Monday, October 5, 2009


( John the Dwarf and his disciples are returning from cutting reeds in the marsh of Scetis.)

Zachary’s head, bowed by the weight on his back, forced down his gaze to the few feet of ground immediately in front of him, so he saw nothing of what was happening until he heard Benjamin’s cry. John, wrapped in meditation, saw nothing either, and as for Anoub, who knew what, if anything, went on in Anoub’s mind? It was the former pagan priest, curious as always about his surroundings, who first saw the tall dark figure on top of the wall of the escarpment, away to their right, gesticulating wildly, outlined against the sky.

“Look at that, Father!” Benjamin cried out.

“Who is it?” John squinted myopically into the light.

“I’m not sure...I think it’s that Syrian, what’s-his-name.”


“Cosmas the Syrian, he lives just under there.”

“What’s he doing?” Anoub asked.

“I think he’s wrestling with demons,” John said.

And indeed Cosmas, if it was he, seemed to be locked in struggle with some invisible enemy. Now his hands struck out wildly at vacancy, and now his body contorted, as if he were fighting with a ghost.

“Is it charitable to watch him, do you suppose?” Benjamin asked.

“No,” John said. “It’s his own battle. On the other hand, he may need help. We should go to him without looking at him, for that might be embarrassing to the brother.”

“How will we get up there?” Benjamin asked. “There’s no path.”

“If he got up there, we can. Put down your loads, my children. Zachary, stay right there and look after the loads and the donkey.”

And the other three hermits set down their loads and headed for the escarpment, heads bowed so as not to witness what, if it were indeed a battle with demons, the brother might conceivably lose. But Zachary watched. He tried not to, he really tried. He forced his gaze away from the escarpment, out into the blistering glare of the nitrate flats. He shut his eyes and recited the Jesus prayer and the prayer of the publican and any other prayers that came to mind, while the donkey tried patiently but rather hopelessly to graze some spiny, thistle-­like plant that grew there. Nothing worked. Something, perhaps some premonition of evil, continually drew his eyes back to the gaunt black-clad figure on the escarpment and the three hermits steadily approaching the foot of the cliffs. The figure was no longer struggling--it was erect now, its arms stretched out ... in supplication?

No. In flight.

For a fraction of a second Zachary believed that Cosmas the Syrian actually was flying. His body, like a projectile, was hurled outwards and upwards, arms outstretched, legs spread wide like the forked tail of some improbable bird. The sky could be seen briefly between his feet and the ground. For what seemed an interminable moment he hung there, his tunic ballooning in the breeze, his hands beginning a loose flapping gesture. Did Zachary really see, or only imagine in retrospect, the look of shocked disbelief that replaced the serene confidence of his expression? Whether or not, before the second was over, Cosmas was falling.

Then he screamed.

His scream blended with Zachary’s futile shout of warning. The three hermits began to run. Zachary, oblivious of John’s instructions, started to run too. Only the donkey continued as before, quietly seeking some more tender part of the thistles. Cosmas fell, screaming, his limbs flailing, turning over and over until there came a dull, heavy, shapeless sound, a sound such as a sack of grain dropped from a height onto a granary floor might make. After it came a silence almost tangible, a silence that seemed the reverberant echo of that unhuman sound. For a second, everything was frozen in a static tableau: the three hermits partway up the talus slope, Zachary approaching it, and the black figure sprawled shapelessly higher up, near the foot of the escarpment. Then the three hermits scrambled on up, dust and loose stones cascading from their flying feet, with Zachary following.

Benjamin reached the figure first. He bent over it. “He’s still alive,” he said.

John gained his side and crouched down. “Don’t be afraid, my son ... Friends in Christ are with you.”

Blood was flowing from the man’s mouth. His arms and legs were at angles that no limbs should be capable of. Blood oozed in rusty stains over his black tunic. Yet his eyes were open, with a terrible restlessness, as of a man plagued with evil visions, and the bleeding mouth, missing most of its teeth, opened and closed its dark cavern, struggling to speak.

“Don’t talk,” Benjamin said. “It’ll weaken you.”

“Let him talk,” John said. “He needs to talk. Pray for his soul, but if he talks, stop and listen.”

“Can’t we give him absolution?” Zachary asked, catching up with them.

“Of course not. None of us is ordained, it wouldn’t be valid. But we can pray for his soul.”

“We could carry him to the church,” Anoub said.

John shook his head.

“There’d be someone there. Someone who knows herbs, who might heal him. We could carry him.”

“You’d kill him if you moved him,” John said. “Half the bones in his body are broken. Zachary, you’re the fastest. Run to the church and see if you can find Isidore. Tell him whatever he’s doing to come right away.”

As Zachary ran off, John gently touched the fallen hermit’s body. “He’s dying, anyway,” he whispered out of the side of his mouth, and then in a clear voice and with an awful sense of his own inadequacy in this moment he prayed, “Lord, I commend to You the soul of your servant Cosmas the Syrian, forgive him his sins even as You bade us forgive the sins of others, grant him repose in Your eternal ... Wait! Listen!”

From the ruined mouth, words oozed sluggishly. “ cold...”

With a single fluid motion John pulled off his tunic and wrapped it gently around Cosmas’ body. He had nothing on beneath it. In the silence that followed this act came a ripping sound; Benjamin was tearing a broad strip off the lower edge of his own tunic. Wordlessly he handed this to John, who thanked him and fashioned from it a crude loincloth, then knelt again in prayer.

“We humbly beseech You in Your heavenly mercy to...”

“No! No!” the mouth cried.

John felt a tremor of horror that struck cold into his heart too, despite the torrid sun hammering down on his nakedness. Was the dying man so possessed by the spirit of evil that he would reject, even in this hour, divine intercession? Then he realized that Cosmas had not heard him, that he was still engaged in some terrible internal warfare. “You said...if I had enough...” The sounds became incoherent. John thought he caught the word “heaven” and said, “Yes! Yes, Cosmas! Fix your hopes upon that!” But the injured man’s head, which he had seemed to be struggling to lift from the ground, now slumped back upon it and the eyes, although they remained open, ceased to move.

“He’s dead,” Benjamin said.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


(In this scene, Father John the Dwarf has inadvertently caused the incarceration of two bandits who tried to rob him.)

"I think maybe everyone ought to hear this," John said without preamble. When Benjamin had called in the other two, he coughed anbd began rather hesitantly, "My sons...I've been having a little talk with Father Poemen. It seems...well, there's a slight problem about what happened in Terenuthis. It seems I did wrong...By my action, two men were put to serious suffering, maybe even death. Father Poemen told me what happens in the jail there. Apparently they beat the prisoners until they get tired, the jailers I mean, then when they’ve rested they beat them again, and very often they die as a result. The prisoners I mean. Father Poemen is right, I don’t want that on my conscience.”

Zachary had told himself to be quiet, to listen, to suspend judgment, but at this he could no longer control his impulses, and burst out, “What did you do wrong? You were the victim!”

“I resisted. I called for help. If I’d just given them the money, right there where they tried to grab me, instead of leading them back into the town where they were captured, none of this would have happened. If I’d had time to think . . . But it all happened so fast.”

He sat with eyes averted, abstracted, as if replaying the incident in his mind. “No,” he said, looking up suddenly, “that’s no excuse. A true hermit should be ready for anything, any time. Do the right thing automatically.” It was my weakness, he was thinking, my admitting into my heart the demon of lust that has clouded my discernment, bringing in its train, as devils always do, seven devils worse than itself. Or rather, perhaps, lust was merely a symptom of my state, my sinful state, the festering of other, deeper impurities to which, but for that symptom, my pride would have blinded me. But he gave no hint of these thoughts, except to repeat, “No, no excuse at all”, with a kind of passionate sadness.

“I don’t understand,” Zachary said.

“It’s really very straightforward.”

“I mean they were criminals. They should be punished. That’s the law.”

“That’s man’s law. Did we come to the desert to keep man’s law?” John asked.

“Absolutely not,” Benjamin said.

“No, because we could have done that in the city. We came to the desert to keep God’s law. God’s law tells us to love our enemies and refrain from judgment.”

“But ... but ...” Zachary was so bewildered he could hardly get the words out. “How could you have any kind of society if everyone was like that? If criminals weren’t punished?”

“Whether you could or couldn’t, I haven’t the faintest idea,” John said flatly. “Nor should I have. We’re hermits. It’s none of our business. Magistrates and jailers and executioners have their business. What they do is between them and their consciences. Our business is to keep God’s law, and there’s no argument about what that is. Father Alonius taught that even if you witnessed a murder you shouldn’t report it. More than that, if the murderer hid in your cell and the police asked you about it, he said you should lie to them. Because if you didn’t lie you’d be the cause of the man’s death. And though it’s wrong to lie, it’s worse to cause death, even to your enemy, or I should say especially to your enemy.”

Zachary remained silent. What he had just heard seemed too absurd to be treated seriously. Surely it took the teachings of the gospel to ridiculous lengths, lengths to which not even Christ himself had intended them to be taken? Certainly it contradicted all that Zachary had come to understand, in Alexandria, as the teachings of the church. There, the church upheld the civil power as it had done for more than a lifetime, ever since the Blessed Constantine put a stop to the persecution of Christians and made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Loyalty was the least one could offer in return for such protection. In Alexandria, the Archbishop was on the best of terms with the Prefect and the military Commander-in-Chief -- and how long would that last if he started releasing robbers and covering up for murderers? And the thought that these ideas came from Father Poemen, who everyone admired, who he had wanted to have as his teacher, was perhaps the most confusing and disturbing thought of all.

Benjamin broke the silence. “Well, what did Father Poemen say you should do?”

“Do? Do? It’s obvious, isn’t it?”

“You mean, get them out of jail?”

John nodded. “I put them there, didn’t I? So it’s my responsibility.”

“But how?”

“I don’t know. Father Poemen wasn’t much help there, I’m afraid. Said he’s spent his life as a shepherd and a hermit and he really knew very little about towns, jails or any of that sort of thing.”

Saturday, September 26, 2009


From Chapter 27 of The Desert and the City:

A hundred miles away, the hermits who had remained in the desert were greeting the same new morning. John was in his burrow, deep in prayer. Macarius hovered in the antechamber of the hereafter, weary of life, anxious to commence his journey, sick of the disciples forever clucking around him like nervous hens. Papnoute awaited the appearance of another angel to report on his progress. Moses was watering his herbs and vegetables, swinging his leaky bucket, watching with childlike delight the patterns the water made as it sprayed out in the sunlight, just as on the morning when Zachary had first appeared in Scetis. And Poemen...

Poemen was where exactly? Physically in his cell, kneeling, his eyes directed outwards through the door he never kept closed, save in bad weather, for as he himself said, “We have not been taught to close the wooden door, only the door of our tongues.” But although those physical eyes remained wide open, fixed on the long perspective of desert stretching out to infinity, they did not see it, they did not see anything, for to all intents and purposes Poemen was no longer in his cell, in the desert. It was questionable whether he even existed, in any meaningful sense. At least he had lost all awareness of his own existence. You could not even say of him that he was lost in prayer. He had been praying, sure enough, from the time, long before dawn, when he had first awoken. But he was no longer aware that he was praying, or even that there was anyone there to pray. He was no longer in the world, or even in time, since the constant and interminable slipping past of experience had, for him, been suspended.

Out of time, out of space, out of the interminable nagging of the self, he, if indeed there still was a he, hung suspended, in a foretaste of eternity, and having lost himself totally was found, set free--free to know himself not as some petty individual driven by trivial desires that changed moment by moment, but as a part of the unity of all things, a unity beyond speech or explanation, that existed only because God, transcending even the gulf between immanence and transcendence, flooded trees and stones and all living creatures, all of His creation, with His own Being.

So, utterly lost to himself and his surroundings, Poemen never heard the approach of hesitant footsteps, or even the timid knock on his open door. Looking in, seeing him thus, the visitor began to withdraw, and would have escaped unseen if his elbow had not struck an old clay pot that was standing on a ledge by the door. The pot fell and broke with a loud crash, and Poemen, not really hearing it but aware that something had happened, blinked his eyes, collected himself and called out. “Who’s that?”

“It’s me, Isaac, Father. I...I’m sorry about the pot.” Poemen, his sight restored, recognized a young hermit whom he knew only slightly but who had gotten into the habit of coming to his cell, every few days, and either just sitting there, waiting for Poemen to give him a word, or else asking some trivial question that Poemen knew was not the real reason for his visit. Something serious was troubling him, Poemen guessed, something he was ashamed to admit. Sooner or later he would get up the strength to admit it. With a little encouragement. In God’s good time.

Poemen felt not the slightest resentment at the disturbance. What he had experienced, what he could not tell he had experienced, for there were no words worthy of describing it, would always be there, and could be reached again, not whenever he wanted it, for it was an experience that could come only through God’s grace, but whenever God willed that he should have it. Or if He never willed it again, no matter. What happened to the five-foot-odd of Egyptian flesh and blood that was called Poemen was really of no consequence whatsoever.

“Don’t worry about the pot,” he said. “I should be grateful to you. One less material object to bother about.”

The young man bowed deeply, took a hesitant step forward.

“Thank you, Father, it’s very good of you--”

“Sit down,” Poemen cut his compliments short by saying.

“I shouldn’t have interrupted you--”

“You interrupted nothing.” That was true, Poemen thought with an inward smile, in at least two ways beside the obvious one. Because, in one sense, nothing was exactly what had been happening, and in another, nothing had been interrupted, for while one might lose the awareness of God’s presence, the presence itself could never be lost.


Thursday, September 17, 2009


Before he became a hermit, Father Moses had been a bandit. Had anyone remarked on the oddity of this career change, Moses would have told them there was less difference between bandits and hermits than you might think. Both lived a hard life; both knew firsthand the pains of hunger and exposure. Both dwelt far from the civilized world and its temptations , and neither had much respect for the laws or customs of that world. Both had to take responsibility for their actions; neither could say, ‘My master commanded me to do so and so.’ You might almost say that a hermit was just a bandit purged of cruelty and greed. At least, Moses himself was living proof that a single touch of God’s unfathomable grace could turn one into the other.

Now as the sun cleared the desert horizon he came from his morning prayer within the cool cavern of his cell to water his herb-garden. The sand and rock underfoot still held the night’s chill, refreshing to the bare calloused soles of his feet. Before him, glorified under the level light, the salt-white plains of Scetis stretched away to the farther escarpment. As the sun rose they would first dazzle, then blind those who traversed them, but now in these first moments of day they looked like an enchanted snowfall.

Moses picked up one of the two wooden buckets that stood outside the cave, the one with holes in it, and lowered it into his shallow, brackish well. Behind the well grew rows of bean plants, herbs, straggling gourds; to water them, all he had to do was swing the loaded bucket at the end of one long lanky arm and let the water spout out of the holes. Moses enjoyed watering his plants in the cool of the morning. There were those in Scetis who thought it wrong to take pleasure in earthly things, but Moses could never accept this. You might, indeed you had to, turn from such things to the inner life of prayer if you were ever to perfect your soul. But how could it be God’s will that you should despise His own creation?

So the old bandit found a childlike delight in watching the water drops, golden in the horizontal beams of the dawning sun, spurt from his bucket and tumble down upon his thirsty plants. And also, on this particular morning, upon the mangy, yellowish, semi-skeletal cur that suddenly ejected itself, like a projectile, from the bean-patch that had sheltered it all night and then stood, its shameless member dangling, shaking water from a set of barrelstave ribs. ‘Get away, you brute!’ Moses snapped automatically, fearful lest his herbs be fouled or trampled, and then immediately, as the dog located a convenient rock to piss on, was stricken with contrition; anger, the animal that had ridden him for his first thirty years, was a coal burning the hand that threw it, and in any case didn’t the dog have as much right there as he did? More, perhaps. For a dog loved its master unreservedly, and would never judge its neighbor.

‘Sorry, Dog,’ Moses said out loud. ‘You’re a better Christian than I am. Stick around. If there’s any scraps left over from yesterday...’ But to his mingled regret and relief -- for unlike some hermits he really wasn’t into animals -- the dog took off across the glittering, barren flats. Following it, Moses’ eye, trained from early years to spot possible trouble at its first emergence, discerned in the far distance a small moving dot. Coming his way? It was impossible to be sure, the dot seemed to drift purposelessly back and forth. Human, certainly. A stranger, then. Lost? Coming from Nitria, a good twenty hours’ march. Alone, too.

After a while the stranger began to head in Moses’ direction, moving slowly and with difficulty over the uneven ground, but doggedly advancing towards the low escarpment that housed Moses’ cave. It looked like he had not seen Moses yet, but was drawn merely by the escarpment’s promise of shade and maybe even a spring.

Moses felt torn by two contrary impulses. The watering done, he wanted to get back to his cell and take up again the routine of prayer, meditation and basket-weaving that was his life. On the other hand, the stranger might need help of some kind. Predictably, for anyone who knew Moses, the second impulse won. He put down his empty bucket and waited, his lips soundlessly repeating ‘Lord have mercy on me a sinner -- Lord have mercy’, as the stranger approached.
Twenty yards away, the stranger stopped -- he looked nervous, Moses thought -- and called out, ‘Excuse me, sir. Are you one of the holy men?’

‘Certainly not!’ Moses said indignantly.

‘Are you sure?’

‘How would I not be sure?’

‘Then what are you doing in the desert?’

Moses repressed a desire to say ‘What a cheek! I should be asking YOU what YOU’RE doing,’ and answered, mildly enough, ‘Fleeing the evils of the world and trying to follow Christ’s teachings, though God knows with how much success, or I should say, how little -- .’

‘Then you ARE one of the holy men,’ the stranger said triumphantly. ‘I was afraid you might be a bandit.’

‘Think what you like,’ Moses said. ‘Actually I’m one of the most miserable of sinners. What do you want with holy men, anyway?’

‘I want to become a hermit.’

Moses said nothing but took a long look at the stranger. He saw a young man of middle height, maybe no more than twenty years old. Handsome enough to be a temptation to hermits who knew no better, with his dark, curly hair, regular features, and most of all his dark, quick, curiously expressive eyes, which were quite clearly weighing Moses up, with a good measure of caution still in them. He was shorter and much slighter than Moses, whose size and build still looked threatening, even after years of the ascetic life. Whether his clothing was fashionable or not, Moses was the last person to ask, but even under its coating of desert dust it spelled money.

‘No you don’t,’ Moses said at last.

‘Say again?’

‘You don’t want to become a hermit. You just think you do.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009