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The Ancient Fathers of the Desert: Section 5

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V. Rev. Chrysostomos, trans.

Section 5

"A certain youth," Abba John of Likopoulos relates to us, "swept away by the pleasures of the world, had sunk into the mud of dissoluteness. It happened, however, that he came to his senses, like the prodigal son, and sought the way of return to his Father's house. He left the world, to find redemption in the desert. His refuge was an abandoned tomb. Closed away in this unusual prison, his injured soul wept bitterly.

"The angels rejoiced at this; but the spirits of evil, who saw their prey so unexpectedly slip from their hands, lost no time in making an assault. They would gather around the tomb at night and say with rage: 'Where are you athlete (struggler)? Why have you forsaken us, after such friendship? After tasting everything to excess, you now decide to become holy. It is too late to pretend to be reformed now, hoping for mercy.'

" 'Come on out, you ignorant man,' other spirits would shout. 'Your companions are waiting for you.'

" 'You unfortunate man,' the most cunning spirits would whisper, 'there is no salvation for you. You will quickly find death and eternal damnation there where you are hiding.'

"With what malice they endeavored to bring him to despair. But the brave struggler was too determined to die better, never to return to his former ways. He asked for divine aid with fervent entreaties, scorning the demonic fantasies. Then one night the devil became more frightening.

" 'If you do not come out immediately, you will never escape from my hands.' And since he did not, of course, listen to the devil, the devil set upon him and left him nearly dead from his blows. He took vengeance in this way.

"The monk's relatives, meanwhile, uneasy with his sudden disappearance, were looking everywhere for him. Finally they found him in terrible shape in the tomb. But as much as they insisted, they remained unable to persuade him to follow them.

"Yet another night, the demons set upon him with unrestrained rage and would have killed him with their fierce beatings; but they did not have the power. The athlete did not waver. He preferred to lose this ephemeral life, rather than to defile his body and soul again with the germ of sin, after having repented. So the demons recognized their defeat.

" 'You conquered us, you conquered us,' they shouted, lamenting, and disappeared, never even daring to tempt him further.

"Being freed, thereby, from every trial, the formerly dissolute monk remained in the tomb until the end of his life, and was made worthy to perform miracles, in order to show the power of repentance."

* * *

A virgin, devoted to God, told the following story to her spiritual Father, and he wrote it down exactly as he heard it from her mouth, so that others might learn of it and benefit spiritually.

"My parents, who brought me into the world, were completely different in character and took opposite directions in life.

"My father was a very kind man, gentle, humble, lenient, unimaginably compassionate, prudent, and sober. His health was frail. As long as I can remember, most of the time I saw him sick in bed, pale and weak. He suffered, however, with admirable patience. Never did anyone hear him complain about his distressing illness.

"In the short intervals during which he was well, he watched over his lands. The greater part of his profits he divided among the poor. With the remainder, he looked after his small family, that is, himself, my mother, and me. In addition to his other virtues, my kind father had also attained that of silence. He rarely spoke (many thought him dumb); and this, because he prayed continually to God with his mind and with his heart.

"My mother, on the contrary, was a typical woman of the world. She passionately loved a good time, diversions, many ornaments, and clothing. She led such an extravagant life, that we always had economic worries. She fought and quarreled continuously at home and away from home. And so talkative and nosey was the poor woman, that she knew well all of the news in our small city and even anything that took place outside of it. She was so egotistical that she took care of herself first and her family afterwards. She showed not the slightest love for her husband and, with her obvious disaffection, his torments were thus ever greater. Yet, despite all of her faults and the incontinent life which she led, she had her health and a strong body. I do not remember her ever to have been ill.

"While I was still a young girl, my father died after an agonizing illness. And something happened at his death that, indeed, left a lasting impression on me: There was such unprecedented bad weather, winds, rain, thunder and lightning, that it was impossible to get out to bury him. So, we kept the body unburied in our house for three days. Finally, two men from among our relatives were compelled, with great difficulty, to take the body to the cemetery and bury it in any way possible, since we could no longer endure seeing the corpse in the house. Since he did not even have a funeral, my father was scorned even at his death. Indeed, some evil neighbors, seeing such great misfortunes, spoke against him: 'Who knows what sins he committed, since God will not even allow him to be buried?'

"My mother, less hindered after the death of my father, succumbed to moral decline and made our house a place of debauchery. But she did not live long. She died suddenly, having in the meantime wasted all that remained of my father's estate. Her friends, however, gave her a magnificent funeral. And the weather was wonderful. This I especially noticed.

"Having passed the age of childhood, and the uneasiness of young womanhood having begun to take control of me, I found myself all alone in the world and in great perplexity as to what direction I should take. My thoughts tormented me.

" 'I must, without fail, make it on my own in life, since I no longer have any guardians,' I said to myself. 'But what way shall I choose? I have before me different examples: that of my mother and that of my father. He was good, but unhappy. Persecuted in life and in death.' It was impossible for me to get his unburied body out of my mind. 'If he was pleasing God, why did God torment him so?' My mother had not led a moral life. I well understood that. However, she had as many goods as anyone could desire, wealth, comfort, and many friends, and she left the world happy, one might say.

"The more I thought about the matter and made comparisons in my young mind, the more I turned away from misfortune to follow my mother's life. God, in his benevolence, however, showed mercy and guided me to the straight path in the following, unusual manner: "One night I fell into bed, occupied once more with the same thoughts. I had a revealing vision. I felt the door of my room open, and a young man with a luminous face and of unimaginable majesty entered. He came close to me. As though searching the most hidden things of my heart, he cast a piercing glance at me.

" 'What are you thinking about?' he asked me in an unusually austere, but melodious voice.

"I was surprised and became frightened. I tried hard to speak. He intervened: 'Your thoughts were immediately revealed to me.'

"The more austere this unknown interrogator became, the more I was paralyzed by fear. Since he had received no reply, he revealed on his own the thoughts which were so tormenting me. He told me in detail every thought which had passed through my mind, and which only I knew, so that I could neither deny the thoughts nor offer excuses for them. So, I fell at his feet, as though condemned, and asked him, sobbing, to forgive me. He seemed to feel sorry for me, because he immediately changed his mien.

" 'Follow me,' he commanded.

"He took me by the hand and, like lightning, transported me to a boundless plain, filled with light and beauty. I will not attempt to describe it, for the indescribable is not describable. Happy beings were serenely enjoying this supernatural beauty. Among them, I recognized my father. And he saw me. He came to me and took me in his arms. I felt such assurance and happiness there. I did not want to be separated from him ever again. I clasped onto him and asked him never to let me go.

" 'Keep me near you forever, kind father.'

" 'What you ask for cannot be at this time.' His voice became more serious.

" 'If you follow my steps, you will prepare a place for yourself here. It depends on what you desire.' He looked at me with tenderness and gathered up my hair to wipe away my tears. My escort nodded to me to follow him again. But I did not want to leave my father's arms. So, he came and pulled me by the hand.

" 'You also need to see your mother,' he said.

"I followed him, sorrowful that he had separated me from my happiness. Now we descended. We went deeper and deeper to an unclean, dark, and dreary place. I lost my breath from the stench and my fear. Monstrous figures were roaming all about. Unfortunate souls were being tormented without mercy by an inextinguishable flame. In their midst, I saw my mother, buried up to her neck in what appeared to me like foul-smelling lava. Her cries came forth heart-rendingly, her groans were uninterrupted, and the fearful gnashing of her teeth tore my heart apart. She must have known me, because she broke out in uncontrolled lamentation.

" 'Woe is me, wretch that I am. Look what such little pleasure earned me: despair and torment without end.'

"Desperate words! I was nearly mortified by my grief. My unfortunate mother turned and looked at me.

" 'Have pity, my child, on the one who gave birth to you and raised you,' she began to cry desperately. She stretched out her hand, so that I could take her out of that grief.

"What could I do? My soul was torn by sadness. I stretched out my hand, thinking that I could help her, who brought me into the world. I felt such pain at approaching the lava, that I broke into loud cries. I stirred up the neighborhood. Shortly, my house was full of people. They found me in a bad condition. Many thought I had lost my senses. It was impossible to explain what had happened to me. I showed them the frightful wound that was left on my hand by the fire, so that they would understand that I was suffering because of it. I remained in bed a long time, gravely ill. When, by the grace of God, I became well, without delay I followed my father's path; and I hope that, in His mercy, my Lord will save me and make me worthy to share in his happiness."

* * *

An elderly Abba went down to the city one day to sell his baskets. Exhausted by the journey, he went and sat on the steps of a large house that he came across on his way.

At that moment, the rich landlord of the house was in the throes of death. While the Abba was resting, having no idea what was happening inside, he suddenly saw a great number of black horsemen, vicious in appearance, galloping towards him. They got off of the pitch-black horses at the outside door and rushed into the house.

The elder understood, and followed them up to the room of the dying man. When the dying man saw the horsemen, he uttered heart-rending cries: "My God, save me." The horsemen ridiculed him harshly.

"Can it be that you now remember God, in the evening of your life? It is too late to think of Him. Why did you not call on Him during the daylight hours of your life? Now you belong to us."

As soon as the men had said these things, they violently tore away his soul and went away with triumphant shouts of joy.

The Abba was left dumb, as though dead, by his sorrow and fright. When, after a great deal of time, he came to his senses, he related all that God had revealed to him, for the benefit of others.

"Reflect each day on those things in which you have erred. And if you call on God with contrition concerning these faults, He will surely forgive you of them. Question yourself always, as long as you live, to discover where you fall short; surely at the time of your death, then, you will not suffer from the horrible agony of fear because of your faults. Be always ready to encounter God, and thereby you will be ready to carry out His will. Every single day examine carefully whichever of your passions you have been able to conquer-never trusting in yourself, supposing that somehow with your own power you accomplished something; for God is merciful and He gave you the power to be victorious.

"When, each day, you rise from your bed, remember that you will give an accounting to God for your every deed, for your every word, as well as for your every thought. Thus, you will not sin before God; rather, fear of Him will dwell with you" (Abba Isaias).

* * *

"My brothers, we are spiritual merchants. Indeed, we resemble the merchants of this present life, who each day take account of their profits and losses; and, when this accounting confirms that they have suffered a loss, they reflect and see how they can rectify the loss.

"You, too, my beloved, must act this way; every day, morning and evening, you must take precise account of your business activities. In the evening, as a nightly self-inspection and collection of your thoughts, reflect and converse sincerely with yourself, saying: 'Was I perhaps lax in some instance, annoying God? Did I perhaps fall into idle talk? Did I perhaps fail to show concern for the spiritual welfare of my brother, or irritate him? Did I maybe speak ill of someone? I wonder if, when my lips were singing hymns to God, perhaps my mind was thinking of worldly vanities. Perhaps carnal desires troubled me and I gladly accepted this trouble. Perhaps I was absorbed by bodily concerns and I completely abandoned the memory of God.'

"Think about these and similar things, in the nightly collecting of your thoughts, and if you discover that at some point you have suffered a loss, take care to rectify that loss. Groan and cry, persistently asking God to help you, so that you will never again suffer losses in the same things.

"And when morning comes, when taking account, think about the following and say: 'I wonder how I passed this night. Did I gain something from it, or did I incur a loss? Did my mind also slumber, along with my body? Did I have spiritual tears? Perhaps I fell asleep while kneeling. Did I perhaps accept the attack of evil thoughts and not hasten to repulse them, but receive them in a voluptuous way?'

"Examining yourself carefully in this way, if you then note that you have been overcome somewhere, struggle to make amends for your defeat and to establish a guard in your heart, so as not to become a victim of the same thing again.

"If you always take care thus, you will preserve your spiritual merchandise, making it secure in the treasury of heaven" (Saint Ephraim).

* * *

A young man, led astray by the fearful power of bad habits, often fell into deep sin. He did not quit struggling, however. After each fall, he shed burning tears and prayed to God with these painful words: "Lord, save me, whether I desire it or not. I, like the dust that I am, am easily dragged down by the mud of sin. You, however, have the power to stop me. It is not wondrous, my God, if You have mercy on the righteous, or if You save the virtuous, for they are worthy to taste of Your goodness. Show Your mercy and benevolence to me, a sinner, Lord, and save me in a wondrous way; for, in all my wretchedness, I, unfortunate man that I am, flee only to You."

The youth said these things with contrition, both when he was taken over by passion and when he was calm. A certain time, when he was once more conquered, after an agonizing resistance, he kneeled and repeated the same words, shedding a river of tears. His invincible hope in divine mercy irritated the devil. He appeared before the youth in a total rage and shouted:

"Wretch! Do you not feel a little ashamed when you dare to pray and bring God's name to your lips, in such a state as yours? You should learn once and for all that there is no salvation for you,"

The brave struggler was not afraid, nor did he abandon his hope, as the devil expected.

"And you should know that this room is like a forge," the young man boldly answered him. "You make a strike with the hammer and then you receive one. I will not cease battling you with repentance and with prayer, until that time that you are weary of battling me with sin."

"Let it so be, then," the devil shouted with malice. "From now on I am no longer battling you, so as not to increase the spoils of your patience." Then he became invisible.

From that moment, the youth's struggle ceased. However, not for a moment did he cease watching over himself, crying frequently when he would recall his sins.

"Bravo! You have won," the enemy sometimes whispered in his mind, in order, now, to pull the youth down into pride.

"I curse this accomplishment," the youth would answer scornfully. "Do you really suppose that God wants a person to lose the purity of his soul by foul deeds and, afterwards, to sit and weep?"

* * *

A certain youth, who was preparing to follow the monastic life, went to consult Abba Photios regarding how to behave in the brotherhood. The wise elder, besides other things, also told him these profitable things: "Avoid as much as possible, my child, creating for yourself a reputation as an agitator. Never say: 'I am not eating at the common table of the brothers at the meal after Liturgy on Sunday,' or 'I am not going to the gatherings (monastery councils).' Try not to separate yourself from the others in anything, and see that you imitate the most pious brothers. In this way, you will avoid any human praise and you will attain humility."

* * *

Patriarch Theophilos and the prefect of Alexandria once went to Abba Arsenios' hut to talk with him. They asked him to give them some word of advice.

"If I do, do you promise to follow it?" the great hesychast asked.

"Yes, you have our word," they answered him.

"Ali, listen well, then. Wherever you hear that the sinner Arsenios is to be found, go far away from there and do not attempt to converse with him."

The visiting officials were not only not dissatisfied, but they showed wonderment at the great humility of the elder.

* * *

A pious, young man went to visit a certain desert elder.

"How are you getting along, Abba," he asked.

"Very badly, my child."

"Why, Abba?"

"I have been here forty years," the elder answered, sighing deeply, "doing nothing other than cursing my own self each day, inasmuch as in the prayers I offer, I say to God, 'Accursed are those who deviate from Your commandments.'"

Hearing the hermit speak in this way, the young man marveled at his humility and decided to emulate him.

* * *

Abba Matoes said: "Three elders went to Abba Paphnoutios, who was called the 'Great Head,' so that he might tell them something. And the elder said, 'What do you want me to tell you about, something pertaining to the body or something spiritual?'

" 'Something spiritual,' they said.

"And the elder told them: 'Go, loving affliction more than comfort, dishonor more than glory, and giving more than receiving.' "

* * *

Abba Daniel tells us that Abba Arsenios related the following, supposedly about someone else, but actually in reference to himself:

"While a certain elder was sitting in his cell, he heard a voice say to him, 'Come, so that I can show you what people do.' So he got up and went immediately out of his cell. The voice then led him to a place where he was shown an Ethiopian, who was cutting wood and placing it in a big pile. He tried to pick up the pile, but he could not. And instead of taking away from the pile, he just cut more wood and added to it. And this continued for a long time. Then, proceeding farther on, he was shown a man who was standing beside a well, drawing water. But he was emptying it into a cistern full of holes, and thus the water was running back into the well. Then he was further told: 'Come, and I will show you something else.' He saw a church and two horsemen, who were carrying a piece of wood, one at each end of it. They wanted to enter through the portals of the church, but they could not, since they were holding the board sideways. One would not humble himself to the other, so as to let him go in first, and thereby to put the board in the right position to enter. Therefore, they remained outside the church.

"The voice said: 'These men are those who take a proud stand, thinking they should act in such a manner, without becoming humble in order to correct themselves and walk the lowly path of Christ. Thus, they remain outside the Kingdom of God.'

" 'As for the man cutting wood, he is like a very sinful man. Instead of repenting, he adds sins to his sins. Finally, the man who was taking water from the well is like a person who does good deeds, yet, since he defiles them with bad intentions, wastes both his good deeds and his gain.'

"So, every person must be vigilant in all that he does, so that his efforts are not in vain."

* * *

John, the disciple of Abba Paul, was a paradigm of obedience. The Fathers relate the following event regarding him: "A short distance away from their but was a cave, inside which a hyena had made its lair. One day the elder saw some wild onions growing thereabouts and he sent John to pick some, so he could cook them.

" 'What do I do if the hyena chances to come out?' the young man asked.

" 'Tie it up and bring it here,' the elder jokingly said.

"The good disciple went to fulfill his elder's command. But just as he had anticipated, the fearful beast fell upon him. The young monk, however, not only did not hesitate, but rushed to tie it up. Then the following unusual thing took place. Instead of the disciple being afraid, the beast was afraid and ran into the desert to save itself. John chased behind it and shouted:

" 'Stop, now! The Abba told me to tie you up.'

"After much effort, he caught the hyena, tied it up, and took it to his elder. In the meantime, the Abba, seeing how late it was, became uneasy and had already gone out to meet him. Thus he saw the disciple coming, bearing the bound beast behind him, and marveled at the power of obedience.

"To John, however, he did not show any surprise. Indeed, on the contrary, to make him humble, he shouted, with feigned austerity:

" 'You silly man, why did you bring this mad dog here?'

"Therewith, he untied the wild beast and let it go free, to return to its lair."

* * *

"The carefree monk, who has tasted the sweetness of having no personal possessions," a certain Father says, "feels that even the rason (cassock) which he wears and the jug of water in his cell are a useless burden, because these things, too, sometimes distract his mind."

* * *

It is said of a certain elder that he showed special affection for those who despised him and in any way dishonored him.

"These are our friends," he used to say, "because they lead us to humility. Those who honor and praise us do injury to our souls. The Scriptures also say: 'those who regard you well seduce you.'"

* * *

"When you get up from your bed, brother," a certain elder advises, "say to yourself: 'body, work in order to support yourself. Soul, be sober in order to save yourself.'"

* * *

A certain monk in our times was slandered by someone considered by others to be very holy. The slandered monk was perplexed and fell into such despair that even his body began to suffer. He asked himself, "How is it that someone thought to be holy and respected by so many would have such little understanding and hurt another person, under the guise of protecting the faith? After all, I am being attacked for supposed personal immorality, not heresy." This torment dwelled in the monk's mind.

Finally a very wise man of spiritual discretion told him: "If your attacker were really holy, he would probably not cause you this great spiritual and physical harm. But if you dare to judge him and to say, 'by this, I know that he is not holy,' then the spiritual harm to you will be even greater. Leave the final judgment to God, avoid the man, and pray in your soul that God will show him what he has done to you, whether out of ignorance or ill will, so that he might repent. Above all, pray for him with fervor. In this way God will grant you peace of soul, which surpasses bodily health."

In this way the monk suffered his torments, not in vain, but to his spiritual profit, dying shortly after with a peaceful heart.

* * *

"Woe to him who is honored beyond his worth," a certain Father says. "The damage his soul suffers is irreparable. Fortunate is the man who is scorned by men, for glory awaits him in heaven."

* * *

"Woe to the man whose reputation exceeds his deeds," said a certain elder.

And again on another occasion: "Do not avoid being scorned, brother."

* * *

"What is humility, Abba?" the brothers of the skete asked a certain elder.

"Humility, my children," he answered, "is to forgive another immediately if he offends you, without waiting for him to ask your forgiveness."

"You can find no shorter road to heaven than humility," another Father said.

"Anyone who praises a man to his face," a certain elder said, "delivers him up for the devil to do battle against him."

* * *

"Anyone who shows charity to his brother," a certain Father says, "had best do so as though he were showing charity to himself. Such acts of charity bring a man near to God."

* * *

"There are people," one elder said, "who, while willing to give alms to the poor, are made by the devil to count their donations down to the last penny, so that he might deprive them of the reward for beneficence.

"I once chanced to visit a friend of mine, a priest, on the day that he was distributing alms to the poor of his parish. Just by coincidence, a poor widow came and asked to be given a little wheat.

" 'Fetch your sack, so I can put some in,' the priest told her. The woman got it.

" 'It is awfully big, my dear,' my friend somewhat brusquely told her. She became all red from her embarrassment, perhaps because there was a stranger present when she was reprimanded.

"When she left, I told my friend: 'You do not mean to tell me that you are selling the wheat to the woman, do you Father?'

" 'Well, since it was charity,' I told him, 'what need was there to scrutinize the amount and to shame the poor woman? Besides, do not forget the words of the blessed Paul: God, indeed, loves a cheerful donor.'"

* * *

At the time that Abba Lot was still young and inexperienced in the ascetic life, Abba Joseph, his elder, frequently gave him this advice: "You will never become a good monk," he told him, "unless you preserve the flame of faith unextinguished within your heart. It will enlighten you to disdain honors and comforts. Give up your own desires and, in general, keep all of the divine commandments."

* * *

"When you show charity to your poor brother," Abba Isaias advises, "do not call on him to help in your work, in order not to lose the reward for your benefaction."

* * *

A group of monks living in our own days were condemned by other monks for having many modern conveniences and comforts, which their abbot allowed them to use with discretion.

The monks who made the condemnation were so violent in their objections to the mode of life of the more comfortable monks, that a third group of monks intervened to chastise the objectors. One wise monk among them said: "Several of the monks whom you so violently condemn gave up more personal wealth, when they became monastics, than your entire family has probably known in the last few generations combined. We read in the desert Fathers of a monk who was scandalized by another monk, of high attainment, who, none the less, lived in some comfort. The former was brought to his senses when he realized that the latter monk had once had great wealth and rank. His life after becoming a monk represented the loss of many possessions and dignities. The monk who had been scandalized by this former rich man, however, had been born into poverty and had actually gained possessions in becoming a monk. This story applies quite aptly to the monks whom you are condemning."

The condemning monks slowly learned to restrain their judgments of others.

* * *

A young monk in modern times once took an indigent and abused old nun into his monastery, since she had no place to go. He was immediately condemned by another monk who said: "The holy canons forbid you to keep a woman in a monastery for men. You have no respect for the church Fathers and, despite your intentions, you will lead your brotherhood into sin."

The young monk answered: "Even if I were to fall into the sin of fornication with this old and forgotten nun, I could repent and be forgiven. But what real forgiveness is there for a person who judges others and pretends to know that even their intentions have no meaning before God? However, if you really care for my soul, since you do not live in a brotherhood, would you assume the responsibility of caring for this old nun? I will gladly relinquish it."

The condemning monk did not reply.

* * *

Again in present times, a young woman outside the Church came to love Holy Orthodoxy with her mind and with her heart. A very holy man told her, when she asked to be received into the Church, that she would "become Orthodox drop by drop."

Confronted by great difficulties in accepting Orthodoxy while living in a society which did not value the stern and sometimes foreign ways of the faith, the young woman diverted her attention to other things. Deeply shaken by this, the priest who had tried to guide her to Orthodoxy was perplexed as to what to do. He did not wish to show his own spiritual concern, for fear of hurting his own soul. Yet he did not wish to suffer the loss of this young woman's soul. He therefore sought the advice of a spiritual man, who told him: "If a truly holy man said that she would become Orthodox drop by drop, then this means that her Orthodoxy will come to her like the rain from heaven - by God's own will, in His time, and by His mercy. Keep silent and pray for her."

* * *

Another monk in modern times advises: "Do not let those who shout about bringing sinners to God detract you from first saving yourself. If you lose yourself trying to save others, you have taken away an example that might ultimately save hundreds. This is what the Fathers teach us. We must follow this wisdom, rather than the foolish wisdom of those who would define for us a goal and a mission which God did not give us."

* * *

In writing to a young man, a holy bishop living in our times defines the ultimate spiritual crisis in this way: "Within you there arises the enormous question: 'Christ or the world?'"

 

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