August 27, 2023

Homily Two on Venerable Abba Poemen, the Shepherd of Souls (Metr. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos)

 By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

Today our Church celebrates the memory of Bishop Hosios of Corduba, who was Bishop of western Spain, in Corduba, that is why he is called Bishop of Corduba. His name was Hosios, he was persecuted during the persecutions, and when Constantine the Great became Emperor, he became his advisor. Constantine the Great sent him to Alexandria to deal with the Heresy of Arius that broke out there, and he suggested to Emperor Constantine the convening of the First Ecumenical Synod, in order to give an orthodox answer to this issue. He had great prestige in the Synod and the Church, and played a leading role in its decisions.

However, today we also celebrate Abba Poemen, who emerged as a "bright star of the desert." He came from Egypt, all the brothers of his family became monks, Poemen acquired a great name as an ascetic, and an Elder said to him: "Poemen of the Angels, your name will be heard in all Egypt."

He lived and labored as an ascetic and teacher at the university of the desert, between the 4th and 5th centuries. His asceticism was above human standards, but at the same time he was full of discernment and love for Christians. This shows that the more one is strict with oneself, the more one is lenient with people, while the more one is lenient with oneself, the more one is cruel with others.

In the book that bears the name "Gerontikon" and in which there are sayings from the Elders/Abbas of the desert, many sayings from Abba Poemen and various events from his life have been preserved. In the following I will present some of them, so that you can see how a prophet and ascetic speaks, a man who has obtained the Grace of God and has discernment and love.

At the beginning, let me quote one of his sayings which is very important. He said: "Everything in excess is of the demons," that is, everything that exceeds the measure is demonic. This means that there must be balance everywhere, we must avoid excesses and move in the middle between the two extremes.

A certain monk asked Abba Poemen: "What is a hypocrite?" The answer was clear: "A hypocrite is the one who teaches his neighbor something that he did not reach." This shows that for every teaching one must have praxis first, experience.

A certain monk went to Abba Poemen and told him that he had committed a great sin and wanted to follow penance for three years. The abba, who saw his great repentance, told him that this period of time is too long. The monk asked him if he should repent for one year or forty days, and Abba Poemen answered: "I say that if a person repents with all his heart and does not continue to sin, in three days God accepts him." Here it seems that repentance must be done with the heart and the person must decide not to commit this sin again.

Abba Poemen attached great importance to dealing with intrusive thoughts. Man should not keep the intrusive thoughts inside him, that is, he should remove them and then he is freed from the passions. He said: "Just as if one puts a snake or a scorpion in a vessel, it will certainly die with the passage of time, so also evil thoughts that sprout from the demons, with patience disappear," as long as one does not give them food.

He used another example for intrusive thoughts. A certain monk said to him: "Abba, I have many intrusive thoughts and I am in danger from them." Then Abba Poemen took him out of the cell, where it was windy, and said to him: "Extend your embrace and hold the winds." And when he told him that he could not do this, the abba replied: "If you cannot do this, you cannot even prevent the intrusive thoughts from coming, but it is up to you to resist the intrusive thoughts."

Discernment is a very great virtue and Abba Poemen had such discernment and in this way he guided others. Abba Poemen once said: "If there are three together, and one lives in silence well, the other is sick and gives thanks, and the other serves with good thoughts, the three do the same work."

This is important, because everyone can thrive and develop spiritually in the place where they are and according to their situation. One is an ascetic and practices silence, the other is sick and glorifies God, and the third does his work, serving people with pure thoughts. All three do the same work.

A certain monk asked Abba Poemen if he should cover his brother's sin. And he answered: "The moment we cover our brother's fault, God will cover ours, and the moment we reveal our brother's fault, God will reveal ours."

It is typical how the Abba confronted some heretics who came to him and accused the Archbishop of Alexandria "of supposedly having ordination by presbyters." The abba, after he fell silent, called his brother and said: "Set the table and let them eat and send them away in peace."

His love for the sick and tired people was great. Some of the elders said to him: "Do you think it is right, if we see the brothers sleepy in the synaxis, to prick them, so that they will be awake in the vigil?" And Abba Poemen said: "If I see a brother sleepy, I place his head on my knees and let him rest."

These are some of the blessed and well-flavored fruits of the empirical theological school of the desert. The desert is a theological school that is based on praxis, experience, and gives rest to the pained and tortured man. May we have the intercessions of all these professors of the desert.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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