Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers. This week I’m featuring Abba Poemen the Shepherd.
Abba Poemen said, ‘Many become powerful, but few eminent.’
He also said, ‘Men speak to perfection but they do precious little about it.’
The early details of Abba Poemen’s life are scarce. As far as how he became a monk and what his family background was, we know nothing. This has led some to question whether Poemen was a single figure or a figurehead for a group of sayings. His name, meaning “Shepherd,” lends some credibility to the belief. However, the fact that there was a man known as Poemen is definite, there are a number stories of his family members coming to visit him long after he had committed his life to God.
The man who we know as Abba Poemen was born sometime in the fourth century and the date of his death is thought to be 451. He was called the lamp of the universe and was known as the prototypical monk. No other Desert Father or Mother has as many short sayings attributed to them as Abba Poemen. The writings attributed to him were probably the nucleus of the work that inspired the preservation of the rest of the sayings of the fathers and mothers.
Around the year 395 a group of barbarians raided the homes of the Desert Fathers, driving many of them away from the area. Abba Poemen fled with Abba Anoub and some brothers. They established a community some distance from Sketis (a place in Northern Egypt), the central location of the Desert Fathers.
Anoub and Poemen were responsible for the guidance of the community, with Poemen assuming complete oversight after Anoub passed away some time later. He was particularly close to Abba Anoub, saying this about him, “We lived together in complete unity and unbroken peace till death broke up our association.”
He was known to be deferential to those who were his elders: “It was said of Abba Poemen that he never wished to speak after another old man, but that he preferred to praise him in everything he had said.”
Their rule of life was established by Abba Anoub when, in the course of a week, Anoub was seen throwing rocks at a statue and praising the statue. At the end of the week, Poemen inquired towards his purpose in the strange ritual. Anoub answered him, “I did this for your sake. When you saw me throwing stones at the face of the statue, did it speak, or did it become angry?’ Abba Poemen said, ‘No.’ ‘Or again, when I bent down in penitence, was it moved, and did it say, “I will not forgive you?'” Again Abba Poemen answered ‘No.’ Then the old man resumed, ‘Now we are seven brethren; if you wish us to live together, let us be like this statue, which is not moved whether one beats it or whether one flatters it. If you do not wish to become like this, there are four doors here in the temple, let each one go where he will.'”
Poemen and his brothers returned to Sketis after a few years, when the barbarian threat had subsided. However, around the year 430, a fresh wave of barbarians invasions overtook the area, and once again he set out with a group of brothers to establish a community in a safer location with Abba Arsenius.
In communal living, fasting was a daily regiment of the desert lifestyle. Though the Desert Fathers cherished fasting, when Poemen was invited to share a meal he would interrupt this discipline so as not to hurt his brother: “It was said of Abba Poemen that if he was invited to eat against his will, he wept but he went, so as not to refuse to obey his brother and cause him pain.”
Once, a group of men from Syria came to visit to ask him about purity of heart. The men, upon arriving, realized that Abba Poemen did not speak Greek, which was their only language. There was not a translator available to help the conversation. Not being hindered by the lack of language, Poemen miraculously proceeded to teach them in perfect Greek, saying, “The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the man who hears the word of God often, opens his heart to the fear of God.'”
He had a knack for asking difficult questions: “A brother once visited Abba Poemen. As they were sitting with some other people, the visitor praised a certain brother, saying that he was a hater of evil. ”What does it mean to hate evil?” Abba Poemen asked him. The brother was at a loss and could not find a suitable answer. He got up at once, made a prostration to the Elder, and said to him: “Abba, What is hatred of evil?” And the Elder replied: ”He who hates his own sins and justifies his neighbor has attained to hatred of evil.”
Due to the volume of sayings attributed to Poemen, there are a plethora of topics on which he teaches. What follows are a few.
On the Spiritual Life
The monk was not to entertain distractions or things that would take him away from the presence of Christ: “He also said, ‘Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.'”
The discipline of the spiritual life was not a set path, some would excel in certain areas, and some would excel in others. What was important was serving God: “Abba Poemen said, ‘If three men meet, of whom the first fully preserves interior peace, and the second gives thanks to God in illness, and the third serves with a pure mind, these three are doing the same work.'”
He taught that the three tenets of the spiritual life were to pray, to fear God, and to do good to your neighbor. In prayer, you throw yourself before God. In fearing God, you learn not to measure yourself up to others and judge your own progress. In doing good to others you renounce your own will. These were necessary for the growth of the spiritual man.
One time, Poemen was told of a man who had fasted for six days and then had lost his temper, he said, “He could do without food for six days, but he could not cast out anger.”
He warned his disciples against complaints, judgment, and anger: “Abba Poemen said: ”One who constantly complains is not a monk; one who is vindictive is not a monk; one who is easily angered is not a monk. Anyone who has these faults is not a monk, even if he thinks he is.”
Poemen offered some incredible insight when it came to fasting: “Abba Joseph asked Abba Poemen, ‘How should one fast?’ Abba Poemen said to him, ‘For my part, I think it better that one should eat every day, but only a little, so as not to be satisfied.’ Abba Joseph said to him, ‘When you were younger, did you not fast two days at a time, abba?’ The old man said: ‘Yes, even for three days and four and the whole week. The Fathers tried all this out as they were able and they found it preferable to eat every day. but in a small amount. They have left us this royal way, which is light.’” If one was to fast for 3 or 4 days only to indulge when the fast was broken, they had done nothing to produce peace in the interior life. Both became examples of excess without fruit, the fast and the breaking. It was better to practice fasting a little each day, in that way you would hinder the work of desire and lust in your heart.
With incredible insight, he encouraged monks to process their past: “Not understanding what has happened prevents us from going on to something better.” This is especially helpful in light of the current inner healing movement. In understanding the past pain, trauma, and wounding in our lives, we can find release to move on to what God has destined for each of us. When a root is exposed, it begins to lose its life. Understanding exposes the root.
One time, he recounted an incredibly impactful vision he had of Jesus on the cross that drove him to weeping: Abba Isaac related the following: ”On one occasion I was sitting near Abba Poemen and I saw him fall into ecstasy and lamentation. Since I had boldness before him, I made a prostration to him and implored him, saying: ‘Tell me, where were you?’ When I pressed him, he replied: ’In my mind, I was beside the Cross of the Savior, where the Holy Theotokos Mary stood and wept, and I wished that I could always weep in that way.”
Being caught up into an ecstasy was a common occurrence for the Desert Fathers. It is similar to the language of Paul when he fell into a trance (trance is also the Greek word for ecstasy): “When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ (Acts 22:17-18)”
He taught that it was necessary to watch your heart: Abba Anoub asked Abba Poemen about the unclean thoughts which a man’s heart engenders, and Abba Poemen replied to him: ’“Shall the axe glorify itself without him that chops with it?’ (Isaiah 10:15). So it is with you: do not act on your thoughts and they will be ineffectual.” If the thoughts are the axe, our resistance to unclean thoughts are our refusal to take up the axe. Without the wielder, the axe is useless, so also unclean thoughts have no impact if they are not embraced. The book of Proverbs makes this clear: “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he. (Proverbs 23:7)” It does not say, “As a man thinks in his mind, so is he.”
When asked if God forgives sin, he answered: ”Would not He, Who gave to men the commandment that they must forgive, Himself fulfill it? It is well known that He gave an order to the Apostle Peter to forgive those who do wrong and repent, even seven times seventy.”
When asked how quickly God would forgive, and whether it would take three years or forty days, Poemen answered: “This is too long. It is my opinion that, if a man repents with his whole heart and does not repeat the sin, within three days only God will accept his repentance and forgive him.”
Regarding difficult circumstances
Poemen advocated a passive response to difficult circumstances. The role of the monk was to press into God and grow in humility: “A brother questioned Abba Poemen, ‘What ought I to do about all the turmoils that trouble me?’ The old man said to him, ‘In all our afflictions let us weep in the presence of the goodness of God, until he shows mercy on us.'”
Abba Poemen said that, if one humbles himself, he will find rest in any place that he settles.
Turmoil and affliction could never win if you refused to allow it to move you: “He also said, ‘The victory over all the afflictions that befall you, is to keep silence.'”
The only thing to respond to was what would separate you from God: “Bear everything, endure everything from every man, except any attempt to separate you from God.”
Community and Relationships
When it comes to relationships, we are to cut off offense before it begins its work in the heart. According to Abba Poemen, offense begins in the heart, moves to the face (in how you view another), takes shape in words, and finally is seen in rendering evil for evil. In order to fulfill Paul’s command in 1 Thessalonians 5:15, “See that none of you repay evil for evil,” we are first to purify our heart, secondly, to take care of how we look at another, thirdly, to watch our words, and fourthly, cut our conversation short so as not to “repay evil for evil.”
When approached by a certain brother, he encouraged him to be an example to others before seeking a position of authority: “A brother asked Abba Poemen, ‘Some brothers live with me; do you want me to be in charge of them?’ The old man said to him, ‘No, just work first and foremost, and if they want to live like you, they will see to it themselves.’ The brother said to him, ‘But it is they themselves, Father who want me to be in charge of them.’ The old man said to him, ‘No, be their example, not their legislator.'”
Unity was absolutely crucial to the monastic life and community: “A brother asked Abba Poemen, ‘How should those who are in the monastery behave?’ The old man said to him, ‘Whoever lives in the monastery should see all the brethren as one; he should guard his eyes and his lips; and then he will be at peace without anxiety.'” Seeing the community as one would produce peace. This is a serious charge we should take into our communities today. Before taking issue with another we should seek to see them as one with us. This is the first step in understanding.
He counseled his disciples to remain steadfast and not to become angry: “Abba Poemen said: ”A man who lives with another person should be like a marble column; when insulted, he should not get angry; and when praised, he should not be puffed up with pride.”
“He also said, ‘A man may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent; that is, he says nothing that is not profitable.’” This echoes the words of Jesus, “But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. (Matthew 15:18-19)” The issue is the posture of the heart.
Finally, he taught that how we see those in our communities will be directly related to the attitude we carry in our heart. When we “esteem others,” as Paul admonished, we see ourselves as lower and others as higher, but when we esteem ourselves, others are diminished. “A brother asked Abba Poemen: ‘How can a man avoid condemning his neighbor?’ The Elder responded: ‘We and our brothers are dual images: Whenever a man is attentive to himself and reproaches himself, he finds his brother to be virtuous; but when he thinks that he himself is good, he finds his brother to be evil in his sight.'”
Abba Poemen was a model monk. “Whenever he was planning to go to the Church for the gathering of the Fathers, he would remain for about an hour in his cell, examining his thoughts, and only then would go to the Church.” This is the perfect picture of this eminent man; sitting alone in his room, finding his own faults, and preparing himself to love those around him.