Push Not The Weak Into Sin

Push Not The Weak Into Sin February 2, 2017

Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Painting of the Desert Fathers by Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A brother in a monastery was falsely accused of fornication and he arose and went to Abba Anthony. The brethren also came from the monastery to correct him and bring him back. They set about proving that he had done this thing, but he defended himself and denied that he had done anything of the kind. Now Abba Paphnutius, who is called Cephalus, happened to be there, and he told them this parable: “I have seen a man on the bank of the river buried up to his knees in mud and some men came to give him a hand to help him out, but they pushed him further in up to his neck.” Then Abba Anthony said this about Abba Paphnutius: “Here is a real man, who can care for souls and save them.” All those present were pierced to the heart by the words of the old man and they asked forgiveness of the brother. So, admonished by the Fathers, they took the brother back to the monastery.[1]

This saying gives us some insight into the early monastic community. While it is easy to romanticize the desert fathers, and think of them all as heroic saints, we often fail to realize the struggles they faced on a daily basis, making them more like us than we usually think. There were great leaders, there were spirit-filled Abbas who have left behind great wisdom for us all to consider, but there were also all the ordinary monks and nuns who struggled to overcome temptation and, like us, failed. Moreover, it shows how easy it was for monks to become judgmental, condemning their brethren instead of seeking to heal them from their spiritual wounds, showing how easy it is for those seeking to do right to ignore their own wrong-doing through the prelest formed from self-righteousness.

Lust, and even outright fornication, was a major temptation within the desert community. When desire remains without a proper outlet, then it is not surprising that many monks, once they had a chance for fornication, gave in to their desire. They confused lack of opportunity for virtue, and so did not actually develop themselves to hold on to their chastity.

Over time, many rules and regulations were put in place in monastic communities which were thought to help novices gain control over themselves and not fall into grave sin.[2] Sadly, they did not work, and many would-be monks fell into sin, sometimes with women, sometimes with other monks, or sometimes, even worse, with youth left to their protection. It was common enough a crisis that mere rumors were enough to convict a monk of being unchaste and worthy of punishment, if not expulsion from the community.

Nonetheless, it is wrong to convict a person of a crime which they did not commit, and punish them unjustly. It is terrible to destroy a person’s livelihood out of rumor, since many rumors come out of spite, seeking to destroy innocent people in the eyes of the naïve. Scripture is clear: if someone is able to be proven to have committed a grave wrong, they should be punished, but the conviction has to include witnesses who can prove the wrong-doing. While we now have a greater ability to gather evidence than in the past, the Mosaic covenant certainly provided inspiration for the Western tradition to require evidence for guilt and not just condemn by mere accusation: “A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained” (Deut. 19:15 RSV).  Rumor which is used to destroy the good reputation of an innocent person had to be rejected. “You shall not utter a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man, to be a malicious witness” (Ex. 23:1 RSV). What is necessary was proof, so that which is good and true can be held and evil, such as harming an innocent, could be prevented. [3]

Thus, when we read about an anonymous monk was falsely accused of fornication by others at his monastery, it makes sense that he would go to St. Anthony and ask for his help. Anthony was known to have great, almost supernatural, ability to discern the situation, so the monk believed Anthony would be able to tell that the charges was false and find a way to heal his estrangement from his fellow monks.

Upon arrival, Anthony certainly allowed the monk to plead his case, but he also allowed the monk’s accusers, and others of his own monastery, to be there, so that the charges could be made clear, and the proper judgment could be rendered. Then , after what was probably a long and very heated debate, there was merely accusations without evidence which stood against the monk.

Among those listening to the accusation and defense was one of Anthony’s disciples, Paphnutius. Palladius, in his Lausiac History, gives us a little more insight into Paphnutius: he was an unlettered but spirit-led monk. It is said that he could not read Scripture, but was able to interpret what he heard through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. “He had the gift of divine knowledge of Sacred Scripture, both the Old and New Testament, explaining them without ever having read the writings, but he was so meek that his prophetic gift was hidden.”[4]  It would seem that Anthony trusted Paphnutius’ judgment, realizing his charismatic inspiration would lead to a just conclusion.

To Paphnutius, the debate really was not of the monk’s guilt or innocence, but in the way he should be treated. The monks who accused him, saying they wanted to correct him, were nonetheless getting in the way of the monk’s spiritual improvement. The monk, like everyone else, could be said to be struggling in the quicksand of life, and without external help, the struggle would only make him sink faster. Those who claimed they wanted to help him were actually making him struggle more as they pushed him further away. Whether or not he was guilty or innocent of the charge, he, like everyone else, had to struggle with temptation; we are to help each other out, giving our strength to their weakness. If we see someone who we think is stumbling, whether or not they are, our action towards them can make them stumble; throwing out a hand can end up being a push if we are not careful. Likewise, this monk, (which the saying does declare was innocent), could easily be pushed into the sin he was accused of doing. He could flounder, wonder that the use is in struggling against the sin of fornication if he is treated as if he were already guilty, and give in.

This is what we get out of Paphnutius’s response. The monk could easily go into despair and feel if he is going to be treated and punished for something he did not do, there would be no reason to struggle against it – by making false charges, and being quite obsessive over it, the other monks from his community were actually pushing him into the sin they claimed he had committed. This is why being too accusatory can be a problem, why a judgmental attitude towards others is consistently rejected in the spiritual tradition. St. Paul said it well: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1-2 RSV). The monks were not being gentle; even if he had sinned, they were being excessive, but because he was innocent, what they did was that much more worthy of condemnation.  And yet, Paphnutius understood this, and his response was gentle to the monk’s accusers, giving them an example for them to consider, to see the harm they were doing to their brother, without being accusatory himself. He let them realize for themselves what they had don, hoping that they would act according to the goodness of their intentions and not the sinful mode in which they manifested their intentions.

This is why Anthony was able to see Paphnutius as a man who knew how to take care of and help direct others. He was gentle in his correction, wise in his understanding, and found a way for the obsessive monks to receive forgiveness without feeling as if they had been unfairly treated by their judge.

The saying, however, serves another purpose, for just as Paphnutius was able to use an allegory to help correct judgmental monks, the story also serves to remind us not to follow their bad example but to follow the wisdom of Paphnutius: Anthony affirms the way of Paphnutius as the way we should treat and correct others. If we truly seek to rescue someone from their sins, we will follow with care in how we treat them. We will show them love. Without it, it is not a true desire for their well-being, but rather, self-seeking vanity which uses such charity as an excuse to hide from ourselves the ill-will we have for others. Let us not push people away, lest we find ourselves the one cast aside and stuck in the mire of sin.


[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 7.

[2] An example of this is found in way monasteries would eventually forbid “beardless youth” from joining the community. This was not only for the protection of such youth, who would otherwise be easily abused, but also developed out of the experience of the community themselves, where it was clear, older monks who have not overcome their sexual desires began to fantasize over the youth. Removing them from the community was an attempt to remove a possible opportunity for sin.

[3] While speaking to a somewhat different context, this certainly was the background for the Apostle writing, “Do not quench the Spirit,  do not despise prophesying,  but test everything; hold fast what is good,  abstain from every form of evil” (1Tim. 5:19 -22 RSV).

[4] Palladius, The Lausiac History. trans. Robert T. Meyer, PhD (New York: Paulist Press, 1964), 125.


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