There were two monks who committed a very serious sin when they went to the village to sell their wares. But they were wise enough not to let the devil trick them into discouragement and so they came back to the desert and went to the Abba to confess their sins. To ease them into their conversion, they were asked to go and live on their own for one month on bread and water, to pray and do penance.
When the time was over, Abba himself came over to reunite them with the disciples. However he was very surprised because one came out grim, downcast, pale while the other was radiant, buoyant and brisk. "What did you meditate upon?" Abba asked.
The sad monk answered : "I thought constantly on the punishment which I merit and the justice of God". The happy monk answered : "Well, I used to remind myself constantly of the mercy of God and the love which Jesus Christ had for the sinner."
Both of them were joyfully accepted back in the community but Abba remarked on the wisdom of the brother who kept his mind fixed on the compassion of God.
Desert Father Stories
Reflection – One humorous (to us) note about this story is that to ease (!) these two monks into their conversion, they were put on bread and water and solitary confinement for a month. That’s ‘easing’ in desert father world, I guess! I don’t think too many of us would be very impressed with being given that as a penance, even if we had murdered someone.
Of course that’s not the point of the story – in fact, that is pretty ordinary unremarkable stuff by the standards of the fathers, which itself bears some reflection. I’m not advocating priests commonly handing out hard, heavy penances to people, but we could give some thought to our own personal practice of penance in light of our sins and the sins of the world.
But the point, of course, is what we fix our mind on, and the difference that makes in our joy. Again, note that neither of these monks spent much time meditating on how they really weren’t such bad guys, and all this sin business is kind of stupid, and the Church needs to get with the times, and really, I’m a good person.
No, they both knew full well that they were sinners, they were messed up and had messed up, and neither of them was giving a lot of mental real estate to their own selves. That, too, is worth our considering, isn’t it? Quite often these days a lot of the pseudo-spirituality and pop psychology of our church culture is really self-aggrandizement dressed up in a pious cloak.
But really, the nub of the story is how we deal with our sins, how we deal with the fact that we really are on the outs with God and with our brothers and sisters in some fundamental way. One monk trembled in fear and anxiety over this, one monk rejoiced in the infinite mercy of God. Both are reconciled, but one is sad, the other joyous.
Of course, if you think of it, the one who is filled with fear and anxiety and sadness is, in his own way, falling into a subtle snare of pride, one of the trickier ones. To have an excessive and exaggerated sorrow over one’s sins can imply that I am grieved that someone as wonderful as myself should have possibly fallen into such a state. ‘How could I, I, have done this thing?’ And to be filled with fear and anxiety over God’s anger and God’s punishment can also have a little pride component, too. Somehow it’s on us to fix it, to earn God’s favor, to make ourselves not so displeasing to Him.
No, the monk who simply turns his mind and heart to the infinite and tender mercy of God, knowing full well that he is a sinner who needs that mercy, but constant marveling and rejoicing at the gift given, is both on the path of joy and on the path of true humility.