Abba Agathon of Egypt
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Abba Agathon?
Abba Agathon made his way to the desert at a young age. He was a contemporary of Abba Macarius the Great, Abba Amoun, and Abba Joseph. This puts his life firmly in the 4th century, and his location near Scetis.
Agathon was trained in the spiritual life by Abba Poemen. Abba Agathon demonstrated his aptitude for the spiritual life from a young age. He was considered an Abba by Poemon at a much younger age than most men were looked to as a father. When questioned by a number of desert fathers as to why Poemen would refer to such a young man as an Abba, Poemen replied,
“His speech makes him worthy of being called ‘Abba.’”
He was known as a kind and humble man, though this does not say enough about his disposition. He was filled with perfect love, Abba Agathon once said,
“If I could meet a leper, give him my body and take his, I should be very happy.”
Abba Agathon was also known as a humble servant.
“When he sailed in a vessel he was the first to handle the oars and when the brethren came to see him he laid the table with his own hands, as soon as they had prayed, because he was full of the love of God.”
One time, some monks wished to test him, knowing that he took great care to not let anything disturb him. When they came to him they accused him of pride and debauchery. Agathon’s only response was, “Yes, it is so.”
Then, in order to further try him, they accused him of being Agathon, the lover of slander. Again, Agathon’s response was, “I am he.”
Finally, they railed against him the accusation that he was a heretic, to which he answered simply, “I am not a heretic.”
Perplexed, his accusers asked him why he agreed with the first two accusations, but not the last. Agathon responded,
“The first things I accepted, since they were beneficial for my soul; but not the accusation that I am a heretic, since heresy is separation from God.”
To the desert fathers, accepting the accusation was admitting the fault, and it was only in admitting the fault that you could hope to find purity of heart before God. In recognizing the inclination, the heart can be purged.
He was not impressed with great gift.
“Abba Agathon said that an irascible (easily angered) man, even if he should raise the dead, is not acceptable before God.”
When you are surrounded by incredibly gifted men such as Macarius and Poemen, gift does little to impress you. Humility, love, and tenderness become the watermark of the spiritual man. As John Paul Jackson has said,
Once, when travelling to town to sell his wares in order to support himself, he came across a sick man lying in a public place with no one to tend to him. Abba Agathon rented a room in the city and brought the man to the room. He raised money by working, paid the rent and spent the rest of the money he earned caring for the sick man. Four months he spent with the sick man, nursing him back to health. When the sick man was healthy enough to take care of himself, Agathon returned to his dwelling in the desert.
Another time, while on his way to town, he came across a cripple laying on the roadside. The cripple asked Agathon where he was headed. Agathon informed him that he was on his way to town to sell some things. The cripple asked the Abba to carry him with him. Agathon agreed, placing the cripple down beside him when he arrived in town. After each sale, the cripple would ask Agathon how much he had earned. The cripple would then ask Agathon to buy him something, to which he agreed. After selling everything, the cripple asked the Abba to carry him back to where he had found him. When Agathon had set him back down the cripple said,
“’Agathon, you are filled with divine blessings, in heaven and on earth.’ Raising his eyes, Agathon saw no man; it was an angel of the Lord, come to try him.”
The Spiritual Life
The greatest facet of the spiritual life to Agathon was watchfulness of the heart. Internal awareness revealed internal desire, internal desire revealed that which moved the heart, this in turn revealed what the heart was set upon. When the desire of the heart was revealed, the monastic could respond in repentance and a turning of the heart back to God. Interior awareness was key to finding purity of heart.
When asked which was better, asceticism (fasting, silence, solitude, prayer etc…) or interior vigilance, Agathon used the analogy of a tree to answer the question. If man can be thought of as a tree, interior vigilance is the fruit of the tree and asceticism (self-discipline) are the leaves. The fruit is the most important part of the tree, but in order for the fruit to grow it needs leaves for protection. Thus, the spiritual disciplines provide the climate for interior awareness to sharpen. The analogy is not so far fetched when taken in context of Jesus' statement in Matthew 3:10,
“Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire.”
Abba Abraham once asked Abba Agathon why the enemy was making such terrible war upon him. Agathon responded,
“Do the devils make war upon you? But they do not make war against us as fiercely as we ourselves do with our own wishes, though they do make war against us in proportion as our wishes do. Our desires become devils, and they force us to fulfil them.”
When desire is placed anywhere outside of God, our will becomes the vehicle for the attack of the enemy. Our “want to’s” justify our “should do’s” and eventually we take action. Without internal awareness the movement of desire is lost in the chaos of internal noise. If the heart is aware, the spiritual one can begin the process purifying the heart.
But what does that process look like? To Agathon, it cannot be done outside of Christ.
“A brother asked Abba Agathon about fornication. He answered, ‘Go, cast your weakness before God and you shall find rest.’”
Purging weakness could only be done in prayer to God. The monk does not have the capacity to purify his own heart.
An important element to this was repentance.
“When Abba Agathon saw anyone sinning, and his thoughts urged him to condemn that person, he would say to himself: ‘Agathon, beware, lest you do the same thing,’ and in this way, he attained peace of mind.”
If we spend our time judging our own actions in relation to God, we will have little energy left for judging the actions of others. And in judging our own actions, we become ever more aware of our own fallibility.
"Abba Agathon said that a monk must not allow his conscience to accuse him in any matter whatsoever."
Because he should be detached from all things and transparent before God and others. If the monks conscience accused him, there was reason for repentance. If the monk constantly laid bare his heart before God and others, God would be faithful to purge impurity and establish righteousness.
In order to further this, if he had wronged or been wronged he dealt with the issue immediately.
There is nothing so heinous or insidious as an offence that lingers. Eventually, even small matters become large matters as they dig themselves deeper into the heart. As has been said by Amma Theodora.
“A sin that has become old in a person’s heart, or an impure passion, demands much time and much suffering because the habit which is rooted in the heart is changed only with difficulty.”
This is probably why Agathon called prayer the virtue that required the greatest effort.
“I think there is no labour greater than that of prayer to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, want to prevent him, for they know that it is only by turning him from prayer that they can hinder his journey. Whatever good work a man undertakes, if he perseveres in it, he will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.”
Through all his work allowing God to search his heart and bring to death what would hinder growth, Agathon had an incredible revelation of the love of God.
”I have never loved my brother only in theory, that is, without actually showing my love toward him. For me, love means to assist my brother, for I consider my brother's gain to be for me a fruitful work.”
You can’t love in theory, only in practice. To Agathon, love of brother was an outgrowth of the love of Christ, who, if He had practiced His love in theory, would never have suffered on our behalf. Without Christ’s practice of sacrificial love, purity of heart would only be a theory and never practiced.