|St Abraham, Hermit And His Niece St. Mary, a Penitent A.D. 360
ST. ABRAHAM was born at Chidana, in Mesopotamia, near Edessa, of wealthy and noble
parents, who, after giving him a most virtuous education, were desirous of engaging
him in the married state. In compliance with their inclinations, Abraham took to wife a
pious and noble virgin: but earnestly desiring to live and die in the state of holy
virginity, as soon as the marriage ceremony and feast were over, having made known
his resolution to his new bride, he secretly withdrew to a cell two miles from the city
Edessa; where his friends found him at prayer after a search of seventeen days. By
earnest entreaties he obtained their consent, and after their departure walled up the
door of his cell, leaving only a little window, through which he received what was
necessary for his subsistence. He spent his whole time in adoring and praising God, and
imploring his mercy. He every day wept abundantly. He was possessed of no other
earthly goods but a cloak and a piece of sackcloth which he wore, and a little vessel
out of which he both ate and drank. For fifty years he was never wearied with his
austere penance and holy exercises, and seemed to draw from them every day fresh
vigor. Ten years after he had left the world, by the demise of his parents, he inherited
their great estates, but commissioned a virtuous friend to distribute the revenues in
almsdeeds. Many resorted to him for spiritual advice, whom he exceedingly comforted
and edified by his holy discourses.
A large country town in the diocese of Edessa remained till that time addicted to
idolatry, and its inhabitants had loaded with injuries and outrages, all the holy monks
and others who had attempted to preach the gospel to them. The bishop at length cast
his eye on Abraham, ordained him priest, though much against his will, and sent him to
preach the faith to those obstinate infidels. He wept all the way as he went, and with
great earnestness repeated this prayer: "Most merciful God, look down on my
weakness: assist me with thy grace, that thy name may be glorified. Despise not the
works of shine own hands." At the sight of the town, reeking with she impious rites of
idolatry, he redoubled the torrents of his tears: but found the citizens resolutely
determined not to hear him speak. Nevertheless, he continued to pray and weep among
them without intermission, and though he was often beaten and ill-treated, and thrice
banished by them, he always returned with the same zeal. After three years the infidels
were overcome by his meekness and patience, and being touched by an extraordinary
grace, all demanded baptism. He stayed one year longer with them to instruct them in
the faith; and on their being supplied with priests and other ministers, he went back to
His brother dying soon after his return thither, left an only daughter, called Mary, whom
the saint undertook to train up in a religious life. For this purpose he placed her in a
cell near his own, where, by the help of his instructions, she became eminent for her
piety and penance. At the end of twenty years she was unhappily seduced by a wolf in
sheep's clothing, a wicked monk, who resorted often to the place under color of
receiving advice from her uncle. Hereupon falling into despair, she went to a distant
town, where she gave herself up to the most criminal disorders. The saint ceased not
for two years to weep and pray for her conversion. Being then informed where she
dwelt, he dressed himself like a citizen of that town, and going to the inn where she
lived in the pursuit of her evil courses, desired her company with him at supper. When
he saw her alone, he took off his cap which disguised him, and with many tears said to
her: "Daughter Mary, don't you know me? What is now become of your angelical habit,
of your tears and watchings in the divine praises?" &c.
Seeing her struck and filled with horror and confusion, he tenderly encouraged her and
comforted her, saying that he would take her sins upon himself if she would faithfully
follow his advice, and that his friend Ephrem also prayed and wept for her. She with
many tears returned him her moat hearty thanks, and promised to obey in all things his
injunctions. He set her on his horse, and led the beast himself on foot. In this manner
he conducted her back to his desert, and shut her up in a cell behind his own. There
she spent remaining fifteen years of her life in continual tears and the most perfect
practices of penance and other virtues. Almighty God was pleased, within three years
after her conversion, to favor her with the gift of working miracles by her prayers. And
as soon as she was dead, "her countenance appeared to us," says St. Ephrem, "so
shining, that we understood that choirs of angels had attended at her passage out of
this life into a better." St. Abraham died five years before her: at the news of whose
sickness almost the whole city and country flocked to receive his benediction. When he
had expired, everyone strove to procure for themselves some part of his clothes, and
St. Ephrem, who was an eye-witness, relates, that many sick were cured by the touch
of these relics. SS Abraham and Mary were both dead when St. Ephrem wrote, who died
himself in 378. St. Abraham is named in the Latin, Greek, and Coptic calendars. and
also St. Mary in those of the Greeks.
St. Abraham converted his desert into a paradise, because he found in it his God,
whose presence makes Heaven. He wanted not the company of men, who enjoyed that
of God and his angels; nor could he ever be at a loss for employment, to whom both
the days and nights were too short for heavenly contemplation. While his body was
employed in penitential manual labor, his mind and heart were sweetly taken up in
God, who was to him All in All, and the centre of all his desires and affections. His
watchings were but an uninterrupted sacrifice of divine love, and by the ardor of his
desire, and the disposition of his soul and its virtual tendency to God, his sleep itself
was a continuation of his union with God, and exercise of loving him. He could truly say
with the spouse, I sleep, but my heart watcheth. Thus the Christians, who are placed in
distracting stations, may also do, if they accustom themselves to converse
interiorly-with God in purity of heart, and in all their actions and desires have only his
will in view. Such a life is a kind of imitation of the Seraphims, to whom to live and to
love are one and the same thing. "The angels," says St. Gregory the Great, "always
carry their Heaven about with them wheresoever they are sent, because they never
depart from God or cease to behold him; ever dwelling in the bosom of his immensity,
living and moving in him, and exercising their ministry in the sanctuary of his divinity."
This is the happiness of every Christian who makes a desert, by interior solitude, in his
From his life written by his friend, St. Ephrem, Op. t. 2, p. 1, Ed. nov. Vatic. Bee other
acts or St. Abraham given in Latin by Lipoman, 29 Oct., and by Surius, 16 March,
mentioned in Greek by Lambecius, Bibl Vind. t. a PP. 255 260, 266, and by Montfaucon.
Bibl. Coislin. p. 211. Two other kinds of Greek Acts are found among the MSS. at the
abbey of St. Germain-des Prez, At Paris, Bibl. Coisl. ib. See also Jos. Assemani, Bibl.
Orient. t. 1, pp. 38 and 396, from the Chronicle of Edessa Iikewise Kohlius, Intro
ductiof in historiam et rem literariam Slavorum, p. 316. Altonaviae:, A. D. 1729.
Prologue by S Ephraem
My brothers, I wish to tell you about the way of life of that wonderfully perfect man
Abraham, who began his life and continued to the end in such a way that he has
earned perpetual glory. But when I think of his great virtue I am very hesitant about
trying to put together a worthwhile and enlightening tale. For he was an outstanding
man who had achieved perfection, whereas I am but weak and unpolished. But
although unskilled, I will do the best I can to write as much as possible about this
man, although I cannot claim to have a perfect understanding of him. Anyone, indeed,
who is deservedly called a second Abraham cannot be easily described by human
He was a man of our own time, living an Angelic life while still on earth. He developed
as much endurance as the hardest of adamantine rock, which earned him celestial
glory. From his early youth he preserved the most spotless chastity, which made him a
holy vessel, fit to be a temple of the holy Spirit, and thus he opened himself up to the
God who came to dwell in the guesthouse of his mind.
This blessed Abraham had wealthy parents who loved him tenderly beyond measure.
They had such care for him, beyond the usual limits of human affection, that they
betrothed him to a girl while he was still a child, hoping with a great longing that he
would make progress in some secular walk of life. But he had long thought otherwise,
for from the beginnings of his adolescence he began to frequent the regular gatherings
at the church, eagerly listening with enjoyment to whatever was read from the holy
Scriptures, which he would commit to memory and afterwards mull them over intently
in his heart.
But then his parents set a date for the approaching marriage ceremonies, which would
oblige him to be bound by nuptial vows. He had objected to this at first, but they
berated him and brought such pressure to bear on him that after a while he could no
longer stand against them and felt so ashamed that he was persuaded to agree. So
the nuptials were celebrated, but during the seven days of festivity divine grace
suddenly illuminated him like a lamp shining in his heart. He welcomed it as guiding
him to the fulfilment of his own desire. He leapt for joy and followed it as it led him
out of the city.
About two miles from his home he found an empty cell which he occupied and made his
home, glorifying God with immense happiness. But it was a crushing blow to his
parents and friends, who went out searching everywhere for this man of God. He had
been seventeen days in his cell when they finally found him there praying, and the
blessed man then saw how distressed they were.
"Why should you be so upset at seeing me in this situation?" he asked. "Rather give
glory to the most merciful God, who has rescued me from feasting at the table of my
own sins, and pray for me that I may in all things shape my life as may be most
pleasing to his will, and that I may be able to bear unto the end this most gentle yoke
which the Lord has laid upon me, unworthy though I am." All who heard him could not
but say Amen, and he asked them not to disturb him by dragging out this meeting any
longer. After they had gone he blocked up the entrance to his cell and shut himself up
inside, constructing a small window to the outside world through which he might
receive his usual daily bread.
Divine grace began to light up his mind, freed as it was from all turbulent distractions,
and he advanced daily in the way he governed his life. The foundation of his life was
continence, upon which he built his vigils and prayers, which he poured out with
humble tears and love. Gradually his reputation for holiness spread everywhere around,
and as people heard about him they hoped for inspiration from him and came from all
directions to visit him. God abundantly bestowed upon him words of wisdom and
knowledge and comfort, which lit up the minds of his hearers as if by the most brilliant
When he had been living this life for twelve years, his parents died leaving him a great
deal of money and property. Lest this should distract him from his own prayers he
asked a close friend to take upon himself the godly task of overseeing the distribution
of it all to the poor and to orphans. His own soul and mind continued securely in
quietness, for it was the greatest wish of this good man to be completely free from all
earthly cares. He possessed nothing on this earth except a mantle and a coarse tunic.
He also had a little bowl from which he ate and drank, and a rush mat on which he
Above all he had true humility, and showed the same charitable respect to all. He did
not put the rich before the poor, the prince before the subject, or the aristocrats before
the common people, but gave the same consideration and honour to all, without any
respect of persons. He never scolded people rudely; his speech was always rooted in
love and gentleness. How could anyone possibly get too much of his eloquence, offered
as it was with such sweetness? Or how could anyone gazing at his face, the image of
holiness, fail to be filled with a desire to see him over and over again. Once he had
taken up his rules of abstinence he never relaxed them at any time. He completed with
all diligence fifty years of this chosen way of life, and for the great love and longing he
had for Christ, he reckoned that long stretch of time as but a few days, and he thought
of all the austerity of his rule as nothing at all.
There was quite a large and important village not far from the city, where everyone
from the greatest to the least lived in a state of the most crude paganism. Nobody had
succeeded in converting them from the worship of idols. A number of presbyters and
deacons had been ordained by the bishop and sent there for that very purpose, but had
to withdraw without converting anyone. They laboured there in vain; the people would
not be persuaded. They were fierce in temperament and quite inflexible about keeping
to their own opinions. Not only that, but they also stirred up anger and the most
intense resentment against the preachers. There were even a number of monks who
had tried to approach them time and again, but had not had the least success in
converting any of them.
Then, one day, as the bishop was having a meeting with his clergy, he began to talk
about this most blessed man. "In all my days I have never seen anyone like him," he
said. "He is perfect in every good work, adorned with all the virtues. God is with him,
which is why he is known as Abraham the most holy." "It is perfectly true," came the
reply from the clergy. "This servant of God is the most perfect of monks." "I would like
to ordain him presbyter," said the bishop, "and send him into that village of pagans.
With his patience and love he would be able to convert them to God." And he got up
straight away and went to the holy man's cell along with his clergy. After greeting him
he immediately suggested that Abraham should go to that village for the sake of their
"I beg you, most holy father," said Abraham, unhappy and agitated, "Let me just go on
weeping for my sins without placing this sort of burden on my weak and insignificant
"But by the grace of God you can do it. Surely you don't want to be found lacking in
obedience in this matter." "I beseech you, your holiness, let me just mourn my
"Look, you have renounced the world and everything in it, you have embraced the life
of the cross, and yet having done all that, you should know that you have no idea of
what obedience is, which is the greatest of all virtues." "What am I but a dead dog (1
Samuel 24.14), and what is my life that you have passed such a sentence on me, most
"Look, you are just sitting here taking thought for your own salvation. There are
multitudes more whom by the help of God's grace you could save by turning them
towards the Lord God. Just ask yourself which will bring the greater reward, saving your
own soul, or leading many others to salvation with you.." "Then the Lord's will be
done," the blessed man of God said in floods of tears. "In truth, obedience demands
that I do whatever you wish."
So he was taken from his cell into the city, ordained presbyter by the laying of hands,
and sent without delay to that pagan village, praying as he went on his journey.
"O God most clement, most bounteous," he prayed, "look upon my infirmity, and send
your heavenly grace down on my new status (praesidium) that your holy name may be
When he got to the village and saw how deeply they were all immersed in the madness
of idolatry, he groaned from the bottom of his heart and wept in grief.
"You alone are without sin, O God," he cried, lifting up his eyes to heaven. "Despise
not the works of your own hands."
And he hastily arranged for a messenger to be sent to his dear friend in the city,
asking him to bring him what money was left of his inheritance. Once he had got it,
before long he had built a church and decorated it with many wonderful ornaments as if
it were a most beloved bride. While it was being built, however, the man of God
walked daily past the pagan statues, saying nothing, but praying secretly in his heart,
and sending up his tears and sighs to the Lord. When the church was finished he
offered it up with many tears as a gift to God and on his knees poured forth prayer to
"Almighty Son of the living God, you have trodden the whole world of error underfoot,
and led it by your presence into the knowledge of your light. Gather this scattered
people also into the bosom of your church, and enlighten the eyes of their minds, that
they may cast off the worship of idols and know you the only kind God and lover of
The prayer over, he went straight out of the church to the pagan temple, overturned
the altar and images and destroyed them with his own hands. When the pagans
realised what he had done an angry crowd of them gathered around like a herd of wild
beasts and beat him with many rods, making him run for his life. At night time he came
quietly back to his church, taking no thought for his lacerations and wounds, but
praying to the Lord with tears and groans that they should be saved. In the morning
the pagans came to the church and found him praying, and they stood stock still in
amazement. And they came to the church for several days, not in order to pray, but to
feast their eyes on the beauty and ornaments of the church. A few days later the
blessed man Abraham began to urge them to know God. But this made them very
angry, and they fell upon him with clubs as if he were some lifeless stone, bound his
feet with ropes, dragged him out of the village, and stoned him till they thought he
was dead, although in fact he was still only half dead.
In the middle of the night he regained consciousness and began to weep bitterly.
"O Lord," he prayed, "why have you despised my lowliness and turned your face away
from me? And why do you cast down my soul, and despise, O Lord, the work of your
own hands? Now, O Lord, look upon your servant and hear my prayer and give me
strength. Loosen your children from the chains of the devil, and enlighten them that
they may know you, for you alone are God, and beside you there is no other."
Rising from his prayer, he returned to the village and went in to the church, singing
psalms to the Lord. When it began to get light the villagers came and were astonished
to see him. Infuriated and maddened, they again tormented him cruelly without mercy,
bound him and carried him out of the village.
He went on suffering like this for three years, but he endured as if he were an
adamantine rock, and he suffered a great many abusive torments without ceasing. But
when he was knocked over, when he was dragged about, persecuted and stoned,
suffering from hunger and thirst, no matter what happened he was never provoked to
anger, never moved by indignation, never fainthearted, never worn out and weary. The
more he suffered from them the more his love and charity increased towards them. He
warned, he cajoled, he showered them with entreaties of gentlest eloquence. He
addressed the older men as fathers, the younger as brothers, the youths as sons, but
when he was ridiculed by them in return he just laughed as he suffered a thousand
There came a day when the inhabitants of that village got together and began to talk
to each other in some fear and amazement.
"Just look at the enormous patience that man has!" they said. "The extraordinary
charity that he shows towards us! We have given him so much trouble, but he has not
gone away, he has not said an unkind word to anyone of us, he has not spurned any of
us, but has put with everything completely cheerfully! Surely he would not have been
able to do that unless this God that he talks about really is the true God, as he says,
and the kingdom, and paradise, and the punishment of the wicked are all true. We
have to realise that all by himself he has overcome our gods and has not come to any
harm. This man truly is a servant of God and everything we have heard about him is
true. Come on then, let us also believe in this God whom he preaches about."
And as result of these conversations they all came together to the church shouting and
"Glory be to the God of heaven who has sent his servant to us to save us from error!"
What an enormous joy filled the heart of the man of God at this sight! His face
glistened like the dew of the morning and he opened his mouth to greet them.
"Come fathers, brothers, sons, let us give glory to God who has stooped down to
enlighten the eyes of your minds, that you may come to know him and receive the life
giving sign which will purge you from the uncleanness of idolatry. Believe with all your
heart and mind that there is one God of heaven and earth and all that is in it, beyond
understanding, giver of light, lover and redeemer of humankind, terrible and gentle.
And believe in the only begotten Son who is the wisdom of God, and in the holy Spirit
who gives life to all, so that you may be lifted up from earth to heaven and enjoy the
life of heaven."
"You are our father," they said. "You are our guide through life. Whatever you tell us
and teach us that we will believe and do."
Without delay the holy Abraham performed the rite of Baptism, and baptised them all
from the greatest to the least, about a thousand souls in all. Day by day he read the
holy Scriptures to them, and taught them about the kingdom of God, the delights of
paradise, the hell of punishment, about justice, faith and charity. They were like good
earth receiving good seed, and brought forth fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixtyfold,
and some thirty, and as they progressed in the fear of God so did their fruits increase.
In their sight he seemed like an Angel of God, holding the household together. His
gentle teachings aroused such love towards him that that alone was enough to make
them believe in God.
For the space of a year the blessed man Abraham did not cease to teach them day by
day about the word of God, until he could see that their faith and their zeal for God
had become strong. But he also saw that their love for him was excessive, and that
they were paying him too much honour. He feared that their attachment to him was
undermining his rule of abstinence and that his mind to a certain degree was being
drawn away into earthly cares. He rose in the middle of the night and poured out a
prayer to God.
"You alone, O God, are without sin for you alone are holy, and abide in the holy places.
You alone are the merciful Lord and lover of humankind, who have opened the eyes of
this multitude and freed them from the chains of the adversary, and rescued them from
the toils of idolatrous error, and taught them how to know you. I beseech you, O Lord,
to guide them and keep them to the end. In your mercy ever provide a generous
measure of your help to this most wonderful flock, which you have possessed as your
own. Surround them by the grace of your goodness as if with a strong wall, and ever
illuminate their hearts that they may always do what is pleasing to you and earn the
life everlasting. You have allowed me, weak as I am, to have been their prop and stay,
but now hold it not against me as a sin if I do now speedily depart. You know the
thoughts of all. You know that I desire only you, and I know that you are my Lord."
He began his journey as he spoke, signing the village of Christ three times with the
Cross, and went away to another place where nobody was able to find him.
A crowd of people arrived next morning at the church as usual. When he was not be
found they were totally bewildered and ran about like lost sheep seeking everywhere
for their shepherd, tearfully weeping and wailing. They searched about for a long time
without being able to find him, and at last, overcome with grief they went to tell the
bishop what had happened. He also was very worried at the news, and immediately
sent off several people to search for him. He was anxious to do everything he could for
the people, for he could see how deeply concerned they were. When they had searched
everywhere as if they were looking for some precious stone but still could not find him,
the bishop took counsel with his clergy and they all went to the village. He offered the
villagers words of comfort and tried with his gentle coaxing to soften the blow which
Abraham's departure had given them. He discerned that they were very strong in the
faith, so he chose likely men from among them to be ordained as presbyters, deacons
The most holy Abraham eventually got to hear about this, and he was overjoyed.
"What return can I make unto you, O Lord my God, most compassionate Father, most
gentle lover of mankind, for all the benefits you have given unto me? I give honour and
glory to you for everything you have done."
And he went back immediately to his former cell, where he built an extension in front
of it and enclosed himself joyfully in the inner part.
O what a miracle was this, my beloved brothers! Worthy of praise and eternal glory!
Throughout all those terrible troubles that he suffered in that village he never broke his
rule of abstinence, and turned not either to the right hand or the left. Glory and
splendour to God who granted him the forbearance which led to the conversion of
others, and who gave him the grace to hold to his original purpose!
The devil, ever malicious towards good people, had not succeeded in turning the mind
of the man of God, or separating him from the Lord, in spite of all the troubles he had
stirred up against him. Worse, like gold tried in the furnace, he had emerged purified
from the fire, and had grown into a greater patience and a keener love. The devil was
so exceedingly annoyed and bitterly infuriated that he sent enormous phantasms
against him, in the hope that by filling him with fear he might succeed in deceiving him
and getting him to fall.
So while he was standing to sing psalms in the middle of the night a light as brilliant
as the sun suddenly shone in the midst of his cell and he heard the voices of a great
"Blessed are you, Abraham, truly blessed and faithful, there is no one to be found like
you in all the world, for you have done everything according to my will."
The holy man immediately experienced an exceeding great grief, and he lifted up his
voice and cried:
"May you be lost in eternal obscurity, you receptacle of grief and deception, for I am a
sinful human being, albeit fortified by hope, and by the grace of God I am in no way
intimidated by your tricks. No matter how many phantasms you send against me I shall
not be afraid. For the name of my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, whom I love and
serve, is to me as a strong wall of defence. In his name I curse you, you unclean,
thrice accursed dog."
At these words the vision vanished as a smoke before his eyes, and the holy servant of
God blessed the Lord with such eagerness and peace of mind as if he had never seen
any phantasms at all.
A few days later while he was praying at night, the devil wielded a hatchet and tried to
destroy his cell. When he had almost succeeded, he cried out with a loud voice:
"Hurry, my friends, come quickly! Let us go in and bring him to a violent death!"
But blessed Abraham stood up against him.
"All the nations surrounded me," he said, "but in the name of the Lord I will be
avenged on them" (Psalms 118.10).
And the devil vanished immediately when he heard that voice, and the blessed man's
cell remained whole and unharmed.
Again, a few days later when he was singing psalms in the middle of the night, his mat
burst suddenly into flames. Completely unafraid, he stamped on the flames.
"I shall walk upon the asp and basilisk, the lion and the dragon I shall trample under
my feet Psalms 91.13), and I shall overcome all the power of the enemy in the name of
my Lord Jesus Christ who comes to my aid."
Satan was put to flight, crying out with a loud voice:
"I will bring you to an unpleasant death! You may now hold me in despite, but I shall
find a way to conquer you."
On another day while he was taking food, the devil transformed himself into a young
man who came into his cell and tried to overturn his bowl. But the man of God held on
to it firmly and continued boldly with his meal. The devil jumped up and suddenly
created another phantasm. It was as if there was a candelabra standing in front of
him, and light shining above it, and psalms being sung from a polluted and ugly mouth.
"Blessed are they who are undefiled in the way," it sang, "and who walk in the law of
the Lord" (Psalms 119.1).
More verses from this psalm followed, but the holy man said nothing until he had
finished his meal.
"Unclean and thrice accursed dog," he said firmly as he rose from the table, "most
pathetic liar of liars, if you are so sure that we are blessed, why are you molesting us?
In any case, blessed are all they who love God with their whole heart."
"It is they who irritate me above all," the devil replied. "It is they whom I would
conquer, bring all their good works to naught, and make them acquiesce in all kinds of
"No good will come to you from that, accursed one. You will never succeed in
overcoming or even hindering anyone who fears God, only those who like you have
departed from God of their own free will. You conquer and deceive them because God is
not in them. But those who love God can make you evaporate and dissipate like smoke
in the wind. One prayer from such as they can so prick and disturb you that you
become like bits of dust in the breeze. For God is a living God, blessed for ever, who
will glorify me, so that I shall not be afraid though you never left my side. I despise
you as a nothing, the runt of the litter reviled by all."
At these words the devil abruptly vanished, as usual.
Five days later, after his night psalms were finished, another powerful phantasm was
constructed by the enemy. It was as if the holy man could see a great horde
approaching him, all linked together, urging each other on with great shouts that they
might cast the man of God into the pit. But the blessed man just looked at them
"They surrounded me like a swarm of bees," he said, "and burned like fire among the
thorns, but in the name of the Lord I am avenged on them" (Psalms 118.12).
"Alas, alas!" cried Satan. "I don't know what else I can do! Look! He has beaten me
and overcome me in everything I do. He has been defeated by none of my powers, and
trampled me everywhere underfoot. Nevertheless I shall not leave you alone until I
have overcome you, and humbled you and brought you into subjection."
"May you and all your powers be anathema, you most foul of demons!" said the man of
God. "And glory and honour be unto the Lord, the only wise and holy God who gives
you to be trampled underfoot by us who love him. Therefore we have no respect for
your craftiness but only contempt. Know then, you frail and unhappy demon, that we
have no fear either for you or your phantasms."
Time after time the devil assaulted this strongest of men with all sorts of arguments
and tricks, but never was he able to make any impression on the fortress of his mind or
even to make him feel afraid. The more he was attacked, the greater grew his zeal and
love towards God. For because he loved God with all his heart, and arranged his life
according to God's will, so he earned an overflowing measure of God's grace, and the
devil was not able to harm him. He was forever knocking on the door, seeking for the
treasures of God's grace to be opened up to him. And when the door was opened up to
him he found there the three precious stones of faith, hope and charity, powerful
adornments bringing all the other virtues to perfection. And with these he wove a
crown of good works which he offered back to his Lord, the King of kings, from whom
all his gifts did proceed.
Who has ever with his whole heart loved God and his neighbour as himself like this
man (Luke 10.27)? Or who has ever endured such labours, or shown such compassion?
Whenever he heard of any monk who had the reputation of a holy life, did he ever fail
to pray for him to the Lord that he might be kept safe from all the snares of the devil,
and maintain the blameless course of his life? Whenever he heard of any sinner or
godless person, did he ever fail to pray to the Lord with tears day and night that he
might be saved? In all the days of his religious life he did not pass one day without
tears. Nor did laughter easily escape his lips. He never anointed his body with oil, and
from the day of his conversion he never washed either his feet or his face. He always
lived as one with the thought of his death always before him.
Truly, my brothers, what a glorious miracle he was! Constant vigils washed with tears,
disciplined in body by sleeping on the ground, never weary, never weakened or dulled
by lethargy, never prone to apathy, but always like someone hungering and thirsting,
he gladly endured all things, never allowing his mind to be deflected from its purpose
by any relaxation. He appeared as a flower forever in bloom, his face mirrored the
purity of his soul. There was nothing lacking in his whole body, which always seemed
healthy and strong, enjoying divine grace in all its parts and enlivened with spiritual
joy. In the hour of his death his face shone with such splendour that it seemed
impossible that his whole life had been spent in abstinence. And there was another
miracle in the way he managed things; he never once changed the tunic in which he
was originally clothed.
For other things in the Life of Abraham and his niece, see the Lives of the Women
(Book 1d, Life No 20).
Life No 20
The Life of St Mary the Harlot, the niece of Abraham the Hermit
[Celebrated in the Roman Martyrology on 29 October]
by St Ephraem the Archdeacon
translated into Latin from the Greek by an anonymous author.
This is the rest of Life of Abraham, begun in
Life No 7 in Book 1a
Beloved brethren, I would like to respond to your unanimous request that I should tell
you about another admirable matter which this blessed man dealt with in his old age.
For wise and spiritual men it provides an instructive example of humility and
compunction. This is what it was all about:
The blessed man Abraham had a brother who died leaving a daughter seven years old.
Her father's friends decided that as this girl had now lost both her parents, she should
be immediately handed over to her uncle. The old man accepted this, and put her in
the outer room of the cell. There was a little window in the wall between the rooms,
through which he was able to teach her the psalter and the scriptures. She joined with
him in praising God in the vigil services, and she strove to emulate her uncle in his
practice of abstinence. She readily accepted this regime and made great advances in all
the virtues. The holy man unceasingly prayed with tears to the Lord that her mind
should be freed from attachment to the affairs of this world, for her father had left her
a large sum of money. But with her father now dead, and her uncle in charge, the
servant of Christ ordered that the money be distributed to the needy and orphans. The
girl daily asked her uncle to pray that she be kept safe from the divers snares and
traps of the devil, and kept faithfully to the rule he had given her.
Her uncle gave thanks that he could see her unhesitatingly moving forwards in the
practice of all the virtues, that is in tears, humility, modesty and silence, and what was
even more wonderful, in a profound love of God. She had lived with him in abstinence
for twenty years, as pure as a lamb and as unspotted as a dove, when the devil began
to rage against her, and tempted her with his usual tactics. He sought to ensnare her
in his nets, hoping to turn her mind away from God and give the blessed man great
cause to worry about her.
There was a certain monk (a monk in name only) who was in the habit of coming to
visit the holy man under the pretext of seeking for instruction. He could see that
blessed woman through the window, and began to be stirred with desire for her. He
sought pretexts for speaking with her, and the urgings of lust began to set his heart on
fire. Over the space of a year he insinuated himself into her affections by degrees,
until her thoughts were quite overwhelmed by the sweetness of his words, and at last
she opened the window of her cell and went out to him. He immediately contaminated
and polluted her in the wickedness of his sinful lust.
Afterwards, she was horrified at how wicked was the deed she had done. She tore the
tunic she was wearing and lacerated her face with her nails. In her excessive grief, she
wished she were dead. Her anxiety oppressed her like a dead weight, in her mental
storm she could not see the prospects of any harbour, her fevered thoughts flew
backwards and forwards and she bewailed her fate unceasingly.
"This feels like a wound unto death," she cried. "The labour of my days and my
abstinence have gone for nothing, the work of my prayers, tears and vigils has been
rendered completely worthless. I have grievously offended my God and have destroyed
myself. What a miserable wretch I am, drowning myself in tears! I have inflicted the
most bitter sorrow upon my holy uncle, my soul is burdened with guilt, and I have
simply become a bit of sport for the devil. What point is there in prolonging my
miserable existence any further? Alas, what have I done? Alas, what shall I do now?
Alas, what evils have I brought upon myself? Alas, how could I have ever sunk so low?
How did my mind come to be so darkened? I could not see that I was doing wrong, I
did not realise I was being despoiled, I cannot understand how my heart came to be
hidden in a cloud of darkness. How is it that I did not realise what I was doing?
"Where can I hide myself? Where can I go? Where is there some ravine I can throw
myself into? Where now are all the teachings of my most holy uncle? Where are the
warnings of his colleague, Ephraem? They taught me to preserve my virginity so that I
might offer an immaculate soul to my immortal bridegroom. 'Your bridegroom,' they
said, 'is holy and ardent'. Alas, what can I do? I don't dare so much as lift up my eyes
to heaven, for I know that in the eyes of both God and man I am as good as dead. I
don't dare to go anywhere near his window. I am a sinner full of sordid uncleanness -
how shall I even try to speak with my holy uncle? If I even dared to attempt it,
wouldn't a blast of fire burst from him to burn me to ashes? Seeing that I am already
dead and have no hope of gaining salvation, I had better leave here and go to some
foreign land where nobody knows me."
Hastily, she left, went to a foreign land, changed her clothes and found employment in
a brothel.[stabulum, a word which can mean simply 'fixed abode'. In Chapter VI, below,
it seems to mean 'inn, hostelry', but is also, obviously, a brothel]
This disaster which happened to her was revealed to the holy man by a vision in his
sleep. What he saw was a terrifying, enormous dragon, hissing loudly and stinking
most horribly, which burst out from somewhere towards his own cell, where it found a
little dove, which it devoured and then returned to its own pit. He woke up in great
distress, weeping bitter tears, interpreting the vision as an attack of the devil against
the Church of God, turning many away from the faith and creating some schism in holy
Church. He fell on his knees and prayed to God.
"O God, lover of men, nothing is hid from your sight. You know the meaning of this
Two days later he saw the same dragon coming back to the cell in the same manner as
before. With its belly torn open it lowered its head down at his feet, and he could see
the dove which it had devoured was still alive in its stomach. He put his hand in and
pulled it out alive. When he woke up he called out for his blessed niece several times,
thinking that she was still in her cell.
"What has been the matter with you, Mary" - for that was her name - "that you have
not opened your voice to praise God these last two days?"
He got no reply, and since he had not heard her singing the psalms as usual for the
last two days it began to dawn on him that the vision most certainly was about her.
Then he groaned and wept bitterly, pouring out floods of tears.
"Woe is me! A wolf has carried off my little lamb and taken my daughter captive! O
Christ, Saviour of the world, give me back my little lamb Mary. Bring her back to the
fold, lest in my old age I depart this world in grief. Do not turn your ears away from my
prayer, O Lord, but speedily send down your grace that she may be snatched unharmed
from the mouth of the dragon."
The two days of the vision turned out to signify two years, during which his niece lived
out her shameful life as if in the disgusting belly of the dragon. But the holy man never
ceased at all times day and night from praying for her to God.
After two years, he found out where she was and what she was doing, and he asked
someone he knew very well to go there and find out everything about her that he
could. After having gone there and actually seen her, he came back and gave Abraham
a full and truthful report. At Abraham's request he then lent him a soldier's uniform and
a horse to ride. Disguised as a soldier, and wearing voluminous headgear to conceal
his face, he opened his door, came out, mounted his horse, and hurried off, taking with
him just one solidus. Anyone who ventures into any foreign country or city always
assumes the dress of that country so that he won't be noticed; just so did Abraham
wear aggressive clothing, to frighten off any possible attacker. Take a lesson, my
beloved brothers, from this second Abraham. Just as the first Abraham went forth to do
battle with kings and struck them down in order to rescue his nephew Lot (Genesis
13.12-16), so did this second Abraham sally forth to do battle with the devil, to
conquer him and bring back his niece in triumph.
When he arrived at the place where she was, he turned aside into the inn (stabulum)
and looked about him carefully in all directions, hoping to catch sight of her. Having
lingered there for the best part of an hour without having caught the slightest glimpse
of her, he approached the landlord with a grin on his face.
"I have heard, my friend," he said, "that you have a most beautiful girl here. I would
gladly have a look at her, if you will allow me."
The landlord looked at Abraham's grey hairs, and thought to himself that this person
could hardly have any thoughts of lust in his mind, considering his obviously advanced
"You have been told correctly," he replied. "She really is outstandingly beautiful."
And indeed it is true that Mary was of an almost preternatural beauty.
"What is her name?" he asked.
"I should be delighted if you would bring her in to me," he said, filled with joy at
hearing her name. "Perhaps she might dine with me today, for I have heard great
stories about this girl."
He called her in, and when her uncle saw her, dressed like a prostitute, a shudder of
grief shook his whole frame, but he hid the bitterness of his soul with a smile of
pleasure. He restrained himself from breaking out into tears, lest she recognise him
and take refuge in flight.
They sat down and had a drink, and this wonderful man then began to lead her on. She
got up from her seat, put her arms around his neck and gave him a few gentle kisses.
But as did so, the familiar scent of an abstinent body assailed her sense of smell, and
the remembrance of the days when she lived in abstinence herself suddenly burst upon
her mind. She cried out, as if pierced by a javelin, and tears rolled down her cheeks.
"Woe, woe is me!" she cried, unable to restrain the pain in her heart.
The landlord was shocked.
"What is the matter Mary?" he cried. "Why these cries of pain? You have been here two
years and I have never heard you moan like this before. I don't understand what's
"It would have been better for me if I had died three years ago!" she said.
Her blessed uncle, hoping not as yet to be recognised, said to her quite calmly:
"We were enjoying each other's company a moment ago. Could it be that the memory
of your sins has just come into your mind?"
O Almighty God! How wonderful is the way you shed your mercy upon us! Wouldn't you
think that by now the girl was at least thinking to herself, 'What a close resemblance
there is between this man and my uncle!' But you alone are the lover of mankind, O
God, from whom all goodness and wisdom flows; you so decreed that she did not
recognise him and so run away in confusion. The only possible reason for this servant
of yours, her uncle, being able to hold back his tears, must surely be that you
intervened to make the impossible possible.
The holy man gave the landlord the solidus he had brought with him.
"Prepare the best meal for us that you possibly can," he said, "so that the girl and I
can dine together. I have come a long journey for the love of her."
O loving wisdom of our God! O truly spiritual fount of knowledge! The wisdom of your
saving ways is a perpetual cause for celebration. For fifty years of abstinence Abraham
had tasted nothing but bread, and here he was now eating meat without hesitation,
simply in order to save a lost soul. The choirs of Holy Angels looked on and applauded
with exultation at the discretion this blessed man was displaying, for he was eating
and drinking enthusiastically with no qualms at all simply in order to rescue a lost soul
from the lowest deeps O wisdom of the wise, O knowledge of the knowledgeable, O
discretion of the discreet! You cannot but admire the simplicity of this man. Come,
stand in awe of how this man, so perfect and wise and prudent and discreet, has made
himself into something quite different, into someone ignorant and completely lacking in
discretion, simply in order that he might snatch a soul from the mouth of the lion, and
free an imprisoned and conquered soul from the chains and oppression of darkness.
After they had eaten, the girl became quite provocative and suggested they go to the
"Yes, let's go," he said.
As he went in he saw the bed in the corner and sat down on it without hesitation.
However shall I describe you, you most perfect athlete of Christ? I really do not know
how to put the right name to you. Do I call you continent, or incontinent? Wise, or
idiotic? Discreet or indiscreet? For fifty years of your life you have slept on a hard bed,
and here you are now boldly getting into a bed of this sort! But of course you have
done all these things for the praise and glory of Christ. You have undertaken a long
and tedious journey, you have eaten meat and drunk wine, entered a house of ill
repute, and all for the sake of saving one lost soul. Yet we tend to draw back in
diffidence when we should at least be saying some sort of constructive word to our
"Come, sir, let me take your shoes off for you," she said, as he sat on the bed.
"Shut the door first," he said, "and then you can take them off."
She wanted to take them off first, but he would not let her, so she went and shut the
door and came back to him.
"Come closer, Mary," he said.
He took her by the hand, and she thought he was about to embrace her, but instead he
took off the concealing headgear he was wearing and at last allowed the tears to flow.
"Mary, my daughter," he said, "don't you recognise me? You are my own flesh and
blood. Wasn't it I who brought you up? O my daughter, what has become of you? Who
has destroyed you? Where is the clothing of angels that you used to wear? Where is
your continence, your tears, your vigils, your sleeping on the ground? How did you
come to fall into this pit after dwelling in the heights of heaven, my daughter? If you
had sinned, why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you immediately let me help? My
beloved brother Ephraem and I would gladly have done penance for you. Why have you
behaved the way you have? Why desert me and plunge me into such grief. After all, is
there anyone who hasn't sinned, except God?"
As he was saying all this, and much more besides, she remained in his grip as still as a
stone, transfixed as much by fear as confusion. But the blessed man kept on talking to
her through his tears.
"O Mary, my daughter, haven't you got anything to say to me? Flesh of my flesh, can
you not speak? Haven't I come all this way especially for your sake? Let your sin rest
upon my shoulders, my daughter, that in the day of judgment I may stand in your place
before God and make satisfaction to God for your sin."
He went on till midnight pricking her conscience with such words and overwhelming her
with his life-giving tears. Little by little she began to regain a little confidence, and
answered him through her tears.
"I am so covered in confusion," she said, "that I can hardly bear you to look at me. But
how could I possibly have poured out my prayers towards God, when I had been
wallowing in such filth?"
"Let me bear the burden of your sin," said this most holy man. "Let God require your
sin at my hands, if only you will listen to me. And come, and let us go to our own
place. Look, there is that most loving Ephraem who has been most deeply upset
because of you. He prays without ceasing for you to the Lord. Don't have any doubts,
my daughter, about the mercy of the Lord. Though your sins be as big as mountains,
yet his mercy is greater than all creation. Don't we read about how the unclean woman
came to him who was spotless without in the least contaminating him? By him she was
cleansed, she washed his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7.38).
There is more hope of a spark setting the sea on fire than there is of your sins
"There is nothing new in falling down in the contest; the wicked thing is to keep on
lying there. Be brave, retrace your steps. For as long as you go on lying down the
enemy is laughing at you, but he knows that you will be all the stronger when you get
up. Have pity on my old age. Give me some recompense for the labours I have
undertaken in spite of my grey hair, I beg you. Leave here and come back with me to
your cell. Don't be afraid, it is human nature to be in danger of falling. But even though
a fall can happen quite quickly, by the help of God to rise again can be quicker still. For
God does not will the death of a sinner but rather that he may be healed and live"
"If you are sure that I can do penance, and that God will accept my reparation," she
said, "then, see, I am going to do what you say. You lead, and I will follow your
holiness, and kiss your footprints, because you have grieved so much about me and
drawn me out this unclean morass."
And she laid her head down at his feet and wept for the rest of the night, crying:
"What shall I give to the Lord, as retribution for all my sins?"
"Come, daughter," said Abraham as soon as it was light, "let's go back to our cell."
"I have a little money here," she replied, "and some clothes. What do you want me to
do with them?"
"Leave them behind," said the blessed Abraham. "They are the wages of sin."
So they arose and departed. He put her on his horse and walked in front of her. Just as
a shepherd who has found his lost sheep puts it on his shoulders rejoicing (Luke 15.5),
so did the blessed Abraham begin this journey with his niece rejoicing. When they got
home he put her in the inner room which he had previously occupied, and he remained
in the outer room. Wearing the monastic habit once more, she passed her days in
humility of mind and body, her eyes bathed in tears, disciplining herself with the
strictest abstinence, declaring unceasingly with untroubled confidence before the Lord
that her tears were offered in sure hope of the forgiveness of her sins. She cried out for
mercy so powerfully that he would be hard hearted indeed who would not have been
overcome with compassion at the sound of her weeping. Who is there so devoid of
mercy that would not have wept in sympathy with her in her lamentation? And who in
true compunction of heart would not have given thanks to God?
Her penitence was beyond measure, compared to ours. So zealously did she pray to the
Lord to pardon what she had done, that she was bold enough to ask God for a sign
that her sins were indeed forgiven. And the most merciful Lord who wills no one to
perish but rather come to repentance (1 Timothy 2.4), so graciously accepted her
penances, that after three years salvation began to come to many other people
through her prayers. For crowds of people began to flow eagerly towards her, begging
that she might pray to the Lord for their salvation.
The blessed Abraham lasted for a further ten years in this life, to witness the depth of
her penitence and glorify God, until in his seventieth year he rested in peace. For fifty
years he had been faithful to his profession with great devotion, humility of heart and
He had shown favouritism to no one, as many are inclined to do, loving this person and
despising that. He never relaxed his rule of abstinence, he never slumped into
indolence, he was never careless, but lived each day as it if were his last. The way of
life of this most blessed Abraham, and the battles he endured, were such that he ever
stood resolute in the face of the enemy and never retreated. In his struggles in the
village, [In his earlier life he had been responsible for converting a pagan village, at
the behest of his bishop. See chapter iv and following, in Life No 7 in Book 1a.] and in
all his battles against the phantasies of the demons, he never relaxed his mind or
quailed before anyone. A great and memorable battle he had in the matter of the most
blessed Mary. With spiritual wisdom, prudence and innocence he rescued her from the
carelessness and incontinence of a morass of iniquity. What a miracle! He ventured
even into the lair of the dragon and trod him underfoot, snatching his prey from out of
his very mouth. What agonies and sweat this blessed man endured.
We have written all these things for the comfort and devotion of all those who desire
to govern their lives devoutly and zealously, and to the praise and glory of God whose
grace has surrounded us abundantly at all times. I have described the rest of his
virtues in another book. When he was lying in peace, having passed to the Lord,
almost the whole city gathered. Each person approached his most pure body with the
greatest devotion, tearing off bits of his clothing to obtain a blessing for themselves.
And if they were ever ill, they only needed to touch the scrap they had torn off to be
fully restored to health.
Mary lived for another five years, pursuing an extraordinarily strict mode of existence.
Day and night she continually prayed to the Lord with great lamentation bathed in
tears, so that the many people who came by night to hear the voice of her weeping
were so affected by her plaints that they joined her weeping with their own weeping.
And on the day of her falling asleep, when she was taken up out of this life, all who
saw her gave glory to the Lord because of the shining splendour of her countenance.
O what a wretch am I, my beloved brothers, compared with those who have already
fallen asleep and passed to the Lord with such great faithfulness! Their minds were
never preoccupied with mundane business, but centred solely in the love of God. But I,
indeed, remain buried in self-will, stumbling and unresponsive. My soul is wintry, an
unending tempest leaves me bare, and despoiled of the hope of bringing any good
work to perfection.
I am astonished at myself, my beloved brothers, because of the way in which I daily
fail. I build for hours, then for hours I destroy what I have built. At night I say,
'Tomorrow I will repent', but in the morning when I get up I put it off for another day.
Again towards evening I say, 'Tonight I will keep vigil and besiege the Lord with tears
that he may look mercifully on my sins', but when nighttime comes I fall asleep. There
are those who like me have been given a talent and have laboured day and night to
trade successfully and gain the prize of being given power over ten cities (Luke 19.17),
but I in my laziness have hidden my talent in the ground, and my Lord is hastening
near and will strike fear into my heart, and I mourn for the days of my negligence, for I
have not any excuse to offer.
O my God, have mercy upon me and save me, for you alone are without sin, you alone
are merciful and kind, and apart from you I know no other, nor is there any other in
whom I believe, Father most blessed, and only begotten Son incarnate for our sakes,
and holy Spirit who gives life to all things. It is in your nature, O lover of mankind,
both to keep me in mind, and to lead me out of the prison house of my sins. It is at
your behest that I both came into this world and shall depart from it. Be merciful to me
in my helplessness, and bring salvation to me, a sinner. Your grace is my helper in this
world, my refuge and my hope of glory. Let it hide me under the shadow of its wings in
that terrible and horrendous day. For you know the secrets of our hearts and minds,
you know how many depravities and scandalous by ways I have scorned, you know how
many shameless vanities and inclinations to heresy I have rejected. And all that not in
my own strength but by your grace which has enlightened my mind. Wherefore I pray
you, holy Lord, to save me into your kingdom and be graciously pleased to bless me
along with all who are pleasing to you, for yours alone is the glory, the adoration and
the magnificence, Father Son and holy Spirit. Amen.
 Butler's Lives of the Saints – March 16.
 Vitae Patrum, Life No 7.
|The Life of Saint Abraham, Hermit,
[Celebrated in the Roman Martyrology on March 16]
by S. Ephraem the Deacon
translated into Latin from the Greek by an anonymous
Lives of the Saints