Reflection on a Saying of a Desert Christian: anonymous

“A woman of sin once made up her mind, and wagered with her friends, that she could, without fail, succeed in leading into her nets a hermit, who lived on a mountain far from the city and about whom it was said by all that he was a holy man.

“She wore a thick veil, which hid her attractiveness, and climbed the mountain. Her friends waited for her half-way up the road. As evening fell, she knocked at the door of the hermit’s cave. He was disturbed when he saw her: “How can it be that a woman would be found at such an hour in this wilderness?”

“Ah, devil, this is one of your enticements,” he mused.

“He asked her who she was and what she was looking for. She turned on the tears.

“For hours on end I have been wandering in the wilderness, Father. I lost my way and my companions and I do not even know how I got here. But in the name of God, do not let the wild beasts eat me.”

“The hermit found himself in a dilemma. Should he take a woman into his living quarters? No such thing had ever occurred to him. But, on the other hand, should he let a creature of God be eaten by wild beasts? That would be inhuman, almost criminal. Finally, sympathy got the better of him and he took her in. She then took off her veil, supposedly ingenuously, and showed him her charms. Temptation began to inflame the desires of the combatant, since the act was no longer impeded.

“He threw a few dry leaves on the ground and told the woman to lie down, while he removed himself to the depths of the cave. He kneeled and prayed fervently.

“Tonight,” he reflected, “I have to wage the toughest battle against the visible and invisible enemy, and either I shall be victorious, or I will waste all of my labors.”

“As the night progressed, so much more the flame of his desire burned him. For one moment he felt his resistance yield and he was terrified.

“Those who defile their bodies with sinful acts go to hell,” he said almost screaming. “And now to test to see if you will endure in the torturing fire.”

“He lighted his oil lamp and put his finger in the flame. But the other flame which burned his flesh was stronger and did not let him feel pain from the burn. Since his first finger had become useless, he put his second finger into the flame of the oil lamp, and then the third. By the time morning came, he had burned the five fingers of his hand.

“That vile woman followed the superhuman struggle of the servant of God from a hidden vantage point and, seeing him obstinately burn all of his fingers, one after the other, was so shaken that she dropped dead of her terror.

“Her friends, in the meantime, made a surprise incursion on the elder’s cave in order to get a laugh at his expense. However, they found him outside in prayer.

“Did a woman perhaps show up here last evening?” they asked him.

“She is inside sleeping,” he answered them.

“They went in and found her dead.

“He then uncovered his hand and showed them his fingers.

“Do you see here what the daughter of the devil did to me?”

“The commandment of Christ, however, commands me to return good for evil.”

“He stood up and prayed over her soulless body and brought it back to life.”

This is one dramatic anecdote, is it not?  I was tempted to skip it but the more I thought about, I realized I couldn’t. I have no idea if any of this happened, I tend to think that it did not but I believe I have gleaned something from it.

The woman is described as “a woman of sin.”  I’ve no idea if that means she is a prostitute but I don’t think it matters.  She is a woman who intends to do harm by tempting a holy man to break his vow of chastity.

Of course, in the USA, the only country of which I can speak knowledgeably, we don’t, generally speaking, take the concept of chastity seriously.  Nor do we, generally speaking, see anything wrong with sex just to have sex. However, people who take religious vows which include a vow of chastity, take them very seriously. Most of us, anyway.  This monk clearly does.

He is a man with a good heart.  He believes her story that she is lost and the wild beasts are out there.  He offers her holy hospitality which she violates when she reveals her beauty and makes a pass at the monk who reacts with such horror at the degree of temptation he feels that he burns his fingers to distract himself from his sexual desire for her.  She skulks about spying on him and drops dead of “terror” we are told.  What was she terrified of? I think she was terrified by the lengths to which the monk was willing to go in order to withstand temptation.

The next morning her friends  arrive, clearly expecting to find the pair in flagrante delicto but instead, they find the monk outside his cave, praying. They find their dead friend. The monk shows them his burned fingers to demonstrate how far he was willing to go to avoid sin.  In order to avoid another sin, disobedience to Jesus’, he returns evil with good and restores her to life.

There are people in this world who do indeed tempt us to do that which we ought not.  We have to be able to recognize temptation  for what it is and withstand it. There are people in this world who harm us.  What if, instead of taking our revenge upon them,we show them good, kindness, and mercy?

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