CHAPTER VII. Of Humility
2 Feb. 3 June. 3 Oct.
The fifth degree of humility is, not to hide from one’s Abbot any of the evil thoughts that beset one’s heart, or the sins committed in secret, but humbly to confess them. Concerning which the Scripture exhorteth us, saying: “Make known thy way unto the Lord, and hope in Him.” And again: “Confess to the Lord, for He is good, and His mercy endureth for ever.” So also the prophet saith: “I have made known to Thee mine offence, and mine iniquities I have not hidden. I will confess against myself my iniquities to the Lord: and Thou hast forgiven the wickedness of my heart.”
Show me the man whose heart has never been beset by evil thoughts? Show me the man who has never wanted to hide sins committed in secret? Would you point me to the saints? Have you not read Saint Paul? Have you not read the Life of Saint Antony? Have you not read the Desert Fathers? Have you not read the Confessions of Saint Augustine? Have you not read Saint Saint Anselm, Saint Bernard, and Saint Aelred? No, we are all like David who prays:
My iniquities are gone over my head: and as a heavy burden are become heavy upon me. My sores are putrified and corrupted, because of my foolishness. I am become miserable, and am bowed down even to the end: I walked sorrowful all the day long. For my loins are filled with illusions; and there is no health in my flesh. I am afflicted and humbled exceedingly: I roared with the groaning of my heart. Lord, all my desire is before thee, and my groaning is not hidden from thee. (Psalm 37:5-10)
Let us return, if you will, to our father Saint Antony.
When the holy Abba Antony lived in the desert he was beset by accidie, and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, “Lord, I want to be saved but those thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?” A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Antony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, “Do this and you will be saved.” At these words, Antony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.
This is a key text for monks. Saint Antony, having gone apart to live for God alone, found himself beset by accidie; that is by a loss of energy, desire, and motivation to go forward in the life he had chosen. Diminished and debilitated by accidie, he becomes the prey of many sinful thoughts. Does Antony want these thoughts? Surely not. Does he invite them into his head? Surely not. What does Antony do? He has no one to help him, no one to comfort him, no one to counsel him. In his misery and in anguish, Antony turns to the only One who hears him, and sees him, and knows him through and through. The prayer that Saint Antony utters must be in every monk’s arsenal of supplications. Saint Athanasius introduces Antony’s prayer with this momentous little phrase: “He said to God.” And then, having shown us Antony turned towards God, he gives us his prayer:
Lord, I want to be saved but those thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?
Learn this prayer of Saint Antony by heart. Copy it out. Keep it close at hand. The prayer begins with a unequivocal affirmation: “I want to be saved.” Even in his debilitated state, Saint Antony says, “I want to be saved.” A monk must know what he wants, and must want it at every moment and in all circumstances. The monk who, with Saint Antony, says, “I want to be saved” unites his will to the Will of God who says, “Is it my will that a sinner should die, saith the Lord God, and not that he should be converted from his ways, and live?” (Ezechiel 18:35). The monk who says, “I want to be saved” unites himself to the priestly prayer of Jesus: “Father, I will that where I am, they also whom thou hast given me may be with me” (John 17:24). Have the courage always to say, “I want to be saved.”
Saint Antony describes his plight: “Those thoughts do not leave me alone.” The unwanted thoughts come at him. They insinuate themselves into his imagination. They cause him anxiety and weariness. Saint Antony does not go into detail about his thoughts. It is enough for him to tell God what is troubling him.
Saint Antony’s prayer contains two questions: “What shall I do in my affliction?” and “How can I be saved?” The first question shows that Antony is ready to obey whatever God will tell him to do. He is disposed to accept whatever treatment the Divine Physician describes. The second question may also be understood to mean, “How can I be made whole?”, or “How can I be cured of this malady of my soul?”, or “How can I be salvaged?”
God does not answer Antony immediately. He leaves Antony alone and in silence. After a short while, however, God does answer Antony’s prayer, not directly, but by means of a kind of image of himself. “Antony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray.” This is no man; it is, rather an angel sent by God to supply for the absence of a spiritual father. This angelic Abba speaks not a word; he demonstrates to Antony the way out of his accidie, cure for the evil thoughts that beset him and torment him. What does he show Antony? He shows him a simple rhythm of life marked by the alternance of two things: work and prayer.
The angelic Abba shows Antony that, in order to pray, he must rise from his work, and leave it aside. He shows Anthony that, in order to work with a peaceful heart, he must fall to prayer again and again. (Saint Benedict says as much in Chapter IV: Orationi frequenter incumbere, “To fall frequently to prayer.”) This Antony must do lest he become oppressed by his work and fall into weariness of the body and of the intellect. The man who is worn down physically and mentally easily falls into the spiritual weariness that is accidie. Antony is to pray, and pray always. Nonetheless, the strain of a prayer prolonged beyond what the body and mind can sustain must be relieved by work. The conclusion of the story is glorious:
He heard the angel saying to him, “Do this and you will be saved.” At these words, Antony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.
“Do this and you will be saved.” What does this mean if not, “Do this and you will become whole again. Do this and you will be cured of your spiritual weariness. Do this and you will recover your wholesome zeal.” The words of the angel filled Saint Antony with joy and courage. Are these not the gifts that every spiritual father longs to impart to his sons? Antony’s obedience to the angelic instruction opens him to receive the joy and courage that he so desires. Thus was his accidie cured. “He did this,” says Saint Athanasius, “and he was saved,” that is, restored to wholeness and made sound again. Let us do likewise, and we too, filled with joy and courage, shall be saved.