Sayings of the Desert Fathers (selections)

Sayings of the Desert Fathers (selections)

Selected sayings from the “Apothegmata patrum”, translated by M.C. Steenberg



Abba Anthony the Great of Egypt:

He said also, ‘Always have the fear of God before your eyes. Remember Him who grants death and life. Hate the world and all that is in it. Hate all peace that comes from the flesh. Renounce this life, that you may be alive to God. Remember that which you have promised God, for it will be required of you on the day of judgment. Suffer hunger, thirst, nakedness; be watchful and sorrowful; weep, and moan in your heart; test yourselves, to see if you are worthy of God; despise the flesh, so that you may preserve your souls.’

He also said, ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.’

He also said, Just as fish die if they stay out of water too long, so monks who loiter outside their cells or pass time with men of the world lose the fervour of inner peace. So, like a fish going toward the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for fear that if we tarry outside we will lose our interior watchfulness.’

Abba Agathon:

Abba Agathon said, ‘If someone were especially dear to me, but I realized that he was causing me to do something less good, I should put him far from me.’

Abba Isaiah:

He said, ‘When God wishes to take pity on a soul and it rebels, not suffering anything and doing its own will, He permits it to suffer things it does not want, in order that it may seek Him again.’

He also said, ‘When someone wishes to repay evil for evil, he can injure his brother’s soul even by a single nod of the head.’

Abba Elias:

He said, ‘Men turn their minds either to sins, or to Jesus, or to other men.’

A brother who followed the hesychastic life in the monastery of the cave of Abba Sabba came to Abba Elias and said to him, ‘Abba, give me the way of life.’ The Old man said to the brother, ‘In the days of our predecessors they were greatly diligent about these three virtues: poverty, obedience, and fasting. But among monks today, avarice, self-confidence, and great greed have taken charge. Choose whichever you want most.’

Abba Isisdore of Pelusia:

Abba Isidure of Pelusia said, ‘To live without speaking is better than to speak without living. For the former lives properly and does good even by his silence, but the latter does no good even when he speaks. When words and life correspond to one another, they are together the whole of philosophy.’

Abba James:

He said, ‘We do not only need words, for at the present time there are many words among men; but we need works, for this is what is required - not words that do not bear fruit.’

Abba Isidore the Priest:

He said, ‘If you desire salvation, do everything that leads you to it.’

Abba Matoes:

Abba Matoes said that three old men went to Abba Paphnutius, who was called Cephalus, to ask a word from him. The old man said to them, ‘What do you want me to say to you? A spiritual word, or a bodily word?’ They said, ‘A spiritual word.’ The old man said to them, ‘Go, and choose trials rather than stillness, shame rather than glory, and to give rather than to receive.’

Abba Mius:

A soldier asked Abba Mius if God accepted repentance. After the old man had taught him many things he said, ‘Tell me, my dear, if your cloak is torn, do you throw it away?’ He replied, ‘No, I mend it and use it again.’ The old man said to him, ‘If you are so careful about your cloak, will not God be equally careful about His creature?’

Abba Poemen the Shepherd:

Abba Poemen said, ‘To throw yourself before God, to not measure your progress, to leave behind all self-will — these are the instruments for the work of the soul.’

He also said, ‘You must flee from sensual things. Verily, every time a man comes close to a struggle with sensuality, he is like a man standing at the edge of a deep lake, and the Enemy throws him in whenever he likes. But if the man lives far from sensual things, he is like one who stands at a distance from the lake, so that even if the Enemy entices him in order to throw him to the bottom, God sends him help at the very moment that the Enemy is drawing him away and doing him violence.’

He also said, ‘Give not your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.’

He also said, ‘If you are silent, you will possess peace wherever you live.’

Abba John, who had been exiled by the emperor Marcian, said, ‘We went to Syria one day to see Abba Poemen and desired to question him concerning purity of the heart. But the old man did not know Greek and no interpreter was to be found. And then, seeinghow embarrassed we were, the old man began to speak Greek, saying, ‘The nature of water is soft, and the nature of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall down drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the Word of God: it is soft and our heart is hard, but the man who hears the Word of God often opens his heart to the fear of God.’

Abba Pior:

At that time a meeting was held at Sketis about a brother who had sinned. The Fathers spoke, but Abba Pior kept silent. Later, he got up and went out. He took a sack and filled it with sand and carried it on his shoulder; then he put a little sand into a small bag that he carried in front of him. When the Fathers asked him what this meant he said, ‘In this sack which contains much sand, are my sins which are many; I have put them behind me so that I might not be troubled about them and so that I might not weep. And behold, here are the little sins of my brother which are in front of me, and I spend my time judging them. This is not right. Rather, I ought to carry my sins in front of me and concern myself with them, begging God to forgive me.’ The Fathers stood up and said, ‘Verily, this is the way of salvation.’

Abba Paul:

Abba Paul said, ‘Keep close to Jesus.’

Abba Sisoes:

A brother who had been wronged by another brother came to see Abba Sisoes. He said to him, ‘My brother has hurt me and I want to avenge myself.’ The old man begged him, saying, ‘No, my child, leave vengeance to God.’ The brother said, ‘I shall not rest until I have avenged myself.’ The old man said, ‘Brother, let us pray.’ Then he stood up and said, ‘God, we no longer need You to care for us, since we do justice for ourselves.’ When he heard these words, the brother prostrated himself before the old man’s feet and said, ‘I will not longer seek justice from my brother. Forgive me, abba.’

Another brother asked Abba Sisoes, ‘I have fallen, Abba; what shall I do?’ The old main said to him, ‘Get up again.’ The brother said, ‘I have gotten up again, but again have I fallen.’ The old man said, ‘Get up again and again.’ So the brother asked, ‘How many times?’ The old man replied, ‘Until you are taken up either in virtue or in sin. For a man presents himself to judgment in that state in which he is found.’