[This delightful story is one of many given in Benedicta Ward’s translation of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which makes excellent Lenten reading.]
There was once a brother who was very eager to seek goodness. Being very disturbed by the demon of lust, he came to a hermit and told him about his thoughts. The hermit was inexperienced and when he heard all this, he was shocked, and said he was a wicked brother, unworthy of his monk’s habit because he had thoughts like that.
When the brother heard this, he despaired, left his cell and started on his way back to the world. But by God’s providence, Abba Apollo met him. Seeing he was so upset and sad, he said to him, “Son, why are you so unhappy?” The brother was very embarrassed, and at first said nothing. But when Apollo pressed him to say what was happening to him, he admitted everything and said, “It is because lustful thoughts trouble me. I confessed them to that hermit, and he says I now have no hope of salvation. So I have despaired, and am on my way back to the world.”
When Apollo heard this, he went on asking questions like a wise doctor, and gave him this counsel, “Do not be cast down, son, nor despair of yourself. Even at my age and with my experience of the spiritual life, I am still troubled by thoughts like yours. Do not fail now; this trouble cannot be cured by our efforts, but only by God’s mercy. Do as I say and go back to your cell.” The brother did so.
Then Apollo went to the cell of the hermit who had made the brother despair. He stood outside the cell, and prayed to the Lord with tears, saying, “Lord, you permit men to be tempted for their good; transfer the war that brother is suffering to this hermit: let him learn by experience in his old age what many years have not taught him, and so let him find out how to sympathize with people undergoing this kind of temptation.”
As soon as he ended his prayer he saw a black man standing by the cell firing arrows at the hermit. As though he had been wounded, the hermit began to totter and lurch like a drunken man. When he could bear it no longer, he came out of his cell, and set out on the same road by which the young man started to return to the world. Apollo understood what had happened, and went to meet him.
He came up to him and said, “Where are you going? Why are you so upset?” When the hermit saw that the holy Apollo understood what had happened, he was ashamed and said nothing. Apollo said to him, “Go back to your cell and see in others your own weakness and keep your own heart in order. For either you were ignorant of the devil in spite of your age, or you were contemptuous, and did not deserve to gain strength by struggling with the devil as all other men must. But struggle is not the right word, when you could not stand up to his attack for one day.
“This has happened to you because of the young monk. He came to you because he was being attacked by the common enemy of us all. You ought to have given him words of consolation to help him against the devil’s attack, but instead you drove him to despair. You did not remember the wise man’s saying ,which orders us to deliver the men who are drawn toward death and not to cease to redeem men ready to be killed.
“You did not remember our Savior’s parable, “you should not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax” (Matt 12:20). No one can endure the enemy’s clever attacks, nor quench, nor control the leaping fire natural to the body, unless God’s grace preserves us in our weakness. In all our prayers we should ask for his mercy to save us, so that he may turn aside this scourge which is aimed even at you. For he makes a man to grieve, and then lifts him up to salvation; he strikes, and his hand heals; he humbles and exalts; he gives death and then life; he leads man down to Sheol and raises him up.”
So Apollo prayed again, and at once the hermit was set free from his inner war. Apollo urged him to ask God to give him a wise heart, in order to know how best to speak.