History of the Egyptian Monks (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto - Part 6)

Chapter XVII


In the Thebaid we also saw the monastery of Isidore, a large enclosed space surrounded by a wall, within which could be seen a large number of buildings in which the monks lived. Inside there were several wells, irrigated gardens and sufficient apple trees and trees of paradise to supply all needs, in fact more than enough. This ensured that none of the monks living there had any need to go outside to get anything that was needed. At the gate sat a senior, chosen out of the leading men for his gravity, whose task it was to acquaint newcomers with this rule that once they were in they would not be allowed to come out. This was an unbreakable law for those who decided to go in, but the wonderful thing was that it was not the obligation of law that kept them in but the blessedness and perfection of their lives. This old gatekeeper lived in a guest house of which he was in charge and where he gave hospitality to visitors and showed them every possible human kindness. So when we were received by him we were not allowed to go inside, though we did learn from him what kind of blessed life was lived there. He said that there were only two of the senior men who had liberty to go in and out, with the responsibility for selling articles which the men had made and for bringing in anything which was needed. All the others lived in peace and quietness giving themselves to prayers and religious exercises, and cultivating the virtues of the soul of which they all showed evidence. And the most wonderful sign of all was that none of them ever fell ill. Even when they approached the end of their lives they were completely aware of it beforehand. Each of them would warn the other brothers of his departure and wish everyone farewell, whereupon he would lie down and give up his spirit with joy.

Chapter XVIII


In the region of Arsinoe we saw the priest Serapion who was the father of many monasteries. Many and diverse were the monasteries under his care, containing about ten thousand monks. They all worked together, especially in harvest time, to gather up the fruit of their manual labour, out of which they brought the greater share to the aforesaid father for distribution to the poor. This was the custom not only of them but of nearly all the Egyptian monks, that at harvest time they would hire out their labour to harvesting, as a result of which each one would collect eighty measures of grain, more or less, and give the greater part of it to the poor. This not only fed the poor of that region but ships laden with grain sailed to Alexandria in order to extend the benefit to those in prison, or pilgrims, or other needy people. For there were not enough poor people in the Egyptian [countryside] to absorb the benefit and fruit of their almsgiving.

In the regions of Memphis and Babylon we saw great numbers of monks among whom we observed various gifts of grace and examples of virtue. There is a tradition that these places, which they call the treasures of Joseph, are where Joseph is said to have stored up the grain. Others say it is the Pyramids themselves in which it is thought that the grain was collected.

Chapter XIX


The elders among them related a tradition that at the time of the persecutions there had been a monk called Apollonius who as the culmination of a magnificent life among the brothers had been ordained deacon. During the persecutions took it upon himself to go around the brothers and encourage them to martyrdom. He was eventually arrested himself and cast into prison. where a great crowd of the gentiles came to mock him and cry out against him with many blasphemous and impious words.

A man called Philemon was one of them, a famous flute-player, greatly loved by the people. He piled insults upon Apollonius, calling him impious, wicked, deceiver of humanity, worthy of being held in abhorrence by all. After suffering all this and many other even worse insults, Apollonius replied: "May the Lord have mercy on you, my son, and impute to you as a sin nothing of what you have said." These words cut Philemon to the quick. In his own mind he felt the force of something that was more than human, so much so that he instantly declared himself to be a Christian. And immediately he rushed from there to the judge's seat and shouted out in the hearing of all the people: "You wicked judge. It is unjust to punish these religious men who are loved of God, for Christians neither do nor teach anything evil." At first the judge thought he was joking, seeing that he was a [well known] man of that place. But when he saw that he was persisting and carrying on without any let up he said: "You are mad, Philemon. You have had a sudden brainstorm."

He replied: "I am not mad. It is you who are unjust and crazy to persecute unjustly so many just men. For I am a Christian, a most noble sort of human being." The judge then in the presence of all the people began with many persuasive arguments to try and get him to recant from that which he saw he had become. But Philemon remained obdurate, so the judge threatened him with all kinds of tortures. He realised that this change had come about through the words of Apollonius, so he seized him and subjected him to very severe tortures, making a very big issue out of the crime of being a deceiver. Apollonius said: "I would to heaven that you, O judge, and all those present who hear what I am saying, would follow what you call this error of mine." The judge immediately ordered that he and Philemon should be thrown into the flames in the sight of all the people. From the midst of the fire the blessed Apollonius cried out to the Lord so that all could hear: "'Deliver not up to the beasts, O Lord, the souls that confess thee' (Psalm 74. 19), 'but show us clearly thy salvation'." (Psalm 84.8.) When Apollonius had spoken to the Lord so that all the people and the judge could hear, a rain cloud suddenly surrounded them and put out the rising flames of fire. The judge and people were stupefied, and began to cry out with one voice: "Great is the one God of the Christians, he alone is immortal."

The news of this came to the ears of the prefect of Alexandria, and made him ferociously angry. He picked out some of the most cruel and savage members of his entourage, more like beasts than men, and sent them with orders to bring bound to Alexandria the judge who had believed as a result of the divine miracle and those through whom the power of God had been shown forth. But while they were all bound and being taken to Alexandria the grace of God appeared in what Apollonius said, for he began to teach faith in God to those who had bound them and were taking them. Believing in the mercy of God they wholeheartedly accepted faith in God, and appeared before the judge as professing Christians along with those whom they brought in bonds. When the prefect saw that they were steadfastly persisting in believing in God he ordered that they should all alike be cast into the sea, not knowing in his arrogance what he was doing. For them this was not a death but a Baptism.

But their bodies, doubtless by the providence of God, were washed up on the shore, whole and cleansed. People came to give them a decent funeral, recovered the bodies, and took them to be gathered together in one sepulchre as a final resting place. From that time to this they have performed many signs and wonders to the astonishment of all. For they take up the vows and prayers of all, and bring our petitions to fruition in the place where the Lord deigns to lead us and fulfil the vows and petitions of us all.

Chapter XX


We saw another venerable father in the Thebaid, a priest called Dioscuros, who had a monastery of about a hundred monks. We noted that when people came to the Sacrament he took particular care and diligence to ensure that no one who came should bring with him any stain on his conscience. He even warned about those things which happen to men when they are asleep, either because of fantasies about women appearing to them or because of the natural overflow of bodily fluids. "If such things happen without any accompanying fantasies about women," he said, "there is no sin in it. For once these fluids have been produced in the body and filled up their proper receptacle they have to be expelled by their own proper channels, and thus far it does not occasion sin. But accompanied by images of women and the pleasures of the flesh they are a sure sign that there is a desire in their souls to be taken up with such illicit thoughts. Monks therefore should drive all kinds of images like this from their minds, nor let their senses be aroused by these blandishments of the devil, otherwise there would not seem to be any difference between them and those who live in the world. But the monk should labour at taming and overcoming the natural man with much abstemious fasting and many prayers and reduce the stain of his [nocturnal] flux by even more prayer and fasting. Furthermore, if doctors recommend to those who live luxuriously that they should abstain, for the good of their bodily health, from all things harmful, why should not a monk do much more than that in seeking health of soul and spirit.

Chapter XXI


We arrived at Nitria, that most famous place among all the monasteries of Egypt, about forty miles from Alexandria. It takes its name from the nearby village where natron [native sesquicarbonate of soda, or soap] is produced. The name of Nitria, by the foresight of divine providence, I believe, carries with it the idea that however sordid the sins of men they could be cleansed and washed away in this place as if by natron. Here, there are not much fewer than fifty dwellings near each other under the rule of a single father. Some have many occupants, some just a few, quite a lot only one, but although their dwellings are all separate, nevertheless they are all inseparably joined in faith and charity.

As we approached the place they sensed that pilgrim brothers were drawing near, and immediately like a swarm of bees they all rushed out of their cells and came to meet us, vying with each other in the happiness and hastiness of their approach. Several of them carried with them jugs of water and bread, for the prophet had rebuked some people saying; "You did not go out to meet the children of Israel in the way with bread and water" (2 Esdras.13). So, having greeted us, they first of all took us to the church, singing psalms, then washed our feet, with each one of them wiping our feet with the strips of linen which they use, ostensibly to lighten the labour of our journey, but in reality embodying the mystical tradition of bringing balm to the troubles of human life.

What can I say now about their humanity, their work, their charity, since all of them beckoned us towards their own cells, not only fulfilling the obligation of hospitality, but also showing us the humility and gentleness and other virtues of this sort which are learned by people thus separated from the world. Their gifts of grace were various, the doctrine [by which they lived] was one and the same for all. Nowhere else had we seen such charity flourishing, nowhere such acts of compassion and eager hospitality, nowhere else such knowledge and thoughts about the divine Scriptures, nowhere else so many methods of gaining knowledge of the divine (scientiae divinae tanta exercitia), that you might well believe that nearly every one of them was an expert in divine wisdom.

Chapter XXII


There is a another place about ten miles further on into the desert called Cellia, because of the number of cells scattered about in the wilderness. To this place, having first been taught in the Thebaid, fled those who wished to cast all care aside and live a more secluded life. In this empty desert there was so much space between each of the cells that none of them could either see or hear each other. Living one to a cell there is a great silence and quietness among them. Only on Saturdays and Sundays do they come together in church, where it seems to them as if they are restored to heaven. If anyone is missing they realise that he is prevented by some bodily ailment, and each one visits with something of his own which might be welcome to one who is sick - not all at once, but they all take turns. There is no other reason for anyone to dare break into the silence of his neighbour, unless it might be for someone to be able to give a word of instruction, and like athletes in the arena anoint each other with the oil of a consoling word. Some of them come from three or four miles away from the church, so spaced out are their cells from each other. But so great is the charity among them, and so thoughtful are they for each other and for all the brothers, that they are held in admiration and as an example for all. As soon as they know that anyone else wants to come a live with them, each of them is quite willing to offer his own cell.

Chapter XXIII

AMMON (cf. VIII.12)

Among them we saw another venerable father called Ammon, upon whom God had conferred a great fulness of spiritual gifts. If you could see the grace of charity in him you would say that you had never seen anything like it anywhere. And if you were thinking about his humility you would have to say that he was more accomplished by a long way in this gift than anyone else. Ana again, if you considered how he excelled all others in each one of the virtues of patience, gentleness, kindness, you would not know how to find anyone better than him. God had conferred upon him such gifts of wisdom and knowledge that you would believe that no one out of all the fathers had penetrated so deeply into the realms of every kind of knowledge there is. Everybody who met him said that no one had been taken up so closely into the wisdom of God. He had two of his brothers with him, Eusebius and Euthymius. His older brother Dioscuros had been elevated to the episcopate. They were not only brothers according to the flesh, but brothers in their style of life and total nobility of soul. Like a nurse caring for her children, they were a source of strength to all the brothers living in that place, instructing each one of them, and striving to lead them to the highest peak of perfection.

We found that this man of God, Ammon, had a cell (monasterium) with a wall round it, which was very easy to construct out of rough building blocks in these parts. Inside it was everything he needed - he had even dug a well. There was once a brother who came to him seeking salvation and who asked him if there was an empty cell anywhere where he could live.

"I will find out", he said. "But until I do, stay here in this cell. I am going out now to see to what you want." And he left his cell and everything in it and found a tiny little cell quite some distance away and set himself up in it. The newly arrived brother did not even realise that Ammon had given him his own cell and everything in it.

But if several people arrived at once seeking salvation he would gather the brothers together and quickly give them instructions so that a new cell would be built on that very day. And when a sufficient number of cells had been built to cater for the needs of them all, he took those who would be living in them to the church as if to provide them with refreshment, but while they were in there each one of the brothers would bring necessary items from their own cells and put them in the new ones. As a result of this charitable exercise there was no lack of either tools or food, and it wasn't at all obvious who had given what. At vespers time, those for whom the cells had been prepared came back and found them fitted out with everything necessary for living in. The cells had been so built that there was nothing lacking.