I. The literature of the desert
II. The apophthegmata
1) Their interest
2) Formation of the collections
3) Their use.
III. How are they to be read?
1) A meeting
2) Words and silences
IV. How are they to be understood?
1) Who wrote them?
2) The question: "How must I be saved?"
3) Formation of the young:
a) Living continuously with an abba
b) Authority accepted on the word of the abba
c) Choice of an abba
d) Why this formation?
4) The apophthegmata and the Bible
5) Tears
V. The heart of the teaching of the Apophthegmata:Hesychasm
1) Exterior hesychasm
2) Interior hesychasm
a) amerimna = freedom from care
b) nepsis = vigilance
c) melete = practice of prayer
d) continuous prayer
VI Conclusion: Flowers of the desert
The Letters of the Fathers of the Desert



The literature of the desert is very varied, comprising four different types.

1). The Lives

We have already met the Life of Antony and the Lives of Pachomius; but there were others, for example the Life of

St Syncletic

2). Travellers' accounts

For the period with which we are concerned there are two main examples:

a)The History of the Egyptian Monks writte by Rufinus, of interest because it is this especially which we find quoted

in the Rule of St Benedict.

b) The Lausiac History of Palladius, so called because in it Palladius tells Lausius what he has seen during a long stay with the Desert Fathers. These reports show us what these ascetics of the desert were like. We see colourful individuals:
Paul the Simple who, finding that his wife is deceiving him, says simply: "Have a good time, I am going to be a Then he sets off to find Antony who refuses to take him, but, by his persistance Paul makes him accept him and he becomes excellent disciple. There is also Moses the black brigand who after his conversion experiences obstinate and violent temptations. There is the competitive Macarius who always wants to achieve more austerities than the others and goes off to 'coach' the Pachomian monks, etc...

c) The Spiritual Meadow (Pratum Spirituale) of John Moschus came later.

3) The Treatises on Monastic Life

For example the Gnostic Centuries of Evagrius, the Gnostic Chapters of Diadochus of Photice, the Conferences of Cassian, the Writings of Dorotheus of Gaza.

4) Finally The Apophthegmata

These hold a place apart. In accordance with their title: apo = coming from, phthegommai = to speak, these are the Sayings of the Desert Fathers which have come down to us.

What did our forefathers know of this literature of the desert? Apparently it is what St Benedict calls The Lives of the Fathers. It was then in manuscript form and was printed in the middle of the fifteenth century. The text is now to be found in Migne PL 73 & 74.

THE LIVES OF THE FATHERS So called by St Benedict.
In manuscript until the middle of the 15th century .Rosweyde's edition in the 17th century. Now in PL 73 & 74 (19th century).

PL 73
Book 1: Various lives by different authors: Paul by Jerome, Antony by Athanasius.
Lives of Hilarion, Pachomius, Abraham, Basil, Ephrem.
Book 2: History of the Monks by Rufinus
Book 3: Sayings of the Elders by Rufinus
= 220 apophthegmata, many of them repeated in Books 5 & 6.
Book 4: Extracts from Sulpicius Severus and Cassian
Book 5&6: Sayings of the Elders = a systematic collection by Pelagius & John (Roman clerics)
Book 7: Sayings of the Elders by Paschasius of Dumio
Book 8: Lausiac History by Palladius

PL 74

Book 9: The Theophilis of Theodoret of Cyrrhus (= Lives)
Book 10: The Spiritual Meadow by John Moschus.
Appendix: Apophthegmata by Martin of Dumio



1) Their interest

We might ask: We are cenobites; why should we study the Desert Fathers who were hermits?

Firstly because, like them, we have withdrawn from the world and in a sense we live in the desert; solitude is part of our life. The experience of these great solitaries can be a guide for us.

Also because one of these Desert Fathers, Cassian, later adapted what he had learned from these desert monks for the cenobites of Gaul and handed down their experience to us.

That is why St Benedict recommends the study of both Cassian and the writings of the Fathers. He saw in them material for formation.

2) The beginning of the collections and their formation.

These Apophthegmata are something special; they are a book without an author, or if you like, with 250 authors. We are told about some 250 old men (a common designation for elders) and of their lives spread over two centuries. It is not possible to date the book, it came into being somewhere in the desert. It reports at one time conversations between several monks, at another brotherly intercourse between two abbas, or again, and this especially, private interviews between a disciple and his abba.

They arose, then, from personal words spoken to someone. Then it was realised that these private Sayings could be useful to others. On the occasion of a conversation, a meeting, it came about that one or another Saying addressed to a particular brother would be passed on to other brothers, who in their turn took care to profit by them. At first, then, these Sayings were passed on by word of mouth.

This oral tradition was then no doubt soon put into writing. There were different collections of Apophthegmata. Then the number grew to such an extent that at a certain point, probably in the middle of the 5th century, someone gathered all these different writings together into one.

There was also attempts at classification. There were two groupings, and so there are two collections of Apophthegmata:

A) Alphabetical collection

The Sayings of the abbas are presented by grouping them according to the person speaking and they are arranged in the order of the greek alphabet. All the abbas whose names begin with the letter alpha are put together, then those which begin with the letter beta and so on until the letter omega.

In this collection, stress is laid on the person; we value the Masters for their own sake and we want to meet them, they speak and we listen. Some say little, others a great deal, no doubt those who were the most famous, whose teaching was most appreciated, and their personality shows through. So there is Arsenius, the foreigner from Constantinople where he had been a man of importance and intimate with emperors; he is cold and silent. There is the impetuous John the Dwarf (also called Little John or John Kolobos), Macarius, the athlete in asceticism, Sisoës, Moses the former brigand, and above all the gentle, humble Poemen (or Pastor). He holds the record for Sayings, we have 206 of his, a result no doubt of his goodness and sense of moderation.

There are also to be found the occasional 'Mother's, Amma, such as Amma Syncletica whose 'Life' is an echo of that of St Antony. During the persecutions, the women showed that they were as courageous as the men. They too went to the desert. No doubt these solitaries were uncommon, for life out in the desert was very harsh and perilous for a woman, but there were some. They tended to live near the Nile, not too far from the centres of habitation.

B) Systematic collection

Here we have a different classification: these Apophthegmata are arranged in order of subject matter; they follow a 'system'. The aim of this classification is to bring out the teaching. Here the emphasis is no longer personal but doctrinal. All the Sayings on humility are found together, then those referring to obedience, then those concerning discretion, and so on....

3) Use of the Apophthegmata

The alphabetical collection came first. It is the oldest. In the systematic collection where the Sayings are classified according to subject matter, there is already some reflection on them, a first interpretation through the choice of subject in which the Saying is classified. Therefore this systematic collection came second, it uses the Sayings for a purpose. It is less objective than the alphabetical collection; the compiler is beginning to become an author. In this collection, what counts is not so much the person as what is said. Given this bias, the literature could easily be transferred from the desert to surroundings where the common life is led, from the hermitage to the cenobitic life.












the Master







Common life

what is said

to emphasise a teaching



Alphabetical+ Systematic

Teachers of monastic spiritual life

Teaching to be drawn from the Saying

to develop & support a method of teaching

(Written) Universal



Treatises on perfection Retreats


To illustrate a teaching


In fact, a third use we soon find is made by teachers of the cenobitic life who take some of these Apophthegmata as illustrations of their teaching addressed to cenobites. This was the case for Dorotheus of Gaza. Here the author plays a important role; a Saying is used with an explanation and an application of its meaning. The purpose of the Saying in then to establish a spiritual teaching on an approved tradition.

Finally, much later, the fourth use to which they were put and, we might say, debased, in which the Apophthegmata were again taken out of context. Treatises on the spiritual life addressed to quite different audiences than monks took the Apophthegmata as illustrations of their teaching.



1) A meeting

These four stages in the use - or misuse - of the Apophthegmata show us the way in which we should use them. If we begin with the fourth stage, taking them as examples, the Sayings can be amusing or irritating, but they are always superficial, which is not particularly helpful. If used to bolster or authenticate a teaching (third stage) they are perhaps valuable for monastic life, but not otherwise.

It is better to go back to what the Sayings were originally and read them as a way of meeting some spiritual masters. It makes no difference that many centuries separate us, it is still possible to have a dialogue with them because this asks no more than the desire for a life fully lived.

Thus the Apophthegmata are a book of experience, and if we look at them in this way, they are incomparably rich. They are rather like the raw material of later monastic spirituality. They appear spontaneous, but they are not words merely for the sake of words; they are full of sap, fruit of a slow germination in the silence of the desert.

Their role is to educate; they will teach us to love God better, to strengthen our will. The book contains instructions on how we should live better lives.

2) Words and silence.

All these disconnected Sayings which we have in the Apophthegmata give us only a glimpse, one aspect, of the life of the desert monks. There are things which they tell us, but also things they leave unsaid. They use words but also imply silence. Christ is hardly mentioned, nor the Virgin Mary,which does not mean that the Desert Fathers had no love for them. They do not speak much of contemplation, of love of God, of the sacramental and liturgical life. Moreover these old monks have a certain reticence which makes them conceal their external and visible practices and still more their private spiritual life and their relations with God. But reading them we sometimes get a glimpse (Texts 1 & 2).

Elsewhere there is intentional silence; the men of the desert knew the value of silence which allows us to speak with God (Text 3).

So silence has to be taken into account. But along with silence can be seen the experiences of these men driven by the Spirit, and it is this which is interesting. This is what we look for in the Sayings. At the same time, the experience of one can be contradictory to that of another. We must pay attention to this, and not take all the Sayings as revealed truth. For example, Arsenius does not hesitate to be seriously wanting in charity for others in order to safeguard his solitude which is for him the necessary condition for a profound life of charity with God. By contrast, Poemen is an example of a wonderfully sensitive charity.

We shall take a few points to help us to a better understanding, as there are some aspects of the Sayings which may appear surprising.





First of all, who were these monks whom we are going to meet? Initially, country folk, Egyptians, mostly sturdy peasants used to a frugal existence, able to endure any trials. This explains their austerities in food and sleep which seem frightful to us.

On the other hand, what is admirable is that Egyptians are by nature jolly, full of life and optimistic; they are not given to solitude and isolation, but rather are settled and home-loving, in contrast for example to the Syrians, a nation of traders.. So it was no small thing for them to leave the world, their land, their surroundings, their family. That is where their love of Christ shows itself.

Moreover, most of them were simple folk with no great learning; for example they took literally passages in Scripture which attribute to God human features and human passions. Their outlook was 'anthropomorphic', giving to God a human (anthropos) form (morphe). When later educated monks like Evagrius, Ammonius, Cassian and others came to live among them, they appeared to them to be 'outsiders', and this was a source of division and conflict. These new arrivals were used to Origen's allegorical and spiritual exegesis and opposed anthropomorphism, not only defending the immateriality of God but also championing 'pure prayer', claiming that real prayer cannot employ any representation of the divine, however refined.

The Egyptians were not very educated, but neither were they mere rustics. They had prodigious memories. In addition they were gifted with remarkably fine minds, sagacious and understanding, and they had retained from their ancient civilisation a fund of nobility, pride and refinement.

All this has to be taken into account if we are to understand them.


This is a question which often occurs in the Apophthegmata, put in this form or something similar, it is a fundamental question: a young monk asks an abba: "Tell me, how am I to be saved?"

This needs to be properly understood; it is not a self-centred demand merely for salvation, just for oneself. In greek the word soterion means salvation, but also healing. Anyone going into the desert knows himself for a sinner, or if he does not, the desert will be sure to show him; he has left everything, he is alone in the desert, under attack from the devils and so suffering the hardships and anguish of the spiritual combat. So he soon realises he is a sinner. Like a sick man who knows himself to be in grave danger, he goes in search of a good doctor. he asks: "How can I be saved, how can I be healed?" So this means: "how am I to obtain complete healing, perfection?"

So, for the old monks, salvation is not separate from perfection. To save one's soul meant for them to reach even here below ablessed eternity and a paradise of peace through the soul's healing. The monk who left all, therefore, is asking an old man to show him the most direct route to reach his life's goal.              


                      Ü Salvation

Sôterion         Ü DeliveranceÞ
from sin = perfection

                     Ü Healing Þ


In the reply to be given to him, there will be few indications about the basic requirements: separation from the world, poverty, chastity, for they are understood as being already acquired. The person asking advice is already knows all the necessary precepts, all the counsels useful for salvation. What he wants is perseverance in the way. He asks the old man, who in his eyes is the mouthpiece of God, to guide him in his choice among all the possible means.

The reply is usually brief, a single precept, a simple formula, easy to remember (Text 4). But it is a reply to a specific person, and with regard to his circumstances. The word given by the abba in reply will, then, be valuable for this person, and not for another (Text 5).



We are no longer among the Pachomian monks for whom everything was ordered by a rule which was a collection of things to be done and not done. Obedience to this rule would then constitute the formation of the novice. But here among the hermits there is no rule. That being so, how are the young brothers to be formed to life in the desert?

Here it was experience that produced a teaching method for spiritual direction; the young brother comes to join the elder in his cell and share his life. Abba or old man does not necessarily mean 'old' but 'wise' (Text 6 & 7).

But there are two conditions for the formation of the young man to go well: 1) He must live with him all the time. 2) He must recognise that the word of the abba is right for him, that it has authority for him. What the rule was for the Pachomian monks, the abba will be for him.

A) Living continuously with an abba

The young brother builds himself a cell near that of the abba he has chosen and patterns his life like his. He submits blindly and totally to the will and the orders of the abba. (Text 8). But it is not only a matter of doing all the abba says, but also and above all acting like him, imitating him in everything. For these early monks it is by sharing the life of an experienced man that one learns the life. So a state of dependence is adopted, and renunciation of one's own will. In this way living for oneself is avoided. (Text 9).

But it would not be enough for this state of dependence to be limited to activities. Men and women also have intentions, desires both good and bad, they are filled with all kinds of thoughts. Therefore, as well as living in the abba's company, the disciple must open himself to him, tell him all the thoughts stirring within him. Otherwise he will not see clearly ("lose his reason" as the preceeding text expresses it), and fall into the devil's traps (Text 10).

Thus the beginner learns not to live for himself, not to do his own will, and this will confirm him in  his gift of himself to God. In order to act on us and in us, God calls for availability and openness to himself (Text 11).Moreover the disciple will learn discernment of spirits, that is to say how to distinguish deceptive appearances from the interior movements which come from the Holy Spirit or those which prepare for his coming, and to which he must correspond if he wants to live for God. He also learns to read the Bible and allow it to throw light on his path.

DISCIPLE  Þ   willÞ obedience
                 Þ   actions Þ imitation  
                 Þ   thoughtsÞ openness 

The desire to be saved, to achieve perfection, urges the beginner to put himself under the direction of an abba. Thus the disciple's first duty is to find a spiritual father. Abba Poemen said: "Take counsel in all that you do for it is written: 'To act without counsel is folly'". St Bernard was to say the same: "One who wants only to be led by himself is led by a fool". The Sayings 9-11 show us how important it is; we do not know ourselves, and unless he does know himself the beginner comes up against many obstacles: self-confidence, vainglory etc....

By openness to his spiritual father, little by little the disciple becomes a spiritual man, becoming in his turn capable of guiding other inexperienced brothers; he too will be able to receive disciples and form them.

B) Authority accepted on the word of the abba.

It is not a question of any sort of word, but of the word of a man who seeks God. So we have linked together two men seeking God, two men eager to do God's will. On the one hand there is an old man experienced in discernment, on the other the disciple who wants nothing other than to find the way to salvation. In these conditions, the word spoken by the old man to the disciple imparts the grace of the Holy Spirit. Why? Because it is the fruit of the Spirit; the old man who speaks the word is a man of experience, moved by the Spirit, and the one asking for this word also does so in faith, prompted by the Spirit, in the sole desire of drawing spiritual profit from it, and not through curiosity or vanity.

So the young novice must have confidence in the abba's word, believe it to be able to form him, have faith in the Spirit animating his abba and have the desire to profit by it, or else the abba is driven to silence (Text 12).

The disciple must then be a man of desire. We can be disciples only in the measure of the intensity of our desire. But be careful, to desire is not necessarily feeling, but willing. Really to desire God is not a matter of feeling but of wanting to please God. Desire is measured by the price we are willing to pay to obtain what we desire. This then is the sense in which we can speak of a teaching method, of formation starting with the word of the abba.

On the one hand the master must be animated by the Spirit and seek the growth of the disciple.On the other hand the disciple must be a man of desire.


                              Ü old man Þ  

Spirit Þ                                                    is efficacious

                             Ü disciple Þ  

C) The choice of an abba.

It is then the desire to reach perfection which leads a young monk to choose an abba, and to put himself under his direction. But how is he to choose? (Text 13). We do not choose an abba because he will let us do what we want, nor because we like him, but because we have heard that he is a good guide (Text 14). The same thing is said in another Saying: be a camel led by its master (Text 15).

Once an abba has been chosen, he must be obeyed in everything he says, unconditionally. We must be convinced that to obey the abba is to obey God. Among the Sayings there are certain stories which are obviously not true but which intend to convey this unconditional obedience. For example the Saying in which the abba orders a neophyte to throw his little boy into the river, or this one which again is obviously not true (Text 16). All these stories are intended to signify that we must be convinced that the abba is acting through the Holy Spirit of God. Therefore however much of a paradox it may seem, the old man will not command anything contrary to the word of God.

Such precise orders are rare in the Sayings. The abba will be the master more by what he is than by what he says (Text 17). In that personal relationship between Master and Disciple, the Master is a model, not a lawgiver. He is the Rule by what he says and still more by what he does.

These abbas therefore require obedience without argument or delay. So Abba Sylvanus had trained his disciple Mark well (Text 18). This Saying is no doubt true and St Benedict must have read it, traces of it can be found in his Rule.

D) Why this formation

We might ask why this openness of heart and this obedience to a spiritual master were necessary.

Manifestation of thoughts has as its first aim to conquer the devil (Text 19). If these early monks went into the desert, it was to overcome the devil; and he cannot be overcome in the beginning except by following the advice of someone who has already struggled (Texts 20 & 21).

Openness and obedience also aim to combat self-will. The Desert Fathers knew well that sin, all sin, consists in preferring one's own will to God's will. Therefore they insist on the renunciation of one's own will which comes from obedience to a spiritual father. (Texts 22-24).

By obeying in this way the young monk will gradually acquire discernment of spirits and learn how to direct others. He will purify his heart, master his passions, become a man of peace. He will become an abba himself. One Saying emphasises the fruit of this obedience: God obeys the obedient person, for such a person has no thoughts contrary to the will of God (Text 25).


We may be surprised at finding so few quotations from the Bible in the Apophthegmata. By comparison with the length of the text, there are twice as many in Pachomius, four times as many in the Life of Antony. In the Sayings there are then very few, which gives the impression that these old monks neglected Scripture. Why was this so?

It was certainly not because they considered reading the Bible to be unimportant: "Even the mere reading of the Scripture makes the demons afraid" they said. We even find that in the Sayings they recommend reciting passages by heart, as we have seen with the Pachomians. Cassian, a Desert Father, compared our minds to a windmill; one cannot stop it turning, so it must be given the good grain of the Scripture to grind and not the darnel of our wandering thoughts (Conf. 1:18).

There is not doubt that the monks of the desert read the Bible frequently; they could recite long passages from it. So the study of Scripture was practised.

If then there are so few quotations from scripture in the Sayings, it is not because the Desert Fathers did not know and value it but because they thought that not every use of Scripture is necessarily good. They valued Scripture not as an end but as a means to arrive at an end, the perfection of charity, hence the recommendation to use Scripture with discernment; one should not be attached to the books of Scripture (Text 26). One does not read the Bible as a proof of one's knowledge (Text 27). Besides, these monks are conscious of the greatness of the Word of God; they think that one should make oneself very small before it, Scripture is always greater than we are (Text 28).

Reading the Bible demands purity of heart and humility (Text 29).


We have been seeking to understand the Apophthegmata by picking out those things which may seem surprising when we read them; Why the frequent question: "How am I to be saved?", why the disciple's dependence on the spiritual father? why so little reference to Scripture. There is something else just as surprising: the emphasis on tears.

What are we to think of this word of Abba Moses: "There are three virtues which a man acquires with difficulty: to be always mourning, to be continually mindful of one's faults, and to have death before one's eyes at every moment". At first sight, this is not a very attractive ideal!

But it reminds us of something. In the Rule, chapter 4, St Benedict includes the following as a tool of the monk: "Every day with tears and sighs confess your past sins to God in prayer". And in chapter 20 where he is writing about prayer, he warns us that it is "not in many words, but in purity of heart and tears of compunction that we will be heard". Here are two texts requiring an explanation and the Apophthegmata show us how to understand them better.

This teaching about tears and compunction was dear to the abbas, and should not seem strange to us. They call it penthos, a greek word which means sorrow, affliction, mourning. It is then about sadness, but a sadness very different from the ordinary natural kind,

All sadness comes from a lack of something. Natural sadness comes from not having the good things we long for. It is the wrong kind of sadness which is accompanied by despair.

There is a natural sadness to which monks are prone called acedia. This word is made up of the greek word kedos = covenant, prefixed with the negative 'a': the covenant has been broken; the soul is careless, seeking other things besides God, it has broken its covenant with God, the connection with God is severed, God no longer gives joy, the soul is sad.

Natural sadness: unsatisfied longing

Þ in monks : acedia

a broken covenant

One no longer desires God

One no longer has the possessions one wants.

Holy sadness: unsatisfied spiritual needs

not to offend God

to be delivered from evil

to go to heaven, to see God.

On the other hand there is a holy sadness, the penthos of the Desert Fathers. It too comes from unsatisfied desires, but this time they are good desires; the desire not to offend God, the desire to
be delivered from evil, the desire for perfection, for heaven and for God. But we have not broken the covenant with God, it is not acedia, we are sure that God loves us and that one day
he will give us all these good things. It is a sadness full of hope, not despairing sadness like the other. It is a sadness without anguish, by which we rest in God. St John Climacus even calls it: "The joyful sadness".

This is the sadness of which the Desert Fathers speak. They know that God is good (Text 30). When they speak of penthos, of tears or mourning, they are not despairing for they are certain of the goodness of God. It is love and not sadness which makes them shed tears (Text 31).

Then why these tears? In their love for God, they weep out of a desire not to offend him; they weep for their sins and those of others (Text 32). For they know that we are all alike prone to evil and would be capable of the sins that others commit if God did not shower so many graces upon us (Text 33). They weep also because they know they are far from God. When St Benedict asks us to desire eternal life with all spiritual longing, that is quite close to penthos! It is a grace freely given, tears are a gift from God which comes in his good time (Text 34).

What are the fruits of these tears? First it is a purification. The Fathers used to say that "tears coming from on high purify and sanctify the body". They drive out sin (Text 35). The gift of tears is also an aid to prayer, a weapon in the struggle against the devil (Text 36). They also generate prayer (Text 37).

A rather enigmatic little Saying introduces us to another fruit of tears (Text 38). So they give joy, as John Climacus used to say. This was also the thought of Amma Syncletica (Text 39). Tears make us happy in this world, and also in the next.


Now that we have explained what might appear surprising in the Sayings and demonstrated their teaching method, it remains to speak of something very important for the spirituality of the Desert Fathers and which has had great influence on later times, especially in the Greek Church: hesychasm. This is as it were the heart of the spiritual teaching of the Apophthegmata.

RenunciationÞ anachoresis (withdrawal)

ß Þ silence

Hesychia Þ tranquillity

Þ solitude

Þ recollection

Hesychasm is a way of life centred on the search for hesychia.
There are two forms of hesychasm: one exterior, the other interior. For the Desert Fathers, human perfection is found in the love which unfolds in a prayer which must seek to become continual. To arrive at this goal, they hold hesychia to be necessary, the tranquillity arising from complete withdrawal from the world. This tranquillity cannot be found without effort. On the contrary it supposes asceticism and derives from it. Hesychia is not an end in itself: the goal is charity, hesychia is a means to arrive at this end, a disposition favouring the growth of charity.

1) Exterior hesychasm

We might be surprised on reading the Sayings to see the importance they give to exterior hesychasm, sometimes to the detriment of charity. With some Fathers there is the impression that quiet is confused with total solitude, as though there is no hope of tranquillity and prayer in the company of other people; and as though solitude itself could produce this tranquillity. The words hesychia and anachoresis, or hesychia and withdrawal into the desert, are interchangeable. It is only gradually that we arrive at distinguishing exterior and interior hesychasm.

It is this confusion or mingling of the two which must be grasped in order to interpret some of the Sayings, those of Arsenius in particular. Arsenius is the model of hesychasts. We are told about the call of this high dignitary of the court of Constantinople (Text 41). "Flee, be silent, stay quiet" will be the motto for many hesychasts, their programme. Arsenius was the first to put it into practice. He lived in a cell deep in the desert of Scetis which he rarely left. He fiercely defended his solitude. Thus he gave such a rude reception to a wealthy lady who came from Rome expressly to see him that he made her ill, as we are told in Saying 28 in the alphabetical series. He also defended his solitude against bishops (Text 42). He even defended it against his brethren (Text 43). But another Saying of Arsenius shows us nevertheless that this external hesychia was aimed at an interior hesychasm (Text 44).

2) Interior hesychasm

This retreat from the world as practised by Arsenius can rightly seem excessive to us and close to the withdrawal of certain pagan philosophers like Diogenes, who said to some important person come to visit him when he had retired to his barrel: "Get out of my light!". However the previous text shows that his aim was peace of heart. Other texts show that it was a retreat from the world for and in Christ. Hence this Saying of Antony (Text 45). Here we can see better that exterior hesychasm, the cell, is directed towards interior hesychasm, which must flow into humility, fear of God, penthos and sincere charity towards all.

Hesychasm Þ exterior


Þ amerimna

interior Þ nepsis

Þ melete


continual prayer


Running through all these Sayings can be seen three characteristics which lead the hesychast to his chosen end: continuous prayer. These are amerimna, which is freedom from care, nepsis or vigilance, crupte melete which is the practice of prayer. We will now see what is contained in these four expressions.

A) Freedom from care = 'merimna'

To find hesychasm it is therefore necessary to flee from the noise and bustle of the city of men, but still more the dissipation of the heart which, despite external solitude remains disturbed, troubled, plagued by its attachments and preoccupations, by its own thoughts. The hesychast's main preoccupation is to be 'without care'(a negative + merimna = care). What does this mean?

salvation. That is acedia, the source of melancholy.

the 'praying monks' did and we shall see Abba Lucius giving them a lesson.

This requirement to be without care is also found in St Basil, and later St John Chrysostom was to explain that cares attract more cares and if the door is left open to them peace of soul is lost. He was even to say that not only should we not concern ourselves with reasonable cares but also drop all thoughts so as to establish the soul in inner silence. For that, he was to say, it is necessary to set one's thoughts aside, not seeking to banish them at all costs, as this risks having a headache, but to take no notice of them, putting them 'in a suit-case', so as to establish inner calm. This is the same as the "be silent" of the voice speaking to Arsenius in text 41.

B) Vigilance = Nepsis.

In text 45 Antony recommends staying in one's cell to keep 'inner watchfulness'. This is nepsis, the attitude of the soul which is wide awake, present to itself and to God. It is attention to God, the guarding of the heart which we have already met in Origen with reference to the spiritual combat (Text 47). Another of Poemon's sayings links vigilance with flight from care.

C) The exercise of prayer = crupte Melete

Amerimna and nepsis tend to be negative attitudes, with the aim of protecting the soul. Here is something more positive, melete, which will prepare the soul more directly for continuous prayer.

This word melete, translated into latin as 'meditari', means more than to 'meditate'. It also has the sense of 'exercise'. In melet e meditation is made aloud with the aim of preparing the soul for prayer; it is an exercise for prayer: short phrases are repeated so that they penetrate the soul and bring about spontaneous prayer. People of those days had the habit of talking to themselves out loud or in a low voice. We have seen how the Pachomian monks repeated verses of the Bible to themselves when they were at work, at the Office, in the refectory etc.... The hermits of Lower Egypt were alone and had no risk of disturbing others by speaking out loud (Text 49). We know some of these meletai. Abba Sisoes repeated a text of his own making (Text 50). We also know the prayer of Macarius who has committed a terrible crime before coming the Scetis: "I have sinned as a man, may You have pity on me, as God!" But in general the Fathers hid their melete out of humility: crupte melete means a 'hidden exercise of prayer'.

From the little that we know, these melete could be of two kinds: the 'auxiliatrice' prayer, asking for help or protection, and the 'catanytic' prayer, meaning 'which pricks', of the kind to arouse penthos, tears, mourning, holy sadness. Macarius gives us an example of these two kinds of melete (Text 51).

Much later these prayers would be called 'ejaculatory prayers' from a latin word meaning 'to throw a javelin', according to a remark of St Augustine in one of his letters: "They say that in Egypt the brothers use frequent prayers, but very short and thrown out rapidly like darts" (Letter to Proba: PL 130, 10,20). In the East they are called 'monologue prayers', meaning a prayer consisting of one word or a single thought.

This practice gave rise to the 'Jesus Prayer'.

D) Unceasing prayer

Amerimna, nepsis, melete should lead to continuous prayer. The phrase of St Paul: "Pray always without ceasing" has always been a challenge to monks. They have tried to respond. It became a preoccupation first of all because they knew by experience that prayer is not easy (Text 52). They realised it is a struggle. Furthermore they were realists and knew that men and women are no angels, but have bodies, and this body must be fed. They must work to live. so we see them giving a lesson to those who, like the Euchites, the 'praying monks', took the Apostle's command by the letter and imagined they could literally pray without ceasing, which, to their way of thinking, excused them from working with their hands (Texts 53 & 54).

Besides, experience has shown the usefulness of manual work.


Thus Little John, on being asked one day: "What is it like to be a monk?", replied: "Trouble and hard work!". By that he meant the labour of asceticism, but also manual work. There is also this Saying: "An abba was asked one day: 'What must I do to be saved?'. Now the old man was working at weaving reed mats. Without interrupting his work or even raising his head, he replied: 'You can see!'.

The problem then was to harmonise the essential manual work with the continuous prayer at which the ascetics aimed.

Certain young rogues had found a dodge for praying without ceasing (Text 55). But that rather naive solution did not satisfy everyone. Other Sayings put us on the right track (Texts 56 & 57). Which is to say that along with words there is the prayer of the heart.. a directing of the heart towards God, which may be wordless. By multiplying meletai, exercises of prayer, the monks arrived at a simple prayer, a prayer of the heart. The heart watches. In the same sense, St Basil distinguishes 'prayers' and 'praying'. Prayers merit the grace of prayer. This grace of continual prayer is found when charity is dwelling in the heart. It is in this sense that some short Sayings, not without meaning for being short (Text 58).


The Apophthegmata, all very different and on various subjects, do not offer a unified theology of the monastic life. But all the same, they do present the truth of the monastic life and even of the Christian life itself. We have had occasion to point out that they are not all true; but what they say to us is true.

The truth of the Sayings comes first of all from the picture they give of human nature. They do not try to make it appear better than it is. We see that among these monks there were sinners, there were failures, shipwrecks.

What the Sayings tell us is therefore true because they put before us the Gospel truth: Men and women are sinners yet they are loved by God and called to the fulness of charity, to a transforming union with God, transfiguration, divinisation.

This transfiguration was sometimes already visible among them. In one Saying we are shown Pambo with his face shining like that of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai (Text 66). Several others show us the abba as if on fire (Texts 67-69). These are the images which show us the divinisation, the transfiguration of one who has become spiritual.

In conclusion, one very short Saying is a marvellous summary of the Desert Fathers' spirituality.

"An abba said: our task is to set wood on fire".

And it is true, we are only a bit of dry wood. But by the labour of asceticism, the fire of the Spirit begins to burn in us. So the smoke brings tears to our eyes (penthos, see text 39), then the fire of love kindles the soul and the wood itself becomes fire. This is the divinisation to which we are called.

See also: TABLE 6



Burton -Christie, P. The Word in the Desert. Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early

Christian Monasticism. OUP 1993

Chitty,D. The Desert a City. Mowbray 1960

Driot, M. The Fathers of the Desert. St Pauls 1993

Elm, S. The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity. Oxford 1994

Gould, G. The Desert Fathers on Monastic Community. Oxford 1993

Russell, N. trans. Lives of the Desert Fathers. Mowbray 1980

Ward, B. trans. The Sayings of the Desrt Fathers; alphabetical collection. Mowbray 1975

Ward, B. Harlots of the Desert. Cassell.




The following Letters are extant, though not all are translated into English.

These Letters, which also come from the silence of the desert, are a complement to the teaching of the Apophthegmata; they demonstrate a more general aspect of the spiritual life of their authors.

Ammonas insists on solitude and the suppression of self-will to attain purification of heart, but in the Letters we see more clearly than in the Sayings that this purification is a pre-condition for the coming of the Holy Spirit. This insistence on the Holy Spirit unfolding his graces in the soul is characteristic of these Letters of Ammonas who gives us here the fruits of his experience. "The Spirit gives himself to the souls of the just who are completely purified.... to flow over them like a sweet perfume" (XIII,2). He is "a precious pearl" within them, a "hidden treasure". "He reveals his great mysteries to the souls within whom he dwells; for them night is like the day" (id.3). "The sweetness of spiritual grace is sweeter than honeycomb, and few monks and virgins have known this great sweetness" (II,I). "This divine strength" enables us to spend "our life in freedom, joy, delight. This strength given to man on earth leads him to the repose of heaven" (id.2).

The mysticism of the Desert Fathers which can be glimpsed in some of the Apophthegmata, is seen more clearly here.

The Letter of Macarius describes the spiritual path of the monk which begins with penthos and culminates, after temptations, in the full possession of the soul by the Holy Spirit. The knowledge of self leads to the search for the Creator, and first of all to awareness of his sinfulness. Penthos is thus the foundation of progress, then come trials and temptations: the whole array of 'thoughts'. "When the soul feels weak in the face of all the enemy's wiles, then the good God who cares for his creature, again sends him holy strength" (11) which "confirms his heart, giving him joy and comfort and enabling him to be stronger than his enemies" (9). "After having been put to the test in all these ways, the Spirit reveals to him the things of heaven" (13). "The Paraclete makes a covenant with the purity of his heart, the strength of his soul, the holiness of his body and the humility of his spirit. He places him above all creation; his mouth does not speak of human affairs, his eyes see what is right. He puts a guard over his mouth and walks on a straight path.... All this the Paraclete does for him with measure and discernment, without any disturbance, in tranquillity" (14).

The Letter of Arsenius takes us deeper into what we have already seen in the Sayings: the practice of hesychia which leads to continual prayer.

The 'Letter to Monks' of Serapion is in praise of the monastic life. At first it misleads us by its intellectual approach marked by rhetoric, its opposition to the secluded life of the monk, and traces in it of civil or married life. Behind this kind of writing, one must decipher the essential traits of the monk: a steady resolution, a detachment from the world and from self, asceticism, prayer which is the chief occupation of the monk, and the expectation of promised blessings.





1) What is the meaning of this phrase often found in the Apophthegmata:"Tell me how I must be saved".

2) Why does the young monk submit to an abba? Is this to be found in St Benedict's rule

for cenobites? If so, point out the similarities and differences.

3) What attitude do the Desert Fathers have to holy Scripture? Explain.

4) What is hesychasm? What is a hesychast?

5) What are the four special characteristics of interior hesychasm?

6) A more personal question: what for you, a cenobite, is the teaching from the Apophthegmata that you find most helpful in your search for God? Why?





 In the Sayings below, underline the themes which have passed into the Rule of St Benedict. A space is left at the end of each text. Write the number of the chapter in the Rule where it can be found.

Add any remarks of your own.

To save you hunting through the whole Rule, the passages concerned are listed at the bottom of the next page. But be careful, a single chapter of the Rule may have one passage to be found in one Saying and another in another, and conversely, two chapters of the Rule may have passages inspired by a single Saying.


1. An unknown Abba

An old man came to find one of the Fathers who, having cooked a few lentils, said: "Let us say a little Office". One finished the whole psalter, the other recited by heart the two major prophets. When morning comes the old man went away, and they had forgotten to eat.

2. An unknown Abba

A brother asked an old man: "If a brother owes me some money, should I ask him for it?" The old man told him: "Only ask him once, out of humility". The other asked: "If I ask him once, and he does not give it to me, what should I do?" Then the old man says: "Do not ask any more". And the other insisted: "What shall I do? I cannot conquer my desire to harass him". The old man said: "Let the thought rattle on, but do not sadden your brother, for you are a monk".


3. An unknown Abba

A brother asked an old man: "Father, how long do I have to keep silence?" The old man answered: "Until you are asked a question. If you love silence in every place you will be at peace".


4. Abba Joseph

Abba Joseph of Thebes said: "Three kinds of people are held in honour by God: first the sick who suffer temptations and accept them with gratitude; then those who act with pure intention before God without mixing any human motives; lastly those who remain in submission to their spiritual father and renounce their own will".


5. Abba Poemen

There is a story told about Abba Poemen and a monk who drank no wine. Poemen said: "Wine is not at all suitable for monks".


6. Anonymous

The old men used to say: "For anyone beginning conversion, God does not look for anything except the work of obedience".


7. An unknown Abba.

An old man said to a brother: "Think each day that you death is near; have no more care for the world than if you were already buried in the tomb. Let the fear of God dwell in you unceasingly, at all times. Believe that you are lower than all. Speak no evil of anyone, for God knows all, but be at peace with everyone and God will always give you rest.


8. Abba Moses.

Abba Moses said to the brothers: "The monk must observe four very important things: to be silent, to keep the commandments of God, to humble himself, and to endure poverty. So the monk must weep at all times, remembering his sins, and have death before his eyes every moment".


9. Abba Sylvanus

At Scetis, Abba Sylvanus had a disciple called Mark. He copied books. Abba Sylvanus loved Mark because of his obedience.

He had eleven other disciples. They were hurt because Abba Sylvanus loved Mark more than them.

When the abbas heard of this, they were upset. One day they came to Abba Sylvanus to reproach him. Then Sylvanus took the abbas with him and knocked on the door of each cell saying: "Brother, come here, I want you". But none of the brothers came at once.

Abba Sylvanus came to Mark's cell. He knocked and said: "Mark!" On hearing the abba's voice he jumped up and came at once, and the abba sent him on an errand.

Then Abba Sylvanus said to the abbas: "Fathers, where are the other brothers?" He went into Mark's cell and took up the book he was writing. He pointed out how Mark had begun to form the letter O, but on hearing the voice of his abba he had not finished writing it. Then the abbas said: "Truly, abba, we too love the one you love, because God loves him".


Rule of St Benedict: Prologue (beginning), 2 , 4 , 5 , 7 , 18 , 19 , 31 , 40 , 43.





1. Abba Poemen

Abba Joseph tells how Abba Isaac said: "One day I was sitting beside Abba Poemen and I saw him in ecstasy. As I had great freedom to speak to him, I prostrated and begged him, saying: 'Tell me where you were'. And he, embarassed, told me: 'My thoughts were with holy Mary, Mother of God, who was weeping over the cross of the Saviour. And I too would like to weep like that always.

2. Abba Arsenius

Abba Arsenius said: "If we seek God he will show himself to us, and if we hold to him he will dwell with us.

3. Abba Pambo

Theophilus, archbishop of Alexandria, came to Scetis one day. The brothers gathered together and asked Abba Pambo to say a few words of edification to the bishop. But he replied: "If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my words".

4. An unknown Abba

A brother asked an Abba: "Tell me. what must I do to be saved?"

The abba replied: "It is a great thing if you can bear insults, greater than all the virtues".

5. Abba Ares

Abba Abraham went to see Abba Ares. They sat down together. A brother came to the abba; he said to him: "Tell me what I must do to be saved." Abba Ares replied: "Go, and for a whole year eat only bread and salt in the evening. Then come back and I will speak with you".

The monk went off and did so. After a year he returned to Abba Ares. By chance Abba Abraham was there again. The old man said again to the brother: "Go, and fast again for a year, every other day". When the brother had gone Abba Abraham said to Abba Ares: "You give all the other brothers a light task. But you impose a heavy charge on this one. Why?"

The old man replied: "What I say depends on what the brother comes to seek. This brother has courage. He comes to hear a word from God, and he obeys joyfully. That is why I tell him what God says".

6. Abba Poemen

Abba Joseph said: "One day we were sitting with Abba Poemen. He was speaking about Abba Agathon. We said to him: "Agathon is very young, why do you call him abba?" Abba Poemen said: "Because his speech makes an abba of him".

7. An unknown Abba

One Romanus said: "There was an old man who had a good disciple. One day, not believing he was good, he drove him out with his cloak. The brother remained sitting outside. The old man opening the door and seeing him sitting there, prostrated and said to him: "O Father, the humility of your patience has overcome the small esteem I had for you. Come in; from now on, you are the old man and the father, and I am the younger and the disciple".

8. Abba Antony

Abba Antony said: "As far as possible a monk should disclose to the abbas the number of steps he takes and the number of drops of water he drinks in his cell, to know whether he is truly in the way of truth".

9. An unknown Abba

A brother had found a retired and tranquil spot in the desert. He begged his abba in these words: "Command me to live there and I hope that with God's grace and your prayers I shall mortify myself a great deal". But his abba would not allow it: "I well know that you would mortify yourself a lot, but because you would have no abba you would put your trust in your own works, sure of pleasing God, and, persuaded that you were acting like a monk, you would waste your time and lose your reason".

10.Abba Poemen

Abba Poemen said: "The one who gives most pleasure to the enemy is the one who will not open his thoughts to his abba".

11. Abba Antony

Abba Antony said: "I know many who have borne many trials. Yet they have fallen and become proud because they put their trust in their own acts and ignored the precept of him who said: "Ask your father and he will teach you".

12. Abba Felix

Some brothers brought certain laymen with them. They came looking for Abba Felix and begged him: "Give us a word". But the abba remained silent. They begged him repeatedly.

Then Abba Felix said to them: "You want to hear a word?" They said: "Yes, abba". The old man said to them: "There are no more words now. Before, the brothers put questions to the abbas and they did what the abbas said. At that time the Lord showed them what to say. But now they put questions and do not do what they hear. So God has taken away the gift of speaking a word from the abbas and they no longer have anything to say because nobody makes the effort any more".

On hearing these words the brothers groaned and said: "Pray for us, abba!".

13. An unknown Abba

A brother said to a great old man: "Abba, I should like to find an abba I like and die in his company". The old man said to him: "Well, well! That is a fine thing, sir! " But the disciple, thinking he had spoken well, paid no attention to the old man's reply. Then, when the old man saw that his disciple did not understand that he was mocking him, said to him: "So, if you find an old man whom you like, you want to live with him?" "Oh yes" replied the disciple, "That is what I want". The old man aid to him: "Maybe that is not so that you can follow the old man's wishes but so that he will follow yours and you can stay in peace". Then the brother understood what he had said, he got up and prostrated and said: "Forgive me. I thought it was a good idea, when it was not".

14. Abba Poemen

Abba Poemen said: "One day someone asked Abba Paesius: "What am I to do with my soul, for it is dull and has no fear of God". And Abba Paesius said to him: "Go with a man who fears God and by living with him you too will learn to fear God".

15. An unknown Abba

An old man said: "Be like a camel; carry the load of your sins, be led by a bridle and follow after the one who knows the way to God".

16. Abba John the Little

This used to be said about John the Little: he had gone to be with an abba from Thebes at Scetis, who was living in the desert.

One day, his abba took a dry stick and planted it and said to John: "Give it a jar of water every day until it bears fruit". Now the water was so far away that John would set off in the evening and not return until morning. Three years later that stick began to come to life and bear fruit. Then the abba picked a fruit. He took it to the church where the brothers were gathered and said to the brothers: "Take and eat the fruit of obedience".

17. Abba Poemen

A brother questioned Abba Poemen saying: "There are some brothers living with me; do you want me to be in command?" The old man replied: "No! You work first, and if they want to live, they will watch of their own accord". The brother said: "But it is they, Father, who want me to be in command" The old man said to him: "No. Be their model, not their lawgiver".

18. Abba Sylvanus

At Scetis, Sylvanus had a disciple called Mark who was a marvel of obedience. He was a calligrapher. And the abba loved him for his obedience. Now there were eleven other disciples, and they were vexed because Abba Sylvanus loved Mark better than them.

When the abbas heard of this, they were saddened by it. So one day they came to Abba Sylvanus to reproach him. Then Abba Sylvanus took the abbas with him, and he went knocking on the door of every cell saying: "Brother, come here, I want you". But none of the brothers came to him at once.

Abba Sylvanus came to Mark's cell. He knocked and said: "Mark!" On hearing the abba's voice he ran out at once. And the abba sent him on an errand. Then he said to the abbas: "Fathers, where are the other brothers?" He went into Mark's cell and took up his book. He pointed out that Mark had begun to form the letter O, but on hearing the voice of his abba he had not finished writing it. Then the abbas said: "Truly, abba, we too love the one you love, because God loves him".

19. Abba Abraham

Abba Bana one day asked Abba Abraham: "Does a man who is like Adam in paradise still need to seek counsel?" And he said to him: "Yes, Bana, for if Adam had asked the angels' advice: 'Should I eat of the tree'? They would have said 'No'."

20. Abba Zeno

It was said that there was in the village a man who fasted so much that he was called 'The Faster'. Abba Zeno, who had heard about him, sent for him. The other came gladly. They prayed together and sat down. The old man began working in silence. Not being able to talk to him, the Faster was overcome with boredom. And he said to the old man: "Pray for me, Abba, I want to leave". The old man said: "Why?" The other replied: "Because my heart is on fire and I don't know what is the matter. Indeed when I was in the village I fasted until evening, and nothing like this happened to me". The old man said: "You were feeding your ears in the village. But go, from now on eat only at the ninth hour, and do it in secret". When he began to do this, he waited for the ninth hour with difficulty. And all those who knew him said: "The Faster has been possessed by the devil". Then he came and told this to the old man who said to him: "This way is according to God".

21 An unknown Abba

"If bad thoughts make war on you, do not hide them but tell them straight to your abba. The more we hide our thoughts the stronger they become and the more numerous. It is like a snake, once out of its hole it flees straight away. So a bad thought goes away as soon as it is revealed.

But if it is hidden it is like a maggot in wood, it destroys the heart. the one who discloses his thoughts is healed at once; the one who hides them becomes sick with pride".

22. Abba Poemen

Abba Poemen said: "The will of man is a great wall between him and God (Jer. 1:18). It is a stumbling stone. If you turn your back on your own selfish will, you too will say: 'With God I leap over the wall' (Ps 17:30). But if a man's search for righteousness is yoked with self-will, that man is sick".

23. Abba Pambo

One day, four brothers from Scetis, clothed in animal skins, went in search of the great Pambo. Each spoke of his neighbour's good actions, though not in his presence. The first one fasted a lot. The second was poor. The third had great charity. Of the fourth they said: "He has obeyed an abba for twenty-two years".

Abba Pambo replied: "This brother shows the greatest virtue. Indeed each brother has obtained the virtue he wanted to possess. But this brother has denied his own will and does the will of another. People like him are martyrs if they persevere to the end.

24. Abba Joseph of Thebes

Abba Joseph of Thebes said: "There are three actions which have value in the Lord's eyes:

1. A man is sick, he suffers temptations. If he accepts them gladly, that is pleasing to the Lord.

2. When we do everything in the presence God, with a pure heart, seeking nothing for self, that is pleasing to the Lord.

3. When one continually obeys his spiritual father, when one denies ones's selfish desires, that is pleasing to the Lord and for that there is a great reward.

For myself, I prefer sickness".

25. Abba Mios

Abba Mios of Belos said: "Obedience answers obedience. When someone obeys God, God obeys him also".

26. Abba Serapion

A brother asked Abba Serapion: "Give me a word". The abba said to him: "What have I to say to you? You have taken the livelihood of widows and orphans and kept it in a cupboard". In fact, Serapion saw the cupboard was full of books.

27. Abba Sisoes

Abba Ammon of Rhaitou said to Abba Sisoes: "When I read the Bible, my mind longs to prepare a fine discourse. Then I should be able to give an answer to anyone who questioned me". The abba said to him: "That is not necessary. Seek rather to keep your mind pure. Then you will be able to be without care yourself and have the gift of words for teaching others".

28. Abba Antony

One day some old men came to see Abba Antony. Abba Joseph was with them. Abba Antony wanted to put them to the test. So he gave them a word from the Bible.

First Abba Antony questioned the younger ones. He asked them: "What does this word mean?" Each one explained as well as he could. But Abba Antony said to each of them: "No, you have not understood". Abba Joseph was the last who had to give a reply. The abba said to him: "Well, Abba Joseph, how do you explain this word from the Bible?" He replied: "I do not know". Then Abba Antony said: "Truly Abba Joseph has found the right way. Rightly has he said: 'I do not know'".

29. An unknown Abba

It was said of an old man that he wanted to ask God for the interpretation of a word from the Bible. To obtain his request he passed seventy weeks eating only once a week. But God did not reveal it to him. He said to himself: "I have given myself so much trouble and received nothing for it; so I will go and ask my brother".

Just as he was shutting the door behind him to go to the brother an angel of the Lord was sent to him. He said to him: "Your seventy weeks of fasting did not bring you close to God; but when you humbled yourself and went to seek your brother, I was sent to tell you the meaning of that word". And he gave a perfect answer to what he was seeking in the Bible. Then he left him.

30. Abba Poemen

A brother said to Abba Poemen: "I have committed a great sin and I want to do penance for it for three years" The old man said: "That is a lot!". And the brother said to him: "A year at least!". The old man said again: "That is a lot!". Those present said to him: "Forty days?". Again he said: "That is a lot!". And he added: "I tell you that if a man repents wholeheartedly and does not commit that sin again, three days are enough for God to receive him back".

31. Abba Hypericus

Abba Hypericus said: "The monk who keeps vigil turns night into day because he is praying through the night. By oppressing his heart he makes tears spring forth and calls down mercy from heaven".

32. Abba Pambo

Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, begged Abba Pambo to leave the desert and go to Alexandria.

So Abba Pambo went down that way. He met an actress and began weeping. His companions asked him: "Why are you weeping?".

Abba Pambo replied: "I weep for two reasons: one because this woman is lost; the other because my desire of pleasing God is less burning than her desire. She indeed tries hard to please depraved men.

33. An unknown Abba.

An abba said: "In the same way that we carry our evil tendencies about with us everywhere we go. So we should keep tears and compunction with us wherever we are".

34. An unknown Abba

A brother questioned an abba: "How is it that my soul wants to weep like the monks of old and the tears do not come when my soul grieves?". The abba said to him: "It was not until after forty years that the sons of Israel entered the Promised Land. If you enter there you will have no more combats to face. For God wants the soul to be afflicted so as to desire entry into that land".

35. Abba Longinus

Abba Longinus experienced great compunction in his prayer and psalmody, and his disciple said to him one day: "Abba, is it a canon of the spiritual life for the monk to weep while saying his Office?" And the old man said to him: "Yes, my son, It is the law required by God. God did not in fact make man for tears but for joy and happiness, just like the angels. But since he fell into sin, man needs tears. Where there is no sin there is no need to weep".

36. Abba Evagrius

Abba Evagrius said: "When an alien thought arises in your heart do not try praying in this way or in that but sharpen the sword of tears".

37. Abba Paul the Great

Abba Paul the Great has said: "I am up to the neck in mud. I weep before God saying: 'Have pity on me'."

38. Abba Poemen

Abba Poemen has said: "Mourning has a twofold action: it stirs up and it preserves".

39. Amma Syncletica

Amma Syncletica said: "At the beginning, those on their way to God struggle and weary themselves greatly. Later they know inexpressible joy. Indeed people lighting a fire are surrounded in smoke at first and they weep. By this means they obtain what they are seeking. In fact it says in the Bible: 'Our God is a consuming fire' (Heb. 12:29). In the same way, we should also light God's fire in us with tears and sorrow".

40. Abba Arsenius

It was said of Abba Arsenius that all his life when he was sitting at work he had a cloth over him because of the tears which flowed from his eyes. Abba Poemen, learning that he was dead, said weeping: "Happy are you, Abba Arsenius, to have wept over yourself in this world! For one who does not weep over himself here below, will weep eternally. So whether willingly here below or there in torment it is impossible not to weep.

41. Abba Arsenius

At this time Abba Arsenius was still living in the royal palace. He made this prayer to God: "Lord, lead me on the way to salvation". A voice replied: "Arsenius, flee far from men and you will be saved".

Arsenius went away from men. He lived alone. He began repeating this same prayer: "Lord lead me on the way to salvation". He heard a voice. It said to him: "Arsenius, flee, be silent, stay quiet. These are the roots of a sinless life".

42. Abba Arsenius

One day Archbishop Theophilus and an important person came to see Abba Arsenius. Theophilus put questions to the abba. He wanted to hear him speak. After a moment's silence the abba replied: "Will you do what I am about to say to you?" - "We promise," they replied. So the abba said to them: "When someone says to you: 'Arsenius is in that place', do not go".

43. Abba Arsenius

Abba Mark said to Abba Arsenius: "Why are you leaving us?".

The abba replied: "Ah, I love you. God knows! But I cannot live with men. Millions and millions of angels have only one desire; men have many. That is why I cannot leave God in order to come and be with men".

44. Abba Arsenius

One day Abba Arsenius came to a place where there were some reeds waving in the wind. He said to the brethren: "What can I hear moving?" They said: "It is the reeds". So the abba said to them: "If a brother is recollected and he hears the song of a little bird, that is the end of it; his heart does not feel the same peace. And you! You hear the sound of those reeds, your hearts cannot be at peace".

45. Abba Antony

Again, Abba Antony said: "When fish stay too long out of water they die. It is the same for monks. When they spend their time with people of the world, or otherwise stay a long time out of their cells, they lose the deep peace of the heart.

Come, let us do the same as the fishes. They go back quickly into the sea. Let us then go quickly back to our cells so as not to forget our inner vigilance".

46. Abba Kronios

A brother asked Abba Kronios: "How can a man attain to humility?" The abba replied: "Through the fear of God". The brother said to him: "And what must one do to arrive at the fear of God? " The other said to him: "To my mind, you reach that point when you leave aside all care, give yourself to manual labour, and remember death and God's judgment, as far as you are able".

47. Abba Poemen

Abba Poemen often said: "What we need to do is to keep our minds alert".

48. Abba Poemen

One day when Abba Isaac was sitting with Abba Poemen, they heard a cock crow. He said to him: "You have one of those here, abba?" The old man said to him: "Isaac, why are you forcing me to speak? You and people like you hear it. But one who is watchful does not give it a thought".

49. Abba Achilles

Abba Amnoes used to say: "We went, Abba Bitimios and I, to visit Abba Achilles and we heard him repeating this word: "Jacob, do not fear to go down into Egypt" (Gen.46:3). And he continued a long time repeating this word. After we knocked he opened the door and asked: "Where have you come from?" Fearing to reply: "From the Cells", we said: "From the mountain of Nitria". Then he said to us: "What shall I do for you as you have come such a long way? " He took us in and we saw that he had plaited a lot of reeds during the night. When we asked him to give us a word, he said to us: "Between yesterday evening and now I have plaited twenty yards, but to tell you the truth, I do not need it; it is only so that God will not be angry and blame me saying: 'You could have been working and you have not done so'. That is why I work as much as I can". And we went away edified.

50. Abba Sisoes

One day, Abba Sisoes was speaking quite openly. He said: "Courage! After thirty years I no longer pray to God about my faults, but I make this prayer: 'Lord Jesus, save me from my tongue!' And yet even until now I fall every day because of my tongue and I sin".

51. Abba Macarius

Someone asked Abba Macarius: "How should we pray?" The abba replied: "You have no need to make long speeches. Simply stretch out your hands and say: 'Lord, as you will, as you know how, have pity on me!'. And if a conflict arises within you, say: 'Lord, help!'. The Lord knows what we need and takes pity on us".

52. Abba Agathon

The brothers asked Abba Agathon: "Which of all the good actions is the one hardest to do?". He replied: "With respect, I think it is prayer. Yes, each time you want to pray your enemies want to stop you doing so. Indeed, they know there is only one way of stopping you going to God: to turn you away from prayer. When you begin some good thing, whatever it is, if you go on courageously you will find peace. But with prayer, you have to fight on with your enemies until death".

53. Abba Sylvanus

A brother went to visit Abba Sylvanus on Mount Sinai and on seeing the brothers working said to the old man: ""Do not work for the food that perishes; Mary indeed chose the better part".

The old man said to his disciple: "Zachary, give the brother a book and put him in an empty cell". When it came to the ninth hour, the brother had his eyes fixed on the door to see if anyone came to fetch him for a meal. But as no one called for him, he got up, went to find the old man and said to him: "Have the brothers not eaten today, abba?" The old man said: "Oh yes, but you are a spiritual man and do not need fleshly nourishment. The rest of us who are carnal expect to eat, and to do that we work. You have chosen the better part, you read all day and do not want to eat bodily food". When the brother heard these words he made a deep bow saying: "Forgive me, abba". The old man said to him: "Of course, Mary herself needed Martha and in fact it is thanks to Martha that Mary was given praise".

54. Abba John the Little

This is something told about Little John: One day he said to his older brother: "I want to be without care like the angels. They do not work, but worship God unceasingly". Then he took up his cloak and set off into the desert.

After a week he returned to his brother. He knocked at the door. Then he heard his brother asking before opening the door: "Who is it?" He replied: "I am your brother John". His elder brother said to him: "John has become an angel. He is no longer among men now". Then John begged him saying: "It is I!". But his brother would not open to him. And he left him sorrowing until morning.

Then he opened the door and said to him: "You are a man and you must start working again to feed yourself". John bowed before his brother and said: "Forgive me".

55. Abba Lucius

Several monks called 'praying monks' came to Enaton to see Abba Lucius. The abba asked them: "Where is your handiwork?" They said: "We do not work with our hands but we pray without ceasing as the Apostle commanded". Abba Lucius asked them: "Do you not eat?" They replied: "Oh yes!" So he said to them: "When you are eating, who takes your place praying?". But they had nothing to say in reply.

Then Abba Lucius said to the monks: "Pardon me, but you do not do as you say. Let me show you how I pray without ceasing while working with my hands. I sit with God. I moisten my reeds and I twist them into ropes. At the same time I say: 'God, have pity on me in your great kindness; in your abundant mercy blot out my offence'." (Ps.50:1).

Abba Lucius asked the monks: "Is that not a prayer?" They replied: "Oh yes".

Then he said to them: "When I have spent the whole day working and praying I have earned about sixteen pieces of silver. I put two at my door and I buy food with the rest. Whoever it is who receives those two pieces of silver prays for me while I eat or when I sleep. So with God's help I obey the commandment to pray without ceasing".

56. An unknown Abba

Some brothers have the following to tell: We were with one of the abbas one day and as is customary we sat down. After conversing we wanted to leave and asked them to pray with us. And one of the abbas said: "What, have you not been praying?" And we replied: "Abba, there was the prayer when we arrived, but since then we have been talking". The abba said: "Pardon me, brothers, but there has been a brother sitting talking with you and he has made three hundred prayers". And having said that, they prayed and we left.

57. An unknown Abba

The abbas used to say of a brother that he never left off his manual work and the whole time his prayer went up to God, and that he was also very humble and persevering in his state of life.

58. An unknown Abba

An abba said: "If a monk only prays when he stands for prayer, he does not pray at all"

59. Abba Arsenius

One day, Abba Arsenius was assailed by tormenting demons in his cell. His servants, when they came to visit him and stood outside the cell, heard him cry out to God and say: "O God do not abandon me! I have done nothing good before you, but in your goodness let me start now".

60. Abba Theodore of Enaton

When some brothers were speaking about Abba Theodore and Abba Lucius of Enaton, they said: "They spent fifty years getting the better of their thoughts by tricks".

Indeed Abba Theodore and Abba Lucius used to say: "After the cold season we will leave here". When the hot season arrived they would say: "After the hot season we will go".

These two Fathers passed all their time in this way. We should remember them.

61. An unknown Abba

A brother had a thought which was giving him constant trouble: "You must go and visit such and such an abba" it said to him. But he put it off from one day to the next saying: "I will go tomorrow". And for three years he battled against that thought. Finally he said to this thought: "Supposing you went to see the abba; you would say to him: 'Are you keeping well, father? I have been wanting to see your holiness for a long time'". Then he took a bowl and washed, playing the part of the abba: "You have done right to come, brother. I am sorry you have gone to so much trouble on my account. May the Lord reward you". Then he got a meal ready, ate and drank well, and at once his struggle was over.

62. An unknown Abba

A thief came to steal from a brother, who said to him: "Be quick before the brothers come!".

63. Abba Agathon

Abba Agathon said: "If I could find a leper to who I could give my body and take his, I should be happy, for that would be perfect charity".

64. Abba Poemen

Some of the old men came to Abba Poemen and said to him: "What do you think: when we see a brother asleep at the Office, ought we to shake him to make him stay awake during prayer?".

He said to them: "When I see a brother sleeping I put his head on my knee and let him rest".

65. An unknown Abba

Two abbas lived together for many years and never came to blows. The first said to the other: "Let us have a quarrel and be like everybody else". The other replied: "I do not know how to quarrel". The first said: "Look, I will put a brick between us and I will say it is mine, and you will say: 'No, it is mine', and that will start a quarrel". So they put a brick between them and the first said: "That is my brick". And the other said: "No, it is mine". And the first continued: "If it is yours, take it and go". And they went off without managing to have a disagreement.

66. Abba Pambo

There was somebody they called Abba Pambo and they said of him that for three years he had begged God saying: "Do not give me glory in this world". And God glorified him to the point that no one could look at him in the face because of the glory in it.

67. Abba Arsenius

A brother came to the cell of Abba Arsenius in Scetis. He looked through the window. He saw the old man as though he were all on fire. (This brother was worthy to see such a thing).

He knocked on the door. Arsenius came to open it. He saw the brother was quite overcome. Arsenius said to him: "Have you been knocking long? Did you see anything?" The brother replied: "No". So Abba Arsenius spoke to him for a moment and then told him to leave.

68. Abba Joseph

Abba Lot came to visit Abba Joseph and said: "Abba, when I am able, I recite a short office, I fast a little, I pray, I meditate, I stay recollected. As far as I can I try to keep my though pure. What else should I do?"

Then Abba Joseph got up. He stretched out his hands to heaven and his fingers became like burning lamps.

He said to Abba Lot: "If you will, become all fire."

69. Abba Sisoes

It was said of Abba Sisoes that when he was near death, the Fathers being round him, his face shone like the sun. And he said to them: "Abba Antony is coming." And after a little while he said: "The choir of prophets is coming." And again his face shone even more bright and he said: "The choir of Apostles is coming". And his face shone more brightly still and he seemed to be conversing with someone. And the old men asked him: "Who are you talking to, Father?". He said: "Here are some angels come for me and I am begging them to let me do a little penance". The old men said to him: "You have no need of penance, Father! " But the old man said: "Truly I feel I have hardly begun". And all around recognised that he was perfect. And once again his face became suddenly like the sun and all were seized with fear. He said to them: "See, the Lord is coming!" And immediately he gave up his spirit. Then there was a lightening flash and a sweet scent filled the whole house.






We see in fact that the answer to this question: "What must I do to be saved?" is a counsel of perfection. Bearing injuries and love of enemies is the height of charity.


These monks who came to visit Abba Felix had lay persons with them. It may be for this reason that Abba Felix did not wish to reply to their question; they did not live the hidden life of the monks.


The camel, a beast of the desert, is used to carrying heavy loads. It is held by a bridle to prevent it doing what it fancies. The monk has to carry the heavy burden of his sins and submit to a guide. This Saying illustrates the previous one.


This Saying, a famous one, cannot be true for it would have John go without sleep every night for three years!

Cassian later gives a more likely version: the disciple can have his sleep, and there is no miracle, the dry stick remains dry (Inst.4:23-26). In either case, this Saying remains true for the lesson it gives: unconditional obedience.


Seeking counsel therefore is necessary, even for the perfect, those who have found Paradise, that is to say a state of perfect harmony with creation.


For the Fathers, pride is the hardest vice to uproot, the deepest sickness. Humility is the cure. It is obtained through manifestation of conscience.


Again the idea that self-will is a sickness. It is capable of resisting God. This will be found

again in Basil who says the disobedient monk should be sent to the infirmary!


These are the brothers of Scetis, who have chosen the strictest separation from the world. They are dressed in animal skins, so are great ascetics. And yet the lesson given us by this Saying is that submission to an abba is even superior to all that and to the virtues of the other three.

Notice too the end of the passage showing that monasticism well lived was for the abbas analogous to martyrdom. Self-will is what we cling to most.


"I prefer sickness". For Abba Joseph there is something even greater than unconditional obedience: accepting trials with thanksgiving. These trials are not of our own choosing and they are hard; so with them too "one denies one's selfish desires" and moreover receives them gratefully as coming from God.


We are sometimes amazed at the miracles worked by these saints. In a few words Abba Mios gives the explanation: to those who refuse him nothing God gives all they want. We can admire both this wonderful tenderness of the Creator towards his creatures and the way Abba Mios explains it so simply.


Books were rare among the Desert Fathers; they arranged them on a window-sill or a shelf carved out of the wall. This is what is the word 'cupboard' means, and so Abba Serapion could see the brother had good library. These books were rare because they were copied by hand, and most of them were copies of the Bible. Being rare, they were expensive. The brother was reproved by Abba Serapion because he had bought many of them; but anything left over from what the brothers earned by their work should have been given to the poor, especially to widows and orphans.


This 'right way' which Abba Joseph has found is the great humility which has made him realise that the Bible surpasses human intelligence and so admit that he does not know; which we find hard to do! His was a truly deep humility!


This proves that the abbas venerated the Bible and sought to uncover its deepest meaning. They even fasted in order to understand better.


An actress, today we would say a star, had at that time a very bad reputation. This lasted a long time; until the 18th century they were not given Christian burial, they were held to be public sinners in mortal sin. The term 'actress' is also used as an euphemism for a prostitute. That is why Abba Pambo thinks this actress is damned.

There is therefore a double motive for his tears: the presumed ruin of this woman, and his own lack of love for God.


Tears are a gift. They are a sign of union with God and of love for him. It is in this sense that entering into tears can be called entering the Promised Land.


Canon' in greek means: decree, rule, concerning a discipline. The answer to the disciple intrigued - or vexed - by the tears of Longinus is that tears are passing. The 'canon' set by God is joy.


A short Saying, but hard to understand. It refers to Genesis 1:5: "Yahweh took man and put him in the garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it. The underlying idea is again the return to Paradise. Mourning stirs the heart, purifies it and keeps it from bad thoughts, as in Saying 36.


The joy does not come from the pain, but from the fire of God which tears and pain help to kindle. Pain establishes the soul in humility and draws down the Holy Spirit, the divine fire.



A humble and firm reply. Arsenius knows, as is suggested in the 'Life of Antony' that he will find those he loves in the heart of God.


"Fearing to reply: 'from the Cells' we said: 'from the mountain of Nitria'". No doubt because the monks of the Cells, many of whom were Origenists, had a bad reputation among those in Scetis. It was not a bad lie, the Cells were an annex of Nitria. Besides we have to remember the geography and the respective positions of the three monastic centres. Abba Achilles was at Scetis, 40km from the Cells, and 60 from Nitria. That is why Abba Achilles said: "You have come a long way".


"Save me from my tongue": is the "Be silent" of Arsenius. See the Letter of St James 3:2-12.


In the second paragraph is an example of melete showing how these monks prayed at their work: it was a prayer of the heart, quite simple, which left the mind free for work. Note the phrase: "I sit with God".


Here we see this prayer of the heart, a profound prayer which is not conveyed by melete in this text, it leaves the mind free for conversation.


The Desert Fathers lived by the Gospel, and as soon as the opportunity presented itself of putting into practice some precept which they had not yet had the chance to follow they seized it joyfully. It is in recalling Mt. 5:40: "If anyone wants your tunic, give him your cloak also", that the brother said: "Be quick, before the brothers come". Obviously not to be taken literally, but a lesson in detachment.


"At the Office". As with the Pachomian monks, the Office must have been quite long, but simple: psalms, prayers and silent pray





 1) What is the meaning of this phrase often found in the Apophthegmata: "Tell me how I must

be saved".

Various meanings: healing, deliverance from sin, followed by salvation, perfection.


2) Why does the young monk submit to an abba? Is this to be found in St Benedict's rule

for cenobites? If so, point out the similarities and differences.

In the anchoritic way of life there were no rules. So for formation the young monk submitted to an abba. He submitted his will by obedience, he modelled his actions on his abba's, he submitted his thoughts to him by openness of heart. St Benedict retained this teaching; he gives great emphasis to submission of the will through obedience. He speaks also of modelling our actions but not, for him, on those of one man but on the ways of the community when he says we are to do nothing apart from the example of the seniors. Finally he recommends openness of heart; for him this is to the abbot, the novice master or mistress, or to the spiritual father.


3) What attitude do the Desert Fathers have to holy Scripture? Explain.

They read and valued the Bible, learning long passages by heart, but they quote it very

little. This is because for them the Word of God is so great that it surpasses human

intelligence. Moreover this same attitude of humility before the Word of God means that

they did not make a display of their knowledge. Scripture is a means of attaining love, it

it is not a goal in itself.

4)What is hesychasm? What is a hesychast?

Hesychasm is a way to attain charity, love of God. It is the search for solitude, exterior

silence, but above all interior silence.

A hesychast is one who pracices hesychasm.


5) What are the four special characteristics of interior hesychasm?

Flight from care = amerimna; watchfulness = nepsis; the exercise of prayer = melete;

in order to attain continual prayer.


6) A more personal question: what for you, a cenobite, is the teaching from the Apophthegmata that you find most helpful in your search for God? Why?

A personal answer: it might be obedience, openness of heart, penthos, hesychasm.







In the Sayings below, underline the themes which have passed into the Rule of St Benedict. A space is left at the end of each text. Write the number of the chapter in the Rule where it can be found.

Add any remarks of your own.

To save you hunting through the whole Rule, the passages concerned are listed at the bottom of the next page. But be careful, a single chapter of the Rule may have one passage to be found in one Saying and another in another, and conversely, two chapters of the Rule may have passages inspired by a single Saying.


1. An unknown Abba

An old man came to find one of the Fathers who, having cooked a few lentils, said: "Let us say a little Office". One finished the whole psalter, the other recited by heart the two major prophets. When morning comes the old man went away, and they had forgotten to eat.

18, 25


2. An unknown Abba

A brother asked an old man: "If a brother owes me some money, should I ask him for it?" The old man told him: "Only ask him once, out of humility". The other asked: "If I ask him once, and he does not give it to me, what should I do?" Then the old man says: "Do not ask any more". And the other insisted: "What shall I do? I cannot conquer my desire to harass him". The old man said: "Let the thought rattle on, but do not sadden your brother for you are a monk".

31, 6 & 19

- Note a difference from the Pachomian monks, each kept his own money.


3. An unknown Abba

A brother asked an old man: "Father, how long do I have to keep silence?" The old man answered: "Until you are asked a question. If you love silence in every place you will be at peace".

7, 56 (9th degree).

4. Abba Joseph

Abba Joseph of Thebes said: "Three kinds of people are held in honour by God: first the sick who suffer temptations and accept them with gratitude; then those who act with pure intention before God without mixing any human motives; lastly those who remain in submission to their spiritual father and renounce their own will"

7, 34

Prol. 3 ; 5,7 ; 7, 19, 31.

5. Abba Poemen

There is a story told about Abba Poemen and a monk who drank no wine. Poemen said: "Wine is not at all suitable for monks".


Note that St Benedict applies it out of context.


6. Anonymous

The old men used to say: "For anyone beginning conversion, God does not look for anything except the work of obedience"

Prol. 2


7. An unknown Abba

An old man said to a brother: "Think each day that you death is near; have no more care for the world than if you were already buried in the tomb. Let the fear of God dwell in you unceasingly, at all times. Believe that you are lower than all. Speak no evil of anyone, for God knows all, but be at peace with everyone and God will always give you rest.

4,47: " To keep death daily before one's eyes; 4,20: To keep oneself from the world; 7,10: to keep the fear of God always in mind;

7,51: to declare himself lower and of less account than all others, and believe it in his inmost heart; 4,40: To speak no evil of anyone; (7,13: God knows all).


8. Abba Moses.

Abba Moses said to the brothers: "The monk must observe four very important things: to be silent, to keep the commandments of God, to humble himself, and to endure poverty. So the monk must weep at all times, remembering his sins, and have death before his eyes every moment".

4,53: Not to love much speaking (= keeping silence); 4,57: Daily in one's prayer, with tears and sighs, to confess one's past sins to God; 4,47: To keep death daily before one's eyes.


9. Abba Sylvanus

At Scetis, Abba Sylvanus had a disciple called Mark. He copied books. Abba Sylvanus loved Mark because of his obedience.

He had eleven other disciples. They were hurt because Abba Sylvanus loved Mark more than them.When the abbas heard of this, they were upset. One day they came to Abba Sylvanus to reproach him. Then Sylvanus took the abbas with him and knocked on the door of each cell saying: "Brother, come here, I want you". But none of the brothers came at once.

Abba Sylvanus came to Mark's cell. He knocked and said: "Mark!" On hearing the abba's voice he jumped up and came at once, and the abba sent him on an errand.

Then Abba Sylvanus said to the abbas: "Fathers, where are the other brothers?" He went into Mark's cell and took up the book he was writing. He pointed out how Mark had begun to form the letter O, but on hearing the voice of his abba he had not finished writing it. Then the abbas said: "Truly, abba, we too love the one you love, because God loves him".

2,17: one will not be loved more than another, unless he is better in good works or in obedience; 5,8-9: leaving unfinished what he was doing; 43,1: as soon as the signal has been heard, let them abandon what they have in hand.



Rule of St Benedict: Prologue (beginning), 2 , 4 , 5 , 7 , 18 , 19 , 31 , 40 , 43.