October 4, 2015

Holy Abba Ammoun of Nitria, Father of Egyptian Monasticism

St. Ammoun of Nitria (Feast Day - October 4 and December 7)


Ammoun the divine entered the narrow path of asceticism,
And the licentious have found that which is wide.

Abba Ammoun (or Ammon, Amon) was a great ascetic who lived from 294 to 357 A.D. He was the abbot of the Tabennesiote Monastery in Upper Egypt. As one of the most venerated ascetics of the Nitrian Desert, Saint Athanasius mentions him in his Life of Saint Anthony. Ammoun, as the founder of the celebrated settlement of coenobites and hermits on and near Mount Nitria (Ruf. de Mon. 30), is often styled the “father of Egyptian monasticism.” He was contemporary with St. Anthony, and dwelled in the same place in Lower Egypt as Anthony in the Thebaid. Being left an orphan by his parents, wealthy people near Alexandria, he was forced by his uncle to marry. But on the wedding day he persuaded his bride to take a vow of celibacy, and for eighteen years they lived together as brother and sister: afterwards with her consent he withdrew to Nitria, and from that time only visited his wife twice a year (Pall. Hist. Laus. 8). A great multitude of zealous disciples soon gathered round him; so that Palladius not many years later found about five thousand monks, some living quite alone, some with one or more companions; while six hundred “advanced in holiness” or "perfected" (τελείοι) dwelt apart from the rest in more complete isolation in what was called "the Cells" twelve miles from Nitria (ib.). Several miracles are related of Ammoun (Socr. Hist. iv. 23; Soz. Hist. i. 14; Niceph. Hist. viii. 41).

The following comes from The Lausiac History of Palladius:

When he was a young man, and was about twenty-two years old, he was left an orphan by his parents. His father’s brother wanted to give him a wife, and because he was unable to resist the counsel of his uncle he was compelled by force to marry one, and to fasten the crown of bridegrooms upon his head, and to take his seat in the marriage chamber, and to fulfill everything according to the law of the marriage feast.

Now, Ammoun submitted to everything outwardly, but after everyone had gone forth, having put Ammoun and his wife to bed in the marriage chamber, the blessed man rose up and shut the door and seated himself. And he called to the true and blessed woman his spouse, and said unto her, “Henceforth you shall be my lady and my sister; come therefore, and I will relate unto you concerning a matter which is more excellent [than marriage]. The marriage which men contract is a perishable thing, but let us choose for ourselves the marriage which does not perish, and the marriage feast which never ends. Let us each sleep alone, for in this wise we shall please Christ; and let us guard the glory of our virginity undefiled, so that we may take our rest at the marriage feast which is incorruptible.” Then he took out a book from his bosom and read to the maiden [passages] which were uttered by the Apostles and by our Redeemer, and since she had no knowledge of the Scriptures he added unto their words from his own divine mind. And he read many passages unto her and talked much to her concerning virginity and purity, and at length, by the grace of Christ, she was persuaded. Then she answered and said unto him, “Master, I know well that a rule of life of purity is very much more excellent [than marriage]; therefore whatsoever pleass you, that do. And I also from this time forth will be persuaded to do whatsoever you wish to do.”

Then Ammoun said unto her, “I beg and entreat you to let each of us from this time forth dwell alone;” but she would not agree to this, and said, “Let us live in the same house, and let each of us have a separate bed.” So they dwelt together in the same house for eighteen years. In the morning Ammoun used to go forth and pass the whole day in cultivating the balsam trees which he had in his garden - now the balsam tree is like unto the vine, and must be planted and pruned and cultivated, and it demands great attention — and in the evening he entered into his house, and recited his prayers, and then ate with her. And he also rose up to say the praises [or hymns] of the night, and as soon as the dawn had come he would depart to the garden.

Now as they were doing these things they both removed themselves from passions, and attained unto impassibility, and the prayers of Abbâ Ammoun helped [his wife]. And at length the blessed woman said unto him, “Master, I have something to say to you, if you will listen to me, and I am convinced that for God’s sake you love me.” The blessed man said unto her, “Tell me what you wish;” and she said unto him, “It is not right (seeing that you are a God-fearing man, and one who lives a life of righteousness, and that you also also made me, outwardly, to yearn for this path, and by the help of divine grace I have attained purity), to live with me. It is not good that, for my sake, you who dwell with me in purity for our Lord’s sake, should hide the spiritual excellence of your philosophy; for it is not seemly that your good deeds should be hidden, and should not be known. Let your dwelling be apart from me and thus you shall benefit many.”

Then Ammoun praised God, and said unto her, “O lady, this mind is beautiful, and if it be acceptable unto you, do remain and abide in this house in peace, and I will go and make another for myself.” And having gone forth from her, Ammoun departed and entered into Mount Nitria, where as yet the monasteries were not numerous - indeed up to that time there were no monasteries at all there - and he built himself a habitation there, and dwelt therein for two and twenty years. And having attained unto the highest practice of the labors of the ascetic life he ended his days, that is to say, the holy man Ammoun went to his rest and slept when he was sixty-two years of age. Twice in the year he used to go and see his spouse; and he died in his virginity, and his wife likewise brought the years of her life to an end in purity.

Now the following wonderful thing is told concerning him by the blessed Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in the book which he composed about the life and deeds of the blessed Anthony. Once when he was about to cross the river which is called “the Wolf” with Theodore his disciple, he was ashamed to take off his clothes lest he might see the nakedness of his person. And being doubtful in his thoughts how he should cross over, wonder fell upon him, and through an angel he crossed the river without any boat whatsoever. It was the same Ammoun who saw the blessed man Anthony, who lived and died in such wise that his soul was taken to heaven by angels, and it was he who passed over the waters by the might of the Holy Spirit. Now as concerning this river which is called “the Wolf,” I myself was once in great fear when I was crossing it in a boat, because it is filled with the overflow of the waters of the Nile.

The following was written by St. Hieronymus (+ 420): 

Now the blessed Ammoun was living by himself in the country of Nitria, and they brought unto him a certain young man who had been seized with madness and he was bound with chains; a mad dog had bitten him, and the madness of the animal had entered into him, and his body was torn by the severe pain which was in it. And when the blessed man saw that the relatives of the young man were making supplication unto him, he said unto them, “What are you bringing to me, O men? You are seeking from me what is greater than my power, and besides it lies in your own hands to help and to heal the young man. Be gone, and restore [the value of] the widow’s bull which you slew secretly, and your son shall be given back to you healed.” Then they, as people who had been rebuked, fulfilled his commandment, with gladness, and he prayed straightway, and their son was healed.

And on one occasion certain people came to visit the blessed Ammoun, and he, having learned their mind, said unto them, “Bring to me a large potter’s vessel, so that there may be an abundance of water for the people who come here.” Now, although they promised him that they would do so, one of them, as soon as he had gone to his village, took counsel and said unto his companion, “I am not going to carry the potter’s vessel on my camel and kill it;” and when the other man heard this, he saddled his asses, and carried the vessel to the holy man with great labor. And the blessed man Ammoun said unto the man before he could speak, saying, “What is this? Behold, your friend’s camel died while you were coming here;” and when the man returned he found that the camel had been killed by wolves. And many other miracles were worked by this man.

Below are a few sayings of Abba Ammoun recorded by Palladius:

- Abba Ammoun said, "Bear with everyone as God bears with you."

- A brother asked Abba Ammoun, saying, “Why is it that a man labors in prayer and makes petitions, and that for which he asks is not given to him?” The old man said unto him, “Have you never heard how Jacob wearied himself for her whom he took to wife, and that he did not obtain her whom he sought, but her whom he did not seek, and how afterwards he worked and toiled more, and finally received her whom he loved? Thus is it with the monk also, for he shall fast and keep vigil, and yet shall not receive that which he asks; and again, he shall labor with fasting and vigil, and shall receive the gift of grace which he asks.”

- A brother asked Abba Ammoun, and said unto him, “Tell me some word whereby I may live;” and Abba Ammoun said unto him, “Go and make your mind like unto the minds of those evil-doers who are in the prison house, and who ask those who go to them, saying, ‘Where is the governor? When will he come here?’ And their minds tremble in fearful expectation. Thus also is a monk bound to wait in expectation always, and he must admonish himself, saying, ‘Woe is me! For how can I stand before the throne of Christ? And how shall I be able to make answer unto Him?’ If you are able to think thus, you will always be able to live.”

- On one occasion Abba Ammoun came to a certain place to eat with the brethren, and there was there a brother concerning whom evil reports were abroad, for it had happened that a woman had come and entered his cell. And when all the people who were living in that place heard [of this], they were troubled, and they gathered together to expel that brother from his cell, and learning that the blessed Abba Ammoun was there, they came and entreated him to go with them. Now when the brother knew [this], he took the woman and hid her under an earthenware vessel. And much people having assembled, and Abba Ammoun, understanding what that brother had done, for the sake of God hid the matter. And he went in and sat upon the earthenware vessel, and commanded that the cell of the brother should be searched, and although they examined the place they found no one there. Then Abba Ammoun answered and said, “What is this that you have done? May God forgive you;” and he prayed and said, “Let all the people go forth,” and finally he took the brother by the hand, and said unto him, “Take heed to your soul, O my brother,” and having said this he departed, and he refused to make public the matter of the brother.

- On one occasion Abba Ammoun went to Abba Anthony, and he lost the way, and sat down for a little and fell asleep; and he rose up from his slumber, and prayed unto God, and said, “I beseech You, O Lord God, not to destroy that which You have fashioned.” Then he lifted up his eyes, and, behold, there was the form of a man’s hand above him in the heavens, and it shewed him the way until he came and stood above the cave of Abba Anthony; and when he had gone into the cave to the old man, Abba Anthony prophesied unto him, saying, “You shall increase in the fear of God.” Then he took him outside the cave, and showing him a stone, said, “Curse this stone, and smite it,” and he did so, and Abba Anthony said unto him, “It is in this way you shall arrive at this state, for you shall bear heaviness, and great abuse;” and this actually happened to Abba Ammoun.

Now, through his abundant goodness Abba Ammoun knew not wickedness. And after he had become a Bishop, through his spiritual excellence they brought unto him a virgin who had conceived, and they said unto him, “So-and-so has done this deed; let them receive correction;” but he made the sign of the Cross over her belly, and ordered them to give her six pair of linen cloths, and he said, “When she brings forth either she or the child will die, [and if either die] let them be buried.” Then those who were with him said unto him, “What is this that you have done? Give the command that they receive correction.” And he said unto them, “See, O my brethren, she is nigh unto death, and what can I do?” Then he dismissed her. And the old man never ventured to judge anyone, for he was full of loving-kindness and endless goodness to all the children of men.

- Abba Poemen used to say that Abba Ammoun said, “One man spends the whole period of his life holding an axe in his hand ready to cut down a tree, and never finds the opportunity of wielding it; and another man, who knows well how to fell trees, hews with three axes, and wields them [against trees]. Now,” he said, “the axe [in this case] is discretion [or discernment].”

- Abba Ammoun said, “A man may pass one hundred years in his cell, and not know rightly how a monk should live in his cell, or even how to live secluded for one day.” And he used to say, “The proper way and manner for a monk to live is to condemn himself continually.”

- A disciple of Abba Ammoun told the following story: “On one occasion when we were singing the service, my mind became confused, and I forgot the verse in the Psalm; and when we had ended the service Ammoun answered and said unto me, ‘While I was standing up during the service it seemed that I was standing on fire and was being consumed, and my mind was unable to make me turn aside either to the right hand or to the left. And as for you, where was your mind when we were singing the service? For omitted a verse from the Psalm. Did you not know that you were standing in the presence of God, and that you were speaking unto Him?’ ”

- Abba Ammoun said that he saw a young man who laughed, and he said unto him, “Laugh not, O brother, for if you do, you will drive the fear of God out of your soul.”

- Abba Ammoun of Nitria went to Abba Anthony, and said unto him, “I see that the labors which I perform are greater than yours, how then is it that your name is more renowned among men than mine?” Abba Anthony said unto him, “Because I also love the Lord more than you.”

- Abba Ammoun used to say, “I have spent fourteen years in Scete in making supplication unto God by day and by night that He would grant me to overcome anger.”

- Paisius, the brother of Abba Poemen, had an affection for the people who were outside his monastery, and Abba Poemen did not wish this to be, and he rose up and fled to Abba Ammoun, and said unto him, “My brother Paisius hath made a promise of love to certain folk, and I am not pleased thereat.” Abba Ammoun said unto him, “Poemen, you are still alive. Go, and sit in your cell, and contemplate in your mind, saying, ‘Behold, there is a year for you in the grave.’”

- On one occasion Abba Ammon came to the brethren, and they, while expressing regret [for troubling him, asked him] to say some words of excellence to them; and the old man answered and said unto them, “It is right that we all should travel the path of God with well-ordered [minds].”

- One of the fathers used to relate that he had an old man in a cell, who performed many ascetic labors, and who clothed himself in a palm-leaf mat; and this old man went to Abba Ammoun, who, seeing that he wore a palm-leaf mat only, said unto him, “This will profit you nothing.” And the old man asked him, saying, “Three thoughts vex me. Shall I go to the desert, or shall I go forth into exile, or shall I shut myself up in a cell, and receive no man, and eat once every two days?” Abba Ammoun said unto him, “You are not able to do any one of these things, but go, sit in your cell, and eat a very little food each day, and let there be in your heart always the words of the publican, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner,’ and thus you shall be able to live” (Luke 18:13).

- They say that Abba John the Less, the Theban, the disciple of Abba Ammoun, ministered unto the Abba in his sickness for twelve years, and he sat by him when the old man was in a state of exhaustion, and he persevered and endured so patiently, even while he was performing great labors, that the old man never once said unto him, “Rest, my son; rest, my son!” And when the old man was about to die, and the other old men were sitting before him, Abba Ammoun took his hand, and said unto him, “Live, my son, live!” Then he committed him to the old men and said unto them, “This is an angel, and not a man.”

- Now they used to say that Abba Anthony was wholly [illumined] by the appearance of the light of the Spirit, and that he could see what was happening from a distance; now on one occasion he saw the soul of the blessed Ammoun being taken up into heaven by the hands of angels, although he was distant from him ten stages.