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.

Text First Published March 2003 · Last Featured on October 2021