PIMEN the Great (27th August 340-450AD)
The word pimen is Greek for shepherd, and Pimen the Great was indeed a great shepherd to the Roman Christians of the 4th and 5th centuries. He is one of the more famous of what are called the Desert Fathers – those ascetics who lived in the Egyptian desert around that period, and whose sayings were collected into a book originally published in Coptic, but later translated into Greek.
Less strict than other ascetics of the time, he is more noted for being a teacher and spiritual father. He refused to meet with the Governor when his counsel was sought, out of his own humility, and was very concerned with forgiving the sins of others. “If you see a brother sinning, do not believe your eyes. Know that your own sin is like a beam of wood, but the sin of your brother is like a splinter (Mt. 7:3-5), and then you will not enter into distress or temptation.”
A monk once said to the saint, “I have sinned grievously and I want to spend three years at repentance. Is that enough time?” The Elder replied, “That is a long time.” The monk continued to ask how long the saint wished him to repent. Perhaps only a year? Pimen said, “That is a long time.” The other brethren asked, “Should he repent for forty days?” The Elder answered, “I think that if a man repents from the depths of his heart and has a firm intention not to return to the sin, then God will accept three days of repentance.”
He was strict in his fasting and sometimes would not partake of food for a week or more. He advised others to eat every day, but without eating their fill. Pimen heard of a certain monk who went for a week without eating, but had lost his temper. The saint lamented that the monk was able to fast for an entire week, but was unable to abstain from anger for even a single day.
Pimen had copious amounts of wisdom to dispense, and is worth reading even in the 21st Century as the most quoted Saint in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. He reposed in peace in 450AD aged 110.
MOSES the Black (28th August, 330-405AD)
In the fourth century, there was nobody more gangsta than Moses. Originally an Abyssinian slave in a pagan household, he broke free of his master and lived a life of murder, robbery and loose women, terrorising the Nile Valley with his gang of bandits. He would egotistically challenge God to show his existence, since he felt that nobody could challenge or better him.
One day this bragging elicited a response – “The monks of Wadi El-Natroun know the real God. Go to them and they will tell you.” Having thus been dared, and looking for sanctuary from a robbery that had gone awry, he took refuge in the monastery, and was eventually converted to faith in Christ and baptised by Saint Macarius.
Moses spent many years struggling against his old passions and temptations, but finally overcame them through ascesis. He became one of the great Desert Fathers, leading a monastery of 500 men. One story attributed to him relates to a monk who had greatly sinned, and Moses was invited to a meeting to discuss an appropriate penance, Moses refused to attend. When he was again called to the meeting, Moses took a leaking basket filled with sand. When he arrived at the meeting place, the others asked why he was carrying the basket. He replied, “My sins run out behind me and I do not see them, but today I am coming to judge the errors of another.” On hearing this, the assembled brothers forgave the erring monk.
Eventually he was ordained a Priest. The story goes that when he was put forward, the Patriarch feigned racism, expressing shock at his black skin and ordering him to be cast out. Moses simply obeyed with humility, at which the Patriarch called him back and declared him worthy of ordination!
Moses retained some of his prior fearlessness. On one occasion, when bandits attacked the monastery, he overpowered them and dragged them all into the chapel, at which they converted! But he also took to heart Christ’s admonition that those who live by the sword, die by it, and when the monastery was attacked again, he stood his ground, accepting martyrdom from the assailants as the completion of his salvation.
Moses is well beloved by many African American converts to Orthodoxy, as well as many others for his wisdom and transformation in Christ.
JOHN the Baptist (29th August, 1BC-30AD)
The Glorious Prophet and Forerunner John the Baptist was the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, a wild, desert-dwelling man who urged the Jews of his day to repent in preparation for the coming Messiah. He preached repentance through baptism, ceremonial Jewish washing which cleansed the penitent of his sins. When Christ was revealed to him, he baptised Him also, though Christ was sinless, showing baptism as an act that transforms the material world and the individuals in it through the finally-revealed Messiah. This act was the culmination of all the work of the Patriarchs, Prophets and Moses the bringer of the Law, and John was revealed as the greatest of these, who passed the baton from the Jews to The Jew.
His eventual beheading at the hands of Herod, traditionally held to be on 29th August, is well known from the Gospels. He is often depicted in iconography as holding his own head on a platter! He is also traditionally depicted in the resurrection icon in Hades with Christ, acting as a forerunner there also. In Orthodox churches, his icon is always placed to the right of Christ (that is, on His left hand side) on the front wall dividing the altar from the nave, and he is often given wings to reflect his exalted status in the Church. He is also the only Saint of the Church whose “feast” day is actually a day of fasting!