There was a story that some philosophers once came to test the monks. One of the monks came by dressed in a fine robe. The philosophers said to him: “Come here, you.” But he was indignant, and insulted them. Then another monk came by, a good person, a Libyan by race. They said to him: “Come here, you wicked old monk.” He came to them at once, and they began to hit him: but he turned the other cheek to them. Then the philosophers rose and did homage to him, saying: “Here is a monk indeed.” And they made him sit down in their midst, and asked him: “What do you do in this desert more than we do? You fast: and we fast also. You chastise your bodies and so do we. Whatever you do, we do the same.” The old man answered: “We trust in God’s grace, and keep watch on our minds.” They said: “That is what we cannot do.” And they were edified, and let him go.
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 16.16
I have always liked this story. It’s message is pretty straight-forward, but I will record here a few observations.
It begins with a monk “dressed in a fine robe” who does not meet the challenge of the philosophers well. My guess is that the fine robe indicates that this monk struggled with avarice and was too attached to bodily comfort. Thus, challenged by the philosophers to step out of his comfort zone, he responds passionately: “he was indignant, and insulted them.”
The Libyan monk, on the other hand, models the humility and dispassion of Christ and follows Christ’s command to “turn the other cheek.” This action so astounds the philosophers that they “rose and did homage to him” and asked to know what it was that made this monk so special. His reply? The grace of God and watchfulness.
While I can’t say for certain, if these philosophers respected asceticism at all, as they clearly seem to, then they likely would have been Platonists, Stoics, or Pythagoreans. At least in the case of the Stoics, if not the other two as well, watchfulness would have been part of their ascetic practice. Thus, I do not think it likely that the monk’s response (“We trust in God’s grace, and keep watch on our minds”) is meant to be read as two separate items.
There is something about grace that transfigures all of our practices. Anyone can fast. Anyone can embrace a life of simplicity. Anyone can practice watchfulness. Anyone can practice chastity, even virginity. And so on. But there is something different about how ancient Christians practiced these things.
The Christian Church has countless saints who performed remarkable ascetic feats and in many cases even met persecution and martyrdom with humility and love. Yet none of these men and women would ever attribute the source of their exceptional way of life to their own efforts. There is something bigger working with their will and energy: the grace of God.
For ancient Christians—in nearly every instance that they spoke explicitly about the matter—salvation was a matter of synergy between divine grace and human faith. And while faith is essential, it is insufficient apart from grace, which is given not just for a change of status but for a change of thought and action, a new way of life.
This reminds me of a particularly relevant passage from St. Paul, who, after writing to the Corinthians about some mystical experiences he had, writes,
And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
We live in a world where thorns and weeds inhibit our ability to produce fruit from the earth. God does not take away the weeds for us, but he does send the rain and sunshine.
So too, in our spiritual lives, we face all sorts of difficulties. We are like thorn-infested ground. Yet all that ground needs to bear fruit, despite the weeds, is a little rain and sunshine (and the work of planting, tilling, and harvesting). No matter what else is done, the land will not bear fruit without water and light. So too, while one can accomplish much without it, the grace of God is necessary for us to bear the spiritual fruit of deification. Admitting and embracing our weakness activates that grace, “that the power of Christ may rest upon [us]” and transfigure our entire outlook, making our watchfulness other-directed, i.e. directed toward Jesus Christ who empowers us with grace.
Furthermore, with the grace of God abiding in us, all spiritual disciplines empower us to “take pleasure” even in misfortune and suffering, to “[turn] the other cheek” with joy. Again, it is not that others cannot do these things. Rather the difference is that Christians do not do these things on their own, and gladly admit as much.
This produces astounding results. Often even executioners have been won over by the witness of their Christian victims. “Witness,” in fact, is precisely what “martyr” actually means. By their deaths martyrs witness to something more than themselves: something that can turn curses into blessings, suffering into joy, death into life: the grace of God through Jesus Christ. When someone has that, then they can endure all things “for Christ’s sake.” Then even weakness becomes strength.
What separates me from the Pharisee or the philosopher, who may discipline themselves as much or more than me?
There but for the grace of God go I.