The Life of abba PACHON
There was a certain Pachon living in Scete who had reached the age of seventy when I became tormented by a desire for a woman. I was labouring under thoughts and visions at night. It was all I could do to refrain from leaving the desert because of this temptation, so great was this turbulence of mind that was fiercely attacking me. I did not tell any of my neighbours about this, not even Evagrius my superior, but unknown to anyone went into the desert where I wandered about among the older brothers in Scete for fifteen days. Among them I came across the holy man Pachon. When I realised how sincere he was and how skilled he was in the discipline of his life, I was emboldened to open up my heart to him.
"Don't think that this is anything strange or unusual," this holy man said to me. "It is not caused by voluptuousness, laziness or carelessness - your own character bears witness to that. You make do with the minimum of what is necessary, you have not made a habit of consorting with women. It is more likely the case that this is coming to you from the devil, because of your search for purity. There are three ways in which the enemy drives one towards fornication. Sometimes if the flesh has been too delicately pandered to it runs riot and takes control, sometimes thoughts can provoke assent in the mind, sometimes it is a demon in person who harasses us through envy. This what I have found as a result of the many cases I have seen.
Look at me now, an old man. I've been forty years in this cell working out my salvation, and I have arrived at this age being tempted right up to the present day. And I solemnly declare that for twelve years from the age of fifty onwards there had not been a single day or night when I was not attacked. I began to think that God had forsaken me, so fiercely did the devil show his power against me. I felt I would rather go mad and die than do something disgraceful driven by vice and bodily desires. I went out from my cell into the desert and found a hyena's cave. I stripped and stayed in that cell all day in the hope that the hyenas would come and devour me. After vespers, as the scripture says, 'The sun knows it is time to set. You bring on the darkness and it is night when all the wild beasts come out. The young lions roar and strike, seeking their meat from God.' (Psalms 104.19-21). And the wild beasts did indeed come out at that time, male and female, and sniffed at me from head to toe as they prowled around me. Just as I was expecting that they would devour me they went away. Even though I lay there all night I was not devoured. I realised that God had certainly spared me, and I got up and went back to my cell.
But after a few days the devil returned and attacked me even more fiercely than before, so that I could hardly refrain from blaspheming. He changed himself into the image of an Ethiopian girl that I had seen gathering ears of corn in the days of my youth. It seemed as if she came and sat on my knee, and got me so excited that I thought I had had sex with her. I gave her a box on the ear and she vanished. I'm telling you this, believe me. For two years I wasn't able to bear the smell given off by my hand.
For these reasons I became so weak and despondent of mind that I acknowledged defeat and gave up all hope. I wandered off into the empty desert, where I came across a small asp. I picked it up and placed it on my genitals so that I might be bitten and die. I put its head on my manhood, the source of all my troubles, so that thanks to providence I might be bitten. And then I heard a voice saying in my thoughts, "'Come, Pachon, put up a fight! I have allowed this power to be exercised over you lest you become puffed up and arrogant in spirit. Maybe now you can overcome your desires, accept your own weakness, trust not in the way you have organised your life, but rely only on the help of God.' Thus admonished and strengthened I returned to my cell and stayed there with confidence from then on. I was no longer worried about the outcome of the battle, but lived out my days in peace. When the demon realised how much I despised him he was disconcerted, and bothered me no longer."
With this advice he confirmed me in my own strife against Satan, instructed me in the nature of the battle and prepared me by his teaching for the attacks of the demon. And so he sent me back home, telling me to be of good courage in all things.
The Life of abba STEPHAN
Stephan was a Libyan and lived for sixty years on the borders of Marmarica and Mareotis. When his disciplined life had become thoroughly developed he became well known for his powers of discernment, and was given this gift that if anyone came to him with whatever kind of trouble they never left him without this trouble being entirely removed. The blessed Antony knew him well. He lived right through to our time, but I never visited him because he was so far away. But the holy Ammon and Evagrius visited him, and they told me that they found him to have an advanced infection in his testicles, and a large cancer, known in Greek as a phagidaina, in his penis. They said that even as he was being attended to by a doctor he was working with his hands weaving palm branches and talking to us at the same time, while the surgeon was treating the rest of his body. This outstanding person, by the grace of God, obviously had such patience that he was affected no more than if it were somebody else's body that was undergoing surgery. Even when the knife was slicing bits off his members he might simply have been having a haircut, so little did he react.
"We were half revolted and half terrified," they said, "that the life of such a great man should be violated by such a terrible disease and be subject to such excisions by the doctors, but the blessed Stephan realised what we were thinking and said, 'Don't be upset by this, my sons. Nothing that God wills is ever meant for evil but for an ultimate good. Perhaps it is the case that these members deserve punishment. Better to be punished now than after departing from this world.' With these words he encouraged us and helped us to be indifferent to pain and bear calamity cheerfully.
" I have told you all this so that it won't seem strange to you when good people suffer afflictions.
VALENS who fell from grace.
Valens was a Palestinian by race but a Corinthian by inclination, in that he shared the vice which St Paul attributed to the Corinthians when he said, 'You are puffed up' (1 Cor.5.2). After coming into the desert he lived for several years among us before he was deceived by the devil and gave way to pride. Little by little he was beguiled into thinking himself to be brilliant and important, conversing with angels who ministered to his special needs. He claimed that once he was working in the gloom when he lost the needle which he was using to stitch up a basket. When he could not find it a demon made a light for him and the needle came to hand. From such incidents as this he conceived a highly inflated opinion of himself and became so self-important that he even felt that he had no need to participate in the Sacraments. But the Lord had mercy on him and saw to it that his failings should quickly become known to the whole fraternity. It so happened that some guests offered some bellaria (presents? holy relics? blessed medals? some kind of food stuff?) to the brothers in church. The holy Macarius, our priest, accepted them and distributed a handful of them to each person in the cells round about. When it came to Valens' turn the person delivering them was subjected to verbal abuse.
"Go and tell Macarius," he said, "that I am not inferior to him that he should bestow blessings on me."
Macarius realised that he was suffering from delusions and went to see him next day in order to admonish him.
"Valens," he said, "you are being led astray. Give it up and ask God's pardon.
" Valens would not listen to his warning, and Macarius went away very troubled in mind, lamenting because Valens had fallen.
The demon was now convinced that Valens believed in his deceptions implicitly. He decided to impersonate the Saviour and at night time sent to Valens a vision consisting of a thousand angels bearing torches and a fiery wheel in which could be seen the image of the Saviour. One of the angels proclaimed, "Christ loves what you are doing. He loves the freedom and confidence of your life. He comes to greet you. Go out of your cell, and do not fail to fall down and worship him when you see him and then go back to your cell."
He went out of his cell for about a mile, following the vision of torches, and there fell down and worshipped the Antichrist. The next day, in a state of mental disturbance, he went into the church and said to the assembled brothers, "I have no need of Communion, for I have today seen Christ himself."
The fathers then imprisoned him for a year in iron shackles, and prayed that he might be cured of his shameful behaviour. By this extremely severe treatment his delusions were drawn out of him. As the saying goes, contrary things are cured by contrary medicines.
It is very necessary to include the lives of such people in this book to serve as a warning to the lector. There are sacred twigs on the tree of paradise, that is, the knowledge of good and evil, so that if anyone plucks them while doing the right thing they might not get carried away and fall from virtue. For virtue itself can often be the occasion of sin, if not performed with the right aim. For it is written, 'I saw the righteous perishing in his own righteousness. This also is vanity.' (Eccles 7.15).
My neighbour Ero was a city youth from Alexandria, very intelligent, and of an upright life. He too, after working and struggling exceptionally hard, fell headlong into pride and presumption. In his pride he insolently defied the holy fathers, among them the blessed Evagrius, upon whom he poured scorn, saying, 'Those who listen to your teaching are deceiving themselves, for we should call no one our master except Christ." Thus he perverted the Testament by interpreting in his own foolish way the saying, 'Call no one on earth your father.' (Matthew 23.8). His mind was so darkened by the empty obstinacy of his own opinion that he too was shackled when he refused to come to the Sacrament.
But let us be faithful to the truth. In the beginning his life was extremely well planned and punctilious, so that many who lived near him spoke up for him, saying that sometimes he went for three months without a proper meal, being content with the Sacrament and whatever wild olives he could find. I also had had occasion to observe him when the blessed Albinus and I travelled with him to Scete forty miles away. In the course of those forty miles we ate twice and drank some water three times. But he ate nothing, and as he walked he recited first fifteen psalms, then the long psalm, then the epistle to the Hebrews, then Isaiah and part of the prophet Jeremiah, then the gospel of St Luke, then Proverbs. And we could not keep up with him as he walked.
But in the end he was captured by the evil workings of a demon, and stirred up by his burning fire he found he could stay in his cell no longer. In some mysterious dispensation of providence he went off to Alexandria, driving out one nail by another. He deliberately adopted a dissolute and careless way of life, which brought him later to a state of health he had not asked for.
For from going to the theatre and the horse races, and giving himself up to gluttony and drunkenness, he eventually fell into a squalid lust after women. Having succumbed to this he associated with a certain actress and was rewarded by developing a sore spot, which by divine providence developed into a carbuncle in his testicles. In the space of a week he became so ill that his genitals went completely putrid and fell off of their own accord. As he convalesced after this he turned back to the things which he knew were of God. He went back to the desert and confessed all these things to the fathers, but before he could even return to his former work he died.
PTOLEMY who fell from grace
There was another called Ptolemy who lived in further Scete in the part known (in Greek) as Klimax, that is, 'Ladder'. It is difficult to talk about his life but better that than not talk about it at all. Klimax is a place where no one should be able to live because the nearest well is eighteen miles away. But he had a great number of earthen jars, and during December and January he collected dew, soaking it up off the rocks with a sponge. There is a great deal of dew in those parts. For fifteen years he managed to live like this. But deprived as he was from the teaching and fellowship of the holy men, and from the benefits of regular participation in the Sacraments, he began to depart from the right path. Many people think that this is the root cause of all error, and he unfortunately is a good example of this, as the demon of error began to gain control over him. The enemy suggested to this empty headed man that res nullam habere essentiam, (lit. 'things had no essence', i.e. 'nothing had any essential meaning', or even 'his way of life had no foundation') since all things existed because the world itself existed of its own accord.
So the enemy of life insinuated into his mind these questions, "If this is the way things are why do you live in these remote parts? What pleasure is there in it, Ptolemy, if there is no reward for it? And who is going to give you a reward for your many great labours if there is no one to do the giving? Is there any value in the judgement threatened by Scripture if there is no such thing as providence?" Undermined by these satanic thoughts this miserable Ptolemy became so disturbed in his mind that he wandered off to Egypt where he gave himself up to gluttony and drunkenness, talking to no one, but silently frequenting the market place as a miserable and tear-jerking spectacle to the eyes of Christians and a laughing stock for those who were ignorant of our way of life.
This incurable disease afflicted the unfortunate Ptolemy from a sort of irrational arrogance, deceived by the seductions of a demon. He thought he was better off with his own brand of wisdom apart from all the holy fathers. His swelled head made him his own worst enemy and he rushed headlong into profound destruction, because he never paid attention to the wise leadership of any of the holy fathers and was not established in their spiritual teaching. He had no guide and so walked into the ways of death. A tree may be flourishing with healthy leaves and beautiful fruit but can be made sterile in a moment of time if stripped bare. Those without guides fall like leaves.
A lapsed VIRGIN
I knew a certain virgin of Jerusalem who was enclosed and wore sackcloth for six years. She would not allow anything which tended towards self-indulgence but was renowned among women for her temperance. But pride, that root of all evils, made her a stranger to divine grace, so that she opened her door to the one who ministered to her and went to bed with him. They were not living for charity or the laws of God, but only on a human level, which leads only to vainglory and the beginning of depravity. For while she was busying herself in pious thoughts about damning others she was driven mad by the demon of pride who was absolutely delighted. The angel of temperance however deserted her entirely.
Now, O most faithful of men, I have written about the lives of those who have been upright and virtuous, and also about those who after many labours have fallen through laziness and stupidity from the high standard they had set, led astray by all kinds of devilish snares. Anyone who knows what hidden nets the demon will set for him in his own life may then know how to escape such snares. There are many great men and women who in the beginning faithfully pursued their chosen way of life but then were rooted up by the enemy of the human race. I have made mention of just a few of them. The rest I pass over in silence, for I will do neither them nor myself any good by dwelling on them to the neglect of describing the virtuous divine work of the athletes of Christ who prevailed.
The Life of abba ELIAS
Elias, best of workers, was a great friend of women, and took great care of the weaker sex. He was one of those people for whom the end in view acts as a spur to the exercise of all their skills. He gave a great deal of help to a group of women who were living a disciplined life, and used resources which he had in the city of Athribe to build them a large monastery, and there he gathered together all virgins who had gone astray. He took care of them in all things, supplying them with everything they needed, a garden and tools to cultivate it, in a word, everything necessary for a life of discipline. They had been drawn together however from living private lives in various diverse circumstances with the result that they quarrelled a great deal. So it was necessary for this holy man to listen to them and try to make peace among them. For he had gathered together about three hundred of them and for two years he been having to act as mediator among them, even though at about thirty or forty years of age he was quite young.
He began to be tempted by lust. He went out from the monastery and wandered about in the desert for a couple of days, beseeching and praying, "Either kill me lest I abuse them, or take away from me this disordered desire, so that I can look after them in a rational manner." That evening in the desert he dreamed. He told me that three angels came and confronted him, saying, "Why have you left this monastery of women?"
He told them all. "I am frightened that I will do both them and me some great injury."
"If you were to be liberated from these desires would you go back and continue to take care of them?"
"Yes, I would."
They told him he would have to swear an oath, and spelled out the details, "Swear this to us, 'By him who cares for me, so will I care for them.'" And he swore.
One of the angels then grasped his hands, another his feet, and the third took a razor and, in his vision, seemed to cut out his testicles. And it seemed to him in his dream that the dismemberment had cured him.
"Do you feel any benefit from this?" the angels then asked him.
"An enormous benefit," he said. "I feel I have lost a great burden, and been freed from the difficulty of controlling my desires."
"Go back to your monastery," the angels said.
Five days later he turned back and went in to the monastery to find them all mourning for him. From then on he lived in his cell by the side of the monastery, and because of his nearness he was able to govern them conscientiously to the best of his ability. He lived with them another forty years, and during all that time, so he told the fathers, he did not have a single lustful thought come into his mind.
Such was the life of that holy man Elias, his discipline and the way he ruled his monastery of women.