The Life of Abba HELLEN
There was another father called Abba Hellen, who from an early age had lived a life of discipline. Time and again he would give quite fiery exhortations to the brothers who were with him, urging them not merely to be disciplined in their lives but to show results by increasing in virtue.
Once when he was by himself in the desert he was obsessed by a desire for some honey, when believe it or not he came across a honeycomb under a rock.
"Be off, you inordinate desire!" he cried. "For it is written 'Walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfil the desires of the flesh'" (Gal 5.16). And he left the honeycomb where it was and walked away.
After fasting three weeks in the desert he found some fruits which had been scattered about, but he said, "I won't eat them, I won't even touch them, lest I shock my brothers, never mind do harm to my own soul. For it is written, 'Man does not live by bread alone.'" (Luke 4.4).
After fasting another week he fell into a heavy sleep and an angel came to him in a dream, saying, "Arise, take what you find, and eat." He got up, looked about him, and saw a spring which had made various plants grow in a circle all around it. He ate the fruits and drank the water, declaring that he had never tasted anything so delicious.
He found a small cave nearby and stayed there fasting for several days. When he needed food he prostrated himself and prayed, and immediately all kinds of food were placed before him, warm bread, olives and various kinds of fruit.
He would sometime visit the brothers to give them instruction, after which he would hasten back to the desert, taking with him anything he needed. He saw some asses feeding, and said, "In the name of Jesus Christ, one of you come and carry my parcels." And immediately one of them came. He put his sheepskin on it and sat on it, and arrived back at his cave after only one day. He left his bread and fruit outside in the sun, but when the wild beasts came to drink as usual at the spring they fell dead if they so much as touched any of it.
On another occasion he went to visit some monks on a Sunday and asked them why they had not celebrated the synaxis*. They immediately replied that it was because the priest had not come.
"I will go and get him," he said.
"You won't be able to cross the river," they replied. "It's too deep. Besides, there is an enormous beast of a crocodile there which has eaten many people."
Without delay he got up and went to the crossing point, where the crocodile took him on its back and carried him across to the other side of the river. When he found the priest at home he begged him not to neglect the brothers. The priest looked at Hellen's clothing, all patched and tattered.
"Your clothing bespeaks great beauty of soul, my brother," he said. And in admiration of his humility and frugality he accompanied him to the river. There was of course no ferryboat there, but Abba Hellen called out to the crocodile. It came up obediently and offered his back.
"Get on it with me," Hellen asked the priest. But he moved away, overcome by fear. Awestruck, he watched the beast carry Hellen across the river, as did the brethren living on the other side. He then lured the beast towards him, and said:
"It is better that you should die, rather than continue to be condemned for killing people." And the beast fell down and died.
He remained with these brothers for three days, teaching them and bringing out into the open all their secret thoughts. This person he declared to be tempted by fornication, that one by vainglory, another by gluttony, another by anger. One he declared to be a gentle person, another a peacemaker. He made clear the vices of the one group and the virtues of the other. As they listened they wonderingly agreed that what he said was true.
"Prepare some vegetables," he then said, "for there will be some more brothers coming to visit us today." While they were still in the process of preparing them the brothers arrived and they all greeted one another.
One of the brothers asked to be allowed to come and live with him in the solitude of the desert.
"You would not be able to withstand the temptations of the demons," said Hellen.
"I could withstand anything," he said, in a rather aggrieved tone of voice.
So he took him with him and showed him a separate cave to live in. That night the demons came and first of all attacked him with filthy thoughts and then tried to suffocate him. But he ran and told Hellen immediately what was happening. Hellen came and signed the place with the cross (Lit. 'impressed a figure upon the place', cum loco figuram impressisset), and bade him rest secure.
When the supply of bread ran out an angel in the shape of a brother brought him food.
On another occasion there were ten brothers travelling through the desert to visit him who had been fasting for seven days when he met them. He invited them to rest in his cave, and when they asked him for some food he said:
"I have nothing that I can offer you, but God is able to provide a meal in the desert."
They joined together in prayer and immediately a young man arrived in a boat and knocked at the door. They opened up to him and found that this young man was carrying a large basket of bread and olives. Thanking God they took and ate, and the young man immediately disappeared.
This and many other things Father Copres told us about. He treated us kindly and warmly, showing us into his garden where there were palms and other fruit bearing trees which he had planted himself in the desert, at the instigation of those farmers to whom he had said, "For those who have faith in God the desert shall bring forth fruit."
The Life of Abba APELLE
We also saw another priest in the more distant parts of the region called Apelle, a good man who used to be a coppersmith before being converted to the disciplined life. The devil once came to him in the shape of a woman while he was working his smithy for the monks. In his haste picked up a red hot piece of metal from the fire and belaboured her face and body with it. The brothers heard her shrieking in his cell. From that time onwards he always picked up hot metal in his hand without being burnt. He greeted us kindly and warmly and told us about many famous men and friends of God who had been with him and some who still were.
The Life of another JOHN
"There is in this desert," he said, "a brother called John, already quite advanced in age, who excels all the other monks in virtue. He is quite difficult to find for he wanders about from place to place in the desert. He stood for three years under a cliff face in perpetual prayer, without sitting down, and not sleeping except for what sleep he could snatch standing up. He ate nothing except the Eucharist which a priest brought to him on Sundays. There came a day when Satan changed himself into the likeness of a priest and came quickly to him claiming that he would like to bring him the Eucharist. But blessed John recognised him and said:
"'You father of all lies and deceit, enemy of all that is just, unceasing deceiver of Christian souls, will you also dare to insult the holy Sacraments?'
"'I may not have come anywhere near dragging you down and casting you into the flames,' he said, 'but there was one other of your brothers whom I corrupted whose mind I disturbed to the point of insanity. Many righteous people prayed for him a great deal but were not able to restore him to a sound mind.'
"Having said this the demon departed.
"His feet had become sore through standing so long and had begun to fester when an angel came and touched him, saying:
"'The real Christ will be your food and the real Holy Spirit will be your drink, but this spiritual food will be sufficient for you in the meantime so that you will not be given more than you can take (lit. 'lest being filled you vomit', ne repletus evomas). He then cured him and departed.
"After that John wandered about in the desert, using wild herbs for food, but on Sundays he would always be in the same place to receive Communion. He begged a few palm leaves from the priest from which he made animal harness. Anyone who was lame and seeking a cure from him was immediately healed the moment he mounted an ass and touched any harness which the holy man had made. Whenever he delivered any other kind of blessings to the sick they were healed at once.
"Furthermore it was revealed to him that there was someone in one of the monasteries who was not living aright, and he wrote letters for the priest to deliver, specifying some who were lazy and others who were striving for virtue. What he said was always found to be true. He also wrote to the fathers pointing out which of them were lacking in care for the brothers and which of them were helping them as much as possible. He suggested suitable rewards and punishments accordingly. (Interfering old busybody! - [Translator]) He urged others to move towards a state of perfection by relying not on what their five senses told them but on their own interior knowledge (lit. 'he urged them to transfer themselves from sensible things to those things which are perceived by intelligence' (admonebat ut a sensilibus se transferrent ad ea quae percipiuntur intelligentia)
"'It is time', he said, 'to spell out the purpose of such a life. For we ought not to remain childlike and infantile for ever. We should direct our thoughts into more perfect paths, develop in greatness of soul, seeking every possible virtue to the uttermost.'"
This and many other things Apelle told us about John. We haven't written them all down because they are so exceedingly miraculous that some people might not believe them, even though they are indeed true. We are quite convinced about these things, however, for we saw with our own eyes the many remarkable men who told us of them.
We saw also the place where the anchorite Paphnutius lived, a great man famous for his virtues, who had died not long since in the region of Heracleotas in the Thebaid. Many people have said many things about him.
TIBICINE [= flautist]
After living a disciplined life for a long time, Paphnutius asked God to show him whether there was anyone else among the holy people living an upright life who compared to him. An angel appeared to him and said, "There is a flautist in this region like you."
He hastily sought him out to find out how he lived and acquaint himself with everything he had done.
"The truth is," the flautist said, "that I am a sinner, a drunkard and a fornicator. It is not long since I stopped being a thief."
"But you must have done some things right," said Paphnutius, trying to examine him closely.
"I'm not aware of anything good in particular," said the flautist, "unless when I was a robber I helped a virgin of Christ to escape from some robbers who were offering to molest her, and took her by night back to her home. There again, I once found a beautiful woman wandering about in the desert. She was weeping copiously, fleeing from bailiffs and other court officials because of her husband's failure to pay his taxes, for when I asked her why she was weeping all she would say was, 'Don't ask. Don't pry into my misery. Just have me as you servant and take me where you will. It is two years now since my husband was shut up in prison and beaten because he owed taxes to the extent of three hundred gold pieces. And my three lovely sons were sold into slavery - so I have fled, wandering from place to place. Here I am now wandering in the desert. It has often happened that I have been severely attacked, and for three days now in this desert I have had nothing to eat.'
"Well, I took pity on her," said the robber. "and took her back to my cave, gave her three hundred gold pieces and took her back to the city where her husband and children were freed from all disgrace and shame."
"I can't point to anything like that in my own life," said Paphnutius, "but you have doubtless heard that I have some reputation for living the disciplined life. I certainly do not spend my time in idleness. It was God who revealed to me that you in your deeds were by no means inferior to me. So, my brother, if you have any great longing for God at all do not rashly neglect your own soul."
Immediately, he threw away the flute he had in his hands and exchanged the music of lyric poetry for a melody of the spirit by following Paphnutius into the desert.
For three years he followed this way of life to the utmost of his ability, completing his life in hymns and prayers, after which he departed for the heavenly realms, resting in peace with choirs of angels, and numbered in the company of the just.
As soon as Paphnutius committed to God that man who had striven after excellence to the best of his ability he imposed upon himself an even greater and stricter rule of life than before. And he then asked God if there was anyone else who could compare with him. Again he heard a divine voice, saying, "There is a community leader [protocomes] in a neighbouring village who is as good as you."
Immediately he sought him out and knocked on his door. This man came out and offered him hospitality as usual, invited him in, washed his feet, set food before him, and urged him to eat. Paphnutius then began to ask him about himself.
"Tell me, my friend," he said, "about your way of life, for God has told me that you exceed many monks in virtue."
"No, I'm a sinner," he replied." I am not worthy to be compared with monks."
But Paphnutius urged him more insistently, until he replied, "I feel under no compulsion to tell you about the things I have done except in so far as you say that God has sent you, in which case I will tell you about myself. It is thirty years now since I separated from my wife. I lived with her for only three years, and she gave me three sons who still assist me in my business. I have never refused hospitality to anyone right up to the present day. There is no one among my associates who can boast of being more hospitable than me. I have always seen guests and beggars on their way with plenty of food; no one has ever left my door with empty hands. I have never passed by any poor beggar without giving him enough to satisfy his needs. In any quarrel I have never been prejudiced in favour of my own sons, no stolen goods have ever entered my house, there has never been a legal argument in which I have not acted as mediator and peacemaker, no one has ever accused my sons of behaving dishonestly, my flocks have never grazed anyone else's pasture, I have not given priority to sowing my own fields, but declared them common to all and simply gathered up what was left over. I have never permitted the poor to be oppressed by the power of the rich, I have done no injury to anyone in my life, I have never pronounced an unfair judgment against anyone. This is the way, as far as I am aware, of how I have been following the will of God."
When Paphnutius heard the deeds of this man he kissed his forehead and said, "'The Lord bless thee out of Sion, that you may see the goods of Jerusalem all the days of your life.' (Psalm 128.5) In all these things you have done well. One thing remains to crown your virtues, and that is knowledge of the wisdom of God in every part of your being, which you cannot find without great labour, separating yourself from the world, taking up your cross and following the Saviour."
Upon hearing this, he immediately followed Paphnutius out to his mountain, without even letting his family say farewell. When they came to the Nile they found there was no boat, so Paphnutius told him to wade through, which nobody was doing at that particular time because the river was high. The water came up their waists, but after the crossing Paphnutius set him up in a certain place. [That is, following the usual practice, he would help him build a cell, show him how to weave mats and baskets and instruct him in psalmody and prayer.]
After leaving him he asked God that this man should be seen to excel all others of this kind. Not long afterwards he saw his soul taken up by the angels as they praised God saying, "'Blessed is he whom you have chosen and taken up on high. He will dwell in your courts' (Psalm 65.4)." And the cries of the just responded, saying, "'Great is the peace of those who love thy law and are not offended by it.' (Psalm 119.165)." And then he knew that the man was dead.
Abba Paphnutius continued to worship God in prayer and fast rigorously. He again asked God to show him someone else like him. And again the divine voice came to him, "You are like a merchant gathering fine pearls. But get on your feet without delay, for someone similar to yourself is coming to meet you." He came down from the mountain and met a certain merchant (mercator) of Alexandria worth twenty thousand gold pieces, a devout lover of Christ, coming down [the Nile] from the upper Thebaid with a hundred ships, giving away all his goods and chattels to the poor. Along with his sons he came and offered ten bags of vegetables to Paphnutius.
"What is all this about, my friend?" asked Paphnutius.
"These are the profits of my business," he replied, "which are offered to God by way of a fair return."
"How is it then," said Paphnutius, "that you have not yet enjoyed a reputation like mine?"
"But that is what I am earnestly seeking," he replied.
"Well how much longer," asked Paphnutius, "are you going to go on in your worldly business without getting any nearer to a heavenly reward? When you have given all you possess to other people you will then be able to take to yourself something infinitely more valuable, that is, to follow the Saviour, and indeed to enter his very presence not long hence."
Without any argument he told his sons to give the rest of his things to the poor. He himself went up into the mountain, embraced solitude in a place where two others had laboured before him, and gave himself up to prayer. It was not long afterwards that he left his body and entered the kingdom of heaven.
Having seen this person go before him into heaven he was ready to give up the ghost himself, as one who could labour no longer. And an angel came to him and said, "Approach hither now. Do you also, O blessed one, enter into the tabernacle of the Lord. See, the prophets are coming to welcome you into their choirs. You have not been told this would happen before lest you had become proud and stained your good record."
One day later certain priests were led to him by a revelation [from God]. He told them all these things and then gave up his soul. And the priests praised God as they plainly saw him taken up among the saints and angels.