There were two old men who dwelt together for many years and who never quarreled. Then one said to the other: "Let us pick a quarrel with each other like other men do." "I do not know how quarrels arise," answered his companion. So the other said to him: "Look, I will put a brick down here between us and I will say ‘This is mine.’ Then you can say ‘No it is not, it is mine.’ Then we will be able to have a quarrel." So they placed the brick between them and the first one said: "This is mine." His companion answered him: "This is not so, for it is mine." To this, the first one said: "If it is so and the brick is yours, then take it and go your way." And so they were not able to have a quarrel.
A brother who had sinned was turned out of the church by the priest. Abba Bessarion got up and went out with him, saying, "I, too, am a sinner."
One day Abba Isaac went to a monastery. He saw a brother committing a sin and he condemned him. When he returned to the desert, an angel of the Lord came and stood in front of the door of his cell, and said, "I will not let you enter." But he persisted saying, "What is the matter?" And the angel replied, "God has sent me to ask you where you want to throw the guilty brother whom you have condemned." Immediately he repented and said, "I have sinned, forgive me." Then the angel said, "Get up, God has forgiven you. But from now on, be careful not to judge someone before God has done so."
There are many stories from the Desert Fathers, and many stories from the monastics that go on to this day. Just this week, at a clergy retreat, I had the opportunity to hear many stories from a monk who had spent years in a Monastery at Mount Athos. Actually, he was asked to speak at the sessions of the retreat, but he did not speak as we would expect in the USA. He appeared to have no particular topic statement, no logical organization or development of a theme, no clear and set conclusions. He simply got up and told stories of the type above as well as personal stories of things that he had witnessed or that had happened to him.
By the end of the first session, I was frustrated. This is a retreat, why do I keep hearing story after story, with no theme or organization? But, by the second talk, I felt as though my ears had been opened. All of a sudden I realized that the stories were to break me out of my regular mold of thinking so that I might learn to be more and more like Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Almost every Desert Father and monastic story has someone doing something unexpected or saying something unexpected. But, each time the unexpected action or the unexpected saying is to show me how little I really understand about God or what it means to be his follower. Or to put it like the Prophet Isaiah would have put it, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
The monastic stories remind us not to judge, to love unconditionally, but more than that, to be rid of the sin of pride that assumes that I really and truly know what is going on in a situation. They also remind us that God is quite able to do things or to reach people in ways that I do not expect. Forgiveness and grace flow from the monastic stories in a stream so large that if I do not let my ways of thinking be expanded, I could easily drown in the stories.
By the third session, I was listening avidly to the stories, surprised at how fast the time had passed when the session finally finished. Normally, I suspect I would have felt guilty that I did not meet the high level expected by the stories, except that I did not feel guilty. Amazingly, the very stories that showed me my lacks and shortcomings also assured me of a God who deeply loves me and desires union with me and for me to grow into the full image and likeness of God.
And so, I commend the Desert Fathers and the monastics to you. Read them this Lent, and see if they do not complement your fasting and prayer so that you may become more and more like Our Lord Jesus Christ.