“A monk under obedience to a certain great elder also suffered from carnal desire and struggled hard without regard for his body. Seeing him struggle mercilessly, his elder felt sorry for him.
“Do you want me to ask God to deliver you from this torment, my child?” he asked him one day when he was especially sorrowful.
“No, Father,” said the brave struggler. “For, though I am laboring severely, I see great benefit in my soul from the struggle. Pray only that God will give me the strength to endure.”
“Indeed, you are doing well, my child,” the elder then told him with admiration, “and you surpass me.”
It has often been said, quite rightly, that the Desert Christians were extremists. They were. Yet at the same time there is something so compelling about them that we continue to read and study their Sayings millennia later. What is it that compels us?
For me, it is a combination of their naivete, passion, and purity of heart and I think this particular Saying is a combination of all three.
Here is a younger monk seeking to rid himself of all bodily desires. Not only sexual desire but also that pesky desire for food, sleep, for anything that would make his body comfortable. Today we would say many of the Desert Christians were dualists in the sense that everything of the body, of the flesh, of the world, was evil in their eyes and only the spiritual life was good, according to them.
His mentor observed the younger man’s struggles and offered him a short cut which the younger man rejected because his sufferings taught him so much.
And there we have it. That’s what slaps me upside the head and keeps me coming back for more. The utter simplicity of it. He had a way out of his suffering and he rejected it because he was learning from his suffering. I am so struck by that I had to repeat myself because how many of us even think this way? When we are confronted with our own suffering, don’t we want a way out as soon as possible?
From my own personal experience, I can say that suffering taught me. I’ve had Major Depressive Disorder from a young age and for a long time my effort were focused on making it go away. It was an exhausting fight and very ineffective, too. It wasn’t until I embraced it, until I ceased to fight, not until I respected depression for what it is, that I began to learn to manage my symptoms. To allow them to be without denying them. To identify triggers and resolve the issues before they turned into a full-blown depressive episode.
This, I believe, is why I keep returning to the Desert Christians. Their passion for something more, something better, motivates me to stay as close to God as I can, to seek to experience God in as tangible a manner as possible.