Abba Amoun of Nitria
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 Amoun of Nitria?
Abba Amoun of Nitria was one of the three founding fathers of desert monasticism along with Abba Anthony and Abba Pachomios. Amoun retired to the desert mountain of Nitria in northern Egypt around 330AD. Within a few short years disciples began flocking to the mountain to be mentored by Abba Amoun. About 50 years after his death it was reported that a thriving monastic community of around 5,000 monastics lived on the mountain to worship God.
Abba Amoun was born around 295 AD to a wealthy family and was forced into marriage around the age of 22 after his parents passed away. Having already caught a taste for the deep things of God, he convinced his betrothed wife to commit to a life of monasticism on their wedding night.
He said to her on the night of their wedding,
“The marriage which men contract is a perishable thing, but let us choose for ourselves the marriage which perishes not, and the marriage feast which never ends.”
After having read to her out of the Pauline letters regarding the life of chastity she readily embraced the life of monastic solitude while living together with Amoun for 18 years.
After 18 years Amoun’s wife began a convent for women practicing monasticism and encouraged Amoun to leave for the desert.
“For it is absurd that you should live with me in chastity and yet conceal such virtue as this of yours.”
The life and practice of Amoun was to become a beacon for others seeking God in solitude and silence. However, he was known to make trips twice a year to visit his wife.
Amoun became a close friend of Abba Anthony the Great. They would frequently visit with each other. On Anthony’s advice, Abba Amoun restructured the living arrangements of his disciples on the mountain to that of a monastic community living in common rather than separate dwellings isolated from themselves.
He learned valuable lessons from Anthony as well. Once, Amoun asked Anthony,
“’Since my rule is stricter than yours how is it that your name is better known amongst men than mine is?’ Abba Anthony answered, ‘It is because I love God more than you.’”
The external work does not make the monk great, but rather the love the monk harbors for Jesus.
Amoun was known to have prophetic insight. One time, a family brought their child who was suffering from rabies brought on by an attack from a rabid dog. When they had entreated Abba Amoun to pray for his healing, Amoun said,
"Why are you troubling me, my friends, seeking something which is beyond my merits, when the remedy lies in your own hands? Give back to the widow the ox which you have killed surreptitiously, and your child will be restored to you in good health."
The situation had resulted from the sin of the parents. When they repaid what they had stolen from the widow, Abba Amoun prayed for the child and he was healed instantly.
He also worked many miracles with eyewitness accounts corroborating most of them. When Anthony sent some of his disciples to fetch Abba Amoun, they came to a river crossing on the trip back. It is recorded that they were first hand witnesses of Abba Amoun being instantly transported to the opposite side of the river. Amoun was thankful to God for being allowed to keep his modesty by not having to remove his clothes.
Another time, at the end of a service Amoun said to a disciple who questioned him about the service…
“While I was standing up during the service it seemed that I was standing on fire and was being consumed, and my mind was unable to make me turn aside either to the right hand or to the left.” He went on to say to his disciple, “Did you not know that you were standing in the presence of God, and that you were speaking unto Him?”
The goal of Amoun was to live a life passive to the world and active to God. This was seen in the discipline he practiced and the encouragement he offered to his disciples.
“It was said of Abba Agathon and of Abba Amoun that, when they had anything to sell, they would name the price just once and silently accept what was given them in peace. Just as, when they wished to buy something, they gave the price they were asked in silence and took the object adding no further word.”
The desert fathers and mothers were resigned to accept what God would bring them. This small statement about accepting the price offered is indicative of a much larger practice. If the one living alone for God accepted all things as coming from God it would eliminate the feeling of offense towards individuals and would justify God to act on their behalf.
Further to that was the practice of self-accusation. To Amoun, if we were to be passive to the world and active towards God, we would have to recognize the depravity of our inner nature in order for God to purge our heart.
“'A man may pass one hundred years in his cell, and not know rightly how a monk should live in his cell, or even how to live secluded for one day.' And he used to say, 'The proper way and manner for a monk to live is to condemn himself continually.’”
Before you point out the sin of another, deal with your own heart. As Jesus said,
“He who is without sin, cast the first stone (John 8:7).”
When asked by a monk how to live, Amoun counseled him to act like a prisoner awaiting judgement. The monk should spend each day considering the final day of judgement. What is necessary in light of eternity?
“…he must admonish himself, saying, 'Woe is me! For how can I stand before the throne of Christ? And how shall I be able to make answer unto Him?' If you are able to think in this way, you will be able to live.”
Once, Amoun was asked why people pray and do not receive the thing for which they have asked. Abba Amoun pulled on the story of Jacob and his wives. When Jacob worked so hard and was not given what he had asked for (Rachel), he redoubled his efforts in order to receive her. Why do we not receive an answer to prayer? Simple. We quit before we see it.
At the end of his life, Abba Amoun had spent some time with Abba Anthony and had retired a little way away from him. As Anthony sat on the mountain…
“…he looked up and saw someone being borne upwards in the air, to the great rejoicing of the Angels who met him. Marveling at the sight and deeming such a company blessed, and desiring to learn who this might be, he heard a voice saying that it was the soul of Amoun, a monk in Nitria, who had persevered in asceticism until old age.”
Abba Amoun passed away around 353 AD, and, according to Abba Anthony, heaven rejoiced at his homecoming.