The Wisdom of the Desert

Chapter III:
Being Dead to the World

THE idea of being dead to the world is very closely connected with that of being 'crucified with Christ.' Indeed, we may say that dying to the world is one of the ways in which a man accomplishes the crucifixion of himself with Christ. The hermits pressed the metaphor of being dead to its last possible conclusions. This they did with that simple and childlike directness which is one of the great charms of all their teaching. St. Macarius, for instance, in no way sought to evade the force of the metaphor. To him to be dead meant simply to be, so far as the world is concerned, a dead body. The body that is buried neither resents insult nor warms to praise. The perfect Christian must be equally deaf to blame or flattery. Anub's acted parable enforces the same thought, as does St. Antony's treatment of the stone outside his cell. Dorotheus, whose story Palladius tells, grasped at the ideal of deadness from a different side. To him it was the insistent claim of his body for consideration rather than the mental passions of anger or pride which kept him conscious that the world still claimed him as its citizen. He aimed at silencing his body's cries for rest and ease. In each case, whether the warfare is waged against the mind or the flesh, the ultimate aim of it is to reach a state in which the claim of God is everything, and the ways in which the world strives to distract from it nothing at all.

There is something in the tone of the stories which illustrate this ideal of deadness to the world that recalls the Stoic teaching about apathy. Indeed, so like is their moral to the maxims of Epictetus that we cannot wonder at the later monks having adopted his Encheiridion as a book of devotion. Yet between the ideal of the hermits and that of Epictetus there is a very real difference. The Stoic taught that a man should be dead to blame or praise. He praised an askesis which, as it were, insulted bodily desire. The strength by which a man attained this splendid apathy was pride. It was because the thief or the slanderer had no real power to hurt, that the philosopher was in a position to be indifferent to their injuries. To the Stoic the wrongs done to him were not to be resented, because when properly considered they were not serious wrongs at all. They had no power to affect the inner man -- the soul -- the only part of him that mattered. The view of the Christian hermit was entirely different. He made no attempt to persuade himself that injuries and wrongs were anything else than real injuries and wrongs. His soul stood in no proud isolation from their influence. To him neither praise nor blame were, or ought to be, matters of indifference. The one was a danger to be shrunk from, lest his soul should suffer; the other was a possible stepping-stone to the perfection which is in Christ Jesus. Thus, if St. Macarius' teaching about the dead bodies who were praised and blamed seems to be nothing more than the doctrine of Epictetus, we see that this was only part of all that the saint meant when we read of his holding back from the companionship of those who praised him, and seeking eagerly the society of his traducers. If Anub seems to teach nothing but the Stoic apathy in his acted parable with the stone image, we realise how much further the general teaching of the hermits went when we read Zacharias' comparison of a monk to a garment trampled into the dust. In truth, the hermit did not strive, like the Stoic, to be himself sublimely indifferent to all except his higher self, but rather strove to lose himself altogether since self, in his view, was of the world, and to find a new self in God.


How Zacharias, the disciple of the abbot Moses, showed that the followers of the Lord must accept such treatment as the Master received.

Certain brethren once came to the abbot Moses, and asked him to speak to them some word of exhortation. He turned to his disciple Zacharias and urged him, saying, "Do you speak somewhat to these brethren." Then Zacharias took off his cloak, and, laying it on the ground, trampled on it. "Behold" he said, "unless a man is thus trampled on he cannot be a monk."


The Abbot Sisois finds the secret of peace in the imitation of the suffe7ings of Christ.

The abbot Sisois said, "Suffer yourself to be despised. Cast your own will behind your back. Stand free from the cares of the world. Then you will have peace."


The parable which the abbot Anub acted, meaning to teach thereby that the disciple of Jesus must be dead alike to inmlt and to praise.

Once a tribe of Mazici burst into the Scetic desert, and killed many of the fathers who dwelt there. Seven of the fathers found safety in flight, among whom were the abbot Pimenius, and another older abbot called Anub. These seven came in their flight to Terenuthi. There they found an ancient temple of some heathen god, now deserted by the worshippers. Into it they entered, meaning to dwell together for a week without speaking to each other, while each sought a place where to build his solitary cell, for in the Scetic desert these seven had lived as hermits.

Now, there was in the temple an image of the ancient idol. The, abbot Anub guessed the thought of dwelling together which had entered the minds of the brethren. He therefore, when he rose in the morning, used to cast a stone at. the face of the idol. In the evening he used to speak to it, and say, "I have done wrong. Pardon me." On the Sabbath day, when the brethren met together, the abbot Pimenius said to him, "How is it that you, a Christian man, have for a whole week been saying to an idol, 'Pardon me?'" The abbot Anub replied to him, "I did this for your sakes. When I cast stones at the idol, was it angry? Did it speak to rebuke me? When I asked pardon of it, was it pleased? Did it boast?" The abbot Pimenius answered, "Surely no, my brother." Then said the abbot Anub, "We seven are here together. If we wish to remain thus and yet find profit for our souls, this idol must be our example. When one of us is insulted or vexed by another, he must not get angry. When one of us is asked for pardon by his brother, he must not be puffed up. If we are not willing thus to live together it is better for each of us to depart to whatever place he wishes." Then all of them fell upon, their faces to the earth, and promised that they would do as he advised.


Dorotheus the Theban, being persuaded that the flesh and the spirit are contrary one to the other, mortified the flesh with his exceeding toil. This he did that he might be partaker of the life which is in Jesus.

All day long, even in the heat of summer, Dorotheus used to collect great stones along the shore of the sea. Though now an old man, he never ceased from the labour of building cells of the stones which he gathered. These cells he gave to hermits who could not build for themselves. Once a certain man asked him, "Why, my father, do you in your old age persist in slaying your body with such toil as this in the intolerable heat?" He answered, saying, "My body is slaying me. I am determined therefore to slay it."


How St. Macarius taught the meaning of the apostle's words "Dead with Christ," "Buried with Christ."

A brother once came to the abbot Macarius and said to him, "Master, speak some word of exhortation to me, that, obeying it, I may be saved." St. Macarius answered him, "Go to the tombs and attack the dead with insults." The brother wondered at the word. Nevertheless he went, as he was bidden, and cast stones at the tombs, railing upon the dead. Then returning, he told what he had done. Macarius asked him, "Did the dead notice what you did?" And he replied, "They did not notice me." "Go, then, again," said Macarius, "and this time praise them." The brother, wondering yet more, went and praised the dead, calling them just men, apostles, saints. Returning, he told what he had done, saying, "I have praised the dead." Macarius asked him, "Did they reply to you?" And he said, "They did not reply to me." Then said Macarius, "You know what insults you have heaped on them and with what praises you have flattered them, and yet they never spoke to you. If you desire salvation, you must be like these dead. You must think nothing of the wrongs men do to you, nor of the praises they offer you. Be like the dead. Thus you may be saved."


Of bearing with evil men, and how a man may thus be a peacemaker since he will refuse the occasion of strife.

A certain hermit saw some men toilsomely bearing a dead body to the burial, and said to them, "You do well that you thus bear the dead. You would do better still to bear with the living. Then you would be makers of peace, and inherit the blessing of the Lord."


Of two things by which a man is hindered from being truly dead to the world.

The abbot Pimenius said, "That monk may truly reckon himself dead to the world who has learnt to hate two things, ease for his body, and the vainglory which cometh of the praise of men."


St. Antony teaches that a monk should be like a rock.

St. Antony spoke to the abbot Ammon saying, "You have still a long way to advance in the fear of the Lord." Then leading him forth of the cell he showed him a rock and said to him, "Go, hurt that rock. Beat it unmercifully." This he did, and St. Antony asked him whether the rock made any answer. He said "No." Then St. Antony said to him, "You must attain to the position of the rock and not know when anyone is trying to hurt you."


How the abbot Macarius used to avoid the conversation of those who honoured him, and preferred to talk with men who offered him insults.

When anyone came respectfully to the abbot Macarius, desiring to hear some exhortation from him, he received no answer at all. But if anyone came despising Macarius and did violence to him in such words as these, "Lo you there, father Macarius! You used to be a camel-driver, and steal the natron. How your master used to beat you when he caught you robbing him!" willingly, even joyfully, Macarius used to speak to such a man of whatever he wished to hear.

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