Reflection on a Saying of a Desert Christian: Abba John the Short

“In the era that asceticism flowered in Egypt, there lived an orphan girl named Taisia. When her kind parents died, they left as an inheritance, first, above all other things, their piety and love for the poor and strangers; and, after that, a large home and a great deal of money to manage.

“The girl, out of great reverence for the hermits, made her home a guest-house, as a service to them, and, when they came down to the city to sell their handicrafts, she looked after them with all of her heart. Over the years, however, Taisia’s money was used up and she, herself, began to be in want. Thereupon, she was thrust in the midst of evil and corrupt people. They exploited her misfortune and, with their cunning, led her into depravity. The beautiful Taisia became a well-known prostitute.

“When the Fathers of the desert learned of the downfall of the orphan girl, they decided to do all that was in their hands to save her.

“When she had the means, she showed us every possible consideration,” they said among themselves. “Now that her soul is in danger, it is we who must pay our debt to her.” So they entrusted this delicate and difficult task to Abba John the Short.

“At first he hesitated. The task seemed infeasible. At last, however, so as not to be disobedient to the Fathers, he decided to go down to the city and present himself at the house of the sinful woman. He requested the doorkeeper to escort him to her mistress.

“Get out of here, old monk,” she angrily shouted at him. “First you eat up her fortune and then you still do not cease to pester her.”

“The Father was not discouraged. He continued to ask to see Taisia; “for something very beneficial to her,” he said. In the face of his perseverance, the old woman gave in and went to inform her mistress.

“These monks are always fishing in the Red Sea and finding pearls,” Taisia said. “Bring him up.” She looked at herself in the mirror, straightened her hair and her clothes, splashed a little perfume on herself, and lay on her couch with the air of a fallen woman, to greet the hermit.

“Abba John sorrowfully went to her room. He stood across from her. Standing and gazing at her with contempt for some time, he did not speak. Finally he said to her in a gentle voice: “In what way did our Christ offend you, Taisia, that you resist him so unmercifully?” He stopped. He could not continue. His sobs choked him. Burning tears ran from his sunken eyes. She felt ashamed.

“Changing her unbecoming, lying position, she worriedly asked him: “Why are you crying, Father?”

“How can I not cry, my daughter, when I see Satan playing in your face?”

“The girl was shocked. A shiver passed through her entire body.

“Now that you have come, elder, it is too late. There remains nothing upright in me. I wallowed with it all in the mud,” she silently murmured, perturbed.

“She wanted to say something else, too, but she stopped. The elder stood with his hands crossed on his chest. He was praying so strongly within himself for the salvation of the girl, that it was as if he were asking for the heavens to quake.

“Can it be that there is even salvation for me now, Abba?” she murmured doubtfully.

“O yes, there is, my daughter,” the elder cried with anguish. “Repentance brings about salvation.”

“The miracle, which he had for so much time sought with his prayer, took place at that moment. Taisia fell, broken, at his feet and, with tears in her eyes, begged: “Take me away from here, Father. Show me the way to salvation.”

“Follow me.”

“With no more talking, the girl got up and followed the elder. He was amazed how she showed no concern for her home. They made off for the road to the desert. But they had a long way yet to go, when evening fell on them. They stopped. Abba John cut some bushes and fashioned a makeshift bed for the girl.

“Sleep until dawn,” he advised her. “We still have a long road ahead of us.”

“He removed himself some distance away. Having said his prayers, he lay down on the ground to rest, taking a hard rock as his pillow. He slept a little and then woke up in the middle of the night to continue praying. Then there appeared before his eyes a grandiose sight. From the spot where he had left the girl to sleep, a lighted path began, reaching up to heaven. Swift-winged angels were carrying up a soul, all white like a dove, to the throne of God. The Saint stood for a long time staring, overwhelmed by the vision. Afterwards, he started over to where Taisia was. He shouted, to wake her. She did not hear. So, he lightly moved her. She was dead.

“Deeply moved, the hermit knelt at the side of the soulless body and gave himself over to fervent prayer. Then he perceived a sweet voice assuring his confused mind: “Even a short time of profound contrition is enough for the soul to find the way to salvation.”

This story, for those who have been following along, is remarkably similar to one read a few weeks ago about a two orphans, a brother and a sister. The brother goes off to become a monk and the sister is left to fend for herself with predictable results. Women did not have many choices in the ancient world. If a woman were to have any status, she needed to be connected to a man in some way. Women left on their own had only one way to make a living and that was prostitution. In some parts of the world, this is still true. In Africa, when a Muslim man with more than one wife, converts to Christianity, all of his wives remain in the family, because if the second, third, or possibly even fourth wife were set aside, they would have no resources.
 
Taisia was left an orphan in control of her own inheritance, which was very unusual. Usually, an unwed daughter would be left to the care of a brother or an uncle. Also very odd that a woman with an inheritance hadn’t been married off. After her parents’ death, she lived a life of service for the monks until she has no more money and she is lured into prostitution. The monks learned of her plight and send Abba John the Short to rescue her from her life of sin.
 
I loved the way the servant greeted the monk. Good for her, I thought. Taisia prepared herself for the monk’s visit as if he were a paying customer. Makes me wonder if Taisia felt some resentment about being forced into prostitution when it was service to the monks that had cost her that inheritance. Maybe she was trying to rub it into John’s face. John, on the other hand, looks at her with contempt. I hope that is because he didn’t appreciate how she was lying there to display herself and not because he was in contempt of her lifestyle. Be that as it may, his prayers prevail and off they journey together out into the desert, where she dies on the first night and Abba John the Short is privileged to see she soul ascend to heaven.
 
While I sincerely doubt there is any historical accuracy to this story, its moral is clear. “Even a short time of profound contrition is enough for the soul to find the way to salvation.”

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