“A pious, young man went to visit a certain desert elder.
“How are you getting along, Abba,” he asked.
“Very badly, my child.”
“I have been here forty years,” the elder answered, sighing deeply, “doing nothing other than cursing my own self each day, inasmuch as in the prayers I offer, I say to God, ‘Accursed are those who deviate from Your commandments.'”
“Hearing the hermit speak in this way, the young man marveled at his humility and decided to emulate him.”
We are reading another saying with the theme of self-deprecating monks who have many years experience as monks. Here we have another relatively new monk asking advice of an older monk. The elder monk says his prayer is ‘Accursed are those who deviate from Your commandments,” and that he includes himself as one of the accursed. The younger monk is impressed wioth the humility and decides the older monk will be his role model.
Once again we see that the Desert Christians did not take salvation for granted. Once again we see that they have little comprehension of God’s grace. They were satisfied only with complete purity of thought, word, and deed. No matter how many years they devoted themselves to prayer and cleansing themselves of all sin, they never claimed they had done enough. Their sense of sin was such that they believed they could lose their salvation at any moment and they must always be on guard. That is the humility the younger monk decides to imitate.
There is a very famous icon called the Ladder of Divine Ascent. That is also the name of a book by St. John Climacus. In the icon we see a ladder reaching from earth to heaven and monks climbing their way to the top. Along the way, monks fall of the ladder and are snatched by demons and taken away. Even monks at the very top of the ladder fall off.
It’s a grim picture, isn’t it. It shows clearly that the Desert Christians felt constant vigilance against sin was the only way to maintain salvation. It is more than a bit extremist but seems to me we might be at the other end of the continuum because, honestly, how much time do we spend in self-examination in order to repent of our own sins. We need a healthier balance between the extremism of the Desert Christians and our own refusal to think about the existence of sin.
Here is the Ladder of Divine Ascent icon by St. John Climacus. I was privileged to see it when the monks of the Monastery of St. Catherine of the Sinai graciously sent their icons on a world tour.