Two brothers who were attacked by lust went away and married wives. Afterwards they said to each other, “What have we done? We have ceased to live like angels and have lost purity, and later on we will come to fire and torment. Let us go back to the desert and do penance for our fault.” They went to the desert and asked the fathers to accept them, and confessed what they had done. The monks shut them up for a whole year and gave them each an equal amount of bread and water. Now, they were alike in appearance and at the end of the year’s penance, they came out. The fathers saw that one looked pale and melancholy, the other strong and bright. They were astonished, for they had each been given the same quantity of food and drink. They said to the man who was sad and troubled, “What did you think about in that cell?” He said, :I was thinking about the punishment I shall incur for the evil that I have done; I was so afraid that my bones cleaved to my flesh.” They they asked the other, “What were you thinking when you were in the cell?” He said, “I was thinking God that He has saved me from pollution in this world and punishment in the next, and has called me back to live here like the angels and I thought continually on my God and was glad.” The monks said, “The penitence of both men is equal before God.”
-From “Desert Fathers – The Sayings of the Early Christian Monks”
This is an invaluable lesson from the early Church. The two brothers were of equal rank, and each fell into equal sin. In their repentance, each used a different approach, and while each were equally forgiven by the Lord, we see that the one who focused on their sin and the punishment was robbed of his joy, meanwhile, the one who focused on his Savior and His forgiveness was returned to the former glory completely, overflowing with warmth and joy.
See, we love our guilt. And, because of that, so often when we fall into sin, so often we fall in to one of two trappings of the enemy. The first is that we imagine that there is no sin, thus we are not guilty of falling into it. This is very hazardous, to deny that we have fallen into sin to begin with. We hear this so often when people say things like “our behavior doesn’t matter,” or even accuse someone who is helping us of heresy, by attaching our deeds to our salvation. Those who promote this mindset do us no justice, for the Lord is very adamant all through Scripture that there are certain judgments which He will cast upon us. It would be like going to a hospital and denying that we are sick. If we are there because we are ill, we must admit that illness before the doctor can begin to treat it. In fact, we are taught by Mark the Ascetic that “There is a sin that is always ‘unto death’: the sin for which we do not repent. For this sin even a saints prayers will not be heard.” (St Mark the Ascetic, “On Those Who Think That They are Made Righteous by Works”).
The second of the two trappings, and the one dealt with in this saying, is this: once we admit our sin, we begin to grow disparaged, beating ourselves up, focusing on our transgressions instead of our Savior. We see this so often, where, rather than the joy of the Lord, we display the guilt of breaking His laws. We feel as though we are only being truly pious if we allow the despondency of our own iniquity to shine forth for all the world, and thus our confession becomes almost theatrical. This threatens to become almost prideful, for we display this before the world, thereby feeding our ego by the reception of much welcomed sympathy. We’re depressed and immediately feel the need to share it so that others will seek to “cheer us up.”
In this saying, one of the brothers fell into this second trapping, the other fell into neither. See, it’s important to note that each of the two brothers in this saying were truly repentant. Each of them returned, as the prodigal son, to their Father and turned away form the sin that they had embraced. Thus, each of them were fully forgiven. However, we must also note that the one, when he focused on his sin, left wretched, disgraced, dull and lifeless. This is what our guilt does, our expectation of piety. It robs us of the joy of our salvation. The second, on the other hand, rejoices in the grace of the Lord, and thus he shines forth as the sun within the heavens, shining down the warmth and radiance of God’s grace upon the world.
Salvation being the process of healing, I liken this to two cancer patients. Each are diagnosed with the illness, each returns to the hospital (the Church) seeking treatment, and each released a year later with their cancer in full remission. The difference being that one spent a year marveling at the signs of their healing, whilst the other meditated on the things that he had missed during the year. Which will be more joyful upon their healing?
May we always remember this, my brethern. We will sin, and we must repent. We must fully turn to the Physician who is able to heal us; but let us not allow the despondency of the transgression overwhelm the wonder of the Physician. The Church is our hospital (not our courtroom), confession and repentance are our treatment, and we are the recipients of a grace which is greater than any fleshly pleasure that the world could ever offer.
The peace of our Lord Jesus be with all of you, my beloved brothers and sisters.