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Sunday, 22 November 2009

The Desert Fathers - holy inspiration in a pagan world

'In the year 420 A.D. about the time that Cassian was writing his memories of the Desert Fathers, Palladius, now bishop of Helenopolis, was busy with his own – the ‘Paradisus’. They covered much the same period, the last ten years of the fourth century, but have little else in common. For Palladius took the short view: he is nearer his own Apollonius, in and out of every door with pomegranates and raisins and eggs, than the Fathers of whom he spoke with bated breath.  For Melania who so honestly told this story against herself, he had a deep admiration: so had a saintlier and more discriminating judge, Paulinus of Nola.'
             'Melania was a Spaniard, daughter of a consul and widow at twenty-two of a Roman of vast wealth. Came on a pilgrimage to Egypt, braved the Arian persecution with a courage so indifferent that it seemed like arrogance:  and fought like a lioness with her wealth and her prestige for the Fathers who were meeting their enemies with a different kind of courage. Rufinus, himself a monk in a desert community, writes of  persecutors coming into the desert, horse and foot, tribunes and prefects and captains, to make war on quiet men.  “And when they had come there, they found a new kind of fighting:  enemies that bowed their necks to the sword, and said nought else but this, Friend,wherefore art thou come?”
When the troubles were ended, she and Rufinus met in Jerusalem.   Melania set up a convent and enabled Rufinus to establish a monastery at the Mount of Olives. Jerome called Melania "the nobleness of our time", although this was before he quarrelled with Rufinus: after that, he muttered comminations.  Yet not even Jerome spoke a word of scandal against the friendship between these two, a friendship that was to last until the death of both Rufinus and Melania in 410 A.D.'

Fragments from the 'PARADISUS' of Palladius
             ‘The blessed Pambo was a dweller in this mountain (Mt Nitria)…….  In many and diverse virtues he had the prerogative and the palm, but was in this especially memorable, that he made so light of silver and gold that verily he seemed to have fulfilled the Lord’s commandment..  I had it myself from the worshipful lady Melania, that after she set out from Rome and first reached Alexandria, she heard much of his virtues from Isidore the priest and overseer of the church, and with him as guide came to him in the desert, and offered him three hundred pounds of silver, praying him to accept somewhat of her wealth.  “He was sitting there,” said she,  “and weaving a basket, and he blessed me with a single word saying,  ‘May God reward thee.’ Then he said to his steward, “Take it carefully, and divide it among all the brethren that are in Libya and the islands, for these monasteries seem more needy than the others.”  He also bade him give none of the money to those in Egypt, because he knew that these parts have abundance of food.  So, as she herself told me, she stood on, waiting for some blessing on her gift or some praise;  and hearing nothing from him, at last she spoke.  “I would have thee know, my lord,” says she, “there are three hundred pounds in that casket.”  But again without looking up he made answer,  “He to whom hast offered it, my daughter, has no need to learn its bulk from thee, for He who weighs the mountains in a balance knoweth far better than thou dost what the weight of this silver may be. If indeed it were to me thou didst offer it, thou didst well to tell me:  but if not to me, but to that God who we know did not despise but gave most honour to the two mites, hold thy peace and be still.”
         Now God so ordained it, she said, that a little while after she came to the mountain, this servant of God went to his rest:  with no sickness, no fever to weary him, but stitching together a little basket, he slept in peace, in the seventieth year of his age.  “A little before the hour that he went out from the world, commending his soul to God, he called me, and as he came to the last finishing of his work, he said to me, undismayed, ‘Take this little basket from my hands, for I have naught else to leave thee, to remember me by.’ So when his body was wrapped in linen and carried to its grave, I left those solitudes, but that which the holy man left me I keep with me, until my own end.”


   ‘A certain Apollonius, that had been a merchant and renounced the world, came to live on Mount Nitria:  and since he could learn no art, hindered as he was by weight of years, nor could practise the abstinence laid down in Holy Writ, he laid down a rule of continence for himself.  For out of his own purse and labour he bought every kind of remedy and food-stuffs in Alexandria, and provided the brethren that were ailing with whatever they needed.  You might see him from early morning till the ninth hour traversing up and down through all the monasteries, whether of men or women, in and out of door after door where there were any sick, carrying with him raisins, and pomegranates, and eggs, and fine wheaten flour, especially necessary for the ailing.  To such a life for which alone he was adapted, did this servant of Christ devote his old age: nevertheless before his death when he had found another like unto himself, he handed over to him all the paraphernalia of his ministry, entreating him to have the same care of the brethren.  And since there be five thousand monks dwelling in the aforesaid mountain, such tendance and comforting is indeed called for, for without it in those desolate places man could not live.’


To conclude with a short story from the PRATUM SPIRITUALE by John Moschus

  ‘A certain old man lived in the monastery at Cuziba, of whom the old men of the place told us that when he was in his own village it was his custom if he saw anyone in the village unable through poverty, to sow his field, he would go by night, carrying seed with him, and sow the poor man’s field, the owner knowing nothing of it.  And when he came to the desert and lived in the monastery at Cuziba, he did the same works of compassion.  For he would go along the road that leads from the Jordan to the Holy City, carrying bread and water. And if he saw someone growing weary, he would shoulder his load and climb as far as the Holy Mount of Olives, and return again with others by the same road, carrying their burdens as far as Jericho.  You might have seen the old man sometimes carrying a huge bundle and sweating under his load:  sometimes carrying a youngster on his shoulder; sometimes two. Sometimes he would be sitting patching the broken shoes of some man or woman:  he used to carry with him whatever was needed for that task.  He would give some a drink of the water that he carried, to others he would give bread; and indeed if he should come on any naked, he would give him the cloak that he wore. It was sweet to see the old man toiling day after day.  And if he found one dead on the road, he would say over him the wonted psalms and prayers, and give him burial.’
(The Desert Fathers - translated by Helen Waddell.  Published by Constable,London. 1936)

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