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History of the Egyptian Monks (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto - Part 3)


Book II, Chapter VII (continued)


So greatly was his fame noised abroad that he began to be held in honour as a prophet or apostle. Monks from various regions round about began to come to him, offering the great gift of their own souls to this deeply respected father. He received each one of them with total commitment, encouraging some to work and others to study, but he also showed them by his example what he taught with his words. As a general rule he allowed those with him to practise what abstinence they could, but on Sunday, of his charity, he begged them to come and dine with him, although he himself kept to his usual abstinence, eating only uncooked herbs and vegetables.

During the time of Julian, whom we mentioned above, he heard that one of the brothers was locked up having been conscripted into military service. He visited him with some brothers to support him and encourage him to remain steadfast in his time of need, and despise and scorn all the dangers which threatened him. "It is a critical time, now," he said, "when the resolve of the faithful will be tested and publicly proved." With these words and others in the same vein he was giving the young man courage, when the centurion arrived, very annoyed because they had dared to come in. He immediately locked the prison from the outside, shutting all those visitors up, presumably so that they too might be held for military service, and having set some guards he departed. In the middle of the night an angel resplendent with a brilliant light was seen to appear and open up the gates of the prison. The guards were amazed and terrified. They fell down at the feet of those holy men and begged them to depart, saying that they would rather die in their place than resist the power of a god who took such care of them. In the morning the centurion himself came early to the prison with other officers giving orders that all prisoners should be released, for he said that his house had been shaken by a great earthquake and certain of his servants had been killed. At this those holy men broke out into hymns and praises to God, and returned to the desert as one man, being of one heart and soul together after the example of the apostles (Acts 4, 32).

One of the older fathers gave them daily lessons in developing their virtues and refusing entry to the deceits of the devil which he tries to insinuate into human thoughts. "For if you break the serpent's head," he said, "his whole body is put to death. This is why the Lord bids us beware of the serpent's head, that right from the very beginning we refuse entry of all evil and sordid thoughts into our hearts. When repulsed at the very beginning it is so much the more difficult for mental fantasies to spread out into our senses."

He also urged that each one of us should strive to outdo one another in virtue, so that no one should fall short of what the other was achieving. "You will know whether you have begun to advance in virtue if you have lost all desire for the delights of the world. This is the first of God's gifts. And if any one of you arrives at being able to do signs and wonders, don't let that make you proud, or entertain thoughts that you ought to be promoted above your fellows. Don't make a show of your gifts, lest you get carried away into deceit and lose grace."

It was a magnificent gift of teaching the word of God that he possessed, and we ourselves enjoyed a sample of it. But a far greater grace lay in the deeds he performed. Whatever he asked God for was granted immediately. He had had an older brother living with him for a long time in the desert, seeking after a life of perfection. After his death he had a dream, in which he saw him sitting in the company of the Apostles and made one with them, handing on to him his legacy of virtue and grace. He prayed to God that he might be taken quickly to enjoy rest eternal with his brother in the heavens, but the Lord replied that he must carry on for a little while longer until there were many more people emulating his manner of life. He should believe that there would be many more monastic families and a whole army of devout people, through whom he would find the reward from God which he deserved. And it all happened according to this vision.

Monks gathered around him from all directions, attracted by the fame of his teaching and above all by his example. There were so many of them renouncing the world that they built a splendid monastery in this same mountain, with one accord maintaining a common life and one refectory. It was obvious to us that they were a disciplined body of angels in heaven, adorned with every virtue. None of them wore anything grubby. The cleanliness of their clothing mirrored the splendour of their souls, so that, as Scripture says, the thirsty land breaks forth into singing, and in the desert a multitude (Isaiah 35.7). This saying refers to the Church, though as a matter of historical fact it is exemplified most fully in the deserts of Egypt. There were many who found salvation in the cities, but just as many were populating the Egyptian deserts. It seemed to me that in them was fulfilled the saying of the Apostle: "Where sin did abound, there grace was superabundant" (Rom.5.20). For at one time the poisonous cult of idols was rife in Egypt as in no other nation ever before. They worshipped dogs and monkeys and other such absurdities. They also believed that garlic, onions and other kinds of herbs and vegetables were gods, so we learnt from the father Apollonius, who expounded to us what their early superstitions had been like. At one time also they believed the ox to be a god, inasmuch as country dwellers derived from the ox not only food but a way of living. The Nile too they worshipped, for it fertilized the Egyptian plains, which they venerated as being more fruitful than other lands. The monkeys, dogs and various vegetables that we mentioned above they worshipped because it was held that salvation had come from them in the time of the Pharaohs. In connection with this an unusual custom seems to have arisen among them, in that Apollonius, following the example of the fathers, was immersed in water, carrying some useful item which had been thought to be a god. To make it clear that they no longer followed Pharaoh they said: "Because this used to be a god for me, today I drown it along with myself, to show that I no longer follow Pharaoh."

This is the outline of what the holy Apollonius told us. But a great deal more holy can be written both about his virtues and about the things he did. At one time there used to be ten villages not far away in that area where devilish superstitions were seriously followed. There was one large temple in which there was an image which used to be carried about in procession by the priests, accompanied by a choir of females. Crowds of people followed it, performing profane rainmaking rituals. It so happened once that Apollonius and a few of the brothers were travelling through that place when these orgies were being performed. When he saw these unfortunate people rioting about through the fields as if possessed by demons, he felt sorry they were so deluded and called upon our Lord and Saviour on his knees. All those conducting these devilish ceremonies, together with the image, suddenly found themselves standing still, unable to progress further by a single step. All day they remained like this, scorched by the searing heat, unable to understand why they were stuck motionless in one place. Then the priests said that it was the work of a certain Christian called Apollonius living nearby in the desert, and that they could not be released from their dangerous predicament unless they begged him to intervene. This was heard by a large crowd which had gathered from all directions, wanting to know the reason for this miraculous event, unable to account for it themselves. So suspicion fell upon Apollonius, and they demanded that he be approached. But certain of them, even though they agreed with this and had even seen Apollonius going by with his companions, immediately began themselves to try and bring help. They brought oxen, thinking that they should be strong enough to move the image, but all in vain. Unable to achieve any progress, they sent a deputation to the man of God, promising that if he would release these people from their bondage, perhaps he might also free them from the bondage of their errors. On being approached he straightway went down to them, poured out his prayers to God and so released them. With one accord they all turned to him, believing in the salvation of our God and giving thanks. The image, which was made of wood, they immediately consigned to the fire. They all began to follow the man of God, and learning from him the faith of the Lord they became members of God's church. Several of them stayed with him permanently and even now still live in the monastery. The fame of this marvellous deed was everywhere spread abroad, and many were converted to the faith of the Lord, so that there remained hardly anyone in those parts who was a pagan.

A little while later there was a boundary dispute between two villages. When the man of God heard about it he hurried down to try and make peace. But they had become so angry in this dispute that they would in no way entertain any thoughts of peace, mainly because the people on one side were putting their faith in the strength of a certain robber who seemed to be the instigator of the struggle. When Apollonius saw that this man was firmly setting his face against peace he said to him: "If you would agree with me to work for peace I will pray to God and he will forgive you all your sins" When he heard this he did not even argue, but fell on his knees and begged for mercy. Then he turned to the crowd who followed him and bade them all disperse peacefully. When they had gone he remained with the man of God seeking the fulfillment of his promise. So Apollonius then took the robber back to the monastery with him, teaching him how he ought to change his way of life and patiently wait for God's mercy, looking for the promise by faith, for all things are possible for those who believe (Mark 9.23).
While both were asleep in the monastery that night each of them saw a vision of heaven, where they were standing before the judgment seat of Christ, together with the angels of God and his saints adoring the Lord. At this sight they also fell down and worshipped and they heard a voice from God saying: "Although it is not fitting for light to have any fellowship with darkness, nor the unfaithful to receive their portion with the faithful (1 Cor.6.14), nevertheless, Apollonius, salvation has been granted to him for whom you have made supplication." Many other things they heard in this vision beyond the power of tongue to relate or ear to hear, and when they arose from sleep they described their vision to the brothers. They were greatly astonished that each one had had the same dream as the other.

The robber, already in the process of becoming holy, remained with the brothers, changing his former habits and way of life into ways of innocence and devotion. So radically was he changed from a wolf into a lamb that in him was visibly displayed in full measure the prophecy of Isaiah that the wolves shall lie down with the lambs and the ox and the lion feed from the same manger (Isaiah 11.6). We noticed also that there were many Ethiopians living in the monastery, excelling many of the other monks in religious observance and spiritual virtue, so that in them was visibly fulfilled the Scripture that Ethiopia shall lift up her hands to God (Psalms 68.31).

The following story is also told about Apollonius. A dispute had arisen between two neighbouring villages, one Christian, the other pagan. A great crowd of armed men was coming out from both villages, when by chance Apollonius came in between them. He urged them to make peace, but the man who seemed to be the leader of the pagans and who was the prime cause of the dispute, a fierce and quarrelsome person, vehemently refused, saying that he would never make peace but would rather die. "So be it", said Apollonius, "and you will be the only one to lose your life. And your tomb will be no more than you deserve, not in the earth but in the bellies of beasts and vultures." In due course his words turned out to be true, for he was the only one on either side who fell. And when the battle was over and they returned next morning they found that the beasts had dug him up and torn him to pieces and vultures had helped to devour him. They were all amazed that the word of the man of God had been thus fulfilled, and were all converted to the faith of our Lord and Saviour, hailing Apollonius as a prophet.

It did not escape our notice either what he had done in the early days when he had begun to live in a cave with a few companions. It was the time of the paschal feast, and when the holy vigils and sacraments in the cave had come to an end, some of those with him prepared a meal, but there was nothing except some dry bread and a few vegetables preserved in salt. Apollonius said to those with him; "If we have faith, as true and faithful servants of Christ, let us each one ask God whether he has anything for us to enjoy freely on this festal day." But they preferred that he alone should ask this of God, because he excelled them not only in age but in virtue, while they were much inferior to him in grace. He enthusiastically poured forth a prayer to God, to which they all replied Amen, and suddenly there appeared at the mouth of the cave a number of complete strangers who brought with them a vast supply of all kinds of different foods. Nobody before in the whole country of Egypt had ever seen such a diversity of so many different kinds of food. There were grapes, nuts, figs, pomegranates, besides things completely out of place such as milk, honeycombs and honey. There were also warm "nicolas", a type of richly decorated loaf which obviously originated in foreign lands. No sooner had the bearers of these gifts handed them over than they departed, as if they could hardly wait to get back to whoever it was who had sent them. The monks gave thanks to God and began to feast on what had been given them. There was so much of it that it lasted till the feast of Pentecost. They had no doubt that God had sent these things for the celebration of the feast.

We learned also that one of the brothers who was completely lacking in the graces of humility and gentleness asked Apollonius to pray to God that he might be given these graces. Apollonius prayed, and the graces of humility and gentleness which came to him were so great that the brothers were amazed at the peace of mind and modesty which they saw in him where previously they had seen none.

At one time there was a famine in the Thebaid. The local people knew that Apollonius and the monks who served God were frequently fed by God alone when they had no food, so they all came to him, along with their wives and children, asking not only a blessing but also food. Unhesitatingly he began to share with them the food which had been set aside for the use of the brothers, giving freely to one and all. At last there were only three baskets of bread left, but there were people still hungry. He ordered the three remaining baskets of bread to be brought out - only just enough to feed the monks for one day - and in the presence of all the people whose hunger had brought them together he lifted up his hands to God and said: "Is not the hand of the Lord mighty to make these multiply? Thus says the Holy Spirit. 'The bread in the baskets shall not run out till we all are filled with the new harvest'." And many of those who were there testified to us that for four months he continued to take bread out of the baskets without the supply diminishing. the also said that on another occasion he did the same with oil and grain.

The devil was annoyed by these powers, and is said to have reproached him thus: "I suppose you think you are Elias or some other prophet that you dare to do these things?"

He replied: "Come now. Are not the prophets and apostles they who handed on to us their faith and their grace? Was God present then and absent now? God forbid. God is almighty, and what he can do he can always do. If God is good, you devil, why is it that you are evil?"

As we have said, these stories of his deeds were faithfully told to us by the seniors, holy and religious men. But notwithstanding the reliance that should be placed in their truth, the Lord provided us with even greater grounds for belief by means of that which we witnessed with our own eyes. For we saw baskets of bread being carried to the tables and all ate their fill. But the baskets were gathered up again just as full as before.

I must tell you also about another thing we can bear witness to. When we were on the way to this monastery and still a long way off, three brothers came to meet us for Apollonius had told them three days earlier that we were coming. There were singing psalms as they came, for this is their custom always when monks turn up. They prostrated themselves, embraced us, and pointing to us said to each other: "These are the three brothers whom our father Apollonius told us about three days ago. He said: 'Three brothers from Jerusalem will be with us in three days time.'" Some of the brothers then walked on before us, others behind, and both groups were singing psalms. When we were nearly there the holy Apollonius heard the psalmody and came out himself to meet us. When he saw us he first of all prostrated himself, then embraced us, took us into the monastery, and offered a prayer (as is the custom) before washing our feet with his own hands and seeing to all our other bodily needs. He does this for all new arrivals. It is also the custom for him and all the brothers with him not to take food before receiving the Communion of the Lord at around about the ninth hour, and in the interval between then and Vespers they listen to the word of God and with no let up are given instruction on fulfilling the commandments of the Lord (cf. VIII.9). After the evening meal some of them go to their hermitages and spend the light reciting the Scriptures by heart, others remain gathered together and keep vigil till morning light with hymns and praises to God. I was present and saw this.

Some of them at the ninth hour came down from the mountain to receive Communion and straightway went back again, content with this spiritual food alone, and kept this up for several days. But there was such a great happiness and joyfulness in them, such exaltation, as no other man on earth could display. No one showed any signs of sadness, or if any one did happen to look a bit out of sorts father Apollonius immediately enquired what was the matter. It frequently happened that if anyone tried to conceal [his thoughts] Apollonius would say out loud what was being hidden, in order to make the victim face up to it. He would admonish them that it was absolutely wrong to be dejected when God was their salvation and their hope was in the kingdom of heaven. "Let the gentiles be sad," he would say, "let the Jews mourn, let sinners weep unceasingly, but let the righteous rejoice. For if lovers of the world take comfort in their fragile and perishable possessions, should not we be overflowing with joy when our hope lies in such great glory and the promise of eternity? Hasn't the Apostle implored us to 'rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and in all things give thanks'?" (1 Thess.v.16). But who can do justice to the grace of his words and doctrine? It were better that I say no more rather than fail to commend him adequately.

In personal interviews the blessed Apollonius discussed many things with us - the underlying principles of abstinence, living a balanced life, the duty of hospitality. This latter especially he impressed upon us, that we should greet visiting brothers as if it were the Lord coming to us. "For this tradition of giving every honour to visiting brothers," he said, "is maintained among us for it is certain that to welcome brothers is the same as to welcome the Lord Jesus, who said: 'I was a stranger and you took me in' (Matthew 25.43). Abraham likewise took in some who appeared to be men but whom he understood to be the Lord. (Genesis 18)". Moreover he said you should insist on giving hospitality to the brothers even against their will, and he cited the example of the holy Lot who insisted on the angels seeking refuge in his own house (ibid.19).

He also urged that as far as possible monks should partake of the mysteries of Christ daily, lest if they stay away too long they stray away from God. "It is the frequent communicant who frequently receives the Saviour, for the Saviour himself said: 'He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him' (John.6.56). This commemoration of the Lord's passion is exceptionally beneficial as it provides an example of patient suffering." And he warned us that each one of us should always take care to prepare himself, lest he be found unworthy of the mysteries of the Lord, adding that through the mysteries the remission of sins is given to those who believe.

He warned that except for some great necessity there should be no relaxing of the statutory fasts on Wednesday and Friday, for on Wednesday Judas planned the betrayal of Jesus and on the Friday the Saviour was crucified. It followed that anyone who needlessly relaxed the fast on these days betrayed the Saviour along with the traitor, and crucified him with the crucifiers. But he went on to say that if any brother did arrive on either of these two days and you wished to refresh him after his journey, even if it was before the ninth hour, you should just offer him food by himself. If he did not wish it he would not be put under any pressure. This is the generally accepted rule. He also castigated soundly those who fussed over their hair (comam capitis nutriunt. [washed their hair? combed it? cut it?]), or wore iron necklets, or did anything else which only drew attention to themselves. "It's obvious," he said, "that these people are only looking for human praise. They do it to make themselves noticed, but the commandment is that even your fasting should be carried out in secret, that it may be known to God alone who sees in secret and rewards openly (Matt.6.18). As you can see, they are not content with the testimony and reward of him who sees in secret, but wish people to be able to see them. The complete regime of abstinence should be kept secret, so that the body is kept under by fasting without boasting to your fellows and your reward sought only from the Lord."

This and much more he told us about the life-style of the monks and how it varied during the week, and he pointed to their deeds as bearing out the faithfulness of his teaching. As we were about to depart he produced one more little admonition: "Above all, beloved, maintain peace among you, let there be no divisions among you." Then turning to the brothers, who along with him were seeing us on our way, he said: "Which one of you would like to take them to the fathers in the monasteries nearby?" Nearly all of them immediately expressed themselves willing to do so and wanted to come with us. The holy father Apollonius therefore chose three of them who were fluent in both Greek and Egyptian to do any necessary interpreting for us. They were also such people as would be able to help us in what they said themselves. As he sent us off with them he urged us not to part company with them before we had seen all the fathers and all the monasteries we wanted to, although no one would have been able to see them all. He dismissed us with a blessing in these words; "The Lord bless you out of Sion that you may see the good things of Jerusalem all the days of your life." (Psalms 128.5).

Chapter VIII

AMMON (cf. the last section of VIII.52)

I don't believe we should omit what we heard from Ammon, another holy man, whose place where he lived in the desert we visited. After we left the blessed Apollonius we went to a part of the desert towards the south when we saw in the sand traces of the footprints of a large serpent (draco). They were big enough to look as if a large piece of timber had been dragged along. We were absolutely terrified when we saw them, but the brothers guiding us urged us to be in no way afraid but to have faith and follow the serpent. "You will see the power of faith," they said, "when you have seen us destroy it. For there are lots of serpents, snakes and horned creatures (? cornutas) which have perished at our hands. For thus we read the scriptures: 'The Saviour enables those who believe in him to tread upon serpents and scorpions and every power of the enemy'" (Luke 10.19).

What they said simply made us more and more afraid, in our weak lack of faith, and we begged them not to follow the tracks of the serpent but keep to the right path. But one of them impatiently rushed off to follow the serpent, and almost immediately he came to its cave. He shouted to us to come and see what would happen. But one of the brothers who lived in the neighborhood came out to us and advised against following the serpent for he was sure we would not be able to bear it, especially as we were not used to seeing such things. He had often seen it himself, he said, and it was unbelievably large, at least fifteen cubits long [cubit = distance from elbow to tip of middle finger]. After urging us to avoid the place, he ran up to the brother who was prepared to destroy the serpent and was expecting us to follow him. He took him by the arm and begged him to come back with him. And by his insistent pleading he prevailed over the one who was still unwilling to depart without destroying the serpent. He then came up to us, saying that he would not have it that we were craven or faithless.

(At this point, cf VIII.53) He then led us to his cell and with great friendliness offered us some refreshment. He told us that the place where he lived had been the home of a holy man named Ammon, whose disciple he had been. The Lord had done many great things through him, among which had been the following:

Robbers often had been stealing his bread, his sole means of subsistence, even the meagre supply which he had in store. Having put up patiently with this for quite some time he went out one day into the desert and returned with two large serpents which he ordered to live with him and told them to stay at the door of his cell [monasterium] to guard the entrance. When the robbers came as usual they saw something guarding the cell, and when they realised it was serpents they became paralysed and senseless, they were struck dumb and fell to the ground. When the old man realised what was happening he came out and found them half dead. He came to them and raised them up, and rebuked them, saying: "You should realise that you are worse than these serpents, for whereas they have been obedient to us for God's sake, you neither fear God nor are ashamed to disturb the lives of the servants of God." Whereupon he took them into his cell, sat them down at the table and gave them food. They were cut to the heart, and turned away with repulsion from their barbarous ways. In a very short time they became even more virtuous than many who had already begun to serve the Lord. Their penitence began to effect such radical changes that it was not very long before they were doing the same signs and wonders as Ammon.

On another occasion there was an immense serpent which was terrorising the neighbouring region and killing many people, and the local inhabitants came to the aforesaid father begging him to rid the area of this beast. They also hoped to excite his pity by bringing to him a lad, the son of a shepherd, who at the mere sight of this serpent had been frightened out of his wits. The mere breath of the serpent had rendered him unconscious and bloated, but the holy man anointed him with oil and restored him to health. However, although he accepted the need for the serpent to be killed, he at first seemed unwilling to promise anything, as if there was nothing he could do to help them. But in due course he did go out to meet the beast, and knelt down praying to the Lord. The beast began a furious rush towards him, uttering terrifying groans and hissing loudly. But he cared nothing for all that. He turned towards the serpent and said: "May Christ the Son of God who will slay the great whale (Isaiah 27.1) bring you to destruction." At the old man's words this most horrible serpent burst asunder, even as it was spewing forth poison with all its force. The neighbouring people gathered together, amazed at such a great miracle. Unable to bear the smell it left behind they began to pile up a huge pile of sand over it. Ammon remained near at hand, for even though the beast was dead they would not have dared approach it without him being there.

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