by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan
Translated by Daniel Callam, C.S.B.
me in interpretatione Graecorum absque Scripturis sanctis,
ubi et verborum ordo mysterium est,
non verbum e verbo sed sensum experimere de sensu.
It is said by the ancients that Solomon’s judgement was a noble one (1 Kgs 3). He was resorted to about a disagreement between two women. One of them, rolling over in her sleep, had smothered her child, and had then claimed the other’s as her own. The second woman, innocent of any crime and feeling only her love, was insisting on her rights to keep her own child. While each was contending thus unremittingly, the decision of the judge remained uncertain; Solomon could not determine a solution while the real thoughts of each were completely hidden. As the outcome of the case was undecided, he ordered a sword to be brought. Then he gave his ruling to his officers who were to act out the grim command: the infant was to be cut in two, with each woman receiving half of it. When the woman who had been claiming the other’s child heard this, she not only acquiesced but even encouraged the division of the child. She was without maternal affection. But the woman who knew her own infant cared nothing about losing the case. Forgetting herself, she thought only of it, and began to plead that the child be given intact to the other woman. Better this than to have it handed to its true mother cut in two. Then Solomon gave his judgement. He had determined their real sentiments, not by God’s power but by human perspicacity, and declared that the child was to be given to the woman whose unfeigned grief had identified her as the true mother. In fact, he pronounced the other one who could, unmoved, see a child die, to be completely unnatural because she had no pity at all.
Finally, then, the truth was revealed. Nevertheless, through the lies of her companion, the real mother had been troubled and doubtful while the correct decision was endangered through the uncertainty of the judge. While these events actually once occurred, they are figures for later times; for they were written for our benefit (Mt 14:21) so that we might understand that every deception can be uncovered and every artifice laid bare.
These two (no longer “These two women”, for it is not our intention to treat of them here), these two, then, can represent faith and temptation. Temptation, I would say, is a common source of error at the beginning, and afterwards it destroys its “offspring” by the vice of worldly relationships and the “sleep” of the mind. Then it tries to carry away the “posterity” of the other (faith). Thus, while temptation is fighting in the courts, faith is disturbed, until the sword of Christ reveals the hidden affections. What is this sword of Christ? That of which it is written, “I have come to bring a sword to the earth” (cf. Mt 10:34); the sword of which it is written, “And a sword will pierce through your own soul” (Lk 2:35). Learn what this weapon, this sword, shall be; it is said, “The word is living and active and penetrating, sharper than any sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow” (Heb 4:12). The valiant sword is God’s word; a valiant sword, insofar as it scrutinises the heart and the reins, discerns a lie from the truth and, far from killing those whose soul it pierces, it preserves them.
These are some of the things that may be said concerning the passage in the Book of Kings about the court case, reckoned as history, applied to our consciences, and inspired by our faith. Now let us examine carefully the passage just read from the Book of Judges, for an incident of parricide ought not to be listened to with otiose ears.
Jephthah was a judge of the Jewish people. He was greatly troubled by the uncertain outcome of a battle. In his fear of the vicissitudes of war, he made this vow: if he could defeat his adversaries, he would immolate in sacrifice to God, the patron of his victory, whatever would first meet him within the door of his house. He won the war and having scattered the enemy, returned home. There his dutiful daughter, unaware of the sacrifice, met him at the entrance. Her father, remembering and reminded again of his oath, groaned, and tried to evade the performance of this obligation. “Alas, my daughter,” he said, “you have brought me very low; for I have opened my mouth concerning you to the Lord. Then she said, My father, if you have opened your mouth concerning me to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone forth from your mouth” (Jgs 11:34-35). But she asked for a delay of two months while she ascended the mountain to grieve over her virginity. Then, exactly two months later, she returned to her father. And “he fulfilled his vow.” The phrase is used when Scripture, by not mentioning the outcome of the situation, would avoid even the mention of parricide.
What then? Do we approve of it? We, of all people, are the most against it. But although I disapprove of parricide, I cannot help noting the fear of prevarication and the power of an oath. Elsewhere it was said to Abraham, “Now I know that you love the Lord your God, seeing you have not withheld your only son” (Gn 22:12). We have in this incident something that teaches us not to promise rashly to do something wrong. Certainly, it is not asserted here that a crime is approved of by God, since a sheep was substituted for the son in the actual sacrifice.
In Abraham, Jephthah had an example which he could have followed. The Lord takes no pleasure in human sacrifice, even though he told Abraham in a vision that the safety of children ranks below the obligations of religion - meaning that children should be offered to God by their parents, not that they should have their throats cut. This is so, even though Jephthah’s daughter was so solicitous about her father’s vow. Why did he not hold back from killing his own daughter, or, since she was anxious to prevent her father from breaking his vow, why did he not find a way to avoid the death of his daughter?
Some may ask why God stopped the parricide in once case and allowed it to happen here. Does God prefer one person to another? The answer is “no”, of course; he considers merit and virtue. As long as the course of action was unclear, as with Abraham, a vision was needed to determine what was to be done and what should be done thereafter in similar cases. But once a precedent had been given, God would no longer resort to visions since the earlier event indicates what ought to be done.
You may object that, if merit is to be not always the same, then, perhaps, neither should actions be. But in the case of Jephthah, each doubted God’s mercy; the father grieved, the daughter wept. Apparently, Abraham did not grieve, nor did he regard his affection as a parent. When he heard the divine oracle he did not put off the sacrifice, but hastened to obey. And Isaac had no hesitation as he followed after his father with his shorter pace. He did not weep when he was tied, nor did he ask for a delay when he was being placed on the altar. Thus, there was a greater mercy where there was a readier trust. Isaac, with a name that signifies the laughter of his mother (Gn 21:6), could not weep at the deed of his father. And then, with great devotion and at God’s command, they offered a sheep instead of Isaac who had not put off being immolated, nor was he uncertain of God’s mercy or worried about the sacrifice himself. And this is why [with Jephthah] no one came forward to restrain his bloody opinion that he was duty-bound to make the entire promised oblation.
And so, that bloody sacrifice was immolated, and no one objected. But when another sort of sacrifice, one of chastity, is offered, will there again be no objectors? One father who had promised to slay his daughter fulfilled his vow. But when another father vows the virginity of his daughter to God, is his willingness to make such a pious oblation to be regretted? In the one case, a sorrowing daughter offers her life because of her father’s oath; in the other, a holy promise is broken, and no offering is made, neither by the parent nor the child.
What are we blamed for in this matter? What evil thing are we supposed to have done? Is it because we have prohibited illicit marriage? If so, John the Baptist may be indicted for the same fault. And although perhaps we have nothing else that could be approved in us, that very thing, which was honoured in the prophet, is condemned in us. Is he a precedent to be ashamed of? Remind yourselves of the real cause of his martyrdom. Here is what, without a doubt, caused his suffering: “It is not lawful,” he said, “for you to have her as wife”( Mt 14:4). If this was said of the wife of a man, how much the more of a virgin consecrated to God? If this language was used to a ruler, how much more readily may it be directed to private citizens? Though, God be praised, we have here no Herod, and, please God, no Herodias!
Is it not permitted to say something in favour of virginity? If not, why was it written, “Defend the fatherless, plead for the widow?” (Is 1:17) And why was it written “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows?” (Ps 67:6) Can we, then, abandon those women dedicated to chastity and virginity, or be condemned for not doing so?
You will admit that a traditional and respected virginity exists among the pagans for the service of their altar and the hearth. Although they have no piety of merit or integrity of mind, yet even there a carnal virginity is publicly honoured. No one prevents these virgins from participating in their profane ceremonies; is virginity to be excluded from the Church of God? In paganism, maidens are forced to accept what is not common pagan teaching; is it to be forbidden to mention in the Church what (in fact) one is under obligation to teach? The pagans bribe young girls to refrain from marriage; among us are virgins to be forced, by blows, into marriage? The pagans do violence to ensnare maidens; are we to do violence to prevent a public profession of virginity? How long will the patience of the priests refrain from vindicating the “sacrifice” of virginity, even to the point of death if that be necessary?
For consider that virgins merited to see the resurrection of the Lord before the apostles. Certainly today’s reading, which has just finished, teaches this; for when, as St. John said, the body of our Lord, Jesus Christ had been placed in “a new tomb” (Jn 19:41)(or, following the Gospel of St. Matthew, Joseph had placed the body of the Lord in his own tomb), the virgins were watching. It is well said also by St. Matthew, “a new tomb” (Mt 27:30) lest someone else might have been believed to have risen from an old one. And again, that Jesus was placed in a tomb at the wish of “a just man,” (Lk 23:50) because Christ rises from the dead in the renewed affections of the just. Well said, too, in the sacred text, that it was another’s tomb, to show that the Lord did not want a monument for himself. They will have a grave who belong to death under the law, but the conqueror of death did not need a tomb. He did not need a sepulchre for the dead, who was to return with the trophy of his victory over death.
Then [the Virgin] Mary saw the resurrection of the Lord, and she was the first to see and believe. Mary Magdalene also saw, although she doubted.3
In this place, O virgins, advert to a not insignificant point - the risk in doubting the resurrection of the Lord. Note that mere physical virginity does not gain merit, but rather, the integrity of the mind. This explains why, subsequently, Mary Magdalene was forbidden to touch the Lord (cf. Jn 20:17): her faith in the resurrection had wavered. Therefore she alone touches Christ who touches him by faith.
“But the Magdalene stood weeping outside the tomb” (Jn 20:11). Who is outside, weeps; but she who is inside know no weeping. She is weeping, however, because she does not see the body of Christ; she thinks it has disappeared because she does not recognise Christ. Mary remains outside, unlike Peter and John. After they had run to the tomb, they entered, and far from weeping, they went away rejoicing. Only she who did not enter wept, and in her disbelief she thought the body had been carried off deceitfully. Not even when she saw the angels did she recognise something to be believed. And so the angels said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek? (Jn 20:13)” This the angels say, and the Lord later repeated it with the same words, so that you may know that the words of angels are commanded by the Lord.
Then, as I was saying, the Lord repeated the same words, saying, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Note, it is a woman who did not believe; for the one who believes, rises to “perfect manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). Woman, they said. It is not a question of identifying her sex, but of reproving her for her hesitation. The term, “woman” is used here to contrast her doubt with the faith of the virgin who had already believed. “Why are you weeping?” This is to say, You are the cause of your own weeping. You are the author of your tears by your disbelief in Christ. You are weeping because you do not see Christ. Believe, and you will see. Christ is present; he is never absent from those by whom he is sought. Why are you weeping? This is not a matter for tears, but for a prompt faith, worthy of God. Do not consider mortal things and you will not weep; think not on passing things and you will have no cause for tears. Hence the question, Why are you weeping when the others are rejoicing?
”Whom do you seek?“ This is to say, Do you not see that Christ is present? Do you not see that Christ is the power of God, Christ is the wisdom of God, Christ is holiness, Christ is chastity, Christ is integrity, Christ was born of the Virgin, Christ is from the Father and by the Father and in the Father always, begotten not made, not less than the Father but always the beloved, true God from true God?
“They have taken away,” she says, “my Lord from the tomb, and I do not know where they have laid him” (Jn 20:13). You err, woman, thinking that Christ has been removed from the tomb by others, and not raised to life by his own power. No one removes God’s power, no one removes God’s wisdom, no one removes honourable chastity. Christ is not removed from the tomb of the just man, nor from the retreat of his virgin, nor from the hidden places of a pious mind. And even if some may wish to take him, they cannot carry him away.
Then the Lord says to her, “Mary, look at me.” When she does not believe, she is “woman;” when she begins to be converted, she is called “Mary,” that is, she receives the name of her who bore Christ. For she is a soul which bears Christ spiritually. “Look at me,” he says. Thus, whoever see Christ is corrected, but whoever does not see Christ, errs.
And so, after she had been converted, she looked and said, “Rabbi,” which means “Master.” Who looks, is converted; who is converted, sees more deeply; who sees, progresses. And thus she now called him, whom she believed to have died, “Master.” She spoke to one whom she thought had been stolen.
“Do not touch me,” he said. This indicates that her wavering disposition does not reach Christ, even though there are signs of her correction. “Do not touch me,” he said; that is, do not touch the power of God, the wisdom of God, the sacred integrity, the honourable chastity.
“But go to my brethren.” What else does this mean than, Weep outside no longer? Go to the chosen and most observant priests, and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn 20:17). What else does this mean than, Woman, consider this matter further and ask more perfect men to explain to you the distinction between my Father and your Father? For he who is a Father to me by divine generation is your Father by adoption. In saying, “my Father,” the Son of God separates himself from creatures; by saying “your Father,” he designates the grace of spiritual adoption. Similarly, by saying “my God,” he shows the mystery of his Incarnation in that his Father by nature is here called God because of the sacrament of his assumed body. But when he says, your God, Christ shows the progress of his operation in us.
And truly he has become our God, from whom Christ came and suffered4 as when, to bypass other things, virgins are prepared to die to preserve their integrity.
I am saying nothing about a particular case, nothing of the person involved. For where there is the Lord’s grace, there should be also the Lord’s peace. Neither do I accuse anyone publicly, though I am here to defend myself. For we are under accusation and unless I err, most of our accusers are present among you. I prefer to dispute their ideas rather than to make their identity known. Here is what has produced my unpopularity, my “crime”: that I recommend virginity, and anyone who does not freely accept that, well, he is really identifying himself.
One says, “You advocate virginity, and successfully.” I wish this were so; I wish the effects of this “crime” could be demonstrated. I would not fear your grudge if I could see some signs of this success. In fact, I wish you who criticise me verbally could accuse me of particular instances instead. But I fear that I seem to have provided myself with detractors who blame me for accomplishments that are not mine.
Another says, “You forbid maidens to marry who have consecrated their virginity after being initiated into the sacred mysteries.” I only wish I could appeal to those who are going to be married, that I could change their bridal veils for the holy veils that symbolise the unmarried state. To some it seems almost shameful that virgins who have consecrated their lives to God were not snatched back from the very altar and forced to marry. Why can a maiden, who may choose a husband, not be allowed to choose God instead? In fact, it has always been the privilege of bishops to sow the seeds of celibacy, to encourage a desire for virginity. Why should I be ashamed of doing so? Why should my case be any different?
Let me ask, then, whether my actions are criticised because they are reprehensible, because they are unprecedented, or because they are useless. If they are reprehensible, then everyone’s vows are equally so. The angels themselves become reprehensible for their heavenly existence is the model for those who will one day rise again: “They neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven” (Mt 22:30). Hence, whoever condemns virginity condemns a desire for the resurrection. What has been established for us as a reward can hardly be called reprehensible. There can seem to be nothing wrong with a way of life which is to be our reward; nor can something be offensive whose truth is both in a desire and in its fulfilment.
Whatever it may be, it is not reprehensible. Is it, then, unprecedented? If so, we shall be first to condemn it, along with every other novelty not taught by Christ, our unchanging Way. If Christ did not teach what we are teaching, it is, we readily admit, detestable. Therefore let us ask what Christ taught about the unmarried state, one way or the other. “There are,” he said, “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:12). Consecrated virginity, then, may be described as a brilliant militia waging war for the kingdom of heaven. And so the Lord has taught us that a zeal for chastity ought to be uncontaminated.
Even the Apostles recognised its pre-eminence when they said, “If this is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry” (Mt 19:10). In these words they were admitting that the grace of true celibacy is to be preferred to the heavy bond of marriage. The Lord knew that all may be invited to remain unmarried, but few do so: “Not all can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given” (Mt. 19, 11). Here we have a form of celibacy which is uncommon, even extraordinary, for it is not the result of a weakness, but the reward of strength. Christ said, “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”, to demonstrate that no half-hearted effort could succeed: “He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (Mt 19:12).
And then, after this remark, children were presented to be blessed who, in their childish innocence as yet untouched by any corruption, have the grace of integrity intact. “Of such is the kingdom of heaven”; those namely who are as chaste as children, and are as ignorant of corruption as if they had remained children. In this virginity, it is approved by the Word of God, and according to our Lord’s own precept, is to be desired.
At this place we may invoke the authority of God’s word. The general context is the indissolubility of marriage (except in the case of fornication), which leads up to the idea that celibacy can be a gift and a grace. Christ teaches that no one may condemn marriage although an earnest desire for celibacy is preferable. Who could be so false, so perverse, as to condemn marriage? But who could be so unreasonable as not to perceive the bondage of marriage? For “the unmarried woman or virgin is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband” (1 Cor 7:34).
There are other drawbacks, too, for, although there is no sin in marrying, there are many sorrows of the flesh, such as the grievous labours of childbirth and the heavy task of forming and educating children. St. Paul referred to these earlier to make sure that no one would be led astray by these difficulties. For many, after experiencing the hardships of childbirth, decide to renounce marriage; and many men, who do not have these burdens to bear, are turned away from their wife by an affection for someone else. This is why the Apostle began by saying, “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free” (1 Cor 7:27). He put it well: “Are you bound?” Man and wife are joined to each other by a sort of loving bond, tied together by cords of affection.
The bond of marriage is a good thing, but it is a bond nonetheless; marriage is a good thing, but it is borne as a yoke nonetheless, and sometimes a worldly yoke as when a wife would rather please her husband than please God. But the wounds of love are good too, better than kisses. For “useful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Prv 27:6). Peter wounds and Judas kisses. But the kiss condemned Judas because it carried a traitorous venom; the wound inflicted by Peter also cured him because he washed away his fault with his tears. Thus the beneficial wounds of love are prophetically ascribed to the Church in the Canticle of Canticles: “For I am wounded by love” (Song 2:5).
In short, no one who chooses marriage reprehends celibacy, and no one who remains single condemns marriage. Actually, what has always been condemned by the Church is the perverse opinion of those who dare to dissolve the unity of marriage. Listen again to the voice of holy Church: “Come my brother, let us go forth into the fields, and lodge in the villages; let us go out early to the vineyards, and see whether the vines have budded” (Song 7:11-12). A field may produce many fruits, but the best field is one richly productive of both fruits and flowers. The Church is a field of this sort, fecund in its diversity. Here you may see the shoot of virginity like spring flowers; there, as if in a glade, grave and forceful widowhood; elsewhere, the Church’s marriages, like a cultivated plot whose abundant harvest fills the granary of the world, or whose vines fill to overflowing the winepress of the Lord Jesus with the offspring of faithful wedlock.
And so, zeal for celibacy is neither representable nor unprecedented. It remains to determine its usefulness. For some have said, in my hearing, that the world is perishing, that the human race is shrinking, that the cause of marriage is overthrown. Let us examine the facts. Has anyone looking for a wife been unable to find one? Have there been any wars fought over a virgin? Has anyone been killed because of a virgin? No, these are things that arise from marriages: a man will kill his wife’s adulterer; whole armies may seek a ravisher (much to the harm of the nation). But no one has ever been condemned because of a consecrated virgin. Where chastity dwells such griefs disappear because there religion will flourish and fidelity be safeguarded.
Furthermore, if anyone imagines that the human race is decreasing because of vows of virginity he should consider this: a small number of virgins means a low population. It is a fact that the population is highest where a commitment to virginity is strongest. In the Church of Alexandria and throughout the whole East, and in Africa many virgins, following a long-established practice, have dedicated themselves to God. The result is that we produce fewer people here than they have consecrated virgins. The witness of the whole world proves that virginity cannot be called useless, especially when it was through the Virgin that salvation came, bringing new life to the Roman world.
Anyone who attacks virginity on these grounds should also attack the faithful chastity of married women. After all, a wife who is unfaithful will bear more children. “Is her husband away? She should not be faithful at the cost of the next generation. Hurry, before she becomes too old.”
They say that things have become more difficult for young men who want to marry. But are they not, perhaps, easier? I want to discuss the matter with those who believe that virginity ought to be restricted. Among them we would distinguish those who are already married. They need not fear; their wives are hardly in question. And as for unmarried men, they harm only themselves if they are hoping to marry a woman who is not going to get married. Nor should fathers, desirous of having their daughters marry, worry because virgins are being consecrated. These men have nothing to fear if they would carry out their plans. For their daughters will be quickly chosen from among the few young women that remain.
It is often said that virgins should be older when they take the veil. I do not deny the need for a bishop to be careful not to allow a girl to be veiled rashly. He should investigate thoroughly, considering her age, yes, but of her faith and modesty. He should examine what we may call her maturity in refined sensibility, her grey hairs of seriousness, the old age of good behaviour, her long years of modesty, her spirit of chastity, and, finally, the dependable protection of her mother and the sober zeal of her companions. If these are at hand, the virgin will have the required “grey hair of old age”. But where they are absent, let the maiden be refused. She is too young - but in behaviour, not in years.
It is not that I reject maturity in itself, but I also examine attitudes. As you know full well, it is not by her great age but by her virtue that Thecla gains our admiration. What more is there to add? Any age is suitable for God, any age is perfect for Christ. This is why we do not say that virtue is less important than age, but age than virtue. Nor is a profession by a young person such an oddity; you have read of children being martyred, as it is written: “Out of the mouths of babes and infants I have perfected praise” (Ps 8:3). Are we to recoil when the young imitate his continence whom infants have confessed unto death? Are we to think it practically unbelievable if marriageable maidens follow Christ in to his kingdom, when even children followed him into the desert? We read four thousand men were filled from five loaves, “besides” it says, “children and women” (Mt 19:21).
Do not keep the children back from Christ, for even such as they have undergone martyrdom for the name of Christ; “of such is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 19:13). The Lord is calling them, and will you hold them back? Of these the Lord says, “Let them come to me” (Mt 19:14). Neither hold back the maidens of whom it is written, “Thus have the maidens loved you, and they have brought you into the house of their mother” (Song 8:2). You may not, then, separate the little ones from the love of Christ whom they proclaimed with prophetic exaltation even from their mother’s womb (cf. Lk 1:41).
Some were searching for Christ at the beginning of the Church. And why? Scripture says, “He laid his hands on them, and healed them” (Lk 4:40). One does not select a particular time or place for healing. Healing makes its own time and place. Mary was blessed by an angel in her home, and in his house David was anointed as a prophet (1 Kgs 16:13). Jesus cures and restores health everywhere; on the road, in a house, in the wilderness. On the road the woman who touched the fringe of his garment is cured (Mt 9:20); in the house of the synagogue leader, the daughter is brought back to life; in the desert a multitude is healed. Thus one reads: “When the sun was setting all those who had any that were sick with various diseases brought them to him. And he laid his hands on everyone of them and healed them” (Lk 4:40). He healed in the desert, as the sun was setting; and he cured them by laying on his hands, demonstrating in this way that he was both the Lord and man. Not without cause, then, did the crowds search for him the next morning.
I see an order to these events. The sick are carried to Christ as the sun sets. At daybreak the crowds were looking for him. For when, if not during the day, does one search for Christ? Certainly, no one walking in the light is moving away from Christ. But “night” has hitherto heard the cries of the sick, until “day” had come - the faith of the people and the joy of those who have been healed. So is what was written fulfilled, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps 29:6). And what greater favour could the people receive, than to follow Christ, even into the wilderness.
In this he teaches us that there is no vainglory among the perfect. For Christ avoids, not the crowd of those expecting this healing, but any public display. Therefore, as we wish to be saved, to merit healing, we must flee with Christ from luxurious and lascivious allurements, and follow him across the desert of this life in strict fasting and bodily thirst.
Let us follow him by day, the present day of the Church, which Abraham saw and was glad (Jn 8:56). This is why we follow Christ during the day; for he will not be found by night. “Upon my bed,” Scripture says, “by night I sought him whom my soul loves. I called him, but he gave no answer” (Song 3:1-2).
Christ is not found in the market place or in the city squares, as he could not be found in the market or the squares by her who said, “I will rise now and go about the city, in the market and in the squares; and I will seek him whom my soul loves. I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer” (Song 3:1-2). You see, then, that we should never seek Christ where we will not find him. Christ is not of the market place, for Christ is peace, while the market is strife; Christ is justice, the market, iniquity; Christ is at work, the market, stupidly idle; Christ is charity, the market, slander; Christ is trust, the market, fraud and faithlessness. Christ is in the Church, in the market place, idols. (In another book of mine, I reprimanded a certain widow. May she know that I wrote what I did, not out of a wish to be critical, but to give her a warning. I hope she will accept in a peaceable, accommodating spirit, without rancour, what I say now.) In the Church a widow is given her due; in the market she is much afflicted. This shows why we should utterly avoid the market place and the city squares.
“Call prudence your intimate friend to preserve you from a loose woman, someone else’s wife . . . she looks out of the windows of her house on the square” (Prv 7:4). We should avoid the squares. It is injurious enough not to have found him for whom you are seeking; but there is a greater evil yet if you go looking for the houses of false teachers. This is to alter what should be reverent search into an act of impudence.
Thus we should learn to be careful, following the example of Christ’s Church, lest the city watchmen find us on their rounds. As Scripture says, “The watchman found me as they went about in the city, they beat me, they wounded me, they took away my mantle, those watchmen of the walls” (Song 5:7). Not in herself, daughters, not in herself, I say, is the Church wounded, but in us. We must be careful, then, that no fall of ours becomes an injury for the Church; let no one lift off our mantle (that is, the mantle of prudence, the badge of patience), the wearing of which excludes the extravagance of wearing soft raiment. “For those who wear soft raiment are in kings’ houses” (Mt. 11:8). But Christ has given us the mantle with which he clothed his Apostles and his own person. If anyone asks you for a tunic, Christ commanded you to give him the mantle as well (Mt 5:40). This is to say that you must hand over the emblem of your “philosophy” and with the mantle of your prudence you cover him who was naked before.
And so, daughters, we are to seek Christ where the Church does: in mountains breathing forth a sweet, life-giving fragrance, in the surpassing excellence of noble actions and the high places of meritorious deeds. For Christ flees the squares, he flees the crowds and the noises of the market place, as it is written, “Flee, my beloved, and be like a gazelle, or a young stag upon the mountains of spices” (Song 8:14). Christ, detested by coiling snakes and beset by reptiles crawling on the earth, flees from the barren plain; he knows no dwelling except the heights of virtue; he knows no home except among those daughters of the Church who can say, “We are a sweet fragrance of Christ to God” (2 Cor 2:15). For some indeed, it is an odour of death, leading to death, for those who perish; but to others, an odour of life, leading to life - in those namely, who with living faith, breathe the fragrance of the Lord’s resurrection.
There are the mountains of spices: those who receive the body of the Lord Jesus and bind it in linen with spices (Jn 19:40). For in the belief that Jesus died, was buried, and has arisen, is the summit of the true faith attained by the most excellent of the virtues. Therefore, where is Christ being sought? Undoubtedly in the heart of a prudent bishop.
The desert has been mentioned, but he is to be found elsewhere too. As he says himself: “I am a flower of the field, a lily of the valleys, as a lily among brambles” (Song 2:1, 2). Consider, then, another place in which the Lord likes to reside, and not only one place, but many. He says, “I am a flower of the field,” because he often visits the open simplicity of a pure mind; “and the lily of the valleys,” for Christ is the bloom of lowliness, not of luxury, voluptuousness, of lasciviousness, but the flower of simplicity and lowliness. “A lily among brambles” as the flower of a good odour is sure to grow in the midst of hard labours and heartfelt sorrow (since God is pleased with a contrite heart).
This wilderness, my daughters, leads to the kingdom; this desert blooms like the lily, as we read, “Dry land, be glad and rejoice; the desert shall blossom like the lily” (Is 35:1). In this desert, my daughters, there is a tree, good and fruitful, which produces good fruit as it begins to spread wide the branches of its deeds, to raise up its divine heights. Near it the trees of our woods become fruitful, for “As an apple tree among the trees of the woods, so is my beloved among young men” (Song 2:3). And seeing this, the Church is glad and rejoices, saying with great delight, “I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste” (Ibid).
Seeing this, I may note, the Church is already happy at what our faith has accomplished, and says, “Bring me to the banqueting house, and set charity in order for me” (Song 2:3). But there can be no charity without faith, for three are the securities of the Church: hope, faith, and charity. If hope will have gone before and faith have been established, then charity is set in order and the Church is united.
Having thus learned where to seek out Christ, learn now how to merit that he may be seeking you. Arouse the Holy Spirit by saying, “Awake, O north wind and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, and let its fragrance be wafted abroad. Let my beloved come to his garden and eat its choicest fruits” (Song 4:16; 5:1). The garden of the Word is the affection of a flourishing soul, and its fruit is the produce of virtue.
And so he comes; whether you eat or drink, if you call upon Christ he is present, saying, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of my wine” (Prv 9:5). Even if you are asleep he is knocking at the door. He comes, I say, frequently and reaches in through the window. Frequently (but not always and not to everyone) he comes to that soul which can say, “At night I had put off my garment” (Song 5:3). For in this night of the world the garment of corporeal life is first to be taken off as the Lord divested himself in his flesh that for you he might triumph over the dominions and powers of this world.
How could I put it on?”(ibid.) See what the soul devoted to God would say. She so strips herself of bodily acts and earthly ways, that she would not know how or even if she could put them on again. “How could I put it on?” This is to say, with what sort of reverence, what modesty, what, finally, recollections? For by good habits the practices of former depravity are put aside.
I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them?(ibid.)” You have learned from the Gospel that to wash one’s feet could be a mystery of the faith and a sign of lowliness as it is written, “If I your Lord and teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:14). For this is a part of lowliness. In fact, as a sort of sacrament, anyone who wishes to have a share with Christ ought to wash his feet. “For,” he said, “if I do not wash your feet you will have no share with me” (Jn 13:8). When he spoke thus to Peter what was he thinking about us?
Anyone who washes his feet will have no need to wash them a second time, and so he ought to be careful not to soil them. Even holy Church may properly say, “I have washed my feet.” She does not say, “How shall I wash them again?” but, “How could I soil them again” when the grime of the past, my former contagion, is forgotten? In this manner she warns by a concrete, sacred action how we should spiritually wash away the traces of our actions. So once you have washed your feet in the abundant waters of the eternal font and have been cleansed by the sacramental mysteries, be on your guard lest they may become dirty again, in mire of bodily passions or earthly stains of vile behaviour.
These are the feet which David washes in spirit when he teaches you how to keep them unsoiled, saying, “Our feet have been standing in your courts, O Jerusalem” (Ps 121:2). Certainly, here “feet” is to be understood not as of the body but as of the soul. For how could a man on earth have his physical feet in heaven? Since Jerusalem as Paul tells you, is in heaven, he also shows you how to stand in heaven when he says, “But our abode is in heaven” (Phil 3:20): the “abode” of your behaviour, the “abode” of your deeds, the “abode” of your faith.
Whoever lives this out can say, “My beloved put his hand to the latch and my heart thrilled within me. I arose to open to my beloved” (Song 5:4, 5). It is a good thing that our consciousness is affected when the Lord comes. If Mary was troubled at the coming of the angel how much more should we be troubled at the coming of Christ? Indeed, under the influence of divine realities, merely human affection itself becomes foreign, the ordinary routine of the outer man passes away. So you, too, be troubled and hurry. They were ordered to eat the [paschal] lamb in haste. Rise, open, Christ is at the gate, he knocks at the entrance of your house; if you open the door, he will come in and he will come with his Father.
He bestows the reward not only after entering; even before coming in he sends his reward. Already is the soul troubled, groping along the walls of her house seeking the door where Christ is; already she is releasing the secret bonds of flesh and the body; already Christ is outside knocking. He says, “My hands dripped with myrrh and my fingers are full on the handles of the bolt.” With what myrrh do the hands of the soul drip if not that brought by Nicodemus, that just man and a master in Israel who deserved to be the first to hear of the mystery of baptism. He brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about one hundred pounds, and put them on the body of Jesus (Jn 19:38), but he was really bringing the perfect fragrance of faith.
The soul which begins to open to Christ emits this fragrance. But she must first receive the fragrance of the Lord’s sepulchre; she must believe that his flesh did not see corruption, that he was not weakened by any smell of death, but that he rose with the fragrance of that everlasting and ever-flowering bloom preserved. For how could his very flesh have decayed, whose name is an unguent poured out? And he poured himself out so that this unguent might breathe upon you.
This unguent has always existed, but it was with the Father, it was in the Father. It emitted its fragrance to the angels and archangels, enclosed, as if in a container, by heaven itself. The Father opened his mouth saying, “Behold I have made you as a testament to my people and as a light to the nations, that in you my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Is 49:6). The Son descended, and all things were filled with a new fragrance from the Word. The heart of the Father overflowed with the good Word, the Son blazed forth, and the Holy Spirit breathed outwards diffusing himself into the hearts of all, “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rm 5:5).
This very Son of God, now in a body as in a container, at first kept back the fragrance, waiting for his time, as he says, “The Lord has given me the tongue of those who are taught that I may know the occasion to speak my word” (Is 50:4). The hour came, and he opened his mouth, and the unguent poured out as when virtue went out from him.
The unguent poured out upon the Jews, was gathered by the gentiles; poured out on Judea, it spread its odour into all lands. Mary was anointed with this unguent, and the virgin conceived, the virgin bore a sweet fragrance, the Son of God. This unguent was spread upon the waters, and it sanctified the waters. The three boys were anointed with this unguent, and the flame distilled a moisture for them like a dew. Daniel was anointed with it, and it closed the lions’ mouths, softening their ferocity.
This unguent flows every day, but it is never exhausted. Take up your container, O virgin, and come forward that you may be filled with the unguent. Receive the unguent valued at three hundred denarii but given away for nothing, not sold, that all may have it freely. Virgin, use this unguent. Do not become morose, like Judas, because this unguent is poured out, but bury Christ in yourself. And close your vessel discretely, lest the unguent flow away. Lock it with the key of integrity, of restraint in speaking, of the eschewal of self-praise.
Whoever has this unguent receives Christ, and so she who has received it says, “I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had gone” (Song 5:6). What is this going? Simply that he has penetrated into the centre of the mind as it was said to Mary, “And his sword will pierce your soul” (Lk 2:35). For the living Word of God, as piercing as a sharp sword, comprehends both the limits of bodily thoughts and the secret places of the heart.
O soul, you are one of the nation, one of the people. (And remember, that Christ is not impressed by the distinctions of this world’s dignity; he is not dumbfounded by golden clothing, a precious necklace, or exquisite tiaras sparkling with jewels, whose cost often causes discord in the Church and casts out peace.) You are one of the virgins the splendour of whose mind illuminates the grace of your body. For this reason are you compared to the Church. So, when you are in your chamber during the hours of night, meditate continually on Christ and hope every moment for his coming.
If the time seems long for you, get up. It seems long only when you are sleeping; it seems long when you do not raise your voice in psalms. Dedicate the first fruits of your watchings to Christ, and offer up the first fruits of your actions to Christ. When you are on high ground you will hear him calling you as he says. “Come from Lebanon my bride, come from Lebanon” (Song 4:8). You pass through and penetrate from the beginning of faith. That is, you will pass through to fight the world and you will penetrate to Christ to triumph over the world. You have heard that he removes you from the incursions of lions and leopards, that is of spiritual evils; you have heard that the beauty of your virtues pleases him; you have heard that he prefers the fragrance of your garments, that is the sweet perfume of integrity, to all other perfumes; you have heard that you are an enclosed garden, full of the products of delightful fruit trees. Ask, therefore, for the Holy Spirit to breathe on you on your couch and to gather the fragrances of a holy mind and spiritual gifts. He will respond to you: “I slept, but my heart was awake” (Song 4:8).
You hear the voice of the one knocking at the gate saying “Open to me, my sister, rise my beloved, my dove, my perfect one” (Song 5:2). Beloved for his charity, a dove in his simplicity, and perfect in his virtue. “For my head is wet with dew” (ibid.). As the dew from the heavens removes the dryness of the night, so the dew of our Lord Jesus Christ descends as the moisture of eternal life into the nocturnal shadows of the world. This is the head which knows nothing of the dryness caused by the heat of this world. Wherefore he says, “If they do this when the word is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Lk 23:31). For this head is full of dew for others, just as it abounds in dew for itself. And it is a good thing that Christ’s head abounds, for your head is Christ, who is always plentiful. His liberalities are not completely spent, his daily largesse does not fail; nor shall a sword be raised against this head, no instruments of war, no sign of discord.
Now look and see what sort of dew is here. It is not the common liquid. “My locks are wet with the drops of the night” (Song 5:2). My friend, do not think of locks of real hair, for that would be more fault than ornament, allurements of form rather than precepts of virtue. Far different are the locks of a Nazarite which no razor has touched, nor have they been trimmed. Their arrangement is not produced by the curling iron, their design by no artifice; here the curls shine forth by the grace of their bright virtues. Learn from the past what sort of curls a Nazarite has for as long as Samson kept them intact, he could never be conquered. In losing his hair, he lost what his strength had gained.
Once you have listened to the voice of the Word and have put off your tunic at night, do not seek how you may again put it on; for it gets in the way and, all too often, it comes to hand through wickedness of spirit. I hope that you will forget altogether how to put it on. May you rise deeply stirred, free from bodily bonds, as if the Lord were now beside you. May you prepare your inner mind by prayers when you arise, so that moving away from lowly things you may strain after the highest, eager to open the gates of your heart. And as you extend your hands to Christ, your actions will breathe out the perfume of faithfulness.
Therefore present your hands to your nostrils and explore with unwearied and ever-watchful alacrity of mind the perfume of your deeds. The smell of your right hand will delight you, and your limbs will be redolent of the fragrance of the resurrection; your fingers will exude myrrh, spiritual actions that glow with the grace of true faith. As then, from within your body, O virgin, do you grasp pleasure, and you are sweet to yourself and agreeable, with no hint of the displeasure sinners often feel; for utter simplicity will be the more pleasing to you once you have stripped away the coatings of misleading corporeality.
This is how Christ has desired you, Christ has chosen you. The door being open, he enters, and one who has promised to be himself the door cannot deceive. So embrace whom you have sought; approach him to be filled with light; hold him and ask him not to depart quickly, pleading with him not to go away. For the Word of God moves, and fastidiousness will not seize it nor neglect to hold it. Your soul should go to meet his Word and you should place yourself on the path of heavenly wisdom, for it quickly passes on.
Indeed, what is she saying? “I sought him but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer” (Song 5:6). You who call, who ask, and who open should not think you are somehow displeasing because he goes away so quickly since he often permits us to be tempted. Indeed, in the Gospel, when the crowds were asking him not to go away, what did he say? “I must preach the good news, the Word of God, to the other cities; for I was sent for this purpose” (Lk 4:43). But even if he seems to have gone away from you, go out and look for him.
You have devoted yourself to God; do not now fear those dreadful watchmen who move around the city squares, do not fear those who wander about the city, and do not be intimidated by wounds which cannot harm those who follow Christ. Even if they should make off with your body (that is, your bodily life) Christ is near. Once you have found him, note your location because there you should remain together with him. Watch that he does not move away too soon, since he quickly deserts those who are negligent.
And who but holy Church should teach you how to hold on to Christ? Even now she is teaching you if you understand what you read: “Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go” (Song 3:4). By what, therefore, is Christ held? not by painful fetters or by knotted rope, but by the bonds of charity; he is bound by thongs of the mind and held by the affection of the soul. If you also wish to hold on to Christ, be continually on the lookout, and fear no pain. For it is often in the midst of bodily torments, in the very hands of persecutors, that Christ is best found. “Scarcely,” it says, “had I passed them” (ibid.). Indeed, after a short space, a brief moment, after you have gone forth from the hands of persecutors without succumbing to the powers of the world, Christ will meet you and not allow you to be tempted any longer.
Whoever seeks Christ in this way and finds Christ is able to say, “I held him and would not let him go until I had brought him into my mother’s house and into the chamber of her that conceived me” (ibid.). What is signified by the house of your mother and her chamber except the interior, secret place of your nature? Keep this “house”, and cleanse its inmost parts so that, once it is an immaculate house unstained by any sordidness of an adulterous conscience, a spiritual house held together by the corner stone may rise into a holy priesthood, and the Holy Spirit may dwell in it. She who thus seeks Christ, who entreats him, is not abandoned by him; rather, she is frequently visited, for he is with us until the end of the world (Mt 28:20).
In this way Christ is found and held; he who puts his hand through your window is found. What is our window if not that through which we see the actions of Christ - namely, the eye of the soul and the gaze of the mind? And so, O virgin, let Christ come in through your window, let Christ put his hand in through the window, let the love, not of the body, but of the Word come to you. And if the Word puts his hand through your window, note how you should prepare your window, note how you should wipe them clean from all the grime of your sins. Let the window of a virgin have nothing foul about it, nothing adulterous. Off with eye cosmetics and other follies of artificial beauty. Off with the allurements of an adulterous affection. And regarding your ears: they were not made to carry heavy loads or to suffer wounds. Their only suitable decoration is to listen to what is profitable.
Learn also to bolt your door during the hours of the night; may no one discover it to be opened readily. Your Bridegroom himself desires that it be closed when he knocks. This door of ours is our mouth, which should open to Christ alone. Let it not open unless the Word of God has already knocked, as it is written, “A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed” (Song 4:12). Your mouth should neither open easily nor respond to every commonplace address. In fact, this should be your rule, even in spiritual matters, unless you are responding to an address by the Word of God. Why do you concern yourself with anything else? Speak to Christ, alone, converse with Christ alone. For if “women should keep silence in church” (1 Cor 14:34), how much more unfitting it is for a virgin to open her door, for a widow to open her courtyard. How quickly the waylayer of modesty creeps up, how quickly he elicits the word you would have wanted to recall.
If Eve’s door had been closed, Adam would not have been deceived and she, under question, would not have responded to the serpent. Death entered through the window, i.e., through the door of Eve. And death will come in through your door if you speak falsely, lasciviously, or impudently especially when there is no call upon you to speak. Therefore, let the gates of your lips be closed and the vestibule of your voice remain bolted; then, perhaps they will be unbolted when you hear the voice of God, when you hear the Word of God.
Then you will be drenched with myrrh, then you will be infused with the grace of baptism so that you may die with Christ to this material world and, with Christ, may rise. “Why do you live,” it says, “as if you still belonged to the world? Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch things which all perish as they are used” (Col. 2:20-22). For corruptible things ought to be far from those who are chaste. Therefore bury the cares of the flesh and of the world. “If, then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is” (Col 3:1). When you are seeking Christ you will see God, the Father, for Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
But she who seeks Christ ought not to be well known; she should not be in the square or in the streets with tremulous voice, an easy stride, a ready ear, and a vulgar appearance. The Apostle denies earthly society to you, instructing you to fly to heaven on spiritual wings, almost beyond the limits of nature. “Set your minds on things that are above,” he says, “not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). But this was impossible to those encased, as it were, in the narrow confines of the body. While we live the soul is bound by a certain law of nature, but after we die it is said to fly back to higher places. Therefore he added, “For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). If it is hidden with Christ in God it should not be apparent to the world. For Christ is dead to the world, but he lives to God.
Now observe how Christ would wish to be desired, but he would not wish for discourses. This is why that virgin opened her gates to the Word of God, but “my soul failed me,” it says, “my soul failed me when he spoke” (Song 5:6). It was gone out of the world, it has gone out of society, it has abided in Christ. “I sought him but found him not” (ibid.), it says. For Christ loves to be long sought after.
The watchmen on the walls found her. Perhaps, besides these, there are other watchmen whom we should rather understand. For this is the city that does not have the gates of its walls closed as it is said, “And its gates shall never be shut by day” (Rv 21:25). For in it here is no longer any night, and into it the nations bring glory and honour. This city is the heavenly Jerusalem, and within it you may be safe already, as if perfect and spotless. But nothing ordinary may enter it: chastity is not ordinary, modesty is not ordinary, being inscribed in the book of life.
If, therefore, we find the city let us enter it, let us look at its light, its wall, its tribes, the foundation of its walls, and let us also see the watchmen on the walls. But how may we enter? In this city there is only one way, leading to life, for Christ is the way. Hence, let us follow Christ. But this city is in heaven. The manner in which we may ascend to heaven is taught by the Evangelist who says, “And the Spirit carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven” (Rv 21:10).That is, we may ascend in spirit, since flesh cannot reach her. Let us, in the interim, rise to heaven so that from heaven this city may later descend to us. In it the light is like a precious stone, such as the stone of jasper and crystal, and its wall is great and high.
Having learned about the light and learned about the wall, learn now about the gates, learn about the watchmen. “It has twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed” (Rv 21:12). On the gates, the names of the patriarchs are contained, those of the apostles on the wall. For the apostles are the foundations of the city, and the corner stone is Christ on whom the whole structure rises as a unit. God is outside, God is within, God is everywhere, for the city has, it says, the glory of God. O holy virgins and any others who are righteous and carry a spotless chastity of soul, now you are servants of God and co-citizens of the saints, but then you shall possess the very excellence of your fatherland. You have only, in consort with angels, to seek Christ within the walls of this city having entered in by faith and precious acts, been illumined on by the light of the patriarchs, and founded on the apostles.
But how are these watchmen angels, who raise up the cloak of a chaste soul? A virgin’s cloak is one thing, that of young women of the market place another. One, seeking Christ in the market place, has put off the cloak she had; for prudence is to be had not in a market place nor in square, but in the church. And perhaps - that we too may come with them into favour and teach them that the Lord is tender-hearted towards everyone, they too find Christ at one time or another, that is, if they continually seek him - the cloak is the garment of the body.
Therefore she who on her couch sought Christ - but sought as he did who said, “Thus I remembered you upon my couch” (Ps 67:7), sought him during the nights, as it is written, “By night lift up your hands to the holy place” (Ps 133:2), sought him in the city, in the market place and the squares out of which are gathered those who come together at the Lord’s banquet - she can meet angels, the watchmen of God’s city, in her seeking howsoever long.
Indeed, even from the heavenly nature of the watchmen we can understand the heavenly city, the heavenly forum of everlasting justice; not squalid squares but those, perhaps where that fountain would flow abundantly of which it is written, “Waters from your fountain shall flow abundantly for you, from which your waters shall be spread over your squares” (Prv 5:16). So she who searches for Christ is known to angels.
If it is a matter of reaching angels by good merits, why does one arrive wounded? oh! it is such a good sword and such a good wound from his sword! The Word of God inflicts a wound, but it does not produce a sore. There is a wound of righteous love, there are wounds of charity, as she has said, “I am wounded with love” (Cant. 2:5). Who is perfect is wounded with love. Therefore the wounds of the Word are good, and good are the wounds of the lover: “More useful are the wounds of a friend than the profuse kisses of an enemy” (Prv 27:6). Rebecca was wounded with love when she left her parents and journeyed to her husband. Rachel was wounded with love when she envied her sister and loved her husband. (For Rachel was barren at that time, and so she envied her sister who had many children.) In this Rachel is seen to be a type of the Church, to whom it is said, “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in travail! (Is 54:1)"
Thus the watchmen found her and wounded her and took her cloak from her; that is, they removed the coverings of bodily behaviour, so that in utter simplicity the mind could seek Christ. For no one can see Christ who has assumed the garment of philosophy or, specifically, the dress of secular wisdom. It is a good thing that the garment of philosophy was taken from her, so that no one might prey upon her by philosophy. Well and good, that this cloak is taken from her who is approaching Christ. Thus may she enter with a pure heart, as one who will see God. For “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:7). And having cleansed her heart, she then finds the Word, she then sees God.
Therefore search after him, O virgin, whom we are all seeking by every means. Of course, the soul has no gender in itself, but perhaps it is a feminine noun [anima] because, when the turbulence of the body acts violently upon it, the soul softens these bodily assaults by its gentle love and a certain persuasive rationality.
Hence we should call upon God by our prayers and pleadings to breathe and blow the gentle breeze of his heavenly Word upon us, like a welcome wind from the south. This wind rarely shakes fruit-bearing trees strongly, but agitates them with a gentle breath and a light breeze; it is written, “The chariot of Aminadab placed me”(Song 6:2), meaning that while our soul is joined to the body it resembles someone seeking a driver and leader for the unruly horses of his chariot. Aminadab, as we read in Numbers, was the father of Naason who was a prince of the people of Judah. This, in figure, refers to Christ who, as the true prince of the people, rules the soul of the just. He mounts and masters the chariot of the Word with a snap of the reins lest by the fury of the violent horses it be hurled down a precipitous incline.
The four affections of the soul (anger, desire, pleasure, and fear) are like four horses that are unmanageable when the chariot begins to move. Similarly the soul, weighed down by its perishable body, hardly knows herself. It is as if brute beasts seized control of a chariot, and its powerless occupant, amid flying fears, is hurled and jolted about until the bodily passions are taken in hand and calmed by the power of the Word. This foresight of the Word is like that of a skilful driver; without it the soul, although not in itself liable to death, can experience difficulties from disturbance in the mortal body conjoined to it.
She masters at once these runaway motions of the body and pulls the reins together by her reason; now she should be careful not to become entangled again by the unequal gait of one of the horses as, for example a good horse can be hurt by a second-rate one, impeded by a slow one, or disquieted by a wild one. For a bad horse snorts and leaps, damaging both the chariot and itself and weighing down upon its yoke-mate. But a good driver will mollify such a horse by placing it in the field of truth so that it turns away from the crooked ways of fraud. The road to the heights is safe, but a descent to the depths is dangerous. And so, like discharged veterans who will have carried the yoke of the Word well, they are brought to the Lord’s stable where not hay, but the bread that comes down from heaven is the food.
It is of the wheels of this chariot that the prophet said, “And the Spirit of life was in the wheels” (Ez 1:20), meaning that the chariot of the soul, smooth and round, rolls along without any offense.
But we must not dawdle any longer; the Word of God is entertained in a nut orchard which contains the fruit of the prophetical readings and priestly grace. This is bitter amid temptations, strong in its work, and fruitful in interior virtues, as even Aaron’s staff, of a nut tree, bloomed not naturally, but from a hidden power. He goes down, therefore, into the garden to gather the harvest of faith, to capture fragrances, to procure the heavenly nourishment, to feast upon the sweetness of our honey, saying, I have gathered the vintage of my myrrh with my spices, I have eaten my bread with my honey (Song 5:1). This solid is gathered from the flowers of various virtues by the cooperative work of those bees that proclaim wisdom. Holy Church puts it in honeycombs so that it may be the food of Christ.
Thus, in Christ we possess everything. Let every soul approach him, be it sick with sins of the flesh, infixed by the nails of worldly desires, admittedly still imperfect, progressing by intense meditation, or already perfect in its many virtues. Everyone is in the Lord’s power, and Christ is all things to us. If you desire to heal your wounds, he is your doctor; if you are on fire with fever, he is your fountain; if you are burdened with iniquity, he is your justification; if you need help, he is your strength; if you fear death, he is your life; if you desire heaven, he is your way; if you are fleeing from darkness, he is your light; if you are seeking food, he is your nourishment: Taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy is the man who takes refuge in him (Ps 33:9).
The woman who had suffered from an issue of blood hoped in him and she was cured immediately, but only because she approached with faith. And you, O daughter, by faith also touch his fringe. The flux of worldly delights issuing forth like a torrent, is already dried up by the heat of the saving Word as long as you approach with faith, grasping at least the extreme fringe of the divine discourse with equal devotion, as long as you throw yourself trembling at the feet of the Lord. Where are the feet of Christ except where the body of Christ is? O faith, more opulent than all treasures; O faith, stronger than all corporeal powers, more salvific than all medicine. The instant the woman approached she felt power, she obtained her medicine, just as when you move your eye to the light it is illuminated before you realise it, and the functioning of the light precedes our preparedness. The ingrained affliction, the refractory affliction which has defeated every medical contrivance and outlay of money is cured by the mere touch of the fringe. O virgin, the devotion of that woman, therefore, should be both imitated by your faith and maintained by your approaching Christ with reverence.
How truly great was she favoured in that she who was ashamed to be seen was not, however, ashamed to confess her complaint. Hence do not cover your falls; acknowledge what he already knows. Do not blush, for the prophets did not blush. Listen to Jeremiah: Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed (Jer 27:14). In the same way she also said, when she touched the fringe, Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, O Lord, and I shall be saved; because you are my praise (Jer 17:15). For she only is healthy whom you have healed.
But if anyone says to you, Where is the Word of the Lord? Let it come (Jer 22:15) for many faithful are thus tempted; they would not answer yes to the Lord. Let him come down from the cross and we will believe in him: he trusted in God, let him now deliver him, if he desires (Mt 27:42-43) if, therefore, anyone says this to you by way of insult, hoping to entice you into a pointless discussion, give him no answer just as Christ himself chose not to reply to such people. Address yourself to Christ alone; for even if you would speak to them they would not believe, and if you would question, they will not answer you. Say to the unique Word, I have not toiled following after you, and I have not desired the day of man (Jer 17:16).
This is what the woman said, and the issue of blood was stayed. Howsoever weary, howsoever ill, she who had been so long seeking Christ said nevertheless, I have not toiled following after you. One who follows Christ does not toil since he calls those who labour to himself that they may rest. Therefore let us follow him. As long as we follow him we have no toil, as there is no toil for Jacob or Isaiah: Those who wait for the Lord . . . shall run and not toil (Is 40:31).
From this it seems that, when Christ was asking who had touched him, she said those things for your benefit: Why do you ask, O Lord? You know; what comes out of my lips is before you, and I am unashamed to confess my own sins. Let them be put to shame who persecute me; but let me not be put to shame (Jer 17:18).
Peter was not ashamed to say, Depart from me O Lord, for I am a sinful man (Lk 5:8). A wise and serious man on whom was to be the foundation of the Church and its disciplinary office, he saw that nothing was more useful to himself than not to become vain because of a pleasing chance occurrence. This is why he said, Depart from me O Lord. He is not asking to be abandoned, but not to be puffed up.
Paul also glories in a sting of his flesh which was provided lest he become vain. It is the allurement of self-display which even Paul fears, it is the slippery slope which even Paul has to beware of. He is certainly not one easily affected by an insignificant matter. He fears he may become vain because receiving revelations and, strong athlete that he is, rejoices that he has learned to purchase the health of his soul by wounding of his body.
As for you, be aware that God’s grace abounds in you, to the brim and over. Take stock of your own virtue, thank God for it, and consider any attention paid to your body like the ballast of a ship, so that the wind of any boasting may not set you wallowing amid the heaving waters of the world. Our wise bee, too, meeting treacherous currents of air, will often carry a tiny pebble to be able to move freely through contrary winds. Otherwise the force of the wind would overthrow the fragile motion of its wings. And Paul and Barnabas considered themselves oppressed when they discovered they were being adored. So beware, O virgin, lest secular winds elevate your wings in flight like those of our little bee.
For the soul has its flights, as has been said: Who are these that fly like clouds and like doves with their young (Is 60:8)? You see, the soul has spiritual flights which, in a brief moment, circle the whole globe. For the thoughts of wise people are free and, insofar as they raise themselves to higher and more divine things, they are the more carried along unimpeded by earthly weight. The soul adheres to God and bears in herself a likeness of the divine image. Once she has quieted her chariot from the horses’ tumult and has been carried along by the beating of her spiritual wings into that ethereal and rarefied place, she despises all worldly things. She soars above the world in her regard for eternal virtues; for justice is above the world, goodness is above the world, wisdom is above the world: even when it is found in the world it is above the world, nevertheless.
Justice was above the world when the devil offered all the kingdoms of the world and all its glory. He was above the world who touched nothing concerning the world, who said: The prince of this world is coming, but in me he shall find nothing (Jn 14:30). Learn, therefore, to be above the world even while in this world, and if you bear a body, may your interior wings soar up. He is above the world who bears God in his body.
But as we cannot imitate God, let us imitate the Apostles whom the world held in hatred for they were not of this world. Imitate them, follow them. Perhaps you are thinking that it is difficult to ascend above the world by merely human virtue. Well said! but even the Apostles in their following of the Lord (not as equals but as disciples), merited to rise above the world. You too should be Christ’s disciple and an imitator of Christ; he will pray for you as he prayed for them. As he said, Not only do I pray for the Apostles, but for those who will believe in me through their word, so that all may be one (Jn 17:30). Hence the Lord wishes us to be one, so that we all may rise above the world, so that there may be a single chastity, a single will, a single goodness, a single grace; you see, by these the flight of the soul is fed and extended.
Let us not, therefore, be sluggish, but rise above earthly things. For is it not the very nature of wings to demonstrate their power in motion? He whom the soul delights in helps the flight, but this occurs only if the soul follows God at all times, desires to dwell in the house of the Lord and to nourish herself with his delight, and is sustained by the wonders wrought by heavenly graces. Then she abandons envy, which has no place among choirs of angels, and bodily lusts, which should not soil the temple of God. And so, since we are the temple of God, let us forswear the preoccupations of the material order.
In our talk of chariots, horses, and wings of the soul, to some we may seem to have made use of philosophical or poetical conceits. But a list of citations from the prophets shows that we have been drawing upon sources proper to us. If anything, others have appropriated them from us. Ezechiel, that holy man, writes in this fashion: And the hand of the Lord was upon me. As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, and fire flashing forth with brightness round about it, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming bronze. And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures (Ez 1:3).
You see then that four animals were described long ago. Let us note what sort of animals these are. He says, As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man in front, the four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle at the back; and their wings were spread out (Ez 1:10-11).
Also, we accept that the soul is described here with the four animals being the four affections. But not exactly as we described them above, for those souls need to be improved, to receive advancement. This soul, however, is described as already perfect. To be more precise, they were being called to heaven, but this one is now in heaven with the Word of God. Concerning it, the four affections are compared to a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. These images we take as symbolising characteristics of the books of the Gospels. Furthermore, these animal figures also express types of affection: the rational by a man; the aggressive by a lion; the passionate by an ox; and the visionary by an eagle.
Now, in every wise man, the astute Greeks have said, are to be found logisticon, thymeticon, epithymeticon, dioraticon; in Latin these are prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice. Prudence concerns the human reason. Fortitude bestows a certain power of fierce strength and a contempt for death. Temperance, when it contemplates the heavenly mysteries and is restrained by consecrated chastity, cares nothing for bodily pleasures. And justice, from a certain position of high elevation, sees and searches out anything produced for others rather than itself; justice does not examine its own conveniences as much as what benefits society. It is appropriate that the soul which has acted with justice is symbolised by an eagle. She should fly away from earthly things and be totally intent on the divine mystery of the sublime resurrection. She struggles for and attains glory insofar as she is impartial. This is why scripture says to her, Your youth is renewed like the eagle’s (Ps 102:5).
It is the same with David. Where the soul is supported with spiritual wings, he has chosen to describe the soul as a bird, as he has said in one place, My soul has escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers (Ps 122:7); and again, In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to my soul, Flee like a bird to the mountain (Ps 10:2). Thus the soul has her wings by which she can raise herself free from the earth. But this movement of the wings is not of something constructed of feathers, but a continuing series of good works, like those of the Lord of whom it is well said, And in the shadow of your wings I shall take refuge (Ps 56:2). In the first place, the hands of our Lord fixed on the cross were extended like something in flight, and, secondly, the actions of God are like a refreshing shadow of eternal salvation which can regulate the conflagration raging in our world.
Because so much flying is expected of us, everyone should stir up in himself God’s grace. Forgetful of things behind and desirous of those ahead, he should eagerly strive after the ultimate ends. Let him exist far from military honours, far from the feverish turmoil of the world, let him exist, lest he collapse like Icarus in the fable when the wax melted in the heat of the sun and the feathers fell off. Although there is no decorum, these writers nevertheless intended to say by their spicy verse that safe flights through the world require the maturity of the prudent. But great disaster comes to that youthful levity which falls back to earth when the feathers have blown off and the whole structure falls apart; that is, when there is compliance with the desires of the world.
The course of human life is not at all an easy flight for everyone, and may be difficult indeed for those who lack internal harmony. But if the structure of our actions is consistent with itself, the prophetic vision of a single wheel joined on the ground to the four animals will be realised in us. Thus Ezechiel will see once more, for he saw even to our time and is honoured and shall be in the future. He will see, I say, a wheel in the centre of a wheel rolling on the ground without hindrance. For the wheel on the ground is the life of the body on earth that has been accommodated to the powers of the soul and that follows a unified course, directed by the command of the Gospel. The wheel in the centre of the wheel is like a life within a life; that is, in holy people one part of life does not clash with another. No, as it has been in an earlier time is it even in these that follow; and the ways of everlasting life already revolve within our present bodily life.
When these things shall have come together, God’s voice shall resound, and then will appear upon a likeness of a throne a likeness in the shape of a man. This man is the Word, for the Word was made flesh (Jn 1:14). This man is the one who directs our souls, he is the governor of our behaviour who by reason of our merits climbs into a full chariot, or up the mountain, or into the ship; but it is the ship in which either the Apostles sail or Peter fishes. Nor is there anything unworthy in the boat which put out into the deep, that is, was separated from unbelievers. For why was a boat chosen for Christ to sit in instructing the crowds unless it is because the boat is the Church which navigates easily in this world, at full sail with the Lord’s cross and in the wind provided by the Holy Spirit.
Peter fishes in this boat and is ordered at one time to use nets, at another, a hook. A great mystery! For it is recognised as a spiritual fishing in that he is commanded to sink the hook of doctrine into society. And then he pulls up from the sea Stephen, the first martyr, who bears inside Christ’s coin; for the martyr of Christ is the treasure of the Church. That martyr who first ascended from the sea to heaven had been selected by Peter to be a minister of the altar. He is caught not by a net, but by hook so that he may be pulled up into heaven in the stream of his own blood. In his mouth was the coin of his profession of Christ. And what treasure is in us if not God’s Word? The proficient man of God fishes, therefore, using both nets and the hook so as to enclose with a net and inflame with a hook. A crowd is enclosed by a net, but by a hook the individual is selected. If only I could devour that hook which so inflames my mouth and bestows salvation by so slight a wound.
Enter the nets of the Apostles, O daughters. They are not let down by human authority but at the command of God. For the net of spiritual wisdom and doctrine is the kingdom of heaven, as it is written, The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea (Mt 13:47).
Today you hear the Lord saying to Simon, Go out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch (Lk 5:4). Before this, when he fished in a pool, Peter was not used to going out into the deep. Yet, even though it was at the sea, it was not deep. The bible here is not referring to a deep body of water. Understand what deep really means: The purpose in a man’s mind is like deep water (Prv 20:5). The heart of man is deep; nothing there is shallow. Row out, therefore, into the deeps of your investigations and your faith, row into the heart of a man. Peter was summoned to the Church by a parable when, according to Matthew, Jesus called him with a simple phrase: Come, and I shall make you fishers of men (Mt 4:19).
There is still another mystery: Go out into the deep. Previously, when he was in the synagogue, he was near the shore. The waters of Judaism were not deep. Similarly, the Samaritan woman considered the well deep, saying, The well is deep; whence do you have that living water to give me (Jn 4:11)? Therefore Peter could not go out into the deep while his faith was that of the Jews. They were even unable to draw water from the well. This is why Peter is told, Go out into the deep [altum], i.e. go to Christ, for Christ is deep. It was of him that the Father of John said, And you, my son, shall be called a prophet of the most high [altissimi] (Lk 1:76). Therefore, go to Christ, truly something deep, in whom is the depth of the riches of wisdom and knowledge of God (Rm 11:33). Go out to the most high who from on high watches over and lifts up from the depths.
There, where Christ is, are the waters deep, that is, the faith. These are the deep waters that fear the Lord: The waters saw you, O Lord, the waters saw you and were afraid (Ps 76:17). There was no deep water among the Jews because it was not in the heart of man. As the Lord says, This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me (Mt 15:8). Christ loves to be in the heart: As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Mt 12:40).
Then, that you may know that he is speaking of faith: Go out into the deep: Peter answered, Master, we have toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word, I will let down the nets (Lk 5:5). Before he saw Christ, Peter was in the night; day had not yet come to him, nor had he seen the true light. The synagogue is in the night, the Church is in the day, as Paul also says: The night is far gone, and the day is at hand (Rm 13:12). It is a good light, one to disperse the darkness of faithlessness and bring the light of day. Peter becomes day, and Paul too. So on this day of their birth the Holy Spirit proclaims, Day to day pours forth the speech (Ps 18:3). This signifies their preaching the faith of Christ from the innermost treasure of their heart. And each day bringing up the true light to us is good.
We read these things in the Gospel. And perhaps today, in heaven, this phrase of Christ and Peter is applied to us. Each day Peter goes fishing; each day the Lord says to him, Go out into the deep. I seem to hear Peter saying to me, Master, we have toiled all night and took nothing (Lk 5:5)! It was night, and few assembled at the vigils. But Peter is toiling in us when our devotion is at work. And Paul is toiling as you hear him saying, Who is weak and I am not weak (2 Cor. 11:29)? Do not so behave that Apostles must toil for you. Therefore they say to him, We have toiled all night and took nothing! No one among the rich has been fasting, but to them today Peter makes a good remark: Conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the previous blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot (1 Pt 1:17-19). Therefore gold and silver have not freed you, but the trials of your faith, more precious than perishable gold.
A good servant is eager to make good to his master the cost that was paid for him. But do not prepare gold or silver, my daughter. Christ does not redeem you by means of these riches. Have your payment ready. Although it is not continually demanded, you always owe it. As he shed his blood, so you owe your blood. He paid for you, but you make your own return. By our sins we were under bond to an evil creditor, we had signed a contract of guilt, we owed the penalty of blood. The Lord Jesus came and offered his own for us; but a blood you cannot render.
Now a good servant should make good his cost to his master, even if he is unable actually to pay the debt, lest he seem unworthy of his price. And you, also, conduct yourself as worthy of such a price so that Christ, who cleansed you, who redeemed you, may not come and find you in your sins, that he may not say to you, What profit is there in my blood? What did it benefit you when I descended into corruption (Ps 29:10)?
But do not wonder how he could have descended into corruption whose flesh, as it is written elsewhere, did not see corruption. Indeed he descended into the place of corruption because he penetrated into hell, but as incorrupt, he could suffer no corruption.
Returning now to what preceded, ask that it may be also said to me, Go out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch (Lk 5:4). For who would fish for people without God, especially when so many tempests and squalls of this world oppose us? But when God wills it, he orders the nets to be let down, and a multitude of fish is caught. And not one boat only, but even the other is filled, as many churches are filled with a blameless people. What a good thing it is that the Lord knew we were toiling and supplied us with companions to help us. The fisherman of the Church at Bononia here, is ready for this type of fishing. Provide us, O lord, with fish since you have provided the helpers.
We are not to use our own nets, however, but those of the Apostles. Many are driven into those folds, my daughters, into certain corners of your apostolic disquisitions. May Peter restore you to life, my daughters! He intervened once on behalf of a widow; then how much more on behalf of a virgin? He did not allow widows to weep any longer (cf. Act. 9:39-40) but, moved by their tears, revived their provider (cf. 1 Tm 5:3). May Paul restore you to life, who also commanded that you be honoured: It is well for you to remain even as I (1 Cor 7:8). He calls forth with honour, teaches by his authority, and invites by his example. May he restore you to life who abandoned everything he had to follow the Lord (cf. Mt 4:20 ff.), as Peter had followed, and John.
Notice how much this fisherman prospered: while he seeks a profit in the sea he finds the life of all things; he abandoned a small boat and discovered God; he quitted an oarlock and found the Word; he let down his fishing line and caught faith; he folded up his net, and pulled in men; he spurned a lake and acquired heaven. Therefore this fisherman, [John], who trembled during the storm at sea, secured unsettled and wandering minds as on a rock.
Let us therefore frequently exercise and improve our art of fishing so that we may believe in virtue the more fully. He was an obscure assistant that he might be a noble evangelist; needy in his poverty, but rich in virtue; he may seem too ignoble for honour, but he is precious by his faith. The less credible he is as a fisherman, the more credible is his message because it is from God, not himself. In admitting his vulgar origins, we surrender any expectation of secular wisdom, but we the more esteem his spiritual wisdom. He had not studied the Law, but is wise about things of the Law (cf. Rm 2:13); he is even a Law unto himself for, although he had not studied the Law, he now speaks beyond the Law because he has been instructed by him from whom the Law came.
What is this unexpected dignity? Two fishermen on the mountain of the Lord (cf. Mt 17:3) confer with the one who brought the Law and the other who put it into practice. See what sort of fishermen one of them is. Moses, indeed, having moved above all earthly things, above heights of worldly wisdom, carried his intellect to the heavens and the stars. The mind of this fisherman is not darkened by clouds or impeded by temporal things; it is not even excluded from mysteries of the heavenly nature, but, scaling up above all corporeal matter, it looked at the Word with God and saw that the Word himself was God. Nor, in Peter’s case, did a mind weakened by its carnal vision hold back in fear, but it apprehended, even in a human being, the Son of God; and so the assuming of a [human] body to the governing will of the divinity that assumed it, once it had been recognised, went further onto the creator’s name.
And Moses, when he says, “And God said” and “God made” (Gn 1:3) indicated the Father and the Son, “as he was well aware, thou I was still unawares.” Then, after the Law, the people erred; after the Gospel, they believed. How great is the grace of God in its differing accomplishments: in one [Moses] because he described the world; in the other [Peter] because he ignored it.