Waiting for the Barbarians Desert Father Style

Monastic Monday

Let’s just say that Br. Monday didn’t get a crown that day…

On one occasion when the brethren were sitting with Abba Moses, he said to them, “Behold, this day [have] the ‎barbarians come to Scete; rise up and flee.” And they said to him, “Will you not flee, father? He said to them, “I ‎have been expecting this day to come for many years past, so that might be fulfilled the command of our Redeemer, ‎‎’Those who take by the sword shall perish by the sword'” (Matthew 25:52). And they said to him, “We then ‎will not flee, but will die with you.” He said to them, “This is not my affair, but your own desire; let every man look ‎after himself in the place where he dwells.” Now the brethren were seven in number. And after a little he said to ‎them, “Behold, the barbarians have drawn near the door”; and the barbarians entered and slew them. Now one of ‎them had been afraid, and he fled behind the palm leaves, and he saw seven crowns come down and place ‎themselves on the heads of those who had been slain.‎

Source: Sayings of the Strong Saint Abba Moses

Though the meaning is quite the opposite, this story reminds me of Cavafy’s poem, “Waiting for the Barbarians.” In it, a city, steeped in the Classical world, is dutifully waiting for the barbarian invasion that never comes. The leaders are all in resplendent stately garb, but doing nothing useful. Paradoxically, though the arrival of barbarians would have more dire consequences like the community at Scete faced, everyone seems to be looking forward to it and bored by the prospect of it never happening.

Here’s Keeley and Sherrard’s translation from the Poetry Foundation:

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

      The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?
      Because the barbarians are coming today.
      What’s the point of senators making laws now?
      Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.
Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?
      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader.
      He’s even got a scroll to give him,
      loaded with titles, with imposing names.
Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?
      Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
      And some of our men just in from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.
Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

What strikes me most is that these are both Egyptian experiences. Cavafy was an Alexandrian poet, and the Sayings come from early Coptic Christianity.

The other thing that gets me is that the barbarians are a “kind of solution” for the poem and the saying. In the poem, the barbarians serve as a threat to keep the state and its citizens from doing anything more than waiting. They fill a space in our common psyche that’s both comforting and binding. In the saying about Abba Moses, the barbarians are still a solution but in a much more direct way. They are a natural consequence of his past barbaric actions. This format is very common in stories about Moses. As a former bandit, he is in turn attacked by bandits. That same cycle is completed in a final way by his death at the hands of barbarians.

Much like a Desert Father, Cavafy has this way of saying to us what we need to hear. Read “The City” and you’ll see what I mean.

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