History of the Egyptian Monks (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto - Part 8)


Among the disciples of the blessed Antony was one Paul, nicknamed the Simple. His first conversion happened like this:

With his own eyes he saw his wife committing adultery one day, so without saying anything to anyone he left home, overwhelmed with sadness in his heart, and fled to the desert. After wandering about there in distress, he came at last to Antony's monastery. He took comfort from this fortunate chance, because of what he had heard about the place. He met Antony and asked him how he could find a path to salvation. Antony sensed that he was a simple sort of man, and told him that if he would abide by the instructions that he would give him he would be saved. He replied that he would do whatever he was asked. To test this promise Antony said to him as he stood outside the door of his cell: "Wait here and pray until I come back again". He then went inside and stayed there for a day and a night, from time to time watching Paul secretly through the window. He saw that Paul prayed without ceasing, never moving at all, just standing there in the heat of the day and the dew of the night, so intent on what he had been told that he did not move from the spot in the slightest degree.

When Antony came out the next day he took him in and began to teach him about each sort of manual work customary in solitude. Work with the hands took care of the needs of the body, while the thoughts of the heart and the intention of the mind made room for what came from God. He told him to take food in the evening, but warned him never to satisfy his hunger completely, and to be particularly sparing in what he drank, for mental phantasies were encouraged just as much by too much water as bodily heat by too much wine. And when he had fully instructed him how to conduct himself properly in all things he built a cell for him not far away, that is, at a distance of three miles, where he ordered him to carry on doing what he learned. He visited him from time to time, and was delighted to see that he was keeping a firm grasp on what he had been taught, persevering wholeheartedly in his solitude.

One day some senior brothers came to visit the holy Antony, men very advanced in spirituality, and Paul happened to be visiting at the same time. There was a long conversation on deep and mystical subjects, and much discussion about the Prophets and the Saviour.

"Did Christ come before the Prophets?" asked Paul out of the simplicity of his heart. Antony was rather embarrassed for him for asking such a stupid question.

"Get away with you, say no more," he said, in the indulgent sort of tone of voice reserved for idiots.

But Paul believed that everything Antony told him to do was as it were a command from God, and obeyed immediately. He went back to his cell and accepted this command and began to keep absolute silence, allowing not a word to pass his lips. When Antony realised this he wondered why he was behaving like this, for he was quite unaware that he had given Paul any command. He ordered him to speak, and tell him why he was keeping silent.
"You, father," said Paul, "told me to get away and say no more."

Antony was amazed that Paul was taking literally the words which he had quite carelessly said
"This man puts us all to shame," he said. "For we fail to hear what is spoken to us from heaven, whereas he observes whatever comes out of our mouth."

Antony was determined to teach him a great deal about obedience, and was accustomed to give orders which seemed quite unreasonable and purposeless, in order to train his mind in the habit of obedience. He told him once to draw water from the well and pour it out on the ground, he told him to unravel baskets and then weave them together again, to tear his garment apart then sew it up again, then take it apart again. In all such practices, Antony bears witness that he remained totally receptive. He learned not to contradict in any of those unreasonable things which he was commanded to do, and so he was brought on by all these things and soon arrived at a state of perfection.

Antony used him as an example. "If anyone wishes to come quickly to perfection," he taught, "he should not be his own master nor obey his own will even if he thought he was in the right. According to the command of the Saviour he should take note that above all else he should deny himself and renounce his own will (Matt.16.24), for the Saviour himself said: 'I came not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.' (John6.38) The will of Christ, of course, could not be in any way different from the will of the Father, for he who came to teach obedience would not have been obedient himself if he had merely been doing his own will. How much more, then, will we be judged disobedient if we do our own will? Therefore this Paul is an example for us, for by the merits of his simplicity and obedience he has attained to such a height of spiritual grace that the Lord has shown forth a great number of much more powerful virtues in him than in Antony."

Because of the abundance of his gifts, many people came from all parts to be cured by him. Antony feared that the attentions of such a large crowd would overwhelm him, so he sent him deeper into the desert where it was not so easy for anyone to get to him, and Antony would thus be more able to deal with visitors. But if Antony himself could not cure anyone he would then send them to Paul as being more abundantly supplied with healing gifts. And Paul cured them.

The simplicity of his faithfulness was great in the eyes of the Lord. They say that once someone suffering from rabies was biting like a dog everyone who was trying to come and see Paul. He was brought to Paul, who persisted in prayer that the demon troubling him should be put to flight. And after a while, when there did not seem to be anything happening, he is said to have cried out indignantly, like a small child, to the Lord: "If you don't cure him, I am not going to get anything to eat today!" And immediately God granted him his request, as if he were a favourite child. The rabies was instantly cured.


It would not seem to me to be right to pass over in silence those who live in the desert near the Parthian Sea, near the town called Diolcus. There we met a certain admirable priest called Piammon, a man of exceptional humility and benevolence, who had a gift of seeing. For once when he was offering the sacrifice to the Lord he saw an angel of the Lord standing by the altar writing down the names of the monks as they approached the altar, but there were some whose names he did not write down. Piammon took a careful note of those whose names were not written down, and after the mysteries were completed he called each one of them to him and demanded to know what secret sins they were guilty of. He found that each one of them was guilty of a mortal sin and urged them to do penance. Along with them he prostrated himself day and night before the Lord, as if he himself was guilty of their sins. He wept, and continued with them in penitence and tears, until once more he saw the angel standing there writing down the names of those going up to Communion. And after writing down all the names, he called out the names of the sinners, inviting them to be reconciled once more with the altar. Seeing this, Piammon knew that their penance had been accepted, and restored them to the altar with great joy.

They say also that once he was so beaten by the demons that he could not stand or move. So when Sunday came with the need to offer the sacrifice he told the brothers to carry him to the altar. While prostrate in prayer he saw the angel of the Lord standing in his usual place by the altar, who reached out his hands and lifted him up from the earth. And all his pain disappeared at once, and he was restored to his usual good health.

JOHN (cf. VIII. 73)

There was a holy man called John in that place, whose gifts of grace were overflowing. He had such a great gift of consolation that anyone whose soul was oppressed with sadness or weariness could be speedily and joyfully restored by a few words from him. Many gifts of healing were given him by the Lord.

EPILOGUE (cf. VIII. 151)

The dangers of journeying to the deserts

In many other parts of Egypt we came across holy men of God of great virtue doing marvellous things, totally filled with the grace of God. We have only mentioned a few of them. To describe them all would be beyond our powers.

We learned only by hearsay of those who are said to live in the upper Thebaid, that is around Syene, but they were held by almost everyone whom we did see to be even greater and more wonderful still. But we were unable to visit them because of the dangers of the journey. All parts of Egypt are infested with robbers, but beyond the city of Lycos you are in danger from barbarians as well. So none of us managed to visit there, though in truth even getting to see those whom we mention above was not without its perils.

We ran into danger seven times in this journey and even in the eighth we suffered no harm, as it is written (Job 5.19), the Lord always protecting us.

Once we wandered for five days and nights in the desert, suffering from thirst and near exhaustion.

Then we went through a valley which exuded a sort of salty liquid which the heat of sun turned into a salty deposit with sharp spikes just like winter hoarfrost turned to ice. The whole area was so rough that our feet were torn and scratched, as were the shoes we wore. Once we had got into this place we only managed to get out of it with great difficulty.

Thirdly, when we notwithstanding persevered onwards into the desert we came to a valley which again discharged a similar sort of liquid, but when we tried to cross through this place full of stones and stinking filth we sank up to our thighs. We were almost about to be covered in it when we cried to the Lord in the words of the psalm "Save me, O God, for the waters have come in even unto my soul. I am stuck in the deep mire where there is no ground" (Psalms 69.1-2).

Fourthly, we suffered danger in the waters left behind after the flooding of the Nile, through which we struggled for three days, and were scarcely able to get through.

Fifthly, we were in danger from pirates when we were travelling by sea. They followed us for ten miles but failed to put us to the sword, but left us to flee almost dead [with fright].
Sixthly, we had an accident in crossing the Nile when we were almost drowned.

Seventhly, in the swamps named after Mary [Marotis palus, just west of the Cells], a fierce wind cast us up on an island during a terrible storm in the middle of winter. It was during Epiphanytide.

Eighthly, when we were on the way to the monasteries of Nitria we came to a place where the floodwaters of the Nile were still lying, making a sort of bog, in which were a lot of beasts, especially crocodiles. When the sun came out they lay on the shore, seeming dead to us in our ignorance. We went closer in order to see and admire the size of these beasts which we thought dead, but as soon as they heard the sound of our feet they woke up and began to rush towards us. With a great shout and groan we called upon the name of the Lord. who had mercy on us, and the beasts rushing towards us were driven back as if by an angel and cast immediately into the bog. And we continued quickly on our journey to the monastery, giving thanks to God who delivered up from such great perils and showed us such wonders. To him be glory and honour unto the ages of ages. Amen.