In the fourth and fifth century, Christianity was becoming considered “normal” and many Christians decided that the best way to escape “compromise, adaption, and a lukewarm spirituality” to follow the radical call of Christ was to chose “solitude, silence, and prayer” in the desert. Here are some of their sayings and stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers:
On seeking God
Abba Sisoes said: Seek God, and not where God lives.
It was said about Abba Agathon that for three years he carried a pebble in his mouth until he learned to be silent.
On being sane
Abba Anthony said: The time is coming when people will be insane, and when they see someone how is not insane, they will attack that person saying: Your are insane because you are not like us.
On not pinching
Some old men came to see Abba Poemen, and said to him: Tell us, when we see brothers dozing during sacred office, should we pinch them so they will stay awake? The old man said to them: Actually, if I saw a brother sleeping, I would put his head on my knees and let him rest.
On giving everything to the poor
Abba Evagrius said that there was a brother, called Serapion, who didn’t own anything except the Gospel, and this he sold to give the poor. And he said these words, which are worth remembering: I have even sold the very word which you have commanded me: Sell everything and give to the poor.
On staying at the table
Amma Sycletica said: If you happen to live in a community, do not move to another place, for it will harm you greatly. If a bird leaves her eggs, they never hatch. So also the monk and the nun grow cold and dead in faith by going from place to place.
On social justice
One day Abba Arsenius was asking an old Egyptian man for advice about what he was thinking. There was someone who saw this and said to him: Abba Arsenius, why is a person like you, who has such great knowledge of greek and Latin, asking a peasant like this about your thoughts? He replied: Indeed, I have learned the knowledge of Latin and Greek, yet I have not learned even the alphabet of this peasant.
We are all sinners (and an interesting perspective on church discipline)
A brother who had sinned was expelled by the priest from the church. But Abba Bessarion stood up and went out with him, saying: I too am a sinner.
On not wasting time
An old man said: if you have lost gold or silver, you can find something in place of what you lost. However, if you lose time you cannot replace what you lost.
Dogs compared to humans
Abba Xanthias said: A dog is better than I am because it also has love, but it does not pass judgement.
Abba Benjamin’s dying words
As he was dying, Abba Benjamin taught his sons this: Do this, and you will be saved: Rejoice always, pray constantly, and in all circumstances give thanks.
On having a tough soul when being spiritually mentored
Abba Sisoes the Theban said to his disciple: Tell me what you see in me and in turn I will tell you what I see in you. His disciple said to him: You are good in soul, but a little harsh. The old man said to him: You are good but your soul is not tough.
Isidore of Pelusia said: Prize virtues, and do not care for worldly prosperity. For the former are certainly immortal, but the latter is so easily extinguished.
On Jesus’s teaching on giving
Abba Epiphanus said: God sells righteousness very cheap to those who are eager to buy: namely, for a little piece of bread, worthless clothes, a cup of cold water and one coin.
Actions are better than words
Abba James said: We do not want words alone, for there are too many words among people today. What we need is action, for that is what we are looking for, not words which do not bear fruit.
This is from a book I got from a used bookstore in Oxford England this week: Desert Wisdom, Sayings from the Desert Fathers, by Yushi Nomura. It has wonderful illustrations for each saying and story and encourages the reader to let each saying enter deeply into your innermost being.