Abba Sisoes The Great
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 Sisoes?
Abba Sisoes the Great considered the virtue of humility the greatest asset of the spiritual life, and his life was a shining example of this discipline. Devoting himself to the spiritual life as a young man, he spent the first few years of his monastic life being mentored by Abba Or in Sketis, the community of Abba Macarius in northern Egypt. Upon learning of the passing of Anthony the Great, Sisoes left Sketis and travelled to Anthony’s mountain to reside there in solitude.
Anthony was his inspiration. He revered the Saint’s discipline, teaching, lifestyle, and influence. It was even said that, while he dwelt on Anthony’s mountain, he would hear the instructions that Anthony used to deliver to his disciples.
"A brother once visited Abba Sisoes on the mountain of Abba Anthony; While they were conversing, he asked the Elder: 'Father, have you not by now attained to the stature of Abba Anthony?' 'If I had a single one of Abba Anthony’s thoughts,' answered Abba Sisoes, 'I would be entirely ablaze.'”
This imitation of Anthony is reminiscent of Paul’s encouragement to the church of Corinth,
“Imitate me, as I imitate Christ (1 Cor 11:1).”
When asked by a disciple for some advice to advance in the spiritual life, he answered,
“Why do you ask me to speak a useless word, O brother? Whatever you see me do, do that yourself.”
As he imitated Anthony, he urged others to imitate him.
Sisoes pursued Anthony’s passion for Christ and it brought him great influence.
“Some even came a great distance to be guided in the interior ways of perfection; and, in spite of the pains he took, he was forced to submit his love of silence and retreat to the greater duty of charity.”
He was deeply immersed in the world of theology. One time, some Arians came to his disciples and began instructing them in the Arian heresy (the belief that Jesus was created by God and therefore less than God). He instructed one of his disciples to fetch a book by the great theologian Athanasius. Instead of arguing directly with the men teaching wrongly, he simply had his disciple read the book refuting their doctrine out loud. The false teachers left the mountain confounded.
He loved solitude, but, just like Anthony, he would remove himself from his primary love in order to benefit others. After spending 72 years dwelling on Anthony’s mountain, his old age caused his disciples to convince him to come live in a community in order to be looked after. He still longed for the silence of the desert, and affectionately looked back on the time he had spent in communion with Christ on the mountain.
Although he sought solitude in the desert, he understood the spiritual principle and was not dogmatic.
"A brother asked Abba Sisoes: 'Father, what does it mean to remove oneself to a remote place?' 'To be silent,' the Elder replied, 'and to have nothing of your own, whether or not you seek a remote place-this is a true retreat to remoteness.'"
He was soft to brothers that had fallen. When asked by some disciples if a man who sins must do penance for a year, six months, or forty days, he answered,
“I trust in God that if such a man does penance with his whole heart, God will receive him, even in three days.”
Abba Sisoes teachings on humility were profound.
"A brother said to Abba Sisoes, 'I am aware that the remembrance of God stays with me.' The old man said to him, 'It is no great thing to be with God in your thoughts, but it is a great thing to see yourself as inferior to all creatures. It is this, coupled with hard work, that leads to humility.'"
The tangible presence of God was to be desired by the monk, but the greater thing was esteeming others.
When he was on the verge of passing on to eternity with Christ, he saw angels coming to take him. When the angels arrived, he begged them to allow him to repent a little more. When his disciples told him he had no need to repent, believing him to be perfect, he said,
"Truly, I do not think I have even made a beginning yet."
The remarkable thing about great men and women of God is that the closer they draw to God, the smaller their own self-perception. As Moses said at the end of his life, after seeing many miracles and communing with God face to face.
“Oh Lord, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness" (Deut 3:24).
One of the most eminent men in Scripture considered himself merely a beginner when his work was completed.
True humility doesn’t wallow in the sinful nature, it gets up and begins to embrace righteousness. But you can’t embrace righteousness without getting back up when you have fallen. When asked by a brother what to do if you have fallen, Abba Sisoes said,
"'Get up again.’ The brother said, 'I have got up again, but I have fallen again.' The old man said, 'Get up again and again.' So then the brother said, 'How many times?' The old man said, 'Until you are taken up either in virtue or in sin.’"
Humility does not stay in sin, it deals with one’s own issues before judging the failings of others. An interesting thing begins to take place when this is the case. We begin to see people through the eyes of compassion, understanding that we have been there as well. When we see each other with a compassionate gaze we are more able to help sustain those that have fallen.
Some elders once visited Abba Sisoes and each asked him how to be saved from the gnashing of teeth, the worm that does not sleep, and the fear of outer darkness (Three correlations Jesus makes to the devastating effects of sin, see Matthew 8:12 and Mark 9:48). His answer demonstrates his humility and his quick wit.
“I confess that these are subjects which never employ my thoughts, but I hope that God, compassionate as He is, will have mercy on me. You are blessed, brothers. Truly, I envy you; for if your minds are always dominated by such thoughts, it is impossible for you to sin. But what am I to do, hard-hearted as I am, for I have not been granted to know even whether there is a punishment for men.”
He encouraged brothers to let God come to their defence (albeit a little sarcastically). When a brother came to him and told him…
"‘My brother has hurt me and I want to avenge myself.’ The old man pleaded with him saying, ‘No, my child, leave vengeance to God.’ He said to him, ‘I shall not rest until I have avenged myself.’ The old man said, ‘Brother, let us pray.’ Then the old man stood up and said, ‘God, we no longer need you to care for us, since we do justice for ourselves.’"
His prayer life was intense, and he had the reputation of often passing into ecstatic states. His heart would become so enflamed with Divine love that he could hardly contain himself.
A disciple came to him and asked for spiritual instruction. Abba Sisoes said in response,
“Sit in your room, keeping your mind free from every earthly or worldly thought and care, and fall with abundant tears before God; then you will surely find spiritual rest."
Regarding interior peace.
“Make yourself little,” said he to a monk, “renounce all sensual satisfactions, disengage yourself from the empty cares of the world, and you will find true peace of mind.”
The removal from worldly desire was necessary for the spiritual man to embrace the heavenly life. The monk was challenged to find his satisfaction in Christ alone. It was only in finding deep spiritual satisfaction in Christ that the spiritual man could find true peace in the depth of the heart.
An aspect of the prayer life was dealing with temptation.
"A monk asked Abba Sisoes: 'Why, Father, do the passions not leave me?' Abba Sisoes replied: 'How can they leave, since their implements are in your heart? Return what they have deposited with you in advance, and they will then assuredly depart.'"
"Abba Joseph asked Abba Sisoes, saying, 'How many times is it right for a man to cut off his passions?' The old said unto him, 'Do you wish to learn when you must cut them off?' and Joseph said unto him, 'Yes.' Abba Sisoes said unto him, 'Whenever passion comes, cut it off immediately.'"
In the depths of prayer, man comes face to face with the depth of his own heart. In the interior life, thoughts arise that are foreign and alien to life with God, these were called “the passions.” They included things such as lust, anger, judgement, self-justification, pride, jealousy, etc… It was imperative, to men like Sisoes, that these would be resisted in the depths of prayer.
When asked about reading Scripture.
"Abba Ammoun of Rhaithou asked Abba Sisoes, 'When I read the Scriptures, my mind is wholly concentrated on the words so that I may have something to say if I am asked.' The old man said to him, 'That is not necessary; it is better to enrich yourself through purity of spirit and to be without anxiety and then to speak.'"
It is better to go about growing in Christlikeness, rather than reading Scripture to have something to say. To the Desert Fathers, the purpose of Scripture was encountering the presence of Christ. Growth in knowledge did not equate to growth in spirit.
He was also said to have been gifted spiritually. His disciple Abraham, was once troubled by a demon. The Elder, through spiritual insight knew that his disciple had fallen to temptation.
"He rose at that very moment, lifted his hands up to Heaven, and addressed this prayer to God: ”O God our Savior, Who desirest not the death of a sinner but that he should return and live, heal Thy servant Abraham and deliver him from the temptation of the demon." Abraham was immediately healed."
On another occasion, a man brought his child who had just passed away to him. When he laid his son at Sisoes feet, Sisoes assumed that the boy was lying down to entreat him for some prayer. The old man, thinking the boy was still alive, said, “Arise, and go forth.” The young boy, who had been dead, at once rose and went to his father. It was only when the father went back to Sisoes to thank him for restoring his son to him that Sisoes realized what had actually happened. In the midst of this great miracle, we see the true tenor of the man:
"Now when the old man heard this he was troubled, for he did not wish this thing to happen because of the praise of men; and his disciple commanded them not to tell the story before any man until the day of his death.”
Though he carried great giftedness, he did not wish that his gift would become the reason for men to praise him. His desire was Christ, not the glory of men.
In the tradition of the Desert Fathers, there were three men they used to say shone like lightning, as Moses did when coming down from the mountain, and as a king sitting upon a throne. They were Abba Pambo, Abba Silvanus, and Abba Sisoes. This great man was counted among the greatest of the Desert Fathers.