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Pambo: Beloved Basket Case

Today is the memorial of St. Pambo of the Nitrian Desert, who died at age 70 around 375 A.D.

Abba Pambo is one of the ancient “athletes of prayer” known as the Desert Fathers. The movement to the Egyptian desert began with the retirement of Anthony in the late third century. Very young and heir to a merchant’s fortune, Anthony heeded the call to sell all he had, give to the poor, and follow Christ. He went to live alone, in prayer and contemplation, in the desert. But soon he attracted others, men who sought his wise counsel, men who wanted to live as he lived. And soon many men, and then women, fled to the wilderness to live as monks and hermits. It was as if a city had sprung up in the desert. Among Anthony’s noted followers was Pambo.

Like his master, Pambo won great renown for his wisdom and for the severity of his fasting. St. Athanasius, St. Melania the Elder, and Rufinus all sought his spiritual counsel. His disciples recorded (in the oral tradition of the desert) that Pambo was “like Moses, who received the image of the glory of Adam when his face shone. His face shone like lightning and he was like a king sitting on his throne.” God glorified him so, they said, that no one could gaze steadily at him. His disciples also remembered Pambo’s lapidary teachings, like, “If you have a heart, you can be saved.”

But he won as much fame for his silence as for his speech. When he first received spiritual instruction, he stopped his teacher short after just one sentence, and then left — for several months — in order to contemplate that single line.

He prayed, and he kept his hands busy with work, usually weaving baskets.

Once Pambo was summoned to the great city of Alexandria by the archbishop, Athanasius. Arriving in the city, he saw an actress and began to weep. His companions asked him the reason for his tears, and he said, “Two things make me weep: one, the loss of this woman; and the other, that I am not so concerned to please God as she is to please wicked men.”

Palladius included Pambo’s biography in his Lives of the Fathers (known as the Lausiac History):

There were many different qualities which enabled Pambo to govern his life in an upright and virtuous fashion, among which was an ability to despise both gold and silver, according to the command of the Lord, to a greater degree than anyone else. On this subject the blessed Melania told me how she had heard about his virtues from the blessed Isodore … when she first came to Alexandria from Rome. She told me that Isodore had escorted her to Pambo’s secluded cell.

“I brought to him,” she said, “some silver vessels weighing three hundred pounds, because I wanted to share some of my wealth with him. He just kept on working, weaving rushes together, and spoke quite kindly to me in a loud voice with the words ‘May God reward you.’ He then said to Origen his steward, ‘Take them and distribute them among all the brothers in Libya and the islands, for their monasteries are very poor, but don’t give anything to the Egyptians beause they live in a much richer and more fruitful region.’ I just stood there expecting some sort of blessing, or at least praise, for giving so much. He said absolutely nothing at all, so I said to him ‘There’s three hundred pounds of silver there’ to make sure he knew exactly how much it was. Again he showed absolutely no reaction, did not even take the cover off the vessels, but simply said ‘He to whom you have given these things, my daughter, does not need you to tell Him how heavy they are. If He can weigh the mountains and forests in a balance (Is 40.12) how much more likely is He to be aware of the weight of your silver! Of course, if it is me you are giving this silver to, you are correct to have stated the weight, but if to God who values the two mites [of the widow] more than all the rest (Mk 12.42), then you had better stay silent.’ And so, by the grace of God,” she said, “this is the way he shared things out, when I visited him on the mountain.

“This man of God died a short while after this. He wasn’t ill, had no pain in any part of his body, but was just finishing off a basket when he called me. He was aware of a fatal attack coming on, and said to me ‘Let me give you this basket for you to remember me by. I don’t possess anything else that I can give you.’ And when he had said this he just passed away without any fuss, commending his spirit to God. He was seventy years old. I laid his holy body out, wrapped it in linen cloths, buried him, and departed from his retreat. I shall keep that basket till the day of my death.”