The Communion of Saints: St. Pishoy

saint-bishoy2The next Desert Father, St. Pishoy, is a rather under-recognized saint, especially in the Western Church, but I find him to be one of the more inspiring and exemplary saints in this time period. St. Pishoy was born around 320 in Shansa, northern Egypt. He was the youngest of seven brothers, and was of very poor health as a child. The story goes that an angel appeared to his mother, asking her to dedicate one of her sons to the Lord. She tried to look past the weak and frail Pishoy to give the Lord one of her stronger sons, but the angel told her that the Lord had indeed chosen Pishoy to be his disciple.

Pishoy grew up a man of faith, and left to enter the wilderness around the age of twenty. She settled in Skete, which would become one of the centers of monastic life in the Nitrian Desert. It was there that he learned the ways of the monastic life under a man named Pambo (First Pishoy and now Pambo! And you thought Chrysogonus was a weird name!).

Pishoy became a hermit, and was famous for his spirituality, kindness, wisdom, and simplicity of life. Many of the hermits nearby would come to meet with him regularly for counsel, causing him to eventually form the Monastery of St. Pishoy (the name didn’t come until later, obviously), which still exists in Skete today.

As we will hear in the coming days after Easter, the disciples of Jesus encountered the Risen Jesus in a number of ordinary ways. St. Mary Magdalene encountered him in the garden outside his tomb, the two disciples met him on the road to Emmaus, and the Eleven encountered him cooking breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. St. Pishoy is also known for his encounters with the Risen Christ, again under ordinary circumstances.

On one occasion, as Pishoy’s fellow monks were going to prayer in the monastery, there was an old visiting monk who was calling for their help. All the monks ignored him on their way to prayer, but St. Pishoy saw him and generously helped him return to his room. He then washed the old man’s feet, imitating the gift of Christ to his apostles at the Last Supper. It was then that the old man revealed his true identity as the Risen Christ, filling St. Pishoy with the joy of the Resurrection.

I think the life of St. Pishoy is a reminder for us during the season of Easter. We recognize that although we formally celebrate Easter this Sunday, we are invited to welcome the Risen Christ into our midst every day, through prayer and acts of love, especially in our brothers and sisters who are weak, poor, or lonely. As we celebrate the joy of Easter, let us continue to celebrate by recognizing the presence of the Risen Christ in others!

The Communion of Saints: St. Macarius

Coptic Icon of St. Macarius
Coptic Icon of St. Macarius

As we’ve seen, this movement by St. Anthony and the monks had been very influential, and soon, a large number of men and women sought to imitate his life of simplicity and prayer. One of these men was St. Macarius of Egypt.

St. Macarius was born in Upper Egypt around 300 AD, and he would have been around 13 years old when St. Anthony retreated to the desert. He made his living as a smuggler of saltpeter, also known as niter in Egypt, which is where the Nitrian Desert gets its name. Saltpeter was used for many different things in the ancient world – for preservation, as a form of soap, and for various other health remedies.

As requested by his parents, he married, but shortly after the wedding, his wife passed away. Not long after that, his parents died as well, leaving Macarius completely alone. It was at this point that he decided to change his life, so he sold his inheritance and journeyed to the desert outside his town, where he studied under an anonymous hermit living just outside the city. Macarius learned the spiritual disciplines from this monk, as well as the spiritual merits of a life of fasting, prayer, and asceticism. He even learned the art of basket weaving (because why not?) in order to make some money to buy food and give to the poor. Not all of us can have ravens bring loaves of bread like St. Paul the Hermit, right?

St. Macarius became very highly regarded for his virtue, and the people of his village recommended him for ordination to the priesthood. But of course, with fame also come a lot of enemies. As he was ministering to his people in the village as a priest, a pregnant woman accused him of breaking his vows and committing adultery. Out of humility, Macarius refused to defend himself, and quickly became a hated man. When the woman’s pregnancy became difficult, however, she recognized that she had done wrong and confessed his innocence. When people came to Macarius to ask his forgiveness for their mistreatment of him, he fled into the desert to avoid the temptation to vanity.

St. Macarius spent the rest of his life in the desert, but this time, he did so presiding over a community of other monks. To give themselves a home, he and the monks built a huge monastery, which still exists today. The Monastery of St. Macarius the Great has been continually inhabited by monks since the 300’s, and is still operational today! People used to call Macarius “the glowing lantern” because he was radiant with the joy of a life with Christ, but this name was eventually transferred to the monastery, which has become known as “the glowing lantern in the wilderness.” So the next time you take a vacation to the Nitrian Desert of Egypt, be sure to stop by the monastery!

The Communion of Saints: St. Paul the Hermit

Coptic Icon of St. Anthony Meeting St. Paul the Hermit
Coptic Icon of St. Anthony Meeting St. Paul the Hermit

As we heard last week, St. Anthony of the Desert went off to live his radically counter-cultural life of simplicity and prayer in the Nitrian Desert. Interestingly, however, he was the not the first to do so. Although St. Anthony didn’t know it at the time, he was doing the same thing as St. Paul the Hermit had done twenty years before him!

Paul was born in the city of Thebes in Egypt around 228, and lived with his married sister. When they lost their parents around the age of 22, their lives were thrown into turmoil. Paul’s brother-in-law saw an opportunity to seize Paul’s inheritance, and reported him as a Christian to the Roman authorities in Thebes.

St. Paul fled into the desert outside Thebes, and found a place to live in an oasis, complete with a comfy cave, palm trees, and a spring. While his original departure from civilization seemed to be out of desperation to flee the persecution of Emperor Decius, he grew into his new life of simplicity and prayer. The leaves of the palms gave him some shade, and he even wore a tunic out of them, almost like Adam in the Garden. Legends tell us that he lived almost exclusively on coconuts until the age of 43, at which point a RAVEN started bringing bread to him each day! Now that’s service. It may seem a little far-fetched, but it certainly gets the point across that St. Paul depended entirely on God for his existence, both physically and spiritually.

Remember St. Anthony? Well, at one point in his life, he became tempted to vanity in taking pride that he was the first to live this way. Thankfully, God gave him the opportunity to grow in humility, when someone told him about St. Paul.

When St. Anthony heard about this other monk who had been living the same way, he sought out St. Paul, and the two Desert Fathers famously met around the year 342. As they came together, they took the time to share bread, just as Jesus had done with his friends. Each invited the other to bless it, then held on to each side of the bread, tearing it in half. It might seem like a strange ritual, but this meeting showed their mutual respect and honor for each other, as well as their brotherhood in Christ.

That was the last time St. Anthony saw St. Paul the Hermit alive. When he returned a few years later, St. Paul had died. St. Anthony buried him (supposedly with the help of two lions!) and took St. Paul’s palm leaf tunic. He chose to wear the tunic twice a year on Easter and Pentecost in honor of St. Paul’s example of humility and holiness.