Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Sts. Michael and Artsenius of Georgia

Beloved brothers and sisters in Our Risen Lord Jesus Christ,

Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the Holy Lord Jesus, the Only Sinless One, We worship Thy Cross, O Christ, and Thy Holy Resurrection we hymn and glorify; for Thou art Our God, and we know none other beside Thee, we call upon Thy Name. O come, all ye faithful, let us worship Christ's Holy Resurrection, for behold, through the Cross joy hath come to all the world. Ever blessing the Lord, we hymn His Resurrection; for, having endured Crucifixion, He hath destroyed death by death.


On May 3rd Our Holy Orthodox Christian Church commemorates, honors and entreats the holy intercessions of the following Saints, Forefathers, Fathers, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Preachers, Evangelists, Martyrs, Confessors, Ascetics and Teachers of Our Holy Orthodox Christian faith: Saint Peter the Wonder-worker, Bishop of Argos; Saint Ecumenios the Wonder-worker of Trikala; Saint Diodoros and Rodopiano the Deacon; St. Ansfried, Bishop of Utrecht; Sts. Mamas, Catholicos of Georgia; Sts. and holy Martyrs Timothy and Mavra; Saint Xenia of Kalamas; St. Paul of Vilnius, Lithuania; St. Theodosius of the Kiev Caves Monastery; Recovery of the holy relics of St. Luke of Mt. Steirion; New holy Martyr Ahmet the Calligrapher; The holy Righteous Michael and Arsenius the Georgians.

RIGHTEOUS MICHAEL AND ARSENIUS THE GEORGIANS. Sts. Michael and Arsenius were 9th century monks. St. Arsenius was the son of a great nobleman and disciples of St. Grigol of Khandzta. He was known to possess kindness and great wisdom. They established a Georgian monastery on Mt. Olympus, located in Asia Minor, which was the most important monastic center from the 5th-14th centuries, and where grew to be about 50 monasteries.

+By the holy intercessions of Your Saints and Wonderworkers, O Christ Our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.


Holy Epistle Lesson: Acts 8:26-39
Holy Gospel Lesson: St. John 6:40-44


"Christ's friends are not loved by all, but they sincerely love all. The friends of this world are not loved by all, but neither do they love all. Christ's friends persevere in their love right to the end. The friends of this world persevere only so long as they don't find themselves in disagreement over worldly matters. A faithful friend is an effective protector. When things are going well, he gives you good advice and shows you his sympathy in practical ways. When things are going badly, he defends you unselfishly and he is a deeply committed ally. Many people have said many things about love. But if you are looking for it, you will only find it in the followers of Christ. Only they have true love as their teacher is love." (Saint Maximus the Confessor)



"In the 4th century, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Arabia were the forging ground for monasticism in its Christian expression; every form of monastic life was tried, every kind of experiment, every kind of extreme. Monasticism is of course older than Christianity, but this was the flowering of it in its Christian expression and in many ways it has never been surpassed. The roots of western monasticism are in the east, and the wisdom of the desert, the understanding of this way of life, has formed a central, though often unidentified, source for Christian living through the centuries."

The great centre was Egypt. By 400 A.D. Egypt was a land of hermits and monks. There are three main types of monastic styles there, corresponding very roughly to three geographical locations.

LOWER EGYPT--THE HERMIT LIFE. The prototype of the hermit life was Saint Anthony the Great, a Copt and a layman. He was unlettered, the son of well-to-do peasants. One day in church he heard the saying of Jesus: "Go, sell all you have and give to the poor and come and follow me", as a commandment addressed to himself. He withdrew from ordinary Christian society about 269 A.D., and later he went further and further into the solitude of the desert. Saint Anthony died in 356 A.D. at the age of 105 and he is still regarded as the 'Father of monks'. He had many disciples and many imitators, and it is from St. Anthony and this tradition that many of the Sayings of the Fathers come.'

UPPER EGYPT--CENOBITIC MONASTICISM. In a less remote part of Egypt, the radical break with society took a different form. At Tabennisi in the Thebaid, St. Pachomius (290-347 A.D.) became the creator of an organized monasticism. These were not hermits grouped around a spiritual father, but communities of brothers united to each other in work and prayer. There are few Sayings that are preserved from this region, but the Pachomian style was of vital importance in the development of monasticism.

NITRIA AND SCETIS--GROUPS OF ASCETICS. At Nitria, west of the Nile delta, and at Scetis, forty miles south of Nitria, there evolved a third form of monastic life in the 'lavra' or 'skete' where several monks lived together, often as disciples of an 'abba' (father). Nitria was nearer to Alexandria and formed a natural gateway to Scetis. It was a meeting place between the world and the desert where visitors, like St. John Cassian, could first make contact with the traditions of the desert. Here a more learned, Greek-influenced type of monasticism evolved around an educated minority of whom Evagrius Ponticus (345-399 A.D.) is the most famous. Many Sayings come from here and are associated with the names of the great fathers such as Moses, Pambo, Abraham, Sisoes, John Colovos, and the two Macarii.

SYRIA. The Egyptian monks created an ethos of their own; they made a radical break with their environment and formed new groups to which the relentless round of prayer and manual labor was basic... The Syrian monks were individualists and they deliberately imposed on themselves what is hardest for human beings to bear: they went about naked and in chains, they lived unsettled lives, eating whatever they found in the woods. They chose to live at the limits of human nature, close to the animals, the Angels, and the demons. Their most typical representatives in the 5th century were the 'stylite' Saints, men who lived for very long periods on the top of a pillar. The first to adopt this way of life was St. Simeon Stylites (from the Greek stylos, pillar) who lived for forty years on a fifty-foot column outside Antioch.

ASIA MINOR. In Cappadocia, where a more learned and liturgical monasticism developed in the heart of the city and of the Church, the key figure was Saint Basil the Great (330-379 A.D.). He and his followers were known as theologians and writers rather than as simple monks of the Egyptian type.

PALESTINE. The great monastic centre in the 5th century was Palestine. In the wilderness, and especially around the desert of Gaza, there were great spiritual fathers in the Egyptian tradition: St. Barsanuphius and Sts. John, Dorotheos, Efthymius, and Savas. Many of the Sayings come from this source.

The desert Fathers speak of sexual desire, envy, greed, jealousy, hate, and most complex human foibles. They expose to us what is all too familiar and obvious. They let us see with alarming clarity the depth of our depravity and the labyrinths of our sinful inner chasms. And though we probably cannot attain to the fullest extent the virtues by which these holy hermits overcame human depravity, we can see clearly the folly of a modern world seeking goodness, truth, purity, and virtue without first humbling itself before its Creator and the subtle inward world of spiritual truth. Hearing today of virtues, the ancient Fathers show them, by their examples, to be plastic virtues. Seeing today monuments of faith built with stone and mortar, the desert dwellers show us monuments of faith built on flesh and blood.

As we enter into the world of beginning monks, freshly having left the world, and accomplished elders who have gained discernment of the inner life, spiritual discretion, the ability to see into the hearts and minds of others, we embark on a journey into a strangely real world. In the small communities of monks gathered in the wilderness (sketes), we find those who, in their lives and by their experience, vivify the rules and commandments of Christian conduct. We see the living source of the rules which most Christians today emptily follow. And see the mystical rewards and products of virtuous lives in these examples of perfection attained on earth. Indeed, we have an elemental encounter with what the Orthodox Christian life encompasses: a set of beliefs and practices gleaned from experience and a profound way of life, not a system based on regimented acts coldly governed by abstract beliefs and rules propped up with mere emotionalism. We touch what gives our otherwise vain and fruitless efforts in the Christian life their meaning and content. Standing before us is the answer to modern disbelief: the possibility of deeper life and the fulfillment of lost goals which, at least in the wild attempts by many contemporary religious groups to give external meaning to an internally moribund Christianity, have become meaningless, if not ignominious pursuits.


[Saint Anthony the Great]
When the holy Abba (Father) Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by akedia, 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 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.

[Saint Arsenius]
While still living in the palace, Abba Arsenius prayed to God in these words, 'Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.' And a voice came saying to him, 'Arsenius, flee from men and you will be saved.' Having withdrawn to the solitary life he made the same prayer again and he heard a voice saying to him, 'Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the source of sinlessness.'

[Abba Agathon]
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" (St. 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.

[Abba Ammonas]
Abba Ammonas was asked, 'What is the 'narrow and hard way?' (St. Matthew 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 also the meaning of the sentence, "Lo, we have left everything and followed you." (St. Matthew 19:27).

[Saint Ephraim the Syrian]
Another time, when Ephraim was on the road, a prostitute tried by her flatteries, if not to lead him to shameful intercourse, at least to make him angry, for no-one had ever seen him angry. He said to her, 'follow me.' When they had reached a very crowded place, he said to her, 'In this place, come, do what you desire.' But she, seeing the crowd, said to him, 'How can we do what we want to do in front of so great a crowd, without being ashamed?' He replied, 'If you blush before men, how much more should we blush before God, who knows what is hidden in darkness?' She was covered with shame and went away without having achieved anything.

[Amma (Mother) Theodora]
Amma Theodora 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?' They 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?'

Monk Moses writes: "There are many stations or steps in the journey of prayerful spiritual ascent.

Study is one of the very first steps. In the austere monastic rule of Saint Pachomius one of the canons requires that novice monks be taught reading and writing by older monks, to assist them in their study of Sacred Scripture. Father Theodoros of Thebes, a disciple of Saint Pachomius, and the following observation about his monastic life:

"Neither in our heart nor in our mouth had we anything other than the word of God alone, and we did not feel we were living on earth but were celebrating in heaven."

Study will help in our effort to pray by arousing our forgotten powers, by strengthening and invigorating us. In this vein Father Isaias instructs us:

"When you arise in the morning, before you begin your work, study the words of God. When you have the words of God as your constant companion, you will not be preoccupied with worldly matters, you will not be troubled, you will not sin."

Saint Ephraim the Syrian, who incidentally was described by Saint Gregory of Nyssa as having Sacred Scripture as his only nourishment, adds this:

"The words of God refresh the heat of the soul. Suckle the words of God like an infant so that you may grow."

For one who desires to live the life of prayer, daily nourishment from Sacred Scripture is indispensable. Study of the Holy Bible expedites the intervention of God in our life. And it is good for such study to precede prayer. In addition to Sacred Scripture, particularly Psalms, the life of the Saint of the day and a selected ascetic text from the Fathers can provide relief from the confusion and distress of the day, and help us prepare to surrender to God. And let it be emphasized that God is not to be dealt with in a few minutes out of the entire twenty-four hour period. God is for the entire day. His abiding presence should accompany us continuously so that all our activities are a preparation for the sacred hours when we embrace God. And, in turn, these sacred hours of prayer will strengthen us for the struggles that follow.

With sincere agape in Our Risen Lord,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George