“A certain youth,” Abba John of Likopoulos relates to us, “swept away by the pleasures of the world, had sunk into the mud of dissoluteness. It happened, however, that he came to his senses, like the prodigal son, and sought the way of return to his Father’s house. He left the world, to find redemption in the desert. His refuge was an abandoned tomb. Closed away in this unusual prison, his injured soul wept bitterly.
“The angels rejoiced at this; but the spirits of evil, who saw their prey so unexpectedly slip from their hands, lost no time in making an assault. They would gather around the tomb at night and say with rage: ‘Where are you athlete (struggler)? Why have you forsaken us, after such friendship? After tasting everything to excess, you now decide to become holy. It is too late to pretend to be reformed now, hoping for mercy.’
” ‘Come on out, you ignorant man,’ other spirits would shout. ‘Your companions are waiting for you.’
” ‘You unfortunate man,’ the most cunning spirits would whisper, ‘there is no salvation for you. You will quickly find death and eternal damnation there where you are hiding.’
“With what malice they endeavored to bring him to despair. But the brave struggler was too determined to die better, never to return to his former ways. He asked for divine aid with fervent entreaties, scorning the demonic fantasies. Then one night the devil became more frightening.
” ‘If you do not come out immediately, you will never escape from my hands.’ And since he did not, of course, listen to the devil, the devil set upon him and left him nearly dead from his blows. He took vengeance in this way.
“The monk’s relatives, meanwhile, uneasy with his sudden disappearance, were looking everywhere for him. Finally they found him in terrible shape in the tomb. But as much as they insisted, they remained unable to persuade him to follow them.
“Yet another night, the demons set upon him with unrestrained rage and would have killed him with their fierce beatings; but they did not have the power. The athlete did not waver. He preferred to lose this ephemeral life, rather than to defile his body and soul again with the germ of sin, after having repented. So the demons recognized their defeat.
” ‘You conquered us, you conquered us,’ they shouted, lamenting, and disappeared, never even daring to tempt him further.
“Being freed, thereby, from every trial, the formerly dissolute monk remained in the tomb until the end of his life, and was made worthy to perform miracles, in order to show the power of repentance.”
This is a gruesome tale.
Here we have a young man who delighted in the things if this world and somehow was convicted of sin and went away to a tomb in the desert to repent. When I think of “tomb”, I think of a mausoleum in a cemetery but as I can’t imagine anyone would build such an edifice out in the desert, I suspect the man found refuge in a cave in which a body or bodies had been buried. As I have said so many times before there is an element of unhealthy extremism in the practices of the Desert Christians, yet at the same time,I have to admire their devotion because the search for a holy life is rare among us Christians. At least it is among Christians of the USA which are the only ones I know anything about.
The use of “athlete” is interesting. It comes from St. Paul who ran the race set before him. It requires discipline to live a spiritual life exactly as it requires discipline to be an athlete. The Greek word ascesis, which means spiritual discipline, is related to the concept of athletic discipline.
This young man endured a lot to find repentance and salvation. The Saying doesn’t say it, but it requires a willingness to accept divine grace in order to withstand temptations. We have so many things that tempt us. I can think of some examples. There are so many comforts and luxuries to purchase instead of living more simply so that we may give freely to those in need. As I write this during Advent, television commercials, if I watched them, would tell me that if I were a man and wanted to prove to my wife that I loved her, I would give her diamonds, regardless of the human slavery it requires to mine them.
We’ve just had Thanksgiving here in the USA, Christmas and various holiday parties are in our future where we are tempted to gluttony and drunkenness. How many times do we tailgate at the football stadium on Sunday morning instead of going to church?
You know, I could go on and on and on about all our guilty pleasures, all the ways we gratify ourselves and our families instead of choosing to pursue holiness. But in addition to the boredom, it is also not my intention to induce guilt. Each of us must look within to discover what in our lives do we prefer to Christ. I can’t do that for you nor would I want to. However, I do so hope that you will choose self-examination.