The Wisdom of the Desert

Chapter V:
On Charity to Sinners

THE teaching of the hermits about charity to sinners is more closely connected than appears at first sight with their view of the obligation to return good for evil. To the indifferent and lukewarm Christian the only sin which is really hard to forgive is a sin against himself. Every man finds it difficult to forgive one who has injured or slandered him; but for the lukewarm Christian it is much more difficult than for him who has really tried to live after the pattern of Christ. On the other hand, the man who has little or no real enthusiasm for righteousness finds it easy to forgive a sin which is unlikely to result in injury to himself. For him who is fired with a real love for goodness it is just as hard, and sometimes perhaps even harder, to forgive a sin which is only a sin against God as one which directly affects his own well-being. This is the reason why men who are in earnest about religion are so often, and, we must add, so justly, accused of hardness and want of charity. Very often the worldly man's charity is nothing but indifference, is a fatal weakness masquerading as a virtue. Very often the good man's hardness and bitterness are the defects which naturally result from an earnestness which is very admirable.

It will not be denied that the hermits were genuine enthusiasts for righteousness. We are not, therefore, surprised when we find that their enthusiasm frequently led them into harsh and stern judgments of sinners. What does astonish us is that the greatest of them rose superior to the defect which seems almost the inevitable concomitant of their virtue, and displayed a large-heartedness and a charity like Christ's. In this respect, as in every other, the name of St. Antony stands pre-eminent. We realize how great a man he was when, remembering his own steadfastness, we read his parable about the ship which was almost wrecked. Even more striking is the word of Besarion when the priest cast the sinning brother out of the church. Such tenderness to sinners can have only sprung from a deep and real love. The men who had it certainly realized the meaning of the words "He that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, for God is love." The way in which a man, whose zeal for righteousness had extinguished his charity, came to realize his fault is very wonderful. It is very easy for us to understand the character of this hermit who pronounced unhesitatingly the doom of expulsion on the brother who had sinned. We can picture him -- stern, upright, uncompromising, a rigorist. The type -- at least, in the pages of history -- is only too familiar. What is hard for us to realize is the swift spiritual perception of the man when he grasped the meaning of Pastor's enigmatic parable and the ready self-abasement of his confession. Perhaps even more unexpected than the charity to those who have sinned is the large-heartedness of the same abbot Pastor in his answer to the brother who wished to make a feast. Anub has his code of right and wrong, clear-cut and inflexible. In Pastor we see a great humanness. His words are like the Lord's when He said of the woman, "She hath done what she could."

We enter upon difficult ground when we touch upon the story of the monk who told a lie to save his brother's soul. The polemical casuist will find in such a tale a text for disputation and hair-splitting. To the elders among the brethren this aspect of the story does not seem to have occurred. They glorified, not indeed the lie, but the love of the brother who lied, and honoured him as one who imitated Christ even to the point of laying down his life for his friend.

In the story of the hermit's rescue of his sister from her sin the interest is very human. Only the last touch in the story speaks to us unmistakably of the deserts of Egypt from which it came. Perhaps nowhere else, after such an event, would men have sat down to discuss the destiny of the woman's soul. It was God who revealed the answer of their question to them; but we can realize how near they must have got to the love of God to have been able to receive such a revelation, when we remember that, for themselves, a whole lifetime seemed too short a space for penitence.


The example of St. Antony, showing how he valued a sinner who repented.

It happened that a certain brother in the community of the abbot Elias fell into sin. The brethren expelled him from the monastery and he fled to St. Antony who then dwelt on the inner mountain. The saint kept him there some time and then sent him back to the monastery from which he had been cast out. The brethren, when they saw him, immediately drove him forth again. Then, as at first, he fled to St. Antony, and said to him, "My father, they will not receive me." Then the saint was grieved, and sent to the brethren a message, saying, "A certain vessel suffered shipwreck in the sea, and all her cargo was lost. Yet with great labour the sailors brought the ship herself to land. Do you now wish to push forth into the deep and sink the ship that has been rescued? "The brethren meditated upon the message which the saint sent them. When they understood it they were greatly ashamed, and at once received again the brother. who had sinned.


How the abbot Besarion desired to share the reproach of the Lord, of whom they said, "He eateth with publicans and sinners."

A certain brother had sinned, and the priest ordered him to go out of the church and depart from the company of the brethren. Then the abbot Besarion arose and went out along with him, saying, "I also am a sinner."


How the abbot Pastor wished to deal gently with one of the Lord's little ones.

A brother came to the abbot Pastor and said, "I am working hard at the tilling of my land, for I desire to make a feast for the brethren." The abbot Pastor said to him, "Go in peace, my son, you are doing a good work." Then the brother departed joyfully, and laboured yet more that he might add something to the feast he was preparing. But the abbot Anub, who had heard what was said, rebuked Pastor, saying to him, "Do you not fear God, that you have spoken thus to a brother, telling him to make a feast?" The abbot Pastor, being grieved, was silent. After two days, he sent for the brother to whom he had spoken and, Anub being present, said to him, "What was that which you asked me the other day, for my mind was wandering when I answered you?" The brother replied to him, "I told you about the tilling of my field and the harvest of it, and the feast that I was making." The abbot Pastor said to him, "I thought you were speaking of your brother who is still in the world. The making of feasts is no work for a monk." The brother was bitterly grieved when he heard this, and cried out, "I know no other good work to do, neither am I able to do any other; may I not till my farm for the sake of the brethren?" So saying, he departed. Then the abbot Anub was exceedingly sorry, and said, "My father, grant me your pardon." Pastor said to him, "Behold! I knew from the beginning that the making of feasts was no work for a monk, but according to the capacity of his mind I spoke to him. At least I excited his mind to a work of love. Now he is sad and despairing, and he will make his feast just the same."


How one, through exceeding great love for his brother, suffered himself to lie, and how the fathers saw that he did well.

Two brethren once went together to a town in order to sell the things that they had made during the previous year. One of them went out to buy certain things that were necessary for them. The other, meanwhile, waited for him in the inn. At instigation of the devil this one fell into sin. When the other returned he said, "Lo, we have obtained what we wanted, let us now return to our cell. But he who had sinned replied, "I cannot return with you." The other pressed him greatly, saying, "But why can you not return." Then he confessed, saying, "Because when you were absent I fell into sin, and now it is impossible for me to go back." Then the other, being very desirous of winning and saving his brother's soul, said, and confirmed his words with an oath, "I also, while I was away from you, fell just as you did. Nevertheless let us return to our cell and repent. All things are possible with God. It is even possible that He will pardon us if we repent, and not allow us to be tormented in the eternal fires of hell." Thus these two returned to their cell. They went to the elders who dwelt near them, and casting themselves at their feet, told the story of their temptation and their sin. Whatever the elders bid them do as penance they faithfully performed. The brother who had not sinned did penance for the other's sin because of the great love that he bare to him. Then the Lord looked down from heaven and beheld this mighty labour of love. After a time the whole matter was revealed by the Lord to the fathers, and they saw the great love of the brother who had not sinned, how he afflicted himself for his brother's salvation, and how the Lord had granted pardon to the sinner. "This," they said, "is that which is written. He has laid down his own life for the sake of his brother's salvation."


The abbot Pastor teaches a certain hermit to think of his own sins and bewail them before judging and condemning a sinning brother.

Once one of the brethren in a congregation fell into sin. Now there happened to be in that district a hermit who was renowned because for a long time he had not left his cell. To him the abbot of the congregation went and told the story of the brothees fall. The hermit, when he heard it, said, "Expel that man." So the sinning brother, driven forth from the community, went away to a desolate swamp and lamented. Now it came to pass that certain brethren on their way to the cell of the abbot Pastor heard him weeping in the swamp. They went down and found him altogether overwhelmed with grief. Filled with pity, they asked him to go with them to the cell of the abbot Pastor. He would by no means agree to go, but kept saying, "Let me stay here and die." When these brethren came to the abbot Pastor, they told him of the man whom they had found weeping in the swamp. He immediately begged them to go back again and say, "The abbot Pastor bids you come to him." When the poor man heard their words, he arose and went with them. When Pastor saw him with all the marks of his grief upon him, he arose and kissed him. Then bidding him be of good cheer, he set him down to meat. In the meanwhile he sent a brother to the hermit who had condemned the sinner, with this message: "I have heard much of you, and now for a long time have desired to see you. Now, therefore, if it be the will of God and convenient to you, I beseech you to put yourself to the toil of coming hither.' When the hermit heard these words, he said within himself, "No doubt God has revealed to him the kind of man I am, and therefore he has sent for me." Then rising up, he went to the cell of the abbot Pastor. When they had greeted each other and sat down, the abbot Pastor said, "There were two men who dwelt in one town. In the house of each of them there lay the dead body of a friend. The one of them forgot his own dead friend and the lamentation that was due to him, and leaving him unburied, went to weep at the other's funeral." The hermit when he heard these words was cut to the heart. He confessed that he had been angered at the sin of another while he forgot his own sin. Then he said, "Surely Pastor dwells in heavenly places, but I am here below on earth."


How the conviction of his own sinfulness manifests itself in more gentleness towards the sins of others.

The abbot Moses said, "Unless a man is convinced in his own heart that he is a sinner, God does not listen to his prayers." Then one of the brethren said to him, "What does it mean, this conviction in a man's heart that he is a sinner?" The old man said to him, "He who is conscious of his own sins has no eyes for the sins of his neighbour."


The story of a certain brother's love for a sinner, and how he gained thereby his sister's soul.

A certain brother dwelt in a cell in Egypt who was renowned for his humility. Now he had a sister who was a harlot in the city, and was working the destruction of the souls of many men. Many times the elders exhorted him, and at last hardly persuaded him to go to her if, perhaps, he might persuade her to leave her sinful life. When he came to the town one of the citizens ran before him to the harlot's house and told her, "Behold, your brother comes to see you." She then, because she loved him, left her lovers on whom she was attending, and without even covering her head, ran to meet him. He immediately stretched forth his arms to her, and said, "My sister, my dearest sister, have pity on your own soul. Do you not know that through you many are going to perdition? How can you bear this bitter life of yours? How will you bear the torments of eternity?" She trembled exceedingly, and replied to him, "My brother, are you sure that there is salvation for me even now?" He answered her, "If you wish for it there is salvation for you." Then she fell at his feet, and besought him that he would take her with him into the desert. He said to her, "Go, then, cover your head and follow me." But she replied, "No. But let us go straightway. It is better that men should see me walking through the streets with my head uncovered than that I should go again into the place where I sinned." Then they went together, and by the way he taught her the meaning of repentance. At last, as they journeyed, they saw some men coming towards them on the road, and the brother said, "Since these men will not know that you are my sister, I beseech you go aside a little from the road until they pass." After the men had passed, he called her, saying, "Sister, let us go on upon our way." When she did not answer him, he went to look for her and found her dead, and lo! her footprints were full of blood, for she had started on their way barefooted.

When the elders heard the story they talked among themselves of whether she was saved. God in the end revealed it to one of them, that inasmuch as she had cared nothing for her body or its pain upon her journey, inasmuch as she had counted her wounds as nothing for the great longing that she had to escape perdition, that therefore, for the sake of her heart's devotion, God had received her repentance.


How an old monk was redeemed from his sin by the gentleness and patience of his disciple.

There was a certain old monk who was a drunkard. He used to weave a mat every day, sell it in a neighbouring village, and spend the money he got on wine. After a while there came a younger brother, who dwelt with him as a disiple. He also wove one mat every day. The old man used to take his mat, too, and sell it, and spend the price of both on wine. Late in the evening he used to return and bring the disciple a very small piece of bread. Thus three years went by, and the young man spoke no word of complaint. At last he said within himself, "I am nearly naked, for my clothes are worn out. I am half starved for want of food. It is good that I arise and go hence." Then again he said within himself, "Whither have I to go? Better that I stay here. It was God who set me here. For God's sake, therefore, I will stay, enduring the life which I live." Immediately that he had thus resolved an angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, "You need not depart. To-morrow we shall come to you." Then the brother said to the old man, "Do not leave the cell to-morrow, I beseech you, for some friends of mine are coming to take me away." The next day, when the hour came at which the old man was wont to go down to the village, he grew impatient, and said to the disciple, "I think your friends will not come to-day. See how late it is." But the brother besought him very earnestly to stay saying that his friends most certainly would come. While he was speaking death came to him, and he slept peacefully. Then, when the old man saw that he was dead, he wept bitterly, and cried out, "Alas! alas! for me, my son! These many years I have lived carelessly; but you, in a brief time, have gained salvation for your soul by being patient." From that day forth the old man was sober, and well reported of for his good life.


How the abbot Macarius by his love won for Christ the soul of a heathen priest.

Once the abbot Macarius took a journey to Mount Nitna, and, as his custom was, sent his disciple to walk some way in front of him. The young man, as he went, met one whom he recognized as the priest of a heathen temple, bearing upon his shoulders a heavy log. At once he cried out against him, saying, "Where are you going, you devil?" The priest, goaded to anger by his words, beat him and left him fainting. Then he went again upon his way. Soon he met the abbot Macarius, who said to him, "Peace be with you, toiler, peace be with you." The priest replied, "What good do you see in me that you greet me thus?" Macarius said, "I wish you peace because I see you toiling, and because you know not where you go." Then said the priest, "Your words have touched my heart. You are, indeed, a true servant of God. As for that other wretched monk who met me and insulted me, I replied to his words with blows." Then, taking hold of the feet of the saint, he said, " I shall not leave you till you teach me to be a monk." They walked together to the place where the disciple lay. Together they bore him, for he could not walk, until they brought him to the church. There the brethren were struck with astonishment to see the heathen priest in company with Saint Macarius. Nevertheless, they received him and taught him to be a monk and many of the heathen round about were converted along with him. Often afterwards Macarius used to say to them, "See how haughty words turn even good men into bad, and how true it is that loving, lowly words change bad men into good."


How the abbot Ammon hid a brother's sin, but warned him of his danger.

Once the abbot Ammon came to a certain Place to eat bread with a brother who bore an evil reputation. Now it happened that a woman had gone into this brother's cell. The inhabitants of the place were aware of it, and gathered together in great wrath to expel that brother from his cell. Hearing that Ammon was present, they asked him to go with them. As soon as the brother saw them coming, he hid the woman whom he had received in a large chest. When the crowd arrived at his cell, the abbot Ammon guessed what he had done, but for God's sake he concealed it. He entered the cell, sat down on the chest, and then bid them search. When they had looked everywhere and not found the woman, the abbot Ammon said to them, "Where now are your suspicions? God grant you pardon for them." Then he prayed with them, and bid them depart After they were all gone, he took the brother by the hand and said, "My brother, beware." So saying, he departed.

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