History of the Egyptian Monks (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto - Part 5)

Chapter XI


There was another holy man called Helenus who had been serving the Lord since boyhood. Schooled in the ways of chastity and moderation in all things, he had become a very praiseworthy person. While he was still a boy in the monastery, if he needed to ask a neighbour for fire, he would carry burning coals away in pieces of cloth without their getting burnt. All the brothers admired him and tried to follow the example of his attitude of mind, and the good points of his way of life. Once when he was alone in the desert he felt a sudden craving for honey. Looking around, he saw a honeycomb fixed to a rock and immediately recognised it as a deception from the devil. Angrily he said within himself: "Depart from me you deceiver with your illicit desires. For it is written 'Walk in the spirit and do not fulfil the desires of the flesh'" (Galatians, 5.16). And from then on he left his own home and went to the desert, where he began to discipline himself with fasting in order to punish his fleshly desires. In the third week of his fast he saw several apples scattered about in the desert, but knowing the wiles of the enemy he said: "I won't eat them, I won't even touch them, lest I cause offence to my brother, that is, my soul. For it is written: 'Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word of God'" (Deut. 8.3 & Matt. 4.4). After he had fasted another week he had been asleep for a little while when an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a vision and said: "Get up, and what you find put ready for you, eat without fear." He got up and found a gently flowing stream of water, with its banks teeming all around with tender and sweet-smelling fruits. He went up to them and picked and ate, and drank from the stream. He realised that never in his whole life had he tasted anything quite so sweet and delicious. In this same place he found a cave where he stayed for quite some time. And whenever his body needed refreshment he prayed to the Lord and by the grace of God he lacked nothing.

He was once making a rather difficult visit to some brothers, loaded up with various things for their bodily needs. As he journeyed his burden was getting heavier and heavier when he saw at a distance some wild asses going through the desert. He shouted out "In the name of Jesus Christ let one of you come and take my load!" And behold, just one out of all that herd came gently up to him, offering its services of its own free will. He loaded it up, sat on it himself, and was carried in no time to the cells of the brothers he wanted to visit.

On another occasion he visited a certain monastery on a Sunday and found that they were not observing the solemnity of the day. Upon asking why, he was told that the priest who lived on the other side of the river had not come. No one indeed was willing to cross the river for fear of the crocodiles. "If you like," he said, "I'll go across and get him." And he immediately made his way to river bank. He called upon the name of the Lord, and suddenly a crocodile appeared, ready to stop being a terror to mankind and change into a ferry for the righteous. It offered him his back, which he accepted, all fear cast aside, and was carried to the opposite back. Helenus went straight up to the priest and begged him to come to the brothers. Now his clothing was quite mean and dishevelled, and the priest wondered wherever this person had come from and asked him what he wanted. But when he realised that he was indeed a man of God he began to follow him to the river. He mentioned that there was no boat to be found in which they could cross, but abba Helenus said to him: "Don't worry, father, I am now about to call up a ferry." And in a loud voice he commanded the beast to appear. It came as soon as it heard his voice, and peacefully offered his back. Helenus got on first and then invited the priest to do so. "Come on, don't be afraid," he said. But the priest was so frightened at the appearance of this monster that he took to his heels and fled.

Fear and amazement fell on all his companions when they say him being carried across the waters of the river by a crocodile. When got back, he led the beast up the bank with him and said: "Death would be a better thing for you than to be burdened with the guilt of so many assaults and homicides." And immediately the beast durst asunder and died.

The holy Helenus remained three days in this monastery, giving talks to the brothers on spiritual matters. As a result many of them brought out into the open the thoughts and secret workings of their hearts. One said that he was troubled by the spirit of fornication, another by the spirit of anger, another by the love of money, and several admitted to being deceived by boasting and spiritual pride. He drew attention to the gentleness of one, the justice of another and the patience of someone else. And so by underlining quite impartially the vices of some and virtues of others, he encouraged in a wonderful way the advancement of them all. Some of the sceptical among them were cut to the quick and changed their minds after certain things came to pass among them exactly as he had foretold. For as he was about to leave he said to them: "Prepare some food against the arrival of some more of the brothers." As they were making preparations some brothers did arrive on the instant and were gladly welcomed, while he went back to the desert.

One of the brothers asked if he might be allowed to live with him in the desert. He replied that it was a very serious matter, and very laborious, to withstand the temptations of the demons, but the young man urged it all the more vigorously, protesting that he would be able to put up with anything as long as Helenus would give him generous support. So he gave him permission and the young man followed him into the desert, where Helenus told him to live in a cave not far away from his own. That night the demons flocked around him, first of all stirring up sordid and filthy thoughts, and then violently threatening to rush in and kill him. But the young man rushed out and fled to the cell of the holy Helenus to tell him of the evils that were assailing him. Then the old man gave him a few words of comfort, advocating the virtues of faith and patience, before going back with him to the cave from which he had fled. There he traced a line in the sand before the cave with his finger, and in the name of the Lord he forbade the demons to dare trying to cross this boundary. And it was so, that by the power of his word the young man was safe from then on.

It was said of him that when he himself was a young man in the desert he often received food from heaven. Some brothers were visiting him when he had nothing to offer them, but a young man came bringing bread and other necessaries, and having put them down in front of the cave was no longer to be seen. "Let us bless the Lord," said Helenus, "who provides food for us in the desert."

All this and much more father Copres told us of the life and doings of the holy fathers, enlightening us with great kindness. After his very instructive talk he took us to his little garden and showed us the palms and other fruit trees which he had planted. "It was the faith of the local peasants" he said, "which encouraged me to plant these in the desert. For I saw what great faith they had when they took the sand that we had walked on and scattered it over their fields, thereby turning sterile soil into abundant fertility. It would have been a shame if we had been seen to be inferior to them in faith, when it was through us that God had granted faith to them."

Chapter XII

ELIAS (cf. VIII.51)

We saw another venerable old man called Elias in a remote part of the territory of Antinoe, a city of the Thebaid. He was said to be a hundred and ten years old, and the spirit of Elijah was said to rest upon him. Many marvellous things were told about him. They said that he had spent seventy years in the depths of this vast wilderness, a desert so fearful and inhospitable that no word was adequate to describe it. This old man had lived there all that time having no contact with any place of human habitation. The trackway which led to him was narrow and stony and very difficult for visitors to find. The place where he actually lived was a horrible cave, striking terror into the hearts of those who found it. He himself had trembled and shaken in all his limbs for all his adult life. But every day he was doing signs, for he loosed the bonds of all who came to him, whatever troubles they might have been burdened with. All the fathers agreed that no one could remember when it was that he had come to this hermitage. For food he took a little bit of bread and a few olives, even in his extreme old age. In his youth, however, he had frequently fasted the whole week through.

Chapter XIII


After this we returned to the Thebaid to see a rugged mountain, overhanging a river, a very menacing, rocky apparition, fearful to look at, and in this precipitous place there were caves which were terribly difficult to approach. Many monks dwelt here, the leader of whom was a father called Pithyrion. He had been a disciple of the blessed Antony, after whose death he had lived with the holy Ammon. When Ammon died he settled in this mountain. He was so abundantly virtuous, so greatly endowed with the grace of being able to give sound counsel, and with such power against the demons, that he seemed to have inherited a double portion, worth two of the greatest men all by himself. He encouraged many with his words of warning, and was the source of much sound teaching. In particular he taught us about the discernment of spirits, saying that there are certain demons who latch on to whatever definite vices people have. Anyone who seems to be passively subject to any vicious motions in the soul they turn to positive deeds of evil. So if there is anyone who is looking to be dominated by demons, be sure they are first of all dominated by their own passions and vices. But whatever vice with its appropriate passion you have been able to cut off in yourself, you will then have the power of expelling the demon of this vice from those possessed by it. He took food only twice a week, accepting a few little portions of gruel made from flour (pulticulas ex farina), nor would he ever eat meat, allowing no alteration to his customs because of his age.

Chapter XIV


We saw another holy father called Eulogius, who had received from God the grace of being able to discern both the merits and the guilt of anyone who approached the altar of God, so that he would stop some of the monks coming to him for Communion saying: "How can you dare to approach the divine Sacraments when your mind and intentions are evil? In fact, last night you had thoughts of fornication, but you said to yourself: 'It makes no difference whether you come to the Sacrament as one of the sinful or one of the righteous.'"

And there was another who quibbled in his heart, saying; "Well, isn't Communion able to sanctify me anyway?"

He refused to give Communion to each one of these and said: "Go away for a while and do penance. Purify yourself by making satisfaction [for your sins] in tears. Then you may be fit to receive the Communion of Christ."

Chapter XV


We saw another priest, a righteous man, in the neighbouring region called Apelles. He was a smith and made whatever utensils the brothers needed. Once when working at the forge in the silence of the night, the devil came to him in the shape of a beautiful woman, bringing some work for him to do. But he picked up a hot iron from the furnace with his bare hands and thrust it into its face. It fled, shouting and screaming, and all the brothers round about heard the screaming as it fled. And from that time onwards he was habitually able to pick up burning iron with his bare hands without taking any harm. When we visited him he gave us a most kindly welcome. We asked him if he would speak to us on the subject of the virtues, using either his own deeds as an example or the deeds of those whom he knew to be of conspicuous sanctity. He replied:

"In the nearby desert there is an elderly brother called John who excels everybody in his life, his customs, and his abstinence. When her first came to the desert he stood underneath a protruding rock face for three years continuously, always praying, never sitting or lying down. He took only what sleep he could standing up. He took food only on Sunday. For on that day a priest came and offered the Holy Sacrifice for him, and the Sacrament was his only food. One day Satan, wishing to undermine him, disguised himself as the priest who usually came to him, and arriving at an earlier hour than usual, pretended to have come to administer the Sacraments. But, ever vigilant, he recognised the devil's deceits and indignantly said to him: 'O, father of all grief and fraud, you enemy of all justice, not only do you never cease from seducing Christian souls but you even dare to penetrate into the terrible and sacrosanct mysteries.' He replied: 'I thought you were a prize I could win, for I deceived another of you people like this so that he blew his mind and fell senseless. When I left him he thought he was insane because of what I had done, and the prayers of a great number of the righteous were hardly able to restore him to his former state of sanity'. Having said this the demon left him.

"He persisted in the task which he had begun and persevered in prayer. From standing still so long his feet became ulcerated, with pus oozing out of them. When three years were up an angel of the Lord came to him and said: 'The Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit have heard your prayers. They bring healing to the wounds in your body and grant you an abundance of heavenly knowledge and speech.' He touched his mouth and his feet making him whole from his ulcers, and immune to the pangs of hunger. He ordered him to travel to another place and to visit the brothers in the desert roundabout in order to teach them the words and teachings of the Lord. But on Sundays he always came back to his original spot to receive the Sacrament in the same way as before. On other days he worked with his hands, making harness for the draught animals, weaving palm leaves together as was the custom of that place.

"A lame man seeking a cure once decided to go and visit him. And it happened that the animal he was intending to ride had a girth which had been made by the man of God. He got on to the beast and as soon as his feet touched the girth he was healed. The man of God also sent blessed bread to whoever was ill, and as soon as they received it they were healed. The Lord did many other signs and healings through him.

"He excelled all the fathers and other people in one particular grace, that the way of life of all the brothers in the neighbouring monastery was revealed to him. He could write to their superiors and tell them that some person or other was lazy and did not rightly fear God, or that other people were making good progress in faith and virtue. But he also wrote to the brothers themselves, to some because they were lagging behind their brothers and showing little inclination for being patient, to others because they were constantly acting carefully, and were a great help to their brothers. He predicted the rewards due to this one because of his virtues and the punishment threatened by the Lord to that one because of his laziness. He even described the deeds, motives, merits or negligences of people in their absence, so that when they heard what he had said they were convicted by their own conscience and could not make any denials. He taught everyone that they should lift up their minds from visible and bodily things to things invisible and incorporeal. 'We have been given time,' he said, 'in order that we might transfer our attention to studies of that sort. We should not remain always as immature infants, but aspire now to the higher things of the spirit, take control of our senses and direct our intelligence towards perfection, so that virtues may shine in our souls."

This holy man of God, Apelles, commended to us most authentically many other things about this man, John, which if they were to be written down would be excessively long and so superhuman as to be scarcely credible to whoever might hear them.

Chapter XVI


We also saw the monastery of the holy Paphnutius, the man of God, the most famous anchorite in those parts. He lived in the most distant part of the desert in the region of Heracleos, that splendid city of the Thebaid.

We learned about him from an authentic account given to us by the fathers. When he was already living the angelic life he once prayed God to show him if there were any other holy people he could be compared with. An angel appeared and told him that there was a musician (symphoniacus) like him (cf. VIII.63) in a certain village, who made a living by practising his art. Astonished by this strange reply he made his way with all haste to the village and sought the man out. When he had found him he tried to lay bare everything that the man did and earnestly enquired of him why in the world he was performing holy and religious works. He replied that the fact of the matter was that he was a sinner, a man of a shameful kind of life. Not long since he had been a robber, but had turned from that disgraceful trade to what he was now seen to be doing. Paphnutius pressed him further to tell him whether if by chance he had done any good deeds in the course of his robberies. "I'm not in the least bit conscious of having done anything good," he said. "But I do know this - that when I was among the robbers we once captured a virgin consecrated to God. My fellow robbers wanted to rape her, but I stood up and objected. I rescued her from that degradation, and took her back to her village and her own home unharmed.

"Another time I found a respectable looking woman wandering about in the desert and I asked her what she was doing in that place. (cf.VIII.63) 'Don't ask me,' she said. 'I am a most unfortunate woman. Don't ask why - but if you want a servant take me wherever you like. I am unlucky enough to have a husband who because of his debts has been repeatedly hung up and beaten and punished by all sorts of tortures. He has been shut up in prison and is not let out except to be tortured again. We have three sons who have also been seized because of this debt. Since they started looking to punish me in my misery I have fled from place to place. I have no food, I am totally distressed, I have been wandering about without detection in this place for three days now without anything to eat.' Upon hearing this I took pity on her and led her to my cave, where I refreshed her spirits which were almost spent through hunger, and I gave her three hundred solidi, for the sake of which she and her husband and her three sons had become liable not only to slavery but to physical punishment. She went back to the city and freed them all with the money I had given her."

Then father Paphnutius said: "I have done nothing like that. I have been sent to you because the name of Paphnutius was fairly well known among monks. I am fairly well versed in being able to lead my life under monastic discipline. And it was for this reason that God revealed to me that you are just as worthy in the sight of God as I am. So, brother, don't neglect your soul, for you must see that you have a high place in God's eyes." And at once he put down the flute which he was holding and followed him to the desert. He turned his musical art into a spiritual harmony of heart and mind and for three whole years gave himself over to [a regime of] strict abstinence exercising himself day and night in prayers and psalms. Still pursuing his heavenly journey with all the power of his soul, he gave up his spirit at last into the choirs of the holy angels.

(cf. VIII.64) After Paphnutius had given up to the Lord this musician who had been blessed with the practice of every virtue, he himself worked even harder at his disciplines. And again he asked the Lord if there was anyone else like him upon the earth. And again the voice of the Lord came to him, saying: "Know that the headman of the next village is similar to you." On hearing this Paphnutius hurried to him without delay and knocked on his door. Now this man always welcomed guests, and he greeted Paphnutius, took him inside, washed his feet and set food before him, all in the most friendly manner. As he was eating Paphnutius began to question his host about his deeds, his disciplines, his rules of life. He replied in humility that he preferred to hide his good deeds rather than publish them, but Paphnutius insisted, saying that it had been revealed to him that he was equal in worth to any monk. This made him feel even more humble still.

"I am not aware of anything particularly good in anything I do," he said. "But since the Word of God from whom nothing is hidden has come to you I cannot remain silent. So I will tell you of what I do in the midst of the many situations in which I am placed. No one knows that for the last thirty years my wife and I have agreed to be continent. She had given me three sons, they were the only reason for having sex with her, I have not been with anyone else, nor she either. I have always received guests, since no one before me seems to have been willing to give a welcome to visiting pilgrims. I have never let anyone go from my house without giving them food for their journey. I have never neglected the poor, but have contributed to their needs. When administering justice I have never practised any favouritism even to my own sons. The profits due to someone else's labour has never found its way into my house. Where I have seen strife I have spared no effort in trying to bring peace to the quarrelling parties. No one has ever been able to bring any reproach against my servants, my flocks have never caused any harm to my neighbour's produce, I have never stopped anyone from producing food in my district, I have never chosen the best bit of new ploughed land for myself leaving the less fertile to others, as far as I could I have never let the strong oppress the weak, I have tried throughout my life not to grieve anyone. If I have been involved in any lawsuit I have not condemned anyone out of hand, but have tried to bring adversaries to agreement. This, now, by the grace of God has been my way of life up to the present."

Listening to this the blessed Paphnutius kissed him and blessed him saying: "'May the Lord bless you out of Sion, and may you see the good things of Jerusalem' (Psalm 128.5). You have done all these things thoroughly and properly. One thing is lacking, the greatest good of all, that putting all else aside you seek that true wisdom of God, and search for those hidden treasures which you cannot arrive at in any other way than by denying yourself, and taking up your cross and following Christ" (Matthew.16.24). On hearing this he did not wait even to set things in order in his house, but followed the man of God to the desert.

When they came to the river there was no ferry to be found, but Paphnutius bade him walk into the water with him, even though it was quite deep at that place. They crossed over easily, the water coming scarcely up to their waist. When they arrived at the desert Paphnutius put him in a cell at a little distance from the monastery and gave him a spiritual rule to live by. He instructed him in the practice of striving after perfection, and initiated him into the more advanced levels of wisdom (scientiae secretiora). While giving him all this instruction he devoted himself anew to even greater efforts, because he judged that the works of this person who had been busied with the affairs of the world had been even more demanding. "For," he said, "if people living in the world can do such good works, how much more should we not endeavour to surpass them in works of abstinence, both in quantity and in quality."

After spending some time in this programme, Paphnutius had drawn him so far into the knowledge of wisdom (scientiae perfectionem) that he had already become perfect in what he was doing. And one day as Paphnutius sat in his cell he saw that man's soul taken up to heaven amidst choirs of angels singing "Blessed is he whom thou hast chosen and taken. He shall dwell in thy tabernacles." (Psalm 65.5). Paphnutius then continued in fasting and prayer, giving himself up to even greater efforts towards perfection.

Once more he prayed to the Lord to show him someone like himself. And again a voice from heaven replied: "You are like a certain merchant (cf.VIII.65) whom you will see approaching. Get up quickly and run to meet him. He is a man who I judge to be like you." Paphnutius went out without delay and went to meet this merchant from Alexandria, who was coming back from the Thebaid with three ships and a profit of twenty thousand solidi. And because he was a religious man always trying to do good works he had loaded his sons up with three bags of vegetables to take to the monastery of the man of God. Hence his meeting with Paphnutius, who as soon as he came into view cried out: "What is that you have done, that you are most precious and worthy in the sight of God? What sort of work have you been doing on earth such that your lot and fellowship has risen into the realms of heaven? Relinquish all these things into the hands of those who are of the earth and whose thoughts are earthy, and become a merchant of the kingdom of God to which you are called. Follow the Saviour, to whose presence in a short while you must be taken up." And without any hesitation he instructed his sons to disburse any superfluous profits to the poor, even though he had already distributed a great deal himself. But he followed the holy Paphnutius to the desert, where he was installed in the same place as those who had earlier been taken to the Lord. He was instructed in the same way, and persevered in spiritual exercises, and in the study of divine wisdom. After a short while he too was taken up into the congregation of the righteous.

Paphnutius himself continued to develop his life to the highest degree of abstinence and spiritual labours, and not long after this an angel of the Lord came to him saying; "Come, O blessed one, and enter into those eternal tabernacles which are your just deserts. Behold the prophets, who take you up into their choirs. You have not been told about this before lest you become conceited and receive only damnation as a reward for your labours." He was given one more day in the flesh after this while certain priests came to visit him, to whom he made known all that the Lord had revealed to him. He told them that no one living in the world should be given up for lost, even if they had been robbers, or actors, or farmers, or married, or merchants seeking profits. For in every sphere of life there were souls pleasing to God, doing in secret works with which God was well pleased. Whence it was obvious that it was not an outward profession of life or the wearing of a habit which was pleasing to God so much as sincerity and integrity of mind, and honesty in all one's dealings. He expressed a few similar sentiments on each of these topics and gave up his spirit. And the priest and all the brethren present plainly saw him taken up by the angels singing hymns and praising God all together.