We call them the Desert Fathers, though, certainly, there were women, Desert Mothers, among them. Beginning in the third century, these men and women retreated into the Egyptian desert. They were hermits, who sought to give themselves to Christ through asceticism. Each lived alone in a cave, gathering only occasionally with others for Eucharist and prayers. Their witness remains in the church, in both its Eastern and Western branches, in the monastic life. They’ve also left us a collection of spiritual gems in their sayings and stories. Here is one. See what you make of it.
There’s the story. What’s one to make of it? Why does the dying saint doubt his salvation, which even the devil laments as something already accomplished? Why does he say, “I am still not sure of that” and only then does he die? Is he not a saint?
We should take the story at face value. This is truly the death of God’s holy one. So why does the saint doubt his salvation? Does he think that, in the last, fleeting moments of his life, he might yet sin, might still separate himself from God?
Yes. He does. The saint realizes that even at the last moment, when his body is incapable of sinful rebellion, his soul might yet rejoice in what it considers its triumph, attributing salvation to its own asceticism, its own zeal, rather than to the grace of God.
That would be the sin of pride, which may well be the first deadly sin to arrive and the last to leave. Pride tiptoed into your life while you were still a toddler, and it can remain, ruling your life, even after you’ve been hooked to a respirator. Am I surrendering to God, or closing in upon myself? That’s the disciple’s question, from first step to last breath. That’s why we pray that we ourselves might make a good death, and why we plead so fervently for those who are dying.
God loves all men and women. In his goodness, God comes to all. Yet as long as pride remains a part of us, we cannot fully receive God, cannot really comprehend God. St. Maximus the Confessor taught that “to a foolish intellect its own thoughts appear the most intelligent of all, though they may be utterly degraded.”
The skeptic insolently says, “If only God would show himself to me.” The saint respectfully replies, “But that would make the Almighty God something that you master, someone who surrenders to you. No, you must surrender to God! Let go of your pride. Then you will see. Then you will live. Remain in your pride, and you will die blind and alone.”
St. James teaches: “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (4: 6). The skeptic says that, when he can see God, he will pray to God. He will humble himself before God. The saint responds that unless he humbles himself and turns to prayer, he will never see God.
Humility alone grants access to God, which is why the Desert Father Abba Or teaches that to be the Lord’s disciple is ever to struggle against pride.
One can make great progress in all the virtues, yet God comes not to the proud. Indeed, as the Desert Fathers point out, Lucifer, the bearer of light, possessed every virtue, making him a spiritual creature of unsurpassed beauty, yet still he fell through pride.
The Pharisee who prays in the temple is a virtuous man. That’s the point of the parable. We should be as virtuous. The problem is that he comes before God, relying upon his goodness rather than God’s mercy. We cannot be filled with God, we cannot become something hallowed, without hollowing out ourselves.
That’s why the saint tells the devil that he is still not sure that he has defeated the diabolical, and, only then, does he die. He takes seriously this injunction of St. Nilus, “Rejoice when you perform the virtues, but do not become exalted, lest, arriving at the pier, you suffer a shipwreck.”
We moderns are so different from that dying father of the desert! He dies unsure of his salvation, not because he doesn’t trust God or the Gospel, but because he remains convinced of his sins, of the possibility of pride, even at the end. We moderns doubt the existence of God; we do not recognize our own sins, especially the sin of pride; yet we entertain no uncertainty about our salvation. We ask: who would worship a God, angry enough to send a soul, such as I am, to hell?
God’s anger doesn’t damn souls. In their pride, they plunge deeply into themselves and discover…absolutely nothing other than themselves. That is the meaning of hell: to be enclosed in the self, to be sealed away from God. Because we cannot hollow out ourselves, we cannot receive that which is truly hallow. We cannot receive God, by whom, and for whom, we were created.
Sirach 35: 12-14, 16-18 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18 Luke 18: 9-14