Poemenia, a servant of the Lord, once went to visit abba John. He did not speak to her but sent her a warning message not to turn aside to Alexandria when going down from the Thebaid, lest she be put to very severe trials. But either she simply ignored this or else forgot all about it, for she did go down towards Alexandria in order to see the city. As she was on the way near the town of Nicia some boats passed by in which she was offered a passage. But they were all fiercely attacked by some workmen, aggressive and destructive people living locally. They cut off the finger of one of the eunuchs and killed another. In their ignorance they threw the holy bishop Dionysius into the river, treated Poemenia to abusive curses and severely wounded all the other servants.
The life of abba AMMON, and his companions.
We also saw another man of the Thebaid called Ammon, the father of three thousand monks. They were called Tabennisiites and had an impressive way of living their lives. They all wore sheepskins with which they covered their faces when eating, leaning forward so that no one could see the person next to him. They practised silence so thoroughly that they seemed to be entirely alone, each one pursuing his own hidden order of life, only making an appearance to sit at table, where even there they tried to hide from each other. Some of them once or twice picked up some bread or an olive to eat, or whatever else was set out for them. When they had tasted from each dish they reckoned they had had enough. Some just quietly persevered in eating some bread, while only pretending to taste other things. Others tasted three only and abstained from the others. I admired the way in which each ate what was right for himself, aware of the benefit each one was gaining.
We saw another old man called Be who excelled all others in gentleness. The brothers who lived near him said that he never used strong language, never lied about any one, never berated anyone, was never angry. He was always quiet and mild in manner as an angel, of great humility, counting himself as nothing. We asked him eagerly to give us a word of exhortation, but he could hardly bring himself to believe that he could teach us anything about gentleness.
When a hippopotamus ran wild in neighbouring country the farmers asked for his help. He stood near the river where he could see this enormous beast and said, "In the name of Jesus Christ I forbid you to do any further damage to this region." As if driven by an angel it completely disappeared. He also dealt with a crocodile in the same way.
Theona was another we saw. He lived in solitude not far from the city, a holy man who had shut himself up in his little cell and had practised silence for thirty years. He was held to be a prophet because of the many virtues he possessed. A great number of sick people went out to him every day, on whom he laid his hands through the window and sent them away healed. He seemed to have the face of an angel, with smiling eyes, totally full of grace. Not long ago some robbers broke in one night ready to kill him for the sake of the gold they imagined they would find in great quantity. But he prayed, and as a result they remained rooted to the spot in the doorway until morning.
When the usual morning crowd arrived they would have burnt the robbers alive, he just said one word to them, "Let them go in safety, otherwise the grace of healing will depart from me." They listened to what he said, they did not dare disobey, and the robbers went well away to some monasteries which were scattered about, where they changed their way of life and did penance for what they had done.
He was able to speak and write in three languages, Latin, Greek and Egyptian, according to what many people said and as we can testify ourselves. For when he realised that we were foreigners he wrote on his tablets, giving thanks to God for us.
His food was uncooked cereals. It was said that at night he went out and mingled with the wild beasts, giving them water out of his own supply. You could see all around his cell the tracks of the wild asses, oxen and goats in which he delighted.
Another old man we saw was called Elia, who was a hundred and ten years old and lived in the desert which takes its name from Antinous, the chief city of the Thebaid. The spirit of the prophet Elijah was said to have fallen upon him. He was well known for having lived in that terrible desert for seventy years. Words are not adequate to describe the harshness of the mountain in that desert place where he lived, and from which he had never come down into the inhabited regions. There were a few footpaths by which people visited him, offering very little foothold, so jagged were the rocks they were built up with. He sat in a rocky cave, an awe-inspiring sight. His whole body trembled, a sign of his great age. He performed many signs daily, and always brought relief to the sick. The fathers who lived near him said that nobody could remember the time when he came to the mountain. In his old age he ate a three ounce loaf and three olives every evening, though in his youth he used to eat only once a week.
The Life of Abba APOLLO
We saw another holy man in the valleys of the Thebaid near Hermopolis, which is the place to which the Saviour came with holy Mary and Joseph, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, 'Behold the Lord shall come into Egypt upon a swift cloud and the idols of Egypt shall shake before his presence and fall to the ground' (Isaiah 19.1) We saw there the very temple in which the idols fell to the ground on their faces when the Saviour entered the city. In the deserts there we saw a man called Apollo who had a monastery in the mountains. He was the father of about five hundred monks, and was very well known and admired throughout the Thebaid. He did great things, the Lord endowed him with many powers and many signs and wonders were done through him. From boyhood he had used a strict discipline and he grew in grace with age. When he was eighty he had gathered a great monastery of flawless men, who were all capable of performing signs.
He had left the world at the age of fifteen and spent forty years in solitude, developing all the virtues, when he seemed to hear the voice of the Lord saying, "Apollo, Apollo, through you I will confound the wisdom of the wise in Egypt and the prudence of the peoples. For my sake you will do away with the wise men of Babylon and pluck from their midst all their worship of demons. Now go to the place where they live, and you will bring forth for me a peculiar people eager for good works."
"Take pride away from me, O Lord," he replied, "lest if I be placed above a brotherhood I corrupt any good work that may be done."
Again he heard the divine voice. "Put your hand upon your neck, grasp what you find there and bury it in the sand."
As soon as he had done so he found that he had grasped a small Ethiopian, whom he buried in the sand as he cried out "I am the spirit of pride."
And again the voice came to him, "Go, What you have asked for you will be given." And he went immediately to the inhabited places (it was in the time of the tyrant Julian), and from there to the nearby desert.
He remained there on (the side of) the mountain, having occupied a small cave. This was how he worked, He said prayers throughout the whole twenty-four hours, a hundred at night, and the same number by day, with prostrations. His food had always been supplied in the same way; contrary to any reasonable expectation he was fed directly by God. In that desert place the angels brought him food. He was clothed in a simple tunic [lebiton (Greek) or colobium (Latin)], with a small linen head covering. These did not wear out while he remained in the desert which was not far away from inhabited places. He performed many signs and wonderful deeds in the power of the Spirit. No one could tell the exact number, there were so many of them, according to the old men who had had dealings with him. Some of them were men of very advanced stature (viri perfecti), and had many brothers under their care. He was famous and for ever being talked about, as if he was some new prophet or apostle for our generation, and as his fame spread all the monks scattered about nearby always used to come to him as to a father, freely opening their hearts to him. Some of them he guided towards contemplation, others he taught how to actively cultivate the virtues, first of all illustrating by his own example what he was advocating by his words. He often showed them the way he disciplined his life, mingling with them only on Sundays, taking no bread, fruit or vegetables, none of the cooked dishes that people are accustomed to use, nothing except wild herbs.
During the reign of Julian he once heard that a brother had been conscripted into the army and chained up in prison. He visited him along with some brothers, urging him to remain strong and steadfast in adversity, and to hold his imminent danger in contempt. He warned him about a coming time of conflict, when his resolution would be sorely and suddenly tried. No sooner had he encouraged him with these words than the tribune arrived. Someone pointed the monks out to him, whereupon, yielding to some evil impulse, he closed the gates of the prison, shutting in Apollo and the monks who were with him as suitable to become soldiers in future. Having appointed a sufficient number of guards he went home without even allowing them a hearing. In the middle of the night an angel bearing a torch appeared to the guards, illuminating everyone in the prison, and making the guards fall down in a stupor. When they came to they opened the doors of the prison and begged everyone to go, for they said that they would rather be put to death for doing that than ignore the liberty which was being offered by God to these people who were being wrongly detained. And when the tribune arrived in the morning with the magistrates he saw to it that those prisoners should get right out of the city, for he said that his house had collapsed in an earthquake during the night and crushed the best of his slaves. At this they gave thanks to God and departed into the desert, where, as the Apostle puts it, they were all of one heart and mind.
He taught that one should daily develop in virtue, especially in the power of continually repelling the attacks of the devil through thoughts. For if you can crush the serpent's head its whole body dies. The Lord warns us that we should look out for the serpent's head, that is, that we should refuse entry right at the start to all evil and sordid thoughts, not just in order to drive obscene fantasies out of our minds but to overwhelm them by contrary virtues, and to let no other prize be more valued than this. For this is the sign that you have progressed in virtue when you are free from the power of all urges and desires. This is the highest of the gifts of Christ. But when God gives anyone miraculous powers let him not get proud as if he has no need for further progress, nor get carried away by the thought that he is honoured above other people, or draw attention to the graces that he has received, lest with a closed mind he deceives himself and is deprived of grace. His teaching was full of this most important doctrine, as we later often heard from him ourselves. But the things he did were greater, for his every petition was immediately granted by God.
He was even granted visions. He had an elder brother who had also lived out his life in the desert and even surpassed him in the beauty of his life. He had lived with him in the desert for a long time. This brother he seemed to see sitting on the same sort of throne as the apostles, having left him a legacy in the shape of all his virtues. So he prayed to God that his own translation might be swift so that he might enjoy the peace of heaven with his brother. But it seemed that the Saviour said to him that he had to stay on earth for a while yet, in order that many might be brought to perfection, since there were many who would come to emulate his virtues. His faith would be responsible for a vast number of monks, a devoted army whose labours will give great glory to God. This is what he saw, and so it turned out, for many who had heard about him came to him from far and wide to become monks. Through his teaching and way of life a great number totally renounced the world, so that a community of up to five hundred brothers came into being, living a common life, eating at a common table, all clothed in white. In them was fulfilled the Scripture, 'Rejoice, O desert without water, break forth and shout you have not given birth, for many are the children of the desert, more than the children of men (Isaiah 54.1).
That eloquent prophecy has indeed been fulfilled by the existence of the church gathered up out of all the nations, but shown up to perfection in this Egyptian desert, where more children of God can be seen than in the inhabited places. Where in the cities can you find as many flocks on the road to salvation as you can find in the deserts of Egypt? There are as many monks in the desert as there are ordinary people in the cities, and it seems to me that this also is a fulfilment of what the Apostle said, 'Where sin abounded, there grace abounded more abundantly' (Romans 5.20). For in Egypt there used to be a great deal of idolatrous worship, more than in any other country. Some worshipped dogs and monkeys, others garlic and onions, many humble vegetables they thought to be gods, according to what this same holy father told us as he explained the ignorance of former times.
"For since the people who lived here in former times," he said, "had tamed the ox for agricultural purposes, they made a god out of it. The same with the waters of the Nile, since it watered all the fields, making the land cultivated there more fertile than any other. All the other abominations, the dogs and the monkeys and the rest of the disgusting collection of animals and vegetables, they made cults out of because they had been saved by them in Pharaoh's time when he had been drowned in pursuit if the Israelites. Those who did not follow Pharaoh made gods out of whatever they had been occupied with at the time, for they said, "This is my god today, for it has been the reason that I did not perish with Pharaoh." So Apollo in his discourses taught us.
It is more important, however, to write about what he did than what he said. Now there were a number of heathen (gentiles) worshipping demons scattered about in various places fairly near at hand, and ten particular districts even closer. In one of the villages there was a great temple containing a very famous idol made of wood. It used to be carried about in a procession through various villages by disreputable priests in drunken revels with the crowds, as they celebrated the mysteries of the waters of the River. On one occasion, however, it so happened that Apollo was there with some of his brothers and when he saw the crowds throughout the region going mad in their devilish celebrations, he prostrated himself before the Saviour, with the result that all those people suddenly became rooted to the spot. They could not move out of the place, however much they pushed each other, but sweltered all day in the burning heat, unable to understand why this should have happened to them. The priests however told them that it was a certain Christian living nearby in the desert who was responsible, meaning Apollo. He would need to be approached, if not they would all be in great peril.
Meanwhile, people living at some distance had heard their shouts and weeping.
"What is this which has suddenly hit you?" they asked, as they came running up. "How did it happen?"
"We are not sure," they said, "but we suspect a certain person who will have to be appeased."
"Yes, we saw him going along with us," others said. And all begged that help be speedily brought to them.
They brought oxen and tried to move the idol, but it remained immovable, along with the priests. After exhausting all means of trying to move, they sent the neighbours on a delegation to Apollo promising to renounce their errors if they were freed. When Apollo, the man of God, heard this he immediately went down, prayed, and released them. With one accord they all came to him professing belief in the God and Saviour who could do such great things and consigned the idol to the fire. They were then enrolled in the catechumenate and added to the churches. Many of them since that day have been in monasteries right up till now. The fame of this happening spread everywhere, and so many believed in the Lord that soon no heathen (Lat, gentilis) could anywhere be found in those districts.
Not long after this two villages began to fight with each other in a dispute over some fields. When Apollo heard about this he went down immediately to try and make peace between them. The aggressive side did not make an appearance, but refused, relying on a certain robber chief who was an outstanding man of war. Apollo (went and) confronted him in his refusal, saying, "If you make an appearance, my friend, I will pray to God for your sins to be forgiven." Hearing this he laid down his arms without hesitation, fell on his knees and begged for mercy. Peace was restored at his plea, and he ordered his men back to their own place.
When they had agreed to make peace and had gone away their famous fighting leader followed Apollo, openly fulfilling what he had promised. Apollo took him back with him into the desert, taught him and encouraged him to be patient and steadfast of heart, for God was able to forgive. That night they both had a dream in which they saw themselves before the judgment seat of God. Both of them gazed on the Angels adoring God along with the saints. They both fell down with them and adored the Father. And they both heard the voice of God saying, "'What has light got to do with darkness? Or what part do the faithful have with the unfaithful?' (2Cor.6.14-15). How is it that a murderer who is unworthy of such contemplation stands among the righteous? Come away, O man. To you it has been granted to be born again and abandon your former life."
They fervently told their companions of many other wonders they had seen and heard, which speech dare not describe nor ear dare hear. All were filled with wonder as they each described exactly the same vision. A murderer no longer, the former leader of the robbers remained with these disciplined men, amending his life right up to the time of his death, changed from a wolf into a simple and innocent lamb. In him was fulfilled the word of Isaiah the prophet, 'The wolf and lamb shall graze together, the lion and the ox shall both eat straw.' (Isaiah 65.25). Ethiopians also could be seen working with the monks, and surpassing many of them in virtue, and the Scripture was fulfilled in them also, 'Ethiopia shall hold out her hand to God.' (Psalms.68.3).
On another occasion there were some heathen (Lat, gentiles) in a dispute with Christian farmers over their land. There was a large band of armed men among them, to whom Apollo went with the intention of making peace. The heathen battle-leader, a big, savage man, had no intention of cooperating. He swore positively that he would die rather than make peace. ["battle-leader" in pugna antesignanus. The name for the soldiers who fought in front of the standards as the army went into battle.]