Introductory Note:

The sayings on “Discretion” spotlight a particular pastoral gift of the desert ammas and abbas: their ability to discern the right word or approach for each unique situation. In the sampling of sayings provided here, we see desert parents like Amma Syncletica and Abba Poemen providing individualized, even contradictory counsel to address their listeners’ spiritual needs. These ancient sayings still offer words of wisdom to disciples today, particularly as we look at issues like strained relationships in our church fellowships, denominational conflicts, and failed leadership. The principle of Discretion encourages us to recognize what is life-giving, to give grace to others, and to avoid rigidity and extremism. It makes room for the possibility of more than one “right” response to the challenges we face. As members of One Body, may we judge wisely and communicate tactfully for the sake of one another and our Head.

Grace Pouch
Content Manager

Excerpt from The Desert Fathers

Hunter and Bow

A hunter hap­pened to come by and saw Antony talk­ing in a relaxed way with the broth­ers, and he was shocked. 

The her­mit want­ed to show him how we should some­times be less aus­tere for the sake of the broth­ers, and said to him, Put an arrow in your bow, and draw it.”

He did so, and Antony said, Draw it fur­ther,” and he drew it further. 

He said again, Draw it yet fur­ther,” and he drew it some more. 

Then the hunter said to him, If I draw it too far, the bow will snap.”

Antony answered, So it is with God’s work. If we always go to excess, the broth­ers quick­ly become exhaust­ed. It is some­times best not to be rigid.” 

The hunter was ashamed when he heard this, and prof­it­ed much from it. The broth­ers were encour­aged and went home.

A Col­laps­ing House

Amma Syn­clet­i­ca said, It is dan­ger­ous for a man to try teach­ing before he is trained in the good life. 

A man whose house is about to fall down may invite trav­el­ers inside to refresh them, but instead they will be hurt in the col­lapse of the house. 

It is the same with teach­ers who have not care­ful­ly trained them­selves in the good life; they destroy their hear­ers as well as them­selves. Their mouth invites to sal­va­tion, their way of life leads to ruin.”

Take Care of Both…

[Amma Syn­clet­i­ca] also said […] Do you fast four or five days on end and then lose your spir­i­tu­al strength by eat­ing a feast? That real­ly pleas­es the devil! 

Every­thing which is extreme is destruc­tive. So do not sud­den­ly throw away your armour, or you may be found unarmed in the bat­tle and eas­i­ly cap­tured. Our body is the armour, our soul is the war­rior. Take care of both, and you will be ready for what­ev­er comes.”

One thing to me, and the oppo­site to another

Poe­men once asked Joseph, What am I to do when temp­ta­tions attack me? Do I resist them, or let them come in?” He said, Let them come in and then fight them.” So he went back to his cell in Scetis. 

By chance, a man from the The­baid told the broth­ers in Scetis that he had asked Joseph the same ques­tion, When temp­ta­tion comes, do I resist it, or do I let it in?” and that he had said to him, On no account let it in, but cut it off at once.”

When Poe­men heard that Joseph had said this to the man from the The­baid, he went back to Joseph at Pane­ph­ysis and said to him, Abba, I entrust­ed my thoughts to your care: and you said one thing to me, and the oppo­site to the monk from the Thebaid.”

Joseph said, You know that I love you?” He answered, Yes.” He said, Didn’t you tell me to say what I thought as though I was talk­ing for my own good? If temp­ta­tions come, and you deal with them with­in your­self, they will strength­en you. I said this to you as I should say it to myself. But there are oth­er men for whom it is bad that pas­sions should enter, and they must cut them off at once.”

If You See Your Soul Being Harmed…

A broth­er asked Poe­men, I am suf­fer­ing dam­age to my soul by being with my abba. What do you advise me to do? Should I con­tin­ue to stay with him?” Poe­men knew that his soul was being harmed by his abba, and he was sur­prised that he even asked whether he ought to stay with him. He said to him, If you want to stay with him, do so.”

The broth­er went away and stayed with his abba. But he came a sec­ond time to Poe­men, and said, My soul is very heavy.” But Poe­men did not say to him, Leave your abba.”

He came a third time, and said, Indeed, I can no longer stay with him.” Then Poe­men said, Now you are saved, go, and stay with him no longer.” He went on, If you see your soul being harmed by some­thing there is no need to ask what to do. What we should ask about rather is our secret thoughts, to get them test­ed by oth­ers. But there is no need to ask about obvi­ous sins; they must be cut off at once.”


[Poe­men] also said, Evil can­not dri­ve out evil. If any­one hurts you, do good to him and your good will destroy his evil.”

A Spoiled Well

[Poe­men] also said, If a man preach­es but does not prac­tise what he preach­es, he is like a well of water where every­one can quench their thirst and wash off their dirt, but which can­not clean away the filth and dung that is around it.”

Unique­ly Alike

[Poe­men] also said, Sup­pose there are three men liv­ing togeth­er. One lives a good life in still­ness, the sec­ond is ill but gives thanks to God, the third serves the needs of oth­ers with sin­cer­i­ty. These three men are alike, it is as if they were all doing the same work.”

False Peace and True Peace

A broth­er said to a great her­mit, Abba, I want to find a monk who agrees with me and I’ll live and die with him.”

He said, Your search is good, my Lord.”

The broth­er repeat­ed what he want­ed, not under­stand­ing the irony of the hermit. 

But when the her­mit saw that he real­ly thought this was a good idea, he said to him, If you find a monk after your own heart, do you plan to live with him?”

The broth­er said, Yes, of course I want this, if I can find one who agrees with me.”

Then the her­mit said to him, You do not want to fol­low the will of any­one, you want to fol­low your own will, and that is why you will be at peace with him.”

Then the broth­er saw the sense of what he said, and pros­trat­ed him­self in pen­i­tence, say­ing, For­give me. I was very proud of myself, I thought I was say­ing some­thing good, when in fact there was noth­ing good about it at all.”

Tak­en from The Desert Fathers: Say­ings of the Ear­ly Chris­t­ian Monks by Bene­dic­ta Ward. Copy­right © 2003 by Bene­dic­ta Ward. Pub­lished by Pen­guin Books Ltd, Lon­don, Eng­land. www​.pen​guin​.co​.uk

Text First Published March 2003 · Last Featured on October 2021

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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