On 27 August on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Abba Poemen the Great (5th c.) of Egypt, whose name means ‘Shepherd’ (in Helen Waddell’s translations of Desert Fathers materials from Latin, she simply gives the Latin form—‘Pastor’). Benedicta Ward notes, ‘The Sayings attributed to Poemen form one seventh of the whole of the Alphabetical Collection [the Apophthegmata, or Gerontikon]’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: the Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed., trans. Benedicta Ward [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984], p. 163). William Harmless calls him ‘the single most prominent figure in the Apophthegmata’, and besides counting the sayings collected under his name also reckons those in which he is mentioned or which he is noted to have related about other Fathers, concluding that ‘nearly a quarter of the Apophthegmata is sayings from or stories about Abba Poemen’ (Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism [Oxford: Oxford U, 2004], p. 206). According to St Nicholas (Velimirović) in the Prologue (The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 3, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 245):
He was an Egyptian by birth and a great Egyptian ascetic. As a boy, he visited various spiritual teachers and gathered proven experience as a bee gathers honey from flowers. Pimen once begged the elder Paul to take him to St Paisius. Seeing him, Paisius said: ‘This child will save many; the hand of God is on him.’ In time, Pimen became a monk and drew two of his brothers to monasticism. Their mother once came to see her sons, but Pimen would not allow her in, asking through the door: ‘Which do you want more: to see us here and now, or in the other world in eternity?’ Their mother went away joyfully, saying: ‘If I will see you for certain there, I don’t need to see you here.’ In the monastery of these three brothers, governed by the eldest, Abba Anoub, the rule was as follows: at night, four hours were passed in manual work, four hours in sleep and four in reading the Psalter. The day was passed, from morning to noon, in alternate work and prayer, from mid-day to Vespers in reading and after Vespers they prepared their meal, the only one in the twenty-four hours, and this usually of some sort of cabbage. Pimen himself said about their life: ‘We ate that what was to hand. No-one ever said: “Give me something else”, or “I won’t eat that”. In that way, we spent our whole life in silence and peace.’ He lived in the fifth century, and entered peacefully into rest in great old age.
Harmless points out that it was the community which formed around St Poemen and his brothers after they fled the destruction of Scetis in 407 (see Anoub 1 in Ward, pp. 32-3) that created the core of the Gerontikon. First, they collected the sayings—forty-seven of them—about older Fathers which St Poemen had told, ‘passing on wisdom gleaned from earlier generations’ (Harmless, p. 208). Harmless quotes Jean-Claude Guy:
If there were a term to define his personality, we would willingly say that Poemen appears not so much as a pioneer, but as a wise administrator of a treasure of which he has found himself the inheritor. Understanding perhaps that with the devastation of Scetis a page of history had been turned, he worked hard to harvest all the fruits of the great century of Scetis, gathering up the fragments so that nothing would be lost. (qtd. in Harmless, p. 208)
‘But,’ Harmless notes, ‘Poemen was not just a subject who remembered. He was also an object of memory. Poemen’s own sayings and deeds—several hundred of them—were treasured, preserved, passed on, and, in the end, committed to writing’ (p. 210). Benedicta Ward translates 209 of them: 187 from the main alphabetical collection and 22 from other Greek recensions. Harmless points out that there are more preserved in the Ethiopic Collectio Monastica (p. 210).
I shall give five sayings about St Poemen: four from the Gerontikon, and one from the Evergetinos (The Evergetinos: A Complete Text, Vol. 3, trans. Archbishop Chrysostomos, et al. [Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2008]).
6. One day a brother sinned in a monastery. Now there was an anchorite in the district who had not gone out for a long time. The abba of the monastery went to see him and to give him the news that the brother had sinned. The anchorite said, ‘Drive him away.’ So the brother left the monastery and he went into a cave and wept there. Now it happened that some brothers were going to see Abba Poemen and they heard him weeping. They entered, found him in great misery and invited him to go to see the old man, but he refused, saying, ‘I am going to die here.’ So when they reached Abba Poemen’s cell they told him about the brother. And he exhorted them, and he sent them away saying, ‘Say to him, Abba Poemen sends for you.’ Then the brother came. Seeing he was in such distress, Abba Poemen stood up, embraced him and was kind to him and invited him to eat. Then he sent one of the brethren to the anchorite, saying, ‘For many years I have desired to see you, having heard of you. But because of our lethargy, we have not yet met. Now, however, if God wills it and you have the time, give yourself the trouble of coming here, and we will see one another.’ The old man had never left his cell but when he heard this he said, ‘If God had not inspired the old man, he would not have sent someone to summon me.’ So he got up and went to see Poemen. They embraced one another with joy and sat down. Abba Poemen said to him, ‘Two men dwelt in one place and someone belonging to each of them died; the first one, leaving his own dead, went to weep over the other’s.’ Hearing these words, the anchorite was filled with compunction and he remembered what he had done and said, ‘Poemen, you have gone up to heaven and I have gone down to the earth.’ (Ward, p. 166)
31. 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 just a small amount. They have left us this royal way, which is light.’ (Ward, p. 171)
64. A brother questioned Abba Poemen saying, ‘If I see my brother committing a sin, is it right to conceal it?’ The old man said to him, ‘At the very moment when we hide our brother’s fault, God hides our own and at the moment when we reveal our brother’s fault, God reveals ours too.’ (Ward, p. 175)
92. Some old men came to see Abba Poemen and said to him, ‘When we see brothers who are dozing at the synaxis, shall we rouse them so that they will be watchful?’ He said to them, ‘For my part when I see a brother who is dozing, I put his head on my knees and let him rest.’ (Ward, pp. 179-80)
H.22. Abba Poimen once went to dwell in the region of Egypt. Nearby there lived a brother who had a concubine, for which Abba Poimen never reproached him. It so happened that one night this woman gave birth, and when the Elder got wind of this, he summoned his younger brother and said to him: ‘Take a knidion of wine with you and offer it to our neighbor, for he has need of it today.’ The other members of his brotherhood had no idea about any of this, but the younger brother did as the Elder instructed him.
The erring brother accepted the wine and, being moved to compunction, let his concubine go after a few days, after giving her whatever he possessed. He went to the Elder and said: ‘From today on, I am going to repent.’ The Elder encouraged him in his repentance. The brother built himself another cell near Abba Poimen, and there he kept in regular contact with the Elder. The latter illumined for the monk the way of God and thus won over the sinful brother. (from the Evergetinos, Book 3, Hypothesis II, ‘That one should not condemn or denigrate even one who sins openly, but should be attentive to himself and not busy himself with other people’s affairs; for he who attends to his own vices is incapable of condemning his neighbor’—Archbishop Chrysostomos, p. 27)
William Harmless eloquently concludes his portrait of St Poemen:
In the wilderness of the human spirit, as in the wilderness of the desert, landmarks are precious. And the memory of Poemen—his words, his deeds, his memories, his very act of remembering—provided landmarks. Memory of Poemen harkened back to a golden age, when God showered charisms on the ‘old men’, when God allowed them to read their disciples’ hearts like an open book and speak a word that would reveal to them a pathway across the demon-ridden landscape of the human heart. (p. 211)
I close with the Kontakion of the Righteous One in Tone 4 (from The Great Horologion, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery [Boston: HTM, 1997], p. 588):
The most holy memory, O righteous Father, of thy many valiant deeds is come today and maketh glad the souls of pious and godly folk, our righteous Father, great Pimen of godly mind.