History of the Egyptian Monks (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto - Part 1

De Vitis Patrum, Book II
By Rufinus of Aquileia


Blessed be God who wills all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, It is he who has guided our steps to Egypt, and showed us great wonders, to be recorded for the benefit of posterity. In this history will be found salutary examples and teachings most conducive to true devotion, which for anyone wishing to walk in holiness will reveal clearly the pathways along which our forefathers in the faith have walked.

We feel it is impossible to do justice to the tale of such great matters, nor does it seem right that an important attempt to portray high virtue should be entrusted to the halting narrative of authors as unskilled and unimportant as we are. Nevertheless the brothers of the holy Mount Olivet have in their charity frequently begged us to write about the way of life of the monks of Egypt and what we saw of their spiritual strengths, their devout practices and their heroic abstinence. Believing that I have no option but to be obedient to their prayers, I accede to their requests, not to seek praise for my authorship, but in the hope that future readers will draw inspiration from this narrative, and encouraged by the example of what others have done may likewise feel invited to despise the corruption of the world and truly seek rest for their souls by embracing a disciplined life.

Truly, I have seen with my own eyes the riches of Christ hidden in human vessels, and having found this treasure I had no desire to keep it enviously to myself, but to make my findings common knowledge for the benefit of all. I am sure that the more people that are enriched by this the richer I shall be myself. How can I fail to be enriched, for my reward shall have been the salvation of others because of my ministry.

At the beginning of this narrative therefore let us pray that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ may be with us, upon whose power depends all the discipline of the Egyptian monks. For we saw among them many fathers living the life of paradise while still dwelling here on earth, a new race of prophets, seers as well as people with great strength of soul. The efficacy of their signs and wonders bears witness to their worth., and deservedly so. Indeed, why should not these men acquire heavenly power, despising as they do the carnal values of the world? We found that many of them were cleansed to such an extent from all malicious and cynical thoughts that it was as if they no longer had any memory of the evil in the world. So great was their tranquillity of mind, so completely had simple goodness grown into them, that it could deservedly be said of them: Great is the peace of them who love thy name, O Lord. (Ps. 119.165)

They dwell in separate cells scattered about the desert, but united together in charity. Their houses are ordered in this way so that as they keep their minds set in peaceful silence on heavenly things they may be disturbed by no human voice, no meetings, no unlooked for conversations. Each one in his own place looks for the coming of Christ like good sons of the Father, or like soldiers in camp getting ready for the presence of the Emperor, or like faithful servants looking for the coming of their lord to set them free and shower gifts upon them. They all take no thought for what they shall eat or what they shall wear. They know that as it is written in Scripture after all these things do the gentiles seek (Matt 6.32) For they seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things are added unto them.

When any of the necessities of life were lacking, many of them would not seek human help but would turn to God, making their requests known as to a father, and their requests were granted there and then. So great was their faith that they could move mountains. There were some who by their prayers turned back flooding from the river which was endangering the neighbouring region. They departed on foot into the depths of the river valley, they tamed many wild beasts, and did many another of the great and powerful signs which the apostles and prophets did of old. It cannot be doubted but that their merits maintain the stability of the world.

It was wonderful to behold, that all those excellent gifts which are usually so rare and difficult to obtain flourished among them not only in great numbers but also in exceptional power. Some of them live in towns, some in the country, the best of them scattered through the desert, like a heavenly army living in tents ready for battle, always intent upon obedience to the commands of the king, fighting with the weapons of prayer, protected by the shield of faith from the infidel enemy, winning the kingdom of heaven for themselves. Their way of life is admirable, they are free from conflict, gentle and peaceful, bound together in brotherly love. They strain every nerve in the battle to acquire all the virtues. Each one strives to outdo the other in clemency, kindness, humility and patience. If there is anyone who is wiser than the others, it is held to be for the benefit of all, especially the less gifted, so that in accordance with the Lord's command he may be seen as the least of all and the servant of all.
It is a great gift from God that I have been able to see them all and converse with them. I shall now try to talk about them one at a time as the Lord brings them to my memory, so that anyone who has not seen them in the flesh may learn of their deeds, and in reading about them understand what a perfect life is like. May they be encouraged to follow the example of their holy works, and seek the palm of perfect wisdom and patience.

Chapter I


As a foundation stone for our task let us take John as an example of everything that is good. For those who are religiously devoted to God John will be more than sufficient as a guide to the heights of virtue and the summit of perfection. We met him in the desert parts of the Thebaid, living on the side of a steep mountain near the city of Lycus. It was very difficult to get up to his monastery. The approach was so narrow and full of obstacles that no one had joined him there for all of the fifty years since his fortieth birthday. Whenever he heard people coming he would show himself from a window, from where he would offer a word about God, or give answers to those seeking counsel. No women ever got near enough for him to see them, and even men but rarely, and then only at certain fixed times. He did allow a guest house to be constructed at some distance where those who had come from afar could rest a while. He remained alone inside, occupied solely with God, ceasing not day or night from prayers and supplications to God, in total purity of thought seeking that divine essence which is above all thought. The further he cut himself off from all human cares and conversation the closer he came to God. To such a fine quality of mind had he attained that God gave him insights not only into present matters but also rewarded him with foreknowledge of things to come. God quite plainly gave him the gift of prophecy, so that he not only saw into the future of local citizens and country dwellers alike, when asked, but often predicted how the wars of the Emperor Theodosius would turn out, the manner in which he would gain his victories over petty kings, or how many invasions he would suffer from the tribes of the barbarians.

At one time the Egyptians attacked the Roman fort at Cyrene, which is the city of the Theban region nearest Ethiopia, causing much destruction and making off with a great deal of plunder. The Roman officer in command feared to counter attack because he had very few soldiers whereas the enemy was very numerous. He came to John who named a certain day and said, "It will be quite safe for you to go out on this day that I have named. You will overcome the enemy, you will take lots of spoils and recover what you have lost." Once this had come to pass he used to prophesy even for the benefit of Augustus, who accepted him and valued him greatly. But he ascribed these gifts of prophecy more to the greatness of those who asked him than to his own merits. He used to say that these prophecies were given by God on account of those for whom they were intended, not because of himself.

There is another marvel that God manifested through him. A certain military tribune came to him and begged him to give permission for his wife to visit him. He said that she had already undergone great dangers in the effort to get to see him. John said that he had never been in the habit of giving interviews to women, especially since having shut himself up in this monastery on the cliff. The tribune persisted in his pleas, saying that if she couldn't see him she would doubtless perish from grief. Again and again he pleaded, repeating that his wife would surely die, in the belief that she had lost all hope of being healed. Overcome at last by the tribune's faith no less than his importunity, the old man said, "Go, your wife shall see me this night, not here but at home in her own bed." At these words the tribune went away, pondering in his heart the meaning of this reply. He told his wife what had been said, and she also was no less puzzled by it. But when she was asleep the man of God appeared to her in a vision, and standing next to her said: "Woman, great is your faith, and therefore I have come to satisfy your desire. But I admonish you that you should not try to seek the physical presence of the servants of God, but rather should contemplate their acts and doings in the spirit. For it is the Spirit which gives life, the flesh profits nothing. I have prayed to God for you, not because I am a righteous person or a prophet, as you think, but simply because of your faith, and he has granted you healing of all the diseases, which afflict your body. From now, you and your husband will be whole, and your whole household will be blessed. Be mindful, both of you, of the blessings which God has given you, fear him always and be content with your wages. You have seen me in your dreams, that should be enough for you, you don't need anything else." When the woman awoke she told her husband what she had seen and heard, and described the man's face and what he was wearing and all other distinguishing marks. Whereupon the man marveled, and went back to the man of God to give thanks. The man of God blessed him and he went away in peace.

On another occasion a military commander came to him having left his heavily pregnant wife at home. On the very day when he saw John, his wife gave birth and became dangerously ill. Then the holy man of God said: "If only you knew that by God's gift a son is born to you this day you would give thanks. His mother is seriously ill but God will be with you and you will find that she will be all right. Make haste, then, go back home to see your seven-day-old child. You shall call him John, and you shall bring him up in your own home without any outside influence until he is seven years old, and then you shall hand him over to a monastery to be taught under a holy and heavenly discipline."

Many came to see him from far and near, and after questioning them he opened up to them the secrets of their own hearts. Whatever sins they privately confessed to him he admonished and counselled them, urging them to penitence and amendment of life. He could predict whether the flooding of the Nile would be abundant or meagre. If because of human sin it chanced that there were any natural disasters or other visitations of God, he always knew about them in advance and was able to point out the reasons why this punishment was being inflicted. To those who sought him out he brought wholeness of mind and bodily cures, but in such a way that he avoided ostentation. For he did not allow petitioners to come to him, but instead blessed oil for them to be anointed with, by which means they were healed of all their disorders.

When a certain senator's wife lost her eyesight she begged her husband to take her to the man of God. When he replied that the man of God was not in the habit of receiving women she begged him that at least he might make him aware of the extent of her disability, and ask him to pray for her. The husband duly presented this appeal to him, whereupon he prayed, blessed oil, and sent him back to her. After applying this oil to her eyes for three days she recovered her sight and gave thanks to God. But it would take a long time to tell of all his accomplishments. So let us pass over all that we have heard tell about him and come to the things which we have seen with our own eyes.

We were a group of seven who came to him, and when we had greeted him he received us with great kindness, had a friendly word with each one of us, and asked us to pray and give a blessing. (For it is the custom in Egypt that when brethren arrive they join together with each other in prayer.) He then asked if any one of us was a cleric, which we all denied. He looked at each one of us and knew that there was one of us who was ordained as a deacon, but kept it secret apart from one other in his confidence. The rest of his travelling companions did not know. Because of his humility he had decided on not revealing the honour of his rank, preferring to be ranked lower than all these men of such qualities that he deemed himself to be inferior to them all. As the holy John looked at him and saw that he was younger than the others he pointed at him and said: "This man is a deacon". He tried to deny it, but John grasped him and kissed him saying: "Do not deny the grace of God, my son, lest you exchange good for evil, and your humility is seen to be false. All untruth should be avoided, whether for an evil intention or even for a good, for all lies are not from God but from the evil one, as our Saviour teaches." Hearing this he accepted the gentle rebuke graciously and apologised.

We offered prayer to God and when we had finished one of our number suffering from a severe infection [tertiano typo "tertian ague"] begged the man of God to cure him. "You are trying to rid yourself of something which is necessary for you," he replied. "For just as bodies are cleansed by soda and other such remedies, so souls are purified by bodily weakness and other afflictions of this sort." He went on from there to give us a lengthy discourse upon mystical teaching, and finally blessed some oil and gave it to him. The sick man anointed himself with it and vomited out a great deal of poison, after which, restored to good health, he walked back to the guest house.

After this he saw to it that the duties of humane hospitality should be fulfilled, and our bodily needs attended to. He took thought for us, though neglectful of himself. For his own longstanding custom and discipline was to eat nothing till evening, and then sparingly. He was very thin, and desiccated of body because of his abstinence. His beard and hair were so sparse and straggly, that no amount of food would be able to nourish them, or refreshing draught give them strength. Although, as we have said, he was a nonagenarian, he still would take no cooked food.

Having fulfilled the duties of hospitality he bade us come and sit down. He asked us where we had come from and why, since now he had received us very happily as his own sons. We replied that we had come from Jerusalem for the benefit and advancement of our own souls. We wanted to verify with our own eyes what his fame had brought to our ears, for it was much easier to fix in the memory what the eye saw than what the ears heard. And the blessed John replied with an untroubled countenance, half mockingly, but with great warmth: "I am astonished, my beloved sons, at the great labour of such a journey as you have undertaken, when you can't possibly see anything in me to make it worthwhile. I am but a humble and unimportant person. There is nothing in me worth seeking out or marvelling at, and even if in your opinion I did have something, surely you could have found as much by studying the prophets and apostles. They are read out loud daily in the churches of God, providing people among themselves in their own homes examples of life for them to imitate without the need to travel to distant foreign places. So much the more I marvel at your decision to undertake such research with so much effort, to travel with difficulty through so many countries, simply for the sake of benefiting your own souls. For ourselves we are so lazy and idle that we don't even venture outside our cell! But if you really do think that there is something in me from which you can draw profit, you must above all take care that you do not make the labour of visiting me an occasion of boasting. It would diminish any profit for your soul if you were to put yourself forward as something marvellous because you had actually been to visit someone whom other people knew only by hearsay.

"Boasting is a very serious and dangerous fault. It can destroy even those who have arrived at the peak of perfection. So I urge you above all to guard against this. This evil comes in two ways. It happens to some in the first stages of their conversion. They take on a bit of abstinence, they give some money to the poor, and because they then think that they have managed to cast off some of their chains they begin to act and think as if they were better than those to whom they had given alms. The other kind of boasting comes to those who have arrived at the very peak of virtue, for they ascribe this not wholly to God but to their own studious efforts, and in seeking for human glory they lose the glory of God. So then, my sons, let us flee from the vice of boasting, lest we open up a chink through which the devil may gain entry.

"We should take particular care to discipline our hearts and minds. We must take care that no avarice, or evil thought, or empty desire or anything contrary to the will of God take root in our hearts. From roots of this sort there constantly swarm vain and useless thoughts. They are so evil that they do not cease even when we are praying or standing in the presence of God, making a mockery of the prayers which are offered for our salvation. They take our minds captive, and although our body proclaims that we are at prayer our thoughts and feelings are dragged away in all kinds of different ways. So for anybody who reckons to have renounced the world and the devil it is not enough to have made a vow, and shed possessions and estates and other worldly affairs unless you have also repudiated your own vices and cast down your unprofitable and empty desires. This is what the Apostle is talking about when he mentions 'foolish and hurtful lusts which drown men in destruction' (1 Tim.vi.9). This is what it means to renounce the devil and all his works.

For the devil snatches an entry into our hearts through every occasion of vice and corruption of will, because vices belong to him just as virtues come from God. If there are vices in our heart they welcome the devil's approach as if into his own domain and let him come in as if to his own property. And thence it comes that hearts like this never know peace and quiet, they are always in turbulence, always in bondage, now manic, now depressed, for they harbour a most evil tenant inside them. They have let him in through their own passions and vices. In contrast to this is the mind which has truly renounced the world, i.e. has repudiated and amputated every vice, blocked every entry to the approach of the devil, subdued anger, restrained his passion, fled falsehood, condemned envy, not only kept himself from slandering his neighbour, but forbidden himself even to think evil or suspicious thoughts about him, rejoices with his neighbour's rejoicing, and is saddened by his neighbour's sorrows. The mind that observes these and suchlike precepts opens a space in himself for the Holy Spirit to enter and enlighten, whence arise joy, gladness, charity, patience, longsuffering, kindness and all other fruits of the Spirit. This is what the Lord says in the gospel: a good tree cannot bear evil fruit, neither can a bad tree bear good fruit. By its fruits shall the tree be known.


Moreover there are some who seem to have renounced the world but have made no effort towards purity of heart, they have not rooted out vices and passions from their souls, nor amended their way of life. For these people their only thought is to seek out some holy father, memorise the things he says, and then glorify themselves by telling others what he has learnt from this or that person. By acquiring a knowledge of some small scraps of wisdom which they have heard and learnt by heart, they forever wish to be considered as teachers, but they teach not what they do themselves but what they have heard and seen, thus despising others. They aspire to priesthood and try to become members of the priestly class, ignorant of the fact that someone in whom virtues flourish, yet is not so bold as to teach anyone else about virtue, is more to be praised than one who teaches others about virtue while still ruled by passions and vices. So, my little children, it is not important either to avoid the priesthood or avidly to seek after it. What is needed is to drive out vice and acquire spiritual virtues. It can be left to the judgment and will of God as to whom he wills to call to the priesthood or any other ministry. He whom the Lord calls to himself is to be approved, not he who puffs himself up.

The chief work of the monk is to offer up to God pure prayer with a clear conscience, as the Lord says in the Gospel: "When you stand at prayer, forgive your brothers from your heart if you have anything against them, for if you forgive not your brothers neither will your Father in heaven forgive you." (Mark 11: 25, 26) If, as we have said, we stand before God with a pure heart, free from all the passions and vices mentioned above, we may see God, in so far as that is possible. Directing the eye of the heart to him as we pray we contemplate with the mind, not with the body, that which is invisible, with the discernment of pure knowledge, not physical eyesight. But let no one imagine himself able to embrace the divine substance as it is in itself, as if he were constructing in his heart a mental image like a picture corresponding to something physical. Let him not imagine God has any shape for he is boundless, but there may be a mental perception which can be experienced as a stirring up of the affections of the heart, even though it is beyond comprehension and cannot be described or explained. We must come to God with all reverence and fear, and let our minds be fixed on him in such a way that we are aware always that he is immeasurably greater than any images of splendour, brightness, brilliance or majesty that a human mind may conceive. We say this may only happen if the mind is pure, and free from any meanness of thought or perversity of will. To pay attention to these things is of the greatest importance to those who have renounced the world in order to seek God, as it is written: "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). If anyone has come to know God, so far as is humanly possible, he will come at last to an understanding of all other things and take hold of the mysteries of God. The more his mind is purified, the more God will make himself known to him and reveal his secrets. For he has now become a friend of God like those to whom the Saviour said: 'I no longer call you servants, but friends, and anything you seek from God will be granted you as to a dearly beloved friend' (John 15: 15, 16). Indeed the angelic powers and all the divine mysteries will love you as a friend of God and look favourably on all your petitions. This is the meaning of the scripture: "Neither death nor life, nor angels not principalities nor powers nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:38, 39)

Therefore, my beloved, inasmuch as you have chosen to try and please God and come to his love, take care to distance yourself from all boasting, all vices of the soul, all bodily delights. And don't think that 'bodily delights' are limited to what pleases worldly people. Anyone who practices abstinence must realize that 'delights' comprise all things which he might have sought after with greediness, even such commonplace things as might be normally used by an abstainer. For even bread and water, if taken to satisfy greed rather than for mere bodily need, can lead to the vice of gluttony. One must be accustomed in all things to keep the soul free from vice. The Lord wishes to teach us how to resist the devices and desires of our own heart, and so he says: 'Enter in by the narrow gate, for the way to death is broad and spacious, but the way to life is strait and narrow'. (Matthew 7: 13,14). The way of the soul is broad when every desire is pandered to, the narrow way means denying satisfaction to your own desires. A somewhat isolated dwelling and a solitary way of life can be of great profit in grasping these things, for if there are a lot of fraternal visits and much coming and going, the yoke of abstinence and frugality may be relaxed and little by little one is led into the habit of enjoying 'delights'. Even the perfect can sometimes be taken prisoner in this way. So at last hear what David says: 'See, I have fled far off to dwell in solitude'". (Psalm 55: 7).

(cf VIII.xliv) Afterwards, however, the holy John discussed with us many aspects of the vice of boasting and other matters of special benefit. Finally he gave us this warning: "Let me reveal to you what happened recently to one of our brothers, as a precedent and example to make you more cautious yourselves."

John here offers- three 'cautionary tales':

1. An account of a hermit 'full of all the virtues' living in a cave who was led astray by a demon in the shape of a woman, and who became so disturbed that he returned 'to the world'and avoided the company of all the saints, so that nobody was able to give him any useful advice which might have drawn him back from the precipice. If only he had made up his mind to return to his former abstemious way of life he would without doubt have regained his former state of grace.

2. A story of a man living a disgraceful and disreputable life who was converted to God and lived a solitary life of penance, enduring many fierce struggles with the demons in order to eradicate the roots of sin in himself, such that he became an example to many.

3. A story of a hermit of such virtue that he was fed daily by bread from heaven, but who little by little found his life becoming boring and distasteful to the extent that he left the desert and set out for the city. On the way he rested at a monastery and took part in a conference wherein he found himself giving such a vivid exposition of how to frustrate the wiles of the demons that he was moved to compunction himself saying: 'Here am I giving others good advice when I am in the depths of deception, myself. How do I dare tell others how to behave, when I have not amended my own life? Wretch! First do yourself what you are urging others to do.' Having cursed himself in this way and having realised how miserably he had fallen from grace, he said goodbye to the brothers and returned to the cave he had left, prostrating himself in prayer before the Lord, saying: 'If the Lord had not been my helper, my soul would have almost been in hell.' (Psalm 94:17), and again, 'I had almost fallen into all kinds of evil, they had almost consumed me upon earth' (Psalm 119: 85, 87), and the Scripture was fulfilled which says: 'A brother giving aid to a brother shall be lifted up like a strong and fortified city. The brother who helps a brother is like a city of good standing where all his judgments are as strong as the city defences.' (Proverbs 18: 19). From then on he spent his life in tears and mourning, lamenting that he no longer enjoyed the heavenly food which was formerly given him, and in the sweat of his own brow he began to eat his own bread. He shut himself up in his cave, lying in the dust wearing a hair shirt, and persevered weeping in prayer until the angel of the Lord came to his aid, saying: 'The Lord has accepted your penitence and restored you, but take care lest you become proud and fall again. See, even now there are brothers on the way to you, bringing you blessings for the teaching which you yourself gave them. Don't turn them away, but take food with them and give thanks to God.'

"I have told you these things, my little children, that you may understand how strong is humility and how greatly ruinous is self-conceit. Indeed our Saviour himself put humility at the top of the beatitudes, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. I have given you examples of this so that you may be on the alert against being seduced by demonic thoughts. Furthermore monks use a custom of saying a prayer and invoking the name of the Lord whenever anyone visits them, whether man or woman, old or young, well known or stranger, so that if it is only a demon in disguise it may be put to flight by continual prayer. If the demons suggest to your thoughts that there is something for which you deserve to praised and held up as an example don't listen to them, but humble yourself in the eyes of the Lord when they try to make you seek after praise.

"The demons have often plagued me at night, preventing me both from sleeping and praying by suggesting all kinds of phantasies to my thoughts and senses the whole night long. But in the morning they made an illusory prostration before me, saying, Forgive us, father, for causing you so much trouble all night. I replied: 'Depart from me you workers of iniquity, and so not tempt the servant of God'. (Psalm 6: 8) Therefore. my little children love silence and peacefulness (quies), seek after understanding, purify your mind before God by frequent study (collatio) to banish any impediment to your prayers before God.

"There are of course people living in the world who with a good conscience do good works and busy themselves in a holy and religious manner by hospitality, works of charity, visiting those in distress and other works of this kind. There is a lot of good in such people, who also keep themselves pure. Those who please God in good works are praiseworthy, very praiseworthy, and undoubtedly fulfil the commandments of God. Nevertheless their actions are all rooted in the earthly sphere, concerned with corruptible matter. But anyone who gives himself up to mental strife, and cultivates a sense of the spiritual in himself, must surely be considered to be following a much better way. For he prepares an interior dwelling place for the Holy Spirit, and oblivious of earthly matters gives all his care to what is heavenly and eternal. He places himself always in the presence of God, and casts all worry about the present behind him, driven by a fiery desire for God. He sets himself to praise God and never tires of singing hymns and psalms day and night."

With this and much more of the like the blessed John continued speaking to us for three whole days, refreshing and renewing our spirits. And when we began to feel it was time to go he gave us a blessing: "Depart in peace, my little children, and I would like you to know that on this very day the victory of the religious emperor Theodosius over the tyrant Eugenius has been proclaimed. It must also needs be that Theodosius himself will come to the end of his life before very long." After we had left him we found that these events had happened exactly as he had predicted.

A few days later some of the brothers followed after us to tell us that John himself was now resting in peace. This was the manner of his passing. He said that no one was to visit him for three days, and then knelt in prayer and gave up his spirit. Thus he passed to the Lord, to whom be glory unto the ages of ages. Amen