Coming back home from spring break was always a joy in my childhood. Somehow over the break the nature was magically starting to come back to life. White blooming cherry trees, budding branches with baby leaves, the green starting to fill the dried lawns were all signs that the dominion of winter is past and the rule of spring has begun. In some years however, in the midst of this resurrection of nature, winter was sending its last unexpected snowfall over the land. The tragedy was that any trees caught in bloom were doomed to a fruitless season, as the unmerciful cold destroyed their delicate flowers. It was the last temptation of winter, sweeping away any impatient tree, too eager to show off its petals before the time was right.
In his insightful book “About Spiritual Deception” St. Ignaty Branchianinov retells this story from the Prologues.
There was once a young monk that had the burning desire to become a recluse, in spite of the good advice of his abbot. At the persistence of the young monk, the abbot finally accepted to allow him to be locked in a small cell found in a cave high above the ground. The young monk started there his isolated ascetic life with prayers and fasting, receiving only little food through the means of a basket. One day the devil showed himself to him in the form of an angel and told him that some thieves have stolen the goods of a man and the loot is hidden in a place close by. Next day the man who suffered the loss showed up at his cave and the monk told him were his goods were. Happy for the recovery of his things the man told others of the miracle and soon the monk started to be sought out by many people. Many people would come to ask him for counsel and he would prophesize to them with knowledge imparted to him by the deceiving angel. After a while the devil came again as an angel and told him that God has elected him to be taken to heavens and that he will come for him the next day. The ecstatic young monk called immediately for his abbot to told him the news, but the abbot, recognizing the deceit, asked to be with him that night and pray together before his departure. During the night a host of deceiving angels came to take the young monk and fly away with him, but the abbot held him fast in his arms praying fervently to God for help so the fake angels were only able to get his mantyia ( a sleeveless cape that fastens at the neck and the feet worn by the monks during services) and flew away with it. The mantyia was lifted up in the sky and fro there the dark angels let it fall all the way to the ground. At that moment the abbot told the young monk: “See where your impatience and pride has taken you? The devil would have done the same with you as he did with the mantyia, lifting you up so it could drop you to your death. Come now with me, back to the monastery and resume your life with the other brothers.” And so the young monk repented and spent the rest of his life in the monastery working on achieving the great virtues of obedience and humbleness.
The young monk’s story is not singular. There are many other similar accounts from the collections of the lives of the monks, retold by the elders to their spiritual children as warning signs for those who, too eagerly and too soon, desire to reach the measure of the saints.
These stories however are not only for monks because, in a way, each of us is that young monk. The great deceiver, the devil, likes to work like this in all our lives, sending temptations our way that cater to our inner aspirations and desires. He tries to catch those who are insufficiently prepared spiritually, those who too early declare themselves as victors over sin, steering them on a slippery slope that ends into dire consequences.
Truth is that we often prematurely declare ourselves satisfied with our spiritual lives and lower our guard. We loose sight of the real state of our spiritual being and start thinking we have made it. Many Christians, once they enter in the basic discipline of church attendance, fasting, daily prayer, Confession, Communion, start thinking within themselves: “That’s it, heaven is within reach!” The story of the young monk tells us however that we should always keep a reference point outside of ourselves that can objectively alert us when we are straying from the path. We cannot be our own moral compass, our own spiritual guide.
Asked to give a word unto salvation to a group of nuns in Jerusalem, elder Arsenie Papacioc from Romania answered “Humility, only humility”. This is the real key to the Kingdom because the humble man does not trust in himself, but constantly checks with others, considering them better then him, therefore always learning, always ready to change his ways to please the Lord more and more. The humble man realizes the need for a guide, for an unmoving spiritual reference point, that can guide him, safely, through the complicated path of the life in Christ.
As we fast forward through Great Lent to Holy Week we should recall the unfortunate story of Judas who, led by his own self-righteousness and greed, falls from his stature as disciple of Christ to the lowest level of a traitor and ultimately to perdition through suicide. We should also recall the contrasting moment when, in the Garden of Ghetsimani, we see Christ reaching out in fervent prayer to His Heavenly Father asking for guidance before His holy passions “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me: nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt” (Mathew 26:39); not seeking His own will, His own righteousness, but the guidance and the counsel of His Father.
Christ was tempted in his human nature just as Judas did, Christ by fear the other by greed. Each faced a last temptation before their final act, but their actions led to so contrasting results: one to death and eternal damnation for himself, the Other One to salvation and life everlasting for the entire world.
Everyone has to choose one of these two pathways in their spiritual lives: the path of pride and self-sufficiency or the path of humility and discipleship. Knowing the fruits of both now it is up to us to make the good choice.