Abba Paphnutius The Confessor
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 Paphnutius?
Abba Paphnutius has been mainly remembered for two things, his absolute passion to be united to the Lord and his refusal to recant his faith in Christ. For the first, his desire for the solitary life was filtered through his passion for Divine union,
“he was eager to penetrate into the recesses of the desert, so that, with no human companions to disturb him, he might be more readily united to the Lord, to whom he longed to be inseparably joined.”
For the second, when an early Roman Emperor was persecuting Christians, Paphnutius was brought before the Romans and commanded to recant his faith in Christ. Abba Paphnutius joined the ranks of those known as confessors when he refused, and consequently lost his right eye and most of the use of one of his legs. The persecution did little to deter his desire for Christ. As what seems to most often happen in the face of intense persecution, it made his commitment all the more fervent.
No solid dates can be fixed for the life of Abba Paphnutius, though we know he lived during the 4th century. Paphnutius spent a number of years being mentored by Anthony the Great, and eventually became a disciple of Abba Macarius and Abba Isidore. He was influential during the Council of Nicea in 325 (the gathering that settled the debate over Christ’s divinity). He was also considered a close friend of Athanasius and the Emperor Constantine.
As a father, he oversaw four monasteries and was regularly sought out for guidance on the solitary life. It was said that he had so forsaken his own life through humility and obedience, that he “delighted daily in the society of angels.” His humility can be seen when, once, while walking along the road, he found himself near a village and saw some people engaged in some kind of sin. Immediately, he stood still and prayed for his own sins, refusing to condemn those that he had witnessed. As he lamented over his own sins, an angel holding a sword appeared to him and said,
“Paphnutius, all those who judge their brothers perish by his sword, but because you have not judged, but have humbled yourself before God, saying that you have sinned, your name is written in the book of the living!”
His reputation can be summed up in this quote:
“Paphnutius…who had the gift of knowledge of the divine Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, interpreting it all without having read the Scriptures, but he was so modest that his prophetic virtue was concealed.”
The Interior Life
Regarding true interior perfection, Paphnutius said that in the same way we pursue worldly things (riches and pleasures of the world) we should pursue the things of God in the interior life.
“…we may also inwardly with the heart forsake all these things and never be drawn back by any desires to those things which we have forsaken.”
He goes on to compare those who return to those worldly things to the Israelites and their sojourn in the wilderness.
“…though they did not literally go back, (they) are yet said to have returned in heart to Egypt…by forsaking God who had led them forth with such mighty signs...as Scripture says: “And in their hearts they turned back into Egypt, saying to Aaron: Make us gods to go before us.”
The turning back to worldly comfort began by turning away from God in the heart.
He acknowledged that the “old man” that Paul spoke of (Col. 3:9, Eph. 4:22) had to be dealt with.
“We ought then to take the utmost care that our inner man as well may cast off and make away with all those possessions of its sins, which it acquired in its former life: which as they continually cling to body and soul are our very own…”
The nature of the old man tends to cling to us, we should spend as much effort in putting off the old self as we did in acquiring it.
He believed that the actions we took today had eternal consequences, and spoke of taking on colour based upon the fruit of lifestyle.
"For the beauty or ugliness of the soul is the product of its virtues or its vices, the colour it takes from which either makes it so glorious, that it may well hear from the prophet. And the king shall have pleasure in thy beauty.” Psalm 45:11
“or so black, and foul, and ugly, that it must surely acknowledge the stench of its shame, and say 'My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness…'” Psalm 38:5
The actions an individual takes part in colour the state of their interior life, as Jesus said,
“The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” Matthew 6:22-23
The Will of God
Another time, he was asked how free will fit within the will of God. He answered in quite a meticulous way, but the basic structure of his dialogue is that God initiates everything relating to a man, man responds, and then God, in His grace, perfects mankind.
“And so as we know that God creates opportunities of salvation in various ways, it is in our power to make use of the opportunities granted to us by heaven more or less earnestly.”
Man’s free will is seen in his response to what God initiates.
He carries on with the example of Abraham.
“For just as the offer came from God Who called him, 'get thee out of thy country,' so the obedience was on the part of Abraham who went forth; and as the fact that the saying 'Come into the land' was carried into action, was the work of him who obeyed, so the addition of the words 'which I will show thee' came from the grace of God Who commanded or promised it.”
God initiated by calling Abraham, it was Abraham’s choice to respond, and God sustained the outcome. The will of God carries man to his own free choice, and then the grace of God works the outcome.
Abba Paphnutius admonished that the monk was to pursue spiritual growth with all his energy and effort but to realize…
“…with all our exertions and zeal we can never arrive at perfection, nor is mere human diligence and toil of itself sufficient to deserve to reach the splendid reward of bliss, unless we have secured it by means of the co-operation of the Lord, and His directing our heart to what is right.”
Our perfection comes about by the hand of God.
His encouragement is that we must pray as David prayed:
“…we ought every moment to pray and say with David ‘Order my steps in thy paths that my footsteps slip not,’ and ‘He hath set my feet upon a rock and ordered my goings.'"
In so doing, God, “the unseen ruler of the human heart” would transform the desire of our heart, that our will would mimic His will.
One example he pulls upon is the nation of Israel coming into the promised land. God promises to destroy many nations before them, but then tells them not to enter into covenant with them.
“…Scripture declares that it is the free gift of God that they (the Israelites) are brought into the land of promise, that many nations are destroyed before them, that nations more numerous and mightier than the people of Israel are given up into their hands. But whether Israel utterly destroys them, or whether it preserves them alive and spares them, and whether or no it makes a league with them, and makes marriages with them or not, it declares lies in their own power.”
God’s sovereign will and Israel’s free choice are seen in the narrative.
He goes on to say that God brings blessing, but that we are required to pursue that blessing.
“And by this testimony we can clearly see what we ought to ascribe to free will, and what to the design and daily assistance of the Lord, and that it belongs to divine grace to give us opportunities of salvation and prosperous undertakings and victory: but that it is ours to follow up the blessings which God gives us with earnestness or indifference.”
He explained the will of God as that which God approves and that which God allows.
“All things that happen are divided into two, what God approves and what He allows. As many things then as happen in accordance with virtue for the glory of God, these happen with His approval. But as many, on the contrary, as are fraught with loss and danger and are due to external crises or fallings away, these happen with God’s permission.”
Those things that bring glory to God are those that he approves, those that bring crises happen with God’s permission.
The natural question then arises, why does God allow crises or falling away to happen? Paphnutius goes on to explain that it is all within God’s divine logic.
“…it is impossible that a man who thinks rightly and lives rightly should succumb to snares of shame or the deceit of demons.”
But regarding the man who does not live righteously.
“…God deserts them for their benefit, in order that through their desertion they may perceive the difference that results from their change and correct either their intention or their conduct.”
Why does God allow certain difficulty and calamity to arise? According to Paphnutius, it is to correct mankind. If God removes his hand, man ought to perceive the absence of God’s presence and correct his actions.
He gives an example of this principle.
“For when the man who is puffed up with pride, pluming himself on the natural charm of his discourse, does not ascribe to God the natural charm or even the supply of knowledge, but to his own application or natural gifts, God withdraws from him the angel of foreknowledge.”
The man who gives himself the credit for the gifts God has bestowed is filled with pride. As such, when he attributes what God has done to his own power, God withdraws from the man his source of revelation.
God’s resistance serves two purposes, to show man the errors of his ways, and to convince man that he cannot operate on his own power. If God were to forego this withdrawal of his presence, the man would be ever more convinced that what he was doing was right.
When a man humbles himself in this process, Paphnutius declares the outcome to be.
“…if such a man corrects himself, putting away the cause of his abandonment, that is, pride, and recovers humility and recognizes his own measure, not exalting himself against anyone, and thanking God, then knowledge attested by proof returns to him. For spiritual words which do not have as an escort a sober and disciplined life are like ears of corn blasted by the wind; they have the outward appearance (of corn) but have been robbed of their nutritive value.”
God will restore the witness of his Spirit. Spiritual words without humility are like a piece of food without nutrition. The effect of humility is that the Lord adds his power to the words shared by the spiritual man for the benefit of others.
At the end of his life, Paphnutius was no longer able to live in the disciplined way that he had practiced during all his days. A few days before he passed, an angel appeared to him and delivered this message:
“Come now, you blessed one; enter yourself into the eternal tabernacle: of God. For the prophets have come to welcome you into their choirs. I did not reveal this to you earlier, for fear that you would become proud and forfeit your reward.”
Paphnutius spent his days longing for union with God, and teaching people not so much how to reach that place, but about who God is. This is his legacy, that he came to know the lover of his soul.