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History of the Egyptian Monks (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto - Part 4)


Chapter IX

THE PRIEST COPRES AND PATERMUTIUS (cf. VIII.54)


There was a priest called Copres who had a cell (monasterium) in that same desert, a holy man about eighty years old, who had done many great deeds, encouraging the weary and healing the sick, driving out demons and doing many miracles, some of which he did while we were there. In greeting us he embraced us, and after the usual prayer washed our feet, after which he asked us for news of the world. We would rather that he would tell us of his own doings, and asked him about the deeds and worthiness through which the Lord had bestowed upon him such graces. But he demurred, and began to make a comparison between his own life and those who had gone before him, saying that they were far more illustrious than himself, being barely able to follow their example. "There is nothing marvellous about me," he said, "in comparison with the holy fathers."

[The following account of Patermutius is not in Book VIII]

"Before us there was this splendid man, our Father Mutius by name. He was the first monk in this place and was the first to teach the way of salvation to all of us in this desert. He was a pagan (gentilis) at first, a most notorious thief and tomb robber, a connoisseur of every kind of wickedness. His saving moment happened in this way:

"He went one night to the house of a certain consecrated virgin in order to burgle it. He climbed up on to the roof, equipped with a well known type of tool-kit, trying to find a method or an opening by which he could break in. The operation proved too difficult for him, and he spent the greater part of the night on the roof to no avail. Frustrated by the failure of many attempts he felt weary and fell asleep and saw in a vision someone standing by him dressed like a king, who said: 'Desist from all these crimes, and from the spilling of blood. Turn all your efforts towards religious purposes instead of shameful theft, and join the angelic host of heaven. From now on live with virtue in mind, and I will make you the principal leader of this host.'

"He listened to what was being said to him with a great feeling of joy, and was then shown a great army of monks, of which he was bidden to be the leader. As he awoke he saw the virgin standing there, demanding to know who and whence he was and what he was doing there. Like somebody out of his mind all he could say was: 'Please take me to a church.' She realised that some divine operation was working in her, and she took him to the church and introduced him to the priests. He prostrated himself in front of them and begged to be made a Christian and do penance. The priests knew this man to be the instigator of all kinds of wickednesses and wondered if he were really genuine. But he persisted, and convinced them he really meant what he was asking for. They warned him that if that was what he wanted he would have to leave off from his former way of life. He was baptised, and begged to be given some precepts by which he might begin to walk along the way to salvation. they gave him the first three verses of Psalm 1 [Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the waterside, that bringeth forth his fruit in due season, and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper] They told him that if he diligently took these verses to heart it would be enough to lead him into the way of salvation and to a growth in holiness (scientia pietatis). He stayed with them for three days and then went off to the desert where he stayed for a long time, persevering day and night in prayers and tears, living off roots and herbs.

"He went back to the church where the priests realised how the three verses of Psalm 1 which they had given him had affected his speech, his actions and his whole way of life. The priests marvelled at how such a sudden conversion could have led him immediately into such a strict self-discipline. They gave him further instruction in the holy Scriptures, and suggested that he stay with them permanently. So as not to appear disobedient he lived out a week with them but then returned to the desert, where he spent the next seven years very abstemiously, receiving such a fulness of grace from the Lord, that he was able to learn almost the whole of Scripture by heart. He took bread only on Sundays, and this was given to him by divine providence. For after he came away from his prayers he would find bread there which no human hand had brought. When he had given thanks and consumed it he found that it was sufficient to see him through to the next Sunday.

"A long time afterwards he came back from the desert and encouraged many people to follow his example, among whom was a young man who wanted to be his disciple. After giving him the monastic habit, that is, the sleeveless tunic, the hood and the goatskin cloak, he began to instruct him in the other principles of monastic life, especially the duty of taking care to bury Christians who had died. And when that disciple had observed the care with which he clothed the dead in burial garments, he said: 'I hope that when I am dead, master, you will prepare and bury me like that.'

"'I will indeed, my son, and I shall keep on clothing you until you say "enough"'.

"Not long after this the young man died and this promise was fulfilled. For having clothed him in several garments he said in the presence of all those there: 'Is this sufficient for your burial, my son, or should we add some more?' Everybody then heard the voice of the dead boy, even though his jaw had been tied up and his face covered, saying: 'Enough, father. You have fulfilled your promise'. Those present were astonished, and wondered exceedingly about such a miraculous deed. But once the boy was buried, he made no attempt to boast about it but went straight back to his hermitage.

"On another occasion he left his hermitage to visit the brothers whom he had established. It was revealed to him that one of them was in extremis and like to die. It was already getting towards evening, so he was hurrying in order to see him. But the place where the sick man lived was still a long way off and he did not want to get to the place after dark. He called to mind the saying of the Lord: 'Walk while you have the light lest the darkness overtake you' (John 12.35) and 'He who walks in the light does not stumble' (John 11.10). And as he saw the sun beginning to set he said to it: 'In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ stay still for a while until I arrive at my destination.' And although it had partially begun to sink it stopped, and stood still until he had arrived. This was obvious to all those who were waiting there. As they stood and watched the sunset being delayed they wondered what sort of an omen it could be for them that the sun should delay its setting for such a long time. So when they saw Father-Mutius coming out of the desert they asked him what sort of a portent was signified by the sun. He replied: 'Have you forgotten the word of our Lord and Saviour: "If you have faith as much as a grain of mustard seed you will do greater things than these"?' (Matthew 17.20). And when they realised that the sun had stood still because of his faith they feared greatly, and many of them joined his band of disciples and began to follow him.

"He went into the house of the brother who had been the reason for his hasty journey and found him already dead. He prayed, went to the bed, embraced him and said: 'What would you rather, brother, to depart and be with Christ or remain in the flesh?'

His life came back to him, he sat up and said: 'Why are you calling me back, father? It is better for me to depart and be with Christ. I do not need to remain in the flesh any longer.'
'Sleep then in peace, my son,' he replied, 'and pray for me.' And immediately he lay back on the bed and fell asleep. Those present were astounded. 'Truly this is a man of God,' they said. He then clothed the young man appropriately according to his custom and kept vigil the whole night with psalms and hymns before giving him decent burial.

"There was another brother whom he visited in bed sick, and he could see that this brother felt himself to be condemned by his own conscience and was frightened of dying. 'Why are you unprepared for death, my son?' he asked. 'It is laziness, as far as I can see, that your conscience is accusing you of.'

"The brother then begged him: 'Please, father, intercede for me to God that I may be allowed a little more time in which to amend my life.'

"He replied: 'You are asking for more time now, when you have come to the end of your life? What were you doing for all the rest of the time in your life? Weren't you able to cure your own wounds? Haven't you been adding even more wrongdoings right up till now?' The brother continued to implore him, until the old man said: 'As long as you don't add any more sins to the ones you have already committed, we will pray to God for you. For he is good and long-suffering and will allow you a little more time in this life to enable you to make up for all your failings.' He then prayed to God and when he had finished he said: 'See, the Lord has given you three years more in which you can apply yourself to doing penance.' And stretching out his hand he raised him up from the bed. Without any delay he followed him back to the desert. Three years later the old man summoned him back to the place where he had raised him up, so that everyone could be enlightened by [the example of] his way of life, asserting before God that rather than being a mere human being, he was now more like a man turned angel. He called an assembly of brothers and set him in the midst of them. Using him as an example he then discoursed to the brothers the whole night through on the subject of his conversion and the fruits which penitence brings forth. As he was preaching, the brother began first to look a little drowsy and then suddenly fell asleep for good. He prayed over him, did everything necessary for his burial according to his custom, and hastily went back to his hermitage.

"He frequently walked across the vast river Nile, with the water coming only up to his knees.

"On another occasion he came in to the brothers through closed doors when they were gathered together in an upper room, and would often be transported in a moment of time to somewhere else, however far away it might be.

"It is said that at the time of his first conversion when he was in the desert, after fasting for a week a man came to him out of the desert bringing with him bread and water, begging him to accept it for it had been sent to him from heaven.

"Once a demon came to him and showed him a great treasure hidden in the earth which had once belonged to Pharaoh. 'Take your treasure with you to perdition in the middle of the earth', he replied. The Lord did all these things and many more through him. But there were many other fathers as well of whom the world was not worthy (Hebrews 11.38), performing heavenly signs and marvels. Why should you be surprised if it is only very small things that we small people can do, such as caring for the blind and the lame, which any doctor can do by means of his art?"

As Copres was telling us these things one of our brothers was evidently sceptical about what was being told us and got so bored with it all that he fell asleep. In a deep slumber he saw in a vision Copres holding a book written in golden letters, from which he seemed to be reading what he was telling us. Beside him was someone of most venerable gray-haired appearance who severely rebuked him, saying: "Why aren't you listening intently to what is being said, instead of falling asleep in disbelief?" Greatly troubled he woke up, and quietly told us in Latin what he had seen.

While all this was going on we also noticed a peasant coming to Copres' door carrying a bowl full of sand, patiently waiting until Copres had finished talking to us. Having seen him, we asked Copres what the peasant wanted, standing there with a bowl of sand in his hand. "I really shouldn't tell you," he said, "for fear that we should be seen to boast about God's work in us and so lose the due reward of our labour. However, for your edification and benefit, bearing in mind that you have come such a long way to visit us, I cannot let myself hide from you the works of God which he has deigned to do among us.

"All the cultivated land round here was very sterile and unfruitful. But the seed still had to be sown, even though it only returned twofold. Maggots were appearing on the stalks of the new shoots, which consumed the grains as they grew upwards. Now the peasants in that place had been pagans, but since we had taught them to believe in God and to become Christians, they came to us as newly made Christians asking that we should pray to God for their crops. We told them that we would indeed pray, but that God required from them a faith that would deserve such prayer. So they filled the fold of their robes with sand that we ourselves had walked on and brought it to us begging that we would bless it in the name of the Lord. I said to them: 'Be it unto you according to your faith.' They took the sand away with them and mixed it with the seed they were sowing and scattered it over the fields. The crop which resulted was greater than anything which the land of Egypt had ever previously been able to produce. From then on the custom arose of them coming to us twice a year with the same request.

"I won't leave you ignorant either about something else which the Lord for the glory of his name did through me. I had gone down to the city once and found there a Manichaean teacher subverting the people with whom I began a dispute. But he was a very crafty individual, and I was not able to convince him by words, so, fearing that the people would come to some harm if he seemed to win the argument, I said so that the people could hear me; 'Make a big fire in the centre of the square and let us both walk into the midst of the flames, and if there should be one of us that is not burned in it, let the faith of that one be believed to be the true one.' The people were pleased with what I said and immediately set a big fire going. I took him and began to drag him towards the fire, but he said: 'No, not like this. Each one of us should go in separately, and since this is your idea you should go in first.' Committing myself in the name of Christ I walked into the midst of the flames, which began to part here and there and move away from me almost entirely. I stayed in the midst of that fire nearly half an hour and in the name of the Lord hardly came to any harm at all. The watching people shouted out with great approval and blessed God, saying: 'God is wonderful in his saints!' (Psalm 68.35) [AV: O God thou art terrible out of thy holy places]. Then they began to goad the Manichaean into going into the fire, which he was very reluctant to do and tried to get away. Whereupon the crowd seized him and threw him into the fire. The flames immediately licked round him and delivered him up again half burned and still on fire. The people reviled him and threw him out of the city. shouting: 'Let the deceiver burn alive'. But me they took with them to the church, blessing the Lord.

"On another occasion I was passing by a temple where I saw the pagans offering sacrifices, and I said to them: 'You are people endowed with reason. Why are you offering up these dumb and insensible images? Are you not even more insensible than what you are offering up?' And because of what I had said the Lord opened up their minds and they stopped being governed by error and followed me, believing in our God and Saviour.

"I used to have a little garden near my cell where I used to grow vegetables in order to entertain any visiting brothers. One night a pagan came in and stole some vegetables. He took them home and began to cook them on the fire, but after three hours over a steadily burning flame they would neither get hot, nor soften up nor get warm to the slightest degree, remaining as fresh as they were before. The water just would not get the slightest bit warm. This made him realise in himself that he was a thief, and he snatched the vegetables off the fire and brought them back to us, where he prostrated himself at our feet and begged that he might find forgiveness for his sins and become a Christian, which indeed was brought to pass.

"And it so happened that on that very same day a number of brothers came to us as guests. The vegetables therefore were already most opportunely prepared for them. We gave thanks to God for his wonders, having a twofold cause for rejoicing: the salvation of a human being and gifts from God besides."

Chapter X

ABBAS SYRUS, ISAIAH, PAUL AND ANUPHIUS (VIII.55-58)

He also added this story:

Three abbas, Syrus, Isaias and Paul met together at the bank of a river. They were upright men, of great abstinence and very religious. They were intending to visit a certain Anuphius, whose cell was three days journey away. They wanted to cross the river but there was absolutely no transport available, so they said among themselves: "Let us ask for God's grace that the good work of this journey will not be hindered." And turning to Abba Syrus, the other two said: "You especially must pray to God, for we know that God listens to you and always provides what you ask for." So he urged them to bend their knees along with himself, and prostrated himself face down before the Lord. Their prayer completed they got up and behold! they saw that a boat had been called up, ready to cross the river and help them on their way in the journey they were making. They got aboard, and were carried so quickly up river that in the space of one hour they covered the whole journey which they had expected would have taken three days. When they came ashore Isaias said: "The Lord has given me a vision of this man we are hurrying to meet, coming towards us, being told all the secrets of the heart of each one of us." And Paul said: "And the Lord showed me that in three days time he will be taken from this world."

They had progressed a little way from the river on their journey to the cell, when they saw coming towards them the man they were coming to visit. He greeted them and said: "Blessed be God who has often shown you to me in spirit, but now in the flesh." And he began to spell out the virtues of each one of them in the sight of the Lord, and all the things they had done. And Paul said: "Since the Lord has revealed to us that in three days time he will take you from this world, we beg you to tell us about all your virtues and deeds which have been pleasing to the Lord, and don't be frightened that we will think you boastful. Leave us with a memorial of your doings before you die, as an example for posterity."

"I don't know that I have done anything remarkable," he said, "but I did succeed in this, that I confessed the name of my Saviour through all the persecutions, nor did any lie ever proceed out of my mouth after this confession of truth, nor have I loved the things of earth more than the things of heaven, and the grace of God has never failed me in these things. He has never failed me in anything I have needed on earth; by the ministry of angels he has always supplied me with sufficient food. The Lord has always shown me what was happening on earth, and his light has never departed from my heart. Sustained by that light I have done without sleep, nourished always by a longing to see him. His angel has always been sent to stand by me, teaching me about each and every virtue in the world. His light has never been shut out of my mind. Anything I have asked for I have immediately carried out. He has often showed me multitudes of angels standing round about him, I have seen the assemblies of the just, the congregations of martyrs, the gatherings of kings and of all the saints, that is, of all those whose task is nothing other than to praise and bless the Lord for ever in simplicity of heart and faith. As against that I have seen Satan and all his angels cast into eternal fire, and again, the just enjoying eternal bliss."

After telling them about these things and many more for three days, he gave up his spirit. And straight away they saw his soul taken up by the angels and carried to heaven, and they heard the sound of the hymns with which his soul was praising God along with the angels as he was going to the Lord.

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