Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Poemen, or Pastor, Abbot

Article

This great light among the ancient fathers of the desert, forsook the world about the year 385, and retired into the great wilderness of Sceté, in Egypt. He often passed several days, sometimes a whole week, without eating; but it was his constant advice to others that their fasts should be moderate, but constant, and that they should take some nourishment every day. It was a maxim with him, that no monk ought ever to taste wine, or to seek any superfluous gratification of the senses; “for,” said he, “sensuality expels compunction and the holy fear of God from the heart, as smoke drives away bees; its stench extinguishes that grace, and deprives a soul of the sensible comforts and presence of the Holy Ghost.” In his youth he visited assiduously the ancients, and received great profit from their experience and instructions. He much admired that lesson of Abbot Moses, that a servant of God must preserve his heart always broken with holy sorrow and compunction, and exceedingly humbled at the consideration of his sins, which he must always have before his eyes; but he must never think of those of others, or judge anyone, further than charity or authority may oblige him. The barbarians ravaging Scet£ in 395, he and his brothers retired to Terenuthi, near an old temple of idols, and lived there for several years. Anubis, the eldest, and Poemen governed this little community by turns, with a constant mutual deference to each other. Of the twelve hours of the night, they allotted four for work, four for singing psalms together, and four for taking their rest. In the day they worked till sext; then read till none, or three in the afternoon; after this they gathered a few herbs for their refection.

Saint Poemen feared the least occasion that could interrupt his solitude, or make the distractions of the world break in upon him. Whilst he lived in Lower Egypt his mother came to see him; but he, without opening his door, said to her: “Had you rather see me at present, for a moment, or enjoy my company for ever in the world to come? You will have that happiness, if you now curb your desire.” Hearing this, she went away with joy, saying: “To make the happiness of seeing you in heaven the more sure, I willingly forego the pleasure of seeing you on earth.” Poemen used the like severity towards the governor of the province, who never was able to draw him out of his desert to pay him a visit. The saint went back into Sceté; but was again banished thence with Saint Arsenius, by a fresh incursion of the barbarians in 430. Among the remarkable sayings of this holy abbot it is related, that when one who had committed a fault told him he would do penance for it three years, the saint doubting of his perseverance with fervour so long, advised him to confine his penance to three days, but to be very fervent in it. Another addressing himself to him under an obstinate temptation, Saint Poemen bade him quit the place where he lived, and go as far from it as he could walk in three days and three nights; and to fast till evening every day for a year. A monk, who was grievously molested with thoughts of blasphemy, often went to him, but for a long time had not the courage to disclose to him the inward trouble of his mind. The saint perceiving his difficulty, encouraged him to lay open his perplexity. The brother had no sooner done it but he found himself at ease. The saint mildly comforted him, and bade him confidently say to the devil, whenever he suggested any abominable thought: “May thy blasphemy fall on thee; it in not mine, for my heart detests it.” A person came out of Syria to consult him by what remedies a spiritual dryness and hardness of heart is best overcome. The saint answered: “By perseverance in fervent prayer. Water is soft, and stone hard; yet, drops of water often falling upon it, wear it hollow; so by the divine word often falling upon our heart, though it were of adamant, it must at length yield to the impression.” The practice of penance and assiduous prayer have a wonderful efficacy in dissolving the hardest and dryest hearts into compunction; and an humble regret for the want of compunction cannot fail to obtain it, or at least to procure all its advantages.

Saint Poemen used strongly to exhort the faithful to the most frequent devout communion, and to a continual vehement thirst after that divine table, as the stag pants after the cool spring. “Some aver,” said he, “that stags feel a most violent inward heat and thirst, because in the deserts they devour serpents, and their bowels are parched with their poison. Thus souls, in the wilderness of this world always suck in something of its poison, and must languish perpetually to approach the body and blood of Jesus Christ, which powerfully fortifies them against, and expels all such venom.” This holy abbot gave the following rule to his disciples: “Never seek to do your own will, but rather rejoice to overcome it, and humble yourselves by doing the will of others. Those who love to do their own will, want no devil to tempt them, being their own worst tempters.” He said: “Evil cannot be cast out by evil; wherefore if any one doth evil to you, do good to him, that you may overcome his evil by your good.” He also said: “He that is quarrelsome, or is apt to murmur and complain, can be no monk; he who renders evil for evil can be no monk; he who is passionate can be no monk.” It was another saying of this holy abbot, that, “Nothing gives so much pleasure to the enemy, as when a person will not discover his temptations to his superior or director.” Saint Poemen died about the year 451, and is commemorated on this day in the Roman Martyrology, and in the Menæa of the Greeks, who in their great office style him: “The Lamp of the universe, and the Pattern of monks.” See the histories of the Fathers of the desert, published by Rosweide, D’Andilly, and Cotelier; the collection of the Bollandists, t. 6, Augusti, p. 25. Tillemont, t. 15, p. 147, and F. Marin, t. 3, p. 150.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Poemen, or Pastor, Abbot”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 15 August 2014. Web. 27 December 2014. <>