POEMEN, SAINT, or Pamin or Bimin
An anchorite of the fourth and fifth centuries who was noted for his spiritual counsel to other monks (feast day: 4 Nasi).
Apa Poemen occupies by far the most important place in the APOPHTHEGMATA PATRUM, since roughly three hundred items report his words or mention him. It seems that the first collections of apothegms were compiled by his disciples. Poemen himself must have played a great part in passing on many apothegms, to judge from the frequency of the formula “Abba Poemen said that Abba so- and-so had said. . . .” In the collections as a whole appear some fifty names of fathers whom he knew directly or indirectly.
It is not easy to reconcile all the data in these documents, especially in terms of chronology. For this reason D. J. Chitty, following Tillemont, proposed to distinguish at least two men named Poemen. One, the elder, whom Rufinus met in 370 at Pispir, had contacts with Saints ANTONY OF EGYPT, AMMONAS, Pior, and PAMBO. The other, who came to SCETIS to become a monk there with his six brothers in the last quarter of the fourth century, became much more famous. Thus all the texts mentioning Poemen would have been attributed to him.
Enticing though this hypothesis of two Poemens may be, it does raise problems, so that it is preferable to maintain that we find one and the same Poemen everywhere in the collections of apothegms. Some data that seem irreconcilable are not always those with the best verification, and the difficulties they offer may be explained by the hazards of textual transmission. Certainly if Poemen was still alive when ARSENIUS died, shortly before 450 (Arsenius 41; PG 65, col. 105), it would have been hard for him to have conversed with Saint Antony (d. after 356); however, the apothegm in which the latter is reputed to have spoken to Poemen (Antony 4; PG 65, col. 76) can very well be understood as being a saying passed on indirectly, according to another version of the same apothegm (Poemen 125, PG 65, col. 354).
It may also be noted that generally in the apothegms, homonyms are distinguished by a surname, especially in the case of such very well-known fathers as Macarius and Paphnutius. But we never find a qualifier attached to the name of Poemen.
Life of Poemen
The date and place of Poemen’s birth are not known, but there is some knowledge of his family: his mother (Poemen 76, PG 65, cols. 339-42), his sister and his nephew (Poemen 5, PG 65, col. 319), and especially his six brothers, who came to Scetis to become monks along with him. The eldest was called ANUB; the youngest, Pesius. On the occasion of the first destruction of Scetis by the Mazices in 407, the seven brothers withdrew to Terenouthis (Anub 1, PG 65, col. 130). Apparently at that time Anub was still leader of the group; thus Poemen acquired his reputation only subsequently. At Scetis he proved himself an exemplary disciple of the “grand old men” and was zealous in revealing his thoughts to them and receiving their advice.
It is hard to know which of the fathers contributed most to his training. Among them were Isidorus (Poemen 44, PG 65, col. 331; Isidore 5-6, PG 65, cols. 219-22), Pambo (Poemen 150, PG 65, col. 359), Joseph of Penepho (Joseph 2-3, PG 65, cols. 227-30), Moses (Moses 12-18, PG 65, cols. 286-90), AMMON (Collectio monastica 14,39; CSCO 238, p. 119), and Saint MACARIUS (Collectio monastica 13, 72; CSCO 238, p. 101). The Coptic collection of the Virtues of Saint Macarius quotes several answers given by Macarius to questions asked by Poemen. One of them suggests that the latter did not enjoy an unchallenged authority: “My Father, how is it that you want me to be with the brothers, for I speak in vain to them and they do not listen?” (Amélineau, 1894, p. 127).
Poemen does not appear to have returned to Scetis after his flight to Terenouthis. An apothegm records that he passed through the region of DIOLKOS in the company of Anub (Poemen 72, PG 65, col. 339). The Copto-Arabic SYNAXARION mentions him and gives the names of his six brothers, but in this list we find neither Anub nor Pesius, though they are well known from the apothegms.
The Spiritual Master
We know little of Poemen’s personal behavior and spiritual life, for “the old man’s practice was to do everything in secret” (Poemen 138, PG 65, col. 355). When he was young, he sometimes spent three or four days, and even an entire week, without eating, but later he thought it preferable to take a little food each day (Poemen 31, PG 65, col. 330). This is almost the only confidence the saint revealed regarding his austerities. One other gives insight into his mystical life: One day he was carried in the spirit to Calvary, beside Mary at the foot of the cross (Poemen 144, PG 65, col. 358). As for miracles performed by Poemen, the apothegms recount only one– the cure of a child whose face was turned backward (Poemen 7, PG 65, col. 322). Thus neither ascetic achievements nor visions nor prodigies gave Poemen his reputation; rather, was the extraordinary gifts he had received from God so that he could be the guide and “pastor” of his brothers, as the meaning of his name implies (Poemen 1, PG 65, col. 318).
Of the several hundred apothegms attributed to Poemen, nearly all reveal him exercising this role of counselor and spiritual father. The advice he gives assuredly reflects his own experience, for he was not in the habit of supposing that a master should teach what he did not himself practice (Poemen 25). Thus Poemen’s teachings make it possible for us to discover certain salient features of his spiritual countenance.
Three trilogies list points of special importance. For Poemen the three prime concerns are “to fear the Lord, to pray, and to do good to one’s neighbor” (Poemen 160, PG 65, col. 362). “Watchfulness, attention to oneself, and discernment are the soul’s guides” (Poemen 35, PG 65, col. 331). “To fling oneself before God, not to esteem oneself highly, and to set aside one’s own will are the tools of the soul” (Poemen 36, PG 65, col. 331).
From his predecessors Poemen had learned how to recognize and dismiss evil thoughts. In his turn, he taught his disciples that spiritual strategy in which prayer and the Eucharist occupy an essential place (Poemen 146, PG 65, col. 358; Poemen 30, PG 65, col. 330). The compunction of “mourning” (penthos) and the shedding of tears are also recommended (Poemen 26, PG 65, col. 327; 39, 331; 50, 334; 122, 354) as “the traditional way taught by Scripture and the Fathers” (Poemen 119, PG 65, col. 354). The concept of “being dead to one’s neighbor” doubtless comes from Ammonas (Poemen 2, PG 65, col. 313), Moses (Moses 12, 14-18), and Anub (Anub 1).
In no way is this indifference toward others; rather, it is the condition for not judging one’s brothers and for exercising charity (caritas) toward all (Collectio monastica 13, 45, 48-49; CSCO 238, pp. 95-96). Poemen himself thus sometimes played “dead” (cf. Poemen 3, PG 65, col. 313) at the risk of shocking others. But customarily he showed himself to be kindly, gentle, and extremely gracious. Numerous apothegms can be cited to this effect, for example, “As for me, when I see a brother dozing during the Office, I put his head on my knees and let him take his rest” (Poemen 92, PG 65).
Always tending to accuse himself and to take upon himself the shortcomings of others, Poemen showed himself to be indulgent and merciful toward sinners. He never reproached his neighbor who lived with a concubine, and when the woman gave birth to a child, he had a jug of wine sent to her. At once the neighbor repented and became a disciple of the old man, who “lit up for him the path that leads to God” (Paul Evergetinos, Vol. 3, chap. 2, B, no. 22, p. 46).
- Amélineau, E., ed. and trans. “Vertus de Saint Macaire.” In Histoire des monastères de la basse Egypte. Annales du Musée Guimet 25. Paris, 1894.
- Apophthegmata Patrum, ed. J. B. Cotelier. PG 65, cols. 317-368. Paris, 1864.
- Arras, V., ed. Collectio monastica. CSCO 238, Scriptores Aethiopic 45; trans. Vol. 46. Basse-Egypte.
- Chitty, D. J. The Desert a City. Oxford, 1966.
- Paul Evergetinos. Sunagoge. Vol. 3. Athens, 1964.