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Humility in the Apophthegmata Patrum

The editor of the Alphabetical Collection of the Apophthegmata Patrum intended to record and share sayings ? small vignettes displaying mastery or deep knowledge of a Christian truth ? with fellow Christians living the monastic life. The ancient editor with his or her focus on the practical aspects of Christian mastery, not only the intellectual, shows his or her groundedness in the concerns of lay practitioners of Christianity rather than the more philosophic musings of the clergy. In his or her earthy groundedness, the ancient editor compiled sayings that focused on themes that either showed the way to mastery of ascetic Christian practices or gave a vision of a hopeful and magnificent endpoint; a theosis where the human mind would be one with the mind and will of the Divine. Of the many themes the ancient editor built the Alphabetical Collection around, humility is one of the more prominent. Through his or her focus on humility ? humility in intellect, humility in public stature, and humility in regard to one’s own value ? the ancient editor of the Apophthegmata Patrum wished to display a key aspect of Christ’s nature and provide practical advice to how the monastic followers of Jesus could emulate this divine aspect on the path towards theosis.

In the synoptic gospels Jesus often provides more questions than answers. Though he is the “Word” who was, “in the beginning with God,“1 Jesus does not often provide the direct and clear answers people are seeking. At a base level, the Jesus of the synoptic gospels seems to humbly value the God-inspired, creative intellect of others over the instant gratification of providing an unearned answer. Jesus asks, “Who do men say that I am?“2 and, “Who do you say that I am?“3 after a long period of observation by the apostles rather than simply saying “I am the Messiah” from the start. In the same way, the ancient editor the Apophthegmata Patrum compiled sayings from renowned fathers and mothers pointing towards a Christ-like position of humility in intellect; relying on the guidance of God to discover truth and knowledge over time. The ancient editor compiled several sayings of the dessert father Anthony the Great pointing to this effect. One saying records an interaction between an old man seeking the true meaning of scripture and another dessert father, Abba Joseph. The old man has asked several wise men for the meaning and all have given their opinion. Abba Joseph gives no opinion, only stating a simple “I do not know.“4 To this Abba Anthony ? apparently a bystander ? notes that, “Abba Joseph has found the way.“5 Abba Joseph, like Jesus, showed the old man humility of intellect. Rather than give the easy answer, Abba Anthony pointed the man towards the humility of resting in the mysteries of God and knowing God eventually reveals what truth needs to be revealed over time. “Knowing that God is faithful and mighty, have faith in him and you will share what is his,6 ” this ?quoting Abba Euprepius? according to the ancient editor is the path of humbly acquiring knowledge. An aspect of Christ-like humility is to “not begin to speak before you are spoken to, “7 to listen for the knowledge of God found in daily experiences; observing the workings of God all around.

Another facet of the humility of Jesus sought to be mimicked by the ancient editor of the Alphabetical Collection is humility in one’s public stature. The Jesus of the New Testament taught a humility that required the complete rejection of public praise and position. To become great in Jesus’ circle one must become a servant. To be first among the friends of the Christ one had to become a slave.8 Indeed, to follow Jesus one would have to dine with the socially unacceptable; tax collectors and prostitutes.9 By how one lived and by the people one would have to associate with, being a follower of Jesus required the extreme humbleness of placing no value on one’s standing within the public sphere. To the ancient editor ? quoting Abba Isaiah ? “nothing is so useful to the beginner [monk] as insults.“10 To be insulted because of one’s purposefully lowly stature, is to live in similitude to Jesus who also took on the “form of a servant.“11

The ancient editor of the Apophthegmata Patrum especially points towards a position of humility in one’s public stature in his or her collection of sayings from Abba Moses. In one saying a powerful magistrate of presumably high social standing went out to Scetis to find Abba Moses to seek his knowledge. Instead of pridefully sharing his accrued wisdom with the magistrate,12 Abba Moses does not reveal himself to the magistrate and even tells the magistrate that, “he [Abba Moses] is a fool.“13 In another episode recorded by the ancient editor Abba Moses ? though he is of African decent14 ? is ordained to the priesthood by an archbishop. When entering a church sanctuary shortly after his ordination the other priests throw insults at Abba Moses and drive him out of the church. Rather than resting on the authority of his ephod15 and new standing within the church and rebuffing the other priest for baring him entry into the sanctuary,16 Abba Moses humbles himself further by placing himself below all other people by saying that he is, “not a man” and, therefore, should not “be allowed to meet [with other] men.“17 In likeness to Jesus, the ancient editor is showing Abba Moses to “deny himself”18 and humbly reject his high public stature as a priest just as Jesus did. In this, the ancient editor hoped to instruct those living the monastic life in how they could best live into this facet of the humility of Christ.

Another key aspect of Jesus’ humility that the ancient editor of the Apophthegmata Patrum wanted the monastics of the church to embrace was Jesus’ pattern of placing no worth on his feelings, pains, personal safety, or life. The apostle Peter says that, “when he [Jesus] was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten.“19 Though Jesus was “in the form of God” he did not count his “equality with God” as something to be publicly embraced.20 Instead, Jesus “emptied himself” of his royal, divine nature took on the “likeness of men” and the “form of a servant.“21 “Though he [Jesus] was rich, “ for the sake of others, “he became poor.“22 The ancient editor celebrates the emulation of this amazing humility of self-denial and self-humiliation in a saying of Abba Zacharias. Abba Moses is to have commented on the elevated spiritual state of Abba Zacharias; a state so high that the Holy Spirit was seen to descend upon Abba Zacharias. Like Jesus, however, Abba Zacharias takes his specially blessed status and throws it to the ground stating, “The man who does not let himself be treated thus, cannot become a monk.“23 Though he has been given elevated spiritual experiences and power by the descension of the Holy Spirit, Abba Zacharias freely lowers himself below Abba Moses. Abba Zacharias, like a later quote the ancient editor places with Abba Joseph asks “Who am I?“24 and with Christ humbles himself.25 Later in the Alphabetical Collection the ancient editor places further example of emulation of the humility of Christ in a saying of Amma Theodora. As Jesus rejected his wealth for victory over death, a man who had once been wealthy rejected his wealth and moved to the desert where he “suffered bodily irritation and was infested with vermin.“26 Through his special act of humble self-renunciation this monk ? as Jesus was rewarded for his humbleness with a “name which is above every name”27 ? was rewarded with victory over the demons and “greatness of soul.“28

For the ancient editor of the Alphabetical Collection of the Apophthegmata Patrum quoting Amma Syncletica, “it is impossible to be saved without humility.“29 Just a Jesus humbled himself in his earthy ministry, Christians seeking to the live the monastic life were to humble themselves as well. To be a monk meant to be humble, “under the mighty hand of God.“30 Through emulating the humbleness of Jesus shown in the sayings of the many dessert fathers and mothers, the ancient editor hoped to lead these special followers of Christ to a place where heart and mind were seamlessly bound to the divine will and power of the Eternal God.


Harmless, William. Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. Oxford?; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Silence: A Christian History. New York, New York: Viking, 2013.

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1984.

###Footnotes 1 John 1:1-2 RSV

2 Mark 8:27 RSV

3 Mark 8:29 RSV

4 Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 4.

5 Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 4.

6 Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 61.

7 Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 62.

8 Matt 20:26-27

9 Luke 15:1-2

10 Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 69.

11 Phil 2:7 RSV

12 Presumably not only possibly elevating Abba Moses to a higher social standing, but also robbing the magistrate of the opportunity to learn truth through experiences with God.

13 Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 140.

14 Though ancient understandings of race were very different from our modern understandings, by being of a different race from those around him it would have been an additional honor to be accepted by the archbishop because of his differentness on top of the already great honor of ordination.

15 A liturgical garment worm by priests.

16 A place Abba Moses, as a priest, had every right to enter.

17 Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 139.

18 Luke 9:23 RSV

19 1 Peter 2:23 RSV

20 Phil 2:6 RSV

21 Phil 2:7 RSV

22 2 Cor 8:9 RSV

23 Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 68.

24 Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 102.

25 Phil 2:8

26 Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 84.

27 Phil 2:9 RSV

28 Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 84.

29 Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 235.

30 1 Peter 5:6 RSV