An old man said: “If you fall ill, do not be a weakling. If the Lord God has willed that your body be feeble, who are you to bear it with grief? Does he not look after you in all you need? Surely you do not live without him. Be patient in your illness, and ask him to give you what is right—that is, that you may do his will, and abide in patience, and in charity eat what you have.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 7.45
It is easy, perhaps even justified, to dismiss a saying like this one as simply one of the less sensitive sayings of the fathers. However, I think a more charitable reading can be quite fruitful. The monk who said this wants those who ponder it to question their perspective on life, particularly suffering. Too often people presume that all suffering is a bad thing. This old man reminds us that even those who suffer have much to be thankful for, that all things happen in accord with God’s will, and that every moment of our lives is thus a teachable moment.
That said, it takes a specific kind of person who would hear such a saying in the midst of suffering as it seems to be intended. One must be very sensitive to each particular person to know whether or not such an idea may be helpful. It is true that it is good to accept all we experience as God’s will and that suffering is not meaningless, but those who sorrow typically need more basic consolation.
Fair enough. For those of us who read this in good health, however, it is an opportunity to remind ourselves ahead of time that all the ups and downs of life are and ought to be teachable moments. All of them signify to us, and indeed simply are, God’s gracious care of our lives. This does not rule out the existence of true injustice, but it is more to question what good use we can make of what evil we endure. As Joseph said to his brothers, who had sold him into slavery when he was very young, “[Y]ou meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Genesis 50:20). The good he refers to is that many years later, he ended up in a place of political importance in Egypt and, warned in a dream of a coming famine, prudently stored up grain and saved many in the land from starvation.
Does the greater good justify what Joseph’s brothers did to him? No. But it is a comfort to know that God can transform the suffering of those who are forgotten, abused, and abandoned, that even such wounds can be healed.
Thus, our sufferings (which often, we must admit, are less severe than we make them out to be) can be lessons in the Providence of God and opportunities to practice awareness of his presence in all things and at all times.
Teachable moments—every moment is a teachable moment to the true ascetic. One may characterize the whole of the ascetic life this way. We fast and deny our wills freely so that when they are denied through force or circumstance we will choose to bear it virtuously rather than giving the devil a foothold in our lives, as the Apostle puts it (Ephesians 4:27).
One such teachable moment, of the more extraordinary variety, can be found in a recent Russian bestseller that I am working my way through: Everyday Saints and Other Stories by Archimandrite Tikhon. In it he recounts the following remarkable story about one Father Melchizedek, named Father Michael before taking the great schema, the highest monastic vow in the Orthodox tradition:
At one point he [Father Michael] was blessed with a commission for a particularly large and important work of carpentry for our holy monastery. He worked for several months straight, virtually never emerging from his workshop. And when he wasn’t working, he felt himself to be slacking off. He worked so hard that when he finally finished the job, he was feeling ill, so ill that, according to eyewitness accounts, he fell down right there and then, and—died.
Several monks rushed in upon hearing the alarmed shouts of these eyewitnesses. One of the monks who rushed in was Father John (Krestiankin) (my father confessor). Father Michael appeared to be showing no signs of life at all. But suddenly Father John pronounced:
“No, he is not dead. He will keep on living!”
And he began to pray. And suddenly the immobile carpenter of our monastery opened his eyes again and revived. However, everyone noticed that he appeared to be shaken to the very depths of his soul. Once he had come to a little bit, Father Michael began to beg us to summon the abbot to meet him. Once the abbot arrived, the ailing monk with tears in his eyes begged him for permission to be allowed to take the vows to enter the great monastic schema.
It is said by some that, having heard this independent and unauthorized wish to suddenly take such a great responsibility upon himself, the Father Superior rebuked his monk with his usual gruff severity, and ordered the patient not to be an idiot, to get well as quickly as possible, and to get back to work—since it seemed that he couldn’t die properly.
There is more to the story; the abbot changes his mind the next morning. But this is the part that I really liked. This monk has literally died and come back to life and instead of saying to him, “Sure Father Michael, whatever you want! How about some pizza too?” the abbot sees even this as a teachable moment, saying instead, “Don’t be an idiot. Get well and back to work. Goodness! You can’t even die properly!”
Under most circumstances these words would be heartless and cruel, but not for those who have a transfigured, ascetic vision on life. So long as this monk was under this abbot, the abbot would not miss an opportunity to instruct his disciple in humility. And, indeed, Archimandrite Tikhon notes that Father Melchizedek, as he came to be called, was a very strict ascetic (indeed, requesting the great schema is to request a more austere way of life). No doubt it did not take long for him to comply with the abbot’s words, thanking God for the opportunity to come back to life and deny his own will.
Such stories can seem bizarre, to say the least, but the more I practice an ascetic way of life (though feebly), the more I see the wisdom here. God never denies the one who asks “him to give … what is right.” For all things serve our good, viz. virtue and holiness, if only we have eyes to see it. And these teachable moments, which is the same as to say every moment, are continual opportunities to open our eyes, or else cry out like the blind man in the Gospel, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:48) to Jesus Christ, who gives sight to the blind and who says to those who would follow him, “Come and see” (John 1:39).