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The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks On Lust 1-19

August 13, 2012

With the exception of the homosexualists in our midst who insist that their lusts be recognized as wholly natural, sin-free and forgiven – perhaps even celebrated in the Church as marriage, if you will, most of us who understand Paul’s  “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body,” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We realize on some level that the struggle with lust is critical to our living the Christian life.

In John 14:23 Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.  My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” and it is here that we realize that our body is the temple of God. It almost naturally follows: Pay attention where it goes. Be careful what it does. Pay attention what it ponders. Be careful how it reacts. All of these vignettes and one-liners draw our attention to the consequences of dealing with lust. As they repeat and expand, unfold and seep within our spirits, so does our hope and our realization that the Holy Spirit is within us helping us every step of the way, making a home within us.

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  1. Antony said, `I think that the body has a natural movement within itself, which obeys the orders of the mind, a kind of inclination of which the body’s actions are only symptoms. There is a second movement in the body, caused by eating and drinking, by which the blood is heated and excited. That is why St Paul said, `Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess’ (Ephesisans 5:18), and again the Lord commanded his disciples in the Gospel, `See that your hearts be not overcharged with surfeiting and drunkenness’ (Luke 21:34). There is a third movement which comes from the deceit and envy of demons against those who are trying to live a good life. It is a help to know that there are three bodily inclinations — from nature, from too much food, and from the demons.
  2. Gerontius of Petra said, `Many people who are tempted by pleasures of the flesh do not sin with the body but lust with the mind; they keep their bodily virginity but lust in their heart. It is better then, beloved, to do what is written, “Let everyone keep a close guard upon his heart” (Proverbs 4:2.3).’
  3. Cassian said, `Moses the Hermit told us, “It is good not to hide our thoughts; we ought to disclose them to discreet and devout elders; but not to those who are old merely in years, for many have found final despair instead of comfort by confessing to those whom they saw to be old, but who were in fact inexperienced.”
  4. There was once a brother who was very eager to seek goodness. Being very disturbed by the demon of lust, he came to a hermit and told him about his thoughts. The hermit was inexperienced and when he heard all this, he was shocked, and said he was a wicked brother, unworthy of his monk’s habit because he had thoughts like that.When the brother heard this, he despaired, left his cell and started on his way back to the world. But by God’s providence, Apollo met him. Seeing he was so upset and sad, he said to him, `Son, why are you so unhappy?’ The brother was very embarrassed, and at first said nothing. But when Apollo pressed him to say what was happening to him, he admitted everything and said, `It is because lustful thoughts trouble me. I confessed them to that hermit, and he says I now have no hope of salvation. So I have despaired, and am on my way back to the world.’When Apollo heard this, he went on asking questions like a wise doctor, and gave him this counsel, `Do not be cast down, son, nor despair of yourself. Even at my age and with my experience of the spiritual life, I am still troubled by thoughts like yours. Do not fail now; this trouble cannot be cured by our efforts, but only by God’s mercy. Do as I say and go back to your cell.’ The brother did so.Then Apollo went to the cell of the hermit who had made the brother despair. He stood outside the cell, and prayed to the Lord with tears, saying, `Lord, you permit men to be tempted for their good; transfer the war that brother is suffering to this hermit: let him learn by experience in his old age what many years have not taught him, and so let him find out how to sympathize with people undergoing this kind of temptation.

    As soon as he ended his prayer he saw a black man standing by the cell firing arrows at the hermit. As though he had been wounded, the hermit began to totter and lurch like a drunken man. When he could bear it no longer, he came out of his cell, and set out on the same road by which the young man started to return to the world. Apollo understood what had happened, and went to meet him. He came up to him and said, `Where are you going? Why are you so upset?’ When the hermit saw that the holy Apollo understood what had happened, he was ashamed and said nothing.

    Apollo said to him, `Go back to your cell and see in others your own weakness and keep your own heart in order. For either you were ignorant of the devil in spite of your age, or you were contemptuous, and did not deserve to gain strength by struggling with the devil as all other men must.

    But struggle is not the right word, when you could not stand up to his attack for one day. This has happened to you because of the young monk. He came to you because he was being attacked by the common enemy of us all. You ought to have given him words of consolation to help him against the devil’s attack but instead you drove him to despair.

    You did not remember the wise man’s saying, which orders us to deliver the men who are drawn towards death, and not to cease to redeem men ready to be killed. You did not remember our Saviour’s parable, “You should not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax” (Matthew 12:20). No one can endure the enemy’s clever attacks, nor quench, nor control the leaping fire natural to the body, unless God’s grace preserves us in our weakness.

    In all our prayers we should ask for his mercy to save us, so that he may turn aside this scourge which is aimed even at you. For he makes a man to grieve, and then lifts him up to salvation; he strikes, and his hand heals; he humbles and exalts; he gives death and then life; he leads to hell and brings back from hell (1 Samuel 2:6).

    So Apollo prayed again, and at once the hermit was set free from his inner war. Apollo urged him to ask God to give him a wise heart, in order to know how best to speak.

  5. When Cyrus of Alexandria was asked about the temptation of lust, he said, `If you are not tempted, you have no hope; if you are not tempted, it is because you are sinning. The man who does not fight sin at the stage of temptation is sinning already in his body. The man who is sinning in his flesh has no trouble from temptation.’
  6. A hermit asked a brother, `Do you often talk with women?’ The brother said, `No.’ He went on, `My temptations come from paintings old and new, memories of mine which trouble me through pictures of women.’ But the hermit said to him, `Do not fear the dead, but flee the living; flee from consenting to sin or committing sin, and take a longer time over your prayers.’
  7. Mathois used to say that a brother came and told him that the slanderer was worse than the fornicator. He replied, `This is a hard saying.’ Then the brother said to him, `What do you think about the matter?’ Mathois said, `Slander is bad, but it can be cured quickly; the slanderer can do penance and say “I have spoken wrongly,” and it is over. But lust is certain death.’
  8. Poemen said, `As a bodyguard is always standing by to protect the Emperor, so the soul should always be ready to fight the demon of lust.’
  9. A brother once came to Poemen and said to him, `What am I to do, abba? I am wretched with lust. I went to Hybistion, and he told me: “You must not let this passion live in you any longer.” Poemen said to him, `Hybistion lives like the angels in heaven, and he does not know about these things. But you and I are full of lust. If the monk controls his stomach and his tongue, and stays in solitude, he can trust that he is not yet lost.’
  10. 10.    They said of Sarah that for thirteen years she was fiercely attacked by the demon of lust. She never prayed that the battle should leave her, but she used to say only, `Lord, give me strength.’
  11. They also said of her that the same demon of lust was once attacking her threateningly, tempting her with vain thoughts of the world. She continued in the fear of God and maintained the rigor of her fasting. Once when she climbed up on the roof to pray, the spirit of lust appeared to her in bodily form and said to her, `You have overcome me, Sarah.’ But she replied, `It is not I who have overcome you, but my Lord Christ.’
  12. A brother was obsessed by lust and it was like a fire burning day and night in his heart. But he struggled on, not examining the temptation nor consenting to it. After a long time, the fire left him, extinguished by his perseverance.
  13. Another brother was obsessed by lust. He got up in the night and went to tell a hermit about his temptations and the hermit consoled him. So he returned, strengthened, to his cell. But again the spirit of lust tempted him and a second time he went to the hermit. This happened several times. The hermit did not reproach him, but said these words to his profit, `Do not give in to the devil, and Pay attention about your soul. Whenever the demon troubles you, come to me, and this will rebuke him, and so he will go away.Nothing troubles the demon of lust more than laying bare his urgings. Nothing pleases him more than the concealment of the temptation.’ Eleven times the brother went to the hermit, and blamed himself for his imaginings. Then the brother said to him, `Of your charity, abba, say something encouraging.’ The hermit said to him, `Believe me, my son, if God allowed ‘the imaginings which attack me to be passed to you, you would not be able to bear them but would be utterly destroyed.’
    So by the words and deep humility of the hermit the brother found rest from the temptation to lust.
  14. Another brother was attacked by lust. He began to struggle and to fast more, and for fourteen years he guarded himself against this temptation and did not give in to it. After that he went to the community and told to them all what he was suffering. A decree was made, and for a week they all fasted on his behalf, praying to God continually; and so his temptation ceased.
  15. A hermit said about the temptation to lust, `Do you want to be saved? Go, and discipline yourself, “Seek, and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). In the world there are boxers who are hit hard and yet stand firm and receive crowns. Sometimes one is set upon by two at once, and their blows give him strength so that he overcomes them. Have you not seen what strength exercise brings? So stand and be strong and the Lord will defeat your enemy for you.’
  16. On this same temptation, another hermit said, `You should be like a man walking along the street past an inn, and sniffing the smell of meat frying or roasting. Anyone who likes goes in and eats. People who do not want it, pass by and only sniff the smell. So you ought to put the smell away from you; get up and pray “Lord, Son of God, help me.” Do this against other temptations. We cannot make temptations vanish, but we can struggle against them.’ At once a light appeared in his heart.
  17. Another hermit said, `We suffer temptation because we are careless. If we always remember that God dwells in us, we shall never bring into ourselves anything that is not his. The Lord Christ is in us and with us, and watches our life. Because we have Him within us and contemplate Him, we ought not to be idle; we should make ourselves holy as He is holy. If we stand upon a rock, the power of the wicked one will be broken. Do not be afraid of him, and he can do nothing against you. Pray with courage this psalm, “They that trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion; they that dwell in Jerusalem shall stand fast forever” (Psalms 125:1).’
  18. A brother said to a hermit, `If a monk falls to sin, he is punished like a person who has fallen from a higher state to a lower, and must work hard until he rises again. But he who comes from the world, is like a beginner advancing to a higher state.’ The hermit replied, `A monk falling into temptation is like a ruined house. If he is a serious, sober person, he can rebuild this ruin. He will find the right materials for building, and he will lay foundations, collect stone and sand, and everything else he needs, and so his building will grow rapidly higher.But the builder who did not dig or lay foundations, and has none of the right materials, will go away just hoping that some day the house will be built. If the monk falls into temptation, and turns to the Lord, he has the best materials, that is, meditation on the law of God, psalmody, work with his hands, prayer, and silence, which are the foundations of his building. A newcomer will find himself low down on the ladder of religion until he has learnt all these.’
  19. A brother who was obsessed by lust went to a famous hermit and said to him, `Of your charity, pray for me, for I am beset by lust.’ The hermit prayed for him to the Lord. He came a second time to the hermit and said the same words, and again the hermit was careful to beseech the Lord on his behalf, and said, `Lord, show me why the devil is doing this work in that brother; I prayed to you, but he has not yet found peace.’The Lord showed him what was happening to that brother. He saw the brother sitting down, and the spirit of lust near him playing with him. An angel was standing near to help him and was frowning at that brother because he did not throw himself upon God, but took pleasure in playing with his thoughts, turning towards them.The hermit realized that the chief trouble was in the brother himself. So he said to him, `You are toying with these thoughts.’ Then he taught him how to reject thoughts like these. The brother’s soul revived under the hermit’s teaching and prayer, and he found rest from his temptation.
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