Abba Ammonas The Bishop - Part 1
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.
“The sweetness of God will provide you with the greatest possible strength. For divine sweetness is ‘sweeter than honey and the honeycomb.’ (Ps. 19:10.)”
Who was Abba Ammonas the Bishop?
Abba Ammonas was a disciple of Anthony, cared for the lives of the men who had committed themselves to the monastery he oversaw, and practiced “love cover a multitude of sins” toward those who had fallen. Of this desert father we know very little about his origin. However, his character rings clearly through his letters and the stories committed to history regarding him. He was a man who loved Christ deeply, and inspired others to do the same.
Ammonas spent 14 years in Sketis in the 4th century. The exact dates of his birth and passing are unknown. After Anthony the Great passed away, Ammonas was sent to the monastery of Pispir (a mountain near the Nile) and consecrated as bishop by Athanasius.
It was said of Abba Ammonas that he…
“advanced to the point where his goodness was so great, he took no notice of wickedness.”
Anthony recognized this trait within him before it was developed and spoke it over his life in a prophetic moment.
“He (Anthony) led him (Ammonas) outside his cell, and showing him a stone, said to him, ‘Hurt this stone, and beat it.’ He did so. Then Anthony asked him, ‘Has the stone said anything?’ He replied, ‘No.’ Then Anthony said, ‘You too will be able to do that,’ and that is what happened.”
Once, when a young girl who had become pregnant outside of marriage was brought before Ammonas, those who brought her were looking to him to pronounce judgement upon her. Rather than denouncing her, he blessed her and commanded that she be given six fine linen sheets to help her in her distress. He demonstrated care for her in the midst of her fear.
Another time, a certain brother was suspected of having been entertaining women to his room for illicit affairs. The brothers went to Ammonas to gain his support in exposing the brother and removing him from the community. When they arrived at his room, the woman he was engaged with hid in a basket. The brothers rushed through the door and Ammonas sauntered to the basket and sat right on top. The accusing brothers searched the room high and low and could find no sign of the woman.
“Abba Ammonas said to them: ‘May God forgive you.’ He uttered a prayer and dismissed all of the visitors. He then grasped the brother’s hand and told him: ‘Be attentive to yourself, brother.’ After saying this, he departed.”
The Spiritual Life
Abba Ammonas taught that the spiritual life consisted of preparing the individual to receive the Holy Spirit. The disciplines were the avenue of this preparation. Disciplines such as fasting, prayer, watchfulness and submission all served to prepare the heart for the presence of the Holy Spirit. The greater the preparation, the greater the occupation of the Holy Spirit within the heart of man.
The spiritual life consists of dealing with our thought life and submitting to God. When Ammonas was asked what Jesus meant by the “narrow and hard way,” he answered,
“The ‘narrow and hard way’ is this, to control your thoughts, and to strip yourself of your own will, for the sake of God. This is also the meaning of the sentence, ‘Lo, we have left everything and followed you. (Matt. 19.27)’”
Both of these disciplines dovetail in with each other. Those who have submitted to the will of God will find control of the thought life much easier. Either owing to the desire to please God, or recognizing God’s sovereignty in the midst of difficult circumstances.
As the Holy Spirit takes root in the depths of the one seeking God, the love of God is born in the soul. This love moves the individual.
“Love moves to awe, awe births weeping, weeping brings joy, joy strength, and strength enables the man to persevere and bring for fruit.”
The encounter of the love of God changes and purifies the individual. That purity betters prepares the heart to host the presence of God. As David stated in Psalm 5:7,
“But as for me, I will come into Your house in the multitude of Your mercy; In fear of You I will worship toward Your holy temple.”
Love draws the individual into intimacy, and the awe of God births spiritual fruit.
Abba Ammonas taught that the monk should not consider the place they reside to be important, but rather the life they live. Once, when asked by a disciple whether it was right to wander in the desert, go to a foreign land to seek God, or practice strict asceticism, Ammonas responded,
“It is not right for you to do any of these three things. Rather, sit in your cell and eat a little every day, keeping the world of the publican always in your heart, and you may be saved.”
The words of the publican were, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Short prayers such as these became the thrust of the spiritual life to the Desert Fathers.
More important to the fathers and mothers of the desert was the preparation of the heart rather than finding the proper place to practice. Today, people run to churches and movements hoping to find depth, betraying the lack of deep roots within modern Christians. The simple approach of Ammonas could serve as an antidote to today’s quick fix society. The disciplines of fasting, and sitting in silence and solitude before the Lord would serve to develop depth within the heart of those desiring the love of God.
As purity of heart takes root in the depths of man, the Holy Spirit makes takes up residence.
“For that Spirit comes not to any soul but only to those which are perfectly cleansed from their passions; for it is holy, and cannot enter into an unclean soul.” The term holy applied to the Spirit of God implies the necessity of holiness in the individual. He goes on to say, “And when you receive this Spirit, He will reveal to you the mysteries of heaven. For He will reveal many things which I cannot write on paper. But you will become free from every fear, and heavenly joy will overtake you…”
The individual embraces the life of heaven in the here and now. Revelation takes hold, the heart is changed, and as maturity increases, there is a movement to care for others.
“For Moses, having received the Spirit, prayed for the people, saying to God, ‘If you wipe them out, then wipe me out of your book of life.’ (Ex.32:31.) You see that his care was to pray for others, having attained to such a measure. But only a few among many have attained to this measure so as to pray for their neighbours.”
Spiritual maturity causes the individual to be other’s focused, rather than self focused. As in the example of Moses, Moses would have rather been subject to the judgement of God rather than to be removed from the people he was charged with caring for.
The sweetness of the presence of God engenders strength within the individual to work greater maturity. The sweetness of God brings life to the body. This life and sweetness strengthens the individual to,
“…despise all dishonour, and all honour from men. hate all the needs of this world, hate all the comforts of the body, cleanses his heart of every foul thought and all the empty wisdom of this world.”
Pride, however, will destroy the effect of this spiritual sweetness. When the individual has for their motivation the accolades of others, God will deprive them of the sweetness of his presence. These ones have exchanged the sweetness of God for the praises of men, and these two things cannot exist together. Pride destroys the efficacy of grace. It leaves the spiritual man wanting. Praise, when not properly dealt with become a source of comfort that keeps the spiritual man empty of God's grace.
Abba Ammonas taught that when this spiritual sweetness seemed distant that we ought to seek, and continue seeking. The fervor of spiritual sweetness is like a fire that creates synergy within the individual to seek God. If that fire is lost, one should do all in their power to reacquire it. If the fire has waned, we ought to question why.
“And if you see your heart weighed down temporarily, bring your soul before you and question it until it becomes fervent again and is set on fire in God.”
Ammonas goes on to say that this is what David had in mind in Psalm 143:5-6,
“I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your works; I muse on the work of Your hands. I spread out my hands to You; My soul longs for You like a thirsty land.”
Reflecting on the days of old should kindle the fire of passion that lingers deep in the heart.