The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks On Lust 39-42

August 15, 2012

And the final four. How many of us demonstrate the depths of contrition that we find in #42?


39.  A brother was assailed by lust. By chance he came to a village in Egypt, and saw the daughter of the pagan priest there, and he fell in love with her. He said to her father, `Give her to me to be my wife.’ He answered, `I cannot give her to you until I have consulted my gods.’ He went to the demon whom he served and said, `Here is a monk wanting to marry my daughter. Shall I give her to him?’ The demon replied, `Ask him if he denies his God, his baptism, and his monastic vows.’ The priest came and said to the monk, `If you deny your God, and your baptism, and your monastic vows I will give you my daughter.’

The monk agreed. At once he saw something like a dove fly out of his mouth and up into the sky. Then the priest went to the demon and said, `He has promised to do the three things you said.’ Then the devil answered, `Do not give your daughter to be his wife, for his God has not left him, but will still help him.’ So the priest went back and said to the monk, `I cannot give her to you, because your God is still helping you, and has not left you.’

When the monk heard his, he said in himself, `If God has shown me such kindness, though like a wretch I have denied him, and my baptism and my monastic vows, if God is so good that he still helps me though I am wicked, why am I running away from him?’ He came to his senses and went into the desert to a great hermit, and told him what had happened. The hermit said, `Stay with me in this cave, and fast for three weeks, and I will pray to God for you.’

The hermit worked hard on behalf of the brother and said to God, `I beg you, O Lord, grant me this soul, and accept its penitence.’ God heard his prayer. At the end of the first week, the hermit came to the brother and asked him, `Have you seen anything?’ The brother replied, `Yes, I saw a dove in the sky over my head.’ The hermit said, `Look into your heart, and pray to God earnestly.’

After the second week the hermit came again to the brother, and asked him, `Have you seen anything?’ He replied, `I have seen a dove coming down towards my head.’ Then the hermit urged him, `Pray, and pray seriously.’ At the end of the third week, the hermit came again and asked him, `Have you seen anything else?’ He replied, `I saw a dove and it came and sat on my head, and I stretched out my hand to catch it, and it entered my mouth.’ The hermit thanked God and said to the brother, `See, God has accepted your penitence. In future be careful, and on your guard.’ The brother answered, `I will stay with you now, until I die.’

40.   One of the hermits in the Thebaid used to say that he was the son of a pagan priest, and as a little boy he had often seen his father go into the temple and sacrifice to the idol. Once, when he had crept in secretly, he had seen Satan on his throne, with his host standing round him, and one of his chief captains came and bowed before him. The devil said, `Where have you come from?’ He answered, `I was in such and such a province, and there I stirred up wars and riots, and much blood was spilt, and I have come to tell you.’

The devil asked him, `How long did it take you?’ He answered, `A month.’ Then the devil said, `Why on earth did you take so long over it?’ and ordered him to be beaten. Then a second came to bow before him and the devil said to him, ‘Where. have you been?’ The demon replied, `I was in the sea, and I raised storms, and sank ships, and drowned many, and have come to tell you.’ The devil said, `How long did that take you?’ He answered, `Twenty days.’ The devil said, `Why ever did you take so long over this one task?’ and ordered him also to be flogged. Then a third came and bowed to him and the devil said to him, `What have you been up to?’ He answered, `I was in such and such a city: and during a wedding I stirred up quarrelling until the parties came to bloody blows, and in the end even the husband was killed, and I have come to let you know.’ The devil said, `How long did it take you?’ He answered, `Ten days.’ The devil commanded him also to be flogged because he had been idle.

Another came to adore him, and he said: `Where have you been?’ He answered, `I was in the desert: and for forty years I have been attacking one monk. At last in the night I prevailed, and made him lust.’ When the devil heard this, he got up and kissed him. Taking off his own crown, he put it on his head, and made him sit with him on a throne, and said, `You have been brave, and done a great deed.’ When I heard and saw this, I said to myself, `Great indeed is the discipline of the monks.’ So it pleased God to grant me salvation: and I went out, and became a monk.

41.  They said of one monk that he had lived in the world and had turned to God, but was still goaded by desire for his wife; and he told this to the monks. When they saw him to be a man of prayer and one who did more than his duty, they laid on him a course of discipline which so weakened his body that he could not even stand up. By God’s providence another monk came to visit Scetis. When he came to this man’s cell he saw it open, and he passed on, surprised that no one came to meet him.

But then he thought that perhaps the brother inside was ill, and returned, and knocked on the door. After knocking, he went in, and found the monk gravely ill. He said, `What’s the matter, abba?’ He explained, `I used to live in the world, and the enemy still troubles me because of my wife. I told the monks, and they laid on me various burdens to discipline my life. In trying to carry them out obediently, I have fallen ill and yet the temptation is worse.’

When the visiting hermit heard this, he was vexed, and said, `These monks are powerful men, and meant well in laying these burdens upon you. But if you will listen to me who am but a child in these matters, stop all this discipline, take a little food at the proper times, recover your strength, join in the worship of God for a little, and turn your mind to the Lord.

This desire is something you- can’t conquer by your own efforts. The human body is like a coat. If you treat it carefully, it will last a long time. If you neglect it, it will fall to pieces.’ The sick man did as he was told, and in a few days the incitement to lust vanished.

42  A very old hermit, of saintly life, lived on a mountain near Antinoe, and helped many people towards sanctity by his teaching and example, or so I have been told by well-known monks. Because he was saintly, the devil was stirred to envy him, as he envies all men of true goodness. So the devil sent into his heart the thought that if he was really the man he wanted to be, he ought not to .let others minister to his needs, but ought to be ministering to theirs or at least, if he could not minister to the needs of others, he ought to minister to his own needs. So the devil said, `Go to the town and sell the basket you are making, and buy what you need, and come back to your cell, and so be a burden to no one.’

Now the devil suggested this because he envied his stillness and his opportunity of leisure to hear God, and the good which he did to so many people. All round him the enemy was scurrying, hurling darts at him, trying to capture him. He assented to what he believed to be a good thought, and came down from his hermitage. Everyone admired him and recognized him when they saw him, but did not know that he was entangled in the devil’s net.

After a long time he saw a woman. Because he was being careless, he was overthrown, and lay with her. Then he went into a desert place, with the devil at his heels, and fell down by a river. He thought that the enemy rejoiced at his ruin, and he wanted to despair, because he had sorely grieved the Spirit of God, and the holy angels, and the venerable fathers, many of whom had overcome the devil though they lived in towns. Because he could not become like them, he was utterly downcast; and he forgot that God is a God who gives strength to them who devoutly turn to him. Blinded, and seeing no way to cure his sin, he wanted to throw himself in the river which would have filled the enemy’s cup to overflowing.

In the agony of his soul, his body began to sicken. Unless God in his mercy had helped him, he would have died impenitent, to the perfect satisfaction of the enemy. But at the last moment he came to his senses again. He resolved to inflict a severe penance upon himself, and pray to God in sorrow and grief and in this resolve he went back to his cell. He marked the door of his cell in the usual way which showed that the man inside was dead, and so he wept and prayed to God. He fasted, and watched, and became thin with his austerity and still he did not think he had made fit penance or satisfaction.

When the brothers came to him to be taught, and knocked at the door, he said that he could not open it, `I am bound by an oath to do penance for a whole year. Pray for me.’ When they heard this, they were shocked, because they believed him to be truly honorable and great: but he found no means of explaining himself to them. For a whole year he fasted rigidly, and did penance. On Easter Eve, he took a new lamp and put it in a new pot, and covered it with a lid. At evening he stood up to pray, and said, `Merciful, pitying Lord, who desires that barbarians be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, I flee to you, the Savior of the faithful. Have mercy upon me because I moved you to anger, and pleased the enemy: I am dead, but obedient to you. Lord, you have mercy even on the wicked, even the pitiless; you commanded us to show mercy to our neighbors; therefore have mercy upon me, humbled here before you. With you nothing is impossible, for at the mouth of hell my soul was scattered like dust.

Have pity on what you have made because you are good and merciful; on the day of the resurrection you will raise up even the bodies of those who are not. Hear me, O Lord, for my spirit has failed, and my soul is wretched. I have polluted my body, and now I cannot live, because I had no faith. Look at my penitence and forgive my sin, a sin that was double because I despaired. Send life into me, for I am contrite and light this lamp with your fire. So I may be able to have confidence in your mercy and forgiveness, and so keep your commandments, remain in awe of you, and serve you more faithfully than before, for the rest of the life which you have given me.’

On the night of Easter Eve he prayed like this and wept. He went to see if the lamp were lit. When he took off the lid, he saw that it was not. Again he fell on his face and besought God, `I know, O God, that when I lived a life of austerity for reward, I was not able to withstand, but rather chose the pleasures of the body and so I deserve the punishment of the wicked. But spare me, Lord. Here am I and again I confess my disgrace to you who are all-goodness, and in the presence of your angels, and of all just men; I would confess to all mankind, if I would not cause them thereby to stumble. Lord, have mercy upon me, and I will teach others. Lord, send life into me.’

When he had prayed three times, God heard his prayer. He looked and found the lamp burning brightly. His heart leapt with hope and happiness, and he worshipped God who had forgiven his sins, and answered his soul’s prayer. He said, `Thank you, O Lord, for having mercy on one who is not worthy to live in this world, and for giving me confidence by this great new sign of your power. You are merciful and spare the souls which you created.’ He was still praying like this when the dawn came and forgetting his need for food, he rejoiced in the Lord. All his life he kept that lamp alight, pouring in oil from the top to prevent it going out. So, once again, God’s Spirit dwelt within him, and he was famous among all the monks, and showed humility and joy in his praise and thanksgiving to God. A few days before his death it was revealed to him that he should pass over into life.

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