The Ascetic and the Robber
From a handwritten Gerontikon (Book of Elders) of the Sacred Monastery Filotheou of the Holy Mountain
Source: “Hagiorite Witness” – Quarterly publication of the Sacred Monastery Xiropotamou of the Holy Mountain – Issue No.4, June-August 1989
Our God is not a Prosecutor of His creatures; on the contrary, He seeks opportunities for their salvation. He is a God of love; a God Who deserves to be loved, even though His love is rarely reciprocated. God is NOT “fair”. He is not fair, at least in the human sense of justice. He “shortchanges” His creatures – and as a matter of fact in a scandalous manner – when He seeks to save them. THAT is our God! A God Who vindicates a robber out of the excess of His love and Who looks for opportunities in the unlikeliest of places, in order to display a love that annuls our own kind of “justice”.
There used to be an elderly recluse and anchorite, who lived an ascetic life in a desert for seventy long years, with fasting and celibacy and vigil. However, during all those years that he served God, he was not favoured with any vision or revelation by God.
This gave rise to concern, and the following thought entered his mind:
“Could it be that there is a reason I am not aware of, which makes my ascesis unfavourable to God, and my labours unacceptable? That must be the reason I am not able to have any revelation and see any mystery…”
With these thoughts in mind, the elder began to beseech and ask the Lord even more fervently, by praying and saying:
“Lord, if my ascesis is favourable to You, and you have accepted my labours, this sinner and unworthy one beseeches You to favour me also, with just a droplet of one of Your gifts, so that I might be informed with the revelation of a mystery that You have heard my prayer, and thus spend my ascetic life informed and with confidence….”
Having thus prayed, a voice sent by God came to the saintly elder, saying:
“If you indeed desire to see My glory, then go into the innermost depths of the desert, and mysteries shall be revealed to you..”
As soon as the elder heard this voice, he immediately left his cell; but no sooner had he walked for some distance, he was approached by a robber, who, upon spotting the elderly Abba, rushed towards him, with the intent to murder him. As soon as he had grabbed hold of him, he said:
“It is a fortunate moment that I encountered you, old man; now I can complete my business and be saved. Because we robbers have this custom and this particular law and belief – that whoever is able to commit one hundred murders, will definitely go to heaven. Well, after having strived so hard until this day, I have so far accomplished only ninety-nine murders, and, lacking only one more, I have taken a lot of trouble and care to complete the hundred, in order to be saved. Therefore, I am greatly indebted to you and I thank you, as on this day, because of you, I shall savour Paradise.”
On hearing what the robber told him, the elder was taken aback and alarmed at this sudden and unexpected incident. So, he turned his mind’s eye upwards towards God, and on thinking over what happened, said the following to Him:
“Was this the glory, my Lord and Master, that You promised to show me, Your servant? Was this the will that You inspired to this sinner – to leave his cell and to inform him with such a terrible mystery? Are You rewarding with such a reward the labours of my ascesis that I have borne for Your sake? Now I have truly realized, Lord, that all my labours were in vain; and that every one of my prayers has been regarded as a detestable abomination. However, I thank You for Your philanthropy, Lord, because you educate my unworthiness the way that You know – as befits me for my innumerable sins -and that must be why you delivered me into the hands of a robber and murderer.”
Having said this, and feeling deeply troubled, the old man became thirsty, so he said to the robber:
“My child, because of my sinfulness, God has delivered me into your hands to be murdered, and thus your desire will be fulfilled in the manner that you desire, and I shall be deprived of my life – being the evil man that I am. For this, I beg you to do me one favour and a small errand and bring me a drink of water, then you may cut off my head.”
On hearing these words by the elder, and in the desire to fulfil his business, the robber sheathed his dagger – which he had bared – then took out of his bosom a flask, which he took to a stream that was nearby and stooped down to fill it and bring it back to the elder to quench his thirst. And just as he was filling the flask, he drew his last breath and died on the spot.
Well, seeing that quite some time had passed and the robber did not reappear, the elder wondered to himself:
“Perhaps he was tired and lay down and fell asleep, and that is why he is delayed; so I am now permitted to leave and return to my cell. However, because I am also old, I am afraid, as I do not have enough strength to run, and because of my frailty, I shall tire quickly and he will overtake me. Then, having angered him in this way, he will want to torture me mercilessly, cutting me up into many pieces while I am still alive. Therefore I should not leave, but instead, I should go to the stream, and see what he is doing.”
So the elder went forth, after making all these thoughts, and he discovered the robber laying dead; upon seeing him, he stood in wonder and surprise. Then lifting his arms up towards heaven he said:
“My merciful Lord, unless You reveal this mystery to me, I shall not lower my arms. Please therefore have pity on my troubles and reveal what this occurrence was about.”
And with this prayer of the elder, an Angel of the Lord came to him and explained:
“Do you see this person, Abba, who lays dead before you? It was for your sake that he was gripped by sudden death, so that you would escape from being murdered. Now proceed to bury him as one who was saved. Because the obedience that he showed you – by sheathing his murder weapon in order to bring you a drink of water to quench the fire of your thirst – was the act that appeased God’s wrath and rendered him accepted as a worker of obedience. Furthermore, his admission of the ninety-nine murders was taken into account as Confession. Therefore bury him, and count him among the saved. And know by this the ocean of God’s philanthropy and compassion. Now return joyfully to your cell, and henceforth be more willing in your prayers and do not sorrow and say that you are a sinner and devoid of revelations. Behold, the Lord revealed a mystery to you. And know this also: that all of the labours of your ascesis are welcome before God, for there is no labour performed for the Lord’s sake that does not appear before Him.”
On hearing this, the elder buried the dead man as instructed.