Rev. Alban Butler (171173). Volume VII: July. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.
St. Sisoes or Sisoy, Anchoret in Egypt
AFTER the death of St. Antony, St. Sisoes was one of the most shining lights of the Egyptian deserts. He was an Egyptian by birth. Having quitted the world from his youth, he retired to the desert of Sceté, and lived some time under the direction of abbot Hor. The desire of finding a retreat yet more unfrequented induced him to cross the Nile and hide himself in the mountain where St. Antony died some time before. The memory of that great mans virtues being still fresh, wonderfully supported his fervour. He imagined he saw him, and heard the instructions he was wont to deliver to his disciples; and he strained every nerve to imitate his most heroic exercises; the austerity of his penance, the rigour of his silence, the almost unremitting ardour of his prayer, insomuch that the reputation of his sanctity became so illustrious as to merit the full confidence of all the neighbouring solitaries. Some even came a great distance to be guided in the interior ways of perfection; and, in spite of the pains he took he was forced to submit his love of silence and retreat to the greater duty of charity. He often passed two days without eating, and was so rapt in God that he forgot his food, so that it was necessary for his disciple Abraham to remind him that it was time to break his fast. He would sometimes be even surprised at the notice, and contend that he had already made his meal; so small was the attention he paid to the wants of his body.1 His prayer was so fervent that it often passed into ecstacy. At other times his heart was so inflamed with divine love, that, scarce able to support its violence, he only obtained relief from his sighs, which frequently escaped without his knowledge, and even against his will.2 It was a maxim with him, that a solitary ought not to choose the manual labour which is most pleasing to him.3 His ordinary work was making baskets. He was tempted one day as he was selling them, to anger; instantly he threw the baskets away and ran off. By efforts like these to command his temper he acquired a meekness which nothing could disturb. His zeal against vice was without bitterness; and when his monks fell into faults, far from affecting astonishment or the language of reproach, he helped them to rise again with a tenderness truly paternal.4 When he once recommended patience and the exact observance of rules, he told the following anecdote: Twelve monks, benighted on the road, observed that their guide was going astray. This, for fear of breaking their rule of silence, they forbore to notice, thinking within themselves that at daybreak he would see his mistake and put them in the right road. Accordingly, the guide discovering his error, with much confusion, was making many apologies; when the monks being now at liberty to speak, only said, with the greatest good humour: Friend, we saw very well that you went out of your road; but we were then bound to silence. The man was struck with astonishment, and very much edified at this answer expressive of such patience and strictness of observance.5
Some Arians had the impudence to come to his mount, and utter their heresy before his disciples. The saint, instead of an answer, desired one of the monks to read St. Athanasiuss treatise against Arianism, which at once stopped their mouths and confounded them. He then dismissed them with his usual good temper. St. Sisoes was singularly devoted to humility; and in all his advices and instructions to others, held constantly before their eyes this most necessary virtue. A recluse saying to him one day, Father, I always place myself in the presence of God; he replied, It would be much more your advantage to place yourself below every creature, in order to be securely humble. Thus, while he never lost sight of the divine presence, it was ever accompanied with the consciousness of his own nothingness and misery.6 Make yourself little, said he to a monk, renounce all sensual satisfactions, disengage yourself from the empty cares of the world, and you will find true peace of mind.7 To another, who complained that he had not yet arrived at the perfection of St. Antony, he said: Ah! if I had but one only of that great mans feelings, I would be all one flame of divine love.8 Notwithstanding his extraordinary mortifications, they appeared so trifling in his mind, that he called himself a sensual man, and would have every one else to be of the same opinion.9 If charity for strangers sometimes constrained him to anticipate dinner-hour, at another season, by way of indemnification, he protracted his fast, as if his body were indebted to so laudable a condescension.10 He dreaded praise so much, that in prayer, as was his custom, with his hands lifted up to heaven, when sometimes he apprehended observation, he would suddenly drop them down. He was always ready to blame himself, and saw nothing praiseworthy in others which did not serve him for an occasion to censure his own lukewarmness.11 On a visit of three solitaries wanting instruction, one of them said; Father, what shall I do to shun hell-fire? He made no reply. And for my part, added another, how shall I escape the gnashing of teeth, and the worm that never dies? What also will become of me, concluded the third, for every time I think on utter darkness I am ready to die with fear. Then the saint breaking silence, answered: I confess that these are subjects which never employ my thoughts, and as I know that God is merciful, I trust he will have compassion on me. You are happy, he added, and I envy your virtue. You speak of the torments of hell, and your fears on this account must be powerful guards against the admission of sin. Alas! then, it is I should exclaim, What shall become of me? I, who am so insensible as never even to reflect on the place of torments destined to punish the wicked after death. Undoubtedly this is the reason I am guilty of so much sin. The solitaries retired much edified with this humble reply.12 The saint said one time, I am now thirty years praying daily that my Lord Jesus may preserve me from saying an idle word, and yet I am always relapsing. This could only be the language which humility dictates; for he was singularly observant of the times of retirement and silence, and kept his cell constantly locked to avoid interruption, and always gave his answers to those who asked his advice in the fewest words.13 The servant of God, worn out with sickness and old age, yielded at last to his disciple Abrahams advice, and went to reside awhile at Clysma, a town on the border, or at least in the neighbourhood of the Red Sea.14 Here he received a visit from Ammon, or Amun, abbot of Raithe, who, observing his affliction for being absent from his retreat, endeavoured to comfort him by representing that his present ill state of health wanted the remedies which could not be applied in the desert. What do you say, returned the saint, with a countenance full of grief, was not the ease of mind I enjoyed there every thing for my comfort? He was not at ease till he returned to his retreat, where he finished his holy course. The solitaries of the desert assisting at his agony, heard him, as Rufinus relates, cry out: Behold, abbot Antony, the choir of prophets and the angels come to take my soul. At the same time his countenance shone, and being some time interiorly recollected with God, he cried out anew, Behold! our Lord comes for me. At the instant he expired, his cell was perfumed with a heavenly odour.15 He died about the year 429, after a retreat of at least sixty-two years in St. Antonys Mount. His feast is inserted in the Greek Menologies on the 6th of July; and in some of the Latin Calendars on the 4th of the same month. See Rosweide, Cotelier, Tillemont, t. 12, p. 453, and the Bollandists ad diem 6 Julii, t. 2, p. 280.
This saint must not be confounded with two other Sisoes, who lived in the same age. One, surnamed the Theban, lived at Calamon, in the territory of Arsinoe. Another had his cell at Petra. It is of Sisoes the Theban that the following passage is related, though some authors by mistake have ascribed it to St. Sisoes of Sceté. A certain recluse having received some offence, went to Sisoes to tell him that he must have revenge. The holy old man conjured him to leave his revenge to God, to pardon his brother, and forget the injury he had received. But seeing that his advice had no weight with him, At least, said he, let us both join in an address to God; then standing up, he prayed thus aloud: Lord, we no longer want your care of our interests or your protection, since this monk maintains that we can and ought to be our own avengers. This extraordinary petition exceedingly moved the poor recluse, and throwing himself at the saints feet, he begged his pardon, protesting that from that moment he would forget he had ever been injured.16 This holy man loved retirement so much that he delayed not a moment even in the church after the mass to hasten to his cell. This was not to indulge self-love or an affected singularity, but to shun the danger of dissipation, and enjoy in silence and prayer the sweet conversation of God; for at proper seasons, especially when charity required it, he was far from being backward in giving himself to the duties of society. Such was his self-denial that he seldom or ever ate bread. However, being invited one time by the neighbouring solitaries to a small repast, in condescension, and to show how little he was guided by self-will, observing that it would be agreeable, I will eat, said he, bread, or any thing you lay before me.17 See Bulteau, Hist. Mon. dOrient, l. 1, c. 3, n. 7, p. 56. Tillemont, t. 12, and Pinius, one of the continuators of Bollandus, on the 6th July.