Christians ought to accomplish their race in this world with heed and care, that they may gain heavenly praises from God and angels.
1. We who wish to achieve the life of Christianity with any great thoroughness must before anything else cultivate with all our might that faculty of the soul which discerns and discriminates, in order that, having acquired a delicate sense of the difference between good and evil, and always distinguishing the things with which pure nature has been unnaturally adulterated, we may behave ourselves in a straightforward manner, without offence. By using this power of discernment as a kind of eye, we may keep free from any union or connexion with the suggestions of sin, and thus the heavenly gift may be vouchsafed to us by which we become worthy of the Lord.
Let us take an illustration from the visible world; for there is a likeness between the body and the soul, between the things of the body and the things of the soul, and between the objects of sense and those which are hidden. 2. The body has the eye for its guide. The eye, by seeing, guides the whole body straight. Imagine a man going through woody regions, full of thorns and miry places, where fire also breaks out, and there are swords stuck in the ground, and precipices and frequent waters are found there. The active, heedful, nimble traveller, using the guidance of his eye, passes those difficult places with great attention, gathering up his garment on every side with hands and feet, for fear it should be torn off him in the thickets and thorns, or spoiled by the mire, or cut by a sword. His eye guides the whole body. It is his light, to save him from tumbling down the precipices, or getting drowned in the waters, or injured by some other danger. The man who is thus active and wary, and goes along with all vigilance, wrapping his gown close, under the guidance of his eye, keeps himself from injury, and preserves the gown that clothes him from burning and tearing. But if a man is idle, and slothful, and careless, and clumsy, and slack, as he passes through places like those, his garment floating about him this way and that is torn off upon the thickets and thorns, or burnt by the fire, because he does not resolutely keep it tight round him; or else it is reduced to tatters by the swords that are stuck by the wayside, or smirched by the mire—in one way or another he quickly ruins his fine new garment, by his heedlessness, and slackness, and sloth; and if he does not attend properly and well to what his eye tells him, he will himself fall into some ravine, or be drowned in the waters.
3. In the same way the soul, which is clothed with the fair garment of the body for its vesture, possesses the faculty of discernment to direct the whole soul, together with the body, as it passes amidst the thickets and thorns of life, and the mud, and the fire, and the precipices, which are the lusts and pleasures and other wrong things of this world; and it ought to wrap itself, and the body its garment, closely in on every side with vigilance, and resolution, and earnestness, and heed, and keep itself from getting at all rent in the thickets and thorns of the world—cares, and businesses, and earthly distractions; and from being burned by the fire of lust. Thus clothed, it turns away the eye from seeing evil sights, turns away the ear from listening to slander, the tongue from speaking vanities, the hands and feet from bad pursuits. The soul has a will, by which to turn away and hinder the members of the body from base spectacles, and evil and shameful sounds, and indecent words, and worldly and evil pursuits. 4. It turns itself also from evil rovings, keeping the heart from letting the members of its thought rove in the world. Thus striving, and earnestly endeavouring, and with great heed restraining the members of the body on every side from what is bad, it preserves that fair garment of the body unrent, unburned, and unstained, and it will itself be preserved by means of a knowing, discerning, discriminating will, and all by the power of the Lord, while with all its might it gathers itself in and turns away from all worldly lusts, and thus is helped by the Lord to be truly preserved from the disasters that have been spoken of. For when the Lord sees any one bravely turning his back on the pleasures and distractions of life, and material cares, and earthly ties, and the rovings of vain thoughts, He gives the help of His own grace, and maintains that soul unfallen, as it passes nobly through the present evil world; and so the soul wins heavenly praises from God and angels because it has preserved well the garment of its body and itself also, turning away, as far as lay in its power, from all the lusts of the world, and with His help has run nobly the race of this world’s course.
5. But if a man goes his way in this life with slackness and carelessness, taking no heed, and, to please himself, will not turn away from all the lust of the world, and will not seek the Lord, and Him only, with all desire, he is pierced on the thorns and thickets of this world, and the garment of the body is burned here and there by the fire of lust, and soiled by the mire of pleasures; and thus the soul is found without boldness in the day of judgment, not having succeeded in keeping its raiment unspotted, but having corrupted it with the deceits of this world; and for this reason it is rejected from the kingdom. What can God do with one who wilfully gives himself over to the world, and is deceived by its pleasures, or led astray by material wanderings? The man to whom He gives help is the one who turns away from material pleasures and from his former habits, who drags his mind at all times to the Lord, whether it will or no, who denies himself and seeks the Lord only. This is the man whom He keeps under His care, who guards himself on every side from the snares and entanglements of the material world, who works out his own salvation with fear and trembling, who passes with all heed amidst the snares and entanglements and lusts of this world, and seeks the help of the Lord, and hopes by His mercy to be saved through grace.
6. Think; the five wise virgins, who had been watchful and alert, and had taken in the vessels of their heart—that which was no part of their own nature—the oil, which means the grace of the Spirit from above, were enabled to enter with the Bridegroom into the heavenly bridechamber; but the other, foolish five, who were content with their own nature, would not watch nor busy themselves to receive the oil of gladness in their vessels while they were still in the flesh, but sank as it were to sleep through carelessness, and slackness, and idleness, and ignorance, or fancied righteousness; so they were shut out of the bridechamber of the kingdom, being unable to give satisfaction to the heavenly Bridegroom. Held fast by the tie of the world, and by some earthly affection, they did not give their whole love or passionate devotion to the heavenly Bridegroom, and were not provided with the oil. Souls who seek the sanctification of the Spirit, which is outside of nature, fasten all their affection upon the Lord, and there they walk, and there they pray, and there they employ their thoughts, turning away from all else; for which cause they are privileged to receive the oil of heavenly grace, and succeed in coming through unfallen, giving perfect satisfaction to the spiritual Bridegroom; while souls that are content with what belongs to their own nature creep in thought upon earth; they employ their thoughts upon earth; their mind has its whole existence upon earth. In their own estimation they appear to belong to the Bridegroom, and to be adorned with the ordinances of the flesh; but they have not been born of the Spirit from above, and have not received the oil of gladness.
7. The five rational senses of the soul, if they receive grace from above and the sanctification of the Spirit, are really wise virgins, receiving the wisdom of the grace from above. But if they rest content with what is natural to them, they are found foolish, and shown to be children of the world. They have not put off the spirit of the world, although in their own estimation, because of some specious appearances and outward form, they take themselves for brides of the Bridegroom. As the souls which wholly and entirely cleave to the Lord are there in thought, and there pray, and there walk, and there long after the love of the Lord, so, on the other hand, those souls which are tied and bound in the love of the world, and are willing to spend their existence on the earth, walk there, think there, their mind passes its existence there. For this reason they are incapable of being converted to the good wisdom of the Spirit, being a thing foreign to our own nature—the heavenly grace—which requires to be combined and compounded with our nature, if we are to enter with the Lord into the heavenly bridechamber of the kingdom, and to find eternal salvation.
8. One thing foreign to our nature, the disaster of the passions, we have received into ourselves through the first man’s disobedience, and it has taken its place as almost a part of our nature by long custom and propensity; and this must be expelled again by that other thing foreign to our nature, the heavenly gift of the Spirit, that the original purity may be restored; and unless we receive now that love of the Spirit from heaven by much entreaty, and supplication, and faith, and prayer, and turning from the world, and unless our nature, which has been polluted by wickedness, cleaves to the love which is the Lord, and is sanctified by that love of the Spirit, and unless we persevere to the end unfallen, walking strictly in all His commandments, we cannot attain the heavenly kingdom.
9. I desire to say a word that is deep and subtle, to the best of my ability; listen to me, therefore, with intelligence. The infinite, inaccessible, uncreated God, through His infinite and inconceivable kindness, embodied Himself, and, if I may say so, diminished Himself from His inaccessible glory, to make it possible for Him to be united with His visible creatures, such as the souls of saints and angels, that they might be enabled to partake of the life of Godhead. For each of these, after its kind, is a body, be it angel, or soul, or devil. Subtle though they are, still in substance, character, and image according to the subtlety of their respective natures they are subtle bodies, even as this body of ours is in substance a gross body. The soul, moreover, which is so subtle, has gathered to itself the eye to see with, the ear to hear with; likewise the tongue to speak with, the hand, in fact the whole body and its members the soul has gathered to it and is blended with the same, and accomplishes by means of it all the offices of life.
10. In the same way, the infinite and inconceivable God in His kindness diminished Himself, and put on the members of this body, and gathered Himself in from the inaccessible glory; and through His clemency and love of man transforms and embodies Himself, and mixes with and assumes holy, well-pleasing, faithful souls, and becomes one Spirit with them, according to the saying of Paul, soul in soul, if I may put it so, substance in substance, that the soul may be enabled to live in newness, and to feel immortal life, and may become partaker of glory incorruptible—that is, if it be worthy and well-pleasing. If out of things that were not He hath made the visible creature to be, with such abundant diversity and variety, and before it came into existence it was not—if He willed, and easily made, of things that were not, substances solid and hard, like earth, mountains, trees—you see what hardness of nature is—and again waters intermediate, and commanded that birds should be produced from them—and again more subtle objects, fire, and winds, and things too subtle to be seen by the bodily eye; 11. how could the infinite and inexpressible skill of the manifold wisdom of God create, out of things that were not, grosser, subtler, and still finer bodies, each in its own substance, by His will; and how much more cannot He, who is as He will and what He will, through His unspeakable kindness and inconceivable goodness change and diminish and assimilate Himself, embodying Himself according to their capacity in holy and worthy faithful souls, that He, the invisible, might be seen by them, He, the impalpable, be felt, after the subtilty of the soul’s nature—and that they might feel His sweetness, and enjoy in real experience the goodness of the light of that ineffable enjoyment? When He pleases, he becomes fire, which burns up every base passion that has been introduced into the soul; for our God is a consuming fire. When He pleases, He is rest unspeakable, unutterable, that the soul may rest in the Godhead’s own rest; when He pleases, He is joy and peace, cherishing it and making much of it.
12. Indeed, if He should please to make Himself like to one of the creatures for the delectation and rejoicing of the intelligences among them, as for instance Jerusalem the city of light, or the heavenly mountain of Sion, He can do all at will, according as it is written, Ye are come to the Mount Sion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. All things are facile and easy to Him, and He transforms Himself into any shape He chooses for the benefit of faithful souls that are worthy of Him. Only let a man strive to be a friend of His and well pleasing to Him, and in real experience and feeling he shall truly see the good things of heaven, and the inexpressible delights and infinite riches of Godhead, which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, even the Spirit of the Lord, making Himself for worthy souls their rest, their rejoicing, their delight, and their eternal life. For the Lord embodies Himself even in meat and drink, as it is written in the gospel, He that eateth this bread shall live for ever, to give the soul rest unutterable, and fill it with spiritual cheer; for He says, I am the bread of life, He embodies Himself in the drink of a spring of heaven, as He says, Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him, it shall be in him a well of water springing up into eternal life, and We have all, it says, been made to drink the same drink.
13. To each of the holy fathers He appeared in the manner that pleased Him and was best for them—in one way to Abraham, in another to Isaac, another to Jacob, another to Noe, to Daniel, to David, to Solomon, to Esaias, and each of the holy prophets—in one way to Elias, in another to Moses. My belief is that Moses, every hour in the mountain, during the fast of forty days, was admitted to that spiritual table, and feasted at it and received enjoyment. To each of the saints He appeared as He pleased, to give them rest and salvation and lead them to the knowledge of God. Everything is easy to Him that He chooses. As He pleases, He diminishes Himself by some embodiment, and transforms Himself to come under the eyes of those who love Him, manifesting Himself to those who are worthy in an inaccessible glory of light, according to His great and unspeakable love, and by His own power. The soul that has been privileged to receive with great desire, and waiting upon God, and faith, and love, that power from on high, the heavenly love of the Spirit, and has gained the heavenly fire of the life immortal, is verily disengaged from every worldly affection, and set at liberty from every bond of wickedness.
14. As iron, lead, gold, or silver, when cast into the fire, melts, and changes from its natural hardness to a soft consistency, and so long as it is in the fire continues to be molten and altered from that hard nature by the hot force of the fire, so the soul which has denied the world, and fixed its longing upon the Lord alone, in much searching, and pains, and conflict of soul, and maintains an uninterrupted waiting upon Him in hope and faith, and which has received that heavenly fire of the Godhead and of the love of the Spirit, this soul is then verily disengaged from all affection of the world, and set at liberty from all mischief of the passions, and casts everything out of itself, and is changed from the natural habit and hardness of sin, and considers all things indifferent in comparison with the heavenly Bridegroom whom it has received, at rest in His fervent and ineffable love.
15. I tell you, indeed, that even the much-loved brethren, whom such a soul has under its eye, if they hinder it from that love, it turns from them, in a sense. For that is its life and rest, the mystical, ineffable fellowship of the heavenly King. If the fellowship of an earthly affection severs from father, mother, brethren, and all things come to be outside in the estimation of such a pair, and though they still love them, they love them with a more outside love, while the man’s whole attitude is determined by the relation to his spouse—For this cause, it says, shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they twain shall be one flesh—if, I say, the fleshly love thus disengages from all other love, how much more shall those who have been allowed to enter in truth into the fellowship of that Holy Spirit, that heavenly and beloved Spirit, be disengaged from all worldly love, and everything else appear a matter of indifference, because they have been overcome by a heavenly longing, and are altogether in unison with the mood of it.
16. Well, my beloved brethren, when such good things are set before us, and such great promises have been made to us by the Lord, let us cast away from us all hindrances, renounce all love of the world, and give ourselves over to that one good thing with seeking and longing, that we may attain that unspeakable love of the Spirit concerning which St. Paul urged us to endeavour after it, saying, Follow after charity, that we may be changed from our hardness by the right hand of the Most High, and may come to spiritual tenderness and rest, wounded with the passionate affection of the Divine Spirit. The Lord is very kind to man, waiting in pity for our complete conversion to Himself and emancipation from all things contrary. Although we in our great ignorance and childishness and propensity to evil turn away from life, and set many a hindrance in our own way, not liking really to repent, yet He is full of pity for us, and suffers long till we shall repent and come to Him, and be enlightened in our inward man, that our faces may not be ashamed in the day of judgment.
17. If it seems to us difficult, because the practice of virtue is hard, and still more because of the insidious counsel of the adversary, behold, He is pitiful and longsuffering, waiting for our conversion; and when we sin, He holds His hand, in expectation of our repentance; and when we fall, He is not ashamed to take us back, as the prophet says, Shall they fall, and not arise? shall he turn away, and not return? Only let us be on the watch, making sure of a good intention, and let us be converted straight and fair, seeking help from Him, and He is ready to save us. He is looking for our will to turn to Him with a fervent impulse, to the best of our power, and for faith and zeal that springs from a good purpose; the whole success of the endeavour is His own work in us. Let us then endeavour, beloved, like children of God, putting away all preoccupation, and carelessness, and sloth, to be courageous and ready to follow after Him. Let us not put off from day to day, without observing how sin is injuring us. We do not know when we are to depart out of the flesh. The promises made to Christians are great and unspeakable, so great, that all the glory and beauty of sky and earth, and all the other adornment and variety, the wealth and comeliness and delight, of things visible, bear no proportion to the faith and wealth of a single soul.
18. How can we then refuse to accept heartily such persuasions and promises of the Lord, and to yield ourselves over to Him, denying, as the Gospel says, all other things and our own souls also, and to love Him only and nothing else besides Him? But behold, in spite of all these things, and of the great glory that has been given, and of all the dispensations of the Lord from the times of patriarchs and prophets—what great promises have been made, what persuasions offered, what compassion of the Master shown to us from the beginning! and lastly, in His own sojourn here He displayed His inexpressible kindness towards us by His crucifixion, to convert us and bring us round to life—and we, we will not part with our own wills, and with the love of the world, and with our bad inclinations and customs. Thus we prove ourselves men of little faith, or of none; and yet for all this, He continues to be kind, invisibly protecting and cherishing, not giving us over, according to our iniquities, to the power of sin for ever, nor letting us perish by the deceitfulness of the world, but in His great kindness and longsuffering watching fixedly for the moment when we shall be converted to Him.
19. I dread lest some day the words of the apostle should be fulfilled in us, while we cling to our contemptuous ideas and follow out our inclinations, Or despisest thou the riches of His kindness and forbearance and longsuffering, not knowing that the kindness of God leadeth thee to repentance? But if to this longsuffering and kindness and forbearance we make no return but to add further sins, and through our carelessness and contempt purchase to ourselves yet greater judgments, the saying will be fulfilled, But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God. God has used great and indescribable goodness in relation to mankind, and longsuffering beyond expression, if only we are willing to recover ourselves, and endeavour to be wholly converted to Him, that we may find salvation.
20. If you wish to know the longsuffering of God and His great kindness, let us learn it from the inspired scriptures. Look at Israel, of whom are the fathers, to whom the promises were directed, of whom is Christ according to the flesh, to whom pertained the services and the covenant; how greatly they sinned, how often they turned out of the way, yet He did not altogether let them go, but from time to time He gave them over to chastisements for a season for their profit, desiring to soften the hardness of their heart through affliction; He converted them, encouraged them, sent prophets to them. How often they sinned and offended Him, and He was longsuffering with them, and when they converted, He received them back with joy, and when again they turned out of the way, He did not abandon them, but through the prophets recalled them to conversion; and when many times over they turned away and came back, He bore with them gently, and received them kindly back, until at last they were found in the great transgression of all, when they laid hands upon their own Master, whom the traditions of the holy fathers and prophets taught them to expect as their deliverer and saviour, king and prophet. When He came, they did not welcome Him, but on the contrary, after offering Him indignity after indignity, they at last punished Him with the cross of death; and in this great offence, this surpassing transgression, their sins abounded beyond measure and were filled up; and so they were left for good and all, the Holy Spirit departing from thence when the veil of the temple was rent. And so their temple was given over to the heathen and destroyed and made desolate, according to that denuntiation of the Lord, There shall not be left one stone upon another here, that shall not be thrown down. Thus were they finally given over to the heathen, and were scattered over all the earth by the kings who then took them captive, and were forbidden ever to return to their own places.
21. In this manner, even now, with each one of us, like a kind, good God, He is longsuffering, seeing how often each one offends, and holds His peace, waiting till the man shall recover himself and turn from offending further, and welcoming the converted sinner with much love and joy. That is what He says, There is joy over one sinner that repenteth; and again, It is not the will of My Father that one of the least of these little ones should perish. But if a man, under this great kindness and longsuffering of God, who will not proceed to requital for every offence, secret or open, as it is committed, but sees and holds His peace, as waiting for the sinner’s repentance—if, I say, the man so far despises that he adds sin to sin, and joins sloth to sloth, and piles offence upon offence, he fills the limits of his sins, and comes in the end to an offence of such a character that he can never get up from it again, but is crushed to pieces, and delivered over to the evil one to perish utterly.
22. Thus it was with Sodom. Many times sinning, without conversion, at length they offended by their wicked design upon the angels, desiring to commit a criminal outrage upon them, so that they could no longer repent, but were finally rejected. They filled up the limit of their sins, and exceeded it, and therefore they were consumed with fire by the divine vengeance. So it was in the days of Noah. Offending often without repenting, they reached sins of such enormity, that the whole earth was utterly corrupted. So with the Egyptians; they offended often, and sinned against God’s people, and God was kind and would not inflict upon them such plagues as to destroy them utterly; but for their chastisement and conversion and repentance He brought upon them the stripes of those smaller plagues, bearing long with them, and waiting for them to repent. But they, sinning against God’s people, and thinking better of it, and then changing their minds again and fixing themselves in the original unbelief of their evil purpose, and oppressing the people of God, at last, when God with many wonders brought the people out of Egypt by Moses, they committed the great offence of pursuing after God’s people; for which the divine vengeance utterly destroyed and consumed them; and overwhelmed them in the waters, judging them unworthy even of this visible existence.
23. In like manner, as was said before, Israel, often sinning and offending, killing God’s prophets and doing many other wicked things, while God held His peace and was patiently waiting for them to repent, ended by committing an offence for which they were crushed so that they could never rise again. They laid their own hands on the dignity of the Lord Himself. For this they were utterly abandoned and rejected. Prophecy, priesthood, the service, were taken from them and given to the believing Gentiles, as the Lord says, The kingdom shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. Till then, God forbore and was patient with them, and forsook them not, in compassion for them; but when they filled up the limit of their sins, and overflowed it, laying hands upon the dignity of their Lord, they were entirely deserted by God.
24. We have treated of these things at some length, beloved, proving from the ideas of scripture that we ought to make a quick conversion, and hasten to the Lord, who in His kindness waits for us to break off entirely from all wickedness and evil propensity, and who welcomes us on our conversion with much joy, and not to let our contempt increase from day to day, and our offences be added and multiplied upon us, and thus we bring the wrath of God upon ourselves. Let us earnestly endeavour to come to Him with a truly converted heart, not despairing of salvation; for that of itself is a wrong thing and an iniquity, when the remembrance of sins takes such possession that it leads a man to despair, and to slackness and recklessness and sloth, that he may not be converted and come to the Lord and find salvation, when the great kindness of the Lord is over all the race of men.
25. If it seems to us hard and impossible to be converted from such a multitude of sins, because we are in their possession—a thought which, as I said, is a device of wickedness and a hindrance to our salvation—let us remember and consider how our Lord, when in His goodness He sojourned here, made the blind to recover their sight, healed the palsied, cured all manner of disease, raised the dead when they were already in decay and disintegration, gave back hearing to the deaf, cast out a legion of devils from a single man, and restored him to his senses, though he was so far gone in madness. How much rather will He not convert a soul which returns to Him, seeking mercy from Him, and in need of His succour, and bring it into a happy release from passions, and the settled state of all virtue, and renewal of the mind, and change it to health and mental sight and thoughts of peace from the blindness and deafness and deadness of unbelief and ignorance and unconcern, bringing it to the sobriety of virtue and to purity of heart? He who created the body, made the soul also; and as in His sojourn on earth, when men came to Him seeking help and healing from Him, He granted ungrudgingly in His kindness according as their needs were, like a good physician, the only true physician, so is it with spiritual things.
26. If He was moved to such compassion over bodies that were to be dissolved and die again, and did with eager kindness for each applicant the thing that he sought, how much more when an immortal, imperishable, incorruptible soul, labouring under the disease of ignorance, wickedness, unbelief, unconcern, and all the other maladies of sin, comes nevertheless to the Lord, and seeks His help, and fixes its eyes upon His mercy, and desires to receive of Him the grace of the Spirit for its deliverance and salvation and riddance of all wickedness, and all passion, will He not grant more speedily and more readily His healing deliverance, according to His own word, How much more shall your heavenly Father avenge those that cry unto Him day and night? And He adds, Yea, I say unto you, He will avenge them speedily; and in another place He exhorts, Ask, and it shall be given unto you, for every one that asketh, receiveth, and he that seeketh, findeth, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened; and at the close He adds, How much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him. Verily I say unto you, though he will not rise and give him because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as much as he needeth.
27. With importunity then, without ceasing, without fainting, He has admonished us in all these passages to ask for the succour of His grace. It was for the sake of sinners that He came, that He might convert them to Himself, and heal those that believe Him. Only let us to the best of our power withdraw ourselves from evil preoccupations, and hate bad pursuits and the deceits of the world, and turn our backs upon wicked and vain thoughts, and ever cleave to Him with all our might, and He readily gives us His help. To this purpose He is merciful, and quickening, curing the maladies that were incurable, working deliverance for those who call upon Him and turn to Him, departing to the best of their ability in will and intention from all worldly affection, and forcing their mind away from the earth, and fastening it upon Him with seeking and longing. To such a soul His help is vouchsafed, the soul that counts all things else unnecessary, and rests upon nothing in the world, but looks to find rest and rejoicing in the repose of His loving kindness, and thus through such a faith attaining the heavenly gift, gaining satisfaction for its desire in full assurance through grace, thenceforward serving the Holy Ghost agreeably and consistently, and daily advancing in that which is good, and abiding in the way of righteousness; and having persevered to the end inflexible and uncomplying towards the side of evil, without grieving grace in anything, it is granted eternal salvation with all the saints, as having lived in the world like a partner and a comrade of theirs, in imitation of them. Amen.