The Ancient Fathers of the Desert: Section 3
V. Rev. Chrysostomos, trans.
A woman of sin once made up her mind, and wagered with her friends, that she could, without fail, succeed in leading into her nets a hermit, who lived on a mountain far from the city and about whom it was said by all that he was a holy man.
She wore a thick veil, which hid her attractiveness, and climbed the mountain. Her friends waited for her half-way up the road. As evening fell, she knocked at the door of the hermit's cave. He was disturbed when he saw her: "How can it be that a woman would be found at such an hour in this wilderness?"
"Ah, devil, this is one of your enticements," he mused.
He asked her who she was and what she was looking for. She turned on the tears.
"For hours on end I have been wandering in the wilderness, Father. I lost my way and my companions and I do not even know how I got here. But in the name of God, do not let the wild beasts eat me."
The hermit found himself in a dilemma. Should he take a woman into his living quarters? No such thing had ever occurred to him. But, on the other hand, should he let a creature of God be eaten by wild beasts? That would be inhuman, almost criminal. Finally, sympathy got the better of him and he took her in. She then took off her veil, supposedly ingenuously, and showed him her charms. Temptation began to inflame the desires of the combatant, since the act was no longer impeded.
He threw a few dry leaves on the ground and told the woman to lie down, while he removed himself to the depths of the cave. He kneeled and prayed fervently.
"Tonight," he reflected, "I have to wage the toughest battle against the visible and invisible enemy, and either I shall be victorious, or I will waste all of my labors."
As the night progressed, so much more the flame of his desire burned him. For one moment he felt his resistance yield and he was terrified.
"Those who defile their bodies with sinful acts go to hell," he said almost screaming. "And now to test to see if you will endure in the torturing fire."
He lighted his oil lamp and put his finger in the flame. But the other flame which burned his flesh was stronger and did not let him feel pain from the burn. Since his first finger had become useless, he put his second finger into the flame of the oil lamp, and then the third. By the time morning came, he had burned the five fingers of his hand.
That vile woman followed the superhuman struggle of the servant of God from a hidden vantage point and, seeing him obstinately burn all of his fingers, one after the other, was so shaken that she dropped dead of her terror.
Her friends, in the meantime, made a surprise incursion on the elder's cave in order to get a laugh at his expense. However, they found him outside in prayer.
"Did a woman perhaps show up here last evening?" they asked him.
"She is inside sleeping," he answered them.
They went in and found her dead.
He then uncovered his hand and showed them his fingers.
"Do you see here what the daughter of the devil did to me?"
The commandment of Christ, however, commands me to return good for evil."
He stood up and prayed over her soulless body and brought it back to life.
* * *
On the road one day, a young monk met some nuns, who were going down to the city. He immediately changed his course, in order to avoid greeting them. Their superior then stopped him and said: "You did well, brother, for your weakness. If you were, however, a perfect monk, you would not have perceived that we are women."
* * *
"My brother, take care with all of your heart, when you study the Divine Scriptures, to drink in avidly the richness which proceeds from your study, exactly as a baby drinks milk from the maternal breast. From the study of Divine Scripture, you will learn of the bright feats of virtue and thus your heart will be filled with joy and delight.
"If the interpreters of the writings of the wise of this world carefully study non-existent wisdom (for the wisdom of the present world 'is foolishness before God'), with far greater enthusiasm we should study and learn by heart the words of God, for the salvation of our souls; and this the Holy Spirit lauds, blessing those who explore 'His testimonies,' because such as these will have sought God with all of their hearts.
"Is there anyone more perverted than he who has sweet and savory water and does not give a drink to his thirsty soul? Is there anyone more selfish than he who holds on to a beneficial book and does not give it to his brother to build him up spiritually? And can you imagine a lazier man than one who is thirsty and sits next to a well, not raising his hand to take water and satisfy his thirst? Is there a man more unprogressive and spiritually indifferent than the one who has, or receives, a religious book, yet does not care to read it?
"My brother, labor with anyone who asks you to teach him to read in order to study the wonders of God and to bless His majestic Name. And be certain that God will reward you for this labor" (Saint Ephraim).
* * *
"My brother, do you consider yourself spiritually learned? From your deeds you can perceive the actuality of this character trait; for, exactly as the body is dead without the breath, so any knowledge, without accompanying spiritual works, is dead and of no benefit. So if it is wrong for a Christian not to know Scripture, it is doubly wrong when he knows Scripture, but nevertheless disdains it by not applying its teachings to his life."
* * *
"My brother, wisdom is not found in much learning and many letters; rather, as the Holy Scriptures say, the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, and prudence the desire of the Holy; indeed, it is good to know the law of the mind. This is correct, for faith in God engenders a good mind, and the good mind is a river of living water; he who has attained it will be filled with its beneficial and life-bearing waters.
"Neither wisdom nor prudence can exist where there is not fear of the Lord, because the wealth of wisdom is to revere the Lord, to whom belongs all glory" (Saint Ephraim).
* * *
A beginning monk, who went to a certain elder to confess, posed, among others, this question: "Why, Father, do I fall so often into sloth?"
"You lack the faith which makes you see God everywhere; for this reason you can be careless and lazy about your salvation," the discerning elder wisely explained.
* * *
The brothers of a certain skete gathered in a circle around one of the Fathers there to hear spiritual words from his mouth.
"Why is the soul not attracted by the promises of God, but more easily swept away by the deceptive things of the world?" someone asked.
"Because it does not have faith," answered the elder. "When the soul, through faith, has tasted of heavenly good things, it is impossible for it to be tempted by the vanity of the world."
* * *
"The more that we bear continually in mind the difficulties which by chance our brothers might have brought upon us," said Saint Makarios, "the more we are removed by this from God. When we forget those difficulties immediately, the demons do not dare to tempt us."
* * *
A brother who had quarreled with a certain other brother went to his neighbor, an elder, and confessed to him: "Such and such a brother, Father, greatly embittered me and the thought of seeking revenge plagues me."
"Lock yourself in your cell, brother, and do not cease, day or night, to pray for him. Only in this way will you be released from the passion that seethes in you," the elder advised him.
The brother obeyed and, within one week, he found peace in his soul.
* * *
"If anyone abuses you," a certain Father says, "bless him. If he accepts the blessing, it is good for both of you. If, however, he does not accept it, you receive a blessing from God and the abuse rests on him."
* * *
An inexperienced monk went in a distressed state to Abba Poimen: "I fell into great fault, Father," he confessed, "and I have tried for at least three years to repent."
"That is a long time," the holy one told him.
"Are three months enough, then?"
"That, too, is a long time," answered the holy one. "I assure you that, if you sincerely repent and make a firm decision never to commit the same error, in three days you are received by God's goodness."
* * *
Another brother asked the same elder whether God easily forgives the sins of man.
"How is it possible for Him not to forgive, my child, He Who teaches man forbearance? Did he not order Peter to forgive one who falls into error even seven times seventy, that is, to infinity?" answered the holy elder.
* * *
Again, a certain other person asked him to explain to him exactly what repentance is.
"Not to repeat the same sins," responded Saint Poimen.
* * *
"If you wish to leave sinful desires and avoid foul language, do not act foolishly. Avoid the circumstances in which these weaknesses arise," advises a young monk of modern times.
* * *
A brother confessed to Abba Sisoes: "I fell, Father. What do I do now?"
"Get up," the holy elder told him, with his characteristic simplicity.
"I got up, Father, but I fell again into the cursed sin," the brother confessed grievingly.
"And what prevents you from getting up again?"
"Until when?" asked the brother.
"Until death finds you, whether standing or falling down. It is written, 'wherever I shall find you, there I will also judge you,' the elder explained. Just pray to God that you are found at your last moment standing upright in holy repentance."
* * *
From a modern struggler: "People who ask many questions and want many answers are fools. Distrusting themselves, they turn to the vain and empty opinions of others."
Also: "To see perfection in oneself is the beginning of error."
* * *
A young monk confessed with soul-felt pain to one of the Fathers that his thoughts about returning to the world warred against him.
"I purposelessly remain in the desert, Abba. I do nothing and surely I will not be saved."
The wise elder answered him: "But even if, my child, we do not anticipate stepping into the promised land, it is of greater benefit to leave our bones here on the desert, than to return to the bondage of Egypt."
* * *
A very devout and virtuous monk had a sister in the city, who lived a dissolute life and led many young men into sin. The brothers in the desert often urged the monk to go to the city to bring his straying sister to her senses. At first he hesitated. He feared the dangers hiding in the world for young monks. Afterwards, however, out of obedience, he decided to go.
Just as he got near his father's home, the neighbors saw him coming and informed his sister. The straying sister's heart jumped at this unexpected news. For years she had wanted to see her beloved brother. She gave leave of her companions and ran into the street to greet her brother just as she was to be found in her house, with bare feet and her head uncovered.
He, beholding her destitute state with his own eyes, was greatly troubled. His soul wept. "Are you not sorry for your soul, my sister," he told her sorrowfully, "and for those who, on your account, go astray? Think of what awaits you after death!"
The innocent face of the brother, his unassuming attitude, the tears of compassion that flowed from his eyes, along with his just admonition, shook the sinful woman.
"Is there salvation even for me?" her lips murmured.
"O yes, if you sincerely desire it enough."
"Take me with you," she begged, "and do not leave me by myself to struggle with the fierce billows of sin."
"Put on your sandals, cover your head, and follow me," the monk said resolutely.
"But let me go as I am, brother, because, if I go back into this workshop of Satan, who knows if I will have the strength to come back out?"
The monk was pleased with her firm resolve. Without wasting time, he led her out of the city and they went on their way to the desert. He intended to take her to a convent that was known to him. While they were walking, they saw a caravan in the distance, coming to where they were.
"Get out of sight a little, sister," the monk told her. "Hide behind the bushes; for these people, not knowing you are my sister, might see us together and be scandalized."
She complied with his advice. When the caravan passed, the brother yelled to her to continue on their way. She did not seem to hear. The monk went near and talked to her again. He pushed her with his foot. There did not appear to be any sign of life. She had died. He saw her bare feet completely covered with blood and torn to pieces by the stones on the road.
Disconsolate over the sudden death of his sister, the monk returned to his cell. Uncertainty ate away at him.
"It is impossible for her to be saved," his mind told him, "since she did not have time to repent."
He related in every detail all that happened to the elders in the desert. They ordered a fast and prayers for her soul. It was then revealed to a very holy hermit that God had accepted the repentance of the sinful woman and had enlisted her among the righteous for the self-denial she showed, as well as for reviling, not only material things, but her own body.
* * *
A spiritual man living in our times said: "Our spiritual Fathers are mostly books. This has a disadvantage, in that we never see flesh-and-blood spiritual guides. It has an advantage, in that flesh and blood guides sometimes die. Books do not.
"Moreover, while especially holy men do not abandon us when they repose, our impurity prevents us from seeing them with our own eyes. But even our impurity cannot prevent us from seeing what they have written in books."
* * *
Heed what we read in the "Asketika" of the great teacher and ascetic, Saint Isaak the Syrian: "By the same means that one lost goodness, he must try to acquire it again. Do you owe a debt of gold to God? He does not want pearls from you. Have you lost your prudence? He does not ask of you acts of charity, but requires sanctification of your body. Have you scorned the commandment of love, being conquered by the passion of envy? For what reason do you battle sleep with uncounted all-night vigils, and destroy your body with excessive fasting? These things will not bring you a single benefit; they do not cure the envy. Every sickness of the soul, as well as the body, needs a specific medicine and has a corresponding cure."
* * *
A certain wise Father says: "He who is wronged and forgives, resembles Jesus. He, on the other hand, who does not do wrong, but nevertheless does not like to be wronged, is in the position of Adam. The unjust person, or the malicious person, or the slanderer, however, is no different from the devil."
* * *
Tradition tells us that the Apostle Iakovos, the brother of Saint John the Evangelist, at the time that he was being led to his martyrdom, met the man who had betrayed him. He stopped him and kissed him, saying: "Live in peace, brother."
Seeing such meekness, the betrayer marveled and exclaimed with enthusiasm: "I, too, am a Christian from this day on."
After this confession, he was beheaded along with the Apostle.
* * *
"There are many monks and laymen who are believers only in words," said Saint Kallinikos of Cernika.
* * *
"If you stand by as your brother is slandered and do not support him against those who sinfully attack him, you, too, are an attacker," a spiritual Father of our day counseled a priest.
* * *
"From this day, from this hour, from this minute, let us strive to love God above all, and fulfill His holy will."
"The true Christian is a warrior fighting his way through the regiments of the unseen enemy to his heavenly homeland" (Saint Herman of Alaska).
* * *
Another young man went astray, but repented so much when Divine Grace was visited upon him by the hearing of only one sermon, that he left the world and became a monk. He built a small but in the desert and cried each day over his sins with great compunction. But nothing could console him.
One night Jesus appeared to him in his sleep, encircled by a heavenly light. He went near the monk with kindness: "What is wrong, young man, and why do you cry with such distress?" He asked him in His sweet voice.
"I am crying, Lord, because I fell," the sinful man said with hopelessness.
"O, then get up."
"I cannot do it alone, Lord."
So the King of Love stretched out His divine hand and helped him to get up. The monk, however, did not stop weeping.
"Why are you crying now?"
"I am in pain, my Christ, because I failed You. I wasted the riches of Your gifts on debaucheries."
The benevolent Master tenderly placed His hand on the head of the suffering sinner and cheerfully told him: "Since you suffer so much for me, I will put an end to your sorrowing for things past."
The young man looked up to thank his Savior, but He was no ,longer there. In the place where He had stood, a huge cross, all lighted, formed. Delivered at last from the weight of sin, he fell down and venerated it.
With gratitude in his soul, after this vision, the young man went back to the town in order to become a more fervent advocate of repentance and to guide many other strayers to Christ.
* * *
A certain very old hermit fell ill and suffered alone, for there was no one to be found in the wilderness to care for him. Seeing his patience, God enlightened a young monk to go to his hut. When he found him, gravely ill, he lovingly stayed at his side to ease him. He washed him, made him a mattress from straw, and cooked him a little food.
"Believe me, brother," the elder told the monk with gratitude, "I had completely forgotten that there were such comforts for humans."
The next day the brother took him wine to give him strength. When the elder saw it, he became tearful and murmured: "I had not expected such attention until my death."
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