The Desert Fathers

(selected episodes and sayings)

1. One Must Work in Order to Eat

This selection is from the life of Abba Silvanus, a Palestinian by birth, who headed a community with twelve disciples. Around 380, they moved from Scetis to Syria, settling in the region of Gaza. There they lived in a "lavra" with scattered cells and a central church where the community gathered each Saturday and Sunday for worship. Abba Silvanus died around 414.
A brother went to see Abba Silvanus on the mountain of Sinai. When he saw the brothers working hard, he said to the old man, "Do not labor for the food which perishes (John 6:27). Mary has chosen the good portion (Luke 10:42)."
The old man said to his disciple, "Zacharias, give the brother a book and put him in a cell without anything else." So, when the ninth hour came the visitor watched the door expecting someone would be sent to call him to the meal.
When no one called him he got up, went to find the old man and said to him, "Have the brothers not eaten today?" The old man replied that they had. Then he said, "Why did you not call me?" The old man said to him, "Because you are a spiritual man and do not need that kind of food. We, being carnal, want to eat, and that is why we work. But you have chosen the good portion and read the whole day long and you do not want to eat carnal food."
When he heard these words the brother made a prostration saying, "Forgive me, Abba." The old man said to him, "Mary needs Martha. It is really thanks to Martha that Mary is praised."

from "The Desert Christian," by Benedicta Ward, 223

2. Selected Sayings of the Desert Fathers.


A. Before anything else we need humility. Dorotheos

B. Humility protects the soul from all the passions and also from every temptation. Dorotheos

C. Judge not him who is guilty of fornication, if you are chaste, or you will break the law like him. For He who said Do not commit fornication said also Do not judge. Pambos

D. Obedience responds to obedience. When someone obeys God, then God obeys his request. Mios

E. The monk should be like the cherubim and seraphim: all eyes. Abba Bessarion, when he was dying

F. Courage stands in the middle between cowardice and foolhardiness; humility in the middle between arrogance and servility . Modesty is a mean between timidity and boldness. Dorotheos

G. A man who gives way to his passions is like a man who is shot at by an enemy, catches the arrow in his hands, and then plunges it into his own heart. A man who is resisting his passions is like a man who is shot at by an enemy, and although the arrow hits him, it does not seriously wound him because he is wearing a breastplate. But the man who is uprooting his passions is like a man who is shot at by an enemy, but who strikes the arrow and shatters it or turns it back into his enemy's heart. Dorotheos

H. The thief was on the cross and he was justified by a single word; and Judas who was counted in the number of the apostles lost all his labor in one single night and descended from heaven to hell. Therefore, let no-one boast of his good works, for all those who trust in themselves fall. Xanthias

I. The beginning of evil is the lack of vigilance. Poemen  

J. Humility of soul helps more than everything else; without it no one can overcome lewdness or any other sin. Cassian  

K. Whatever helps us to achieve purity of heart, we must follow with all our might; whatever hinders us from it, we must shun as a dangerous and hurtful thing. Moses  

L. When we do not experience warfare, we ought so much the more to humiliate ourselves. For God seeing our weakness, protects us; when we glorify ourselves, He withdraws His protection and we are lost. Fathers  

M. Abba Poemen said about Abba Pior that every single day he made a fresh beginning. Pior  

N. There was in the Cells an Abba called Apollo. If someone came to find him about doing a piece of work, he would set out joyfully, saying, I am going to work with Christ today, for the salvation of my soul, for that is the reward he gives. Apollo  

O. If a king wishes to subdue a city belonging to enemies, he first of all keeps them without bread and water, and the enemy harassed by hunger, surrenders; so it is in respect of the hostile passions, for if a man endures fasting and hunger, his enemies become stricken with weakness in the soul. John  

P. A brother asked Abba Poemen: What does it mean to get angry at one's brother without cause? And he replied: When your brother attacks you, whatever the insults are, if you get angry at him, you are getting angry without cause. Even if he were to pull out your right eye, and to cut off your right hand, if you get angry at him, you are getting angry without cause. Yet if he were to try to take you away from God, then get angry! Poemen  

Q. Abba Moses asked Abba Sylvanus, Can a man lay a new foundation every day? The Abba said, If he works hard, he can lay a new foundation at every moment. Sylvanus  

R. A brother said to the Abba : There does not seem to be any conflict in my heart. He received this reply: You are like a house that is open to the four winds, so that anyone who likes can go in or out without you noticing. If you only had one door to it, and choose to shut it in the face of wicked thoughts, then you would notice them and you would have to fight against them. Fathers  

S. It is told that a thought came to a monk: Rest today and you can do penance tomorrow. He replied: No, I will do penance today and rest tomorrow. Fathers  

T. If the inner person is not watchful, the outer person cannot be watched. Fathers  

3. The Monastic Ideal

The old man said, "These things form the life of a monk: good works, and obedience, and training. A man should not lay blame on his neighbour, and he should not utter calumnies, and he should not complain, for it is written, 'The lovers of the Lord hate wickedness.'"

from E. A. Wallis Budge, "The Paradisep. 135

4. Avoiding Attachment to Material Things

One of the fathers related of Abba John the Persian that his great charity had brought him to a profound innocence. He dwelt in Arabia of Egypt.
One day he borrowed some money from a brother and bought some flax for his work. Then a brother came and asked him, "Abba, give me a little flax so that I can make myself a cloak." He gave him some readily. Similarly, another brother came and asked him, "Give me a little flax, so that I can make some cloth." So he gave him some too. Others came and asked him for things and he simply gave them cheerfully. Later, the owner of the money came to reclaim it. The old man said to him, "I will go and get it for you." Because he could not return it to him, he went to Abba James, who was a deacon, to ask him to give him some money so that he could return it to the brother. On the way, he found a coin on the ground but he did not touch it. He said a prayer and returned to his cell. But the brother came once more pestering him about the money, and the old man said to him, "I am very worried about it." Once again he went, found the coin on the ground where it was lying and once again he said a prayer and returned to his cell.
But the brother came back to pester him as before. The old man said to him, "This time I will certainly bring it to you." Once again he got up and went to the place where the coin lay on the ground. He said and prayer and went to tell Abba James, "Abba, as I was coming here, I found this coin on the road. Please make it known in the neighborhood, in case someone has lost it; and if its owner is found, give it to him."
So the old man went and asked about it for three days, but no one who had lost a piece of money came. Then the old man said to Abba James, "Then if no one has lost it, give it to this brother, for I owe it him. As I was coming to ask you for alms in order to give him his due, I found it."
The old man was astonished that, having a debt and finding that piece, he had not picked it up at once and given it to him. It was equally to his credit that when someone came to borrow something from Abba John, he did not give it him himself, but said to the brother, "Go and help yourself to whatever you need," and when someone brought anything back to him, he would say, "Put it back where it belongs." If the borrower did not return the thing he did not say anything to him." 

from "The Desert Christian," pp. 107-108

5. Why Fast? Why Be An Ascetic?

These stories are from the life of Abba Moses, a freed slave who lived as a robber in Nitria, becoming a monk late in life. He was martyred with seven others by barbarian invaders.
The old man was asked, "What is the good of the fasts and watchings which a man imposes on himself?" and he replied, "They make the soul humble. For it is written, "Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins" (Psalm 25:18). So if the soul gives itself all this hardship, God will have mercy on it."
The old man was (also) asked, "What should a man do in all the temptations and evil thoughts that come upon him?" The old man said to him, "He should weep and implore the goodness of God to come to his aid, and he will obtain peace if he prays with discernment. For it is written, "With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can man do to me?" (Psalm 118:6).

from "The Desert Christian," p. 142

6. Love, Asceticism, and Salvation

This story is about an anonymous, holy layman who visited Abba Poemen and the brotherhood. It speaks very well to us about Christian love, asceticism, and how these relate to our salvation.
On one occasion, a certain excellent man, who feared God in his life and works, and who was living in the world, went to Abba Poemen. Some of the brethren, who were also with the old man, were asking him questions, wishing to hear a word from him.
Then Abba Poemen said to the man who was in the world, "Speak a word to the brethren," but he begged him saying, "Forgive me, father, but I came to learn." And the old man pressed him to speak and, as the force of his urging increased, he said, "I am a man living in the world, and I sell vegetables, and because I do not know how to speak from a book, listen ye to a parable.

"There was a certain man who had three friends, and he said to the first, 'Since I desire to see the Emperor come with me,' and the friend said unto him, 'I will come with thee half the way.' And the man said to the second friend, 'Come, go with me to the Emperor's presence,' and the friend said to him, 'I will come with thee as far as his palace, but I cannot go with thee inside.'
"And the man said the same unto his third friend, who answered and said, 'I will come with thee, and I will go inside the palace with thee, and I will even stand up before the Emperor and speak on thy behalf.'"
Then the brethren questioned him, wishing to learn from him the meaning of the riddle, and he answered and said unto them, "The first friend is abstinence, which leadeth as far as one half of the way. The second friend is purity and holiness, which lead to heaven. And the third friend is loving-kindness, which establishes a man before God and speaketh on his behalf with great boldness."

from, E. A. Wallis Budge, "The Paradise, vol. II," p. 102

7. Studying and Practicing Spiritual Wisdom

An old man said, "The prophets wrote books, then came our Fathers who put them into practice. Those who came after them learnt them by heart. Then came the present generation, who have written them out and put them into their window seats without using them."

8. And from the life of another father,

The old man said, "Spiritual work is essential; it is for this we have come to the desert. It is very hard to teach with the mouth that which one does not practice in the body."

both selections are from "The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers,", p. 31 and p. 33

9. How Do We Pray?

The brothers said, "What kind of prayer is that which is not acceptable before God?" The old man said, "The prayer for the destruction of enemies. When we ask that evil things may come upon those who do harm to us, and for bodily health, and abundance of possessions, and fertility in respect of children, these requests are not acceptable before God. If God beareth with us, who are sinners and who offend Him, how much more is it right that we should bear each with the other? It is, then, not meet that we should ask for the things which concern the body, for the wisdom of God provideth everything necessary."

The brothers said, "In what way ought we to pray before God?" The old man said, "For the repentance of sinners, the finding of the lost, the drawing near of those who are far off, friendliness toward those who do us harm, love towards those who persecute us, and sorrowful care for those who provoke God to wrath. And if a man doeth these things truly and with a penitent mind, the sinners will often gain life, and the living soul will be redeemed.

Now the prayer which our lord delivered to us as to the needs of the body, is one which applieth to the whole community, and it was not uttered for the sake of those who are strangers to the world, and with whom the pleasures of the body are held in contempt. He in whose life the kingdom of God and His righteousness are found lacks nothing, even when he asks not."

from "The Paradise," vol. II, p. 332-333.

10. Of What Does the 'Spiritual Search' Consist?

A brother from Abba Poemen's neighbourhood left to go to another country one day. There he met an anchorite. The latter was very charitable and many came to see him. The brother told him about Abba Poemen. When he heard of his virtue, the anchorite wanted to see him. Some times afterwards when the brother had returned to Egypt the anchorite went there to see the brother who had formerly paid him a visit. He had told him where he lived.
When he saw him, the brother was astonished and very pleased. The anchorite said to him, "Please, will you be so kind as to take me to Abba Poemen?" So he brought him to the old man and presented him, saying, "This is a great man, full of charity, who is held in high estimation in his district. I have spoken to him about you, and he has come because he wants to see you." So Abba Poemen received him with joy. They greeted one another and sat down.
The visitor began to speak of the Scriptures, of spiritual and of heavenly things. But Abba Poemen turned his face away and answered nothing. Seeing that he did not speak to him, the other went away deeply grieved and said to the brother who had brought him, "I have made this long journey in vain. For I have come to see the old man, and he does not wish to speak to me."
Then the brother went inside to Abba Poemen and said to him, "Abba, this great man who has so great a reputation in his own country has come here because of you. Why did you not speak to him?" The old man said, "He is great and speaks of heavenly things and I am lowly and speak of earthly things. If he had spoken of the passions of the soul, I should have replied, but he speaks to me of spiritual things and I know nothing about that."
Then the brother came outside and said to the visitor, "The old man does not readily speak of the Scriptures, but if anyone consults him about the passions of the soul, he replies." Filled with compunction, the visitor returned to the old man and said to him, "What should I do, Abba, for the passions of the soul master me?"
The old man turned towards him and replied joyfully, "This time, you come as you should. Now open your mouth concerning this and I will fill it with good things." Greatly edified, the other said to him, "Truly, this is the right way!"

He returned to his own country giving thanks to God that he had been counted worthy to meet so great a saint.

from "The Desert Christian," p. 167

11. Generosity in the Face of Need

An old man and a brother led their life together. Now the old man was charitable. It happened that there was a famine and the people came to his door seeking alms, and in charity the old man gave to all who came. Seeing what was happening, the brother said to the old man, "Give me my share of the loaves, and do what you like with yours." The old man divided the loaves and gave alms from his share.
Now many people hastened to the old man, learning that he supplied everyone, and God -- seeing that he supplied everyone -- blessed these loaves. But when the brother had consumed his own food he said to the old man, "Since I have only a little food left, Abba, take me back into the common life again." The old man said, "I will do as you wish." So they began to again to live in common.
When scarcity came again, the needy came back seeking alms. Now one day the brother came in and saw they were short of loaves. A poor man came, and the old man told the brother to give him alms. He said, "It is no longer possible, father." The old man said to him, "Go in and look." The brother went inside and found the bin full of loaves. When he saw that, he was filled with fear, and taking some he gave to the poor. In this way he learned the faith and virtue of the old man, and he gave glory to God.

from "The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers," by Benedicta Ward, (Oxford: SLG Press, 1985), p. 42


Abba Peter, the disciple of Abba Lot, said, One day when I was in Abba Agathon's cell a brother came in and said to him, "I want to live with the brethren; tell me how to dwell with them." The old man answered him, "All the days of your life keep the frame of mind of the stranger which you have on the first day you join them, so as not to become too familiar with them." The Abba Macarius asked, "And what does this familiarity produce?" the old man replied: It is like a strong, burning wind, each time it arises everything flies swept before it, and it destroys the fruit of the trees." So Abba Macarius said, "Is speaking too freely really as bad as all that?" Abba Agathon said, "No passion is worse than an uncontrolled tongue, because it is the mother of all the passions." Accordingly the good workman should not use it, even as he is living as a solitary in the cell. I know a brother who spent a long time in his cell using a small bed who said, "I should have left my cell without making use of that small bed if no one had told me it was there." It is the hard-working Monk who is a warrior.


12. Some old men went to Abba Poemen and asked, "If we see brothers sleeping during the common prayer, should we wake them?" Abba Poemen answered,
"If I see my brother sleeping, I put his head on my knees and let him rest."
Then one old man spoke up, "And how do you explain yourself before God?"
Abba Poemen replied, "I say to God: You have said, 'First take the beam out of your own eye and then you will be able to remove the splinter from the eye of your brother.' "


13. A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, "Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it." So he did. The old man then said, "Shoot another," and he did so. Then the old man said, "Shoot yet again," and the hunter replied, "If I bend my bow so much I will break it." Then the old man said to him, "It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs." When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.


14. Three old men, of whom one had a bad reputation, came one day to Abba Achilles. The first asked him, "Father, make me a fishing-net." "I will not make you one," he replied. Then the second said, "Of your charity make one, so that we may have a souvenir of you in the monastery." But he said, "I do not have time." Then the third one, who had a bad reputation, said, "Make me a fishing-net, so that I may have something from your hands, Father." Abba Achilles answered him at once, "For you, I will make one." Then the two other old men asked him privately, "Why did you not want to do what we asked you, but you promised to do what he asked?" The old man gave them this answer, "I told you I would not make one, and you were not disappointed, since you thought that I had no time. But if I had not made one for him, he would have said, 'The old man has heard about my sin, and that is why he does not want to make me anything,' and so our relationship would have broken down. But now I have cheered his soul, so that he will not be overcome with grief."


15. There was a young emperor who went to the desert to visit an old monk. The Emperor ordered his retinue to wait at a distance, and he approached the monk's cell alone. He removed the crown from his head and hid it and then knocked on the door to the monk's cell. The monk, upon opening the door, immediately knew that it was the Emperor standing before him, but he pretended not to recognize him, and he welcomed him as a fellow monk. They prayed and sat down together. Then the Emperor began to question the monk saying, "How are all the fathers in the desert?" The monk replied, "They all pray for your health."
Then the Emperor looked around the cell and saw nothing except a small basket containing bread, and the monk said to him, "Eat."
Then the monk dipped the bread in water, poured oil on it and salt, and gave it to the Emperor, who ate it. And the monk gave him some water, and he drank. Then the Emperor asked, "Do you know who I am?" The monk replied, "God knows who you are." The Emperor then identified himself, and the monk bowed at the waist in homage. The Emperor said to him, "You are truly blessed because you do not have the cares of this world. I was born to kingship, and the affairs of my empire are a constant concern to me. Each day I dine on the richest meats and cakes and the finest wines are poured into my goblet. And yet, today mere bread and water have satisfied me as no sumptuous feast ever has." And the young emperor marvelled and went his way.




16. Abba Ammonas -- Overcoming Anger

A brother asked Abba Ammonas, "Give me a word," and the old man replied, "Go, make your thoughts like those of the evildoers who are in prison. For they are always asking when the magistrate will come, awaiting him in anxiety. Even so the monk ought to give himself at all times to accusing his own soul, saying, ‘Unhappy wretch that I am. How shall I stand before the judgement seat of Christ? What shall I say in my defence?’ If you give yourself continually to this, you may be saved."

17. Abba Ammonas said, "I have spent fourteen years in Scetis asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger."

18. Abba Ammonas was going to pay a visit to Abba Anthony one day, and he lost his way. So sitting down, he fell asleep for a little while. On waking, he prayed thus to God, "I beseech you, O Lord my God, do not let your creature perish." Then there appeared to him as it were a man’s hand in the heavens, which showed him the way, till he reached Abba Anthony’s cave.

19. Abba Ammonas came one day to eat in a place where there was a monk of evil repute. Now it happened that a woman came and entered the cell of the brother of evil reputation. The dwellers in that place, having learnt this, were troubled and gathered together to chase the brother from his cell. Knowing that Bishop Ammonas was in the place, they asked him to join them. When the brother in question learnt this, he hid the woman in a large cask. The crowd of monks came the place. Now Abba Ammonas saw the position clearly but for the sake of God he kept the secret; he entered, seated himself on the cask and commanded the cell to be searched. Then when the monks had searched everywhere without finding the woman, Abba Ammonas said, "What is this? May God forgive you!" After praying, he made everyone go out, then taking the brother by the hand he said, "Brother, be on your guard." With these words, he withdrew.

20. Abba Ammonas was asked, "What is the ‘narrow and hard way?’" (matthew 7:14). He replied, "The ‘narrow and hard way’ is this, to control your thoughts, and to strip yourself of your own will, for the sake of God. This is also the meaning of the sentence, ‘Lo, we have left everything and followed you.’" (Matthew 19:27)

Sr. Benedicta Ward, "The Sayings of the Desert Fathers," (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1975), pp. 25-28

21. Selected Teachings of Abba Or:

A. They said of Abba Or that he never lied, nor swore, nor hurt anyone, nor spoke without necessity.

B. Abba Or said to his disciple Paul, "Be careful never to let an irrelevant word come into this cell."

C. Abba Sisoes asked Abba Or, "Give me a word," and he said to him, "Do you trust me?" He replied that he did. Then he said to him, "Go, and what you have seen me do, do also." Abba Sisoes said to him, "Father, what have I seen you do?" The old man said, "In my own opinion, I put myself below all men."

D. Abba Or said, "The crown of the monk is humility."

E. He also said, "He who is honoured and praised beyond his merits, will suffer much condemnation, but he who is held as of no account among men will receive glory in heaven."

F. He gave this counsel, "Whenever you want to subdue your high and proud thoughts, examine your conscience carefully: Have you kept all the commandments? Have you loved your enemies and been kind to them in their misfortunes? Have you counted yourself to be an unprofitable servant and the worst of all sinners? If you find you have done all this, do not therefore think well of yourself as if you had done everything well but realize that even the thought of such things is totally destructive."

G. He used to say this, "Do not speak in your heart against your brother like this: 'I am a man of more sober and austere life than he is,' but put yourself in subjection to the grace of Christ, in the spirit of poverty and genuine charity, or you will be overcome by the spirit of vainglory and lose all you have gained. For it is written in the Scriptures: 'Let him who stands take heed lest he fall.' (I Corinthians 10:12) Let your salvation be founded in the Lord."

H. He also said, "If you have spoken evil of your brother, and you are stricken with remorse, go and kneel down before him and say: 'I have spoken badly of you; let this be my surety that I will not spread this slander any further.' For detraction is death to the soul."

Abba Or's life is taken from "The Lives of the Desert Fathers," trans. by Normal Russell, (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1981), pp. 63-64.

22. Is Solitude Good for the Spirit?

A certain man said that there were once three men who loved labors, and they were monks. The first one chose to go about and see where there was strife, which he turned into peace; the second chose to go about and visit the sick; but the third departed to the desert that he might dwell in quietness. Finally the first man, who had chosen to still the contentions of men, was unable to make every man to be at peace with his neighbor, and his spirit was sad. He went to the man who had chosen to visit the sick; he found him in affliction because he was not able to fulfill the law which he had laid down for himself.

Then the two of them went to the monk in the desert, and seeing each other they rejoiced, and the two men related to the third the tribulations which had befallen them in the world. They entreated him to tell them how he had lived in the desert. He was silent, but after a little he said unto them, "Come, let each of us go and fill a vessel of water." After they had filled the vessel, he said unto them, "Pour out some of the water into a basin, and look down to the bottom through it," and they did so. He then said unto them, "What do you see?" And they said, "We see nothing." After the water in the basin had ceased to move, he said to them a second time, "Look into the water," and they looked, and he said unto them, "What do you see?" They said unto him, "We see our own faces distinctly."

He said unto them, "Thus is it with the man who dwelleth with men, for by reason of the disturbance caused by the affairs of the world he cannot see his sins; but if he live in the peace and quietness of the desert he is able to see God clearly."

from "The Paradise of the Holy Fathers," trans. by E. A. Wallis Budge, (Seattle: St. Nectarios Press, 1984)


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