31 July 2009

‘I Have Found Nothing of Men in Him at All’—St Pambo of Nitria

Today, 18 July on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Abba Pambo of Nitria (c. 303-373). St Pambo was born in the third or fourth year of the fourth century, and was ‘an Egyptian and illiterate, until taught the Scriptures as a monk’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed., trans. Benedicta Ward, SLG [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984], p. 195). He went to ‘the mountain of Nitria’ at a young age—Tim Vivian says ‘not long after Amoun, who had founded monasticism there in 315’ (Four Desert Fathers: Pambo, Evagrius, Macarius of Egypt & Macarius of Alexandria, trans. and ed. Tim Vivian [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2004], p. 53), though the Coptic Life of Pambo mentions ‘a wife and two sons’ (p. 58)—and there lived a very ascetic life. In the Gerontikon, Pambo 8, he himself is said to have testified on his deathbed:

Since I came to this place of the desert and built my cell and dwelt here, I do not remember having eaten bread which was not the fruit of my hands and I have not repented of a word I have said up to the present time; and yet I am going to God as one who has not yet begun to serve him. (Ward, p. 197)

St Pambo was ordained to the priesthood sometime before 340 (Vivian, p. 54), and according to the Gerontikon, Pambo 4, was summoned to Alexandria by St Athanasius:

Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, of holy memory, begged Abba Pambo to come down from the desert to Alexandria. He went down, and seeing an actress he began to weep. Those who were present asked him the reason for his tears, and he said, ‘Two things make me weep: one, the loss of this woman; and the other, that I am not so concerned to please God as she is to please wicked men.’ (Ward, p. 196)

According to Palladius, in Lausiac History 10, St Pambo was the ‘teacher of Dioscorus the bishop and Ammonius and Eusebius and Euthymius, “the (Tall) Brethren”, also of Origen the nephew of Dracontius, a wonderful man’, the first four of whom were given shelter and defended by St John Chrysostom in Constantinople when Patriarch Theophilus began to persecute them. Interestingly, one of the sayings in the Gerontikon associated with Theophilus (almost all of which seem to portray in him a negative, or at least neutral, light) that concerns St Pambo (Theophilus 2):

The same Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, ‘Say something to the archbishop, so that he may be edified.’ The old man said to them, ‘If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.’ (Ward, p. 81)

St Nicholas (Velimirović), in the Prologue (for St Pambo, see here), seems to have adopted the date of 386 for St Pambo’s death almost for the sole purpose (at least, I don’t know where else he would have got it) of allowing for this exchange with Theophilus, who became Patriarch in 385. Vivian, on the other hand, argues that ‘the attribution to Theophilus is probably incorrect’, since he accepts it as given that St Pambo died in 373-74 (p. 53, n. 3). According to the Coptic Life of Pambo, shortly before his death the great Abba happened to be visited by St Melania the Elder. He offered her a basket he had made, saying, ‘Take this basket, made with the labor of my hands, in order to remember me, for I have nothing else to leave you’, then we read, ‘And then he gave his spirit into the hands of the Lord (Ps 30:6; Lk 23:46). She directed his disciples to allow her to bury him, and she buried him in precious linen garments. She left the desert, keeping that basket with her to the day of her death’ (Vivian, pp. 61-2).

The Coptic Life says St Pambo ‘was second after Abba Antony’ and ‘was thus called alēthinos, “the truthful one”, concerning whose virtues the whole brotherhood testified’, noting in particular his humility, his patience in speaking, and his almsgiving (Vivian, p. 57). And later on we read, ‘This Abba Pambo was an admirable person, for his virtues and his accomplishments were great, but he was even more admirable on account of his hatred of gold and silver, as it is written with regard to this subject (Mt 6:19-21)’ (Vivian, p. 59). This latter virtue is illustrated well by two stories. First, in his 22nd Letter, ‘To Eustochium’ (see here), St Jerome tells us:

33. As I have been led to touch to the subject— it shall have a treatise to itself if Christ permit— I will relate what took place not very many years ago at Nitria. A brother, more thrifty than covetous, and ignorant that the Lord had been sold for thirty pieces of silver (Mt 26:15), left behind him at his death a hundred pieces of money which he had earned by weaving linen. As there were about five thousand monks in the neighborhood, living in as many separate cells, a council was held as to what should be done. Some said that the coins should be distributed among the poor; others that they should be given to the church, while others were for sending them back to the relatives of the deceased. However, Macarius, Pambo, Isidore and the rest of those called fathers, speaking by the Spirit, decided that they should be interred with their owner, with the words: ‘Your money perish with you’ (Acts 8:20). Nor was this too harsh a decision; for so great fear has fallen upon all throughout Egypt, that it is now a crime to leave after one a single shilling.

Second, from the Lausiac History X (for a translation from the Greek version, see here), we learn another story. St Melania the Elder travelled once to Nitria to meet St Pambo and offer him a large coffer of silver for the fathers there. The great Abba barely looked up from the rope he was weaving, gave her a quick blessing, said ‘Put it on the windowsill’ (Vivian, p. 60), and told his disciple, Origen, to distribute the money. St Melania, in her own words, ‘stood there, expecting that he would perhaps honor me or praise me, and I didn’t hear a single word from him. I said to him, “My father, I wish to inform you—so you know—that there are three hundred pounds of silver there”’ (Vivian, p. 61). The Elder replied:

He to whom you have given them knows their number; he doesn’t need anyone to weigh them for him. He who ‘weighs the mountains in a scale and the hills in a balance’ is not ignorant of the weight of this silver (Is 40:12). Indeed, if you had given the money to me, then you’d do well to inform me about it, since I am a man. But if you give the money to God, then there is no need to tell me. God, who accepted the two small coins from the widow (Mk 12:42), will accept your offering too. As for yourself, be silent; do not boast.’ (Vivian, p. 61)

St Melania concludes, ‘I found nothing of men in him at all’ (Vivian, p. 61). William Harmless comments on this story, ‘This was not the way one spoke to an aristocratic benefactor. But it was typical of one of the desert fathers’ (Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism [Oxford: Oxfor U, 2004], p. 4).

It was perhaps for virtues like this that St Pambo was said (Pambo 12) to have ‘received the image of the glory of Adam when his face shone . . . like lightening . . . like a king sitting on his throne’ (Ward, p. 197). Stelios Ramfos notes that of all the Fathers of the Gerontikon, Ss Pambo, Sisoes, and Silvanus alone ‘are singled out for having the light of God shining in their faces’ (Like a Pelican in the Wilderness: Reflections on the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. and abgd. Norman Russell [Brookline, MA: Holy Cross, 2000], p. 248). Ramfos comments at length:

Amongst the holy hesychasts of the Gerontikon, then, Pambo, Sisoes and Silvanus were literally light-bearing and their spiritual work (that is, their charism) was to concentrate in their persons the lightning of divinity and send it out into the world. It was not by chance that their faces shone with the light of the Spirit—it was their spiritual ‘work’. Which means that this strange and rare property had to do with their ascetic existence itself, the heart of their struggle. In order to understand what this radiant face signifies we need to look more closely at the kind of life each of them led. It was said of Abba Pambo, for example, ‘that for three years he persevered in petitioning God and saying, ‘Do not glorify me on earth.’ And so God glorified him, so that no-one could gaze into his face from the radiance that shone from it’ (Pambo 1, PG 65, 368BC [Ward, pp. 195-6]). The glory of God Himself was reflected in the face of the saint. (pp. 248-9)

In conclusion, here is the ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St Pambo in the Prologue:

The monks asked Pambo the Blessed:
‘Is it good to praise your neighbor?’
Then Pambo was silent and to the brethren replied:
‘It is good to praise but it is better to remain silent.’
And still, they asked Pambo: ‘And who is perfect?’
‘For the sake of the will of God, one who denies his own.’
The monks remained silent while one will say:
‘Yet one more reply, do not deny us:
And what kind of garment should a monk have?’
‘The kind you throw away and no one takes.’
Thus the saint spoke and closed his mouth,
For he protected his tongue in order not to speak unnecessarily.
Pambo, all radiant at the hour of his death
Questioned about his life, he uttered:
‘Undeserving bread, I never did taste,
Neither for a word, my soul repented.’

1 comment:

Scott Dossett said...

Thoughtful summary of Abba Pambo. I am from a different background (Protestant), but I have greatly enjoyed reading through your explorations of the lives of some of the great men who pursued God throughout history.