What are your virtues?

One day, while St. Antony was sitting with a certain Abba, a virgin came up and said to the Elder: ‘Abba, I fast six days of the week and I repeat by heart portions of the Old and New Testament daily.

To which the Elder replied: ‘Does poverty mean the same to you as abundance?’ ‘No’, she answered. ‘Or dishonour the same as praise?’ ‘No, Abba.’ ‘Are your enemies the same for you as your friends?’ ‘No’, she replied.

At that the wise Elder said to her: ‘Go, get to work; you have accomplished nothing.’


In Lower Egypt there was an anchorite who was well-known because he dwelt in a solitary cell in the desert. Now by the power of Satan, a shameless woman who had heard of him said to some young men, “What would you give me if I could cause your anchorite to fall?”  They agreed to give her something of value. In the evening she went out and came to his cell as though she had lost her way, and when she knocked the anchorite came out.  When he saw her he was troubled and said, “How have you come here?”  Weeping, she said, “I came here because I have lost my way.”  Filled with compassion, he made her come into the entry, and he returned to his cell and shut it, but the unfortunate creature began to cry out, “Abba, the wild animals are eating me.” He was uneasy again, but fearing the judgment of God, he said, “What is the source of this hardness of mine?” and he opened the door and made her come inside.  Then the devil attempted to attack him with his arrows.  Pondering the warfare of the enemy, he said, “The ways of the enemy are darkness, whereas the Son of God is light”, and he rose and lit the lamp.  Burning with desire, he said, “Those who commit such acts go to the punishment; try then, and see if you can bear the everlasting fire”, and put his finger into the lamp and burnt it without feeling it, so extreme was the sensual flame.  he went on doing this until morning, burning all his fingers.  The unfortunate woman, seeing what he was doing, was petrified with fear.  In the morning the young men came to see the anchorite and said to him, “Did a woman come here last night?” He said, “Yes, she is inside, asleep.” They entered and found her dead, and they said to him, “Abba, she is dead.” Then uncovering his hands, he showed them to them, saying, “Look what the daughter of the devil has done to me; she has destroyed my fingers”, and he told them what had happened and said, “It is written, “Do not render evil for evil”, and he prayed and awoke her , and she went away an lived wisely the rest of her life.”

Dealing with spiritual depression or anxiety

The weather shifts from cloudy to clear and then back to rain; thus it is with human nature. One must always expect clouds to hide the sun sometimes. Even the saints have had their dark hours, days and weeks. They say then that “God has left them” in order that they may know truly how utterly wretched they are of themselves, without His support. These times of darkness, when all seems meaningless, ridiculous and vain, when one is beset by doubt and temptations, are inevitable. But even these times can be harvested for good. Continue reading Dealing with spiritual depression or anxiety

Prayer and Meditation

A brother asked one of the Fathers, What shall I do? My thoughts are always turned to lust without allowing me an hour’s respite, and my soul is tormented by it. He said to him, Every time the demons suggest these thoughts to you, do not argue with them. For the activity of demons always is to suggest, and suggestions are not sins, for they cannot compel; but it rests with you to welcome them, or not to welcome them. Do you know what the Midianites did? They adorned their daughters and presented them to the Israelites. They did not compel anyone, but those who consented, sinned with them, while the others were enraged and put them to death. It is the same with thoughts.

The brother answered the old man, What shall I do, then, for I am weak and passion overcomes me?? He said to him, Watch your thoughts, and every time they begin to say something to you, do not answer them but rise and pray; kneel down, saying, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Then the brother said to him, Look, Abba, I meditate, and there is no compunction in my heart because I do not understand the meaning of the words. The other said to him, Be content to meditate. Indeed, I have learned that Abba Poemen and many other Fathers uttered the following saying, The magician does not understand the meaning of the words which he pronounces, but the wild animal who hears it understands, submits, and bows to it. So it is with us also; even if we do not understand the meaning of the words we are saying, when the demons hear them, they take fright and go away.

Which is better? The Way of Mary or the way of Martha

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The brethren said, "There were two brothers who were the sons of a merchant and their father died and they divided their inheritance between themselves. Unto each one, there came five thousand dinars. One of the brothers divided his inheritance among the churches, and the monasteries, and the poor, and he himself became a monk, and he chose for himself a life of continual silence, and fasting, and prayer. Now the other one built a monastery for himself, and gathered brethren to him, and he took care of the strangers, and the poor, and the sick, whom he received and relieved.

"When the two brothers were dead, there was questioning among the brethren about them, and they went to Abba Pambo and asked him, ‘Which manner of life and conduct was the more excellent and exalted?’ And having learned from God, he said unto them, ‘They were both perfect, and in my sight they appear to be of equal merit.’ Explain to us now the old man’s words, for how can the man who is destitute, and the man who hath possessions be equal in merit?’ The old man said, ‘Since the whole conduct of these brethren was to God, and since whatsoever they did they did it for God, with an upright aim, and since the aim of each was the same, they appeared to be in the old man’s opinion of equal merit before God.’"

from "The Paradise of the Holy Fathers," trans. by E. A. Wallis Budge, (Seattle: St. Nectarios Press, 1984), p. 283 

Endurance in the Spiritual Battle

A brother fell when he was tempted, and in his distress he gave up his monastic rule. Though he wanted to take it up again, he was prevented by his distress, and he said within himself, When shall I be able to be as I was before? In his discouragement he had not the strength to undertake monastic work, so he went to visit an old man and told him about himself. And when the old man learnt of his distress, he suggested the following example to him, A man had a plot of land, and through negligence it became waste land and was full of weeds and brambles. Later he wanted to cultivate it and said to his son, Go, and weed the ground. The son going to weed it saw the amount of brambles and despaired, saying to himself, When shall I have uprooted and reclaimed all that? So he lay down and went to sleep for several days. Later his father came to see what he had done and found he had done nothing at all. He said to him, Why have you done nothing so far? He replied, father, when I began to look and saw the amount of weeds and brambles I altered my resolution and in my distress, I lay down on the ground. His father said to him, My child, do just the surface of the bed every day, and so you work will make progress and you will not be discouraged. When he heard this he did so, and in a short while the plot was weeded. So it is for you, brother, work a little without giving way and by his grace God will re-establish you in you former way of life. At these words the brother settled down with perseverance and did as the old man had taught him and by the grace of Christ he found peace.

Desert fathers on how to deal with the warfare which lust arouses in us

One of the old men of the Thebaid used to tell the following story: “I was the son of a pagan priest. When I was small I would sit and watch my father who often went to sacrifice to the idol. Once, going behind him in secret, I saw Satan and all his army standing beside him; and behold, one of the chief devils came to bow before him. Satan said, “Where have you come from?” He answered, “I was in a certain place and made much blood flow, and I have come to tell you about it.” Satan asked, “How long did it take you to do this?” He replied, “Thirty days.” Then Satan commanded him to be flogged, saying, “In so long a time you have done only that?” And behold, another demon came to bow before him. He asked him, “and you where have you come from?” The demon replied, “I was on the sea, and I made the waves rise, and small craft foundered, and I have killed many people, and I have come to inform you of it.” He said to him, “How long did it take you to do this?” and the demon said, “Twenty days.” Satan commanded that he also should be flogged, saying, “That is because in such a long time you have only done this.” Now a third demon came to bow before him. He asked, “and where have you come from?” The demon replied, “There was a marriage in a certain village, and I stirred up a riot, and I have made much blood flow, killing, the bride and groom, and I have come to inform you.” He asked him, “How long have you taken to do this?” and he replied, “Ten days.” And Satan commanded that he also should be flogged because he has taken too long. After this another demon came to bow before him He asked, “And where have you come from?” He said, “I was in the desert forty years fighting against a monk, and this night I made him fall in to fornication.” When he heard this, Satan arose, embraced him, and put the crown he was wearing on his head and made him sit on his throne, saying, “You have been able to do a very great deed. The old man aid, “Seeing this, I said to myself, “Truly, it is a great contest, this contest of the monks.” and with God assisting me for my salvation, I went away and became a monk.

Warfare of Lust

It was said of an old man that he went down to Scetis, and that he still had a son who was quite small and did not know what a woman was.  Now when he became a man, the demons showed him the forms of women, and he told his father, who was astonished at it.  Once when he went up to Egypt with his father and saw women, he said to his father, "Abba, these are the people who came to me at night in Scetis." And his father said to him, "These people are village monks, my child, and they wear different clothing form hermits.' The old man was astonished at the way the demons in the desert had shown him forms of women; and immediately they returned to their cells.

One must be watchful not to judge others

A provincial priest went to visit an anchorite to offer the Eucharist for him. Now someone went to the anchorite and spoke against the priest, so when the latter came according to custom to give him communion, the anchorite, who had been shocked, did not let him in, and the priest went away. Then, behold, a voice came to the anchorite, saying, “Men have taken jugdment away from me.” The anchorite was as though in ecstasy, and he saw a well of gold and a rope of gold and a jug of gold and much water of surpassing quality. Then he saw a leper draw the water and pour it out, and he would gladly have drunk but could not because he who drew the water was leprous. Again a voice came to him saying, “Why do you not drink the water? What does it matter if he who draws it is leperous? he only draws it and pours it out.” Returning to himself and perceiving the meaning of the vision, the anchorite sent for the priest and let him give him communion as usual.

Gaining forgiveness because of a brother’s love

Untitled document Two brothers went to market to sell the things they had made. The first fell into fornication as soon as he separated from his companion. He met his brother who said to him, 'My brother, let us go to our cell', but he replied, 'I am not going'. The other persisted, saying, 'My brother, why not?' He said, 'Because when you had left me, I fell into fornication.' His brother, wishing to win him over, said to him, 'The same thing happened to me, too, when you left me; come, let us go and do strict penance and God will forgive us.' They went to tell the old men what had happened to them, and the old men gave them commandments for doing penance. Then one of the brothers did penance for the other as though he had sinned himself. But God, seeing the affliction he was giving himself for love's sake, made known to one of the old men, after some days, that because of the great love of the brother who had not sinned, he had forgiven the one who had sinned. See what it is to give one's soul for one's brother

Life and teachings of Saint John the short

It was said of Abba John the Dwarf that he withdrew and lived in the desert at Scetis with an old man of Thebes. His abba, taking a piece of dry wood, planted it and said to him, “Water it every day with a bottle of water, until it bears fruit.” Now the water was so far away that he had to leave in the evening and return the following morning. At the end of three years the wood came to life and bore fruit. The old man took some of the fruit and carried it to the church saying to the brethren, “Take and eat the fruit of obedience.”

It was said of Abba John the Dwarf, that one day he said to his elder brother, “I should like to be free of all care, like the angels who do not work, but ceaselessly offer worship to God.” So he took off his cloak and went away into the desert. After a week he came back to his brother. When he knocked on the door, he heard his brother say, before he opened it, “Who are you?” He said, “I am John, your brother.” But he replied, “John has become an angel, and henceforth he is no longer among men.” Then the other begged him saying, “It is I.” However, his brother did not let him in, but left him there in distress until morning. Then, opening the door, he said to him, “You are a man and you must once again work in order to eat.” Then John made a prostration before him, saying, “Forgive me.” (NOTE: this story is, according to most sources, from Abba John’s youth when he was still living with his family)

Abba John the Dwarf said, “If a king wanted to take possession of his enemy’s city, he would begin by cutting off the water and the food and so his enemies, dying of hunger, would submit to him. It is the same with the passions of the flesh; if a man goes about fasting and hungry the enemies of his soul grow weak.”

Some old men were entertaining themselves at Scetis by having a meal together; amongst them was Abba John. A venerable priest got up to offer drink, but nobody accepted any from him, except John the Dwarf. They were surprised and said to him, “How is that you, the youngest, dared to let yourself be served by the priest?” Then he said to them, “When I get up to offer drink, I am glad when everyone accepts it, since I am receiving my reward; that is the reason, then, that I accepted it, so that he also might gain his reward and not be grieved by seeing that no one would accept anything from him.” When they heard this, they were all filled with wonder and edification at his discretion.

The brethren used to tell how the brethren were sitting one day at an agape* and one brother at table began to laugh. When he saw that, Abba John began to weep, saying, “What does this brother have in his heart, that he should laugh, when he ought to weep, because he is eating at an agape?”

Some brethren came one day to test him to see whether he would let his thoughts get dissipated and speak of the things of this world. They said to him, “We give thanks to God that this year there has been much rain and the palm trees have been able to drink, and their shoots have grown, and the brethren have found manual work.” Abba John said to them, “So it is when the Holy Spirit descends into the hearts of men; they are renewed and they put forth leaves in the fear of God.”

Abba John said, “I am like a man sitting under a great tree, who sees wild beasts and snakes coming against him in great numbers. When he cannot withstand them any longer, he runs to climb the tree and is saved. It is just the same with me; I sit in my cell and I am aware of evil thoughts coming against me, and when I have no more strength against them, I take refuge in God by prayer and I am saved from the enemy.”

Abba Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he had prayed God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from care. He went and told an old man this: “I find myself in peace, without an enemy,” he said. The old man said to him, “Go, beseech God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.” So he besought God and when warfare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but said, “Lord, give me strength for the fight.”

The old man also said this to a certain brother about the soul, which wishes to be converted, “There was in a city a courtesan who had many lovers. One of the governors approached her, saying, “Promise me you will be good, and I will marry you.” She promised this and he took her and brought her to his house. Her lovers, seeking her again, said to one another, “That lord has taken her with him to his house, so if we go to his house and he learns of it, he will condemn us. But let us go to the back, and whistle to her. Then, when she recognizes the sound of the whistle she will come down to us; as for us, we shall be unassailable.” When she heard the whistle, the woman stopped her ears and withdrew to the inner chamber and shut the doors.” The old man said that this courtesan is our soul, that her lovers are the passions and other men; that the lord is Christ; that the inner chamber is the eternal dwelling; those who whistle are the evil demons, but the soul always takes refuge in the Lord.

One day when Abba John was going up to Scetis with some other brothers, their guide lost his way for it was night time. So the brothers said to Abba John, “What shall we do, Abba, in order not to die wandering about, for the brother has lost the way?” The old man said to them, “If we speak to him, he will be filled with grief and shame. But look here, I will pretend to be ill and say I cannot walk any more; then we can stay here till the dawn.” This he did. The others said, “We will not go on either, but we will stay with you.” They sat there until the dawn, and in this way they did not upset the brother.

How to deal with the warefare which Lust arouses in us

There was an anchorite who had settled in the desert in the district of Antinoe and was progressing in virtue.  Many were edified by his words and deeds. The enemy was jealous of his goodness, as he is wont to be of all virtuous men, and under the guise of piety suggested the following thought to him, "you should not let yourself be served by another, but you ought to serve others; since you do not do that, at lease serve yourself.  So go and sell your baskets and buy whatsoever you need, then return at once to your anchoritic life without being a burden to anyone." This is what that deceiver jealous of his silent prayer, his attention to God, and the help many received from him, suggested. Truly, the enemy strove in all ways to take him captive.  Convinced by a thought wh ich he believed to bee good, he went down to his monastery, this anchorite whom at that time everyone admired.  He was really without experience of the great astuteness of the demon who was setting snares for him, although he was an anchorite, know and of repute.  After a long time, he met a woman and since he was weakened by his carelessness, he went to a desert place, accompanied by the enemy, and he sinned beside the river.  When he realized how the enemy was rejoicing at his fall, he began to despair of himself for having so greatly grieved the Spirit of God, the angels, and the holy Fathers, many of whom, even in the cities, had overcome the enemy.  Unable to think of anyone like himself, he was filled with sadness, not remembering that God grants strength those who firmly hope in him.  Because he could not see how his sin could be healed, he wanted to9 throw himself into the river and die there.  The great torment of his soul made his body ill, and if the God of mercy had not helped him, he would have died without repentance, to the great delight of the enemy.  Returning at last to his senses, he thought of trying to endure greater affliction in suffering.  So he returned to the monastery and closed his cell door, and he wept, as it behoves us to weep over a dead body, beseeching God.  By fasting and watching in affliction, his body grew weak, yet he did not feel he had done enough penance.  Brothers often came to see him for their spiritual benefit, and when they knocked on the door, he said he couldn not open to them.  "I have given my word", he said "to do penance seriously for a year." And he added, "Pray for me", not knowing how else to reply so as not to shock his listeners, for he was of great repute amongst themand considered as a great monk.  So he spent the whole year in severe penance. 

When the day of the Pasch came, on the night of the holy Resurrection, he took a new lamp and prepared it, putting in a new wick and covering it.  In the evening he began to pray, saying, "O merciful and compassionate God, you will that even the barbarians should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, I flee to you, Savior of souls.  Have pity on me, who to the delight of the enemy, have so grieved you, and who at present am dead through having obeyed the enemy.  Master, you have mercy on the godless, and those who are without mercy, and you have taught us to be merciful to others–have compassion on my weakness. For to you nothing is impossible.  My soul deserves hell.  Have pity on me, for yo u are gracious to your creatures, for on the day of the resurrection, you willed to awaken even the bodies which no longer have life.  Hear me, Lord, for my spirit and my unhappy soul fail me.  Even my body, which I have defiled, falls into decay, and I am no longer able to live because of my dread of you.  Instead of believing that my sin would be pardoned through penitence, I committed a double sin by my unfaithfulness. Revive me, for I am rushed, and command that this lamp maybe be kindled by your fire, that I may receive the assurance of your mercy, and know that in your mercy you have forgiven me.  I will keep your commandments all the days of my life which you grant me, and I will no more depart from your fear, but I will serve you faithfully, even better than before."

 Having uttered these words with many tears on the night of Resurrection, he got up to see if the was lamp was alight.  When he uncovered it and saw that it was not alight, he made a prostration again before the Lord and besought him, saying, "lord, I know there are difficulities in the way of my being crowned, for I have not watched my steps, thinking rather of the pleasures of the flesh than of the punishment of blasphermers.  Spare me, Lord, for once more I confess your goodness and my baseness before you, in the presence of all your angels and the saints; if it were not a matter for scandal, I would confess it also before men.  Accordingly, have mercy on me, that I may be able to teach mercy to others. Even so Lord revive me."  Having prayerd thus three times, he was heard.  Getting up, he found the lamp was burning brightly.  Filled with hope, he was strengthened by the joy of is heart and he rejoiced, wondering at the grace God had granted him in giving him his sign."  He remained thus, prolonging his confession, and the day dawned and he rejoiced in the Lord without remembering bodily food.  He preserved the light  of his lamp all the days of his life, pouring oil into it and feeding it for fear lest it should go out.  Thus the divine Spirit dwelt in him again, and he became a sign for all, humble in his witness to the Lord and his acknowledgement of him.  When he came to the point of delivering up his sould, this was revealed to him several days beforehand.

What am I doing wrong, concerning lusts?

A brother overcome by lust went to see a great old man and besought him, saying, 'Be so good as to pray for me, for I am overcome by lust.' And the old man prayed to God for him. A second time he went to the old man and said the same thing, and once more the old man did not omit to beseech God for him, saying, 'Lord, reveal to me the manner of life of this brother and whence comes this action of the devil, for I have already besought you and he has not found peace'. Then God revealed this to him about the brother: he saw him sitting with the spirit of lust beside him and an angel, sent to his aid, was standing beside him and becoming angry with him because he did not fall down before God but, taking pleasure in his thoughts, delivered up his spirit completely to the action of the devil. So the old man knew that the cause came from the brother, and he told him, 'It is you who are consenting to your thoughts.' Then he taught him how to resist thoughts, and the brother, restored by the old man's prayer and teaching, found rest.

The Monastic Ideal

And the old man also said, God saith unto thee thus  ‘if thou lovest Me, O monk, do that which I ask, and do not that which I do not desire. For monks should lead lives wherein they act not in iniquity, and a man should not look upon evil things with his eyes, no hear with his ears things which are alien to the fear of God, nor utter calumnies with his mouth, nor plunder with his hands; but he should give especially to the poor, and he should not be unduly exalted in his mind, and he should not think evil thoughts, neither should he fill his belly. Let him do then all these things with discretion, for by them is a monk known.’

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

Avva Serapion and the sinful woman

One day Abba Serapion passed through an Egyptian village and there he saw a courtesan who stayed in her own cell. The old man said to her, ?Expect me this evening, for I should like to come and spend the night with you.She replied, Very well, Abba. She got ready and made the bed.

When evening came, the old man came to see her and entered her cell and said, to her, Have you got the bed ready? She said, Yes, Abba. Then he closed the door and said to her, Wait a bit, for we have a rule of prayer and I must fulfil that first.

So the old man began his prayers. He took the Psalter (the book of Psalms) and at each psalm he said a prayer for the courtesan, begging God that she might be converted and saved, and God heard him. The woman stood trembling and praying beside the old man. When he had completed the whole Psalter the woman fell to the ground. Then the old man, beginning the Epistle, read a great deal from the Apostle and completed his prayers. The woman was filled with compunction and understood that he had not come to see her to commit sin but to save her soul and she fell at his feet, saying, Abba, do me this kindness and take me where I can please God.? So the old man took her to a monastery of virgins and entrusted her to the amma and he said, Take this sister and do not put any yoke or commandment on her as on the other sisters, but if she wants something, give it to her and allow her to walk as she wishes.

After some days the courtesan said, I am a sinner; I wish to eat every second day. A little later she said, I have committed many sins and I wish to eat every fourth day. A few days later she besought the amma saying, Since I have grieved God greatly by my sins, do me the kindness of putting me in a cell and shutting it completely and giving me a little bread and some work through the window. The amma did so and the woman pleased God all the rest of her life.