Abba Pambo 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 Pambo?
Counted as one of the masters of the desert, a man whose face was said to have shone with the glory of God (along with Abba Sisoes and Abba Silvanus), Abba Pambo entered into the desert life at a young age as a disciple of Abba Anthony the Great. He was a contemporary of Abba Macarius the Great and one of the founders of the monastic communities in the area of Egypt known as Nitria.
He was known as a man with the gift of prophecy, one who despised riches, and in whom the wisdom of Christ dwelt. Anthony the Great said regarding Pambo…
“Through fearing God, he caused the spirit of God to dwell in him.”
Abba Pambo was born around 303 AD and was one of the first monks to journey to Nitria. He was an illiterate Egyptian man when he joined the desert movement, and was soon taught to read by way of the Scriptures as a monk. He was ordained into the priesthood by Athanasius in 340 and was looked to as a defender of the divinity of Christ.
Once, when Athanasius invited Abba Pambo to come to Alexandria to expound on the divinity of Christ to the Arians (a heresy that believed Christ was created by the Father), Pambo was pierced to the heart by an actress on a stage:
“Our saint seeing in that city an actress dressed up for the stage, wept bitterly; and being asked the reason of his tears, said he wept for the sinful condition of that unhappy woman, and also for his own sloth in the divine service; because he did not take so much pains to please God as she did to ensnare men.”
Early in his life, when a teacher began expounding on Psalm 39:1, “I will take heed to my ways that I sin not with my tongue,” Pambo stopped him, and retired to his room to contemplate the meaning of the verse for six months. The revelation that came to him set the stage for his manner of conduct for the rest of his life.
Abba Pambo was known to take careful consideration when choosing his words, often taking days, weeks, or months to answer a single question. His reasoning was simple, if God was going to speak through him, the words that would come must be exact. As a result of this discipline, the insight that he would leave people with was deep and profound. Many prophetic people today could learn a good deal from this example.
“When the Archbishop went to Sketis, the brothers gathered together and said to Abba Pambo: ‘Say a word to the Pope that he might be edified.’ The Elder replied: ‘If he does not profit from my silence, neither will he profit from my speech.’”
Pambo was remembered for his fasting, his silence, and his diligence. He was known as a man who prayed unceasingly. Yet he never wanted the glory that God bestowed upon him.
"There was a monk named Pambo and they said of him that he spent three years saying to God, 'Do not glorify me on earth.' But God glorified him so that one could not gaze steadfastly at him because of the glory of his countenance."
It seems for Pambo the principle in James 4:10 truly played out.
The Spiritual Life
To Pambo, submission was the highest service a monk could offer. When asked who was better, the one who fasted, the one who lived in poverty, the one who fed the poor, or the one who lived in obedience to an Elder, Pambo replied,
“This last monk here has surpassed all of you, since you others, in all that you do, do it according to your own wills. But since he daily sacrifices his own will, undoubtedly his heart bleeds.”
Submission to an spiritual father mirrored the life of Jesus and fulfilled the Jesus’ statement in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
The spiritual life began as an internal work. No external display could cause growth, the posture of the heart was what was important to spiritual maturity. When asked by two brothers which was better, to fast or to give to the poor, Pambo answered with startling clarity (after four days of silence, of course):
“If Pambo fasts for two successive days and on the third day eats two small loaves, does he thereby become a monk? Not yet.” And again he asked himself: ”If Pambo works and earns two keratia (a measurement of money), and gives them away as alms, does he thereby become a monk? Not as yet.” He then said to the brothers: “Your works are good, but if you guard your conscience from any anger or other evils towards your neighbour, this is how you will attain to salvation.” The brothers departed, full of joy over what they had been told."
No amount of fasting or giving will cause growth if you maintain offence and anger towards others.
Another time, he was asked if a man who lived in the world with a wife and children who gave much, freed slaves, and took care of the sick and afflicted was greater than the monk who either dwelt in silence, glorified God in sickness, or ministered to the poor. His answer to the question was, “Not necessarily.” When pressed for an answer as to why, he explained that the man who lives in the world can accomplish works, but never encounter the depths of his own heart:
“And the old man said, ‘Because, although the man who is in the world leads a life of righteousness, his whole conduct is outside the body, but all the labour of the monks is inside the body, that is, fasting, and prayer, and vigil, and hunger, and thirst, and the constraint of the will at every moment, and wars, both secret and manifest.’”
He goes on to say that the virtue of the monk is that he does not live for worldly gain:
“Now the monks with their members, and with their thoughts, and with their bodies, and with their conduct serve God perfectly with stern labours and afflictions, and they offer themselves up to God as a living, and rational, and holy sacrifice, with rational and spiritual service, and they are crucified unto the world, and the world is crucified unto them…”
And finally, that the monk lives for God alone.
“And the life and conduct of the monks are superior to those of (righteous) men who are in the world, because the latter please God because of their love for men, whilst the monks do so because of their love for God.”
The interior life is never demonstrated so effectively than when it comes to our attitudes towards others.
“The priest of Nitria asked Pambo how the brethren ought to live. He replied, ‘With much labour, guarding their consciences towards their neighbour.’”
He recognized that not every struggle on the interior life was due to spiritual warfare.
“A brother asked Abba Pambo: ‘Why do the demons prevent me from doing good to my neighbor?’ The Elder replied: ‘Do not say this; otherwise you are making God a liar. You should say rather: ’I have no desire at all to do good to another person.’ For God, knowing our wickedness in advance, said in Holy Scripture: ’I gave unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy’ (Luke 10:19).”
The brother’s problem was not with demonic influence, it was in his own heart.
If it was the depravity of our heart that would keep us from doing good to our neighbours, then compassion towards others would help to guard the heart.
“Abba Theodore of Pherme asked Abba Pambo, ‘Give me a word.’ With much difficulty he said to him, ‘Theodore, go and have pity on all, for through pity, one finds freedom of speech before God.’”
If you can discover compassion you find the nature of how you speak about others changing. If the log is removed from your eye, as Jesus said in Matthew 7:3, all of a sudden the speck in the your brother’s eye looks far smaller.
This man, who was so highly regarded by the fathers and mothers of the desert, and who spent his life serving God was surrounded by some holy men as he came to the point of death around 375AD. He left these men with one last profound thought, undoubtedly weighed with care.