The Life of abba ARSISIUS and those who were with him in Mount Nitria.
I spent three years living with that company of holy people in the cells around Alexandria. There were about two thousand admirable and indefatigable men there, examples of every kind of virtue.
From there I went into Mount Nitria. There is a lake called Lake Maria between Alexandria and the mountain where there were about seventy thousand men. A day and a half's journey further on I arrived at the southern part of the mountain. There is a vast desert here stretching as far as Ethiopia, Mazices and Mauretania. Five thousand men live there, of various different life styles, each one according to his ability and his aspiration, some alone, some in twos or threes, or in any combination you like to mention. There are seven mills in the mountain which provide for them and the six hundred anchorites who live in the vast empty spaces.
I lived for a whole year in the mountain with those blessed and holy men, Arsisius, Putaphastus, Hagio, Cronius and Serapio, after which I went into the inner desert, inspired by the spiritual stories of many ancient fathers. There is one great church in this Mount Nitria, and in this church there are three palm-tree trunks from each of which hangs a whip. The first is for punishing delinquent monks, the second for any robbers who turn up, and the third for any who come and fall into some other offence. Any transgressor who is judged to deserve punishment hugs the palm tree, receives on his back the due number of lashes and is then released.
There is a hostel next to the church constantly receiving guests, who stay even for two or three years if they want, until they decide to go of their own free will. For the first week they are allowed to be idle, but from then on they are given work to do, either in the garden, the mill or the kitchen. If anyone wants a book for some good reason he is given one, but is not allowed to talk until the sixth hour. There are no physicians or entertainers [placentarii] in this mountain, but they do drink wine, which is also on sale. They all make linen clothes for themselves, and no one goes short of anything.
Around about the ninth hour, work stops and in all the cells can be heard the singing of psalms and prayers to Christ, with prayers added to the psalms, so that you might think you had been transported into the Paradise of delights. They go to the church only on Saturday and Sunday. There are eight priests officiating in the church, but for as long as the senior priest is alive no one else makes the offering, or sits in judgment or preaches, but just sits with him in silence.
This great man Arsisius, and many others whom we saw with him, had been contemporaries of the great Antony. And Arsisius told me that he had also seen Amoun of Nitria whose soul Antony had seen being taken up into heaven by the angels (VP, VA.32). He said he had also seen Pachomius, that famous man with the gift of prophecy, whose virtues I shall describe later (Chapter XXXVIII)
AMOUN and his wife
He told me how Amoun spent his life.
He was about twenty-two when his parents died, and his uncle made him get married. He couldn't argue against his uncle's claim that it was necessary, so he agreed to be decked with the crown, enter the marriage chamber [Orthodox weddings to this day include the giving of a crown to both bride and groom. Many cultures observe the ceremony of escorting the bride and groom to bed] .and accept the married state. After being escorted into the bedroom and put to bed, the blessed Amoun got up as soon as the guests had left, shut the door, sat down and spoke to his blessed wife like a brother talking to a sister."Can you bear with me while I unburden myself of something? You are not just a married woman (domina), you are like a sister to me. The fact that we have been joined together in matrimony is not really anything very marvellous. Let's do something really special for the love of Christ. Let's sleep separately right from the beginning and keep our virginity intact." At this he pulled out of his pocket a little book and read the greater part of it to her, as she was unable to read. Like an Apostle and Saviour he added some divinely inspired teaching of his own, setting out the reasons for living a life of virginity and chastity.
The effect of this was that she became filled with the grace of Christ and said, "My dear husband (domine mi), I also am convinced that I can gladly embrace a life of chastity. So if that is what you wish, I agree, right from the start."
"What I want and ask you for," he said, "is that we should live apart."
"I don't agree with that," she said. "Let us stay in the same house but have separate beds."
So he lived with her for eighteen years in the same house, passing his time in the garden and in the balsam room. For he was a producer of balsam, which is planted out like vines, and involves a great deal of labour in cultivating it and looking after it. He would go home in the evening and after saying prayers would have a meal with her. At night he would pray and do the synaxis [A non-Eucharistic service of psalms, Scripture and prayers.], and first thing in the morning go out into the garden. Living like this they both came at last to be entirely free from passions, and his prayers came to be very strong and powerful.
That blessed woman said to him at last, "There is something I want to say to you, my husband, and if you will listen to me it will show me that you truly love me for God's sake."
"Well, say it," he said.
"You are a devout, religious and upright person", she said "and I too have followed the same rule of life. It would be only right if we were to live apart for the benefit of others. It is not fair that for my sake such great virtue and wisdom should be hidden away while you go on living with me in chastity."
He thanked her and gave glory to God.
"I think you have made a good decision", he said, "and if you like you can have this house and I will go away and build another."
He left, and went into the inner parts of Mount Nitria, where at that time there were no cells, and built himself a two-roomed cell with domes. [ lit 'two domes of cells' (duos cellarum tholos). The writer, Philo, describes the cells of the Therapeutae, a pre-Christian Jewish community near Alexandria, as follows,
In each house there is a consecrated room which is called a sanctuary (semneion) or closet (monasterion) and closeted in this they are initiated into the mysteries of the sanctified life. They take nothing into it, either drink or food or any other of the things necessary for the needs of the body, but laws and oracles delivered through the mouth of prophets, and psalms and anything else which fosters and perfects knowledge and piety. - De Vita Contemplativa
In an article in Sobornost, vol 16.1, 1994, John Binns describes present day monastic cells in the Wadi Natrun as consisting of two rooms, an inner and an outer, normally surmounted by a dome.]
He lived for another twenty-two years, disciplining himself into the highest degree of virtue. Holy Amoun died as a monk, or rather was translated into heaven, at the age of sixty-two, having never failed to visit the blessed companion of his life twice a year.
While he was living alone in Nitria, a boy shaking with rabies was brought to him, having been bitten by a rabid dog. He was bound in chains, for the force of the disease had been making him cut himself. When Amoun had seen them coming and had listened to their cries for help he said to them, "Why are you telling me all your troubles, my friends, and asking me for something which is beyond my powers when the remedy lies in your own hands?
Compensate the widow woman whose ox you secretly slaughtered, and your son will be healed."
Thus they were convicted, and willingly did what they had been told, so that by Amoun's prayers the boy was healed.
There were some others who sought him out whose integrity he tested by asking them if they would bring him a dolium ( ( ( ( (i.e. a large globular water jar) so that he could store enough water to satisfy the needs of those who came to visit him. They promised they would. When they got back to their village, however, one of them changed his mind.
"I don't want to kill my camel," he said. "If I load it up with a dolium it will die."
When he heard this the other one with great difficulty managed to yoke his asses together and transported the dolium to Amoun.
When Amoun saw him coming he said, "What? Has your friend's camel died in the meantime while you have been on the journey?" And when he got back home he found that that the camel had been eaten by wolves. Amoun was responsible for many other things like this also.
Athanasius the bishop of Alexandria narrated the following story in his Life of Antony. At the time when Antony was in his inner mountain, he sent some of his monks to Amoun, who then began to walk back with them. When he came to cross the river Lycus with Theodore, his disciple, he was worried about getting undressed, lest anyone should see him naked. While they were still discussing the problem, he suddenly found himself on the other side of the river. Without the aid of any boat he was carried across by an angel while in an ecstasy. The brothers however had to swim across.
As soon as Antony had welcomed them he said, "God has revealed many things to me about you, and in particular the way you crossed the river shows me that your visit to me is absolutely necessary for our mutual benefit so that we can pray for each other."
When he had established how far away it was that Amoun lived he begged him not to go back there to die, but when eventually he did die a long way off from him, Antony saw his soul being taken up to heaven by the angels. So there you have Amoun, how he lived and how he died.
I myself once crossed the River Lycum with great trepidation in a flat-bottomed boat. It forms a gully which is a tributary to the great Nile.
The Life of abba OR.
In Mount Nitria there was a marvellous abba called Or, held in high regard because of his angelic demeanour, who had monasteries in which were a thousand brothers. At the age of ninety he had lost nothing of his physical strength, and his expression was so bright and lively that you only had to look at him to reverence him. [A 'monastery' is a place where someone may live monos, alone. It may consist of a single cell or of any number of people]
He had lived for a long time further into the desert before he gathered the monasteries together nearer at hand. He brought a swamp into cultivation with his own hands and made an area of intense cultivation in the desert. The fathers who were with him told me that there was not a single growing thing there when he first arrived, but he planted it all so that the brothers who were coming to him would not have to wander abroad to find the necessities of life. He cared for them all, praying to God and labouring for their salvation, so that they should lack nothing necessary, or have any excuse for laziness. He had been accustomed to a life of privation when he first went into solitude, eating herbs and sweet roots and drinking water when he could find it, while persevering continuously in prayers and psalms.
When he had arrived at a state of perfection in his old age, an angel appeared to him in a dream as he lay all alone, saying, "You will become a great nation and many people will believe because of your faith. Ten thousand people will be saved through you, and all those you bring light to here will appear in the world to come. Have no doubt that you will ever lack anything you need to the time of your death, so long as you keep calling upon God."
When he had been told this, he came to the nearer desert, alone and possessing nothing, where he built himself a small hut, managing on nothing more than dried vegetables, often eating only once a week. At first he had been unable to read, but when he came back out of solitude to more settled parts divine grace was given to him to enable him to expound Scripture from memory. And when the brothers gave him a book he began to read it as if he had always been able to read. He was also given the grace of being able to expel demons, as everyone knows. Many of the demons as they came out of people shouted that it was because of him, even when he had not wittingly done anything [to expel them]. Three thousand monks came to meet him as a result of all this, and when he saw them coming he greeted and embraced them with great joy. He washed their feet himself and then began to converse on spiritual matters. His knowledge of Scripture was immense, divinely inspired. He clarified many points of Scripture according to the orthodox faith, and then invited them to prayer. For it was the custom among these great men to provide spiritual food first of all, the Communion of Christ, before providing for the needs of the body. So therefore only when they had all shared in the giving of thanks [= the Eucharist] did he summon them to a meal, during which he moved among them speaking of things which are good and honourable and necessary to salvation.
He was a man who stood out among many of the fathers. When many monks arrived he would call all the company together, and make sure that they would all have a cell that same day by making one responsible for collecting clay, another for making blocks and another for drawing water. Once the cells were built he would show them what to do.
An untruthful brother once came who lied about how much clothing he had. Or exposed him in front of everyone. No one after that had the temerity to tell him lies, so greatly was he filled with the grace which had resulted from the integrity of his life. The throng of monks with him in the church was like a choir of angels praising God.
The whole brotherhood testified to the great virtue of this holy man, especially that handmaid of the Lord, Melania, who visited the mountain before me. Indeed I did not come across him during his lifetime, but all these famous things about this man were told me by Melania. He never told lies, never swore oaths, wished no evil to anybody, never said anything which had no effect.
The Life of abba PAMBO
Near this mountain lived Abba Pambo, who was the teacher of Bishop Dioscuros, the brothers Ammon, Eusebius and Euthymius, Origen his nephew, and that famous and praiseworthy man Dracontius. There were many different qualities which enabled this Pambo to govern his life in an upright and virtuous fashion, among which was an ability to despise both gold and silver, according to the command of the Lord, to a greater degree than any one else. On this subject the blessed Melania told me how she had heard about his virtues from the blessed Isodore, priest and xenodochus, when she first came to Alexandria from Rome. She told me that Isodore had escorted her to Pambo's secluded cell.
"I brought to him," she said, "some silver vessels weighing three hundred pounds, because I wanted to share some of my wealth with him. He just kept on working, weaving rushes together, and spoke quite kindly to me in a loud voice with the words 'May God reward you'. He then said to Origen his steward 'Take them and distribute them among all the brothers in Libya and the islands, for their monasteries are very poor, but don't give anything to the Egyptians beause they live in a much richer and more fruitful region'. I just stood there expecting some sort of blessing, or at least praise, for giving so much. He said absolutely nothing at all, so I said to him 'There's three hundred pounds of silver there' to make sure he knew exactly how much it was. Again he showed absolutely no reaction, did not even take the cover off the vessels, but simply said 'He to whom you have given these things, my daughter, does not need you to tell him how heavy they are. If he can weigh the mountains and forests in a balance (Isaiah 40.12) how much more likely is he to be aware of the weight of your silver! Of course, if it is me you are giving this silver to, you are correct to have stated the weight, but if to God who values the two mites [of the widow] more than all the rest (Mark. 12.42), then you had better stay silent.' And so, by the grace of God," she said, "this is the way he shared things out, when I visited him on the mountain."
This man of God died a short while after this. He wasn't ill, had no pain in any part of his body, but was just finishing off a basket when he called me. He was aware of a fatal attack coming on, and said to me 'Let me give you this basket for you to remember me by. I don't possess anything else that I can give you.' And when he had said this he just passed away without any fuss, commending his spirit to God. He was seventy years old. I laid his holy body out, wrapped it in linen cloths, buried him, and departed from his retreat. I shall keep that basket till the day of my death.
It is also said that before Pambo died, in the very hour of his departure, he said to all those who were there, Origen the priest and steward, that famous man Ammon, and all the rest of the brothers, "Since the time that I came into this place of solitude, and built my cell and settled down here, not a day has passed by without my doing some work with my hands, nor do I remember ever having eaten bread provided free for me by someone else, nor do I have any regrets at this time about anything that I have ever said. Yet now as I go to God I have not even begun to be truly holy and devout."
The servants of Christ, Origen and Ammon, also had this to say about him, that whenever they asked him anything about Scripture, or about what would be the right thing to do in any situation, he would never answer immediately, but said, "I don't know yet what the right answer to that is." Sometimes he would wait three months without answering, saying, "I haven't got to the bottom of it yet." He sought the answers from God so earnestly, that that every one reverently accepted those answers as if they really did come from God. He was said to surpass even the great Antony in this virtue, and to have taken more trouble than any of the other holy people to ensure that what he said was accurate and perfect.
The Life of abba PIORA
mong other things that Pambo did it is said that when Pior, who also lived a monastic life, went to visit him in his cell he took his own bread with him.
"You need not have done that," Pambo rebuked him.
"I did not want to be a burden on you," Pior replied.
Pambo said nothing more about this and eventually brought the visit to an end.
A little while later the great Pambo came to Pior's cell and brought with him his own bread already steeped.
"Why have you brought bread already steeped?" asked Pior.
"I've steeped it so that in my turn I would not be a burden to you either," replied Pambo.
[It was the practice in the desert to keep a supply of dried bread for up to six months or more, steeping it in water when required]
The Life of abba AMMON and his brothers and sisters.
Ammon was a disciple of the great Pambo along with his three brothers and two sisters. When they had attained to a high degree of holiness and devotion they came into solitude and built separate monasteries, one for women and one for men, with an appropriate space between them.
Ammon, this best of men, became so distinguished for his wisdom that one particular city wished to have him for bishop. They went to the blessed bishop Timothy asking him to ordain Ammon bishop.
"Bring him to me," he replied, "and I will ordain him."
A great army of people went to try and get him, but he immediately took to flight. But when he realised that he could not escape he confronted them and begged them to desist. They did not comply, but the old man swore that he would have nothing to do with the idea and refused to leave his solitude. When they persisted he seized a knife and as they watched cut off his left ear completely.
"Now you must realise this," he said. "I cannot do what you want me to because the law forbids anyone to go forward to the priesthood who has had his ears cut off."
He told them to go, and they went, returning to tell the bishop what had happened.
"That was the Jewish law," the bishop said. "As far as I am concerned if you were to bring me someone with his nose cut off I would still ordain him provided he was of an upright life."
They went back to Ammon again. He still refused, so they threatened to take him by force.
"If you keep on threatening to force me," he said, "I will even cut my own tongue out."
They could not do anything but let him go, and they returned to their own place.
Extraordinary to relate, he is also said to have burnt his own flesh with hot iron whenever any little bit of his body reacted to some illicit pleasure, with the result that he had scars all over him. And from his youth up till the day he died his food consisted of nothing but the barest essentials. He never ate anything cooked except bread.
He could recite both Old and New Testaments by heart, and was so well versed in the writings of Origen, Didymus, Pierus and Stephen that he could quote six million lines, as many of the venerable solitaries can testify. He also had the gift of prophecy, and was a greater strength to the brothers in solitude than anyone else.
Evagrius also gave this unsolicited testimony that he was a man outstanding in the power of discernment, and that he had never met anyone who was more serene, with a mind completely free of disturbing thoughts.