Poemen the Great
Bornc. 340
Province of Egypt, Roman Empire
Diedc. 450
Wadi El Natrun, Province of Egypt, Roman Empire
Venerated inCoptic Orthodox Church
Eastern Orthodox Churches
Oriental Orthodox Churches
Roman Catholic Church
Feast27 August
Attributeshermit, ascetic

Abba Poemen the Great (Greek: Ὁ Ἅγιος Ποιμήν; ποιμήν means "shepherd") (c. 340–450) was a Christian monk and early Desert Father who is the most quoted Abba (Father) in the Apophthegmata Patrum (Sayings of the Desert Fathers). Abba Poemen was quoted most often for his gift as a spiritual guide, reflected in the name "Poemen" ("Shepherd"), rather than for his asceticism.[1] He is considered a saint in Eastern Christianity. His feast day is August 27 in the Julian calendar (September 9 in the Gregorian calendar).


Abba Poemen lived at a monastery in Scetis, one of the first centers of early Christian monasticism. In 407 A.D. the monastery was overrun by raiders, scattering the monks. Abba Poemen and Abba Anoub, along with a handful of monks, fled to Terenuthis, on the river Nile.[1] After leaving Scetis, Abba Poemen and his group first lived in an abandoned pagan temple. The various raids on Scetis were a turning point in desert monasticism. The ensuing diaspora resulted in Abba Poemen and his group keeping alive the collective wisdom of the monks of Scetis by creating the bulk of the Apophthegmata Patrum (Sayings of the Desert Fathers).[2]

Abba Poemen's personality was described as that of a wise shepherd more than a desert ascetic. He was known for his tolerance of the weakness of others. One apocryphal story recounts that some of the older monks approached Abba Poemen for his advice on how to treat monks who fell asleep during their prayers. They were inclined to wake the sleeping monk, while Abba Poemen took a more compassionate approach, advising, "For my part, when I have seen a brother who is dozing, I put his head on my knees and let him rest."[3] Abba Poemen was typically opposed to giving harsh penances to those who slipped spiritually—when a monk came to him who had committed a "great sin", Abba Poemen reduced his penance from three years to three days.[2]

Another story, though also used in support of Poemen's tendency to "refrain from judgement" tells of a brother monk with a wife (Harmless cites a source claiming her to be a "mistress,"[2] but the Systematic Collection uses the Greek word for "woman"/"wife") who had a child —perhaps unclear who the father was. Abba Poemen sent him a bottle of wine as a gift, to celebrate, and the brother was so "conscious stricken...[that he] later dismissed the woman".[4]

Abba Poemen was also described as a charismatic speaker who still taught more by example than by lecturing others. When a visiting monk asked him if he should assume a role of authority over the brothers he was living with, Abba Poemen responded by saying, "No, be their example, not their legislator."[2] Judgment of others was also foreign to his nature. He once stated that, "A man may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others, he is babbling incessantly."[5] Modern writers credit Abba Poemen's gift of memory for keeping alive many of the stories from the Apophthegmata Patrum. Many of those stories are recollections of Abba Poemen from his time with the monks in Scetis. A later Coptic writer, Zacharias of Sakha, believed that Abba Poemen was also a writer, leading to speculation that he might have been one of the authors of the Apophthegmata Patrum.[2]

Some scholars consider the Abba Poemen of the Apophthegmata Patrum to be merely a generic desert Abba, while others credit Poemen and his group with collecting the many sayings that became the Apophthegmata Patrum. Wilhelm Bousset and William Harmless both treat Poemen as a historical figure.[1]

Selected sayings of Abba Poemen

Abba Poemen is the most often quoted Abba in the Apophthegmata Patrum—nearly a quarter of the sayings are by or about Poemen—which led some scholars to think that sayings from different Abbas were collected under the generic name "Abba Shepherd." Abba Poemen is also featured prominently in another collection of Desert Father sayings, the Ethiopic Collectio Monastica. He was notable for his kindness and compassion toward his fellow monks, including those who had fallen from the high ideals of the Desert Fathers. He was frequently sought out by his brothers for his wise and compassionate guidance.[1]

Further reading


  1. ^ a b c d Harmless, William (2000). "Remembering Poemen Remembering: The Desert Fathers and the Spirituality of Memory". Church History. 15. American Society of Church History. Archived from the original on 2013-05-18.
  2. ^ a b c d e William Harmless (17 June 2004). "Abba Poemen". Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. Oxford University Press. pp. 206–211. ISBN 978-0-19-516222-6. Retrieved 4 July 2012.
  3. ^ a b "Abba Poemen: Brief Life and Sayings", Orthodox Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and south East Asia
  4. ^ Guy, Jean-Claude (ed.). Apophtegmes des Pères. Les Éditions du Cerf. p. 442. ISBN 2204048089.
  5. ^ "Venerable Pimen the Great", Orthodox Church in America