Regarding Vocation: A Collection of Patristic Excerpts

From: The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward. Kalamazoo, Michigan, Cistercian Publications 1975, revised 1984.

“When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by accidie, and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, ‘Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?’ A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, ‘Do this and you will be saved.’ At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.” (pp 1–2)

“Someone asked Abba Anthony, ‘What must one do in order to please God?’ The old man replied, ‘Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.’” (p 2)

“Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen, ‘This is the great work of a man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.’” (p 2)

“Abba Anthony said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”’” (p 2)

“He also said, ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.’” (p 3)

“It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.” (p 6)

“Abba Anthony said, ‘Whoever hammers a lump of iron, first decides what he is going to make of it, a scythe, a sword, or an axe. Even so we ought to make up our minds what kind of virtue we want to forge or we labor in vain.’” (p 8)

“Someone said to blessed Arsenius, ‘How is it that we, with all our education and our wide knowledge get no-where, while these Egyptian peasants acquire so many virtues?’ Abba Arsenius said to him, ‘We indeed get nothing from our secular education, but these Egyptian peasants acquire the virtues by hard work.’” (p 10)

“Someone asked Abba Agathon, ‘Which is better, bodily asceticism or interior vigilance?’ The old man replied, ‘Man is like a tree, bodily asceticism is the foliage, interior vigilance the fruit. According to that which is written, “Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire” (Matt. 3.10) it is clear that all our care should be directed towards the fruit, that is to say, guard of the spirit; but it needs the protection and the embellishment of the foliage, which is bodily asceticism.’” (p 21)

“Abba Ammonas was asked, ‘What is the “narrow and hard way?”’ (Matt. 7.14) He replied, ‘The “narrow and hard way” is this, to control your thoughts, and to strip yourself of your own will, for the sake of God. This is the meaning of the sentence, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you.”’ (Matt. 19.26) (p 28)

“Abba Amoun of Nitria came to see Abba Anthony and said to him, ‘Since my rule is stricter than yours how is it that your name is better known amongst men than mine is?’ Abba Anthony answered, ‘It is because I love God more than you.’” (p 31)

“[Abba Alonius] also said, ‘If only a man desired it for a single day from morning till night, he would be able to come to the measure of God.’” (p 35)

“They used to say of a bishop of Oxyrrynchus, name Abba Apphy, that when he was a monk he submitted himself to a very severe way of life. When he became a bishop he wished to practice the same austerity, even in the world, but he had not the strength to do so. Therefore he prostrated himself before God saying, ‘Has your grace left me because of my episcopate?’ Then he was given this revelation, ‘No, but when you were in solitude and there was no one else it was God who was your helper. Now that you are in the world, it is man.’” (pp 35–36)

“There was in the Cells an old man called Apollo. If someone came to find him about doing a piece of work, he would set out joyfully, saying, ‘I am going to work with Christ today, for the salvation of my soul, for that is the reward he gives.’” (p 36)

“The same [Abba Bessarion] said, ‘When you are at peace, without having to struggle, humiliate yourself for fear of being led astray by joy which is inappropriate; we magnify ourselves and we are delivered to warfare. For often, because of our weakness, God does not allow us to be tempted, for fear we should be overcome.’” (p 42)

“Abba Gregory [the Theologian] said, ‘These three things God requires of all the baptized: right faith in the heart, truth on the tongue, temperance in the body.’” (p 42)

“He also said, ‘The whole life of a man is but one single day for those who are working hard with longing.’” (p 42)

“One day Saint Epiphanius sent someone to Abba Hilarion with this request, ‘Come, and let us see one another before we depart from the body.’ When he came, they rejoiced in each other's company. During their meal, they were brought a fowl; Epiphanius took it and gave it to Hilarion. Then the old man said to him, ‘Forgive me, but since I received the habit I have not eaten meat that has been killed.’ Then the bishop answered, ‘Since I took the habit, I have not allowed anyone to go to sleep with a complaint against me and I have not gone to rest with a complaint against anyone.’ The old man replied, ‘Forgive me, your way of life is better than mine.’” (p 57)

“In a village there was said to be a man who fasted to such a degree that he was called ‘the Faster’. Abba Zeno had heard of him, and he sent for him. The other came gladly. They prayed and sat down. The old man began to work in silence. Since he could not succeed in talking to him the Faster began to get bored. So he said to the old man, ‘Pray for me, Abba, for I want to go.’ The old man said to him, ‘Why?’ The other replied, ‘Because my heart is as if it were on fire and I do not know what is the matter with it. For truly, when I was in the village and I fasted until the evening, nothing like this happened to me.’ The old man said, ‘In the village you fed yourself through your ears. But go away and from now on eat at the ninth hour and whatever you do, do it secretly.’ As soon as he had begun to act on this advice, the Faster found it difficult to wait until the ninth hour. And those who knew him said, ‘The Faster is possessed by the devil.’ So he went to tell all this to the old man who said to him, ‘This way is according to God.’” (p 67)

“[Abba Isaiah] also said, ‘When God wishes to take pity on a soul and it rebels, not bearing anything and doing its own will, he then allows it to suffer that which it does not want, in order that it may seek him again.’” (p 70)

“[Abba Elias] also said, ‘If the spirit does not sing with the body, labor is in vain. Whoever loves tribulation will obtain joy and peace later on.’” (p 71)

“The same [Abba Theodore] came one day to see Abba John, a eunuch from birth, and during their conversation he said to him, “When I was at Scetis, the works of the soul were our work, and we considered manual work to be subordinate; now the work of the soul has become subordinate and what was secondary is the chief work.’” (p 75)

“A brother questioned [Abba Theodore] saying, ‘What is the work of the soul which we now consider to be subordinate, and what is that which was subordinate and which we now consider to be our chief work?’ The old man said, ‘Everything you do as a commandment of God is the work of the soul; but to work and to gather goods together for a personal motive ought to be held as subordinate.’ Then the brother said, ‘Explain this matter to me.’ So the old man said, ‘Suppose you hear it said that I am ill and you ought to visit me; you say to yourself, “Shall I leave my work and go now? I had better finish my work and then go.” Then another idea comes along and perhaps you never go; or again, another brother says to you, “Lend me a hand, brother”; and you say, “Shall I leave my own work and go and work with him?” If you do not go, you are disregarding the commandment of God which is the work of the soul, and doing the work of your hands which is subordinate.’” (p 75)

“[Amma Theodora] also said that neither asceticism, nor vigils nor any kind of suffering are able to save, only true humility can do that. There was an anchorite who was able to banish the demons; and he asked them, ‘What makes you go away? Is it fasting?’ They replied, ‘We do not eat or drink.’ ‘Is it vigils?’ The replied, ‘We do not sleep.’ ‘Is it separation from the world?’ ‘We live in the deserts.’ ‘What power sends you away then?’ They said, ‘Nothing can overcome us, but only humility.’ ‘Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?’” (p 84)

“Amma Theodora also said, ‘There was a monk, who, because of the great number of his temptations said, “I will go away from here.” As he was putting on his sandals, he saw another man who was also putting on his sandals and this other monk said to him, “Is it on my account that you are going away? Because I go before you wherever you are going.”’” (p 84)

“The same amma [Theodora] was asked about the conversations one hears; ‘If one is habitually listening to secular speech, how can one yet live for God alone, as you suggest?’ She said, ‘Just as when you are sitting at table and there are many courses, you take some but without pleasure, so when secular conversations come your way, have your heart turned towards God, and thanks to this disposition, you will hear them without pleasure, and they will not do you any harm.’” (p 84)

“It was said of Abba John the Dwarf, that one day he said to his elder brother, ‘I should like to be free of all care, like the angels, who do not work, but ceaselessly offer worship to God.’ So he took off his cloak and went away into the desert. After a week he came back to his brother. When he knocked on the door, he heard his brother say, before he opened it ‘Who are you?’ He said, ‘I am John, your brother.’ But he replied, ‘John has become an angel, and henceforth he is no longer among men.’ Then the other begged him saying, ‘It is I.’ However, his brother did not let him in, but left him there in distress until morning. Then, opening the door, he said to him, ‘You are a man and you must once again work in order to eat.’ Then John made a prostration before him, saying, ‘Forgive me.’” (p 86)

“One day they came to make Abba Isaac a priest. Hearing this, he ran away to Egypt. He went into a field and hid himself in the midst of the hay. So the clergy went after him in pursuit. Reaching the same field, they stopped there to rest a little, for it was night. They unharnessed the ass to let it graze. The ass went close to the old man, so, when dawn came and they looked for her, they found Abba Isaac too, which filled them with astonishment. They wanted to bind him, but he did not allow it, saying, ‘I will not run away again. For it is the will of God, and wherever I flee, I find that.’” (p 99)

“Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’” (p 103)

“A brother asked Abba Joseph this, ‘I want to leave the monastery, and live as a solitary.’ The old man said to him, ‘Go wherever you find your soul is most at peace, and stay there, without blame.’ The brother said to him, ‘But I am at peace both in the monastery and in the solitary life; will you tell me what to do?’ The Old man said to him, ‘If you are at peace both in the monastery and in the solitary life, put these two thoughts as it were in the balance and wherever you see your thoughts will profit most and make progress, that is what you should do.’” (p 103)

“A brother questioned Abba Hierax saying, ‘Give me a word. How can I be saved?’ The old man said to him, ‘Sit in your cell, and if you are hungry, eat, if you are thirsty, drink; only do not speak evil of anyone, and you will be saved.’” (p 104)

“In his youth Abba John the Eunuch questioned an old man, ‘How have you been able to carry out the work of God in peace? For we cannot do it, not even with labor.’ The old man said, ‘We were able to do it, because we considered the work of God to be primary, and bodily needs to be subsidiary; but you hold bodily necessities to be primary and the work of God to be secondary; that is why you labor, and that is why the Savior said to the disciples, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”’ (Matt. 6.33)” (p 105)

“[Abba Isidore the Priest] also said, ‘It is impossible for you to live according to God if you love pleasures and money.’” (p 106)

“Abba Copres said, ‘Blessed is he who bears affliction with thankfulness.’” (p 118)

“Abba Paphnutius, the disciple of Abba Macarius, said, ‘I asked my Father to say a word to me and he replied, “Do no evil to anyone, and do not judge anyone. Observe this and you will be saved.”’” (p 133)

“If a man’s deeds are not in harmony with his prayer, he labors in vain. The brother said, ‘What is this harmony between practice and prayer?’ The old man said, ‘We should no longer do those things against which we pray. For when a man gives up his own will, then God is reconciled with him and accepts his prayers.’ The brother asked, ‘In all the affliction which the monk gives himself, what helps him?’ The old man said, ‘It is written, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”’ (Ps. 46.1)” (pp 141–142)

“The old man was asked, ‘What is the good of the fasts and watchings which a man imposes on himself?’ and he replied, ‘They make the soul humble. For it is written, “Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.” (Ps. 25.18) So if the soul gives itself all this hardship, God will have mercy on it.’” (p 142)

“Abba Matoes said, ‘I prefer a light and steady activity, to one that is painful at the beginning but is soon broken off.’” (p 143)

“He also said, ‘The nearer a man draws to God, the more he sees himself a sinner. It was when Isaiah the prophet saw God, that he declared himself “a man of unclear lips”’ (Is. 6.5)” (p 143)

“A brother questioned an old man saying, ‘What good work should I do so that I may live?’ The old man said, ‘God knows what is good. I have heard it said that one of the Fathers asked Abba Nisterus the Great, the friend of Abba Anthony, and said to him, “What good work is there that I could do?” He said to him, “Are not all actions equal? Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable and God was with him. David was humble, and God was with him. Elias loved interior peace and God was with him. So, do whatever you see your soul desires according to God and guard your heart.”’” (p 154)

“Abba Nisterus said that a monk ought to ask himself every night and every morning, ‘What have we done that is as God wills and what have we left undone of that which he does not will?’ ‘He must do this throughout his whole life. This is how Abba Arsenius used to live. Every day strive to come before God without sin. Pray to God in his presence, for he really is present. Do not impose rules on yourself; do not judge anyone. Swearing, making false oaths, lying, getting angry, insulting people laughing, all that is alien to monks, and he who is esteemed or exalted above that which he deserves suffers great harm.’” (p 155)

“One of the Fathers said of Abba Xoius the Theban that one day he went to the mountain of Sinai and when he set out from there, a brother met him, groaning and saying, ‘Abba, we are in distress through lack of rain.’ The old man said to him, ‘Why do you not pray and ask God for some?’ The brother said to him: ‘We pray, we say litanies and it does not rain.’ The old man said to him, ‘It is because you do not pray with intensity. Do you want to see that this is so?’ Then he stretched his hands towards heaven in prayer and immediately it rained. Seeing this, the brother was filled with fear and threw himself face downwards on the ground, bending low before him, but the old man fled and the bro0ther told everyone what had happened. When they heard this, they glorified God.” (pp 158–159)

“The same abba [Xanthias] said, ‘A dog is better than I am, for he has love and he does not judge.’” (p 159)

“Abba Orsisius said, ‘If an unbaked brick is put in the foundations near to the river, it does not last for a single day, but baked, it lasts like stone. So the man with a carnal disposition of soul, who has not been in the fire through fear of God like Joseph, utterly disintegrates when he accepts a position of authority. For many are the temptations of those who live among men. It is good for him who knows his limitations to avoid the weight of being in charge of anything; but those who are firm in faith remain unmoved. If anyone wished to speak of the great saint Joseph he would have to say that he was not worldly. How greatly was he tempted and in that place where there had not yet been any trace of devotion towards God? But the God of his Fathers was with him and he delivered him out of all his trouble and now he is with his Fathers in the Kingdom of Heave. Let us, therefore, know our limitations and let us fight; even so we shall scarcely escape the judgment of God.’” (p 16)

“Abba Poemen said, ‘If three men meet, of whom the first fully preserves interior peace, and the second gives thanks to God in illness, and the third serves with a pure mind, these three are doing the same work.’” (p 171)

“He also said, ‘To throw yourself before God, not to measure your progress, to leave behind all self-will; these are the instruments for the work of the soul.’” (p 172)

“He also said, ‘As the breath which comes out of his nostrils, so does a man need humility and the fear of God.’” (p 173)

“Abba Poemen said, ‘The will of man is a brass wall between him and God and a stone of stumbling. When a man renounces it, he is also saying to himself, “By my God, I can leap over the wall.” (Ps. 18.29) If a man’s will is in line with what is right, then he can really labor.’” (p 174)

“He also said, ‘Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.’” (p 178)

“Abba Joseph said of Abba Poemen that he said, ‘This saying which is written in the Gospel: “Let him who has no sword, sell his mantle and buy one,” (Luke 22.36) means this: let him who is at ease give it up and take the narrow way.’” (p 185)

“Abba Poemen said, ‘Teach your mouth to say what is in your heart.’” (p 189)

“He also said, ‘If Moses had not led his sheep to Midian he would not have seen him who was in the bush.’ (cf. Exodus 3.2–7)” (p 194)