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 Silvanus?
Abba Silvanus was the head of a small group of monks that dedicated their life to monasticism in Sketis (the main hub of the desert movement) but eventually moved to Mount Sinai, and then to Gaza. He was born sometime in the 4th century in Palestine. He learned the monastic life in Sketis sometime before 380 AD, when he and the group he led moved to Mount Sinai.
Though less is known about the details of Silvanus’ life, he was counted in the ranks of some of the most notable Fathers, such as Abba Pambo, and Abba Sisoes.
It was said of Silvanus (as it was also said of Abba Pambo and Abba Sisoes) that,
“…his face shone, and that he was like a king who sits upon his throne.”
And in another place it was recorded that,
“The Fathers used to say that someone met Abba Silvanus one day and saw his face and body shining like an angel and he fell with his face to the ground.”
He considered maintaining a reputation to be difficult work, humility was better than status.
"He also said, 'Unhappy is the man whose reputation is greater than his work.'"
He had a quick wit, which he used to teach his disciples. One time, when a fellow monk visited and noticed Abba Silvanus and all the monks working, the monk quoted John 6:27,
“Do not labour for the food which perishes.”
and Luke 10:42,
“Mary has chosen the good portion.”
At once, Abba Silvanus turned to one of his disciples and said,
“Zacharias, give the brother a book and put him in a cell without anything else.”
This visiting monk was happy to oblige and sat in the cell reading for the rest of the day.
As the time of the meal came, the visiting monk sat and watched the door expecting someone to call him to the meal. When no one called, he got up to find Abba Silvanus and asked if the other brothers had eaten that day. Abba Silvanus told him that they had. The monk then responded,
“Why did you not call me?' The old man (Silvanus) said to him, 'Because you are a spiritual man and do not need that kind of food. We, being carnal, want to eat, and that is why we work. But you have chosen the good portion and read the whole day long and you do not want to eat carnal food.”
When the monk had repented and asked for forgiveness, Silvanus used the moment to teach a valuable lesson,
“Mary needs Martha. It is really thanks to Martha that Mary is praised."
Another time, a brother visited Abba Silvanus to ask him advice for how to deal with a situation in which he had been wronged. The monk wanted to turn the man over to the authorities to be punished. Abba Silvanus advised him,
“My child, do whatever will give you peace,”
The man justified the attitude of his heart by saying,
“If he is punished, Abba, his soul will greatly benefit thereby.”
Who of us have not held that attitude? “The person who wronged me deserves punishment for their own benefit,” easily becomes the justification for holding bitterness, offence, and unforgiveness.
When Abba Silvanus and the monk sat down to pray…
“…they came to the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, ”and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” the Elder (Silvanus) said: ”And forgive us not our debts, as we forgive not our debtors.” The brother said: ”That is not how it goes, Father.” ”Yes it is, my child” answered the Elder. ”If you really want to go to the magistrate to avenge yourself, Silvanus has no other prayer to offer you.” After this, the brother made a prostration and forgave his enemy."
By altering the words of the Lord’s Prayer, he drove home his point. If the monk would not forgive those who had wronged him, how could God forgive him when he had wronged God (“All have sinned…” Romans 3:23)? The real issue was the hardheartedness of the monk, not the need for justice.
Silvanus was known to fall into trances. This is a common theme among the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They are most often referred to as an “ecstasy”.
"As Abba Silvanus was sitting with the brethren one day he was rapt in ecstasy and fell with his face to the ground. After a long time he got up and wept. The brethren besought him saying, 'What is it, Father?' But he remained silent and wept. When they insisted on his speaking he said, 'I was taken up to see the judgement and I saw there many of our sort coming to punishment and many seculars going into the kingdom.' The old man was full of compunction and never wanted to leave his cell. If he was obliged to go out, he hid his face in his cowl saying, 'Why should I seek to see this earthly light, which is of no use?'
The vision he had seen convicted Silvanus so greatly, it inspired his desire to press into the light of God.
Another time, his disciple stumbled upon him in the midst of a trance, with his hand stretched toward heaven. The disciple left him alone and returned twice more to check on him, but he was still in the same posture. Later, when the disciple inquired about what Silvanus had done during the day, Silvanus replied,
“I was ill today, my child.' But the disciple seized his feet and said to him, 'I will not let you go until you have told me what you have seen.' The old man said, 'I was taken up to heaven and I saw the glory of God and I stayed there till now and now I have been sent away.'"
He took care to form his interior life. He was once asked how he had become so wise. He attributed the wisdom he was respected for as a fruit of his spiritual life. His reply to the question was,
“I have never let a thought that would bring the anger of God upon me enter my heart."
A brother came to Abba Silvanus for advice regarding his struggle with laziness and bitterness. The first piece of advice Abba Silvanus offered was to simplify his spiritual practice and…
“...when you are standing, doing your prayers, let your mind seek the spiritual power of the verse. Think to yourself that you are standing before God, Who examines the hearts and the reins-that is, all of the external things of the world."
Instead of just reciting or singing, find the spiritual power and consider yourself in the presence of God. The goal of spiritual discipline is the heart. It is to present the heart before God, after all, He alone knows the heart.
He went on to advise him to…
“Think of the fact that the great Fathers, even though they were unlearned and were familiar neither with tones nor Troparion (liturgical traditions), but only a few Psalms, shined forth like sages to the world.”
Some of the greatest men and women of the movement were the most simple. The few Psalms these shining ones knew raised their mind and hearts to God. Experiencing God in the heart has little to do with learning great songs and traditional practices. Prayer is the one thing, in simplicity, that is available to all people at all times.
Silvanus continued with the example of simple men that had known God greatly:
“All of this they accomplished, not with singing, Troparia, and tones, but with prayer that came forth from a contrite heart and with fasting, by which they perpetually maintained a fear of God in their hearts…”
This echoes a principle David spoke of in the Psalms.
By love he entered into the house of God, but by fear he encountered His holiness. The fear of God in the heart keeps the heart in continual remembrance of God.
Silvanus says to the brother that even the angels in heaven worship in simplicity.
“One rank sings unceasingly, ‘Alleluia,’ another, ’Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabbath,' and yet another, ’Blessed be the Glory of the Lord from His place and dwelling.’”
His last piece of advice to the lazy brother is this:
“Love the humility of Christ and, wherever you go, do not appear to be intelligent and a teacher, but illiterate and a student. And God will grant you contrition.”
Always consider yourself humble and ready to learn, and God will grant you softness of heart leading to repentance and His presence.
Abba Silvanus considered his life as not his own, but recognized that he was a servant. The Lord spoke to him once regarding his work as a servant.
“Do My work, and I will nourish you, but do not inquire how.”
He committed his life to God’s care. He gave of himself, confident that God, who was his sustenance, would sustain him.
Silvanus passed away around 414 AD and is remembered as one who offered keen insight and discipleship in the spiritual life. One time, when a monk who had fallen came to him in repentance, it was said that Abba Silvanus…
“…like a skilled and experienced doctor, he molded the monk’s soul with the teachings of the Holy Scriptures.”
As with any man, his legacy can be most clearly seen in the impact of his life on those who knew him. To his disciples, he was exemplary and taught them the way of Christ.