St. Sisoes

(Died c. 429)

After St. Anthony of Egypt had pioneered the hermit life in fourth-century Egypt, literally thousands followed his example of seeking holiness in the harsh but unworldly desert.

One of Anthony’s most revered successors was Sisoes. By birth he was Egyptian; by calling, a contemplative. While still a youth he went into the desert of Skete, one of the central monastic areas. It lay west of the lower Nile, some 100 miles south of the old Egyptian metropolis of Alexandria on the Mediterranean.

At Skete the young aspirant was tutored in the ways of the spirit by experienced desert solitaries. But eventually he grew irked by the size of the monastic population of Skete. It is difficult to be alone with God, he thought, when you live in a “crowd” - even a crowd of quiet hermits. So he eventually moved southeast across the Nile to the desert mountain not far from the Red Sea, where St. Anthony had passed his last years.

Sisoes found that the spirit of St. Anthony was still marvelously present on this mountain where he died. As Anthony’s admirer concentrated on labor, prayer, penance and silence, he believed that the great monastic founder was directing him personally.

As happened again, Sisoes did not long remain alone. Hearing of his reputation for sanctity, many other devout men came to live with him so as to profit by his instruction. Thus pious privacy had to yield to pious charity.

One of Sisoes’ most salient virtues was his humility. Just observing the virtues of his pupils made him deplore his own great imperfections. Thus, on one occasion, three novice monks spoke to him of their constant fear of condemnation to hellfire. The Saint had to confess that he never dwelt much on the possibility of his going to hell. “As I know that God is merciful,” he said, “I trust He will have compassion on me.” But their question made him realize that he should be asking the same question oftener of himself. He blamed his own insensitivity for not doing so: “This, perhaps, is the reason I am guilty of so much sin.”

When he had passed the peak of his years and was ailing, Sisoes decided to heed the advice of his disciple Abraham and move to the town of Clysma, nearer the Red Sea. There, Abraham argued, it would be easier for him to get medical care. But the patriarch was miserable away from his retreat. “Was not the ease of mind I enjoyed there everything for my comfort?” So he went back to St. Anthony’s mountain.

On the last day of his life, Sisoes’ hermits sat around him in his cell. Suddenly he exclaimed, as one seeing a vision, “Lo, the Abbot Anthony comes!” Later still, “Lo, the company of apostles comes!” Then he said, “Behold, the angels came to take me, and I asked that I might be left a little while to repent.” The hermits rejoined, “You have no need of repentance, Father.” But he replied, “Indeed, I know not if I have clutched at the very beginning of repentance.” Finally, Jesus came to take him, and a sweet perfume filled the little room.

Our Lord once said, “On the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak. By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Mt. 12:36-37) One reason why hermits sought golden silence in the desert was to avoid idle, useless and often dangerous chatter. St. Sisoes prayed for 25 years to shun idle words, but confessed that his efforts fell short.

How careful are we to measure the words by which we are to be judged?

--Father Robert F. McNamara

Like Blessed Antony: St. Sisoes (Fifth Century) (published June 4, 2006)

St. Antony of Egypt, pioneer of the remarkable hermit movement in the deserts along the Nile, had many an admiring follower. Of all these bright ascetics, few, if any, revered the holy abbot more than Sisoes.

St. Sisoes, also Egyptian by birth, feeling early called to the monastic life, left the world and entered the Desert of Skete. Finding this wilderness still too “crowded” for his taste, he crossed the Nile and hid himself in the very mountain where St. Antony had died. Here he even sensed the old saint’s presence. He imagined himself listening to his discourses; and imitating him in intensiveness of austerity and prayer, he grew so holy that other hermits came and asked him to be their spiritual director. Thus the solitude he had sought was broken; yet charity demanded that he offer up the loss in the interest of guiding others to serve God.

Gently he brought his pupils to a realization that of all the virtues, humility is foundational. Many stories were handed down about this humbleness that he practiced and taught.

One of his pupils said to him on a certain occasion, “Father, I always place myself in the presence of God.” St. Sisoes replied, to his surprise, “It would be much better for you to place yourself below every creature, in order to be securely humble.” In other words, the divine presence was always to be admitted and venerated, but to have God looking upon us was an added reason for recalling our own unworthiness.

At another time, he sighed that he fell so short of the virtues of St. Antony. If he had only one of that saint’s virtues, he declared, he would be completely aflame with divine love.

Three junior monks approached Sisoes on another occasion, expressing what we would consider undue panic about keeping out of Hell. The first said, “Father, what am I to do to avoid hellfire?” The second said, “How shall I escape the `gnashing of teeth’ and the `worm that dieth not’?” The third, “What will become of me? Every time I think of being cast into outer darkness I am ready to die of fear.”

When all three had spoken, Sisoes replied, “I confess that these are subjects that I never think about. I know that God is merciful, and I trust he will have compassion on me. But you are more fortunate. You speak fearfully of the pains of Hell, and your fears are strong guards against sin. But I am the one who should ask, `What shall become of me?’ I am so insensible as never to reflect on Hell. Perhaps that is the reason why I am guilty of so much sin!”

As usual, the old hermit saw in the faults of others a reprimand for his own even worse faults. At another time he complained, “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!”

Someone has defined a saint as “a sinner who tried.” It is comforting to us when we try to serve God in our bumbling way to know that the saints themselves were never content that they were doing their best.

St. Sisoes’ death was mercifully free of anxieties, and he was fully aware of the Lord’s compassion. As the monks knelt about his deathbed his face glowed and he cried, “Behold! Abbot Antony and the choir of prophets and the angels are come to take my soul.”

Then, after a recollected silence, he exclaimed, “Behold! Our Lord comes for me!” And he went forth to join his model, St. Antony of Egypt.

--Father Robert F. McNamara