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History of the Egyptian Monks (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto - Part 2)


Chapter II

HOR (cf. VIII.9)


We visited another venerable man in the Thebaid called Hor. He wore the habit of the highest order of monks and was the father of many monasteries. He was ninety years old [when we saw him], with a very full and splendid silvery beard, a lively face and appearance, reflecting something greater than mere human nature. He had lived at first in a remote part of the desert, practising many works of abstinence, before founding a monastery not far from the city. In several places near where he lived he had planted young trees and thus established forests of various kinds of trees where there had been no cultivation at all before he came, as several of the holy fathers confirmed. His reason for planting these forests was so that brethren wishing to join him would not have far to go to get timber. He took thought not only for what was necessary for their bodily needs, but also for their faith and salvation. In the desert he had subsisted on herbs and roots, which he found quite acceptable. He drank water when he could find it, and occupied himself day and night with prayers and hymns of praise. But when he had got to a mature age an angel of the Lord appeared in the desert by a vision, saying: 'You will become a great people, and many through you will believe, many thousands of human beings will be saved through you. Those whom you convert to the way of salvation in this life will remain under your leadership for the future, Fear not, you will never lack any provision for the bodily needs which you ask the Lord to provide.'

Hearing this he moved to a more accessible neighbourhood, and began to live at first in a little hut which he had built for himself, mixing in a few vegetables to his diet, but sometimes vegetables alone, and then only after a long fast. To begin with he could not read. But when he moved from the desert to these more accessible places which we have described above a divine grace was given to him. For when he was given a book by his brothers he began to read it as if he had always been able to read. He had become very powerful in fighting demons, to such an extent that some possessed by demons would come to him without even being invited, protesting loudly about his supremacy. He also healed a great number of the sick.

He gathered about him great numbers of monks, but when he saw us arriving among them he turned towards us with a most warm welcome. He greeted us, said a prayer as was the custom, washed the feet of us guests with his own hands, and began to point out to us from the Scriptures many things to help build up our lives and our faith. God had given him a great gift for teaching. After giving us many wise interpretations of Scripture he turned again to prayer. For it was his custom never to take food until he had enjoyed a spiritual Communion with Christ. This done, he gave thanks and invited us to eat. He sat down with us himself, but never ceased conversing about spiritual subjects. This is one of the stories he told us:
"I know of a certain man living in the desert who ate no earthly food for the space of three years, for an angel brought him bread from heaven every three or four days, and this was meat and drink to him. And again there was another man like this to whom the demons came looking like the armies of heaven, dressed like angels, driving chariots of fire, sumptuously equipped as befitted the cohorts of some great king. The one whom the others seemed to regard as king said: 'You have fulfilled all things [required of you], O man. It remains only that you worship me and I will carry you up like Elijah.'

"At this, the monk said to himself: 'What is all this about? Daily I worship the Saviour who is my King. If this really be he, why is he asking me to do something which he knows I have never stopped doing?'

"And he replied: 'I know my King whom I worship daily without ceasing. You are not my King.'

"In actual fact he was inventing the character of some else to tell us about his own experiences as if they belonged to another. Others of the fathers present confirmed for us that it was he who had seen and heard these things.

So there was this splendid father, who among other good deeds was accustomed to deal like this with those who came wanting to stay with him: he would gather all the brothers together in order build for the newcomer a cell that same day. The brothers all worked at this with a will. Each one of them would busy himself either in building up the walls, or plastering with clay, or digging a well or collecting firewood. When it was finished he handed it over personally to the brother, complete with all the necessary utensils.

On one occasion a deceitful brother came having hidden some of his clothing so that he might appear destitute. Hor denounced him in the midst of the community and produced in their midst the hidden clothing, so that he struck fear into them all. No one after that dared to try and deceive him, such was the virtue of his character, such the greatness of the grace given him by God, acquired by his laborious abstinence and his pure faith. And so full of grace were the multitudes of brothers around him that when they gathered in church they seemed like choirs of angels, with shining clothing and brilliant intelligence, keeping vigil with hymns and praises to God in imitation of the heavenly powers.

Chapter III

AMMON (cf. VIII.48)

While in the Thebaid we saw another man called Ammon, the father of about three thousand monks at Tabenna, men of great abstinence. They wear tunics with very short sleeves (colobii), seemingly made out of flaxen sacking (quasi saccis lineis), covered over by a cured sheepskin falling from the neck down the back and sides. Their heads were hidden under cowls, especially when they came to a meal, so that their faces were veiled and they could not see what each other was eating. There was complete silence at meal times, so that when sitting at the table you could hardly imagine there was anyone else there. Indeed their whole attitude towards each other was as if each one was totally alone. In this way the abstinence of each one was hidden, no one could see how sparingly the other was eating. It was as if they were just sitting at table together rather than eating food, but they never stayed away from table, even though they never fully satisfied their hunger. Great is the virtue of continence, and keeping custody of the eyes and hands.

Chapter IV

BENUS (cf VIII.49)

We saw another old man who was gentle above all others. His name was Benus and the brothers with him asserted that no oath or lie had ever come from his mouth, that ho one had ever seen him losing his temper with anyone, or indulging in unnecessary, idle conversation. He lived his life in a profound silence, his manner was always peaceful, in all things he was a man who seemed to be angelic. His humility was very deep, counting himself as nothing in every way. We ourselves urgently pressed him to favour us with some encouraging conversation, but his modesty prevented him from giving us more than just a few words.
Once there was a certain beast called a hippopotamus causing a great deal of damage in a neighbourhood near him, and at the invitation of the farmers he came to them and when he saw this immense animal he said: "I beg you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that you devastate this region no longer" From this time onwards, as if put to flight by a pursuing angel, it was no longer to be seen. Later on, so they told us, he also put to flight a crocodile.

Chapter V

THE CITY OF OXYRYNCUS

Eventually we came to a certain city of the Thebaid called Oxyryncus, which was so famous for good religious activities that no description could possibly do justice to them all. We found monks everywhere inside the city and also in all the countryside round about. What had been the public buildings and temples of a former superstitious age were now occupied by monks, and throughout the whole city there were more monasteries than houses. There are twelve churches in this very spacious and populous city where public worship is conducted for the people, as well as the monasteries which all have their own chapels. But from the very gates with its battlements to the tiniest corner of the city there is no place without its monks who night and day in every part of the city offer hymns and praises to God, making the whole city one great church of God. No heretics or pagans are to be found there, for all the citizens are Christians, all Catholics, so that it makes no difference whether the bishop offers prayer in the streets or in the church. The magistrates, the leaders of the city and other citizens keep watch over each gate, and whoever turns up, whether pilgrim or pauper, is informed of the preconditions to which it is necessary for him to conform.

But how can I possibly describe all the kind acts done to us by the people as they watched us going through the city, greeting us like angels, making us welcome. We were told by the holy bishop of that place that it contained twenty thousand virgins and ten thousand monks. I could not possibly tell you, not even by stretching the truth to its limits, how great was the kindness and hospitality shown to us, to the extent that the clothes were almost torn off our backs by those who were eager to seize us and take us home as their guests.

We saw there also many different holy fathers who were examples of various different God-given graces, some by way of preaching, some by abstinence, others by showing forth many signs and powers.

Chapter VI

THEO (cf. VIII.40)

Not far away from the city we saw another man called Theo, in a place bordering on the desert, a holy man shut up by himself in his cell, who was noted for having kept silence for thirty years and who had done so many marvellous deeds that he was held to be a prophet. A great number of sick people came to him daily. He would put his hand out the window and lay it on the head of each person, blessing them and relieving them of all their ills. He was so gracious of countenance and excited such reverence that he was regarded as an angel living among people, so radiant and full of grace did he appear to people's view.

Not so long ago, so we were told, some robbers came one night thinking they might find he had some gold, but he overpowered them by prayer alone and caused them to remain fixed outside the door, unable to make the slightest movement. When the usual crowd arrived in the morning and saw the robbers fixed near the door they wanted to make a bonfire of them. But constrained by this emergency he actually spoke, saying: "Let these evil-doers go, for otherwise the gifts of healing will leave me." When the people heard this, not daring to contradict him, they drove them off. When the robbers realized what had been done to them they lost their desire for crime and did penance for their many past wickednesses by going to a neighbouring monastery and embarking upon a programme of amendment of life.

This man was moreover skilled not only in Greek and Egyptian but also in Latin, as we learned not only from those who knew him but from him himself. He evidently wished us to know this, for, desiring to give us some reward for the labour of our pilgrimage, he showed us just how grace-filled and learned his teaching was by writing to us on tablets. He never ate cooked food and it is said that when he went out to the desert at night he was usually accompanied by a great crowd of the wild beasts of the desert. He rewarded their companionship by drawing water from the well and pouring it into a bowl for them. Manifest evidence of this could be seen in the traces of oxen, goats and wild asses which lay about his cell.

Chapter VII

APOLLONIUS (cf. VIII.52)

Another holy man we saw was named Apollonius, living in the Thebaid in the region of Hermapolis, the city which tradition says that our Saviour visited with Mary and Joseph, in accordance with the prophecy of Isaiah: Behold the Lord rideth upon a swift cloud and shall come into Egypt and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence and fall to the ground (Isaiah 19,1). Indeed, we saw the very temple which the Saviour entered, where there is a memorial to the idols falling to the ground and shattering.

So we saw this man who had a monastery nearby in the desert by a mountain. He was the father of about five hundred monks and was held in great esteem throughout the whole of the Thebaid region. He was credited with many great works and powers, for God did many signs and prodigies through him. Brought up from boyhood in abstinence, he grew in the grace of God until he reached maturity. He was about eighty when we saw him flourishing in his monastery, and it seemed that his disciples also were so perfect and splendid that nearly all of them were able to perform signs. They say that he was fifteen years old when he departed into the desert, where for forty years he struggled in spiritual battles. It is said that then the voice of God came to him saying: "Apollonius, through you I will confound the wisdom of the wise in Egypt, and cast down the knowledge of the prudent. Through me you will confound those who are reckoned among the wise in Babylon, and you will bring to ruin all the worship of demons. Go now to the well populated areas where you will build up for me a great and perfect people, seeking eagerly after the works of righteousness."

But he replied: "Deliver me, O Lord, from a boasting spirit, lest raised up above my brothers I fall away from all your righteousness".

The voice of God came to him again: "Put your hand down your throat, pluck out what you find there and bury it in the sand". Without delay he groped down into his throat and pulled out what appeared to me a tiny Ethiopian. Immediately he thrust it into the sand as it cried out: "I am the spirit of pride".

After this a voice came from God, saying: "Now make haste, for everything you ask from God you will obtain". So then he went to a more populated area. This all happened in the time of the tyrant Julian.

In this place there was a cave a little way into the desert where he began to live, offering his prayers day and night without ceasing on bended knee, a hundred of them by day (so they said) and the same number at night, existing more on heavenly food than earthly. His clothing consisted of a tunic of coarse flaxen cloth, with a hood to cover his head and neck. They say that he continued wearing these garments in the desert and they never wore out. There he was in this place nearby in the desert, living in the power of the Spirit, doing wonderful signs and healings, so great that it is impossible to describe them (so we learned from the older men who were with him).

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