Chapter LXXXIII (continued)
"Come, brother," they said, "we are going to give you your freedom, since you have liberated us from a sordid way of life."
"It is God who has done it all," he replied, "you have cooperated with him. And so you have saved your souls. Now I will tell you the hidden reason for what I have done. I was moved with compassion for you because of your false way of life. I am a free monk [liber exercitator] of Egypt, and it was in this cause that I sold myself to you and became your slave. Since it is God who has acted to bring your souls into safety, please take back the money you gave me, and let me go and bring help to someone else."
"But you are our lord and father. Please stay with us," they urged him again and again. But he would not be persuaded.
"Why not give the money to the poor - for it has been the cause of our salvation," they said:
"No, you give it to them, " he said. "It's yours, after all, I can't give somebody else's money to the poor."
"Well at least come back and visit us next year," they urged him. And so he departed from them.
In the course of his various wanderings he came at last to Greece, and stayed for three days in Athens without anyone offering him any bread. As for money, or a bag, or a sheepskin, or a staff, he had none of these things. He was dressed only in his sindon. By the fourth day he was very hungry, for he had eaten nothing all this time. Fasting which is forced upon you is a very serious thing, especially when you would not have believed it possible. He went to the place where the leading citizens were accustomed to congregate and stood up on the citizens' platform.
"Men of Athens, please help," he cried, with much weeping and urgent shouting. Some of the leading citizens [lit. 'those who wore the pallium and birrus'] came up to him.
"What is the matter with you?" they asked. "Where do you come from and what's wrong with you?"
"I am an Egyptian," he said, "a monk by profession. Absent from my own true homeland, I have fallen in with three moneylenders. I have paid the debt to two of them and they have gone away; there is nothing else they can bother me with. But there is one that is still with me."
"Where are they then?" they asked, as they looked around impatiently in order to pay them off. "Who is it that is bothering you? Point him out to us and we will come to your assistance."
"It is Avarice, Gluttony and Fornication that bother me," he replied. "I have been delivered from two of them - Avarice because I have no money or anything else, and Fornication because I do not indulge in that kind of luxurious living which gives rise to it. But I can't get away from Gluttony, for it is now four days since I have had anything to eat, and my stomach attacks me vigorously, seeking payment of a debt without which I shall not be able to live."
Realising that he was spinning them an allegorical tale some of those wise men then gave him a shilling, which he took into a bakery, picked up some bread, left the city and did not come back there again. They realised then that he was a man of great virtue and paid the miller the price of the bread so that they could have their shilling back again [as a souvenir].
He travelled to a place near Lacedmonia, where he heard that a principal citizen of that place was a Manichan together with all his household, although he was good man in every other way. So this best of monks sold himself to this man in the same way as he had done before. Within two years he had converted this man from his heresy together with his wife and his whole family and brought them into the Church. They regarded him so highly that they no longer treated him as a slave but held him in as high honour as a brother or a father. Together they all praised God. He gave them a great deal of encouragement before giving back to his master the price of his freedom and leaving them.
He then went aboard a ship about to sail for Rome. Some of the sailors thought he had already paid his fare, others assumed he had sufficient money to cover expenses, all thought someone else had seen to his baggage, and they made no objection to his presence, without really going into the matter very carefully. When they had set sail and were about fifty miles from Alexandria, the sailors had a meal about sunset, followed by the passengers. On the first day they noticed that he ate nothing but put it down to seasickness. The same thing happened on the second, third and fourth day. On the fifth day they noticed him sitting quietly while everyone was eating and said:
"You're not eating anything, friend?"
"That is because I haven't got anything to eat," he replied.
So they began to ask questions about who might have taken care of his baggage or taken any money for his fare, and realised that nobody had. Indeed he had no baggage to take care of.
"What do you mean by coming on board without any money?" they said angrily. "How are you going to pay your fare? How are you going to eat?"
"I don't possess a thing," he replied. "So you will have to take me back and leave me where you found me."
"No fear of that, " they said, "now that we have got a favourable wind - not unless you could give us a hundred gold pieces. So we will just have to accept it, and put up with what we can't change."
The Life of abba DOMNIO
A Silent VIRGIN
Serapion profited greatly from meeting Domnio, as he was an exemplary person, learned, wise in speech and of unblemished life. He asked him whether there were any other local spiritual athletes, either men or women, and was told about a certain virgin practising quietness and silence, who had been enclosed in a cell for twenty-five years without speaking to anyone. He went to the place where he had been told that she lived and spoke to the old woman who served her:
"Tell this virgin that I must needs meet her," he said.
"She has not met anyone for many years," the old woman replied
"Tell her that I have come to meet her for God has sent me," he said.
But even then the old woman would not agree.
After he had persisted in his request for two or three days, however, he did at last meet her.
"Why do you stay put here?" he asked
"I don't stay put," she said. "I am continually on the move."
"Moving towards God."
"Are you alive then, or dead?
"I trust in God that I am dead to the world, for those who live according to the flesh cannot come to God."
"You would more readily convince me that you were dead to the world if you did what I do."
"Well, command me, and anything I can do, I will."
"Anything is possible for one truly mortified, as long as it is not anything sinful, so come out of your seclusion and walk outside with me."
"I've not been out for twenty-five years, so why should I go out now?"
"Go on! Haven't you said you are dead to the world? In which case it is obvious that the world must be dead to you. If that is really true, and those who are dead have no feelings, it can't make any difference to you whether you go out or not."
So she did come out and went with him as far as the church.
"If you really want to convince me," he said to her in the church, "that you are dead to the world and indifferent to what people think of you, do what I do and I will then know that you are truly mortified. Take off all your outer clothing as I have done, carry it over your shoulder, and walk though the middle of the town with me in front of you, dressed as I am in nothing but this sindon."
"That would be a terrible thing to do. I would offend many people, and they could accuse me of being mad or possessed by a devil."
"Why should you worry even if they did call you mad or possessed by a devil? You are supposed to be dead to their opinions. The dead have no worries. They can't feel anything whether they are praised or disparaged."
"Think of something else for me to do. I can't claim to have arrived at that measure [of mortification]."
"Well then," said Serapion, who had great powers of endurance, "cease from boasting and pleasing yourself, as if you were more pious and mortified than anyone. Even I am more mortified than you are, for I do this without any shame or mental hesitation."
And so he took leave of her, having dented her pride and pointed her in the direction of humility.
There are many other great and illustrious deeds illustrating the endurance of this great and pre-eminently virtuous Teacher of Christ, but the purity of his life will be evident from the few which I have written down. He died in the sixtieth year of his life and was buried in the desert.
EVAGRIUS, a famous deacon.
I cannot pass over Evagrius, a distinguished deacon who lived like an apostle, but I feel bound to write something, to the glory of our good Saviour and the edification of anyone who might read it. So I give a full account of how he came to the monastic life and the worthy way in which he lived it. He died in the desert aged fifty-four, thus, in the words of Scripture, 'being made perfect in a short time he fulfilled a long time' (Wisdom 4.13).
He was indeed a soul pleasing to God. He was born at Ibora, in Pontus [near the Black Sea, c.346], the son of a priest, appointed as a lector by Saint Basil the bishop of Caesarea. After the death of the holy bishop Basil, he was ordained deacon byBasil's brother, Gregory bishop of Nyssa, who had taken note of his abilities. Gregory was a most wise man, worthy of being compared to the apostles, with a very serene temperament, and quite brilliant in expounding doctrine. He took Evagrius with him to the Great Synod of Constantinople (382 AD), and relinquished him to the blessed bishop Nectarius, who appreciated his skill in the art of summing up arguments in all kinds of subjects. [omnium differendi artis peritissimus]. He gained a reputation as a young man in that great city for refuting all kinds of heresies in public debates.
It came to pass, however, that this man, honoured by the whole city for his upright life, became lustfully obsessed by a portrait of a woman, as he told us himself in later life when he had been freed from such obsessions. And the woman also, belonging to one of the leading families, became obsessed by him. But Evagrius feared God and feared his conscience also. He kept before his eyes the public disgrace that could come from sin, and how much pleasure the heretics would take from the sins of other people. He humbly begged God to take away from him the prospects afforded him by this woman, fed by lust as he was and held captive by mad desire. But however much he wished to escape he had no power against the insidious pleasures which held him in chains.
But a short time after his prayer, and before his desires could be carried into effect, he had an angelic vision in which he saw a military commander seize him and bring him before the judgment seat, carry out the sentence of imprisonment by putting an iron collar around his neck and fixing iron chains to his hands, while those who had followed him previously could say nothing in his defence. Pricked by conscience he felt that he deserved these punishments, and supposed that the woman's husband had brought him to this judgment. His mind in a turmoil, he came to this conclusion since he had been involved in similar trials debating the crimes of other people. His fear and mental anguish was intense.
And then the angel of the initial vision became transformed in his eyes into a kind and brotherly friend who was astonished and saddened by the shame of his being chained up with forty other convicted criminals.
"Why are you being detained so ignominiously among criminals, my reverend deacon?" he asked:
"Truly, I don't know," he replied. "But I suspect that N.. who is a high-up officer has organised my arrest in a fit of zeal beyond all reason, and bribed the judge to impose the greatest possible penalty."
"Take the advice of a friend," said the angel, still in friendly guise. "It would be best for you not to stay in this city any longer."
"If you can see me freed from this calamity back in Constantinople," Evagrius replied, "I swear I would accept that punishment, knowing that I deserve a much greater."
"If that is the case I will bring the holy gospels and when you have sworn an oath on them that you will leave this city and take thought for your own salvation I will free you from your imprisonment."
"Please do that, and I will gladly swear the oath. Only get me out from under this dark cloud."
The gospels were brought, the oath was demanded, and Evagrius swore:
"I will not stay in this city longer than one day in which I can get my things on to the ship."
The moment he had sworn the oath he awoke from the dream which had come upon him that night.
"Even though it is only in a dream that I have sworn this oath," he said as he got out of bed, "I have nevertheless sworn."
And he conveyed himself and everything he possessed by ship to Jerusalem, where he was accepted by the blessed Melania of Rome. But being of a lusty youthful age, his heart was hardened by the devil again, like Pharaoh of old. He was full of doubt, of two contrary minds, though as yet he had not talked with anyone about it. The result was that he thought of changing back to secular dress again. In all this disturbance of mind vainglory rapidly led to laziness, but the God who saves us from falling led him once more into a crisis, in that he first of felt feverish, then became seriously ill, so that he was incapacitated for the space of six months. He was unable to summon up any strength at all, and the doctors could not understand what was the matter with him and could offer no cure.
"I don't like this disease of yours," said the blessed Melania, "going on day after day. Tell me what is going on in your mind. Bodily illness is not the real thing, is it."
So he confessed what had happened to him in Constantinople.
"Promise me as God is your witness," she said, "that you will embrace the monastic life, and sinner though I am I will pray to God for you that you may be given food for your journey and find a purpose in life."
He agreed, she prayed, and after a few days he got much better. She herself then clothed him in the monastic habit, and he went off to a far country, that is, to Mount Nitria in Egypt. He lived there for two years and went into solitude in the third.
After fourteen years in the region known as the Cells he was eating only a pound of bread a day and a pint of oil very three months - and he was a man who had been brought up in the lap of luxury. He composed a hundred essays (orationes), marking them down each year as the only price he could afford in exchange for what he ate. He was a most elegant and speedy writer. A month into his fifteenth year, he was found worthy of being granted the gifts of knowledge, wisdom and discernment of spirits. He wrote three books for monks called Antihrretica, that is, Refutations, outlining the means of fighting against the demons.
He told us that once when tormented by a demon of fornication he stood all night in a well, even though it was winter, in order to discipline his body with coldness. On another occasion, as he told us, when he was tormented by a spirit of blasphemy, he stayed outside for forty days, so that his body became like that of the wild beasts and broke out in scabs. And three demons dressed like clerics appeared to him. One of them accused him of being an Arian, the second of being a Eunomian, the third an Apollinarian, but he overcame them with a few words inspired by the spirit of wisdom. One day the key of the church was mislaid, but he called on the name of Christ, made the sign of the cross on the crossbar, pushed it with his hand and it opened. It would be difficult to tell of all the beatings he had from demons and all the other torments they devised for him. He foretold to one of his disciples what would happen to him in eighteen years time, describing everything exactly as it was to happen (omnia ei praedicens in specie). He also said:
"Since the time I became a solitary I have not touched lettuce or the smallest particle of green vegetables, or anything fresh, fruit, grapes, lauacrum (?), meat, wine or anything cooked. All I have had is wild herbs and water." But in the sixteenth year, without cooking since beginning this kind of life, weakness of body and stomach persuaded him of the need for his flesh to take in some cooked food. For two years he ate some bread, though never any cooked vegetables, except some barley-groats and lentils. By these means this blessed man wore down his body but brought life to his soul through the Holy Spirit. He communicated in church at Epiphanytide.
This wholehearted athlete of Christ also told us when on his death bed that it was only for the last three years that he had not been bothered by the desires of the flesh. So even towards the end of a life rooted in virtue, after immense labours, unwavering purpose and sober unceasing prayer the malicious demon, the enemy of everything good, could still attack this immortal soul. If that is the case what must the lazy ones suffer from that wicked demon through their own negligence?
Somebody once brought him the news that his father was dead, and all he said to the messenger was: 'Don't blaspheme. My father lives for ever." He was, of course, talking about God.
The life of abba PIOR (cf Chapter XI)
There was an Egyptian called Pior who renounced the world and left his family home while still a young man, at which time he promised God that he would not set eyes on them again. Fifty years later his sister in her old age learnt from someone that he was still alive and she became totally obsessed with the desire to see him. She could not venture into the emptiness of the deserts by herself so she asked her local bishop to write to the fathers in the desert, asking them to send him to her so that she could see him. A great deal of pressure was brought to bear on him, so at last, obedient to the fathers, he decided to go, taking one other person with him.
He told the brother to approach his sister's door and stand outside. When he heard the door being knocked and his sister coming out to meet him, he shut his eyes and called out
"N., my sister, I am Pior your brother. Here I am. Come, look, gaze as much as you like."
Convinced it was he, she praised God and did all she could to persuade him to come inside, but he simply said a prayer on the threshold and returned to his solitude, which for him was just as important as his own native land.
He is also credited with this miracle, that he dug down in the place where he had built his cell and found water, which was however bitter. But he stayed there till his death, content with the bitter water he had found, so that the ability of this generous man to put up with things became widely known. After his death many monks tried to live in his cell, but were not able to manage it, not even for so long as a year. It was a terrible place, bereft of all comfort.
The life of abba MOSES of Libya
Moses of Libya was a most gentle man, renowned for his great charity. He had been found worthy of being given the gift of healing. He told us this story:
In the monastery once when I was quite young I was digging a deep well, twenty feet deep. Eighty of us had been digging for three days and got to the usual water bearing level, but having seen it and gone into it for about a cubit's length we found no water. Greatly discouraged, we were thinking about giving up, and were in the middle of discussing it when Pior appeared out of the empty desert, dressed in his sheepskin. And this was at the hottest sixth hour of the day. After greeting us he asked:
"Why are you so downcast, you men of little faith? I knew yesterday that you were losing heart."
So saying he immediately put down a ladder into the well, said a prayer over them, took a rod and struck it three times.
"O God of our holy fathers," he said, "let not the work of your servants be a useless waste of time, but send them the gift of water."
And water immediately gushed forth, spraying over us.
"It is clear that this is the reason I have been sent to you," he said, after praying once more.
"Please stay and have a meal with us," we urged him.
"No, I can't do that," he replied. "I have finished doing all that I was sent to do."
Such is the admirable story of Pior, that famous pillar standing strong against all storms, and the reward of his virtue is that now, instead of his bitter-tasting water, he enjoys for ever a river of flowing sweetness in great exaltation of spirit.