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Thursday, 5 February 2009

PAPHNUTIUS - Holy Monk of Egypt

Resurrection (detail) - Piero Della Francesca ( 15th c)

I think it time for another extract from 'The Desert Fathers', translated from the Latin by Helen Waddell. "That part of the 'Historia Monachorum' dealing with the 'History of the Monks of Egypt', translated originally by Rufinus in Greek, was the story of a pilgrimage made through Egypt in AD 394, by a brother, possibly Timotheus, from Rufinus' own monastery on the Mount of Olives. He himself had made the same journey twenty years earlier, and Jerome had no doubts that 'translation' or not, Rufinus himself was responsible for the authorship, allowing his imagination a certain licence". Be that as it may, these stories - certainly founded on truth, convey a spirit of humility, simplicity, and trust in God, truly 'therapeutic' in our confused and materialistic world.

'We saw also the cell of the holy Paphnutius, the man of God, that was the most famous of all the anchorites in these parts, and that had lived the most remote inhabitant of the desert round about Heracleos, that shining city of the Thebaid.

Landscape (detail)- Paolo Veronese (1561/2)

Of him we had a most warrantable account from the Fathers, how at one time, after living an angelic life, he had prayed to God that He would show him which of the saints he was thought to be like. And an angel stood by him and answered that he was like a certain singing man, that earned his bread by singing in the village. Dumbfounded at the strangeness of the answer, he made his way with all haste to the village, and sought for the man. And when he had found him, he questioned him closely as to what works of piety and religion he had ever done, and narrowly enquired into all his deeds. But the man answered that the truth was that he was a sinful man of degraded life, and that not long before from being a robber he had sunk to the squalid craft which he was now seen to exercise. But for this Paphnutius was the more insistent, asking if perchance some good thing might have cropped up amidst his thieving."I can think of nothing good about me,” said he: “but this I know that once when I was among the robbers we captured a virgin consecrated to God: and when the rest of my company were for deflowering her, I threw myself in the midst and snatched her from their staining, and brought her by night as far as the town, and restored her untouched to her house. Another time too, I found a comely woman

Musicians - Simone Martini (14th c)

wandering in the desert. And when I asked her why and how she had come into these parts, ‘Ask me nothing,’ said she, ‘nor question me for reasons, that am the wretchedest of women, but if it pleases thee to have a handmaid, take me where thou wilt. I have a husband that for arrears of tax hath often been hung up and scourged, and is kept in prison and tortured, nor ever brought out unless to suffer torment.We had three sons also that were taken for the same debt. And because they seek me also to suffer the same pains, I flee in my misery from place to place, worn out with grief and hunger, and I have been in hiding, wandering through these parts, and for three days have had no food.’ And when I heard this, I had pity for her, and took her to the cave and restored her soul that was faint with hunger and gave her the three hundred solidi for which she and her husband and their three sons were liable, she said, not only to slavery but to torture; and she returned to the city and paid the money and freed them all.” Then said Paphnutius, “I have done naught like that, yet I think it may have come to thine ears that the name of Paphnutius is famous among the monks. For it was with no small pains that I sought to fashion my life in this kind of discipline. Wherefore God has shown me this concerning thee, that thou hast no less merit before Him than I. And so, brother, seeing that thou hast not the lowest room with God, neglect not thy soul.” And straightway he flung away the pipes that he carried in his hand, and followed him to the desert, and transforming his skill in music into a spiritual harmony of life and mind, he gave himself for three whole years to the strictest abstinence, busying himself day and night in psalms and prayer, and taking the heavenly road with the powers of the soul, gave up his spirit amid the angelic host of the saints.

Crucifixion - Parri Spinelli (c 1445)

……… And again Paphnutius entreated the Lord that He would show him his like upon earth. And again the voice of the Lord came to him saying, “Know that thou art like the headman of the village close by.” And on hearing this, Paphnutius made haste to go to him, and knocked at the door of his house. And he, whose habit it was to entertain strangers, ran to meet him and brought him into his house and bathed his feet and set a table before him and made a feast. And as they feasted, Paphnutius began to question his host as to his doings, what was his desire, and what his exercises in good living. But he spoke humbly of himself, liking better to hide in his good deeds than be made a talk of, and Paphnutius urged him, saying that it

Head of St John - Masaccio (1427)

had been revealed to him by the Lord that he was worthy of the monastic fellowship. But at that he thought still more humbly of himself, and he said, indeed I know of no good in aught that is in me: but because God’s word has been said to thee, I can conceal naught from Him to whom nothing is hidden. So then I shall speak of those things that I am wont to do, set as I am in the midst of many men. It is now thirty years since a bond of continence was agreed between me and my wife and no man knows of it. I have had by her, three sons: for them only have I known my wife, nor have I known any other but her, nor herself now at all. I have never ceased to entertain strangers and in such fashion that I let no one go to meet the coming guest before myself. I have never sent a guest from my house without provision for his journey: I have despised no man that was poor, but have supplied him with what things he needed. If I sat in judgement, I have not respected the

Madonna - Pietro Lorenzetti (c 1315)

person of my own son, in detriment of justice. The fruit of another man’s toil has never come into my house. If I saw a quarrel, I have never passed by till I brought them that were at odds to peace. No one ever caught my servants in a fault: never have my herbs injured another man’s crops: never did I forbid any man to sow in my fields, nor did I choose the richer fallow for myself, and leave the more barren to another. As much as in me lay, I never suffered the stronger to oppress the weak. Ever in my life I sought that no one should be sad because of me. If I were judge in a suit, I condemned no one, but sought to bring the dissidents to peace. And this, as God gave it, has been my way of living until now.”And hearing him, the blessed Paphnutius kissed his head and blessed him saying, "The Lord bless thee out of Zion and mayst thou behold the good things that are in Jerusalem. But as thou hast well and wisely performed all these, one thing thou lackest, which is the

Annunciation (detail) - Pontormo (c1527)

highest of all good, that leaving all thou shouldst follow the very wisdom of God, and seek the more hidden treasure, whereto thou mayst not come unless thou deny thyself and take up thy cross, and follow Christ.” And when he had heard this, he delayed for naught, nor sought to set his house in order, but followed the man of God taking the road to the desert ……And when some time had gone by, and he had been led to that perfection of knowledge who was already made perfect in deed, on a certain day Paphnutius sitting in his cell saw his soul taken up into heaven amid a host of angels that weresaying, “Blessed is the man whom Thou choosest and causest to approach unto Thee: he shall abide in Thy tabernacle.”

Unbelievers (detail) - Prato Master (15th c)

And hearing this, he knew that the man had been taken from this world. But Paphnutius persisted in fasting and prayer, reaching out to things greater and more perfect.
And again he prayed to God, that He would show him his fellow among men. And again a divine voice answered him saying: “Thou art like this merchant, whom thou shalt see coming towards thee: but rise up quickly and run to meet him, for the man who is thy fellow is nigh.” And going down without delay Paphnutius met a certain merchant of Alexandria, that was bringing goods worth twenty thousand pieces of gold in three ships from the Thebaid. And being a religious man and zealous after good, he had laden his young men with ten sacks of vegetables, and was bringing them to the monastery of the man of God: and this was the reason for his coming to Paphnutius. And straightway as he saw him, “What dost thou,” he said, “O soul most precious, and worthy of God?

St Augustine - Boticcelli (c 1480)

What toil is this with things of earth, when thy lot and fellowship are in heaven? Leave these to such as are of earth, and think of earth; but do thou be a tradesman of the Kingdom of God, to which thou art called, and follow the Saviour, who will soon hereafter take thee to Himself.” And he with no least hesitation bade his young men give all that remained of his goods to the poor (for he had already himself given much away). And following the holy Paphnutius to the desert, he was set by him in that place from which his predecessors had been taken up to God. And in like fashion, instructed by him in all things, he abode in the exercises of the spirit and in studies of the divine wisdom, and in a little while, he also was translated to the assembly of the just.
And not long after, whilst Paphnutius himself was ordering his life in these same exercises of supreme
austerity and travail, the angel stood by him, saying to him .”Come thou blessed, and enter those everlasting mansions that are prepared for thee. For behold the Prophets are at hand who shall receive thee into their company. This at first I did not reveal to thee lest perchance thou shouldst be puffed up and thy labour be lost.”

St Jerome - Domenico Ghirlandaio (1480)

And after these things, for one day he lived his life in the body, and when certain priests came to visit him, he made known to them all that the Lord had revealed to him, saying to them that no one in this world ought to be despised, let him be a thief, or an actor on the stage, or one that tilled the ground, and was bound to a wife, or was a merchant and served a trade; for in every condition of human life there are souls that please God and have their hidden deeds wherein He takes delight: whence is it plain that it is not so much profession or habit that is pleasing to God as the sincerity and affection of the soul and honesty of deed. And when he had spoken thus about each in turn, he gave up his spirit.'

For further interesting details regarding a brief history of anchorites/anchoresses, I refer you to the following website - with thanks :-


Prima said...

What an interesting post!

umblepie said...

Thank you Prima. I find these accounts from the lives of the Desert Fathers, endlessly fascinating. Hope to post some more from time to time. Regards. BC.