August 27 – Poemen the Great; Monica

Poemen the Great (ca. 340–ca. 450) (pronounced PEE-mun) went to the monastic center of Scetis in the Egyptian desert to become a monk. It worked. He was very strict with himself, but loving and patient with others. Because of this he quickly became a guide for many desert hermits, which made an Elder in the community jealous. Poemen went to see the Elder to patch things over, taking a present of food. When told the Elder refused to see him, he said, “That’s okay. I’ll just wait here outside his door until he’s ready.” The Elder realized he was being a jerk, and welcomed Poemen to his cell.

Most of what we know about Poemen comes from the Apophthegmata Patrum or “Sayings of the Desert Fathers.” (Not to be confused with “phlegmata patrum” which means “he’s the spitting image of his dad.”) Poemen is the most quoted father in the book, and some think he may have been one of its compilers. Others think there may have been many Poemens (the name means “shepherd”). We can be sure Abba Poemen would not be offended by this; he was very patient and forgiving (as noted). A few “sayings” follow.

Some monks asked Abba Poemen, “When we see brothers sleeping in the church service, should we wake them up?” He said, “When I see a brother dozing, I put his head on my lap and let him sleep.”

A brother asked, “Is it better to speak, or to be silent?” Abba Poemen said, “He who speaks for God’s sake is doing well, and he who is silent for God’s sake is doing well.”

Abba Poemen said, “Water is soft, and stone is hard. But if you hang up a bottle of water so that it drips onto a stone, it will wear it away. Thus it is with the Word of God. It is soft, and our mind is hard, but those who hear the Word of God often open their hearts to the fear of God.”

Monica (331–387) grew up in a Christian home but was married to a pagan. Patritius (for that was his name) was drawn from the bottom of the husband barrel: violent, dissolute, given to drink—not the sort of man a mother wants her son to grow up to be. (Unless the mother is also violent, dissolute, and dipsomanic.) Among his other shortcomings, Pat refused to let Monica baptize their three children. He relented when little Augustine[1] looked near to dying, but took it back when Auggie improved. Monica prayed steadily for her husband, and near the end of his life he finally repented and became a Christian.

Augustine was another question. He looked to becoming a carbon copy of his father, only lazier, and Monica wore herself out with weeping and praying for him. While away at school he became a Manichean, and when he came home for hols, his mother kicked him out. (Manichaeism is a gnostic religion in which two equal and opposite forces—good and evil, light and darkness, pick your own metaphors—fight for control of the world. There’s more to it than that but it’s late and children might be listening.) But she saw a “strange vision” that compelled her to make peace with him. When Augustine left Africa to wander through Italy, she followed him, praying and weeping, weeping and praying. At last he converted to Christianity (see Aug 28), and they rejoiced in each other’s company. After about six months of this they decided to return to Africa, and she died along the way.

Although she is spoken of reverently in her son’s writings, Monica was not widely venerated until the thirteenth century. She is the patroness, not surprisingly, of people in bad marriages, victims of verbal abuse, and people with disappointing children. The city of Santa Monica, California, bears her name because of the “weeping” springs nearby.

“Not all tears are an evil.” –Tolkien.

[1] Yes, that Augustine. No, not that Augustine. Think Hippo (Aug 28), not Canterbury (May 27).