Once upon a time in Egypt, likely sometime during the fourth or fifth century, some Christian monks were eating dates together. One of the brothers was ill and had a coughing fit that brought up phlegm. Some of it accidentally fell on another brother. The unlucky recipient’s initial impulse was to cry out in indignation, “Stop! Don’t spit on me!”
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers tells us what happened next: “To tame himself and restrain his own angry thought, he picked up what had been spat and put it in his mouth and swallowed it. Then he began to say to himself, ‘If you say to your brother what will sadden him, you will have to eat what nauseates you.’”
Even in this Lenten season, when many Christians put ashes on their heads, this behavior seems extreme. Isn’t it masochistic? How is anyone served by such a disgusting act of repentance and devotion? Other early Christian ascetics, too, were known for unusual feats. Simeon the Stylite sat atop a pillar for over 30 years. Others ate nothing but grass, confined themselves in tiny cells, lived among animals, or deprived themselves of food and other bodily necessities for extraordinary periods of time. In their own day as well as now, people have rightly questioned the purpose and spiritual value of these bizarre behaviors.
To us, suffering in general seems about as attractive as eating phlegm. We’ll do nearly anything to avoid it. But the monk in the original story has a different mindset: He’s more concerned with avoiding sin than avoiding suffering. Hating sin goes right alongside his willingness to suffer physical discomfort. “If a monk hates two things, he can be free of this world,” writes another monk. “A brother inquired, ‘What are they?’ He said, ‘Bodily comfort and conceit.’”
These quirky early Christians were not making an argument about the causes of suffering. Their point was not that every instance of suffering could be traced to a specific act of sin in the sufferer. Job and the explicit teachings of Jesus (John 9:3) would have ruled that logic out. Instead, they were acknowledging the fact that sin breeds suffering as surely as murder leads to death (Romans 6:23). It hurts the sinner, and its effects ripple outward to impact untold others as well.
Perhaps appropriately, then, the way to healing from sin often leads through suffering, not around it. We follow Christ by taking up our crosses, not by averting our eyes, hands, and hearts from the pain of Golgotha.
The message of the ascetics is simple: Lament your sin, even though it hurts.
For these “new martyrs,” as they were often called, lamenting sin was not just an abstract ideal. It was a concrete command of God that took skill, diligence, and divine assistance to obey. Their starting assumption was that repentance should be the continual pattern of the Christian life, not an unusual aberration. In the words of one hermit, “As the shadow goes everywhere with the body, so we ought to carry penitence and weeping with us everywhere we go.”
Of course, there’s more to the Christian journey than sorrow and tears. But if we want to make progress, we’ll need to keep these with us—at least until this life is over. No one is exempt from repentance. As another hermit put it, “When God struck Egypt there was not a house that did not mourn.” By that he means that sin and its effects are universal. We cannot delude ourselves by thinking that we stand squarely on the side of the victims. We are the Egyptians, every last one of us. The logs in our own eyes should be our first concern. Or in the words of yet another ancient Christian ascetic, “Always look at your own sins, and do not judge another’s.”
The desert fathers also address people who seem incapable of remorse or at least of external signs of it. When asked, “Why is my heart hard, and why do I not fear God?” one hermit recommends honest self-talk. They should remind themselves: “Remember that you have to meet God.” And one should ask probing, self-reflective questions: “What do I want with people?” Another hermit advises going straight to the top: “Ask God to give you inner grief of heart and humility.” Still another counsels patience and hope:
A brother asked a hermit, “I hear the hermits weeping, and my soul longs for tears, but they do not come, and I am worried about it.” He replied, “The children of Israel entered the promised land after forty years in the wilderness. Tears are the Promised Land … it is the will of God that we should be afflicted, so we may always be longing to enter that country.”
In other words, even the desire for holy grief is a step in the right direction.
Yet for all their emphasis on expressing sorrow over sin, the desert ascetics never regard this lament as an end in itself. Lament leaves gifts. As Abba Poemen said, “Grief is twofold: it creates good and it keeps away evil.” God works through our lament to realize what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13). Yes, it helps us avoid what’s bad. But holy grief is also a creative act that leads us toward goodness.
The good it produces is multifold.
First, lament invites forgiveness—not just forgiveness in general but the very mercy of God. The desert father Hyperichius put it like this: “The watchful monk works night and day to pray continually: but if his heart is broken and lets tears flow, that calls God down from heaven to have mercy.” Psalm 51 echoes this message: “For you do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it. … The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (vv. 16–17).
Second, lamenting sin does not mean despairing of restoration. Despair is the work of the Devil. By contrast, godly grief gives rise to hope.
Finally, godly lament doesn’t lead to morose isolation but rather binds us to both God and others. In the story of the monks eating dates, the phlegm was swallowed as a sign of love. And this, according to the desert ascetics, is the great secret of lamenting sin unto suffering. In the words of Mother Syncletica, those in lament “are like people trying to light a fire. The smoke gets in their eyes, their eyes begin to water, but they succeed in what they want. It is written, ‘Our God is a consuming fire’ [Heb. 12:29].”
Grief and lament move us closer to the joy of our ultimate desire: the radiant glory of God himself.
The monk who swallowed phlegm was not doing something disgusting for its own sake. He was seeking (through an admittedly dubious method) to cultivate a greater sense of revulsion toward sin than toward the broken body of his brother. Why? His act was driven by a love of neighbor, yes. But it was ultimately motivated by his desire to conform himself to Christ Jesus who, when spat upon by his fellows, swallowed the suffering out of love.
Han-luen Kantzer Komline is an assistant professor of church history and theology at Western Theological Seminary.