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June 6, 2011

One Man's Deprivation Is Another Man's Luxury

One of the apophthegmata of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers reads as follows:

There was once a monk who had lived in a vast mansion in Rome, but in Scete lived near the church with a servant to look after him. The presbyter of the church realised his weakness in that he had been used to all kinds of luxury, and shared with him all that the Lord sent him and all that was given to the church. After living for twenty-five years in Scete, he had become well known as a contemplative of discernment.

Hearing of his reputation, one of the foremost Egyptian monks came to see him, expecting to find that his way of life was physically fairly arduous. After their greetings they said the prayers and sat down together. The Egyptian was shocked to notice that his companion was clothed in fine raiment, that his bedding was of finely woven reeds over a layer of tanned leather, that he had a little scarf of soft material round his neck, and that he was wearing sandals on his clean feet. Such a way of living was not customary in that place; severe abstinence was rather the usual rule. Seeing that he had the gift of prayer and discernment, the old Roman realised that his companion was shocked and said to his servant, "Let's do things well today for the sake of this abba who has visited us."

And he cooked a few vegetables which he had, and sat down for the meal as soon as they were ready. They also drank some of the wine which he kept for his infirmity. And when Vespers was done they said the twelve psalms, went to bed and slept all night. When they got up in the morning the Egyptian said, "Pray for me" and departed, totally disillusioned in him.

He hadn't gone far before the Roman sent after him and called him back, because he wanted to clear up the misunderstanding. After welcoming him gladly he asked, "What nationality are you?"

"I am an Egyptian," he replied.

"And from what city?" he asked.

"I wasn't born in a city and have never lived in one," was the answer.

"Before you became a monk, what did you do? Where did you live?" he asked.

"I was a farm worker," he said.

"You had a bed to sleep in?" he asked.

"As a farm worker should I have been so lucky as to have a bed to sleep in?" he replied.

"Where did you sleep then?" he asked.

"On the bare ground," he replied.

"What did you eat in your field, and what sort of wine did you drink?" he asked.

"What sort of food and wine do you think you are likely to get as a farmworker?" he replied.

"Well, tell me how you lived," he said.

"I ate dry bread and perhaps a little salted fish if I could get it, and my only drink was water," he replied.

"A hard life" the old man said, and went on, "You had no bath to wash in?"

"No, I washed in the river when I could," he replied.

When the old man had learned from these replies everything about his former life and work he told him about his own previous life before becoming a monk, hoping to open his eyes a bit.

"This poor sinner that you see before you came from the mighty city of Rome," he said. "I had an important position under the Roman Emperor."

At these words the Egyptian was taken aback and began to listen carefully to what was being said.

"I left Rome and came here to solitude. I used to have an enormous house and plenty of money, but I counted them as nothing and came to live in this tiny cell. I used to have couches decorated with gold and covered with expensive drapes, in place of which the Lord has given me this bedding of reeds and leather. My clothing was of the highest and most expensive quality, instead of which I now wear this simple garment. I used to spend a great deal of money on food, instead of which God gives me a few vegetables and a small cup of wine. I used to have countless numbers of servants to look after me, and the Lord has spared me this one servant only to look after me. Instead of my bath I do wash my feet a little and wear sandals in my weakness. Instead of lyre and pipe and other kinds of music which I used to enjoy as I feasted I now say my twelve psalms by day and twelve by night. And for the sins which I formerly committed I now find peace in offering my poor and unworthy service to God. So you see, father, you need not be scandalised because of my weakness."

Having listened to all this, the Egyptian had a complete change of heart, and said, "Woe is me! For I came into the monastic way from a background of great deprivation and hard work, and I now possess such a lot of things which I did not possess before. You however chose to come from a life of great luxury into a life of deprivation, from great distinction and riches into humility and poverty." Greatly edified, he departed, but became a great friend of his and often came back because he found it so profitable. For he was indeed a man of discernment, filled with the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit.