The hermits of the Egyptian deserts, like the early followers of St. Francis of Assisi, included many unique personalities, and many a tale is recorded of their wise words and deeds.
One of the most notable of the “desert fathers” in the fourth century Egypt was St. Pambo. Pambo first came to the monasteries of the Nitrian desert seeking guidance from Egypt’s pioneer abbot, St. Anthony. “What shall I do?” he asked Anthony. Old Anthony replied, “Be not confident of thy own righteousness; grieve not over a thing that is past; and be continent of thy tongue and belly.”
Pambo undertook the typical discipline of the hermits around him. He was strong on self-denial. He wore cast-off clothing (although his personal bearing was so majestic that nobody noticed the meanness of his garb). He fasted. He prayed for long periods. He also engaged, of course, in self-supporting manual labor, weaving mats and baskets out of palm-fronds.
But he took a special fancy to Anthony’s advice to control his speech – “be continent of tongue.” In fact, when he was given his very first reading lesson, his monk-teacher began with Psalm 39, line one: “I said, I will watch my ways, so as not to sin with my tongue.” “That will do for today,” said Pambo. He rose abruptly to ponder this single verse and its implications. Thinking it through took him six months! Then he returned to his teacher for lesson number two.
Some people speak little because they have little to say. Pambo had much to say, but spoke with great economy. Other spiritual people realized this, and came to him for advice that they knew would be carefully considered, even if a bit gruffly spoken. The famous writer Rufinus visited him for counsel. So did St. Athanasius the Archbishop and St. Melania the Abbess. Once, when somebody gave him some money for the poor, the donor suggested that he count it. “No,” said Abbot Pambo, “God does not ask how much, but how.” End of conversation.
Pambo was not, however, like some hermits who held that the hermit’s life is the only way to save one’s soul. Two monks were once disputing which would be the better man – he who gave away all his fortune and entered a monastery, or he who did not become a monk but expended his all on corporal works of mercy. Pambo answered, “Before God both are perfect. There are other roads to perfection besides being a monk.”
Two other hermits gave him a list of their many acts of self-denial and almsgiving. “Will these save our souls?” Said Pambo: “I do the same things, but I do not thereby become a good monk. Seek never to offend your neighbor, and you will be saved.”
Pambo found that his formula of hard work and deliberate speech served him well. The day he died he was plaiting a basket for one of his disciples. He said to his gathered monks (in perhaps his longest speech ever): “Since I came into the desert, I have eaten nothing that I have not earned by work, and do not remember that I have ever said anything for which I had need to be sorry afterwards. Nevertheless I must now go to God, before I have even begun to serve Him.”
St. Melania was present at his death, took care of his funeral, and bore off the unfinished basket as a relic to remind her of this man who never spoke an unnecessary, (and therefore, regrettable) word.
Hermit or not, we must all be cautious about what we say. The Bible must have had people, like Pambo, in mind when it said: “A wise man is silent till the right time comes, but a boasting fool ignores the proper time.” (Sir. 20:6).
St. Pambo, help me to know when to shut up!
–Father Robert F. McNamara