In Father Sergius, a short story by Leo Tolstoy, a wealthy Russian nobleman enters a monastery under questionable motives, but ended up genuinely striving for holiness and virtue, and even finding that the battle for sanctity was worth it! Despite his progress, he constantly felt weak in his faith, and unceasingly begged God to grant more. He was humble.
After seven years living as a hermit, an attractive woman visited who was bent on seducing him (he was well known as a very handsome hermit). What she didn’t know was that just before she arrived he had been nearly overcome with thoughts of lust, so she had come at just the “right” time.
She banged and begged at his door as if stranded and alone, tricking him into letting her in on a cold Russian winter night (her friends had actually dropped her off), and after he locked himself in his room to avoid her, she told him to stay in his room because she was undressing – a fact she knew would make him imagine her.
He could hear her silken garments moving and, having exposed herself, she began moaning requests to him. She pleaded that she had been stricken very ill, perhaps by the cold, and desperately needed his immediate attention. From his room he whispered prayers knowing that his faith was too weak for such a trial. He knew what she wanted. He wanted her. He then burst out of his room, sped past her straight to his porch where an ax lay for splitting wood, and laid down his finger and cut it off in an extreme act of mortification (to be understood, but not emulated). He had resisted sin to the point of shedding blood! Witnessing this, she collapsed into tears begging for forgiveness. He told her God would forgive her, and told her to leave immediately. Her friends picked her up and brought her home. Soon thereafter she entered a convent.
The news of this encounter spread, giving the hermit great fame. Pilgrims came for blessing and healing. As his fame grew, so did his pride. He pretended to dislike the constant attention, but inside he loved it more and more.
At the height of his fame, something had changed in him, and a man came and begged that he would bless his daughter – with his heart more prideful this too was just the “right” time. As she entered, he was overcome with her femininity, and lust surged within him. She seemed to know it. She approached him, took his hand, and placed it on her breast. The two descended rapidly into their passions, his will totally overcome. The next morning he awoke with her in his bed and had to flee in a disguise.
The Difference Pride Makes
In the two instances of the monk being tempted, there lies a central theme: faith and humility.
Alone in the woods, presuming a lack of faith, he overcomes acute temptation by humility. By the time of his second temptation, he had swelled with pride at the stroking of his ego, forgetting that faith is a gift to be opened, not a “quality” that we master and display for man’s eyes. As we progress in the spiritual life, there will be moments of victory. Yet we must never let our pride get ahead. Not a bit. “Wherefore he that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). With this story in mind, we can hear the gravity of these words from Sirach: “The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself…”
Humility is trust in God. Trust in God is faith, a total abandonment into the hands of true Power, Strength, and Greatness. Humility is not debasement or a conjuring of self-loathing, but the acceptance of the reality that God is God and we are not. Humility sees things as they are. Humility does not leave us weak in a corner, but lifted high by a mighty God. “[He] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will all the more gladly boast of my weakness, that the power of Christ may rest on me… for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Are you sick of trying to overcome vices, lust? Be weak. You cannot overcome them. Not alone anyway. Need God more. Trust yourself less. Pray as if all of eternity rests on that prayer, because it might.