These are the talks which the Vicar of Thuringia, the Prior of Erfurt, Brother Eckhart of the Order of Preachers, gave to those in his care who asked him many things concerning these talks as they sat together in evening discussions
On true obedience.
True and perfect obedience is a virtue above all virtues, and there is no work, however great it may be, that can take place or be performed without this virtue, and even the very least of works, whether it be saying or listening to Mass, praying, meditating, or whatever you can think of, is more usefully done when it is performed in true obedience.1 Take any work you wish, however minor it may be, true obedience will make it nobler and better for you. Obedience always brings out the very best in all things. Indeed, obedience never undermines or forgets those things which we do out of true obedience, for it never neglects what is good. Obedience need never be anxious, for there is no form of goodness which it does not possess in itself.
When we go out of ourselves through obedience and strip ourselves of what is ours, then God must enter into us; for when someone wills nothing for themselves, then God must will on their behalf just as he does for himself. Whenever I have taken leave of my own will, putting it in the hands of my superior, and no longer will anything for myself, then God must will on my behalf, and if he neglects me in this respect, then he neglects himself. And so in all things in which I do not will for myself, God wills on my behalf. Now take note! What does he will for me, if I will nothing for myself? When I shed my own self, then he must of necessity will for me everything that he wills for himself, no more and no less, and in the very same way that he wills for himself. And if God did not do this, then by the truth which God is, he would not be just nor would he be God (which of course he is by his nature).
In true obedience there should be no ‘I want this or that to happen’ or ‘I want this or that thing’ but only a pure going out of what is our own. And therefore in the very best kind of prayer that we can pray there should be no ‘give me this particular virtue or way of devotion’2 or ‘yes, Lord, give me yourself or eternal life’, but rather ‘Lord, give me only what you will and do, Lord, only what you will and in the way that you will’. This kind of prayer is as far above the former as heaven is above earth. And when we have prayed in this way, then we have prayed well, having gone out of ourselves and entered God in true obedience. But just as true obedience should have no ‘I want this’, neither should it ever hear ‘I don’t want’, for ‘I don’t want’ is pure poison for all true obedience. As St Augustine says: ‘The true servant of God does not desire to be told or to be given what they would like to hear or see, for their prime and highest wish is to hear what is most pleasing to God.’3
On the most powerful prayer of all and the finest work.
The most powerful form of prayer, and the one which can virtually gain all things and which is the worthiest work of all, is that which flows from a free mind. The freer the mind is, the more powerful and worthy, the more useful, praiseworthy and perfect the prayer and the work become. A free mind can achieve all things. But what is a free mind?
A free mind is one which is untroubled and unfettered by anything, which has not bound its best part to any particular manner of being or devotion and which does not seek its own interest in anything but is always immersed in God’s most precious will, having gone out of what is its own. There is no work which men and women can perform, however small, which does not draw from this its power and its strength.
We should pray with such intensity that we want all the members of our body and all its faculties, eyes, ears, mouth, heart and all our senses to turn to this end; and we should not cease in this until we feel that we are close to being united with him who is present to us and to whom we are praying: God.
On undetached people who are full of self-will.4
People say: ‘O Lord, I wish that I stood as well with God and that I had as much devotion and peace with God as other people, and that I could be like them or could be as poor as they are.’ Or they say: ‘It never works for me unless I am in this or that particular place and do this or that particular thing. I must go to somewhere remote or live in a hermitage or a monastery.’
Truly, it is you who are the cause of this yourself, and nothing else. It is your own self-will, even if you don’t know it or this doesn’t seem to you to be the case. The lack of peace that you feel can only come from your own self-will, whether you are aware of this or not. Whatever we think – that we should avoid certain things and seek out others, whether these be places or people, particular forms of devotion, this group of people or this kind of activity – these are not to blame for the fact that you are held back by devotional practices and by things; rather it is you as you exist in these things who hold yourself back, for you do not stand in the proper relation to them.
Start with yourself therefore and take leave of yourself. Truly, if you do not depart from yourself, then wherever you take refuge, you will find obstacles and unrest, wherever it may be. Those who seek peace in external things, whether in places or devotional practices, people or works, in withdrawal from the world or poverty or self-abasement: however great these things may be or whatever their character, they are still nothing at all and cannot be the source of peace. Those who seek in this way, seek wrongly, and the farther they range, the less they find what they are looking for. They proceed like someone who has lost their way: the farther they go, the more lost they become. But what then should they do? First of all, they should renounce themselves, and then they will have renounced all things. Truly, if someone were to renounce a kingdom or the whole world while still holding on to themselves, then they would have renounced nothing at all. And indeed, if someone renounces themselves, then whatever they might keep, whether it be a kingdom or honour or whatever it may be, they will still have renounced all things.
St Peter said, ‘See, Lord, we have left everything’ (Matt. 19:27), when he had left nothing more than a mere net and his little boat, and a saint5 comments that whoever willingly renounces what is small, renounces not only this but also everything which worldly people can possess or indeed even desire. Whoever renounces their own will and their own self, renounces all things as surely as if all things were in that person’s possession to do with as they pleased, for what you do not wish to desire, you have given over and given up to God. Therefore our Lord said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (Matt. 5:3), which is to say those who are poor in will. Let no one be in any doubt about this: if there were a better way, then our Lord would have told us, who said, ‘If anyone would follow me, he must first deny himself’ (Matt 16:24). This is the point which counts. Examine yourself, and wherever you find yourself, then take leave of yourself. This is the best way of all.
On the value of the renunciation that we should practise inwardly and outwardly.
You should know that no one has ever renounced themselves so much in this life that there was nothing left of themselves to renounce. But there are few people who are properly aware of this and who remain constant in their efforts. It is a fair trade and an equal exchange: to the extent that you depart from things, thus far, no more and no less, God enters into you with all that is his, as far as you have stripped yourself of yourself in all things. It is here that you should begin, whatever the cost, for it is here that you will find true peace, and nowhere else.
People should not worry so much about what they do but rather about what they are. If they and their ways are good, then their deeds are radiant. If you are righteous, then what you do will also be righteous. We should not think that holiness is based on what we do but rather on what we are, for it is not our works which sanctify us but we who sanctify our works. However holy our works may be, they do not in any way make us holy in so far as they are works, but it is we, in so far as we are holy and possess fulness of being, who sanctify all our works, whether these be eating, sleeping, waking, or anything at all. Little comes from the works of those whose being is slight. This teaches us then that we should make every effort to be good, and should worry not so much about what we do or the character of our actions, but we should be concerned rather about their ground.
Take note of what makes our essence and our ground good.
The reason why a person’s essence and ground, which lends goodness to their works, is wholly good is that their mind is wholly turned to God. Make every effort then to let God be great and to ensure that all your good intentions and endeavours are directed to him in all that you do and in all that you refrain from doing. Truly, the more you do this, the better your works will be, whatever they are. If you hold to God, then he will give you goodness. If you seek God, then you will find both God and all goodness. Indeed, if you trod on a stone while in this state of mind, it would be a more godly act than if you were to receive the body of our Lord while being concerned only for yourself and having a less detached attitude of mind. Whoever holds to God, holds to both God and all virtue. And what was previously the object of your seeking, now seeks you; what you hunted, now hunts you, what you fled, now flees you. This is so because the things of God cling to those people who cling to God, and all those things flee them, which are unlike God and are alien to him.
On detachment and possessing God.
I was once asked: ‘Some people like to withdraw from company and prefer always to be alone. That is where they find peace, when they enter a church. Is this the best thing?’ My answer was ‘No!’, and this is the reason why.
That person who is in the right state of mind, is so regardless of where they are and who they are with, while those who are in the wrong state of mind will find this to be the case wherever they are and whoever they are with. Those who are rightly disposed truly have God with them. And whoever truly possesses God in the right way, possesses him in all places: on the street, in any company, as well as in a church or a remote place or in their cell. No one can obstruct such a person, if only they possess God in the right way, and possess him alone. Why is this so?
This is the case because they possess God alone, intend God alone, and all things become God for them. Such a person bears God with them in all that they do and wherever they go, and it is God who acts through them. For a deed belongs more truly to whoever is its cause than to whoever carries it out. And so if we truly intend God alone, then he must be the one who acts in what we do and nothing, neither the crowd nor any place, can stand in his way. No one can obstruct this person, for they intend and seek nothing but God and take their pleasure only in him, who is united with them in all their aims. And so, just as no multiplicity can divide God, in the same way nothing can scatter this person or divide them, for they are one in the One in whom all multiplicity is one and is non-multiplicity.
We should grasp God in all things and should train ourselves to keep God always present in our mind, in our striving and in our love. Take note of how you are inwardly turned to God when in church or in your cell, and maintain this same attitude of mind, preserving it when you go among the crowd, into restlessness and diversity. And, as I have often said, when we speak of sameness, we do not mean that we should regard all works as being the same, or all places and people. That would be wrong, for it is better to pray than to spin and a church is a worthier place than the street. But you should maintain the same attitude of mind in whatever you do, the same trust and love for your God and the same seriousness of intent. Truly, if your attitude were always the same, then no one could prevent you from enjoying the presence of God.
But whoever does not truly have God within themselves, but must constantly receive him in one external thing after another, seeking God in diverse ways, whether by particular works, people or places, such a person does not possess God. The least thing can impede them, for they do not have God and do not seek, love and intend him alone. It is not only bad company but also good company that can obstruct them, not only the street but also the church, not only evil words and deeds but also good words and deeds, for the obstruction lies within themselves, since in them God has not become all things. If this were the case, they would be at peace in all places and with all people, for they would possess God, and then no one would be able to take him away from them nor impede them in his work.
But where is this true possession of God, whereby we really possess him, to be found? This real possession of God is to be found in the heart, in an inner motion of the spirit towards him and striving for him, and not just in thinking about him always and in the same way. For that would be beyond the capacity of our nature and would be very difficult to achieve and would not even be the best thing to do. We should not content ourselves with a God of thoughts for, when the thoughts come to an end, so too shall God. Rather, we should have a living God who is beyond the thoughts of all people and all creatures. That kind of God will not leave us, unless we ourselves choose to turn away from him.
Whoever possesses God in their being, has him in a divine manner, and he shines out to them in all things; for them all things taste of God and in all things it is God’s image that they see. God is always radiant in them; they are inwardly detached from the world and are in-formed by the loving presence of their God. It is the same as when someone has a great thirst and, although they may be doing something other than drinking and their minds may be turned to other things, the thought of a drink will not leave them for as long as they thirst, whatever they do, whoever they are with, whatever they strive for, whatever their works or thoughts; and the greater their thirst, the greater, the more intense, immediate and persistent the thought of a drink becomes. Or if someone loves something passionately with all their might, so that nothing else pleases them or touches their heart, and they desire that alone and nothing else, then certainly whoever it may be, or whoever they may be with, whatever they are doing or are setting out to do, the object of their love will never be extinguished in them, but they will find its image in all things, and the greater their love becomes, the more present to them it will be. Such a person does not seek peace, for it is already theirs.
This person is far more praiseworthy in God’s eyes because they grasp all things in a divine way and make of them something more than they are in themselves. Truly, this demands hard work and great dedication and a clear perception of our inner life and an alert, true, thoughtful and authentic knowledge of what the mind is turned towards in the midst of people and things. This cannot be learned by taking flight, that is by fleeing from things and physically withdrawing to a place of solitude,6 but rather we must learn to maintain an inner solitude regardless of where we are or who we are with. We must learn to break through things and to grasp God in them, allowing him to take form in us powerfully and essentially. It is the same as when someone wants to learn to write; if they wish to acquire this skill, then they must practise hard and often, however difficult it may seem, even to the point of impossibility. If they do that, they will master the art of writing, although of course they will at first have to concentrate on every letter and commit it to memory. But then, when they have acquired this skill, they will no longer have any need for the image or the concentration, but will write freely and spontaneously. The same is true of learning to play the violin or anything else which is based on the acquisition of a skill. All that is necessary is that someone should desire to perform their art, and then, whether they are concentrating upon it or not, they are able to perform on the basis of the skill which they have acquired.
Thus we should be permeated with the sense of a divine presence and be in-formed with the form of our beloved God and be so established in him that we see his presence effortlessly and, more than this, remain unencumbered by anything, free of all things. But this will initially demand of us much application and concentration, as any art does of one who will learn it.
How we should perform our works in the most rational way.
There are many people (and we can ourselves easily be among them, if we wish) who are not impeded by those things with which they come into contact and in whom such things do not create a permanent image; for creatures can neither have nor find a resting place in a heart which is filled with God. But we should not rest content with this: we should also derive great profit from all things, whatever they may be, wherever we may be, whatever we see or hear and however alien and strange to us they are. It is then, and only then, that we are in the right state of mind. And no one can ever come to the end of this process, but rather we should grow in it without end and come to achieve ever more.
We should make good use of our reason in all our works and in all things and have a clear understanding of ourselves and our inner nature, grasping God in all things and in the highest possible manner. For we should be as our Lord told us: ‘You should be like those who at all times watch and wait for their Lord’ (Luke 12:36). Truly, such vigilant people are alert and on the watch for their Lord for whom they wait; they look to see if he is not by chance concealed in what befalls them, however strange it may be to them. So we too should consciously look out for our Lord in all things. This demands much effort, and must cost us all that our senses and faculties are capable of. But this is the right thing for us to do, so that we grasp God in the same way in all things and find him equally everywhere.
Works are different in kind, but whatever is done in the same spirit will be of equal value. For those who are in the right frame of mind, and for whom God has become their own, God will truly shine out just as clearly from their worldly acts as he does from their most sacred ones. But of course this is not to be understood as meaning that we should do things which are either worldly or wrong, but rather that we should offer to God whatever we see or hear of things in the world. Only those for whom God is present in all things and who make the very best use of their reason, know what true peace is and truly possess heaven.
For those who want to achieve this, one of two things must always happen: either they must learn to grasp and to hold God in what they do, or they must stop doing things altogether. But since we cannot abandon all activity in this life, which is part of being human and which takes so many different forms, we must learn to possess God in all things, while remaining free in all that we do and wherever we are. Thus, if the beginner is to achieve something in company, then he or she must first enlist God’s help, fixing him firmly in their hearts and uniting all their intentions, thoughts, desires and faculties with him so that nothing else can take form in them.
On constant effort in spiritual progress.
No one should ever judge what they do so positively or as having been done so well that they become so casual or self-confident in their actions that their reason grows lazy or slumbers. But they should always elevate themselves with the twin faculties of reason and will, thus activating the very best in themselves and protecting themselves against all harm by means of understanding in matters both internal and external. Thus they will not fail in anything anywhere but will make constant spiritual progress.
How the temptation to sin always aids our progress.
You should know that the impulse to sin always brings great benefit for someone who is righteous. Now listen to this. Imagine two individuals, one of whom is the type of person who experiences little or no temptation while the other is the type who is much troubled by temptation. The mere presence of certain things rouses their outer self so that they are moved to anger, to vanity or to sensuality, according to the nature of the stimulus. But with their higher powers they remain steadfast and unmoved, and determined not to give in to their weakness, whether it be losing their temper or any other sin, and they strongly resist it. Perhaps it is a question of a weakness which is rooted in their own nature, just as certain people are irascible or vain or whatever but do not wish to commit the sin. These are far worthier of praise and deserving of a far greater reward, and are far nobler than the first type, for the perfection of virtue is born in struggle, as St Paul says: ‘virtue is perfected in weakness’ (2 Cor. 12:9).
It is not being tempted to sin which is sinful, but consenting to sin; it is wanting to lose your temper which is sinful. In fact, if someone who is in the right state of mind had the power to make the temptation to sin go away, then they would not exercise that power, for without temptation we would be untried in all things and in all that we do, unaware of the dangers of things, and without the honour of battle, victory and reward. The assault and stimulation of vice bring virtue and our struggle’s reward. Temptation makes us work harder in the practice of virtue, and it drives us forcefully into the arms of virtue and is a sharp lash which teaches us vigilance and virtue; for the weaker someone is, the more they should arm themselves with strength and victory, since virtue, like vice, is a matter of the will.
How the will can do all things and how all the virtues reside in the will, if only it is righteous.
Nothing should terrify us as long as we will the good, nor should we be depressed if we cannot fulfil our will in what we do. And in that case we should not regard ourselves as being far from the virtues, for virtue and all that is good reside in a good will. You can lack nothing, neither love nor humility nor any other virtue, if only your will is good and true. But rather, what you desire with the whole of your will, that is your possession, and neither God nor any creature can take it from you, as long as your will is undivided and is a truly godly will which is fixed in the present moment. Do not say then: ‘I should like to do it later’, which would refer to the future, but rather ‘I wish it to be so now.’ Note this: when I want something even if it is a thousand miles away, then it is more truly mine than something in my lap which I do not want to have.
Good is no less powerful a force for good than evil is for evil. Take note: even if I were never actually to perform an evil act, but still willed what is evil, then sin would be as much in me as if I had carried out the deed. With a will concentrated upon evil I could commit as great a sin as if I killed everyone in the world, without ever killing anybody. Why should this not be true also of a good will – incomparably more so, in fact?
Truly, with the will I can do all things. I can share the sorrows of all men and women, feed all the poor, perform everyone’s actions, and whatever else you can think of. If you do not lack the will to do something, but only the capacity to carry it out, then truly in God’s eyes you have done it, and no one can take it away from you or obstruct you even for a moment; for wanting to do something as soon as you can and actually doing it are the same thing in God’s eyes. Moreover, if I wanted to possess as much will as the whole world has, and if I desired this perfectly and wholeheartedly, then I would indeed possess it; for what I desire is already mine. Similarly, if I truly wanted as much love as everyone in the world has ever possessed, and if I wanted to praise God as much as everyone has ever praised him, or if I wanted whatever else you can think of, then you would truly possess it, as long as your will is perfect.
But now you might ask: ‘When is the will a right will?’ The will is perfect and right when it has no selfhood7 and when it has gone out of itself, having been taken up and transformed into the will of God. Truly, the more this is so, the more the will is right and true. And with such a will you can achieve all things, whether this be love or whatever you wish.
Now I hear you ask: ‘How can I have this love so long as I neither feel it nor am aware of it as that which I observe in many people who perform great works and in whom there is great devotion and marvellous things which I do not have?’
There are two things which you must consider here: the first is the essence of love, and the second is the work, or outflow of love. Love resides essentially in the will alone, so that whoever has more will, has more of love. But no one knows who has the more, for it is hidden in the soul, for as long as God is hidden in the soul. This love resides entirely in the will, and whoever has more will, has more of love.
But there is a something else, which is the outflow and work of love. This is easily visible as inwardness and devotion and celebration, although it is not always the best thing, for it comes sometimes not from love but from nature that some people experience such sweetness and delight, or it might result from heaven’s influence8 or be conveyed by the senses. And those who experience this more frequently are not always the best people, for, even if it comes from God, our Lord grants it to such people as an enticement and way of leading them on as well as a way of keeping them apart from other people. But as such people grow in love, it may well be that they have less sense and awareness of it, and then it can be seen whether they truly have love by the extent to which they remain wholly faithful to God without feelings of this kind.
Assuming that it is fully and wholly love, then still it is not the best thing, which follows from the fact that you must sometimes leave your state of exaltation for the sake of something better out of love9 and sometimes to perform an act of love where this is needed, either spiritually or physically. As I have already said: even if you are in such ecstasy as St Paul was, and knew of a sick person who asked for a bowl of soup from you, then I would consider it far better for you to leave your ecstasy for the sake of love and to administer to the needy person in a love that is greater.
Nor should we suppose that we are thus losing out on grace, for what we give up willingly for the sake of love will be given back to us more gloriously, as Christ said: ‘Whoever leaves anything for my sake will receive again a hundredfold in return’ (Matt 19:29). Truly, whatever we give up and deny ourselves for God’s sake – even if we willingly give up for God’s sake the consolations and inwardness which we have greatly desired and sought and which God has not granted us – we will truly find again in God just as if we had all the good things in our possession that there have ever been and, having chosen to give them up for God’s sake, received them back in a hundredfold. For whenever we give up what we desire for God’s sake, be it something physical or spiritual, we will find it again in God just as if we had actually possessed it and had given it up for God; for we should suffer the loss of all things for God’s sake and deprive ourselves of all consolation in love for the sake of love.
Paul, who is full of love, teaches us that we should sometimes abandon such feelings for the sake of love when he says: ‘I have wished to be separated from the love of Christ for love of my brothers’ (Rom. 9:3). He does not mean here love in its first sense, from which he did not wish to be separated even for a moment for the sake of anything in heaven or on earth, but rather the consolation of love.
You should know that the friends of God are never without consolation, for their greatest consolation is what God wills for them, whether it be for their comfort or not.
What we should do when God hides himself and we cannot find him.
You should know too that a good will cannot fail to find God, although the mind sometimes feels that it misses him and often believes that he has departed. What should you do then? Do exactly the same as you would if you were experiencing the greatest consolation: learn to do the same in the greatest suffering, and behave in exactly the same way as you did then. There is no better advice on how to find God than to seek him where we left him: do now, when you cannot find God, what you did when last you had him, and then you will find him again. But a good will can never lose God or fail to find him. Many people say that their will is good when they do not have God’s will but wish to have their own will and to instruct our Lord to do this or that. But that is not a good will. We should seek from God what his most precious will is. And it is God’s wish in all things that we should give up our own will. Although St Paul spoke at length with our Lord and our Lord with him, this availed him nothing until he gave up his own will and said: ‘Lord, what is it that you wish me to do?’ (Acts 9:6). And our Lord well knew what it was that he should do. It was the same when the angel appeared to our Lady: nothing which they said to one another could have made her the mother of God, but as soon as she gave up her will, she immediately became a true mother of the Eternal Word and conceived God straight away; he became her natural son. And nothing makes us true so much as the giving up of our will. Truly, without giving up our will in all things, we can achieve nothing at all for God. Indeed, if we went so far as to give up the whole of our will, daring to abandon all things for God’s sake, both inner and outer, then we would have accomplished everything, and not before.
There are not many people who – whether they know it or not – do not wish to be in this state of mind and to experience great things on account of it, desiring both the method and the good that it brings; and yet all this too is nothing but self-will. You should give your all to God, and then worry no more about what he may do with what is his. There are thousands of people who have died and are now in heaven, who never renounced their will to perfection. A perfect and true will can only exist when we have been entirely taken up into God’s will and no longer have our own will; whoever does this the more, the more and the more truly they are rooted in God. Indeed, a single Ave Maria spoken in this spirit, when we have stripped ourselves of ourselves, is worth more than the repetition of a thousand psalters without it. In fact, a single step would be better with it than to cross the sea without it.
If someone were to go entirely out of themselves with all that is theirs, then truly they would be so rooted in God that if anyone were to touch them, they would first have to touch God. They would be so entirely in God, and God would surround them as my hood surrounds my head, so that if anyone wants to touch me they must first touch my clothing. Or similarly, if I want to drink something, then it must first pass over my tongue, which is where the drink acquires its taste. Now if my tongue is coated with bitterness, then however sweet the wine may be in itself, it must always be made bitter by that through which it must pass in order to come to me. Truly, if someone were to go out of what is theirs entirely, then they would be so enfolded in God that no creature could touch them without touching God first, and whatever came to them, would first have to pass through God on the way to them and would thus take on the taste and colour of God. However great your suffering may be, if it first passes through God, then he must first endure it. Indeed, in the truth which God is, no suffering which befalls us is so minor, whether it be a kind of discomfort or inconvenience, that it does not touch God infinitely more than ourselves and does not happen to him more than to us in so far as we place it in God. But if God endures it for the sake of the benefit for you which he has foreseen in it, and if you are willing to suffer what he suffers and what passes through him to you, then it takes on the colour of God, and shame becomes honour, bitterness is sweetness and the deepest darkness becomes the clearest light. Then everything takes its flavour from God and becomes divine, for everything conforms itself to God, whatever befalls us, if we intend only him and nothing else is pleasing to us. Thus we shall grasp God in all bitterness as well as in the greatest sweetness.
The light shines in the darkness, and then we become aware of it. But what good is the teaching or the light for people unless they use it? It is when they are in darkness or suffering that they will see the light.
Indeed, the more we are our own possession, the less we are God’s possession.10 If someone has gone out of what is theirs, then they can never fail to find God in all that they do. But if such a person were to make a slip or speak out of turn, or unjust things were to happen to them, then, if it was God who was the origin of the deed, it is he who would have to take the hurt upon himself; although in no way should you let up in your efforts. We find an example of this in St Bernard and many other saints. In this life we can never be entirely free of such assaults. But just because tares sometimes grow among the corn is no reason to throw away the good corn. Truly, whoever is in the right state of mind and knows God’s ways, all such suffering and assaults will prove to be for their profit, since for the good all things work to the good, as St Paul (Rom. 8:28) and St Augustine say: ‘Yes, even sins.’11
Concerning sin and our proper attitude when we find ourselves in sin.
Truly, to have committed a sin is not sinful if we regret what we have done. Indeed, not for anything in time or eternity should we want to commit a sin, neither of a mortal, venial or any other kind. Whoever knows the ways of God should always be mindful of the fact that God, who is faithful and loving, has led us from a sinful life into a godly one, thus making friends of us who were previously enemies, which is a greater achievement even than making a new earth. This is one of the chief reasons why we should be wholly established in God, and it is astonishing how much this inflames us with so great and so strong a love that we strip ourselves entirely of ourselves.
Indeed, if you are rightly placed in the will of God, then you should not wish that the sin into which you fell had not happened. Of course, this is not the case because sin was something against God but, precisely because it was something against God, you were bound by it to greater love, you were humbled and brought low. And you should trust God that he would not have allowed it to happen unless he intended it to be for your profit. But when we raise ourselves out of sin and turn away from it, then God in his faithfulness acts as if we had never fallen into sin at all and he does not punish us for our sins for a single moment, even if they are as great as the sum of all the sins that have ever been committed. God will not make us suffer on their account, but he can enjoy with us all the intimacy that he ever had with a creature. If he finds that we are now ready, then he does not consider what we were before. God is a God of the present. He takes you and receives you as he finds you now, not as you have been, but as you are now. God willingly endures all the harm and shame which all our sins have ever inflicted upon him, as he has already done for many years, in order that we should come to a deep knowledge of his love and in order that our love and our gratitude should increase and our zeal grow more intense, which often happens when we have repented of our sins.
Therefore God willingly tolerates the hurtfulness of sin and has often done so in the past, most frequently allowing it to come upon those whom he has chosen to raise up to greatness. Now listen! Was there ever anyone dearer to or more intimate with our Lord than the apostles? And yet not one of them escaped mortal sin. They all committed mortal sin. He showed this time and again in the Old and New Testament in those individuals who were to become the closest to him by far; and even today we rarely find that people achieve great things without first going astray. And thus our Lord intends to teach us of his great mercy, urging us to great and true humility and devotion. For, when repentance is renewed, then love too is renewed and grows strong.
On the two kinds of repentance.
There are two kinds of repentance, one which belongs to time and the senses and another which is supernatural and of God. The temporal kind always draws us downwards into yet greater suffering, plunging us into such distress that it is as if we were already in a state of despair. And so repentance can find no way out of suffering. Nothing comes of this.
But the repentance which is of God is very different. As soon as we become ill at ease, we immediately reach up to God and vow with an unshakeable will to turn away from all sin for ever. Thus we raise ourselves up to a great trust in God and gain a great sense of certainty. This brings a spiritual joy that lifts the soul out of her suffering and distress and binds her to God. For the more inadequate and guilty we perceive ourselves to be, the more reason we have to bind ourselves to God with an undivided love, who knows neither sin nor inadequacy. And so if we wish to approach God in complete devotion, the best path that we can follow is to be without sin in the power of that kind of repentance which comes from God.
And the greater we feel our sin to be, the more prepared God is to forgive our sin, to enter into the soul and drive sin away. Everyone is keenest to rid themselves of what is most hateful to them, and so the greater and graver our sins, the more God is immeasurably willing and quick to forgive them, since they are hateful to him. And when the repentance which comes from God rises up to him, all our sins vanish more quickly in the abyss of God than the eye can blink, and are eradicated so totally that it is as if they had never existed, provided only that we have perfect contrition.
On true confidence and on hope.
We should be able to recognize true and perfect love by whether or not someone has great hope and confidence in God, for there is nothing that testifies more clearly to perfect love than trust. Wholehearted love for another creates trust in them, and we will truly find in God everything that we dare hope for in him, and a thousand times more. Just as we can never love God too much, neither can we have too much trust in him. Nothing we may do can ever be so appropriate as fully trusting in God. He has never ceased to work great things through those who have great trust in him, and he has clearly shown in all such people that their trust is born of love, for love possesses not only trust but also true knowledge and unshakeable certainty.
On the two kinds of certainty of eternal life.
In this life there are two kinds of certainty concerning the life which is eternal: the one consists in those occasions when God tells us of it either himself or through an angel or special revelation, although this happens rarely and only to a few. The other kind of knowledge is better and more beneficial and falls frequently to those whose love is perfect. This happens to those whose love for and intimacy with their God is so great that they trust him completely and are so sure of him that they can no longer have any doubts, their certainty being founded on their love for him in all creatures without distinction. And if all creatures were to reject and abjure him, even if God himself were to do so, then they would not cease to trust, for love is not capable of mistrust but can only trust all that is good. And there is no need for anything to be said to either the lover or the beloved, for as soon as God senses that this person is his friend, he immediately knows all that is good for them and that belongs to their well-being. For however devoted you are to him, you may be sure that he is immeasurably more devoted to you and has incomparably more faith in you. For he is faithfulness itself – of this we can be certain as those who love him are certain.
This type of certainty is far greater, more perfect and true than the other and it cannot deceive us, while the first kind can be deceptive and can easily be an illusion. Indeed, the second type is experienced in all the faculties of our soul and cannot deceive those who truly love God; indeed they no more doubt it than they doubt God himself, for love drives out all fear. ‘Love knows no fear’ as St John12 (1 John 4:18) says, and it is also written: ‘Love covers a multitude of sins’ (1 Peter 4:8). For where there is sin, there can be neither complete trust nor love, since love completely covers over sins and knows nothing of them. Not in such a way as if we had not sinned, but rather it wipes them away and drives them out, as if they had never existed. For all God’s works are so utterly perfect and overflowing that whoever he forgives, he forgives totally and absolutely, preferring to forgive big sins rather than little ones, all of which creates perfect trust. I hold this kind of knowledge to be incomparably better, more rewarding and more authentic than the other, since neither sin nor anything else can obstruct it. For when God finds people in the same degree of love, then he judges them in the same way, regardless of whether they have sinned greatly or not at all. But those to whom more is forgiven, should have a greater love, as our Lord Jesus Christ said: ‘They to whom more is forgiven must love more’ (Luke 7:47).
On true penance and the holy life.
Many people think that they are achieving great things in external works such as fasting, going barefoot and other such practices which are called penances. But true penance, and the best kind of penance, is that whereby we can improve ourselves greatly and in the highest measure, and this consists in turning entirely away from all that is not God or of God in ourselves and in all creatures, and in turning fully and completely towards our beloved God in an unshakeable love so that our devotion and desire for him become great. In whatever kind of good work you possess this the more, the more righteous you are, and the more there is of this, the truer the penance and the more it expunges sin and all its punishment. Indeed, in a short space of time you could turn so firmly away from all sin with such revulsion, turning just as firmly to God, that had you committed all the sins since Adam and all those which are still to be, you would be forgiven each and every one together with their punishment and, were you then to die, you would be brought before the face of God.
This is true penance, and it is based especially and consummately on the precious suffering in the perfect penance of our Lord Jesus. Christ The more we share13 in this, the more all sin falls away from us, together with the punishment for sin. In all that we do and at all times we should accustom ourselves to sharing in the life and work of our Lord Jesus Christ, in all that he did and chose not to do, in all that he suffered and experienced, and we should be always mindful of him as he was of us.
This form of penance is a mind raised above all things into God, and you should freely practise those kinds of works in which you find that you can and do possess this the most. If any external work hampers you in this, whether it be fasting, keeping vigil, reading or whatever else, you should freely let it go without worrying that you might thereby be neglecting your penance. For God does not notice the nature of the works but only the love, the devotion and the spirit which is in them. For he is not so much concerned with our works as with the spirit with which we perform them all and that we should love him in all things. They for whom God is not enough are greedy. The reward for all your works should be that they are known to God and that you seek God in them. Let this always be enough for you. The more purely and simply you seek him, the more effectively all your works will atone for your sins.
You could also call to mind the fact that God was a universal redeemer of the world, and that I owe him far greater thanks therefore than if he had redeemed me alone. And so you too should be the universal redeemer of all that you have spoiled in yourself through sin, and you should commend yourself altogether to him with all that you have done, for you have spoiled through sin all that is yours: heart, senses, body, soul, faculties, and whatever else there is in you and about you. All is sick and spoiled. Flee to him then in whom there is no fault but rather all goodness, so that he may be a universal redeemer for all the corruption both of your life within and your life in the world.
How we should remain at peace when not confronted with the outward oppression which Christ and many of the saints endured, and how we should follow God.
Many people are daunted and troubled by the toughness and severity of our Lord Jesus Christ’s life and that of his saints, as they are by the fact that they lack the strength to emulate them and are not called upon to do so. Seeing themselves as unequal to the task, many thus regard themselves as being far from God, whom they are not strong enough to follow. But no one should think this! We should in no way regard ourselves as being far from God, neither on account of our weakness or our failings or anything else. And if your great sins have ever driven you so far from him that you regard yourself as not being close to God, then you should still regard God as being close to you. It can be very destructive if we regard God as being distant from us since, whether we are far from or near to him, he is never far from us and is always close at hand. If he cannot remain within, then he goes no further than the door.
The same applies to the discipline of following God. Note the form which your discipleship takes. You should observe, and have observed, in which direction God urges you most of all to go, for, as St Paul says, not all people are called to follow the same path to God. If you find then that the shortest way for you does not lie in many outward works, great endurance and privation (which things are in any case of little importance unless we are particularly called to them by God or unless we have sufficient strength to perform them without disrupting our inner life), if you do not find these things right for you, then be at peace and have little to do with them.
But then you might say: if they are not important, why did our forebears, including many saints, do these things?
Consider this: if our Lord gave them this particular kind of devotional practice, then he also gave them the strength to carry it through, and it was this which pleased him and which was their greatest achievement. For God has not linked our salvation with any particular kind of devotion. Any one devotional practice has things which others lack, but the effectiveness of all good practices comes from God alone and is denied to none of them, for one form of goodness cannot conflict with another. Therefore people should remember that if they see or hear of a good person who is following a way which is different from theirs, then they are wrong to think that such a person’s efforts are all in vain. If someone else’s way of devotion does not please them, then they are ignoring the goodness in it as well as that person’s good intention. This is wrong. We should see the true feeling in people’s devotional practices and should not scorn the particular way that anyone follows. Not everyone can follow the same way, nor can all people follow only one way, nor can we follow all the different ways or everyone else’s way.14
Everyone should maintain their own good devotional practice, embracing in it all other ways and thus grasping in their own way all goodness and all ways. Changing a devotional practice unsettles both the mind and the practice. The benefits that one way gives you are present also in others, if they are good and praiseworthy and are performed for God alone; it is not possible for everyone to follow the same way. It is the same with following the severe life-style of such saints. You should love their way and find it appealing, even though you do not have to follow their example.
Now you might say: ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ always had the highest way. We should always follow him by rights.’
This is true. We should indeed follow our Lord, but not in all ways. Our Lord fasted for forty days, but no one should attempt to imitate him in this. Christ performed many works, whereby he intended that we should follow him in the spiritual rather than physical sense. Thus we should strive to follow him spiritually, for our love was more important to him than our works. We should follow him always in our own way.
Take note of this: in all things.
How and in what way?
As I have often said: I regard a work of the spirit as being far better than a work of the body.
Christ fasted for forty days. You should follow him in this by considering what you are most inclined or ready to do, and then you should give yourself up in that, while observing yourself closely. It is often better for you to go freely without that than to deny yourself all food. And sometimes it is more difficult for you to refrain from uttering one word than it is to refrain from speaking altogether. Sometimes it is more difficult for us to endure a single word of insult, which is insignificant in itself, than a heavy blow for which we have prepared ourselves, and it is far more difficult to be solitary in a crowd than it is in a desert, and it is often more difficult to give up a small thing than a big one, or to perform a small work rather than one which we regard as major. Thus we can easily follow our Lord in our weakness, and we neither can nor should believe ourselves to be distant from him.
How we can appropriately enjoy good food, fine clothes and cheerful company as these come our way in the natural course of things.
You should not worry yourself about food or clothing, feeling that these things are too good for you, but train your mind and the ground of your being to be above them. Nothing should rouse your mind to love and delight but God alone. It should be above all other things.
It would be a sickly form of inwardness which needed to be put right by external clothing; rather, as long as it is under your control, what is inside should correct what is outside. And if the latter comes to you in a different form, then you should accept it as being good from the ground of your being, but in such a way that you would accept it just as willingly if it were different again. It is just the same with the food, the friends and relatives and with everything that God may give you or take from you.
And so in my view the most important thing of all is that we should give ourselves up entirely to God whenever he allows anything to befall us, whether insult, tribulation or any other kind of suffering, accepting it with joy and gratitude and allowing God to guide us all the more rather than seeking these things out ourselves. Willingly learn all things from God therefore and follow him, and all will be well with you. Then we will be able to accept honour and comfort, and if dishonour and discomfort were to be our lot, we could and would be just as willing to endure these too. So they can justifiably feast who would just as willingly fast.15
And that must also be the reason why God relieves his friends of both major and minor suffering, which otherwise his infinite faithfulness could not allow him to do, for there is so much and such great benefit in suffering and he neither wishes nor ought to deny his own anything which is good. But he is content with a good and upright will, or else he would spare them no suffering on account of the inexpressible benefit which it contains.
As long as God is content, you too should be content, and when it is something else in you which pleases him, then you should still be content. For we should be so totally God’s possession inwardly with the whole of our will that we should not be unduly concerned about either devotional practices or works. And in particular you should avoid all particularity, whether in the form of clothes, food or words – as in making grand speeches, or particularity of gesture, since these things serve no useful purpose at all. But you should also know that not every form of particularity is forbidden to you. There is much that is particular which we must sometimes do and with many people, for whoever is a particular person must also express particularity on many occasions and in many ways.
We should have grown into our Lord Jesus Christ inwardly and in all things so that all his works are reflected in us together with his divine image. We should bear in ourselves all his works in a perfect likeness as far as we can. Though we are the agents of our actions, it is he who should take form in them. So act out of the whole of your devotion and your intent, training your mind in this at all times and teaching yourself to grow into him in all that you do.
Why God sometimes allows people who are genuinely good to be hindered in the good that they do.
God, who is faithful, allows his friends to fall frequently into weakness only in order to remove from them any prop on which they might lean. For a loving person it would be a great joy to be able to achieve many great feats, whether keeping vigils, fasting, performing other ascetical practices or doing major, difficult and unusual works. For them this is a great joy, support and source of hope so that their works become a prop and a support upon which they can lean. But it is precisely this which our Lord wishes to take from them so that he alone will be their help and support. This he does solely on account of his pure goodness and mercy, for God is prompted to act only by his goodness, and in no way do our works serve to make God give us anything or do anything for us. Our Lord wishes his friends to be freed from such an attitude, and thus he removes their support from them so that they must henceforth find their support only in him. For he desires to give them great gifts, solely on account of his goodness, and he shall be their comfort and support while they discover themselves to be and regard themselves as being a pure nothingness in all the great gifts of God. The more essentially and simply the mind rests on God and is sustained by him, the more deeply we are established in God and the more receptive we are to him in all his precious gifts – for human kind should build on God alone.
On frequently receiving our Lord’s body, on the manner of our receiving it and the devotion we should feel.
Whoever wants to receive the body of our Lord does not need to scrutinize what they are feeling at the time or how great their piety or devotion is, but rather they should note the state of their will and attitude of mind. You should not place too much weight on your feelings but emphasize rather the object of your love and striving.
Whoever both wishes to and can approach the Lord freely should firstly have a conscience which is free of all the suffering of sin. Secondly, their will should be turned to God so that they intend nothing and desire nothing but him and all that is his and find the things which are unlike God distasteful. For it is this which tells us how far from God or how near to him we are, precisely whether this is our own attitude of mind to a greater or lesser degree. Thirdly, we should find that the love we have for the sacrament and for our Lord grows ever stronger and that the awe we feel is not diminished by frequent attendance. For often what is death for one person is life for another. Thus you should observe within yourself whether your love for God is growing as is your fear of him. Then the more often you attend the sacrament, the better you will become and the better and more valuable it will be for you. Do not let anyone tell you the contrary, in sermons or otherwise, for the more often you go, the better it is and the more pleasing to God. After all, our Lord desires to dwell in and with his people.
Now you might say: sir, I find that I am so empty and cold and worn out that I do not dare go to our Lord.
And I shall say: then all the greater is your need to go to your God, for he shall inflame you and make you burn with zeal and in him you shall be sanctified, joined and made one with him alone. For only in the sacrament and nowhere else shall you so truly find such grace that your bodily powers are so united and gathered together by the noble power of the physical presence of our Lord’s body that your mind and all your scattered senses, which were previously separated from each other and were too inclined to tend downwards, are now united and gathered together and thus are raised up and properly offered to God.16 Through the God who dwells within, the senses become attuned to inwardness and are weaned from the physical hindrances which result from temporal things. Strengthened by his body, your body too will be renewed. For we should be transformed into him and wholly united with him so that what is his becomes ours and all that is ours is his, our heart one heart with his and our body one body with his. Thus our senses and our will, our intentions, powers and members should be established in him so that we feel his presence in all the powers of our body and soul.
Now perhaps you will say: sir, I am aware of nothing great in myself but my own great poverty. How can I dare then to approach him?
Truly, if you wish to transform all your poverty, then go to the abundant treasure of wealth beyond measure, and you shall be made rich. For you should know within yourself that he alone is the treasure that can fill you and make you replete. ‘Therefore,’ you should say, ‘I wish to come to you so that your wealth shall fill my poverty, your infinity shall fill my emptiness, and your immeasurable, incomprehensible Godhead shall fill my base and wretched humanity.’
‘Sir, I have committed many sins and cannot atone for them.’
Go then to him, for he has worthily atoned for all guilt. In him you may offer the precious sacrifice to our heavenly Father for all your sins.
‘Sir, I would like to praise him, but I cannot’
Go then to him, for he alone is an acceptable offering of thanks to the Father and an infinite, true and perfect expression of praise for all his divine goodness.
In short, if you wish to shed all your defects, to be clothed with virtue and grace and to be led joyfully back to the source with all virtue and grace, then make sure that you can receive the sacrament worthily and frequently. Thus you shall be united with him and made noble through his body. Indeed, in the body of our Lord the soul is so united with God that none of the angels, neither Cherubim nor Seraphim, can distinguish or discover a difference between them; for where they touch God, they touch the soul and where they touch the soul, they touch God. There has never been such an absolute union, for the union of the soul with God is far closer than that of the body with the soul, which makes a person. And this union is far closer than when someone pours a drop of water into a barrel of wine: the latter would be water and wine, whereas the former are so united with each other that no creature can find a difference between them.
Now you could say: how can that be? This is certainly not my experience!
But does that matter? The less you feel and the more firmly you believe, the more laudable is your faith and should be esteemed and praised all the more, for perfect faith is far more than more opinion in a person. In faith alone do we have true knowledge. In fact, true faith is all we need. That we should think one thing is far better for us than another derives from external criteria and is true neither of the one thing nor of the other. Thus whoever has equal faith, receives all things equally and possesses all things equally.17
Now you may say: how can I believe in higher things when I do not find myself in this attitude of mind but find that I am weak and inclined to many things?
See, there are two things about yourself which you must be aware of and which were also true of our Lord. He too had higher and lower faculties, and their respective functions were different. His higher faculties possessed and enjoyed eternal blessedness while at the same time his lower faculties found themselves in the greatest suffering and struggle on earth, and neither of these two interfered with the other. In you too the higher faculties should be raised to God, offered up to him and united with him. Indeed, we should assign all suffering wholly to the body, the lower faculties and the senses, whereas the spirit should rise up with all its power and immerse itself freely in its God. But the suffering of the senses and of the lower faculties do not affect the spirit, any more than these temptations do, for the greater and more fierce the struggle, the greater and more praiseworthy is the victory and the honour of victory. The greater the temptation and the more fierce the assault of vice which we are able to overcome, then the more virtue we have and the more pleasing it is to God. Therefore, if you wish to receive your God worthily, ask yourself whether your higher faculties are orientated to him and your will seeks out his will, what it is that you want from him, and whether you are being faithful to him.
We can never receive the precious body of our Lord in this state without receiving an exceptional degree of grace; and the more frequently we do so, the greater the benefit. Indeed, we can receive the body of our Lord with such devotion and so intently that if we were ordained to enter the lowest choir of angels, we would immediately be promoted to the next. In fact, we can receive it with such great devotion that we would be judged worthy of the eighth or ninth choir of angels. Therefore, if there were two people who had led identical lives, and if one of them had worthily received the body of our Lord one more time than the other, then that person would be like a radiant sun beside the other and would enjoy a special union with God.
This receiving and blessed savouring of the body of our Lord is not a matter of physical enjoyment alone but also of a spiritual savouring with a mind filled with desire and united with him through devotion. We can receive this so trustingly that we become richer in grace than anyone on earth. And this spiritual communion is something which we can do a thousand times a day, or more frequently still, wherever we may be and whether we are ill or in good health. But we should prepare ourselves for it as for the sacrament, by good and wise discipline and according to the strength of our desire. If we have no desire, then we should motivate ourselves, preparing ourselves for it and acting accordingly, and thus we will become holy in time and blessed in eternity; for to submit to God and to follow him, that is eternity. May the teacher of truth grant us this, who loves chastity and is himself life eternal.
On spiritual endeavour.
Whenever someone wishes to receive the body of our Lord, then they need not be afraid to draw near. It is fitting and of great advantage to make your confession beforehand, even if you are not suffering any pangs of conscience, for the sake of the benefits of the sacrament. If it is the case that we are guilty of something but cannot find the opportunity to go to confession, then we should turn to God and acknowledge our guilt in great repentance before him, being content with this until we are able to make our confession. If the consciousness or reproach of sin passes from us in the meantime, then we can consider that God too has forgotten it. We should make our confession to God rather than to men and, if we are guilty, we should take our confession before God very seriously and chastise ourselves soundly. Neither should we lightly turn from this and cast it aside on account of our external penances when we finally attend the sacrament, for it is only the attitude of mind we have in our works which is righteous and godly and good.
We must learn to be inwardly free in the works that we do. But for those who are unschooled in this, striving to achieve a state where they are unhindered by either crowds or works and where God is present to them and shines steadily upon them without concealment at all times and in all company, is an unfamiliar task and is something which calls for much perseverance. This requires vigorous commitment and two things in particular. The first is that we should have sealed ourselves off internally so that our minds are protected from external images which thus remain outside and do not unfittingly associate with us or keep our company or find a place to lodge in us. The second is that neither in our inner images, whether these be representations of things or sublime thoughts, nor in external images or whatever is present to us, should we allow ourselves to be dissipated or fragmented or externalized through multiplicity. We should apply and train all our faculties to this end, maintaining our inwardness.
Now you could say: we must turn outside in order to perform external works, for works can be carried out only in their appropriate form.
This is certainly true. But the external character of their form is not external for someone who is practised in this since, for the inward person, all things possess an inward and divine manner of being.
And it is this which above all is necessary: that we should properly and completely train the mind in its orientation to God so that our interior being is made divine. Nothing is as proper, present or as close to the mind as God. It never turns in any other direction. It never turns towards creatures unless it suffers violence and injustice which damages and distorts it. When the intellect is corrupted in a young person, or in anyone at all, then it must be trained again with great effort, and we must apply all we have to restoring it and bringing it back. For however much it may enjoy a natural affinity with God, as soon as it is wrongly directed and becomes fixed on creatures, growing used to them and being filled with their images, then it becomes so weak in this part and so dispossessed of itself and hindered in its noble striving that we lack the strength, regardless of our best efforts, to win it back completely. And even if we give our all to this, we still need to maintain constant vigilance.
We must ensure above all that we school ourselves properly in this. If someone who is unpractised and untrained wished to behave as if they were not so, then they would cause damage to themselves and nothing would come of them. Once we have weaned ourselves from things and have distanced ourselves from them, we can begin to perform actions prudently, freely delighting in them or choosing not to do them. Further, if there is something which we like and enjoy and which we indulge in with the assent of our will, whether in what we eat or drink or whatever it may be, then this is something an unpractised person cannot do without being damaged in some way.
We must train ourselves not to seek or strive for our own interests in anything but rather to find and to grasp God in all things. For God does not give us anything in order that we should enjoy its possession and rest content with it, nor has he ever done so. All the gifts which he has ever granted us in heaven or on earth were made solely in order to be able to give us the one gift, which is himself.18 With all other gifts he simply wants to prepare us for that gift which is himself. And all the works which God has ever performed in heaven or on earth served solely to perform the one work, that is to sanctify himself so that he can sanctify us. And so I tell you that we should learn to see God in all gifts and works, neither resting content with anything nor becoming attached to anything. For us there can be no attachment to a particular manner of behaviour in this life, nor has this ever been right, however successful we may have been. Above all, we should always concentrate upon the gifts of God, and always do so afresh.
I shall tell you briefly about someone who greatly desired something from our Lord, but I told her that she was not properly prepared and that, if God gave her the gift in this unprepared state, it would then be lost.
Now you may ask: in what way was she not properly prepared? Her will was righteous and you say that a righteous will is capable of all things, that it contains all things and all perfection.
That is true, but we must understand that the word ‘will’ means two things: the first is an accidental and insubstantial will while the other is a will that is decisive, creative and disciplined. Indeed, it is not sufficient for us to have a detached attitude of mind at a specific point in time when we wish to bind God to ourselves, but rather we should have a practised detachment which exists both before and after. Only then can we receive great things from God and find him in them. But if we are unprepared, the gift will be spoiled and God with the gift. That is also why God cannot always give us what we ask for. This is not due to a deficiency on his part, for he is a thousand times more eager to give than we are to receive. But we do violence to him and wrong by obstructing him in his natural work through our unpreparedness.
We must learn to free ourselves of ourselves in all our gifts, not holding on to what is our own or seeking anything, either profit, pleasure, inwardness, sweetness, reward, heaven or our own will. God never gives himself, or ever has given himself, to a will that is alien to himself, but only to his own will. Where he finds his own will, he gives himself and enters in with all that he is. And the more we cease to be in our own will, the more truly we begin to be in God’s will. Thus it is not enough for us to give ourselves up just once, together with all that we have and are capable of, but we must renew ourselves constantly, thus preserving our freedom and simplicity in all things.
It is also very beneficial for us if we do not content ourselves with maintaining virtues such as obedience, poverty and the rest in the mind alone, but ourselves practise the works and fruits of virtue, testing ourselves while wishing and desiring to be exercised and tested by other people too. It is not enough for us to perform the works of virtue, exercising obedience, accepting poverty or disgrace or practising humility or detachment in some other way; rather we should strive ceaselessly until we attain the essence and ground of virtue. And we can tell if we have attained this or not by asking whether we find ourselves inclined to virtue above all else and perform the works of virtue without prior preparation of the will, practising virtue without the ulterior motive even of a great and good cause, so that the virtuous act in fact happens spontaneously on account of love of virtue and without asking ‘what for?’. Then and only then do we have the perfect possession of virtue.
We must train ourselves in self-abandonment until we retain nothing of our own. All turbulence and unrest comes from self-will, whether we realize it or not. We should establish ourselves, together with all that is ours and all that we might wish or desire in all things, in the best and most precious will of God through a pure ceasing-to-be of our will and desire.
A question: should we also voluntarily abandon the sweetness of God that we feel? Can this not also be the result of lukewarmness and a lack of love for him?
Yes, indeed, if we do not know the difference. For, whether it comes from lukewarmness or from true detachment or serenity, we must note whether, when we are inwardly so detached, we find ourselves in a state in which we are just as faithful to God as when we experience him most strongly, and that we do in this state all those things which we do in the other and no less so, and that we are as detached with regard to all consolation and all support as we are when we feel God’s presence.19
On how we should follow God and on finding the right path.
Whoever wishes to begin a new life or work should turn to their God, desiring with all their strength and devotion that he should send them the best thing of all, that which is most precious to him and worthy, while they themselves desire and intend nothing of self but only the most precious will of God and that alone. They should then accept what God sends them as being directly from him, holding it to be the very best thing of all, and they should be wholly content with it.
Even if an alternative spiritual way later appeals to them more, they should consider: God has given you this way and for him it is the best one of all. They should trust God in this, and should find all good paths in this one path, receiving all things in and according to it, whatever their nature. For the good that God has invested in one way is present in all others. We should make all good ways our own in the one way, and not be attached to the particular character of the way. For we should only ever do the one thing, since we cannot do all things. It must only ever be a single thing, and in that single thing we must make all things our own. For if we wished to do all things, this and that, abandoning our own path for that of another which seems to us for the moment to be a better one, then this would lead to great instability. Similarly, someone who leaves the world and enters a religious order once and for all, will attain perfection more swiftly than that person ever could who moves from one order to another, however holy they may have been. This comes from changing one way for another. We should make one way our own and stick with it, drawing into it all other good ways and regarding it as having been given by God. We should not start one thing today and another tomorrow without worrying that we might thus be missing something. For with God we can miss nothing. We can no more miss anything with God than God can. Accept the one way from God then, and draw all that is good into it.
But if it turns out that they are incompatible, that the one clashes with the other, then this is a sure sign that it is not from God. One form of the good cannot oppose another for, as our Lord said, ‘A kingdom divided against itself will not stand’ (Luke 11:17) and also, ‘Whoever is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather up with me, scatters’ (Luke 11:23). Let this be a sure sign for you then, that if one form of good opposes or destroys another, even if this be a lesser one, then it cannot come from God. It should not be destructive but constructive.
To state the matter briefly: there is no doubt that God, in his faithfulness, takes every individual at their best. This is certainly the case, and he never takes someone lying down whom he could take standing up, for the goodness of God looks for the very best in all things.
But why then, someone once asked me, does God not cause those people to die in childhood, before they reach the age of reason, who he knows will fall from the grace of their baptism, since he knows that they will fall and will not pick themselves up again? That would be the best thing for them.
I replied that God does not destroy anything that is good, but rather he perfects it. God does not destroy nature, but perfects it Neither does grace destroy nature, but perfects it.20 If God were to destroy nature thus in its very foundation, then this would be an act of violence and injustice against it, which he does not do. We have a free will with which we can choose either good or evil. God shows us that our evil-doing leads to death and the good which we do leads to life. We should be free and the master of our deeds, knowing neither hindrance nor compulsion. Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it. Glory does not destroy grace but perfects it, for glory is perfected grace. And so it is not in God to destroy anything which has being, but he perfects all things. And so we should destroy nothing that is good in ourselves however small, nor any minor spiritual practice on account of one that is greater, but we should bring them to the very summit of perfection.
This is what someone said who wanted to begin a new life afresh and I replied: we must become somebody who seeks and finds God in all things and at all times, in all places, in all company and in all ways. Then we shall always be able to grow and increase unceasingly and without end.
On inner and outer works.
Supposing someone wanted to withdraw into themselves with all their faculties, both inner and outer, and they were in this state in such a way that there were neither any images nor impulses in them and they were thus without any form of activity, either inner or outer, then they would have to note carefully whether there are not in them any spontaneous promptings to action. If nothing impels them to act and they do not wish to undertake anything, then they should energetically force themselves to act, whether internally or externally, for we should rest content with nothing, however good it may seem or be, so that, when we find ourselves under pressure or constraint, it will be apparent that we are more worked than working, and so that we may learn to enter into a relationship of cooperation with our God. It is not that we should abandon, neglect or deny our inner self, but we should learn to work precisely in it, with it and from it in such a way that interiority turns into effective action and effective action leads back to interiority and we become used to acting without any compulsion. For we should concentrate on this inner prompting, and act from it, whether through reading or praying or – if it is fitting – some form of external activity. Though if the external activity destroys the internal one, we should give priority to the latter. But if both are united as one, then that is best for cooperating with God.
The question now arises: how can we be said to cooperate when we have abandoned ourself and all our works and so all images and forms of activity, praise and thanksgiving or whatever else we may do, fall away? As St Denys says: they speak most beautifully of God who can maintain the deepest silence concerning him in the fullness of their inner wealth.21
The answer is that there is one work which is right and proper for us to do, and that is the eradication of self. But however great this eradication and reduction of self may be, it remains insufficient if God does not complete it in us. For our humility is only perfect when God humbles us through ourselves. Only then are they and the virtue perfected, and not before.
But how can God destroy somebody through themselves? Does it not seem as if this destruction of the person is at the same time their elevation by God, for the Gospel says: ‘He that humbles himself shall be exalted’ (Matt. 23:12)?
The answer to this question is both yes and no. That person must ‘humble’ themselves, which cannot happen adequately unless God does it. And they are to be ‘exalted’ but not in such a way as if being brought low were one thing and being raised on high another. Rather, the highest point of the elevation lies in the deep ground of humility. For the deeper and lower the ground, the higher and more immeasurable is the elevation and the height. The deeper the well, the higher it is, for the height and the depth are one. Thus whoever can humble themselves the more, the greater is their exaltation. This is why our Lord says: ‘He who desires to be the greatest, let him be the least among you’ (Mark 9:34). Whoever wishes to be the former must become the latter, for this being is found only in that becoming. Whoever becomes the least, is in truth the greatest, while whoever has become the least, is already the greatest one of all. And thus the word of the Gospel is fulfilled: ‘whoever humbles themselves will be lifted up’ (Matt. 23:12). For our entire being is founded purely on a process of becoming nothingness.
It is written: ‘They have become rich in all virtues’ (1 Cor. 1:5). Truly, this cannot happen unless they first become poor in all things. Whoever desires to be given everything, must first give everything away. This is a fair trade and an equal exchange, as I said some time ago. God wishes to give us himself and all things for our own free possession, and therefore he wishes to strip us completely of all that is ours. Indeed, God wills that we should possess no more than could lodge as a speck in the eye. For all the gifts which he ever gave us, those both of nature and of grace, were given with the sole intention that we should possess nothing of our own, and he has made no gift to his mother, or to any person or creature in any other way. In order to educate us and to warn us he often takes from us both physical and spiritual belongings, for the possession of honour should be his and not ours. Furthermore, we should keep all things only as if they had been merely lent and not given to us, without any sense of possessiveness, whether it be our body or soul, our senses, faculties, worldly goods or honour, friends, relations, house or home or anything whatsoever.
But what is God’s intention in this, since he is so keen that it should be so? It is that he wishes to be our sole possession. This is what he wills and intends, and he strives for one thing only, that he can and may be this. Here lies his greatest bliss and delight. The more he can be this and the more completely, the greater is his bliss and joy, for the more we are in possession of other things, the less he is our possession. And the less love we have for all things, the more we possess him together with all that he can do for us. Therefore, when our Lord wished to speak of all the beatitudes, he put poverty of spirit at their head, and it came first in order to show that all blessedness and perfection have their beginning wholly in poverty of spirit. And indeed, if there were a single foundation upon which all goodness could be built, then it would have to include this.
In return for keeping ourselves detached from things which are outside us, God wishes to give us for our own possession all that is in heaven, even heaven itself together with all its powers, indeed with everything which ever flowed from it and which all angels and saints enjoy, so that all this may be ours too, far more than any thing has ever been ours. In return for stripping myself of myself for his sake, God will be wholly my own possession with all that he is and can do, as much mine as his, no more and no less. He will belong to me a thousand times more than anything ever belonged to anyone which they keep in their chest, or than he was ever his own possession. Nothing was ever my own as much as God will be mine, together with all that he is and all that he can do.22
We should earn this possession of God by not being in possession of ourselves here on earth or of all those things that are not him. The more perfect and naked this poverty, the greater this possession. We should not intend this reward or have it in mind, nor should we direct our gaze at a possible gain or gift, but we should be motivated solely by love of virtue. For the more detached we are in the possession of something, the more truly it is ours, as St Paul says: ‘We should have as if we had nothing, and yet possess all things’ (2 Cor. 6:10). They do not possess self who neither desire nor wish to have anything, either of themselves or of anything which is outside them, even of God or of anything at all.
Do you want to know what a truly poor person is? They are truly poor in spirit who can easily do without everything which is not strictly necessary. That is why the man who sat naked in his tub said to Alexander the Great, who ruled the whole world: ‘I am a greater lord than you are, for I have spurned more than you have seized. What you think it is a great thing to possess, is too trivial for me to scorn.’23 They who can go without all things, not needing them, are far more blessed than they who possess them in their need. That person is the best who can do without what they do not need. Therefore, whoever can do without and spurn the most, has given up the most. It seems a major event if someone gives away a thousand gold crowns for God, building many convents and monasteries with their money and feeding all the poor; and this is indeed a great thing. But whoever can spurn just as much for God’s sake is even more blessed. Someone would possess heaven itself if they could renounce all the things for God’s sake which God gives or does not give.
Now you say: yes, sir. But would I not obstruct this with my failings?
If you have failings, then ask God frequently in prayer if it may not be to his honour and pleasure to take them from you, for you can do nothing without his help. If he does so, then thank him, and if he does not, then bear them for his sake, though not as the failings of sin but as a great exercise in which you can earn a reward and practise patience. You should be content whether he grants you the gift or not.
He gives to each according to what is best for them and most suitable. If we are to make new clothes for someone, then we must make them according to their dimensions, and those which fit one will not fit another. We measure everyone to see what fits them. So too God gives everyone the best thing of all according to his knowledge of what is most suitable for them. Indeed, whoever trusts him entirely in this, receives and possesses in the least of things as much as they do in the greatest. If God wished to give me what he gave St Paul, then I would receive it gladly, if this were his will. But since he does not wish to give it to me, for he wills that only very few people should attain to such knowledge in this life as Paul, if he does not give it to me, then he is still as precious to me and I am just as grateful to him and I am just as content that he should withhold it from me as I am that he should give it to me. It satisfies me just as much, and is just as welcome, as if he had given it to me, as long as I am in a proper state of mind in other respects. Truly, this is how the will of God should be enough for me: in all things in which God wished to act or to give, his will should be so dear and precious to me that this is no less meaningful to me than if he had given me the gift and had acted in me. Then all God’s gifts would be mine and all his works and, if all creatures were to do their best or their worst, they could not deprive me of this. How can I then complain if everyone’s gifts are mine? In fact, I am so content with what God might do to me, give me or withhold from me that I would not pay a penny for the best possible life which I could conceive for myself.
Now you say: I am afraid that I do not apply myself enough to this and do not persist as I should.
This is properly the cause of regret. Bear it with patience. Regard it as an exercise, and be at peace. God is happy to endure scorn and discomfort and to go without service and praise so that those who intend him and belong to him have peace in themselves. Why then should we not have peace whatever he gives us or withholds from us? It is written, and our Lord tells us, that they are blessed who suffer for the sake of justice (Matt. 5:10). Indeed, if a thief who was on the point of being hanged and justly so on account of their crime, or if someone who had committed a murder was to be justifiably broken on the wheel, could find it in them to say to themselves, ‘Look, you are going to suffer this for the sake of justice, for you are being justly punished’, then they would be immediately blessed. Indeed, however unjust we may be, if we receive from God what he does or does not do for us as being justly given and suffer for the sake of justice, then we too will be blessed. So do not complain but complain rather that you do still complain and find no peace. Complain only of an excess of this. For whoever has the right attitude will receive as much in loss as they do in gain.
Now you say: But look, God works such great things in many people and they are transformed in their essence by the divine essence and it is not they but God who works this in them.
Then thank God for their sakes and if he grants it to you, accept it gladly. If he does not grant it to you, then you should willingly go without it. Intend only him and have no thought as to whether it is you or God who performs things in you, for this is what God must do if you intend him alone, whether he wishes to or not.
Do not be concerned either with the nature or the manner which God has given someone else. If I were good and holy enough to be elevated among the saints, then the people would discuss and question whether this was by grace or nature and would be troubled about it. But this would be wrong of them. Let God work in you, acknowledge that it is his work, and do not be concerned as to whether he achieves this by means of nature or beyond nature. Both nature and grace are his. What is it to you which means he best uses or what he performs in you or in someone else? He should work how and where and in what manner it suits him to do so.
A man wanted to channel a spring into his garden and said: ‘As long as I get the water, I am not concerned with the type of channel used, whether it is of iron or wood or bone or rusty metal, provided I get the water.’ Thus those people are quite wrong who worry as to how God performs his work in us, whether it is by nature or grace. Just let him act, and be at peace.
As far as you are in God, thus far you are in peace, and as far as you are outside God, thus far you are outside peace. If only something is in God, then it has peace. It is in peace in so far as it is in God. And you can tell how far you are in God, or not, by the extent to which you have peace or not. For where you lack peace, you must necessarily lack peace, since lack of peace comes from the creature and not from God. Nor is there anything to fear in God, for all that is in him can only be loved. Similarly there is nothing in him to cause us sadness.
They who have all that they want and desire, know joy. But no one has this except those whose will is one with God’s will. May God grant us this union! Amen.