Even though that is not what’s typically highlighted, I love the humor of the Desert Fathers and Mothers - 5th century Christian hermits and mystics from Egypt. The stories told about them, which tend to be of the form “Abba/Amma X said ...,” are filled with a deep concern for what matters and a wave-of-the-hand disdain for what does not. To me they are perfect examples of what it means to follow the example of Jesus, without getting bogged down into circumstantial, politically-correct, socially-dictated or procedurally-prescribed baggage. In many ways they are the Christian equivalent of Zen Buddhist kōans, which I enjoy just as much.
What I’d like to do today is just to share some of my favorite Desert Father/Mother sayings, which come from a couple of collections (here, here and here) extracted from their standard source, the Apophthegmata Patrum:
- Abba Abraham told of a man of Scetis who was a scribe and did not eat bread. A brother came to beg him to copy a book. The old man whose spirit was engaged in contemplation, wrote, omitting some phrases and with no punctuation. The brother, taking the book and wishing to punctuate it, noticed that words were missing. So he said to the old man, ‘Abba, there are some phrases missing.’ The old man said to him, ‘Go, and practise first that which is written, then come back and I will write the rest.’
- Abba Doulas, the disciple of Abba Bessarion said, ‘One day when we were walking beside the sea I was thirsty and I said to Abba Bessarion, “Father, I am very thirsty.” He said a prayer and said to me, “Drink some of the sea water.” The water proved sweet when I drank some. I even poured some into a leather bottle for fear of being thirsty later on. Seeing this, the old man asked me why I was taking some. I said to him, “Forgive me, it is for fear of being thirsty later on.” Then the old man said, “God is here, God is everywhere.”’
- It was said of Abba John the Persian that when some evildoers came to him, he took a basin and wanted to wash their feet. But they were filled with confusion, and began to do penance.
- One day Abba Isaac went to a monastery. He saw a brother committing a sin and he condemned him. When he returned to the desert, an angel of the Lord came and stood in front of the door of his cell, and said, “I will not let you enter.” But he persisted saying, “What is the matter?” And the angel replied, “God has sent me to ask you where you want to throw the guilty brother whom you have condemned.” Immediately he repented and said, “I have sinned, forgive me.” Then the angel said, “Get up, God has forgiven you. But from now on, be careful not to judge someone before God has done so.”
- A brother came to see Abba Poemen and said to him, “Abba, I have many thoughts and they put me in danger.” The old man led him outside and said to him, “Expand your chest and do not breathe in.” He said, “I cannot do that.” Then the old man said to him, “If you cannot do that, no more can you prevent thoughts from arising, but you can resist them.”
- Abba Macarius while he was in Egypt discovered a man who owned a beast of burden engaged in plundering Macarius’ goods. So he came up to the thief as if he was a stranger and he helped him to load the animal. He saw him off in great peace of soul, saying, ‘We have brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.’(1 Tim. 6.7)
- A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins ran out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him.
- Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, ‘Say something to the Archbishop, so that he may be edified.’ The old man said to them, ‘If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.’