The Wisdom of the Desert

Chapter IV:
How We Ought to Return Good for Evil

We can pass quite naturally from the consideration of what the hermits taught about dying to the world to the stories which illustrate the ideal of returning good for evil. Indeed, when we think of death to the world, as evidenced by the patient endurance of wrong, the passing over to the thought of returning good for such evil is so gradual that it is hard sometimes to decide under which heading to place some particular story or exhortation. Yet there seems to be a real difference between the two groups of stories. Those which illustrate death to the world are concerned chiefly with the inner life of the hermit himself. Their interest centres in the condition of his soul and its approach to the ideal of suffering with Christ. In those which deal with returning good for evil the point of moral stress shifts, and the action of the hermit is thought of mainly as it affects the man who did the injury. This distinction is not merely arbitrary. It goes back to the twofold way in which the cross of Christ is viewed. When the contemplative soul dwells mainly on the sufferings of the cross, and love is aroused to attempt to take a sympathetic share in the pain, we have the stories of self-crucifixion and death to the world. Where, on the other hand, the thought of the death on the cross as a sacrifice is predominant -- that is, of a life given that others might have life -- we come upon a series of stories in which the main stress lies upon the effect on others of our imitating Christ. This thought comes very clearly before us in the beautiful interpretation which the abbot Poemen gives of the words: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend." Here the listener's mind was taken back at once to the cross of Christ and he is shown, not so much how he is to be partaker of the sufferings as how he is to share in the Lord's work of sacrifice. The same thought is present, if less obviously, in the story of the old man who kissed the hands of the brother who had robbed him.

There is nothing in this part of the hermit's teaching which should be strange to any Christian. It is impossible, in the face of the Lord's words in the Sermon on the Mount, to accuse their conduct even of exaggeration. All that we find wonderful is the extreme simplicity with which they understood the sayings of the Lord and adopted them as a practical rule of life. For most men there is need of certain explanations, of an effort of the intellect, of casuistry, before the Lord's commands can be reconciled with the maxims which direct the ordinary life. It is necessary to write some gloss beside. the saying -- "If any man take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also." Otherwise we cannot but be conscious of a divergence between the conduct which life seems to render necessary and that which is recommended by the Lord. For the hermits and their admirers no such necessity existed. They took the commands of Christ and obeyed them as if such obedience involved no absurdity. Strange as it must seem to many men, their literal obedience resulted not in an impossible deadlock and the dissolution of social relationships, but in an incomparably great type of character, and frequently in the reclamation of sinners whom methods less apparently absurd would have confirmed in their viciousness. Thus the conduct of Anastasius towards the brother who stole his book was, from the world's point of view, absurd. It is impossible to conceive of the continued existence of any society in which the majority of men not only refused to punish, but actually rewarded thieves. In the assistance which St. Macarius rendered to the robbers who were rifling his cell, the absurdity reaches a climax. Yet Anastasius rescued his brother's soul from perdition, and if in the case of St. Macarius we know nothing of the effect of his acts on the robbers, our hearts are at least enriched with the conception of a man whose spirit was the very spirit of the Lord.

It is perhaps especially interesting to notice that even in the case of postulants, whose hearts shrank back from the prospect of offering the other cheek to the smiter, there is no effort to evade the direct literalness with which the hermits interpreted our Lord's comniands. They hoped, apparently, to be somehow excused from obedience. It did not occur to them to cast round for an explanation of the words which would enable them to think of themselves as obeying while they refused to obey literally. The view which the hermits took of what the world calls justifiable resistance of evil is well exemplified in the story of the brother to whom the abbot Poemen wrote a letter. The hermit's action when the robbers attacked him seems to have been most natural and right. He called for help, and the robbers were caught and imprisoned. Yet on account of what he had done, his conscience would not let him rest. Poemen explained to him where his sin lay and why his conscience troubled him. He ought, so it seems, to have acted as St. Macarius did under such circumstances. But, it may be asked, what then would become of society, of the security which civilisation has brought with it for property and life? I do not suppose that the hermits could have answered the question. I can imagine only that they would have parried it with another. What otherwise is to become of the commandments of Christ?


How an old man blessed one who injured him.

A certain brother came to the cell of an elder, one well known among the brethren for his holiness. Entering in, he stole the food which was there. The old man saw him, but did not accuse him. He only laboured more diligently to supply again what he had lost, saying in his heart, "I am sure that my brother must have been in great need, for else he would not have stolen." In spite of his toil, the old man came to endure great suffering for want of food. At last he was brought even to the point of death. The brethren, knowing only that he was dying, came and stood round his bed. Among them he saw the brother who had stolen his food. "Come hither to me," he said to him. Then taking his hands and kissing them, he said to those who stood around, "I pay my thanks to these hands, brethren, for because of them I am going, as I trust, to enter the kingdom of heaven."

Then that brother was stricken to the heart, and repented. He also in the end became an eager monk, wrought upon by the deeds of the elder which he saw.


How the abbot Sisois taught a brother that the desire of vengeance separates a man from God.

There was a certain brother who had suffered an injury at the hands of another. Coming to the abbot Sisois, he explained the wrong which he had suffered, and then said, "My father, I desire to be avenged." The old man begged him to leave his avenging in the hands of God, but he persisted, saying, "I cannot rest until I have well avenged myself." Then Sisois said to him, "Since your mind is altogether made up with regard to this matter, I need not reason with you. Let us, however, pray together." Thus saying, he arose and began to pray in these words: "O God, Thou art no longer needful to us. We do not require Thy care of us. We ourselves are willing, yea, and are able to avenge ourselves." As soon as the brother, who had desired vengeance, heard these words, he fell at the old mass feet and begged for pardon. "As for him with whom I was angry," he said, "I shall not in any way contend with him."


A doctrine concerning injuries done to us by which we may escape from the danger of being angry, and even turn such wrongs into a source of profit for our souls.

A certain brother, who had been injured by another, came and told the story of what had happened to one of the elders. This is the reply which the elder made to him: "Set your mind at rest concerning the wrong done to you. The harm was not meant for you, but for your sins. In every temptation to anger or hatred that comes to you through the act of man, accuse not him who does the injury. Say simply, 'It is on account of my own sins that this, and things like this, happen unto me.'"


Of the one which may be reckoned supreme amongst the commandments of the Lord, both inasmuch as it is beyond all difficult to be kept, and ako in that the keeping of it makes us fellow-sufferers with Him.

A certain brother came to an elder seeking some word of exhortation. "Tell me," he said, "of some one commandment, such that I may keep it, and thereby attain unto salvation." The old man answered him, "When men do wrong to you and revile you, endure and be silent. To do this is a very great thing. This is above all other commandments."


The abbot Poemen teaches that they who have grace to keep this commandment are very sharers in the death of the Lord upon the cross.

A certain brother once questioned the abbot Poeman, saying, "What is this word which the Lord says in the gospel, 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend?' How may one do such a thing?" The old man answered him, "Perhaps a man may hear from his friend some word which insults and angers him. Perhaps it is in his power to speak back to his friend in like manner. If then he chooses to endure in silence -- if he does violence to himself, being fully determined to speak no angry word, nor any word to hurt or vex the other -- then, verily, this man lays down, in sacrifice, his life for his friend."


The dealings of St. Antony with certain brethren who wished to be perfect, but sought for some other way than the way which the Lord taught.

Certain brethren once came to Saint Antony and besought him to speak to them some word through which they might attain unto the perfection of salvation. He, however, said to them, "Ye have heard the Scriptures. The words which have come from the lips of Christ for your learning are sufficient for you." when they still pressed him, begging that he would deign to speak some word to them, he said, "It is taught in the gospel that if a man smite you on the one cheek you are to turn to him the other also." They then confessed that they were not able to do this. St. Antony answered, "Is this too hard for you? Are you willing to let such a man strike you on the same cheek twice?" They said, "We are not willing," hoping to be told of some easier thing. But he said to them, If this, too, is beyond you, at least do not render evil for evil." Again they answered him as they had done before. Then St. Antony turned to his disciple who stood by, and said, "Prepare some food and give it to these men, for they are weak." But to the brethren who had inquired of him, he said, "If you cannot do one thing and will not do another, why do you come seeking a word of exhortation from me? To me it seems that what you need most is to pray. By prayer perhaps you may be healed of your infirmity."


A story of St. Macarius, showing how he would not resist one who robbed him.

The abbot Macarius, when he dwelt in Egypt, once had occasion to leave his cell for a little while. At his return he found a robber stealing whatever was in the cell. St. Macarius stood and watched him, as one who was a stranger might watch having no interest in what was stolen. Then he loaded the robber's horse for him and led it forth saying, "We brought nothing into this world. The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away. According to his will so things happen. Blessed be the name of the Lord."


How the abbot Anastasius would not resist an evil done to him, and thereby won his brother's soul.

Anastasius had a manuscript written on vellum which was worth a great sum of money, for it contained the whole of the Old and New Testaments. It happened that a certain brother who came to visit him, seeing this manuscript in his cell, coveted it. At his departure he stole it. After a little while Anastasius desired to read something in his manuscript. He searched for it but could not find it. Then he understood that this brother had stolen it. He was unwilling, however, to send after the thief or to ask him to restore the property lest, perhaps, he might add a lie to the sin of his theft. The brother who had committed the theft went straightway to a neighbouring town in order that he might sell the manuscript. When one came to buy it, he named a certain price. Then the buyer said, "Let me have the manuscript that I may find out whether it is worth so much." Receiving it, he went straightway to the abbot Anastasius, and said to him, "My father, I pray you look at this book, and tell me if it is worth such a price. It is for such a sum that a certain man seeks to sell it to me." The abbot Anastasius answered him, "It is a good book, and is well worth what you are asked for it." Then he who was about to buy returned to the seller, and said, "Take the price you name. I have showed the book to the abbot Anastasius, and he told me that it was a good book, and well worth your price." Then the seller, he who had stolen it, asked, "Did the abbot Anastasius say anything more to you about it?" The other said, "No. I have told you all he said." Then the thief replied to him, "I have thought again about the matter, and I am not willing to sell the book at all." This he said, being cut to the heart. He hastened to the cell of the abbot Anastasius, threw himself upon the ground, and with tears of penitence besought the abbot that he would take back the book. But Anastasius refused, saying, "Go! and my peace go with you, brother. Take the book for your own. I give it freely to you." But he persisted weeping and praying, and he said, Unless you take back the book, father, my soul will never anywhere find peace." At length he took back his own book. Afterwards that brother remained with the blessed Anastasius, sharing his cell with him until the day of his death.


How, by meeting evil which was done to him, a certain nwnk was led on to do a deed which grieved him greatly.

There was a certain great hermit who dwelt in the mountain called Athlibeus. It happened that he was attacked by robbers. He at once cried out, and the brethren who dwelt in the neighbouring cells ran to his assistance and captured the robbers. They were sent to the nearest city, and the judge condemned them to be put in prison. Then all those brethren were sad because on their account the robbers had been put in prison. They went to the abbot Poemen and told him all that had happened. He wrote a letter to the hermit, whom the robbers had attacked, in these words: "You have betrayed the robbers to punishment. Remember that was not your first act of betrayal. First you betrayed yourself. Unless you had been betrayed by the evil within into resisting the wrong done to you, you would not have made that second betrayal of which you now repent."


How the injuries done to us by evil men are means whereby we may attain perfection.

There was once a monk who observed this rule of life. The more anyone injured or insulted him, the more eagerly he sought that man's company. This he did because, as he was wont to say, "Those whose company I seek are they who afford me the opportunity of perfection. They who speak well of us and bless us set our paths about with stumbling-blocks. It is they who deceive us."

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