As you can tell from my past posts, I love me some Desert Fathers – those radical Jesus followers who left the Roman cities when Christianity became legal to live a more devoted life now that martyrdom was no longer possible. The desert changed them – and not always for the better. But when I find one of their sayings jarring, I’ve learned to ask, “Are they out to lunch, or am I?” Here are some of their pithy sayings on the topic of possessions (spoiler: they’re not crazy about them).
Agatho and his disciples spent a long time in building his cell. When they had finished it he lived in it, but in the first week he saw a vision which seemed harmful to him. So he said to his disciples what the Lord said to his apostles, ‘Rise, let us go hence’ (John 14:31). But the disciples were exasperated and said, ‘If you meant the whole time to move from here, why did we have to work so hard and spend so long in building you a cell? People will begin to be shocked by us, and say: “ Look, they are moving again, they are restless and never settle.’” When Agatho saw that they were afraid of what people would say, he said, ‘Although some may be shocked, there are others who will be edified and say, “ Blessed are they, for they have moved their abode for God’s sake, and left all their property freely.” Whoever wants to come with me, let him come; I am going anyway.’ They bowed down on the ground before him, and begged to be allowed to go with him.
Evagrius said that there was a brother who had no possessions except a Gospel book and he sold it in order to feed the poor [Historical note: Books were very expensive at the time]. He said something worth remembering: ‘I have sold even the word that commands me to sell all and give to the poor.’
Theodore went to Macarius, and said, ‘I have three good books, and I am helped by reading them. Other monks also want to read them, and they are helped by them. Tell me what to do.’ Macarius replied, ‘Reading books is good, but possessing nothing is more than anything.’ When he heard this, he went and sold the books, and gave the money to the poor.
If anyone came to borrow something from John, he did not take it in his own hands and lend it, but said, ‘Come in, take what you need.’ When a borrower brought anything back, John used to say, ‘Put it back where you found it.’ If a man borrowed something and did not bring it back, John said nothing to him about it.
A brother said to Pistamon, ‘What am I to do? I am anxious when I sell what I make.’ Pistamon replied, ‘Sisois and others used to sell what they made. There is no harm in this. When you sell anything, say straight away the price of the goods [i.e. do not barter to try to get more – the common practice in the time before price tags]. If you want to lower the price a little, you may and so you will find peace.’
Someone asked a hermit to accept money for his future needs but he refused, because the produce of his labour was enough for him. When the giver persisted, and begged him to take it for the needs of the poor, he replied, ‘If I did that my disgrace would be twofold. I do not need it, yet I would have accepted it: and when I gave it to others, I would suffer from vanity.’
They said there was a working gardener who gave away all his profit in alms, and kept for himself only enough to live on. Later on Satan tempted him and said, ‘Store up a little money, as a provision to spend when you are old and infirm.’ So he made a store of coins in a big pot. It happened that he fell ill, and his foot became gangrenous, and he spent all his coins on doctors, but grew no better. An experienced doctor told him, ‘Unless we amputate your foot, the gangrene will spread through your whole body.’ So they decided to amputate it. But the night before the operation, the gardener came to his senses, and was sorry for what he had done, and groaned and wept saying, ‘Lord, remember my earlier good works when I worked in the garden and served the poor.’ Then an angel of the Lord stood before him and said, ‘Where is your store of coins? Where has your trust in them gone to?’ Then he understood, and said, ‘I have sinned, Lord, forgive me, I will not do it again.’ Then the angel touched his foot, and it was healed at once.
The brothers said that Gelasius had a parchment book worth eighteen shillings, containing the whole of the Old and New Testaments. The book was put in the church, so that any monk who wanted to could read it. But a travelling monk came to visit the hermit and when he saw the book, he coveted it, stole it, and took it away. The hermit knew who the thief was, but he did not give chase or try to catch him. The thief went to a city and looked for a buyer. He found a man who wanted it, and began by asking sixteen shillings for it. The man, who wished to beat him down, said, ‘Let me have it first to show someone and get advice, and then I will pay whatever is the right price.’ So the monk gave him the book for this purpose. He took the book to Gelasius to discover whether it was a good bargain and worth this high price. He told Gelasius the price the seller was asking. The hermit said, ‘Buy it. It is a good bargain, and worth that much.’ So he went back to the seller, but instead of doing as the hermit had told him, he said, ‘I showed this book to Gelasius and he told me it was too highly priced and not worth what you said.’ The thief said, ‘Did the hermit tell you anything else?’ He answered: ‘Nothing.’ Then the thief said, ‘I don’t want to sell it.’ Stricken to the heart, he went to the hermit, did penance, and asked him to take the book back, but he did not want to take it. Then the monk said, ‘Unless you take it back, I shan’t have peace of mind.’ Then the hermit said, ‘If you can’t have peace of mind unless I take it back, I will do so.’ The brother remained with the hermit until his death, and made progress by learning from his patience.
When Macarius was living in Egypt, one day he came across a man who had brought a donkey to his cell and was stealing his possessions. As though he was a passer-by who did not live there, he went up to the thief and helped him to load the beast, and sent him peaceably on his way, saying to himself, ‘We brought nothing into this world (1 Tim. 6:7) but the Lord gave; as He willed, so it is done: blessed be the Lord in all things.’