The Wisdom of the Desert

Chapter X:
On Poverty

VOLUNTARY poverty is half-way between the kind of asceticism which we have called physical and that which may properly be described as spiritual. On the one hand, it is clear that poverty like that of the hermits deprives a man not only of all the luxuries of life, but of what are generally regarded as its necessary comforts. On the other hand, the sin which stood in direct antithesis to their conception of poverty was covetousness; and this is a sin of the soul, not of the body.

The absolute renunciation of all property was the initial act of the hermit's entrance upon his new life. From the point of view of the fathers of monasticism, the necessity for this renunciation was obvious. Every possession was a tie to the world, and the great object was to get free of the world, to stand clear of its ambitions, its pleasures, and its cares. A man who possesses property, even if he is content to forego the possibility of increasing it, must yet take care to preserve it. He must dedicate some portion of his time, his ability, and his energy to the getting or the management of his income. All such care and expenditure of strength was, from the hermits' point of view, a service of mammon, and they remembered the Lord's words -- "Ye cannot serve God and mammon." There was no point, therefore, of their life on which the hermits insisted more vigorously than the completeness of the original renunciation. What the postulant ought to do with his money was not definitely settled. Sometimes it was given to his relatives, sometimes it was handed over to the clergy for the use of the church. Oftenest, perhaps, in strict obedience to the Lord's command, it was given to the poor. Whatever the destiny of the money might be, it was essential for the hermit to aet rid of it entirely. No half measures were tolerated. The parable which St. Antony made the young monk act, who wanted to keep something for himself, is almost savage in the intensity of its insistence on absolute renunciation. The personal possessions which a monk might retain were not, any more than the manner of his fasting, settled by definite rule. That their theory of poverty was spiritual, as opposed to mechanical, may be seen in the saying which described true poverty as the possession of nothing which it would cost a pang to give away. He who lives in such poverty as this places no obstacle in the way of his fulfilment of the Lord's words -- " Give to him that asketh thee." How complete the renunciation occasionally became may be seen in a fine story of Besarion. He owned nothing in the world but a cloak, an undergarment, and a copy of the gospels. Once, as he went upon a journey, he threw his cloak over a dead body which lay exposed on the roadside. Further on his way he gave his other garment to a naked beggar. Then, moved by the recollection of the Lord's words, he sold his copy of the gospels and gave the proceeds to the poor.

Even, however, when the initial act of renunciation was as complete as possible, there still remained for the hermit the possibility of being ensnared by covetousness or entangled in worldly cares. It must not be forgotten that the hermits were diligent workers. They preferred such kinds of work as could be done in or near their cells. They wove mats and baskets, or cultivated little gardens; the fruits of their labour they sold, sometimes carrying them to neighbouring villages, sometimes sending them in boat-loads down the Nile to the great cities. At harvest-time they frequently hired themselves out as labourers. The money thus earned they used first for the supply of the few necessities of their own lives, and what remained for the relief of the poor. The marketing of their goods was, as may readily be supposed, a distasteful task. Haggling and bargaining involved them in what must always be a degrading struggle. Some of them simply named a price for their goods, and then, if they were offered less, took it without protest. Others declined even to name a price. They exposed their wares in the market-place, and took the price offered by the first buyer who approached them.

Even, however, when their traffic was regulated by these principles, there remained a possibility of covetousness. There are grievous stories of men who hoarded little stores of money. Sometimes the motive seems to have been mere desire of possession. Sometimes it was, at first at all events, a less unworthy one. It was in order to make some provision for future sickness that the brother, whom the angel healed, began to lay by some portion of his earnings. All such saving was regarded as displaying, at the least, a lamentable want of faith. The ideal of the hermits was a perfect trust in Him who feeds the ravens and clothes the lilies of the field. To save and make provision for the future was to call down the Lord's rebuke -- " Oh, ye of little faith."


How a certain brother understood the words of the Lord very literally.

A certain old man was once asked by one of the brethren what a monk ought to do to be saved. The old man took his raiment and stripped it off. Then, stretching forth his hands, he said, "Thus ought a monk to be naked of all that belongs to this world. Thus also should he stretch himself out in crucifixion, that he may come out conqueror from the temptations and struggles of this world."


The advice of St. Antony to a disciple who desired to be a monk, and yet was unwilling to give away all that he had.

A certain brother renounced the world, and gave what he possessed to the poor. Yet, because he was fearful of heart, and had little faith, he retained somewhat in his own power. This man paid a visit to St. Antony. When the saint perceived how the case was with him, he said to him, "Go thou to yonder village. There buy meat, and bind it with cords round thy naked limbs. Then return to me." The disciple did so, and lo! as he was returning to the saint the dogs from the village and afterwards the birds of the air, tore his limbs, grasping at the meat bound to them. On his return, the saint asked him how he had fared, he replied by displaying his wounds and blood. Then said St. Antony, "They who renounce the world, and yet desire to possess money, lo! like dogs and birds, the demons strive with them and tear them."


Of the measure of renunciation, and when it may be regarded as complete.

An old man said, "Own nothing which it would grieve you to give to another, nothing which would lead you to transgress the commandment of the Lord -- 'Give to him that asketh you.'"


The word of Serapion to a monk who owned what he was unwilling to part with.

A brother asked the abbot Serapion to speak some word of exhortation to him. Serapion said, "What can I say to you, seeing that you have taken the property of the widow and the orphan and put it on the window-sill of your cell?" He said this, having seen that this brother had many books which he kept in his window.


How the same Serapion who spoke thus had himself made a perfect renunciation.

One of the monks, a certain Serapion, possessed a copy of the gospels. This he sold, and gave the price of it to the poor and hungry. Then he went home rejoicing, saying to himself, "Lo! now I have sold even that very book which was for ever saying to me, 'Sell all that thou hast and give to the poor.'"


A description of the sin of covetousness, through which men fail in making their renunciation perfect.

We must not only guard against the possession of money, but also expel from our souls the desire of possessing it. For it is necessary not so much to avoid the results of covetousness, as to cut off by the roots all disposition towards it. It will do no real good not to possess money, if there exists in us the desire of getting it.


The story of a monk who fell before a very subtle temptation, but in the end was saved.

The elders relate a story of a certain monk who was a skilful gardener. He laboured diligently, and all that he earned he gave to the poor after he had supplied his own necessities. After a while Satan found entrance into his heart, and said to him, "Keep something of what you earn for yourself. Some day you will be old or fall sick, and then you will have need of what you can save now." It seemed wise to the monk to do this, and he saved until he had filled a large pitcher with coins. It happened that he fell sick, and an abscess gathered on his foot. He expended all that he had saved on doctors, neither was made any better. At last one of the most skilful doctors said to him, "Unless your foot is cut off you cannot recover. And they fixed a day for the amputation of his foot. That night he came again to his right mind, and wept bitterly for what he had done, being truly repentant. Then, groaning frequently, he prayed, and said, "Be mindful, O Lord, of the work which once I did, how I laboured in my garden and gave the reward of my labour to the poor." When he had so prayed, behold an angel of the Lord stood by him and spoke to him, saying, "Where is now the money you saved? Where is the hope with which you saved it?" He, understanding well what the angel said, replied, "I have sinned! O Lord, pardon me. Henceforth I will do no such things as these for which you reproach me." Then the angel touched his foot, and immediately it was healed. In the morning he arose and went forth to labour in his garden.


How all we give, we give to God, and not to men.

Melania relates that she brought three hundred pounds of silver to the abbot Pambo, and asked him to accept the gift for the use of the monks who were in need. He said to her, "May God give you your reward." Then, turning to his servant Theodore, he said, "Take this money and distribute it among the brethren who dwell in Libya and in the islands, for the monasteries there are very poor." Melania, in the meanwhile, stood waiting for his benediction, and expected that he would speak some word of praise to her for the greatness of her gift. At length, when he remained silent, she said, "Master, do you know how much I have given? There are three hundred pounds of silver." But Pambo took no notice of her, and did not even glance at the boxes of money. At length he replied, "He to whom you make this gift, my daughter, does not need that you should tell Him how much it is. If you were giving this money to me, you would be right to tell me the sum of it. Since, however, you are giving this money to God, who did not despise even the two mites, but valued them above all other gifts, you may well be silent about the amount of it."


How a hermit refused to receive a gift of money, even for the use of the poor.

A certain man asked a hermit to receive a gift of money for his own use. He refused, saying that the earnings of his labour sufficed him. The other, however, besought him to take the money and use it for the poor, if not for himself. The hermit replied, "So I should run a double risk. I should take what I do not want. I should distribute what another gave, and be praised."


You cannot serve God and Mammon.

A certain brother once came to an elder, and said, "My father, of your kindness tell me, I beseech you, what I ought to strive for in my youth, that I may own something in my old age." The old man replied to him, "You may either gain Christ or gain money. It is for you to choose whether you will have for your God the Lord or mammon."


The story of three monks who were not greedy for money.

Once three brothers hired themselves out as harvest labourers, and agreed together to reap a certain field. On the very first day of their labour one of them fell sick and returned to his cell. The other two remained, and one of them said to the other, "You see how a sickness has fallen upon our brother so that he cannot work. Do you therefore do violence to yourself, and I shall do likewise. We shall put our trust in God. Our brother who is sick will pray for us. It may be that we shall be enabled to do double work and reap his part of the field as well as our own." They did as they had hoped, and reaped the whole field which they had undertaken. On their way to receive their wages they called the brother who was sick, saying, "Come, brother, and receive your pay." But he said, "What pay shall I take, seeing I did not reap." They replied, "It was through your prayers that the reaping was accomplished. Come, therefore, as we say, and get your wages." Then there was strife between them, for he kept saying, "I will take no pay, for I have done no work"; and they refused to take any wages at all unless he got his share. At last they referred the matter to the judgment of a certain renowned elder. The brother who had been sick told his story first: "We three went to reap a certain field for hire. When we came to the place where we were to work, on the very first day I fell sick. I returned to my cell, and from that time on I did no work at all. Now these brethren come to me insisting and saying, 'Brother, come, take pay for work you did not do!'" Then the other two brethren spoke and said, "We did, as he says, go to work, and did undertake to reap a certain field. It was such a field that if we had all three been there we could hardly by great toil have fulfilled our task. Yet through the power of this brother's prayers we two were able to reap the whole field more quickly than the three of us expected to do it. Now when we say to him, 'Come and receive your hire,' he will not do so." When the old man who judged between them heard their stories, he marvelled greatly. Then he said, "Give the signal for the brothers to assemble." When they were gathered together he said, "Listen, brethren, to the righteous judgment which I give." Then he told them the whole story, and gave his decision that the brother who had been sick should receive for his own the share of the pay which ought to have been his. That brother, however, departed sorrowful, like one to whom an injury is done.

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