1. Arsenius, of blessed memory, once said to Alexander, ‘When you’ve finished your palm leaves, come and have supper with me. But if pilgrims arrive, eat with them.’ Alexander worked away gently and unhurriedly. At supper time he had not finished his palm leaves. Though he was hungry he wanted to obey the order of Arsenius, so he went on until he had finished the palm leaves. Arsenius noticed he was late and had his own supper for he thought that perhaps pilgrims had come, and that Alexander was eating with them. Alexander finished his task, and in the evening came to see Arsenius. Arsenius said to him, ‘Did pilgrims visit you?’ He said, ‘No.’ Arsenius said, ‘Then why didn’t you come?’ He replied, ‘Because you told me to come when I had finished the palm leaves. I did what you told me and did not come because I have only just finished the work.’ Arsenius admired the exactness of his obedience, and said to him, ‘You should lay aside your work sooner, so as to say your psalms, and fetch water for yourself, otherwise your body will soon grow weak.’
2. Abraham came to see Ares, and while they were sitting together, a brother came and asked Ares, ‘Tell me, what must I do to be saved?’ The hermit said, ‘Go, eat bread and salt every evening for a whole year, then come back, and I will talk to you again.’ So the brother went away and did so, and at the end of a year came again to see Ares. By chance Abraham was with him again. This time Ares said to the brother, ‘Go, fast for a year, and eat every second day.’ When he had gone, Abraham said to Ares, ‘Why, when you put a light yoke on all the brothers, have you laid such a grievous burden on this brother?’ Ares replied, ‘Other brothers come to ask questions and go away just as they came. But this brother comes to hear a word for God’s sake, and he is one who works hard for the Lord and takes the greatest trouble to do whatever I tell him. That is why I speak the word of God to him.’
3. They told this story of John the Short. He went to live with a hermit from the Thebaid, who was living in the desert of Scetis. His abba once took a dead stick and planted it, and told him, ‘Pour a jug of water over its base every day until it bears fruit.’ Water was so far from their cell that John had to go off every evening to fetch it and it was dawn before he returned. At the end of three years the stick turned green, and bore fruit. The hermit picked some of the fruit and took it to church, and said to the brothers, ‘Take and eat the fruit of obedience.’
4. They said of John, the disciple of Paul, that he was full of the virtue of obedience. There was a tomb in which lived a dangerous lioness. Paul saw the dung of the lioness lying round and said to John, ‘Go and fetch that dung.’ John said to him, ‘What shall I do, abba, about the lioness?’ The hermit said, as a joke, ‘If she comes at you, tie her up and bring her here.’ So John went there in the evening, and the lioness rushed at him. He obeyed the hermit and ran to catch her, so the lioness turned and fled. John chased her, shouting, ‘Wait! My abba told me to tie you up.’ He caught her and tied her up. The hermit sat a long time waiting for him, and was getting very anxious because he was late. But at last John came, and brought the lioness with him, tied up. Paul marvelled at the sight. But wanting to humble him, he beat him and said, ‘You fool, have you brought me that silly dog?’ and he immediately untied her, and drove her away.
5. They said that Silvanus had a disciple in Scetis called Mark, who possessed the virtue of obedience in large measure. He was a copyist of old manuscripts: and the hermit loved him for his obedience. He had seven other disciples, and they were sad that he loved Mark more than them. When the nearby hermits heard that he loved Mark above the others, they took it badly. One day when they visited him, Silvanus took them with him out of his cell, and began to knock on the door of each of his disciples, saying, ‘Brother, come out, I have work for you.’ Not one of them appeared immediately. When he came to Mark’s cell, he knocked, saying, ‘Mark,’ and as soon as Mark heard the voice of the hermit he came out and Silvanus sent him on some errand. So he said to the other hermits, ‘Where are the other brothers?’ He went into Mark’s cell, and found a book which he had just begun to copy, and he was making the letter O, but when he had heard the hermit’s voice, he had not finished the line of the O. The visitors said, ‘You are right, abba, and we also love the one whom you love, for God loves him too.’
6. Once Mark’s mother came to see him with many attendants. When the hermit went out to receive her, she said: ‘Abba, tell my son to come here to me, so that I can see him.’ The hermit went to Mark’s cell, and said to him, ‘Go on, your mother wants to see you.’ Mark was dressed in a torn piece of sackcloth patched with rags, and his head and face were dirty from the smoke of the cooking fire. He came out obediently, but closed his eyes, and greeted his mother and her attendants, saying: ‘I hope you are well.’ None of them, not even his mother, knew who he was. Again she sent a message to the hermit, saying, ‘Abba, send me my son, I want to see him.’ He said to Mark: ‘Didn’t I tell you to go and let your mother see you?’ Mark said to him, ‘I went as you said, abba. But please, don’t give me that order again, for I am afraid of being disobedient to you.’ The hermit went and said to his mother, ‘Your son is the man who came out and greeted you with “I hope you are well.” ’ He comforted her, and sent her on her way.
7. Four monks once came from Scetis to Pambo, wearing tunics of skin. Each described the goodness of one of the others, though not in his presence. One of them fasted much, one of them owned nothing, the third was a man of great charity, and they said of the fourth that he had lived in obedience to others for twenty-two years. Pambo answered, ‘The latter has greater virtue than the others. Each of you others has to use his own will to keep what he has promised, but he roots out his self-will and makes himself the servant of another’s will. People like that, if they persevere till death, are saints.’
8. Once a man who wanted to become a monk came to see Sisois of the Thebaid. The hermit asked him, ‘Have you any ties in the world?’ He said, ‘I have a son.’ He said to him, ‘Go and throw him in the river, and then you can be a monk.’ He went to throw his boy into the river, but the hermit sent a monk to stop him. He was already holding his son ready to throw him in, when the brother said, ‘Stop! What are you doing?’ He said, ‘The abba told me to throw him in.’ The brother said, ‘Now the abba says, do not throw him in.’ So he left his son, and came back to the hermit; and tested by such obedience he became a strong monk.
9. Syncletica said, ‘It seems to me that for those who live in monasteries obedience is a higher virtue than chastity, however perfect. Chastity is in danger of pride, obedience has the promise of humility.’
10. She also said, ‘We ought to behave always with discretion: and remain in the community, not following our own will, nor seeking our own good. Like exiles we have been separated from the things of the world and have given ourselves in faith to the one Father. We need nothing of what we have left behind. There we had reputation and plenty to eat; here we have little to eat and not much of anything else.’
11. Hyperichius said, ‘The monk’s service is obedience. He who has this shall have his prayers answered, and shall stand by the Crucified in confident faith. For that was how the Lord went to his cross, being made obedient even unto death’ (cf. Phil. 2:8).
12. The hermits said, ‘If a man trusts someone else, and makes him his servant, he ought not to think about God’s commandments, but give himself completely to obey the will of his spiritual father. If he obeys him in everything he will not sin against God.’
13. The hermits used to say, ‘God demands this of Christians: to obey the inspired Scriptures, which contain the pattern of what they must say and do, and agree with the teaching of the orthodox bishops and teachers.’
14. A brother from Scetis was going to harvest: and he went to one of the great hermits and said, ‘Tell me, abba, what am I to do, while I am harvesting?’ The hermit said, ‘If I tell you, will you do as I say?’ The brother answered, ‘Yes; I will obey you.’ He said, ‘If you do what I say, you will give up your harvesting: and come here, and I will tell you what to do.’ So the brother abandoned his harvesting, and came to the hermit who said, ‘Go into your cell, and stay there fifty days without a break. Eat bread and salt once a day. At the end of that time I will tell you what to do next.’ He did so, and came back to the hermit. The hermit realized that he was in earnest and told him how he ought to live in his cell. The brother went into his cell, and for three days and nights he lay prone upon the ground, in penitence before God. Then the thought came into his mind, ‘You are very good, you are a great man,’ but he took control of his thoughts, and in humility called his sins to mind, saying, ‘What about all the sins I have committed?’ If the thought rose in his mind that he had neglected the commandments of God, he said to himself, ‘I will offer God a little service, and I believe that He will have mercy upon me.’ So he conquered the demons that sent him wicked thoughts: and they appeared before him in a visible form, and said, ‘You are making us angry.’ He said to them, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘If we praise you, you are quick to be humble; if we humble you, you rise up on high.’
15. The hermits used to say, ‘From those who have not long been converted to monastic life, God demands nothing so much as sincere obedience.’
16. An old hermit had a servant, who lived nearby. Once it happened that because the servant did not come, the hermit did not have what he needed, neither food to eat nor materials to work. He was anxious about having neither means of work nor means of keeping alive, and said to his disciple, ‘Will you go over there, and summon the servant who usually brings what we need?’ He answered, ‘I will go if you order me to.’ But the hermit would not give him an order to go, for he did not dare to send the monk. After they had suffered for a long time because the servant did not come, the hermit said again to his disciple, ‘Now will you go and bring him here?’ He answered, ‘I will if you want me to.’ The disciple was afraid that if he went out he would cause scandal, but so as not to be disobedient to his abba, he agreed to go. The hermit said, ‘Go, and believe in the God of your abba, who will protect you in every temptation,’ and he prayed, and sent him on his way. The monk came and inquired where the servant lived, and found his house. The servant happened to be away with all his family except a daughter. When the monk knocked, the daughter opened the door. When he asked her where her father was, she urged him to come into the house, and indeed tried to pull him inside. At first he refused to go in, but in the end she succeeded in persuading him. Then she flung herself at him and tried to tempt him to lie with her. He felt lust rising in him, and his mind was in a turmoil; and he groaned and called out to God, ‘Lord, by the prayers of my abba, set me free now.’ As soon as he said it, he found himself by the river on the path to the hermitage, and he was restored, unharmed, to his abba.
17. Two men, who were siblings came to live in a monastery. One possessed the virtue of self-control, the other the virtue of obedience, each to a remarkable degree. If the abba said to the second, ‘Do this’, he did it; if he said, ‘Eat at dawn’, he ate at dawn. So he gained fame in the monastery for his obedience. But the other brother was stung to envy, and said to himself, ‘I will test him and see if he is really so obedient.’ He went to the abbot of the monastery, and said to him, ‘Send my brother away with me, and we will go somewhere else for a while.’ The abbot sent them on their way. Now the ascetic brother wanted to tempt the obedient brother. They came to a river infested by crocodiles. He said to him, ‘Walk down into the river, and cross.’ He immediately walked into the river and the crocodiles swam to him, and nosed his body, but did not hurt him. When his brother saw what happened, he said, ‘Come out of the river.’ On their journey they found a corpse lying by the wayside. The ascetic said to his brother, ‘If we had an old coat we could put it over the corpse.’ He answered, ‘We had better pray; perhaps he will live again.’ When they had prayed earnestly, the dead man stood up. The ascetic brother was proud and said, ‘This dead man has been raised because I am so self-controlled.’ But God revealed what had happened to the abbot of the monastery, how the ascetic brother had tempted his brother, how the crocodiles had not hurt him, and how the dead had been raised. When they came back to the monastery, the abbot said to the ascetic, ‘Why did you behave like that to your brother? The dead man was raised because your brother is so obedient.’
18. A secular man who had three sons renounced the world. He left his sons in the city and went to live in a monastery. After three years there he began to get anxious when he remembered his three sons and was very worried about them; he had not told his abbot of their existence. The abbot, seeing he was upset, asked him, ‘Why are you worried?’ So he told him that he had three sons in the city and wanted to bring them to the monastery. The abbot told him to go and bring them. When he arrived in the city, he found that two of his sons had died and only one survived. He took him back to the monastery, and looked for the abbot but could not find him. He asked the brothers where the abbot was and they told him that he had gone to the bakery. The man took his child in his arms and went to the bakery. The abbot saw him coming, and greeted him; he picked up the child, and hugged and kissed him. Then he said to the father, ‘Do you love him?’ He replied, ‘Yes I do.’ Then the abbot said, ‘Do you love him with all your heart?’ He answered, ‘Yes.’ At this the abbot said, ‘Then, if you love him so much, pick him up and throw him into the oven, now, while it is red hot.’ So the father took his son and threw him into the red-hot oven. In that moment the oven was transformed and became as cool as the dew. So the father received praise for an act like that of the patriarch Abraham.
19. A hermit said, ‘Someone who hands over his soul in obedience to a spiritual guide has a greater reward that one who retires alone to a hermitage.’ He also said this: ‘One of the fathers saw a vision of four ranks in heaven. The first rank was of those who are sick, yet give thanks to God. The second rank was of those who minister to the sick willingly and generously. The third rank was of those who live in the desert, seeing no one. The fourth rank was of those who for God’s sake put themselves under obedience to spiritual guides. But those who live in obedience in the fourth rank wore necklaces and crowns of gold and shone more than the others. I said to the one who showed me the vision, ‘How is it that the rank which is lowest shines the most?’ He replied, ‘Those who care for others do what they themselves want to do. Hermits follow their own will in withdrawing from the world. But the obedient have gone beyond their self-will, and depend only on God and the word of their spiritual guides: that is why they shine the most.’ Learn by this how great a good is obedience if it is for God’s sake and strive to win some trace at least of this virtue. It is the salvation of the faithful, the mother of all virtue, the entry into the kingdom; it raises us from earth to heaven; obedience lives in the same place as the angels; it is the food of the saints who by its nourishment grow to fullness of life.’