The collection of memorable words and anecdotes of the desert fathers. In the sixth century in Palestine, the monk Zosimus was already mentioning “the apophthegms of the holy old men” (Zosimus, 1864, col. 1679), but that does not seem to be the oldest or most common name. At the same period, also in Palestine, BARSANUPHIUS and John of Gaza, as well as their disciple Dorotheus, do not use it, whereas they frequently quote the Lives and Words of the Fathers or the Gerontica. Another title must have been in fairly common use, that of Paradise or Garden of the fathers, monks, or holy old men.

We find it as the heading of the Syriac collection of Enanisho (seventh century). In the Coptic tradition, the life of JOHN COLOBOS written at the end of the seventh century by ZACHARIAS, BISHOP OF SAKHA, in Lower Egypt, mentions the “Book of the Holy Old Men . . . to which the title of Paradise has also been given” (1894, p. 322). The Arabic Manuscript 547 from contains “a part of the Paterikon known under the name of the Garden which consists of accounts of the Old Men and Fathers” (Sauget, 1973, p. 10). It is also under the title Garden of the Monks that the Arabic collection of the apothegms is published nowadays in Egypt.

The collections are very different from one another in both the material included and the arrangement of the items. But they have a common base, consisting of a majority of words and of the great monks of SCETIS of the fourth and fifth centuries. Handed down orally at first, probably in Coptic, principally by the disciples of the ancients, these apothegms were then put into writing and grouped into various small collections.

At the end of the fifth or the beginning of the sixth century, no doubt in Palestine, these anthologies were brought together and integrated into huge collections containing several hundred items, presented in two main forms: one, alphabetical, in which each monk’s words are gathered together in separate units classified according to the first letter of the name; the other, a systematic series in which the items are grouped in chapters according to subject matter. Most of the collections that we know in the manuscripts or publications belong to these two types, and the earlier collections have almost entirely disappeared. One of the few still in existence is in the Syriac Ascetikon of Abba Isaiah (Draguet, CSCO 289, pp. 30-51; 293, pp. 27-83).

To some extent, monastic life appeared everywhere in the Christian world in the third and fourth centuries, but from the outset, Egyptian monachism shone with such special splendor that it appeared everywhere as the pattern to be reproduced. The apothegms contributed much to the fame of the great anchorites of SCETIS. From the sixth century, the apothegms were translated from Greek into Latin and soon also into Syriac, Arabic, Georgian, and Armenian.

It is impossible to evaluate the influence they may have had in the history of spirituality. Many traces of it are found even in the profane literature of all the European countries. This influence was exercised, especially in the Coptic church, either directly through the reading of the collections in Coptic and Arabic or indirectly through the place given to the holy monks of the apothegms in the liturgy. In the monasteries, the reading of the Garden of the Monks has always had an honored place during the common meals. It is still the daily practice in the Monastery of Saint Macarius (DAYR ANBA MAQAR). The popular edition published in Cairo, which has reappeared many times, has been much appreciated also by the laity. Coptic Christians have never had a conception of spirituality peculiar to the laity, and it is in the school of the desert fathers that they are trained in the practice of the virtues, asceticism, and prayer.


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