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Saturday, July 18, 2020

Concerning the Alleged Prophecy of Abba Pambo


By John Sanidopoulos

If one searches "Prophecy of Abba Pambo" on the internet, you will come across many websites that present this alleged prophecy of Abba Pambo as either a prophecy reflective of our times or as an eschatological prophecy foretelling coming and future events. This is because it is presented in a deceptive way. Three things should be noted about this alleged prophecy:

First, this prophecy does not have Abba Pambo as a source, as it claims. Instead, it is one of the anonymous sayings of the Desert Fathers attributed to Abba Pambo that probably dates no earlier than the eighth century. This is confirmed by the fact that it refers to "canons" as part of the structured hymns of the Church. However, canons don't date to the time of Abba Pambo, who reposed around the year 375, but to at least the seventh century, though really the eighth century. The only reason the name of Abba Pambo is associated with this alleged prophecy is because Palladius in one sentence of his biography of Abba Pambo mentions that he had the gift of prophecy, but in none of the authentic sayings do we actually have a record of these prophecies, which were probably not eschatological at all, but foretold things in the immediate future within his lifetime.

Second, this prophecy is not a prophecy at all. The likely author was a certain monk who bemoaned the fact that monasteries were making too much use, in his opinion, of canons and troparia in the services. He likely composed this alleged prophecy as a rebuke to his contemporary monastics by citing one of the greatest and most famous monastics of the past in the glory days of monasticism, Abba Pambo, in whose time such canons and troparia didn't exist in monasteries. This monk wanted to go back to a simpler time for the Church and monasticism in particular, not knowing however that canons were not used in the Church during the time of Abba Pambo at all. But he is showing how the current troubles of the Church of his time, as he saw them, stem back to that one point in time when the Church of Alexandria was using pagan methods, by his estimation, of worshiping God.

Three, the prophecy presented on many websites and books, in various languages, is misrepresented to make it look like it is in the process of being fulfilled in our times and will be completely fulfilled in the near future. But an actual reading of the text in context will reveal that, though it wants to present itself as being eschatological, the truth of the matter is that it is merely a reflection of its own time in the eighth or maybe even ninth century. In fact, on Mount Athos there is an old manuscript which has a chapter titled "A Discourse of Abba Pambo for the Eighth Century". I'm not sure of the contents of this chapter, but it seems it may have something to do with this alleged prophecy.

Below is the accurate presentation of the text as translated for the book The Anonymous Sayings of the Desert Fathers: a select edition and complete English translation, ed. & trans. John Wortley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 616-619, (no. 758 BHG 2329b):

Abba Pambo sent his disciple into the city of Alexandria to sell his handiwork. Spending sixteen days in the city, as he told us, he used to sleep at night in the narthex of the church of Saint Mark. Having witnessed the rite of the Catholic Church, he returned to the elder. He had learned the troparia too. So the elder said to him: 'My son, I see you troubled; perhaps some temptation befell you in the city?' The brother said to the elder: 'You know, abba, we are wasting our days in negligence in this desert and we are learning neither canons nor troparia. When I went away to Alexandria I saw the ranks of the church and how they sing and I became very sorrowful because we do not sing canons and troparia.' The elder said to him: 'Woe betide us, my son, for the days have arrived in which the monks will abandon the solid food spoken of by the Holy Spirit and go running after songs and tones. What kind of sorrow for sin, what tears are born of the troparia? What kind of sorrow for sin is there for a monk when, standing in church or cell, he raises his voice like the oxen? If we are standing before God, we ought to stand in great sorrow for sin, not being elated. For the monks did not come out into this desert to stand before God and be elated, to warble songs, shape tunes, wave their hands and prance around on their feet. Rather ought we to offer our prayers to God in great fear and trembling, with tears and sighs, with reverence, in a thoroughly repentant, moderate and humble voice, well disposed to sorrow for sin. See, I am telling you, my son, the days will come when Christians will destroy the books of the holy gospels and of the holy apostles and of the divine prophets, smoothing away the holy Scriptures and writing troparia and pagan poems; and their mind will be besotted with troparia and pagan poetry. This is why our fathers have said that the scribes who are in this desert are not to write the lives and sayings of the holy fathers on parchment but on paper, for the forthcoming generation is going to smooth away the lives of the holy fathers and write according to their own will.' The brother said to him: 'What then, will the customs and traditions of the Christians be changed? And will there be no priests in the church that this might come about?' The elder said: “In those times the love of many will grow cold [Mt 24:12]; there will be affliction on no small scale, incursions of nations, displacement of people, the overthrow of kings, disorder among rulers, wantonness among priests, negligence among monks. Hegoumens will think nothing of their own salvation and that of the flock, all eager and zealous about going to table, quick to pick a fight, slow to prayers, ready to bite back, standing by to condemn, neither imitating nor listening to the lives and sayings of the elders but rather foolishly saying: "If we had been in their days we would have fought the good fight too." And the bishops of those times will be respecters of powerful persons, giving their judgements according to bribery, not protecting the poor in court, afflicting widows, despising orphans. There shall come among the people unbelief, profligacy, hatred, enmity, jealousy, intrigue, thefts, carousings, drunkenness, adulteries, fornications, murders and plunderings.' The brother said: 'What shall one do in such times and seasons?' and the elder said: 'In such days he who saves his own soul saves himself and he will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven' [Mt 5:19].

To show that such a view of hymns being utilized in monastic worship presented a threat for many monks to the authentic way of life for monks at the time of the dating of this text, there is also an earlier anonymous saying in the same book (no. 726, pp. 576-579), probably from the same time and maybe same author, that says:

. . . The brother said: 'Father, ever since I became a monk I have been singing the sequence of the canon and the hours and the [contents] of the Okto√™chos', and the elder said: 'That is why sorrow for sin and lamenting flee from you. Think of the great fathers, how simple they were, knowing only a few psalms. They had no knowledge of tones or tropes and they shone like luminaries in the world—and witnesses to what I am saying are Abba Paul, Abba Anthony, Abba Paul the Simple, Abba Pambo, Abba Apollo and so forth, those who raised the dead and received power over demons, not by tunes and tropes and tones, but in prayer and fasting. It is not the elegance of the tune that saves the man but the fear of God and keeping the commandments of Christ. Singing has led many down into the lowest parts of earth and not only worldlings but priests too; it entrenched them in porneia and many passions. Singing is for worldlings, my son; that is why people congregate in churches. Just think how many ranks [of angels] there are in heaven, my boy, and it is not written of them that they sing with the eight tones but that one rank unceasingly sings: 'Alleluia', another rank: 'Holy, holy, holy Lord of Sabaoth', another rank: 'Blessed be the glory of the Lord from this place and from his house.' So do you, my son, love the humility of Christ and watch over yourself, keeping watch over your mind at the time of prayer and, wherever you go, do not display yourself as one of ready wit and a teacher but be humble and God will grant you sorrow for sin.

It therefore follows that the alleged prophecy of Abba Pambo is neither by Abba Pambo nor a prophecy. Rather, it is an eighth or ninth century text probably written by a monk that is warning his fellow contemporary monastics of things that were taking place in his own time, by his own estimation, particularly the fact that elaborate hymns were being used more and more in monasteries as opposed to earlier times. Many saints and holy fathers of the time would have disagreed with his estimation, including one of the creators and developers of the canons of the Church, Saint John of Damascus. The alleged prophecy certainly has historical worth for monastic attitudes towards the developing hymnography of the Church in the eighth century, but certainly has no worth as an eschatological prophecy of future end-time events - unless you truly believe that the hymns of the Church have paganized the Church and that monasteries should not utilize them.