digress too far from the object we have in view. Should any one desire to become acquainted with their history, in reference both to their deeds, and discourses for the edification of their auditors, as well as their subduing wild beasts to their authority, there is a specific treatise on the subject, composed by the monk Palladius, who was a disciple of Evagrius, in which all these particulars are minutely detailed. In that work he also mentions several women, who practised the same kind of austerities as the men that have been referred to. Both Evagrius and Palladius flourished a short time after the death of Valens. We must now return to the point whence we diverged.








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