When a certain brother in Scete was going to the harvest, he went to Abba Moses, the Black, and said unto him, “Father, tell me what I shall do; shall I go to the harvest?” and Abba Moses said unto him, “If I tell thee, wilt thou be persuaded to do as I say?” And the brother said unto him, “Yea, I will hearken unto thee.” The old man said unto him, “If thou wilt be persuaded by me, rise up, go, and release thyself from going to the harvest, and come unto me, and I will tell thee what thou shalt do.” The brother therefore departed and obtained his release from his companions, as the old man had told him, and then he came to him. And the old man said unto him, “Go into thy cell and keep Pentecost, and thou shalt eat dry bread and salt once a day [only], and after thou hast done this I will tell thee something else to do later on”; and he went and did as the old man had told him, and then came to him again.
Now when the old man saw that he was one who worked with his hands, he shewed him the proper way to live in his cell; and the brother went to his cell, and fell on his face upon the ground, and for three whole days and nights he wept before God. And after these things, when his thoughts were saying unto him, “Thou art now an exalted person, and thou hast become a great man,” he used to contradict them, and set before his eyes his former shortcomings, [and say], “Thus were all thine offences.” And again, when they used to say to him, “Thou hast performed many things negligently,” he would say, “Nevertheless I do small services for God, and He sheweth His mercy upon me.” And when by such means as these the spirits had been overcome, they appeared unto him in the form of corporeal creatures, and said unto him, “We have been vanquished by thee”; and he said unto them, “Why?” and they said to him, “If we humble thee, we are raised up by thee to an exalted position, and if we exalt thee we are accounted by thee for humility.”
~ Paradise of the Fathers 1.18
There is a lot going on in this story, but I will skip to the end. After keeping Pentecost, fasting in solitude for some period of time, being instructed by Abba Moses regarding how to work in his cell, and weeping before God for three days and nights, the brother in this story engages in a particularly enlightening practice of watchfulness.
All that other stuff is important. First, the brother puts off going to a harvest celebration at the recommendation of Abba Moses, who tells him not to neglect a major festival of the Church (Pentecost) and to spend more time fasting in solitude—an excellent practice to nurture true prayer.
After that, the brother returns to him and Abba Moses shows him how to live properly like a monk, at which point “for three whole days and nights he wept before God.” Why? Well, I’m not precisely sure. I would guess that it was a combination of thanksgiving for the instruction of Abba Moses and contrition: an interesting byproduct of closely encountering God.
Regarding the second, for example, when the prophet Isaiah saw a vision of God, he cried out,
Woe is me, for I am undone!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King,
The Lord of hosts. (Isaiah 6:5)
Just as one can more easily see the dirt in a room with the light on, so also when the soul is opened to the divine light, every little imperfection suddenly becomes glaringly obvious. The contrast between divine goodness—of which we are meant to partake—and our shortcomings can be staggering.
Despite the bad press they often get, this is one thing many Puritan writers admirably dwelt upon in their own spiritual tradition, such as the famous “Valley of Vision,” one of many similar prayers:
Lord, high and holy,
meek and lowly, Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see Thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold Thy glory.
Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.
Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells the brighter Thy stars shine;
let me find Thy light in my darkness,
Thy life in my death,
Thy joy in my sorrow,
Thy grace in my sin,
Thy riches in my poverty,
Thy glory in my valley.
I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that the brother’s weeping comes from a similar sentiment.
Which brings me to the last part: having first endeavored to detach himself from the world, and having achieved some success by obedience to Abba Moses’s guidance, he then is ready for a spiritual battle of watchfulness. I must imagine that the point of including that whole part of the story is that we ought to understand discipline to be a necessary prerequisite to watchfulness.
As for that watchfulness, his strategy is quite simple and ingenious. Every time he has a thought that is self-congratulatory, he contradicts it, recalling his sins, which, if I am right about the weeping, would have been quite vivid and weighty to him at this point. On the other hand, every time he has a thought that is self-deprecating, he contradicts it too, dwelling on the positive progress he has made in his discipline. By the end, the thoughts (which apparently are spirits?) appear to him and admit defeat. He has conquered pride through a humility that, nevertheless, does not succumb to despair.
This way of contradiction, I have found, can be quite effective … when I remember it. Alas, like the brother, I think I need to give more time to discipline and contrition and less to pleasure to have such self awareness and control. Yet though I may never see my thoughts raising the white flag in surrender to my efforts, that does not mean I cannot fight the good fight in the meantime and each day, if necessary, make a new beginning.