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MESSAGE OF THE MONTH
A Tale of Falling and Repentance
By Abba John of Lycus (from “The Lausiac History,” by St. Palladius).
There was a monk who lived in the desert, conducting himself properly and scrupulously for many years. When he was already getting to be quite elderly, he was severely tested by the wiles of the demons. His usual practice consisted of passing his days in silence, with many prayers and psalms and periods of contemplation. He had clear insights into many divine visions, sometimes waking, and sometimes even when asleep, although he actually slept hardly at all, living a life apart from the body. He did not till the ground, he took no thought for the necessities of life, and he cultivated no garden to supply his bodily needs. Nor did he catch birds or hunt any other animal, but full of the faith in which he had abandoned human community, he cared nothing for whether or not his body would be nourished. Forgetful of all else, he was sustained solely by his desire for God, waiting for his call to depart from this world, feeding above all on these things which cannot be perceived with the senses.
Throughout all this time, his body did not waste or show any ill effects, nor was he gloomy in spirit, but he continued to appear his normal attractive self. And God truly honored him indeed, for after a due interval of time He supplied his table with bread for two or three days, not just apparently but actually, for him to use. He would go into his inner room when he felt the pangs of hunger and find this food there. And having praised God and taken some food, he would again sing psalms, persevering in prayers and contemplation, growing daily, giving himself to the pursuit of virtue in hope of the future. He went on progressing more and more, until he almost got to the stage of putting his trust in his own powers of improvement and thereby came to his downfall, almost perishing in the temptations which then came upon him.
His thoughts had arrived at such a pass that he was little by little imprudently beginning to think more of himself than anyone else, and that he possessed much more than other men, and for this reason he began to put his trust solely in himself. Not long after he first thought like this, his vigilance relaxed slightly, but so little that he did not even notice that there had been any relaxation. But his negligence grew until it progressed to the extent that he could not fail but notice it. He was late in waking up to sing psalms, his prayers became shorter, his psalm singing did not last so long, his soul said to him that he needed to rest (and his mind agreed with that), his thoughts wandered and scattered, his secret meditations were spiritless.
But the impetus of his earlier routine still motivated him, and kept him safe for a while, so that when he went in after his usual prayers of an evening, he still found the bread supplied by God on his table and refreshed himself accordingly. But he still did not cut off his unworthy thoughts, he despised the idea that his soul was being damaged; he made no attempt to seek a remedy for these evils. Little by little he fell into omitting many of the things which he ought to have been doing. In thought he began to develop a desire for human company.
The next day he put a temporary restraint on himself, and returned to his usual exercises, but after he had prayed and sung his psalms, he went into the storeroom and found that the bread placed there was not so well baked or wholesome as usual, but was dirty and polluted. He wondered about this and was very sad about it, but nevertheless picked it up and ate it.
Came the third night and with it a third evil. For thoughts suddenly erupted in his mind, activating his memory so much that he imagined there was a woman lying with him. This image persisted in front of his eyes, and he actively encouraged it. But on this third day he went out to his work and his prayers and his psalms, although his mind was not clean anymore, and strayed frequently. He lifted up his eyes to the heavens, turning them this way and that, but the images in his memory prevented his work from being unspoiled. In the evening when he returned feeling hungry, he found that the bread looked as if it had been chewed by mice or dogs, and the scraps left over were dried up as if left outside.
He began to groan and weep, but not so much as to make him want to correct his faults. Having eaten less than he would have wished, he prepared himself for rest, but at once his thoughts went wild, dancing around in every direction, battling for possession of his mind, and taking it captive into uncleanness. He got up and began to walk towards the inhabited regions, walking through the desert by night. Daylight came and he was still a long way off from any habitation. He began to be overcome by the heat and felt very tired. He gazed around him in a complete circle, and saw at some distance what appeared to be a monastery where he might go in and get some refreshment. And so it was. He was accepted in by some good and faithful brothers, who treated him as a real father and washed his face and his feet. They prayed with him, put food before him, and invited him most kindly to partake of what they were offering him.
After he had eaten, the brothers asked him for a word of salvation, and what means there were of being able to be safe from the wiles of the devil, and how to overcome unclean thoughts. Like a father admonishing his sons, he urged them to be strong and constant in their labors in order to arrive quickly to a state of being at peace. He discussed many other aspects of their discipline with them and helped them greatly.
When he had finished he thought for a while and marveled at how he was giving advice to others without looking to himself and trying to amend. He acknowledged he was beaten and straightaway went back to the desert, weeping for himself, and saying, “Unless the Lord had been my helper my soul had remained in hell. (Pss 94:17). I have almost been overcome by evil. They have brought me back to earth.” Thus were fulfilled in him the words, A brother who is helped by a brother is like a city built up on high, whose wall cannot be breached. (Prov 18:19). Whereas before he used to spend all his time without doing any physical work, now he was deprived of the bread provided by the Lord and labored for his daily bread. And when he had shut himself up in his inner room and covered himself in sackcloth and ashes, he did not get up from the ground or cease from weeping until he had heard the voice of the angel saying to him in a dream, The Lord has accepted your repentance and has had mercy on you. From now on live in such a way that you will not be deceived. The brothers you gave advice to will come to you and will show the high opinion they have of you. Accept them, live with them, and give thanks to God always.
I have told you these things, my sons, that you may always cultivate humility and be seen to do so in small things as in great. This was the first of the Savior’s precepts, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:3). And do not be deceived by the demons, stirring you up with visions and fantasies. If anyone approaches you, whether brother, friend, woman, father, teacher, mother or sister, first lift up your hands in prayer. If they are fantasies, they will flee. And if either demons or human beings would deceive you by agreeing with you and flattering you, don’t listen to them or get carried away by them. For the demons would often try to deceive me at night also, preventing me from praying, disturbing my peace, presenting fantasies to me the whole night through, and mockingly prostrating themselves in the morning, saying, “Forgive us, abba, for giving you such hard work all night.” I just say to them, Depart from me, all you who work evil, do not put the servant of the Lord to the test. (Pss 6:8).
Do likewise, O my sons, seek peace. Direct your whole self always towards contemplation, begging God that your mind may be purified. Anyone practicing his faith in the world may also be a good workman, engaged in doing good, showing humanity and pity, hospitality and charity, giving alms, blessing those who come to him, helping those in difficulties and avoiding giving offence to anyone.
Such a person is to be commended, for he keeps the commandments and gets things done, even while busy with earthly affairs. But a greater and more excellent thing is to be turned towards contemplation, given not to action but to thought, leaving to others the production of material goods. Denying himself he will contemplate heavenly things, completely forgetful of self, standing before the God of all completely free and unencumbered, turning away for no other consideration whatsoever. Someone like this may not yet enjoy God yet turns always towards God in eager songs of praise.
I know someone in the desert who never tasted earthly food for a space of ten years. An angel fed him every third day with heavenly food, placing it directly into his mouth. To him it was as good as food and drink. I know also that the demons came to this man in the form of fantasies, showing him heavenly armies, chariots of fire, a crowd of followers, as if some king were coming, and saying, “You have done all things well and virtuously, O Man. All you need now is to worship me and I will take you up like Elias.” But the monk replied, “Daily I worship my King and Savior, but if he were here now that is not a demand that he would make of me.” From the bottom of his heart he then cried, “God is my Lord and King whom I ever adore. My king you are not.” And the vision vanished immediately. Unlike some, he strove to keep secret his way of life and the things he did. It was the fathers with him who said that he had seen these things.
These and many other things the blessed John told us, nourishing our souls up to the ninth hour for three days. And as he blessed us, bidding us go in peace, he also gave us a prophecy. “It has been announced today in Alexandria,” he said, “that the most devout Theodosius has won a victory over the tyrant Eugenius, [in the year 394] who has died his own well-deserved death”, which came to pass exactly as he had said.
We were also aware of a great number of monks who were with him in the church, like a great choir of the righteous, dressed in white robes, glorifying God in fervent psalms. After we saw many other fathers some brothers came and told us that the blessed John had died a wonderful death. For he had given orders that no one should visit him for three days, during which he passed away as he knelt in prayer into the presence of God, to whom be glory for ever.