I’m told that there are moral philosophers who say that lying is unconditionally wrong, always and everywhere. Strange. What might they say about this moving story of Elder Sabbas, a renowned confessor on the Holy Mountain early in the 20th century? The story is quoted from Archimandrite Cherubim’s Contemporary Ascetics of Mount Athos.
In a Kalyve of St. Anne’s Skete lived another hieromonk who was also a confessor, but who did not have the experience and discernment of Fr. Sabbas. One time a man who had committed terrible sins came to confess to him. The priest had never met anyone like this man before. A true “bruised reed,” he began to confess. Hearing him, the confessor was horrified and sickened. “My God, what atrocities! What am I hearing! What kind of devil is he?”
Before the unfortunate man could finish, the confessor interrupted him, full of agitation: “Stop! I am horrified! I will lose my mind! These are not human sins, they are satanic. Get out, you have no absolution! I won’t hear any more! Go away!”
The only thing in the world he had left to him had been the mercy of God. When even this door was closed, nothing remained. Looking down at the sea, he thought his only solution was to drown himself, to put an end to the tragedy of his life.
But God is great. At this moment, an acquaintance of his who lived in St. Anne’s Skete happened to see him.
“How are you? What’s going on? What’s the matter?”
He did not speak.
“Eh, what’s the matter? Why won’t you speak?”
With great difficulty he succeeded in learning the details. His soul was distressed and grieved. How could he help him? He could think of only one solution: to bring him by any means to Fr. Sabbas. To this end he quite exhausted himself, and he finally succeeded.
As soon as Fr. Sabbas saw him, all was clear to him. “My brother is in an abyss. In order to bring him out, I must climb down to him.”
“Father, is there salvation for me?”
“For you, my brother? There is salvation for everyone. The mercy of God is wider than heaven and deeper than the abyss.”
“No, not for me! A sinner like me can’t be saved. It’s impossible!”
“You can’t be saved? What a joke; you seem to think that I can!”
“What sins can you have committed?”
“Great sins, very great sins.”
“What ‘great sins?’ Who can be as guilty before God as I, the wretched one?”
“Nevertheless — you see, once I wasn’t careful. I was carried away, and fell into the following sins.”
Here Fr. Sabbas related a certain serious sin. The other one seemed to come to life.
“Oh, Father, that’s exactly what I did!”
“You too? Don’t worry, God will forgive you. It is enough that you have confessed it.”
Fr. Sabbas continued in this same way. The artifice had complete success. The unfortunate man took courage and brought forward with all sincerity the whole grievous list of his sins. The thought that even the confessor was like him gave him courage.
“I repented and wept bitterly, ” Fr. Sabbas said to him in the end. “It’s been two years since I changed my life. They gave me an obedience to hear confessions. I did this. I also gave alms and fasted, and became another man.”
“I also repent with all my soul, my Father. I will fast, and do anything else you tell me.”
“Since you have resolved to change your life, bow down, and I will read the prayer of absolution. God will blot out all your sins.”
When he left him, the man was almost flying from joy, for he was relieved of an insupportable burden. Meeting his friend in St. Anne’s Skete, he said to him:
“You saved me. I am a new man!”
“Give God the glory.”
“He is a good father confessor; good, tender-hearted. The poor man is the only one who has done worse things in his life than I.”
The other one understood immediately.
“Worse things than you? I must laugh a little! Christian, my friend, he has lived on the Holy Mountain from childhood and is completely an angel. That is why he was counted worthy to be mode a priest.”
The man was dumbfounded — what had happened? His friend, however, explained everything to him, and he understood the artifice of love. Great was his astonishment. Indeed, after the blow that the previous confessor had given him, there had been no other way to save him from the edge of the abyss. From this moment he was filled with an infinite wonder and love for this excellent physician and healer of souls.
We should note here that some of the fathers of the Holy Mountain did not approve of these “tricks.” They were not in the right, however, for Fr. Sabbas was discerning enough to know exactly how and when to use them, so that there never occurred the slightest harm or scandal.
Contemporary Ascetics of Mount Athos, v. 2, pp 410–413