The Desert Fathers: Voluntary Poverty

Introduction and Disclaimer

These stories are taken from The Paradise or garden of the holy fathers which was compiled and translated by St Anthansius Archbishop of Alexandria, St Jerome, and others.  We are using a translation of these works by Ernest A Wallas.  Occasionally the Editor will add his own remarks below the story which will be clearly indicated as to make the story more clear.  The titles for each one of the stories or sayings of the desert Fathers have been added by the editor of Alleluia Audio books for clarity and navigation.

On Voluntary Poverty

Thanksgiving for the Eucharist

158. ABBA ARSENIUS once fell sick at Scete, and he was in need of a bowl of pottage; and since this was not to be found there, he took the remains of the Eucharist and said, “I give thanks unto Thee, O Christ, that, because of Thy name, I am able to receive the food of grace.”

When a Holy Man Found Money That Was Not His

159. There was a certain holy man whose name was Philagrius, who lived in Jerusalem, and he worked with his hands and toiled [to earn] the food which he needed; and the old man rose up to see the work of his hands, and he found a purse containing one thousand darics which had dropped from someone [on the road], and he remained in the place where he was, saying, “The man who lost this will come back seeking for it.” And behold the man did come back, and he was weeping, and the old man took him aside and gave him the darics; and their owner laid hold upon him, and wished to give him some small sum of money, but the old man refused to accept anything. Then the owner of the darics began to cry out and say, “Come ye and see what the man of God hath done”; but the old man fled secretly and departed from the city, lest what he had done should become known, and men should pay him honour because of it.

Spiritual Gluttony Steals from Widows and Orphans

160. They say that Abba Serapion the Bishop went on one occasion to one of the brethren, and found [in his cell] a hollow in the wall which was filled with books; and the brother said unto him, “Speak to me one word whereby I may live.” And the Bishop said unto him, “What have I to say to thee? For thou hast taken that which belongeth to the orphans and widows and laid it up in a hole in the wall.”

Editors remarks : It is important to remember that books in ancient times were highly prized and very expensive as all were copied by hand. The printing press would not come around until the 1400s making books more accessible and inexpensive. We also know that the great Apostle St Paul had a collection of books

The cloak that I left at Troas, with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, especially the parchments. 2 Timothy 4:13

To reconcile this rebuke with the fact that it can be a Holy and good thing to own spiritual books which are helpful in learning, teaching and are conducive to meditation we can conclude that the rebuke probably due to spiritual gluttony. Excessive spiritual books and readings is one of the signs of a spiritual gluttony.

St John of the Cross explains: All their time is spent looking for satisfaction and spiritual consolation; they can never read enough spiritual books, and one minute they are meditating on one subject and the next on another, always hunting for some gratification in the things of God. St John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, Book 1, Chapter 6

Spiritual Gluttony does injure charity and in this case the Bishop points out that instead of putting his money to alms giving he has used it to amass an excessive number of books to his state of life.

The Poverty of the Cross

161. Abba Theodore of ParmS possessed some beautiful books, and he went to Abba Macarius and said unto him, “Father, I have three books, and I gain profit from them, and the brethren borrow them from me, and they also have profit from them; tell me, now, what shall I do with them?” And the old man answered and said, “Ascetic labours are beautiful, but the greatest of them all is voluntary poverty.” And when Abba Theodore heard these words he went and sold the books and gave the price of them to the poor.

A Monk Who Only Ate What He Earned

162. They say about a certain monk that when his food came to him he was in the habit of taking so much of it as he needed, but that if it happened that another man was brought to him he would not accept any of it, saying, “It is sufficient for me;behold my Lord hath fed me.”

He Who is Dead to the World Cares Not for Inheritance

163. A certain monk used to live in a cave in the desert, and a message was sent unto him by his kinsfolk, saying, “Thy father is grievously sick, and is nigh to die, therefore come, and inherit his possessions; and he made answer unto them, saying, “I died to the world long before he will die, and a dead man cannot be the heir of a living one.”

Do Not Be Weighted Down by the World

164. An old man was asked by a brother the question, “How shall I live?” Then the old man took off his garment, and girded up his loins therewith, and lifted up his hands and said, ” It is meet for a monk to be as naked in respect of this world’s goods as I am of clothing. And in his striving ‘ against his thoughts he must stand as upright as a vigorous athlete, and when the athlete contendeth he also standeth up naked, and when he is anointed with oil he is quite naked, and hath nothing upon him; and he learned from him that “traineth him how to contend, and when the enemy cometh against him he throweth dust upon him, which is a matter of this world, that he may be able to grasp him easily. In thyself, then, O monk, thou must see the athlete, and he who sheweth thee how to contend is God, for it is He Who giveth the victory, and Who conquered for us; and those who contend are ourselves, and the striving is [our] opponent, and the dust is the affairs of the world. And since thou hast seen the cunning of the Adversary, stand thou up and oppose him in thy nakedness, being free from any care which belongeth to this world, and thou shalt overcome [him]. For when the mind is weighted down with the care of the world it cannot receive the holy word of God.”

From Riches to Rags

165. They say concerning Abba Arsenius that as, when he lived in the world, his apparel was finer than that of anyone else, so, when he lived in Scete, he wore raiment which was inferior to that of everyone else. And when, at long intervals, he came to church, he used to sit behind a pillar so that no one might see his face, and he might not see the faces of others; now his face was like that of an angel, and his hair was as white as snow, and as abundant as [that of] Jacob. His body was dry by reason of his labours, and his beard descended to his belly, but his eyelashes were destroyed by weeping; he was tall in stature, but somewhat bowed by old age and he ended his days when he was ninety-five years old. He lived in the world, in the palace, for forty years, in the days of Theodosius, the great king, who became the father of the Emperors Honorius and Arcadius, and he lived in Scete forty years, and he lived for ten years in the Troja of Babylon which is opposite the Memphis which is in Egypt, and he dwelt for three years in Canopus of Alexandria, and during the two remaining years he came to Troja again, where he died. And he finished his career in peace and in the fear of God.

Man Does not Live on Bread Alone

166. On one occasion a certain Bishop came to the Fathers in Scete, and a brother went forth to meet him, and having met him, he took him and brought him into his cell; and having set before him bread and salt, he said, “Forgive me, O my father, for I have nothing else to set before thee.” And the Bishop said unto him, “I wish that when I come another year I may not find even bread and salt in thy cell.”

The Charity of the Poor.

167. One of the old men said, ” If thou sittest in a place and seest people with abundant provisions, look not at them ,but if there be a man who is destitute, look at him as one who hath no bread, and thou shalt find relief.”

What a Monk Should Wear

168. Abba Isaac, the priest of the Cells, used to say that Abba Pambo said, “The manner of the apparel which a monk ought to wear should be such that if it were cast outside the cell for three days no one would carry it away.”

God Will Provide

169. A certain brother asked one of the old men a question, and said unto him, “Dost thou wish me to keep two darics as provision for the needs of the feebleness of the body? ” And the old man, perceiving his mind and also that he wished to keep them, said unto him, “Yea.” Now when the brother had gone to his cell, he became troubled in his mind, and he debated in his thoughts, saying, “Did the old man speak truthfully or not? ” Then he rose up, and went back to the old man, and made excuses to him, and said, “For our Lord’s sake, tell me the truth, because my thoughts are troubling me about these two darics.” The old man said unto him, ” I spake to thee as I did because I saw that thy mind was to keep them, but it is not necessary for thee to keep the two darics, except only for the need of thy body. But why is thy hope set upon two darics? If by chance they were lost would not God take care of thee? Let us then cast [our] care upon Him, for it belongeth to Him to take care of us continually.”

Do Not Turn Back From Perfection

170. Some of the old men used to tell a story about a gardener who used to work and to give away whatsoever he gained thereby in alms, but subsequently his thoughts said to him, “Gather together a few oboli, lest when thou hast grown old thou fall into want”; so he gathered together some money, and filled a large vessel therewith. And it fell out that he became sick, and the disease seized upon his foot, and he spent the whole of the money in the vessel on the physicians, and was not in the least benefited thereby. At length another physician came unto him and said, “If thou dost not cut off thy foot all thy body will putrefy,” and he came to consider the cutting off of his foot. And in the night he came to himself, and he groaned, and wept, and said, “Remember, O Lord, my former deeds,” and straightway a man appeared behind him, and said unto him, “Where are thy oboli?” and the gardener said immediately, “I have sinned, forgive me”; and straightway the man approached his leg, and it was made whole forthwith, and he rose up, and went to the garden to work. And in the morning the physician came to cut off his foot as he had said, and [the servants] told him, “He went to this work in the night”; and straightway [the gardener] glorified God.

Detachment even to Nakedness

171. Abba Agathon saw Abba Nastir wearing two shoulder wrappers, and he said unto him, “If a poor man were to come, and ask thee for a garment, which of them wouldst thou give him?” And Abba Nastir replied, ” I would give him the “better of them”; and Abba Agathon said unto him, “And if “another poor man came, what wouldst thou give him?” Abba Nastir saith unto him, “I would give him the half of “that which remained.” And Abba Agathon said unto him, ” Supposing yet another beggar came, what wouldst thou “give unto him?” And Nastir said unto him, “I would cut the half which remained into two pieces, and give one to him, “and with the other I would cover my body.” And Abba Agathon said unto him, “And supposing yet another beggar were to come?” and Nastir said, “I would give him what was left. For though I do not wish to receive anything from any man, yet I would go and sit down in some place until God sent me wherewith to cover myself.”

It is Right to Beg

172. The blessed woman Eugenia said, ” It is right for us to beg, but only we must be with Christ. He who is with Christ becometh rich, but he who honoureth the things of the body more than the things of the spirit shall fall both from the things which are first and the things which are last.”

Do Not Teach What You Do Not Practice

173. One of the old men said, ” How can a man teach unto his neighbour that which he himself doth not observe?”

Abba Theodore

174. They say that Abba Theodore excelled in the three following things more than any other man, and that he attained in their performance a degree which was greater than that of many, namely, voluntary poverty, self-abnegation, and flight from the children of men.

Selfishness becomes Greif

175. Abba Poemen used to say, ” He who laboureth and keepeth [the result of] his work for himself is a twofold grief.”

A Patched Habit is better than a Costly One

176. Abba Isaac used to say to the brethren, “Our fathers and Abba Panbo used to wear old garments which were much mended and were patched with rags, but at this present ye wear very costly apparel; get ye gone from this place, for ye have laid the country waste, and I will not give you commandments, for ye will not keep them.”

A Monk With a Hat

177. On one occasion a brother came to the church of the Cells wearing a small head-cloth which came down to his shoulders, and when Abba Isaac saw him he followed him, and said,
“Monks dwell here, but thou art a man in the world, and thou canst not live here.”

All for All or become the Prey of Birds and Dogs

178. A certain man, having made himself remote from the world, and divided his possessions among those who were in need, left to himself the remainder of his riches. And when the blessed Anthony heard [this] he said unto him, “Dost thou wish to become a monk? If thou dost, get thee to such and such a village, and take some meat, and lay it upon thy body, and come hither alone”; and having done this the dogs, and the hawks and other birds of prey rent and tore his body. And when he returned to the blessed man, Saint Anthony asked him whether he had done as he had commanded him, and when the man had shewn him his body which was rent and torn, the Blessed Anthony said unto him, ” Even thus are those who wish to go out from the world, and who nevertheless leave themselves certain possessions, wherefrom arise for their owners war and strife.”

Money can be Great Trouble.

A brother asked Abba Poemen the question, saying, ” An inheritance hath been bequeathed to me; what shall I do with it?” Abba Poemen said unto him, ” Go, and after three days come unto me, and I will give thee counsel.” And the brother came, and Abba Poemen said unto him, “What counsel shall I give thee, O brother? If I tell thee to give it to the church, they will make feasts with it; and again, if I tell thee to give it to thy kinsmen, thou wilt have no reward; but if I tell thee to give it to the poor, thou wilt have no [further] care. Therefore go and do with thine inheritance what thou pleasest, for I am not able to advise thee rightly.”

Do not Force Alms on Others

180. A certain man entreated an old man to accept from him a gift of grace for his wants, but he refused to do so because the labour of his hands was sufficient for him; and when he who asked him to accept it persisted, saying, ” If thou wilt not accept it for thine own needs, at least do so for the wants of others” the old man answered and said unto him,” It would be a twofold disgrace [unto me]. First, because I should accept something which I do not want, and secondly, because I should be giving away with boasting the charity of another.”

Fear God Not Want

181. An old man used to say, “It is not right for a man to have any care whatsoever except the fear of God, for,” said he, ” although I am forced to take care for the needs of the body, no thought whatsoever concerning anything riseth in my mind before the time when I shall require to make use of it.”

An Act of the Will in the Morning

182. The same old man used to say, ” When thou risest up, in the morning, say, “O body, work that thou mayest be fed; O soul, rouse up that thou mayest inherit life.”

Editor’s Thoughts:

In the face of the virtue of the Desert Fathers we can feel inspired, perplexed, or even discouraged. But does God approve of such extremes?

Of St. John the Baptist our Lord said “”among those born of women there is no one greater than John” Luke 7:28. Did not The Baptist wear a camel hair garment, live in the desert and eat wild locusts?

Our Lord also chose to dwell in this world in poverty, “the Son of man hath not where to lay His head.” Luke 9:58. One cannot deny that it is a holy and upright thing to live in poverty, even in outright destitution, when borne patiently for the love of God.

But does God require all to live in poverty? God requires all to seek to become perfect and He calls some to perfect poverty. “If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Matthew 19:21 These are the religious or lay people who renounce all of their worldly possessions and either rely on their religious communities (or in the case of certain very holy lay people) entirely upon the alms of others.

You might ask at this point “But I have not been called to such poverty, why should the stories of the Desert Fathers matter to me?” We need to look at the Fathers of the Desert so we can know what the perfection of poverty is, because wisdom and knowledge beget devotion. Knowing what the perfection of detachment and holy poverty are, we can be humbled in our own laxness and make practical resolutions that will help us become more devout.

You might ask “what in the world was practical about these stories!?” Quite a bit. Many of the monks would not take alms but instead ate only what they made from the sweat of their brow; a story such as that could make us resolve to be hesitant at taking handouts. The story of the honest, poor man who found the purse of money could make us resolve, if we ever find money on the ground or a possession, to always try to find the owner and to keep silent about our good work, and so on.

It is helpful to read the lives of the Saints which match our duties of state and/or lived in similar circumstances to our own. Seeing how these friends of God lived, and often how they grew in virtue, can give us a roadmap of sanctity to follow. If we faithfully practice our little resolutions with the grace of God, the chains of inordinate love for earthly things will gradually be broken and we will enjoy the peace of Christ and liberty of spirit.

So let us pray and ask for grace from these Holy Fathers of the Desert that we might become more detached from our possessions and that we use what we have for the greater glory of God.


Image in the Public Domain: Jusepe de Ribera – Saint Paul the Hermit source


About Alleluia Audio

Alleluia Audiobooks is an apostolate dedicated to the distribution of Catholic Material. It is recognized as a non profit corporation 501(c)3 and is entirely the effort of Catholic volunteers.

Leave a Reply