There was a monk from Rome…
From the Desert Fathers:
There was a monk from Rome [probably Abba Arsenius] who lived at Scetis near the church. He had a slave to serve him. The priest, knowing his bad health and the comfort in which he used to live, sent him what he needed of whatever anyone brought to the church. Having lived twenty five years at Scetis, he had acquired the gift of insight and became famous.
One of the great Egyptians heard about him and came to see him, thinking he would find him leading a life of great corporal austerity. He entered and greeted him. They said the prayer and sat down. Now the Egyptian saw he was wearing fine clothing, and that he possessed a bed with both a blanket and a small pillow. He saw that his feet were clean and shod in sandals. Noticing all this, he was shocked, because such a way of life is not usual in that district; much greater austerity is ordinarily the rule.
Now the old man had the gift of insight, and he understood that his visitor was shocked, and so he said to him who served him, “We will celebrate a feast today for the abba’s sake.” There were a few vegetables, and he cooked them and at the appointed hour, they rose and ate. The old man had a little wine also, because of his illness; so they drank some.
When evening came, they recited the twelve psalms and went to sleep. They did the same during the night. On rising at dawn, the Egyptian said to him, “Pray for me,” and he went away without being edified.
When he had gone a short distance, the old man, wishing to edify him, sent someone to bring him back. On his arrival he received him once again with joy and asked him, “Of what country are you?” He said, “Egypt.” “And of what city?” “I am not a city dweller at all.” “And what was your work in the village?” “I was a herdsman.” “Where did you sleep?” He replied, “In the field.” “Did you have anything to lie upon?” He said, “Would I go and put a bed under myself in a field?” “But how did you sleep?” He said, “On the bare ground.” The old man said next, “What was your food in the fields, and what wine did you drink?” He replied, “Is there food and drink in the fields?” “But how did you live?” “I ate dry bread, and, if I found any, green herbs and water.” The old man replied, “Great hardship! Was there a bath house for washing in the village?” He replied, “No, only the river, when we wanted it.”
After the old man had learnt all this and knew of the hardness of his visitor’s former life, he told him his own former way of life when he was in the world, with the intention of helping him. “I, the poor man whom you see, am of the great city of Rome and I was a great man in the palace of the emperor.” When the Egyptian heard the beginning of these words, he was filled with compunction and listened attentively to what the other was saying. He continued, “Then I left the city and came to this desert. I whom you see had great houses and many riches and having despised them I have come to this little cell. I whom you see had beds all of gold with coverings of silk, and in exchange for that, God has given me this little bed and this skin. Moreover, my clothes were the most expensive kind and in their stead I wear these garments of no value. Again, at my table there was much gold and abundance, and instead of that, God has given me this little dish of vegetables and a cup of wine. There were many slaves to serve me, and see how in exchange for that, God troubles this old man to serve me. Instead of the bath house, I throw a little water over my feet and wear sandals because of my weakness. Instead of music and lyres, I say the twelve psalms and the same at night. Instead of the sins I used to commit, I now say my little rule prayer. So then, I beg you, abba, do not be shocked at my weakness.”
Hearing this, the Egyptian came to his senses and said, “Woe to me, for after so much hardship in the world, I have found ease; and what I did not have before, that I now possess. While after so great ease, you have come to humility and poverty.” Greatly edified, he withdrew, and he became his friend and often went to him for help. For he was a man full of discernment and the good fragrance of the Holy Spirit.
After reading the lives and struggles of great ascetics, I am sometimes encouraged to pursue my own repentance with intention; and sometimes saddened that my struggles are so much more pedestrian. My little rule of prayer, and the small inconveniences of a layman’s fasting practice are pretty unimpressive next to the hardships the ascetics of the desert gladly embraced.
This story reminds me of the widow’s mite; she’s praised, not because she gave much, but because she gave all she had. The place to question my self-discipline is not in comparison to anybody else’s performance, but in how much my heart and intention are affected by my own struggle. I’m going to be judged by an infinite standard, Christ Himself, so how I measure up to the saints is less relevant than how much Grace I make room for here and now.