In 407, a tribe of barbarian raiders known as Mazices came sweeping off the Libyan desert and devastated one of the first great centers of Christian monasticism, the settlement of Scetis. Scetis was located in a remote desert valley west of the Nile and had been founded around 330 by one of the pioneers of the monastic movement, Macarius the Egyptian (d. 390). Before the attack, it had enjoyed an international reputation for its ascetic rigor and incisive wisdom. Word of the devastation spread rapidly, even to the Latin West. Augustine knew of it and counted it among the great disasters of the time. And when the sack of Rome took place a couple of years later, in 410, one of Scetis’s survivors, Abba Arsenius, would link the two events: “The world has lost Rome and the monks have lost Scetis.”
Scetis’s destruction marked a turning point in the history of early Christian monasticism. The site would be resettled a few years later, and in fact would suffer other barbarian raids, notably in 434, 444, and 570. But after this first one, many of its leading monks dispersed and never returned. This diaspora proved providential. A group of seven brothers led by Abba Poemen and Abba Anoub fled initially to Terenuthis on the Nile. They first took refuge in an abandoned pagan temple.
Soon after arriving, Anoub asked the group to spend a week in silent retreat. Each morning he would throw rocks at one of the temple’s stone statues, and each evening he would kneel down and ask it to forgive him. He did the same all week. At week’s end, Abba Poemen asked Anoub to explain his behavior. He answered: “I did this for you. When you saw me throwing stones at the face of the statue, did it speak? Or did it get angry?” “No,” Poemen replied. So Anoub continued, “Now there are seven of us. If all of you want to live together, let us be like this statue-unmoved whether one beats on it or flatters it. If you do not wish to live like this, there are four doors here in the temple. Let each one go out the one he wishes.” The group accepted Anoub’s proposal and bound themselves to one another.
The decision would prove momentous, for, as we will see, Abba Poemen and his circle would play a decisive role in creating one of the great classics of monastic spirituality: the Apophthegmata patrum, or Sayings of the Fathers. It is an extraordinary anthology. In its pages, one finds “a motley band of colourful characters, wild adventures, and stinging, memorable ‘one-liners.'” Its publication would mark an important milestone in the literature of late antiquity. As Peter Brown has noted, “the Sayings provided a remarkable new literary genre, close to the world of parable and folk-wisdom…. In these Sayings, the peasantry of Egypt spoke for the first time to the civilized world.”