Abba Poemen said: “The mark of the true monk only appears under temptation.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers
We could easily say the same for any man or woman. It is a strange thing about life that sometimes its best blessings, rightly understood, are tragic.
“Temptation” can also simply mean trial. It is best to understand it both ways. All trials bring temptation with them. So when Abba Poemen says that temptations bring out the mark of a true monk, he is not just talking about temptation to sin but also any trial of life.
To use a common image, we may think of gold that is proved pure by fire.
Another image: St. Maximus the Confessor wrote:
God, it is said, is the Sun of righteousness (cf. Mal. 4:2), and the rays of His supernal goodness shine down on all men alike. The soul is wax if it cleaves to God, but clay if it cleaves to matter. Which it does depends upon its own will and purpose. Clay hardens in the sun, while wax grows soft. Similarly, every soul that, despite God’s admonitions, deliberately cleaves to the material world, hardens like clay and drives itself to destruction, just as Pharaoh did (cf. Exod. 7:13). But every soul that cleaves to God is softened like wax and, receiving the impress and stamp of divine realities, it becomes “in spirit the dwelling-place of God” (Eph. 2:22).
These are a good place to start. But a little more clarity is needed.
It is not as if, when a trial comes, it is too late. They do reveal to us the true state of our hearts, and that may not be as strong or pure or righteous as we had thought, but we still make our own choices. As St. Maximus said, it is “every soul that, despite God’s admonitions, deliberately cleaves to the material world.”
God’s admonitions to Pharaoh were themselves trials (the ten plagues). In the end, Pharaoh was done in by his pride, but he had many chances to change, even in the midst of trial.
So here we see, as far as I’m concerned anyway, the abundantly hopeful and positive perspective of the ascetic way of life. For our lives are mortal and full of death. But a life lived walking “in newness of life” (see Romans 6), that is, in a reality shaped by resurrection, sees every death as a passage to something better.
As Christ himself put it,
I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. (John 15:1-2)
On the surface, those aren’t the two greatest sounding options. It sort of even sounds like some sort of anti-universalism—suffering no matter what we do. I suppose we might even say that it is. Pruning doesn’t sound too pleasurable, not if you’re the branch anyway. But the good news here is that suffering can have meaning, it can be a means of refining our hearts and perfecting us in virtue.
And though virtue may not be very pleasurable, it is the source of the truest joy. For all the trouble of life’s trials, I’ll take that joy over the pleasures of escapism any day.
Or, at least, I know I ought to. Lord have mercy that I might do that good I know I ought to do, and so shine brightly in the fires of life.