Saint Ammon of Egypt, Hermit
January 26 is the commemoration of Saint Ammon of Egypt, Hermit
“Ammon or Amun was 4th-century a saint and hermit of Egypt. He was one of the most venerated ascetics of the Nitrian Desert, and Saint Athanasius mentions him in his life of Saint Anthony. His name is the same as that of the ancient Egyptian god Amun.
According to his legend, he was forced into marriage at the age of 20 and persuaded his wife, on their wedding night, to embrace a vow of chastity. The two lived together for 18 years in celibacy, and then he left to become a monk in the Nitrian desert, while she founded a convent in her own house. He cooperated with Saint Anthony and gathered his monks under his direct supervision, thus forming a monastery from sole hermits. Traditionally, he is supposed to have been the first hermit to have established a monastery, known as Kellia, near Nitria. This is by no means verifiable, but it is more certain that Amun’s piety and fame drew others to the region. He is considered to have died at the age of 62 years old.”
“This great saint was born in Egypt of a rich and noble family. At the age of twenty-two years his tutors and trustees obliged him to marry, in the year 308; but, on the day of his marriage, he read to his wife what St. Paul has written in commendation of the holy state of virginity, by which she was easily persuaded to consent to their making a mutual vow of perpetual continence. They lived together eighteen years under the same roof in perfect continency; and he was so severe in his mortifications as to have gradually inured and prepared his body to bear the austerity of long fasts. For having spent the day in hard labour in tilling a large garden in which he planted and cultivated balsamum, a shrub about two cubits high, which distils balsam and produces an apple, some time ago more famous in medicine than at present, (the tree is cultivated like a vine, and produces its fruit in the third year,) at evening he supped with his wife on herbs or fruits, and immediately retired to prayer, in which exercise he passed a great part of the night. When his uncle and other friends who opposed his retreat were dead, he retired to Mount Nitria with his wife’s consent. She assembled and governed in her house a society of religious women, who in the exercises of a penitential and ascetic life, vied with the most fervent anchorets in the deserts, as is related by Rufin and others. St. Ammon first inhabited this desert; which Cassian places five miles from the city Nitria. In the close of the fourth century, Cassian reckoned fifty monasteries on Mount Nitria, inhabited by five thousand hermits. St. Ammon’s first disciples lived dispersed in separate cells, till the great St. Antony advised him to found a monastery, and to assemble the greatest part of them under the inspection of an attentive superior. That great patriarch of monks made choice himself of the place for erecting this monastery by setting up a cross. If St. Antony sometimes visited St. Ammon, our saint often repaired to St. Antony on Mount Troicus, where he then kept his cell. St. Ammon lived in great austerity, when he first retired into the desert, taking only a refreshment of bread and water once a-day. This he afterwards extended to two, and sometimes to three or even four days. The desert of cells into which St. Ammon extended his hermitages, was ten or twelve miles distant from Mount Nitria, though one continued wilderness. St. Ammon wrought many miracles. That which follows seemed to St. Athanasius to contain so important an instruction, as to deserve to be inserted in his life of St. Antony, where he has recorded it. The authors of the histories of the Fathers of the desert, and of the life of St. Ammon also mention it. One day, as he was going to cross a river called Lycus, when the banks were overflowed, in company with Theodorus his disciple, he desired him to withdraw, that they might not be seen naked in swimming over. Ammon, though alone, stood pensive on the bank, being unwilling and ashamed, out of modesty, to strip himself, reflecting that he had never seen himself naked. God was pleased to recompense his virginal love of purity by a miracle, and whilst he stood thus, he found himself on a sudden transported to the other side of the river. Theodorus coming up, and seeing he was gone over without being wet, asked him how it came to pass, and pressed him so earnestly, that he confessed the miracle to him, making him first promise not to mention it to any one till after his death. St. Ammon, otherwise written Amun, died at the age of sixty-two years; and St. Antony, though at the distance of thirteen days’ journey from him, knew the exact time of his death, having seen his soul in a vision ascend to heaven. St. Ammon is honoured on the 4th of October in many Greek Menologies.”
“One of the most astounding phenomena in Christian history was the Egyptian monastic movement of the fourth century. During the Roman persecutions of the third century, many men and women took to the desert, partly to escape death, partly to improve their lives. Gradually the movement grew, until there were almost 100,000 monks and nuns in the desert areas all up the Nile River! Only a few of them were priests. Most of them were laymen and laywomen attracted to the life of poverty, chastity and obedience. Nor was it a purely temporary fad. Although the numbers later fell off and many monasteries were destroyed, even today there are still a few desert monasteries standing and in use by Coptic monks.
St. Ammon was one of the early leaders, and the first to establish a monastic center in the Nitrian desert, so called because of its repulsively salty marsh. (Today it is called the Wady Natrun.) Ammon, the son of wealthy parents, had been forced into marriage after their death. On reading together St. Paul’s praise of virginity, he and his wife agreed to live under the same roof thereafter in perfect continence. Having prepared himself spiritually and physically for life in the desert over a period of 18 years, Ammon finally asked his wife to allow him to go out to Nitria and establish a monastic center. She consented, and, for her part, gathered in her home a number of religious women to whom Ammon used to come and give conferences twice a year. Theirs was a true marriage, but one of souls rather than bodies, for God’s greater glory.
At first, St. Ammon’s monks at Nitria lived in scattered cells. Then the great leader of the monastic movement, St. Anthony of Egypt, advised Ammon to have his hermits live closer together, so that he, as their abbot, could keep a careful eye on all of them. Ammon set an example of great austerity to his followers. At the outset, he ate one meal of bread and water per day. Eventually, he ate this meal only every other day, or third day, or even fourth day. (Have we been eating too much of late?)
Many miracles were also attributed to this lay ascetic. Once, for instance, he had to swim a swollen stream. Too shy to undress, he stood on the river bank wondering what to do. Suddenly, his companion Theodore saw him on the other side of the river. Ammon called across to the puzzled Theodore that he had been lifted across by divine power, but no mention should be made of this miracle so long as he lived.
St. Ammon died at the age of 62, but his great work continued after him. What was his monastery like? Not at all like those we know today, small and compact.
A visitor to Wadi Natrun fifty years later has left us an account. On the monastic mountain in various forms of dwelling lived 5,000 hermits. These monks were no idlers. They supported themselves by manual labor, particularly the manufacture of linen and wine, and the baking of bread in their seven bakeries. All male visitors were cordially received in a guest house. They might stay as long as they wanted, even two or three years. But after one week of residence they were given community chores to perform. Doctors and confectioners also lived in the colony to care for the needs of this monastic village. Whips hung on three palm trees, to be used on those who committed some infraction. The first whip was for the hermits themselves. The second was for robbers who were caught intruding. The third was for other assorted upstarts.
There was a great church, serviced by eight priests, but it was used only Saturdays and Sundays. The hermits sang the psalms, at set hours, in their own habitations, where they lived alone or in twos or threes. Standing in the center of the settlement at the hours of prayer, you could hear thousands of invisible voices raised in musical praise of God. “It sounds like Paradise itself,” said one observer.
Thus did these armies of Egyptian Christians “enroll themselves for citizenship in Heaven.” Could a movement like this arise in our own day? Hardly. But the Holy Spirit is very inventive. Who knows what He might inspire thousands more to do for His glory, even, say, tomorrow?”