There was a bishop of the city of Oxyrhynchus named Affy. They said that while he was a monk, he treated his body very severely. And when he became a bishop, he wanted to continue in his city the austerities which he had practised in the desert, but he could not. So he fell prostrate before God, and said: “Dost thou think, my Lord, that thy grace has left me because I have become a bishop?” And it was revealed to him: “No: in the desert you had no man to help you, and God alone sustained you. But now you are in the world, and have men to help you.
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 15.13
This is an important saying. It reveals that, despite their quest for perfection, the desert fathers were realists when it came to discipline. They did not consider that their way of life made them holier than those in the world per se; rather they saw it as an effective way to focus on austerity, as a path, but not the only path.
To be sure, none of them would deny that the goal—the kingdom of heaven—is unchanging and that the way there—purity of heart—is the same as well. It’s just that there are many ways of pursuing purity of heart, and some ought to be preferred over others for certain people at certain times and under certain circumstances.
Vladimir Solovyov, one of my favorite modern writers with regards to social ethics and philosophy, even says, “True asceticism… has two forms—monasticism and marriage.” Solovyov is actually oversimplifying. He himself never married, but neither was he a monk. His broader point, however, is that asceticism is not just for monks, but the way in which it is practiced in the world is sometimes lighter (or, at least, different).
Similarly, in the world bishop Affy “wanted to continue in his city the austerities which he had practised in the desert, but he could not.” It is worth noting, first of all, that the bishop loved his life in the desert. It is a good thing to love discipline. He even felt grieved when he thought he could not continue it in the world: “Dost thou think, my Lord, that thy grace has left me…?” Sometimes I get a little sad during Holy Week that Lent is almost over; despite the incomparable joy of Pascha, fasting has a joy of its own as well. The answer Affy receives, however, offers an important corrective to his disappointment and discouragement. It is not that his desert life could not continue at all in the world; it simply could not continue in the same way.
Alone in the desert, a person can fill one’s time with prayer. Indeed, apart from Bear Grylls, I imagine that few people could survive without it. “God alone sustained you,” said the revelation. But God’s grace does not leave a person just because he or she has left the desert. It simply comes in a different package sometimes: “But now you are in the world, and have men to help you.”
“Bear one another’s burdens,” says St. Paul, “and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). We cannot always manage to keep every fast, pray every prayer, or give alms. But we can feed one another, pray for one another, give to one another—we can become bearers of God’s grace to one another by bearing “one another’s burdens” out of love, purifying our hearts, and so fulfilling “the law of Christ.”