The robber saint
Join me today as we encounter a bad man who went into the desert and came back changed.
Lived: 3rd century AD
Feast: July 9
It was the end of the fourth century AD, and the little group of monks had finally made it to the desert to meet the desert fathers. They were drawn to this pilgrimage by tales of the personal holiness and miraculous gifts of these men who lived on the very edge of civilization. The story of the desert fathers had begun about a hundred years earlier, when Christians had started to wander out of the cities of the Roman empire to find God in the vastness of the Egyptian desert. They called one another abba, father, and so we have come to know them as the desert fathers. Some lived in small communities, some lived alone in cells, and some were further out, in huts or crevices in the rock.
The area was so dangerous and hard to get to that our 4th century pilgrims almost didn’t make it. To get there they had to outrun bandits. They wandered into a swamp and nearly drowned in the mud, and they tore up their feet when they blundered into a patch of thorns. They capsized when they were trying to cross the Nile. And - the best proof that they weren’t locals - they had seen three huge crocodiles lying very still next to the water and assumed the animals must have died, and gone up to touch them. The crocodiles were not dead. Despite all these troubles, with a hefty dose of God’s grace, the pilgrims had made it to the barren lands where the desert fathers could be found.
One of the communities they encountered was the community of Copres the priest. Copres was almost ninety, a healer and miracle worker who led fifty monks in a small settlement near some peasant villages. After the customary greetings, the newcomers sat down at the old man’s feet. They had so many questions. What could he teach them? What were his ascetic practices? How did his community work? The old man didn’t want to tell them any of that. He wanted to tell them a story about his teacher, the desert father Patermuthius.
That story began with a crime. The crime took place in a community much like the one in which the pilgrims now were, where the desert fathers and, in some cases, desert mothers lived. The pilgrims had come to find saints, but that was never how the desert fathers saw themselves. Their self-image was of poor sinners, supporting one another as they searched for and stumbled toward the Kingdom of God. On one occasion, two of the fathers were in a city for some business. When it was time to go home, one monk told the other that his time as a monk had come to an end. He had met a woman in the city, had fallen into temptation, and they had had sex. He couldn’t imagine returning and confessing and starting again. The other monk said that he understood. He had done the same thing. But his plan was to return, confess, accept whatever shame there was and do penance. Both monks returned together, and it was only much later that God revealed to the abbot that the second monk had been innocent. He had humbled himself and taken on penance for the sake of his brother’s soul.
Those desert fathers who lived in community with each other lived in cells. Copres could probably illustrate his story by pointing to many examples in his own community. Cells were two room brick huts that a group of monks could raise in a day or two when they were joined by a new brother. Inside, a monk prayed, read, sang psalms and reflected. A cell was not a nice place to be in the desert heat. It grew hot and stifling, but as one desert father explained, a cell was like the furnace at Babylon where the ancient king had tried to burn the three Jews who would not worship him. Looking through the flames, the king was shocked to see that not only were the three men not burning, but there was a fourth figure speaking with them in the middle of the fire. It was in the stifling heat of the cell that the incarnate God was to be found.
But in Copres’ story, the heat of the day was over. The Christian in the cell was perhaps asleep or praying in the stillness of the night. But outside the cell, someone was moving stealthily in the dark. It was a robber. For as long as pharaohs had been burying their lavish treasures, unscrupulous Egyptians had been figuring out how to break into their tombs, and when no tomb was available, robbers would break into houses as well. This particular robber was known for robbing tombs and houses, and he didn’t mind killing the people he found inside.
Even for someone violent and unscrupulous, robbing a house was a dangerous business. It is likely that robbery methods changed slowly, so we can guess at how an ancient robber operated from what we know of medieval techniques. Robbers knew that if you used a prybar to break in the front door, you were almost certain to be facing an angry and armed homeowner who knew his house much better than you did. To gather intelligence before going in, robbers would sometimes scrape a small hole low in the brick wall using an iron spike. Next they would reach for a thief’s best friend: a small tortoise. The robber would stick a candle stub to the tortoise’s shell, light it, and then put the tortoise through the hole. The little animal would crawl around the house, illuminating it as the robber looked through the hole to memorize the layout and see what was worth grabbing.
Then it was time to go in. Usually a robber would try to come in quietly, either by easing open the lock or catch on the front door or by slipping in through some opening on the roof. As the robber searched the house, he listened for steady breathing from those sleeping inside. If it sounded like they were waking up, the robber might try eating some stale breadcrumbs, because that sounded just like a cat crunching up a mouse, so maybe the noise would get blamed on the cat. If that didn’t work, the robber and his friends had weapons at the ready.
The robber in Copres’ story decided to go in through the roof. He was hoping that if he climbed the roof he’d find a rainwater collection system with a hole big enough that he could slip through it. He carefully surveyed the roof, feeling his way around. But as he was climbing around up there, something happened to him that had never happened on a job before. He went to sleep.
And there, on the roof of the cell, Patermuthius the robber began to dream.
In the dream, he saw the emperor passing by the house with his retinue. But as Patermuthius watched from the rooftop he began to suspect that this was more than the emperor of Rome. And that impression was reinforced when the emperor turned and looked straight at him and gave him a choice. The emperor told him to cease what he was doing. No more robberies. No more murders. On this day, the emperor said, his life could change. The emperor was offering him a place in his army. When he looked at them carefully, Patermuthius realized that these were monks. The emperor wanted Patermuthius to lead them. The invitation filled Patermuthius’ heart with joy, and he woke up.
It was morning. He had slept through the sunrise. The inhabitant of the cell – a woman, as it happened – was standing there and staring at him, a strange man who had crawled onto her roof and gone to sleep.
She asked him who he was and what he was doing there.
Panicked, disoriented, and confused, Patermuthius blurted out that he didn’t know. But could she do something for him? Could she take him to church?
The desert mother knew the hand of God at work when she saw it, and smiled and walked with the man who had tried to rob her until they arrived at the church. Inside, Patermuthius told the priests that he wanted to become a Christian. Patermuthius seems to have known almost nothing about Christianity. He was illiterate. He was probably from nearby, since he had an Egyptian name, which we Latinize as ‘Patermuthius’ (much the confusion of Latin speaking scholars because the first two syllables sound like the Latin for father, making him sound like ‘Father father Muthius’). And he had a well known history of violent crime. So the priests gave him something very simple to start with. They gave him the opening verses of the first psalm:
1 Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
2 But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.
3 And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
Yes, Copres told the pilgrims, that was how the great Abba Patermuthius had begun his journey to sainthood. What makes Patermuthius a manly saint is the energy and agency with which he jumped at the chance to change his life. He didn’t look back. Armed with these three verses, Patermuthius walked out alone into the desert. After he had fasted for a long time, a man came to him and brought him bread and water. It was the beginning of a life of miracles. When Patermuthius returned to the church, he was be a very different man.
It wasn’t that Patermuthius wasn’t tempted. He would later say that demons tempted him to return to the life of a robber by offering the hidden knowledge of where a pharaoh was buried, surrounded by gold. It would be the haul of a lifetime. But Patermuthius was determined to become a better man. After a long time in the desert he came back to the church to learn to read and write. Then he returned to the desert to spend another seven years as a hermit. When he emerged and began to teach, he had committed most of the Bible to memory.
Even Copres didn’t know much about this period of Patermuthius’ life. Copres had only known him much later as a teacher and a mentor. But perhaps what happened to Patermuthius was a bit like what happened to another robber turned desert father and eventual saint: Moses the Robber, an Ethiopian. Moses had led a gang of 70 robbers. Like Patermuthius two generations earlier, Moses’ conversion had changed him, but we can track that change through his life. We see him as a young monk, struggling with lust in his cell. Abba Isidore brought Moses up a hill where Moses could look out onto the plain and see two armies massing for battle, a dark demonic army facing a shining host of angels. Isidore helped Moses understand that his battle in the cell and this one were two aspects of the same war, and Moses went back to his cell with new determination. Much later, Moses would be the senior monk, and he would tell a young man,
‘Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’
One night when Moses was forcing himself to pray in his cell, he too was robbed. Thinking they were being stealthy, the robbers slipped into his cell one by one, only to be silently subdued and tied up by Moses. But instead of taking them to a judge, he took them to a church, told them his story and let them go. It turned out to be a good evangelization technique. By the time Moses was an old man, we read, he had replaced his 70 bandits with as many monks.
Becoming a senior monk meant that Moses had responsibilities for administering the community. He struggled to reconcile this with his humility. When he was called to be a judge in a matter concerning another monk, he walked to the place of judgement wearing a large basket strapped to his back. Before he set out he filled it with sand. The basket leaked, and as he walked there was a trail of sand stretching out for miles out of sight behind him.
‘My sins run out behind me and I do not see them and I have come here today to judge another.’
By the time he was an old man, Abba Moses was well known among the desert fathers. A local official was so curious about the stories he had heard that he travelled to visit Moses. Moses tended to avoid such meetings, so he left his cell, but as luck would have it he ran into the official’s party on the road. The official called the old man in rough clothes over to ask him a question.
‘Tell me, old man, where is the cell of Moses?’ [said the official]
[Moses replied,] ‘What do you want to see him for? He’s a fool and a heretic.’ Benedicta Ward translation
The official hadn’t heard about this side of Abba Moses, so he decided not to bother to see the hermit after all. Instead he went to a different community. Of course when he told the story, everyone there recognized Abba Moses in it. The official went home impressed. It was a very condensed lesson in humility.
Like Abba Moses, Patermuthius had been called to lead. At some point he began to take on students. He seems to have standardized the appearance of desert fathers, with their short-sleeved tunics, hoods and sheepskin cloaks. Perhaps that was the way he had seen them in the dream that had started his path to sainthood.
And it is at this stage in his life, as a senior teacher, a leader of many communities scattered around the Egyptian desert, that Patermuthius came back into focus in the stories his student Copres told the pilgrims sitting cross legged in front of him. There was so much to tell, and Copres loved telling it.
One trait that saints sometimes have is an ability to be where they are needed - sometimes in more than one place at the same time. Abba Patermuthius developed such gifts, appearing in ways he could only have dreamed of in his time as a robber. On one occasion, when his brothers were waiting for him to arrive from a long journey on foot, he strolled in through a locked door. The door opened onto the roof.
Patermuthius was known as a teacher and a healer, but on one occasion, he got there too late to help one of his monks. With the others gathered around him, Patermuthius addressed the dead man, and asked him what he wanted. Did he want healing, or to remain with Christ? To everyone’s shock, the dead man answered the question: he was happy where he was.
“Then sleep in peace, my child,” he said, “and intercede with God for me.” Norman Russell translation
Ah, Copres told his audience of pilgrims, there were so many stories to tell. There was the time that Patermuthius had experienced paradise, and had returned with a fruit whose aroma could heal the sick. There was the time he had helped a dying brother who feared the fires of hell to amend his life over three extra years.
‘These and even greater things,’ said Copres, ‘were achieved by our Father Patermuthius while performing signs and wonders. And other such men have lived before us “of whom the world was not worthy”’.
Copres went on, but some of the monks were tuning him out. These tales seemed, even to them, to be a little bit far-fetched, certainly not worth recording. Copres was almost ninety after all, and perhaps his mind was going as he rambled on about this favourite topic. Near the back of the group, one monk was so bored that he fell asleep.
But instead of dreaming that he was somewhere else, the monk who fell asleep dreamed that he was there, at the feet of Copres, listening to him talk. But in the dream, he saw things differently. Copres wasn’t speaking from memory, he was reading from the most beautiful book that the monk had ever seen, its words drawn in letters of gold. Beside the old man stood another man, a man with white hair, who looked straight at the monk and told him to pay attention. The monk woke up, unsettled, and told the others. I like to think that later he recalled how Patermuthius too had been singled out in a dream. And I like to think that later, when it came time to record what they had learned, it was through the insistence of this sleepy monk that we know the tale of the strange conversion and mystical life of Patermuthius the robber.
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