Antony and the Desert Fathers: Did You Know?

On fasting

Abba John the Short said, “If a king wants to take a city whose citizens are hostile, he first captures the food and water of the inhabitants of the city, and when they are starving subdues them. So it is with gluttony. If a man is earnest in fasting and hunger, the enemies which trouble his soul will grow weak.”

On purity of heart

Abba Poemen said, “Teach your heart to keep what your tongue teaches others.”

On judging

A brother asked Abba Poemen, “I am troubled in spirit, and want to leave this place.”

And the old man said, “Why?”

And he said, “I have heard unedifying stories about one of the brothers.”

And the old man said, “Are the stories true?” And he said, “Yes, Father. The brother who told me is a man of trust.”

And the old man answered, “The brother who told you is not a man of trust. For if he was so, he would not have told you these stories. When God heard the cry of the men of Sodom, he did not believe it until he had gone down and seen with his own eyes.”

And the brother said, “I too have seen it with my own eyes.”

When the old man heard this, he looked down and picked off the ground a wisp of straw, and he said, “What is this?”

And he answered, “Straw.”

Then the old man reached up and touched the roof of the cell, and said, “What is this?”

And he answered, “It is the beam that holds up the roof.”

And the old man said, “Take it into your heart that your sins are like this beam, and that brother’s sins are like this wisp of straw.”

On true righteousness

Abba Poemen said, “One man seems silent of speech, but is condemning other people within his heart—he is really talking incessantly. Another man seems to talk all day, yet keeps his silence, for he always speaks in a way that is useful to his hearers.”

On anger

Abba Agatho said, “If an angry man raises the dead, God is still displeased with his anger.”

On temptation

Abba Abraham, who was a disciple of Abba Agatho, once asked Abba Poemen, “Why do the demons attack me?”

And Abba Poemen said to him, “Do the demons attack you? The demons do not attack us when we follow our self-wills, because then our wills become demons and themselves trouble us to obey them. If you want to know the kind of people with whom the demons fight, it is Moses and men like him.”

On lust

Once the disciple of a great old man was tempted by lust. When the old man saw him struggling, he said, “Do you want me to ask the Lord to release you from your trouble?”

But he said, “Abba, I see that although it is a painful struggle, I am profiting from having to carry the burden. But ask God in your prayers, that he will give me long—suffering, to enable me to endure.”

Then his abba said to him, “Now I know that you are far advanced, my son, and beyond me.”

On double-mindedness

Said the abbess Matrona: “Many people living secluded lives on the mountain have perished by living like people in the world. It is better to live in a crowd and want to live a solitary life than to live a solitary life but all the time be longing for company.”

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #64 in 1999]

From Western Asceticism edited by Chadwick (Library of Christian Classics Series). Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.
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