In a monastery there were two remarkable brothers who soon merited to see the grace of God descend upon each other. Now one day it happened that one of them went out of the monastery on a Friday and saw someone who was eating in the morning, and he said to him, ‘Why are you eating at this hour on a Friday?’ Later there was the synaxis [assembly] as usual. Now his brother saw that grace had withdrawn from him, and he was grieved. When they had returned to the cell he said to him, ‘My brother, what have you done? Indeed, I do not see the grace of God upon you as it used to be.’ The other answered him, ‘I am not aware of having done anything wrong, either in act or in thought.’ His brother said to him, ‘Have you spoken any words?’ Then he remembered and said, ‘Yesterday I saw someone who was eating outside the monastery early in the day, and I said to him, ‘Why are you eating at this hour on a Friday?’ This is my sin. But labor with me for two weeks, praying God to forgive me.’ They did this, and at the end of two weeks one brother saw the grace of God come upon the other and they were comforted and gave thanks to God.
From the Wisdom of the Desert Fathers
There are a number of marvelous aspects of this small story. One is the all-too-common occasion of judging another. It is a revelation that even such holy men as those who are laboring unceasingly in prayer can have the simple temptation to fix someone else’s practice of the fast. This is not the story of an over-zealous recent convert, but a father of the desert. Among believers, temptation and sin know no strangers.
Another marvel is that these good fathers “see the grace of God.” We are not told how they see the grace, or even fully what it means “to see the grace of God upon them.” It is interesting to me that the story says that they merited to “see the grace of God descend upon each other,” which is a world away from “seeing the grace of God descend upon themselves.” I suspect that the former is a blessing, whereas the latter would be a dangerous if not disastrous temptation.
Another marvel is the humility with which the offending brother accepts the word that grace is not upon him “as it used to be.” Which leads to the final marvel – the simple statement that they prayed together for two weeks for his forgiveness. Our religious world is often infected with legal imagery of sin and forgiveness – imagery which makes us instantly guilty and instantly forgiven. Such imagery does not allow us to contemplate the true effect of sin in our lives, nor does it allow us to understand the true scope of forgiveness and healing.
But these blessed fathers of the desert understood much. They do not doubt God’s love or mercy but they do not labor for forgiveness as a mere legality. Forgiveness also represents the healing of our soul and the restoration of our life with God. Perhaps I should add one last marvel to my list: God hears their prayer and His grace descends upon him.
May God hear our prayer and may His grace descend upon us!