Lower Than Every Man
Beginning in the third century, a group of heroic monks known as the Desert Fathers fled to the remote regions of Egypt in an attempt to live the teachings of the Gospels as authentically as possible. The great paradox of the monastic literature they left us is how it can underscore our limitations even as it inspires us to transcend them. Beyond the stories of wonderworking, spontaneous healing, miracles, and month-long fasts, the harsh, uncompromising tone of so many spiritual elders can make their lessons difficult to approach, let alone internalize.
Studying the sayings of the Desert Fathers, we come across men “accursed to the outer darkness” merely for acquiring unnecessary trinkets; older monks chastised for daring to moisten a morsel of salted bread with a drop of water; teachers who will not let their disciples walk near them lest “some irrelevant conversation” slip in. One story, attributed to the monk Palladios, has the fourth-century ascetic Saint Macarius the Great voluntarily standing for six months in the mosquito-infested marshes of Lower Egypt, as penance for having killed a single insect.
The extremity of Macarius’s struggle distances him from us, making it difficult to see that beneath that struggle is a love for God’s creation, down to the most infinitesimal. By its very nature the desert is a place of extremes; so how are we, separated by geography, time, and circumstance, to best fold its teachings into our more everyday lives? We may instead find ourselves subconsciously echoing the words of Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran, expressing the anxiety of the hagiographer: “We would have been better off without saints. Then each of us would have minded our own business and we would have rejoiced in our imperfection.”
The Egyptian monk Saint Sisoes the Great, otherwise known as Abba Sisoes, is one ascetic who can help us move past this paradox of extremes and begin to more directly experience the desert tradition. An Aramaic word meaning “father,” abba was an informal title given to one advanced in the spiritual life in early Christian monastic communities; today we know it as the root of the word abbot, the name for a monastic superior. Though canonized in both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches (his feast day is July 6), Sisoes remains—as he undoubtedly would have wanted it—something of a fringe figure, overshadowed by the legacy of his predecessor in the monastic vocation, and pioneer of solitary or anchoritic prayer, Saint Anthony the Great.
Born in the fourth century, Sisoes migrated as a young man to Scetis, which, along with Nitria and Kellia, was one of the three major centers of monastic life in the Nitrian Desert in northwestern Egypt. At that time, this “cradle of monasticism” was populated by monks living in both cenobitic and eremitic styles; the former was community-based, with several monks living together under the direction of an abbot, while the latter was undertaken in isolation. Eremitic monks, however, would still convene regularly to pray together and were open to receiving visitors; exchanges with disciples and pilgrims were often catalysts for their later recorded sayings.
Upon his arrival in Scetis, Sisoes lived as a disciple of an Abba Or, presumably in a cenobitic community. A craving for a more rigorous solitude drove him to decamp east for Mount Colzim, near the Red Sea, in 357. Known as Saint Anthony’s “inner mountain,” Colzim was famous as the site of that eremitic monk’s cave until his death in 356; Sisoes promptly took up residence there. What he reportedly said at the time—“In the cave of a lion, a fox makes its dwelling”—foretells the innate humility and sly, self-deprecating humor that would color many of his mature statements.
It seems the presence of Saint Anthony was never far from Sisoes’s mind. Tellingly, the face of the “father of monks” was the first thing he saw as he prepared to die, leading a charge of the “choirs of Prophets,” the “choirs of the Apostles,” the angels, and finally the Lord Himself. Toward the end of his life, upon being asked by a visitor whether he had “attained to the stature of Abba Anthony,” he replied, “If I had a single one of Abba Anthony’s thoughts, I would be entirely ablaze.”
The homage is deadly serious, yet the two men’s pastoral styles were markedly different. In the thirty-eight commonly reproduced sayings of Saint Anthony, he chides and rebukes, even insults, to test the humility of his disciples; a brother’s request for the great saint’s prayers is met with a terse “I will have no mercy on you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.” Contrast this with the way Sisoes voluntarily engages a fellow monk:
Abba Sisoes said to a brother: “How are you doing?” “I waste my days, Father,” answered the brother. “If I were to waste a single day,” said the Elder, “I would be grateful; that is to say, if I were to pass a single day without adding to my sins, I would be grateful.”
The first thing to notice here is how Sisoes does not admonish or advise, but abrogates the line between master and disciple with a swift admission of his own weakness. This trait of turning the monastic query in unto himself, of giving his spiritual charges hope by placing himself below them, is one we see repeated in various accounts. Indeed, some of Sisoes’s sayings read less like pearls of desert wisdom, and more like plaintive desert confessions:
Abba Sisoes said: “Behold, for thirty years I have not besought God about any other sin, except to pray to Him, saying: ‘O Lord Jesus, protect me from my tongue’; yet, until this very time, I fall every day because of it, sinning by way of my tongue.”
This blunt self-honesty, so central to his devotional teaching, is borne out by the remarkable story of the three elders who visit Sisoes to seek his counsel. The first two ask, “Father, how can I be saved from the gnashing of teeth and the unsleeping worm?” Neither receives a reply. The third asks, “Father, what am I to do, for from my fear of the recollection of the outer darkness, I cannot even breathe?” Sisoes answers, “I do not think about any of these things, but I hope that God, compassionate as He is, will have mercy on me.” The story concludes:
On hearing this reply, the elders were upset and got up to leave. But Abba Sisoes, since he did not want to let them go away in distress, said to them: “You are blessed, brothers. Truly, I envy you; for if your minds are always dominated by such thoughts, it is impossible for you to sin. But what am I to do, hard-hearted as I am, for I have not been granted to know even whether there is a punishment for men? Because of this I sin every hour.”
Like the elders who, having “repented of their previous thoughts,” leave edified by Sisoes’s total lack of self-delusion, we readers are both stirred and perhaps a bit taken aback by the double admission of sinfulness and ignorance, amidst the harsh certainties so often encountered in monastic literature. One thinks, for example, of Saint Gregory the Dialogist. When asked, “Should we assume that all of those who have been thrown into the fires of Gehenna by virtue of their sins will be unceasingly consumed by fire?,” he replies, “This is completely true and there is no room for any doubt about it.” Sisoes’s response stands out for its unguarded ambivalence about the trials of the afterlife. Rather than motivate through fear, he stoops down through doctrine to meet other pilgrims at the base level of that ageless conflict between faith and doubt. This both humanizes him and, more importantly, invites them to participate in their own salvation instead of succumbing to helplessness. Still more striking is the lesson embedded in the saint’s confession of being unable to conceive of “a punishment for men”: that the mercy of God is stronger than whatever image of His vengeance we can dream.
As shown by the interaction with the three elders, Sisoes is always welcoming of those who come to see him—even, in one text, going so far as to put off his fasting regimen, preferring censure from his brethren to a failure of hospitality. When he does teach, his earthy practicality centers his words on a few repeated themes: the role of work, the acquisition of humility, and the need for repentance:
Another brother asked Abba Sisoes: “Abba, I perceive that the remembrance of God remain with me.” “It is not important that your mind is with God,” replied the elder. “What is important is that you see yourself as being below all other creatures. This is why physical labor leads to humility.”
The root word of “humility” is humus, Latin for “fertile ground,” as former Russian Orthodox bishop Anthony Bloom has reminded us. “Humility,” he writes in Beginning to Pray, “is the situation of the earth . . . silent and accepting and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness.” This is the very situation Sisoes wishes for us. “We should not occupy ourselves with work that gives us rest and which pleases us,” he says, but rather seek those tasks that reveal the depth of our dependence on God. At the same time, he sounds a note of caution: “I prefer light and steady work to work that is, at the beginning, toilsome and thus soon discontinued.”
Built on this strong foundation of “abstinence, unceasing prayer to God, and the struggle to be lower than every man,” Sisoes envisions a humility continually perfected to the point of death:
One of the Fathers asked Abba Sisoes: “If I am living in the desert, and a barbarian comes along wishing to slay me, and I overcome him in a fight, should I kill him? The elder replied: “No, entrust him to the mercy of God. Whatever temptation comes upon a man, he ought to reflect and say: ‘This has happened to me because of my sins.’ If, on the other hand, something good happens to him, it is by the good will of God.”
By imagining himself as having “overcome” his assailant in a fight, the Father questioning Sisoes has transgressed Christ’s commandment to “offer no resistance to one who is evil” (Matthew 5:29). He has gone past the point of “turning the other cheek” and, in a moment of crisis, is now considering murder. The way to overcome his temptation to revenge, according to Sisoes, is through recollection of his sin. Duly humbled, he can recognize the shared sinfulness between himself and his aggressor—an insight that not only allows for but insists upon the mercy of God as the only proper response.
This challenge to a radical humility has profound implications for our present age, where “the fear of death has made all people selfish,” as monk and modern-day Desert Father Archimandrite Zacharias has stated. Through institutionalized killing such as drone strikes or the death penalty, we are complicit in a state that all too often indulges its retaliatory impulse in the name of self-protection. Like the Father in the story, we are called to transcend our fear and redirect our energies to our own transgressions. Only then can we be said to “make a new richness”—that is, space for repentance and mercy—out of the “refuse” of our sinful human condition. This internal revolution achieves its fullest scope when we no longer laud ourselves for our meager acts of goodness, but learn to say, with the prophet Isaiah, “All our righteousness is as a filthy rag.”
Toward the end of his life, it appears that Sisoes left the desert for the port city of Klysma, today the site of Suez, in northeastern Egypt. Here, after “seventy-two whole years of asceticism and silence,” he continued to receive pilgrims, such as Abba Ammoun of Raïthou, as well as to supervise the spiritual lives of a new generation of disciples. As he acquires what the Desert Father Abba Isaiah calls the “primordial simplicity and innocence of our prelapsarian nature,” stories from this time have him forgetting whether he has eaten, or even where he is. Saint Peter of Damaskos references these stories in his Treasury of Divine Knowledge in the third volume of the Philokalia. For him, Sisoes’s liberation from material concerns is evidence of a dispassion that has rendered him “captive of his love for God.”
In the narrative of Abba Sisoes’s final hours, as his face grows ever brighter with each member of the celestial hierarchy that has come to greet him, the elders keeping vigil beside him ask, “Father, with whom are you speaking?” Sisoes replies,
“The angels have now come to take me, but I am asking them to leave me a bit, that I might repent.” The Fathers responded: “Father, you have no need to repent.”
And with profound humility St. Sisoes spoke once more: “It seems to me, I assure you, that I have not even made a beginning in the art of repentance.”
A second version of the story continues with an elder asking, “And if they allow you this, can you still use the time for repentance?” To which the saint answers, “Even if I cannot, I can groan a little over my soul, and that is sufficient for me.” A lifetime of humility has sharpened the awareness of death, which, coupled with a belief “that shame and lack of fear often lead to sin,” has in turn given birth to repentance. Each of these elements fuses into a single self-offering: his face now shining “like the sun,” he gives up his spirit with what “[seems] to be a flash of lightening,” and we sense he has partaken of the very peace he spoke of in the following:
If you wish to please God, stand far off from the world, rising above the world, leaving aside creation and moving toward God. Attend to prayer and spiritual contrition, so as to be united with God, whereupon you will surely achieve peace in this life and the next.
While the difficulty of monastic texts can be their remoteness, presenting the struggles of a rarefied few, Sisoes closes this gap by always taking the lower place. He does not stand apart from us but toils alongside us, sharing our weaknesses even as we experience his sanctity. In the practicable model of humility he set forth in his epitaph—“Extremely strict with himself, Abba Sisoes was very merciful and compassionate to others, and he received everyone with love”—he allows us to feel that, contra Cioran, such sanctity is not only necessary but within reach of our emulation.