Rev. Alban Butler (171173). Volume IX: September. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.
St. Pambo of Nitria, Abbot
From Palladius in Lausiac. Rufin. Hist. Patr. Sozomen, Cotelier Apoth. Patr. p. 637, 641, and 628. See Tillemont, t. 8, p. 445.
ST. PAMBO betook himself in his youth to the great St. Antony in the desert, and desiring to be admitted among his disciples, begged he would give him some lessons for his conduct. The great patriarch of the ancient monks told him he must take care always to live in a state of penance and compunction for his sins, must perfectly divest himself of all self-conceit, and never place the least confidence in himself, or in his own righteousness, must watch continually over himself, and study to act in everything in such a manner as to have no occasion afterwards to repent of what he had done, and that he must labour to put a restraint upon his tongue and his appetite. The disciple set himself earnestly to learn the practice of all these lessons. The mortification of gluttony was usually laid down by the fathers as one of the first steps towards bringing the senses and the passions into subjection; this consisting in something that is exterior and sensible, its practice is more obvious, yet of great importance towards the reduction of all the sensual appetites of the mind, whose revolt was begun by the intemperance and disobedience of our first parents. Fasting is also by the divine appointment, a duty of the exterior part of our penance. What a reproach are the austere lives which so many saints have led to those slothful and sensual Christians whose god is their belly, and who walk enemies to the cross of Christ,1 or who have not courage at least by frequent self-denials to curb this appetite. No man can govern himself who is a slave to this base gratification of sense. St. Pambo excelled most other ancient monks in the austerity of his continual fasts. The government of his tongue was no less an object of his watchfulness than that of his appetite. A certain religious brother to whom he had applied for advice, began to recite to him the thirty-eighth psalm: I said I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue. Which words Pambo had no sooner heard, but without waiting for the second verse he returned to his cell, saying, that was enough for one lesson, and that he would go and study to put it in practice. This he did by keeping almost perpetual silence, and by weighing well, when it was necessary to speak, every word before he gave any answer. He often took several days to recommend consultations to God, and to consider what answer he should give to those who addressed themselves to him.
By his perpetual attention not to offend in his words, he arrived at so great a perfection in this particular, that he was thought to have equalled, if not to have excelled St. Antony himself; and his answers were seasoned with so much wisdom and spiritual prudence, that they were received by all as if they had been oracles dictated by heaven. Abbot Pmen said of our saint: Three exterior practices are remarkable in abbot Pambo: his fasting every day till evening, his silence, and his great diligence in manual labour.2 St. Antony inculcated to all his disciples the obligation of assiduity in constant manual labour in a solitary life, both as a part of penance, and a necessary means to expel sloth, and entertain the vigour of the mind in spiritual exercises. This lesson was confirmed to him by his own experience, and by a heavenly vision related in the lives of the fathers, as follows: Abbot Antony, as he was sitting in the wilderness, fell into a grievous temptation of spiritual sadness, importunate thoughts, and interior darkness; and he said to God: Lord, I desire to be saved, but my thoughts are a hindrance to me. What shall I do in my present affliction? How shall I be saved? Soon after he rose up, and going out of his cell, saw a man sitting and working; then rising from his work to pray; afterwards sitting down again, and twisting his cord: after this rising to prayer. He understood this to be an angel sent by God to teach him what he was to do; and he heard the angel say to him: Do so and thou shalt be saved. Hereat the abbot was filled with joy and confidence, and by this means he cheerfully persevered to the end.3 St. Pambo most rigorously observed this rule, and feared to lose one moment of his precious time. Out of love of humiliations, and a fear of the danger of vain glory and pride, he made it his earnest prayer for three years that God would not give him glory before men, but rather contempt. Nevertheless God glorified him in this life, but made him by his grace to learn more perfectly to humble himself amidst applause. The eminent grace which replenished his soul showed itself in his exterior, by a certain air of majesty, and a kind of light which shone on his countenance, like what we read of Moses, so that a person could not look steadfastly on his face. St. Antony, who admired the purity of his soul, and his mastery over his passions, used to say, that his fear of God had moved the Divine Spirit to take up his resting-place in him.
St. Pambo, after he left St. Antony, settled in the desert of Nitria on a mountain, where he had a monastery; but he lived some time in the wilderness of the Cells, where Rufinus says he went to receive his blessing in the year 374. St. Melania the Elder, in the visit she made to the holy solitaries who inhabited the deserts of Egypt, coming to St. Pambos monastery on Mount Nitria, found the holy abbot sitting at his work, making mats. She gave him three hundred pounds weight of silver, desiring him to accept that part of her store for the necessities of the poor among the brethren. St. Pambo, without interrupting his work, or looking at her or her present, said to her that God would reward her charity. Then turning to his disciple, he bade him take the silver, and distribute it among all the brethren in Lybia and the isles who were most needy, but charged him to give nothing to those of Egypt, that country being rich and plentiful. Melania continued some time standing, and at length said: Father, do you know that here is three hundred pounds weight of silver? The abbot, without casting his eye upon the chest of silver, replied: Daughter, he to whom you made this offering, very well knows how much it weighs without being told. If you give it to God who did not despise the widows two mites, and even preferred them to the great presents of the rich, say no more about it. This Melania herself related to Palladius.4 St. Athanasius once desired St. Pambo to come out of the desert to Alexandria, to confound the Arians by giving testimony to the divinity of Jesus Christ. Our saint seeing in that city an actress dressed up for the stage, wept bitterly; and being asked the reason of his tears, said he wept for the sinful condition of that unhappy woman, and also for his own sloth in the divine service; because he did not take so much pains to please God as she did to ensnare men.5 When Abbot Theodore begged of St. Pambo some words of instruction: Go, said he, and exercise mercy and charity towards all men. Mercy finds confidence before God. To the priest of Nitria who asked him how the brethren ought to live, he said: They must live in constant labour and the exercise of all virtues, watching to preserve their conscience free from stain, especially from giving scandal or offence to any neighbour. St. Pambo said, a little before his death: From the time that I came into this desert, and built myself a cell in it, I do not remember that I have ever ate any bread but what I had earned by my own labour, nor that I ever spoke any word of which I afterwards repented. Nevertheless, I go to God as one who has not yet begun to serve him.6 He died seventy years old, without any sickness, pain, or agony, as he was making a basket, which he bequeathed to Palladium, who was at that time his disciple, the holy man having nothing else to give him.7 Melania took care of his burial, and having obtained this basket, kept it to her dying day. St. Pambo is commemorated by the Greeks on several days. It was an usual saying of this great director of souls in the rules of Christian perfection: If you have a heart, you may be saved.8
The extraordinary austerities and solitude of a St. Antony or a St. Pambo, are not suitable to persons engaged in the world; they are even inconsistent with their obligations; but all are capable of disengaging their affections from inordinate passions and attachment to creatures, and of attaining to a pure and holy love of God, which may be made the principle of their thoughts and ordinary actions, and sanctify the whole circle of their lives. Of this all who have a heart are, through the divine grace, capable. In whatever circumstances we are placed, we have opportunities of subduing our passions, and subjecting our senses by frequent denials; of watching over our hearts by self-examination, of purifying our affections by assiduous recollection and prayer, and of uniting our souls to God by continual exterior and interior acts of holy love. Thus may the gentleman, the husbandman, or the shopkeeper become an eminent saint, and make even the employments of his state an exercise of all heroic virtues, and so many steps to perfection and to eternal glory.