Abba Anoub of Scetis
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 Anoub of Scetis?
Abba Anoub was one of seven brothers, including Abba Poemen the Shepherd and Abba Paisius, that lived together in the desert of Egypt at Scetis. While Anoub was the eldest, Poemen was considered the leader of their small community in Scetis. It was said that if a brother came to see Abba Poemen, Poemen would send them to Anoub, citing honor for the elder age of Anoub. However, Anoub would send them right back to Poemen, stating that Poemen was the one who carried the gift of spiritual direction and would be more helpful.
When Scetis was invaded by barbarians and ransacked in 408 AD, the brothers fled to an area near the Nile in Egypt. Abba Anoub took up the role of leadership in the community during the move. They occupied a pagan temple near the ancient city of Terenuthis (northern Egypt).
The invasion of Scetis had vast ramifications on the daily life of the Desert Fathers and served to spread the influence of the movement. Persecution has a funny way of accomplishing that. The invasion became one of the catalysts for the shift from the hermitic, solitary life of the early desert movement to a community oriented (coenobitic) monastic life. There was a certain level of comfort and protection in the arms of a community when the surrounding areas had been ravaged by roaming marauders. Abba Anoub and Abba Poemen, along with their brothers were an early example of this significant shift.
Abba Anoub cared for his brothers and submitted to the leadership of his younger sibling, Abba Poemen. Once, while Abba Paisios was frustrated with the teachings of Poemen, Paisios came across a small box full of gold and silver coins. He approached Anoub and said,
“You know how austerely Abba Poemen talks; come, let us establish a monastery somewhere else, and let the two of us remain there, without cares.”
Paisios showed Anoub the box of coins and said they would use the funds to establish a new monastery. Anoub was heart-broken for his brother, knowing if he left in frustration he was sowing frustration into his heart, and that the gold and silver had become a source of greed for Paisios. However, Abba Anoub did not say anything and went along with the plan. He offered to carry the box of coins and put it into his hat. While they were crossing the river to leave Poemen behind, Anoub feigned clumsiness and dropped his hat with the box of coins into the river. He apologized profusely as he acted concerned over their loss.
"Then Paisios said to him: ”Do not be distressed, Abba; for, since the coins have been lost, we can return to our brother. ” They returned and lived in peace."
Anoub knew the pride and greed in his brothers actions would have led to his downfall.
The Spiritual Life
To Abba Anoub, the work of the spiritual life was simple, it consisted of dealing with one’s own sin and covering the sin of another. Purity of heart was attained by not accusing anyone of a sin witnessed, but in allowing the moment to convict the heart. Love of neighbour was to see your own sin as greater than theirs, and in doing so, “Love covers a multitude of sin.” (Proverbs 10:12)
“For if a man attains to the measure of this saying, such that he acquires purity and sees the sins of his brother, he succeeds, by the power of his virtue, in swallowing them up (that is, in overlooking them).”
He went on to say…
“…he who reproaches himself justifies his neighbour, and this righteousness conceals his neighbour’s sins.”
The work of the monk was to be immovable; if praise could move the heart to pride, insult could render it just as ineffective. Pride and offence come from the same root. He used an interesting illustration to demonstrate this principle. When Anoub, Poemen and his brothers had left Scetis in the wake of the barbarian invasion, they came to an empty pagan temple. For a week, Anoub would rise in the morning and throw stones at the face of a statue in the temple. During the evening, Anoub would beg it for it’s forgiveness. The brothers watched in curiosity throughout the week.
On Saturday, when the brothers met together, Poemen asked,
“This whole week, Abba, I saw you throwing stones at the face of the statue and making a prostration to it afterwards. Tell me, then: Is this the way a believer acts?”
Abba Anoub answered and said,
“’I did this for your sake; for when you saw me throwing stones at the face of the statue, did it talk to me or get angry?’ ‘No,’ replied Abba Poemen. The Elder went on: ‘Again, when I made a prostration to it, was it moved or did it say, ’I will not forgive you’?’ ‘No,’ Abba Poemen responded. Abba Anoub concluded: ‘Well then, if you want us to remain with each other, let us become like this statue, which is not moved, whether it is insulted or glorified.’”
Abba Anoub passed away sometime in the first half of the fifth century. Regarding the care Poemen had for his elder brother, he said this after Anoub passed away,
“We lived together in complete unity and unbroken peace till death broke up our association.”
Many of us in our own family and churches would be hard pressed to make the same statement. Perhaps Anoub and his brothers can provide an example for us to strive after?