Sometimes stories from the desert fathers are too long to reflect on here, but I still want to share them. There is a lot to like about this story. It also reflects some of the more severe austerity of monastics, but there is enough here, I think, for readers to apply to their own contexts. I especially like the characterization of despair (and, by implication, hope). I also like the brief comment about “the venerable fathers, many of whom had overcome the devil though they lived in towns”—which somewhat contradicts the sort of spiritual elitism some impute to the fathers. This old man, at least, knew that salvation was available even to those who live in the world, even if the path there is harder to find and slower to travel.
A very old hermit, of saintly life, lived on a mountain near Antinoe, and helped many people towards sanctity by his teaching and example so I have been told by well-known monks. And because he was saintly, the devil was stirred to envy him, as he envies all men of true goodness. And 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 himself ought to be ministering to them: or at least, if he could not minister to the needs of others, he ought to minister to his own needs. So he said: “Go to the town and sell the baskets you are making, and buy what you need, and come back to your cell, and so be a burden to no one.” But the devil suggested this because he envied his quietness 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 at him, trying to capture him.
He assented to what he believed a good thought, and came down from his hermitage. And everyone admired him and recognized him when they saw him, but did not know that he was entangled in the devil’s net. And after a long time he saw a woman. And because he was being careless, he was overthrown, and came to her. And he went into a desert place, with the devil at his heels, and fell down by a river. And he thought that the enemy rejoiced at his ruin, and 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. And 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 not seeing how to cure his sin, he wanted to throw himself in the river, and fill the enemy’s cup to overflowing. In the agony of his soul, his body began to sicken. And 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 found his right mind again. He resolved to inflict a severe penance upon himself, and pray to God in sorrow and grief: and in this mind he went back to his cell. He marked the door of his cell in the usual way to show 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 devoutly. Pray for me.” When they heard this, they were scandalized, because they believed him to be truly honourable 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 on a new pot, and covered it with a lid. At evening he stood up to pray, and said: “Merciful, pitying Lord, who wiliest that barbarians be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth: I flee to thcc, the Saviour of the faithful. Have mercy upon me that I moved thee to anger, that I made the enemy happy: here am I, dead, but obedient to thee. Thou, Lord, who pitiest even the wicked, even the pitiless, thou who commanded us to show mercy to our neighbours, have mercy upon me humbled before thee. With thee nothing is impossible: for in the mouth of hell my soul was scattered like dust. Have pity on thy creation, because thou art kind and merciful, thou who wilt on the day of the resurrection raise up even bodies that 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 did not believe. 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 thy fire. So I may be enabled to receive confidence in thy mercy and pardon, to keep thy commandments, to remain in thy fear, to serve thee more faithfully than before, for the rest of the span of life which thou hast allotted to me.”
On the night of Easter Eve he prayed thus and wept. And he rose to see if the lamp were lit. When he took off the lid, he saw that it was unlit. And again he fell on his face and besought God: “I know, O God, that when I struggled for my crown, I did not stand on my feet, but rather chose the pleasures of the body and so the punishment of the wicked. Spare me then, Lord. Here am I: again I confess my disgrace to thee, who art goodness, and in the presence of thy angels, and of all just men, I would confess it to all mankind, if I should 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 rose up and found the lamp burning brightly. And his heart leapt with hope, and happiness, and he worshipped God’s grace who had thus forgiven his sins, and answered his soul’s prayer. And he said: “I thank thee, O Lord, that thou hast pitied me who am unworthy to live in this world, and hast given me confidence by this great new sign of thy power; thou art merciful to spare the souls which thou createst.”
He was still praying thus 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. And 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 how he should pass to another life.
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 5.41