The evil thoughts that beset one’s heart (VII:9)

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.”

One of the finest commentaries on the fifth degree of humility is a story from the Desert Fathers. The monk who relates the story had known Abba Zeno:

“When I was young,” he said, “I had this experience. I had a passion in my soul which mastered me. Having heard it said that Abba Zeno had healed many, I wanted to go find him and open myself to him. But the devil prevented me from doing so, saying, “Since you know what you must do, conduct yourself according to what you have read. Why go and scandalise the old man?” Each time that I was ready to go to him, the warfare in me abated a little, and I didn’t go. And when I had given up the idea of going to see the old man, once more the passion would assail me. I would begin to fight in order to leave, and the enemy would deceive me by the same trick and wouldn’t let me open myself to the old man. Often I would actually go to the old man in order to tell him everything, but the enemy would not let me speak by putting shame in my heart and saying to me, “Since you know how to heal yourself, what is the point of speaking about it? You’re not giving yourself enough credit: you know what the fathers have taught.” Such is what the adversary suggested to me so that I wouldn’t reveal my sickness to the physician and be healed. The old man knew very well that I was having these thoughts, but he didn’t intervene, waiting for me to make them known to him myself. He taught me about the right path and sent me on my way.

Finally, afflicted and in tears, I said to my soul, “How long, unhappy soul, will you persist in not wanting to be healed? People who live far away come to the old man and are healed; aren’t you ashamed, when you live so close to the healer, of not making the effort yourself?” My heart on fire, I got up and said to myself, “I’m going to see the old man, and if I don’t find any visitors there, I’ll know that it is the will of God that I make my thought known to him.”

I went and found no other person there. The old man, as was his custom, gave me some teaching about the salvation of the soul and the ways of cleansing oneself of impure thoughts. But once more I was ashamed, and I didn’t open up. I asked him for his blessing.

The old man got up, said a prayer, and led me to the door. He walked ahead of me, and meanwhile I was tormented by my thoughts. Would I speak to the old man, or wouldn’t I? I walked a little behind him without his paying me any attention. He put his hand to the door to open it for me, but when he saw me tormented by my thoughts, he turned towards me, tapped me on the chest, and said: “What is the matter with you? Am I not a man, too?” (Acts 10:26).

When the old man said this to me, I thought that he had uncovered my heart. I prostrated myself at his feet begging him with tears, saying, “Have pity on me.” He said to me: “What is the matter with you?” I told him, “You know what it is, what is the use of saying it?” He said to me, “It is you who must say what is the matter with you.”

Covered with shame, I made known to him my passion, and he said to me: “Am I not a man too? Do you want me to tell you what I know? That you’ve been coming here for three years with these thoughts and you haven’t let them out.” I prostrated myself, begged him and said, “For the Lord’s sake, have pity on me.” He said to me, “Go, do not neglect your prayer, and do not speak ill of anyone.” I returned to my cell, and did not neglect my prayer; and by the grace of Christ and by the prayers of the old man, I was bothered no longer by that passion.

Do you not recognise in this story the illusion of self-sufficiency and self-diagnosis? The young monk had read works on the ascetical life. He had a certain bookish knowledge of how to go about curing vices, but he lacked the humiliation of self-disclosure that opens a soul to the workings of grace. What did the devil say to to the young monk? “Since you know what you must do, conduct yourself according to what you have read. Why go and scandalise the old man?” This a classic tactic of the enemy: the appeal to one’s knowledge, the incitement to independence and self-determination, the suggestion that one’s temptations are so unique and out-of-the-ordinary that an elder would be shocked or scandalised by them. The young monk says, “Such is what the adversary suggested to me so that I wouldn’t reveal my sickness to the physician and be healed.”

A certain kind of shame is a manifestation of spiritual pride. One begins to think, “My temptations and sins are so special, so exquisitely perverse and revolting, that I could not possibly confess them to a holy old man without shocking him. And then what will he think of me? He will always look at me through the filtre of what I will have confessed to him. It is better for me to work through my troubles alone.”

Consider how Abba Zeno responded when the tormented young monk was on the point of going away without having confessed his thoughts. “He put his hand to the door to open it for me, but when he saw me tormented by my thoughts, he turned towards me, tapped me on the chest, and said: “What is the matter with you? Am I not a man, too?” (Acts 10:26).” The old Father’s readiness to open the door is a sign of his respect for the young monk’s freedom. At the same time, Abba Zeno was astute; he probably also  had the charism of reading hearts, rather like Saint Pio, or Father Paul of Moll, or the famous exorcist of the Scala Santa in Rome, Padre Candido Amantini. Abba Zeno saw the young brother’s inner conflict and, moved by pity, tapped him on the chest, saying, “What is the matter with you? Am I not a man, too?” The tapping on the chest is significant. It is rather like Saint Benedict administering a blow of his stick to the monk who was unable to persevere in prayer. The brother was moved to tears and fell prostrate at Abba Zeno’s feet, but even then the brother was incapable of naming his sin. The young brother said to Abba Zeno, I “You know what it is, what is the use of saying it?” But the elder said to him, “It is you who must say what is the matter with you.” The humiliation of the confession is a necessary part of the cure.

Finally, overcoming his shame, the brother confessed the sin that for three years had tormented him. Abba Zeno expressed no surprise, no shock. Instead, he said with extreme gentleness, “Am I not a man too? Do you want me to tell you what I know? That you’ve been coming here for three years with these thoughts and you haven’t let them out.” The brother prostrated himself and begged for pity. The old Father said only this, “Go, do not neglect your prayer, and do not speak ill of anyone.” And it was over. The young monk was cured of the passion that had so long afflicted him. He was healed not only of the vice that tormented him but, even more importantly, of the pride that held him in bondage to it.

The story has a happy ending. The young brother says, “I returned to my cell, and did not neglect my prayer; and by the grace of Christ and by the prayers of the old man, I was bothered no longer by that passion.” “I returned to my cell”—stability. “Did not neglect my prayer”—obedience and perseverance in prayer. “By the grace of Christ and by the prayers of the old man”—the indispensable action of God in the soul and the power of the spiritual father’s intercession. “I was bothered no longer by that passion”—the young brother was definitively cured.

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