Two brothers went to a town to sell what they had made. In the town they separated, and one of them fell into fornication. Afterwards the other brother said: “Let us go back to our cell, brother.” But he replied: “I am not coming.” And the other asked him: “Why, brother?” And he replied: “Because when you left me, I met temptation, and was guilty of fornication.” The other, wanting to help him, said: “It happened also to me: after I left you, I also fell into fornication. Let us go together, and do penance with all our might, and God will pardon us sinners.” When they returned to their cell, they told the elders what had happened to them, and were instructed what penance they should do. But the one did penance not for himself, but for the other, as though he himself had sinned. God, seeing his earnestness and his charity, disclosed to one of the elders, a few days later, that he had forgiven the fornicator because of the charity of the brother who had not sinned. Truly, this was to lay down his soul for his brother.
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 5.27
Just a short reflection—a few notes, really—for this Forgiveness Sunday. Vespers tonight actually marks the start of Great Lent for Orthodox Christians like myself, but I am unable to go: my little son Brendan seems to have the flu. So I’m home with him (who is sleeping next to me on the couch) while Kelly goes to Church.
This story of the monk who falls into temptation is a fitting reflection for today. A few highlights:
- It acknowledges the messy character of our lives. Sometimes we fail. Sometimes we want to go to Vespers, but a little boy needs someone to stay home with him. This life is not only ever changing, but chaos has been introduced into the order of nature. Not all randomness is bad, but by chaos I mean something of a defiant, anarchist principle. Another term for it would be corruption: as health is corrupted by illness, so our relationships, and even our world itself, are corrupted by sin.
- The monk who sins in this story needs help. “There is a time for everything” (cf. Ecclesiastes 3), but in this case what the monk needed was not fire and brimstone but a friend.
- What does his friend, the other brother, do? He … lies. Sort of. He doesn’t deceive with any malicious intent—he even takes on a punishment he did not deserve—but what he says isn’t, strictly speaking, true. On the one hand, we do not know if he might have been able to help his friend through more truthful means. On the other hand, this world is messy (see #1), and what he did turned out for the good of his friend. He’s even commended for it: “Truly, this was to lay down his soul for his brother.”
- Penance is not merely an individualistic endeavor: “But the one did penance not for himself, but for the other, as though he himself had sinned.” This monk had a specific transgression in mind and a specific friend who had committed it. And he endures the penance out of solidarity with his friend, taking his friend’s sin as if it were his own. Perhaps, then, there is something deeper to the monk’s “lie.” He sees a friend who struggles to forgive himself, and so he takes that sin upon himself and models what it takes to reform one’s life after a fall. Just as I am missing out on going out tonight as if I, too, were sick like Brendan, so too this monk models the martyric love of true friendship by sacrificing for the other brother.
- In neither case is the sacrifice a mere negation. The brother who sinned needed to learn self-forgiveness. The brother who did not saw an opportunity for love, an opportunity that presented itself in the form of self-sacrifice.
So, too, we should look at this time of the year, and our asceticism as a whole, in this way: an opportunity for love.