I have always been a great admirer of the Eastern Orthodox tradition of Christianity, especially the mystical writings and monastic traditions of the Desert Fathers. One prominent theologian that is well respected in the Orthodox tradition is St. John Cassian (360-435 AD), a monk and theologian who is celebrated in both the east and west for his mystical writings, most notable of which are The Conferences and The Institutions.
I was looking through my collection of books this evening, when I decided to pick up the first volume of the Philokalia, which is a collection of sayings and teachings from various eastern church fathers. I happened to come across a section with some writings by St. John Cassian. As I read a little, I came across a passage where the saint relates a story that was told by a desert father named Abba Moses, and I was really touched by the story and the point that it was trying to make about knowing how and when to speak a word from God in the right season. I’m going to share it with you in the hopes that it might bless and encourage you as well. Here it is.
“There was once a very zealous brother who was greatly troubled by the demon of unchastity. He went to a certain father and confessed his private thoughts to him; but this father, being inexperienced, became angry when he heard about them and told the brother that he was contemptible and unworthy of the monastic habit for having entertained such thoughts as these. When the brother heard this, he lost heart, left his cell and set off back to the world. Through God’s providence, however, Abba Apollos, one of the most experienced of the elders, chanced to meet him and, seeing him over-wrought and very despondent, asked him why he was in this state. At first the brother did not reply because he was so depressed but, after the elder had pleaded with him, he told him what was wrong, saying: ‘Because I was often troubled by evil thoughts, I went to tell them to the elder; and as he said I have no hope of salvation, I have given up and am now on my way back to the world.’ When Abba Apollos heard this, he comforted and encouraged him, saying: ‘Do not be surprised, my child, and do not lose hope. I too, old and grey as I am, am still much troubled by these thoughts. Do not be discouraged by this burning desire, which is healed not so much by human effort as by God’s compassion. Please do this for me: go back to your cell just for today.’ This the brother did; and Apollos, after leaving him, went to the cell of the elder who had caused his despair. Standing outside he implored God with tears and said: ‘O Lord, who puts us to the test for our own benefit, let this elder be given the brother’s battle, so that in old age he may learn through experience what he has not been taught over these many years: how to feel sympathy with those who are under attack by the demons.’ As he finished his prayer, he saw a dark figure standing near the cell shooting arrows at the elder. Wounded by the arrows, the elder at once began to stumble back and forth as though drunk. Unable to withstand the attack, he finally left his cell and set off for the world by the same road that the young monk had taken. Seeing what had happened, Abba Apollos confronted him, and asked him where he was going and why he was so troubled. Although he realized that the holy man knew what was wrong with him, he was too ashamed to say anything. Abba Apollos then said to him: ‘Return to your cell, and in the future recognize your own weakness. The devil has either not noticed or has despised you, and so not thought you worth fighting. Not that there has been any question of a fight: you could not stand up to his provocation even for a day! This has happened to you because, when you received a younger brother who was being attacked by our common enemy, you drove him to despair instead of preparing him for battle. You did not recall that wise precept: “Deliver them that are being led away to death; and redeem them that are appointed to be slain” (Prov. 24:11 LXX). You did not even remember the parable of our Savior, which teaches us not to break a bruised reed or quench smoking flax (cf. Mt. 12:20). None of us could endure the plots of the enemy, or allay the fiery turmoil of our nature, if God’s grace did not protect our human weakness. Seeing, then, that God has had this compassion for us, let us pray to Him together and ask Him to withdraw the whip with which He has lashed you. “For He wounds but binds up; He strikes but His hands heal’ (Job 5:18).’ After Abba Apollos had said this and had prayed, the attack which had been launched against the elder was at once suspended. Finally, Abba Apollos advised him to ask God to give him ‘the tongue of the learned’ so as to know ‘how to speak a word in season’ (Isa. 50:4).” – St. John Cassian (The Philokalia Vol. 1; Faber and Faber pgs. 105-106)