Sinner to Saint
meghahvoruh yeghahv sourpuh
There were once two young brothers who decided to become sheep thieves. They lived in the Armenian Highlands where there were many sheep herders. Hundreds of sheep wandered through the green mountain slopes with only one or two shepherds and a few dogs. Under the cover of night and with tricks to fool the dogs, it would be relatively easy to steal a few sheep. This was the thought of the two errant brothers. As the English proverb says, “There is many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.”
The brothers miscalculated. They decided not to steal from their village herders. They chose to perpetrate their theft in a nearby village. Unbeknown to them, the neighboring villagers were very experienced at catching sheep thieves at night. They let the sheep wander during the day, but kept them in a safe place that was somewhat protected by limited access. The pathways were also booby trapped. It was impossible to see the traps at night even when the moon was full. The noise made by one brother who got caught in a trap alerted the dogs. The villagers apprehended both of them.
Besides the customary beating and castigation, the village elders decided to brand the brothers permanently with large letters S.T. (sheep thief ) on their foreheads with hot irons. They would have a physical sign warning others of their history of attempted theft.
They were humiliated. Soon all the villagers in that area knew that they were caught trying to steal sheep. Whenever they walked in public, the villagers mocked them. Children threw stones at them and screamed “thief, thief, sheep thief.”
One brother could not tolerate the public disgrace. He decided to go far away from his natal village and begin a new life in a foreign place. But, wherever he tried to settle down, the villagers could see the S.T. branded on his forehead. They always questioned him about the meaning of the abbreviated letters and how he came to be branded.
When the villagers insisted on knowing his history, he would quietly leave for another place. He resigned himself to be a wanderer going from one place to another without planting any roots. He became forlorn and bitter. He jumped off a cliff and died in a lonely place shamed to core of his being for the mistake he made in his youth.
The second brother regretted his sibling leaving. He wisely decided to stay in his village. He accepted the fact that he could not escape his fate because he was physically branded. It was impossible to hide his shame. He tolerated the public insults which made him more determined to correct his past errors by living virtuously in the present. He consulted Hayr Mesrop, whose knowledge of the Bible and the Armenian Saints was remarkable for a village priest. The holy man received the repentant brother often in his humble dwelling to discuss the ways of redemption of sin. Hayr Mesrop conforted the penitent by reading the following Psalm 1:1-6.
“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”
Vohrovhehdev dehruh guh jahnchnah ahrtahrnehroun jahmpah
Paiytz ahnpahristnehroun jahmpahn beedee gohrsehvee
The last sentence of the quoted Psalm really affected the brother. He kept thinking about it over and over again. He did not think of himself as an evil man. He made a mistake that he couldn’t deny. Haiyr Mesrop gave him hope by reading the pertinent Bible quotes that made it clear that a sinner can be washed of his sins by the grace of the Lord.
The priest began to read the prayers of Saint Narekgatsi, the tenth century Armenian saint and Christian mystic. He especially read Narek’s Prayer 47.
Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart
What can I be, but speechless
before your awesome might?
What can I be but embarrassed and silent
my words only quiet dust in my mouth,
when I hope for virtue
as the prophets advised?
Even if I open my clamped lips,
what would flow but more mournful elegies?
Nothing but the voice of my many wounds
And now, weeping with the great sinner,
who willingly committed mortal sin,
I join in his cry,
“I have sinned, Lord, I have sinned,
and to my lawlessness I myself am witness.”
Weaving this cry with the words of the 50th Psalm,
I conclude that the wages of my innumerable
sins are greater
than the grains of sand that make up the earth
and are scattered by the wind.
I have sinned against heaven and you.
Like the Prodigal Son, who though shamed,
received his father’s forgiveness,
I make my entreaty, prostrate before you,
my face twisted in grief, pleading:
Father of compassion, God of all,
I am not worthy to be called even a worthless,
let alone “son,” or even to have this word
uttered about me.
Still accept me, a wandering exile, defeated by wounds,
faint with gnawing hunger.
Heal me with your bread of life,
confront me with mercy, for you are my first refuge.
Clothe me, a lawless sinner, merciful and
with the clothes of my former innocence.
Place, with your boundless generosity,
the ring with your seal of courage
on my sinful hand that lost everything by straying in sin.
Protect the soles of my bare feet
with the sandals of the Gospels.
Guard me from poisonous snakes.
And even though I am wanting in virtue
you sacrifice the fatted calf of heaven,
your only begotten Son, out of
love for mankind.
Your blessed Son who is always offered and
yet remains whole,
who is sacrificed continuously upon innumerable altars without being consumed,
who is all in everyone and complete in all things,
who is in essence of heaven and in reality of earth,
who is lacking nothing in humanness and without
defect in divinity,
who is broken and distributed in individual parts,
that all may be collected in the same body with
him as head.
Glory to you with him, Father most merciful.
The brother was struck by Narek’s passionate appeal for the Lord to return his former innocence and stamp his sinful hand with the seal of courage. He wanted so much to mend his ways and become a trusted member of his village community.
Haiyr Mesrop encouraged the brother to persevere and trust in the goodness of God’s forgiveness of sins. He said,
Duhghahss, hahmpehreh vohr hahmuh pehreh – My son, be patient so the sweetness (of a pious life) comes upon you.
Gahmatz gahmatz pahmbahguh guhlah mahnadz – slowly slowly the raw cotton becomes a thread.
Gahtil gahtil kahvatuh guh letzvee – drop by drop the cup in filled.
The priest’s words of wisdom inspired the brother to patiently believe in God’s good will. He gradually demonstrated his honesty and integrity by always being a hard working and faithful person. The seal on his head made him humble and without any pretension of being anything more than a sinner. The villagers began to respect him from a distance for his persistent good behavior. As the years rolled by, his reputation as a God-fearing good Christian and honest worker replaced the stigma of his youthful indiscretion.
Many years later when the brother was an old man, a stranger visited his village and noted the strange S.T. on the elder’s forehead. He politely asked a neighbor of the brother
What those letters meant. The neighbor said,
“It is something that happen many years ago before I was born. I do not know the details of how he became branded with those letters. But I am convinced it is an abbreviation for the word saint because he is a wise and saintly man.”
Through the saving grace of God, the sinner of today can become the saint of tomorrow.