In Search For Humility

Abba Pinuphius in the search for humility flees from the monastery and settles a long way off:

We saw abba Pinuphius who used to be presbyter of a very large coenobium not far from the city of Panephysus in Egypt. He was held in great respect for his age, his life and his priesthood, and was honoured by all. But he saw that because of all that he was unable to preserve his humility, so he fled, alone, from the coenobium into the furthest reaches of the Thebaid. There he took off his monastic clothes and put on secular garments, before seeking out the monastery of Tabennisi, which he knew to be the strictest of all the monasteries, and which he thought would be far enough away for him not to be recognised. He stayed for a long time outside prostrating himself before the brothers, begging each one with many prayers that he might be admitted. When he was at last admitted, not without some scorn for being an old man who would not be suitable for many tasks, he was ordered to work diligently in the garden. A brother who was quite a junior was put over him who believed he should take charge of him completely. This brother not only instructed him in everything to do with the management of the garden but in all the tasks which were universally regarded as hard and humiliating. He carried them all out conscientiously every day, and many of them at night, for he got up quietly so that no one would see him, and no one would be able to guess who had been doing them. Three years went by, and he was being sought throughout Egypt by the brothers, when at last he was seen by a brother who was visiting from Egypt. He could hardly recognise him because of the coarseness of his clothing and the menial work he was doing. He was bent forwards over a hoe, preparing the ground for vegetables, then carrying dung on his shoulders to be laid around their roots. The brother hesitated as he watched, and delayed making himself known to him for quite some time, but at last he moved closer, and recognising his voice as well as his face he at once cast himself at Pinuphius’ feet. The brothers were astounded.

“Why,” they asked, “are you doing this to him? He has only recently joined us from the world, and is the lowest in rank of all of us.”

The visitor justified what he had done by telling them Pinuphius’ name and they were even more astounded by this marvel than before, for the name of Pinuphius was already well known among them. They all begged his pardon for their ignorance, and for keeping him all this time in the ranks of the juniors and children. But he wept and grieved greatly because by the envy of the devil he had been discovered and would not any longer be able to carry on in humility and lowliness. The brothers took him back weeping and reluctant to his own monastery, keeping a very careful eye on him lest he slip away and flee in the same way as before.

            After a little while the desire for lowliness arose in him once more, and in the silence of the night he fled not just to a neighbouring province but to lands completely unknown to him. He took ship intending to settle here in Palestine, believing that he would be more securely hidden if he went to places where even his name had never been heard of. When he got here he came to our monastery, quite near the cave in which our Lord was born of the Virgin. He was able to conceal himself here for a while, but like ‘a city set on a hill’, in the Lord’s words (Matthew 5.14), he could not stay hidden for long, for there were always brothers coming from Egypt to pray at the holy places. He was recognized, and with many prayers they brought him back unwillingly to his own coenobium again.

From De Vitis Patrum, Book IV, Chapter 30 (Cassian, Institutes, Bk.4, chap.30)

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