Benedictus deus et pater domini nostri Fesu Christi (2 Cor. 1:3f.)
The noble apostle Paul says this: ‘Blessed be God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all consolation, who comforts us in our tribulation.’ There are three kinds of tribulation which affect and oppress us in this place of exile. The first comes from damage to our worldly goods, the second from the harm which befalls our relatives and friends and the third comes from the injury we suffer when we become the object of others’ disdain, when we experience hardship, physical pain and emotional distress.
Therefore it is my intention in this book to record certain precepts with which men and women can find consolation in all their distress, grief and suffering. And this book has three parts. In the first there are a number of truths from which it can be deduced what can and will give us appropriate and complete consolation in all our suffering. Following this, there are some thirty extracts and maxims in every one of which we can find complete consolation. Finally, the third part of this book contains examples of words and deeds which wise people have spoken and done in the face of suffering.
First of all we should know that a wise man and wisdom, a true man and truth, a just man and justice, a good man and goodness relate to one another in the following way. Goodness is neither created nor made nor begotten, but it is generative and gives birth to a good man. Thus a good man, in so far as he is good, is himself unmade and uncreated though he is still the child and son of goodness. Goodness reproduces itself and all that it is in a good man. It pours being, knowledge, love and activity into a good man, and a good man receives the whole of his being, knowledge, love and activity from the heart and core of goodness and from it alone. A good man and goodness are nothing but a single goodness, wholly one in all things, except for the giving birth on the one side and the being born on the other, while the giving birth of goodness and the being born in a good man are wholly one essence and one life.1 A good man receives everything which belongs to him from the goodness in goodness. He is, lives and dwells there. It is there that he knows himself and knows all the things that he knows, and loves all the things that he loves, and acts with the goodness in goodness, and goodness performs all her works with and in him in accordance with Scripture, where the Son says: ‘It is the Father who dwells in me doing his own work’ (John 14:10), ‘the Father works until now and I work’ (John 5:17) and ‘all that belongs to the Father is mine, and all that is mine and pertains to mine is the Father’s: his in the giving and mine in the receiving’ (John 17:10).
Further, we should know that, when we speak of the ‘good’, the name or the word signifies or includes nothing other, neither more nor less, than goodness, pure and simple, but goodness which overflows. When we say ‘good’, then we understand that its goodness is given to it, poured into it and born into it by the unbegotten goodness. Therefore the gospel says: ‘As the Father has life in himself, so he has given to the Son to have the same life in himself’ (John 5:26). He says ‘in himself’ and not ‘of himself’, for it is given to him by the Father.
Everything which I have just said concerning a good man and goodness is no less true of a true man and truth, a just man and justice, a wise man and wisdom, God the Son and God the Father, indeed of all that is born of God and has no father on earth, in which nothing created is born and in which there is no image but only God, naked and pure. For John in his gospel states, ‘To all of them is given power and strength to become sons of God, who were not born of blood nor of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God and from God alone’ (John 1:12f.).
By ‘blood’ he means everything within us which is not subject to the will. By the ‘will of the flesh’ he means everything within us which, while being subject to the will, is so only with struggle and conflict, which inclines to the desires of the flesh and which properly belongs to both the soul and the body together and not to the soul alone, on account of which these lower powers of the soul grow old, tired and enfeebled. By the ‘will of man’ John means the highest powers of the soul, whose nature and activity is wholly independent of the flesh and which are located in the purity of the soul, detached from all time and space and from all those things which look to time and space or have any taste for them: that is, powers which have nothing in common with anything else at all, in which we are formed in the image of God and are members of God’s race and family. And yet, since they are not God himself, being created in and with the soul, they must lose their own form and be transformed into God alone and be born into and out of God so that he will be their sole father, since they will thus also be the sons of God and God’s only begotten son. For I am the son of all that forms me and gives birth to me as identical to itself according to and in itself. In so far as such a person, God’s son, who is good as the son of goodness and is just as the son of justice, is the son solely of justice, to that extent justice is unbegotten-begetting, and the son to whom it gives birth has the same being as justice has and is, and possesses all the properties of justice and of truth.
It is all this teaching, which is written in the sacred scriptures and is known with certainty in the natural light of the rational soul, which gives us true consolation in all our suffering.
St Augustine says: ‘There is nothing which is far or remote from God.’2 If you wish that nothing should be far or remote from you, then join yourself to God, for then a thousand years will be like a single day. Thus I say that in God there is neither sadness, nor suffering, nor distress, and if you wish to be free of all distress and suffering, then turn to God and fix yourself on him alone. It is certain that all your suffering comes from the fact that you do not turn to God or not to him alone. If you were formed and born solely in justice, then truly nothing could cause you pain, any more than justice can cause God pain. Solomon says: ‘The just will not grieve whatever may befall’ (Prov. 12:21). He does not say: ‘the just man’ or ‘the just angel’ or this or that. He says: ‘the just’. Whatever belongs to the just man or woman, whatever it is that constitutes his or her justice in particular and the fact that he or she is just, that is the son with an earthly father, and is a creature, both created and made, since its father is a creature, either created or made. But suffering and distress can no more affect ‘the just’ pure and simple than they can God, for it has no father, whether created or made, since God and justice are entirely one and justice alone is its father. Justice can cause no suffering to the just since all joy, delight and bliss are justice. Indeed, if justice were to cause the just pain, then it would be causing itself pain. Nothing which is dissimilar to itself or unjust, which is created or made, can cause the just pain, for all that is created is as far beneath them as it is beneath God, and it cannot affect or influence the just nor reproduce itself in those whose father is God alone.3 Thus we should strive to shed our own form and the forms of all creatures, knowing no father but God alone. Then nothing shall be able to cause us pain or oppress us, neither God nor any creature, neither things created or uncreated, and our whole being, life, understanding, knowledge and love will be from God and in God and will actually be God.
And there is something else which we should know and which can give us consolation in all our suffering. This is that someone who is just and good certainly rejoices and delights immeasurably, unspeakably more in the works of justice than they do, or than the highest angel does, in their natural life and being. That is why the saints gladly gave their lives for the sake of justice.
Now I say: when it happens that a good and just person who has suffered an outward misfortune remains unmoved in serenity and peace of heart, then indeed, nothing that befalls them will distress them, as I have said. If the contrary should prove the case, and they are disheartened by their outward misfortune, then it is only right and proper that God should have permitted the misfortune to befall such a person who thought that they were just, even though such insignificant things could weigh on them so heavily. And if it is God’s right so to do, they should not allow themselves to be troubled, but rather they should rejoice in it more than they do in their own lives, which everyone delights in and values more than they do the whole world. After all, what would the whole world profit us if we did not have life?
The third thing we can and should know is this, that according to natural truth God is the sole fount and vein of all goodness, essential truth and consolation, and that everything which is not God has its natural bitterness, despair and suffering from itself, adding nothing to goodness, which stems from God and is God. Rather, its bitterness reduces, veils and conceals the sweetness, bliss and consolation which God gives.
Now I say further that all suffering comes from our love for what misfortune takes from us. If the loss of external things causes me pain, then this is a clear sign that I love external things and thus, in truth, love suffering and despair. Is it surprising then that I suffer, since I love and seek suffering and despair? My heart and my affections assign to creatures that goodness which is God’s possession. I turn to creatures which, by their nature, are the source of suffering and turn my back on God, from whom all consolation comes. Is it then surprising that I suffer and that I am sad? Truly, it is impossible for God or for the whole world to console someone who seeks consolation from creatures. But they who love only God in the creature and the creature only in God, will find true, just and constant consolation in all places. Let this be enough for the first part of the book.
In this second part of the book there now come some thirty precepts, each one of which ought to provide comfort for a rational person in their suffering.
The first is this, that no hardship and loss is without some gain, and there is no harm which is wholly negative. Therefore St Paul says that the faithfulness and goodness of God do not allow any trial or tribulation to become unbearable. He always creates and gives some consolation with which to aid ourselves for – as the saints and the pagan masters also tell us – neither God nor nature allows such a thing as unadulterated evil or suffering.
Let us suppose that someone has one hundred marks, forty of which they lose and sixty of which remain in their possession. Now if they think constantly of the forty which they have lost, then this person will remain disconsolate and depressed. Indeed, how could they be comforted and forget their suffering when they cling to their loss and their suffering, brooding on it,4 gazing upon it, as it gazes upon them, talking and conversing with it, the loss, as the loss does with them, staring each other in the eyes. But if they were to consider the sixty marks which they still have, turning their back on the forty which are lost, sinking themselves into the sixty, staring them in the eyes and talking to them, then they would certainly be comforted. What exists and is good can offer us comfort, while what does not exist or is not good, what remains ‘mine’ and ‘of me’, must necessarily cause distress, suffering and disappointment. Thus Solomon says: ‘In the days of adversity, do not forget the days of prosperity’ (cf. Ecclus. 11:25). This means: when you are in suffering and distress, then consider the good and pleasing things which you still possess. We will be comforted too if we consider how many thousands of people there are who, if they had the sixty marks, would consider themselves lords and ladies, thinking themselves to be very rich and rejoicing from the bottom of their hearts.
And there is something else which can console us. If we are ill and in great pain, we still have a roof over our head, the essential requirements of food and drink, the advice of doctors and the services of nurses, the sympathy and support of our friends: what should we do? What do poor people do who have to endure the same or an even worse illness and hardship who have no one even to give them a sip of cold water? They have to seek their crust in rain, snow and cold, going from door to door. And so, if you want to be comforted, then forget those who are better off than you are and think always of those whose fate is worse.
I say further that all suffering comes from attachment and affection. Therefore, if I suffer on account of transitory things, my heart still has attachment to and affection for transitory things, so that I do not love God with all my heart nor that which God wants me to love together with himself. Is it surprising then that God rightly permits me to suffer hardship and pain?
St Augustine says: ‘Lord, I did not wish to lose you, but in my greed I wanted to have creatures as well as you, and thus I lost you for you do not allow us to possess the falsity and deception of creatures together with you, who are truth.’5 Elsewhere he also says that ‘they are too greedy who are not content with God alone’ and ‘how can God’s gifts to creatures satisfy someone who is not content with God himself?’.6 For a good person, all that is alien to God, unlike him and other than him should be the cause of suffering and not consolation. They should constantly say: Lord God, my comfort, if you send me away from you to something else, then let it be another you, so that I pass from you to you, for I want nothing but you. When our Lord promised Moses all that is good and sent him into the Promised Land, which stands for heaven, Moses said: ‘Lord, send me nowhere but where you will go with me’ (cf. Ex. 33:15).
All predilection, attachment and affection come from what is similar to us, since all things incline to and like what is the same as themselves. A pure person likes all purity, a just person likes and inclines to justice. A person’s lips speak of what is within them, as our Lord says: ‘Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Luke 6:45). And Solomon says that ‘All the labour of a man is in his mouth’ (Eccles. 6:7). And so it is a clear sign that it is creatures and not God which live in our hearts if we incline to external things and find comfort in them.
Therefore a good man or woman should be ashamed before God and themselves if they realize that God is not in us and that God the Father is not active in us but it is rather wretched creatures that act within us, living in us and determining our affections. Thus King David laments in the psalter: ‘Tears are my food day and night, while all day long people ask me, “Where is your God?” ’ (Ps. 42:3). For an inclination towards external things, the finding of comfort in what is comfortless and the delighting in much talk about these things are a clear sign that God is not manifest in us and that he is neither alert nor active in us. Furthermore, a good person should feel shame before other good people if the latter perceive that this is the case. And so they should never complain on account of injury or suffering but rather lament their own lamentation and their realization of the fact that they do lament.
The masters say that there is an extended layer of blazing hot fire immediately beneath the heavens and yet the heavens are in no way affected by it.7 Now it says in one text that the lowest part of the soul is nobler than the highest part of the heavens.8 How then can someone claim to be a heavenly being with their heart in heaven if they are troubled and pained by such trivial things?
Now I will tell you something else. No one can be good who does not will exactly what God wills, for it is impossible that God should will anything other than the good. Something necessarily becomes good and is good and is the best thing of all, precisely in and through the fact that God wills it. That is why our Lord taught the apostles, and us through them, to pray every day that God’s will be done. And yet, when God’s will is done, we complain.
Seneca, a pagan master, asks ‘What is the best consolation in suffering and distress?’ and gives this answer: ‘It is this, that we should accept everything as if we had desired it and prayed for it, for you would have desired it, if you had known that all things happen from, with and in the will of God.’9 A pagan master says: ‘Lord, supreme father, master of the highest heavens, I am ready for all that you will. Give me the will to will what you will!’10
A good person should trust God, believe in him and be sure of him, knowing his goodness to be such that it is impossible for God with his goodness and love to permit any suffering or sorrow to befall someone unless they are either spared some greater suffering thereby or God wishes to give them more perfect consolation on earth or to make something better out of the situation, whereby God’s honour will be more fully and visibly manifest. Yet, be that as it may, for the simple reason that it is God’s will that it should happen, a good person should be so entirely united in their will with God’s will that they desire the same thing that God desires, even when this entails injury to themselves or indeed their own damnation. Thus St Paul wished to be separated from God for God’s sake, for the sake of God’s will and for his glory (cf. Rom. 9:3). For someone who is truly perfect should be so accustomed to being dead to themselves, stripped of their own form in God and transformed in God’s will, that their whole happiness lies in not being aware of themselves or of anything else, but rather knowing only God, without willing anything or knowing any will other than God’s will, and desiring to know God, in St Paul’s words, ‘as God knows me’ (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12). God knows everything that he knows, loves and wills everything that he loves and wills, in himself and in his own will. Our Lord himself says: ‘This is eternal life: to know you the only true God’ (John 17:3).
Therefore the masters say that the blessed in heaven know creatures without the images of creatures, which they perceive rather in a single image, which is God and in which God knows, loves and desires himself and all things.11 God himself teaches us to pray for and to desire this when we say ‘Our Father, hallowed be your name’, which means to know only him; ‘your kingdom come’, so that I shall possess nothing which I hold precious but you alone who are all-precious. Therefore the gospel says ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’ (Matt. 5:3), which means those who are poor in will, and we ask God that his will ‘be done on earth’, which means in us ‘as it is in heaven’, that is as it is in God himself. Such a person is so united with God’s will that they will everything that God wills and in the way that God wills it. Therefore, since God in a certain way wills that I should have committed sins, I cannot wish that I had not committed them, for thus it is that God’s will is done ‘on earth’, which is to say in misdeeds, ‘as it is in heaven’, which is to say in right doing. Therefore such a person desires to renounce God for the sake of God and to be free of God for God’s sake, which is the sole true repentance of our sins, and so we grieve at our sins without grief, just as God grieves at evil but without grief. I know regret, and the greatest regret, on account of sin, since I would not wish to sin for all that is or can be created, even if there were to be a thousand worlds throughout all eternity, yet my regret is free of grief, and I accept and receive it in and from God’s will.12 Only this kind of grieving at sin is perfect, for it comes from and originates in pure love of the purest goodness and joy of God. Thus what I have said in this little book becomes true and is seen to be true, namely that a good person, in so far as they are good, enters into the very property of goodness itself, which God is in himself.
Now notice what a wonderful and blissful life this person has in God himself ‘on earth as in heaven’. Discomfort serves them as comfort, and suffering as joy. But note also their special consolation, for if I possess the grace and goodness of which I have just spoken, then at all times and in all things my consolation and contentment are complete. But if I do not have these, then I should give them up for God’s sake and in his will. If it is God’s will that I should have what I desire, I shall have it and shall be happy; but if it is not God’s will that I should have it, then I shall gain it by renouncing it in God’s same will, in that his will is to withhold it from me, and so I receive it by renouncing it rather than by being given it. Where is the problem then? Indeed, I come into the possession of God more truly by renouncing him than by receiving him, for when we receive something, the gift has that in itself which brings us delight and comfort. But if we do not receive something, then we neither have nor discover nor know anything other than God and his will.13
And here is another kind of consolation. If someone has lost an external possession of theirs, a friend or relative, an eye, a hand or whatever it might be, they should know that if they patiently suffer this loss for God’s sake, they will at least possess before God all that for which they would not have wished to lose it. If, for instance, someone loses their sight in one eye and if they would not have wished to lose the use of this eye for a thousand or six thousand marks or more, then they will certainly possess with God and in God all that they would have given in order not to endure such a loss or suffering. And this must be what our Lord meant when he said: ‘It is better for you to enter into eternal life with one eye than to be lost with two’ (Matt. 18:9). This must also have been what God meant when he said: ‘He who leaves father and mother, sister and brother, farm and fields or anything else, shall receive a hundredfold and eternal life’ (Matt. 19:29). Certainly, I dare to say by God’s truth and by my salvation that whoever leaves their father and mother, brother and sister or whatever it may be, for the sake of God and goodness, will receive the hundredfold in two ways. The first is that their father, mother, brother and sister will become a hundred times dearer to them than they are now, and the second is that not only a hundred people but everyone will become incomparably more precious to them than either their father, mother or brother are precious to them at present on account of the family bond. The fact that someone is not aware of this can only mean that they have not yet left their father and mother, sister and brother, and all things for the sake of God and goodness. How can they have left their father and mother, sister and brother for God’s sake if they still have them on earth in their heart, if they still become depressed and troubled about what is not God and attentive to it? How can that person have abandoned all things for God’s sake who still considers and regards this or that good thing? St Augustine says that if you remove this or that form of the good, then pure goodness remains in itself in its simple extent, which is God.14 For, as I said above, neither this nor that particular form of the good adds anything to goodness as such, but they cover and conceal the goodness in us. Only those who know and see in truth shall know and understand this, since it is true in truth and that is where we too must be if we are to understand it, and nowhere else.
But you should know that there are different degrees of possessing virtue and the will to suffer, just as we see in nature that one person is bigger, or more attractive in form, complexion, knowledge or skills than another. And I say too that someone can be good and yet be swayed to a greater or lesser degree by their natural love for father, mother, sister and brother, though not falling away from God and from goodness. They are good and better to the extent that to a lesser or greater degree they are consoled and affected by, and are conscious of, their natural love and affection for father and mother, sister and brother, and for themselves.
And yet, as I have written above, if someone could accept this in God’s will (since it is God’s will that human nature should be flawed in this way specifically because of God’s justice with respect to the sin of the first human), and if on the other hand they were willing to do without it if this were not in fact the case, again in God’s will, then all would be well with them and they would certainly receive consolation in their suffering. This is what St John means when he says that the true ‘light shines in the darkness’ (John 1:5) and when St Paul says that ‘virtue is perfected in weakness’ (2 Cor. 12:9). If the thief were able to endure his death entirely, truly, perfectly, willingly and happily out of love for God’s justice, in which and according to which God wills in his justice that the criminal should be put to death, then he would certainly be saved and would be blessed.
But consolation comes from this too: there is hardly anyone who would not wish to see someone else live to the extent that they would be prepared to go without the use of an eye or to be entirely blind for the period of one year, as long as they could have their sight back at the end of the year and could thereby save their friend’s life. If therefore someone were willing to go for a year without the use of an eye in order to save the life of someone else who will necessarily die within a few years in any case, then they should be even more prepared to give up the ten, twenty or thirty years which they perhaps still have left in order to become blessed for ever and to contemplate God eternally in his divine light and themselves in God together with all creatures.
Here is another consolation: for a good person, in so far as they are good and are born only from goodness and are an image of goodness, that which is created and which is either this or that is distasteful and is the source of bitter suffering and harm. To lose this therefore is to be free of pain, discomfort and harm, and to be free of suffering is indeed a true consolation. Therefore we should not bewail our loss. Rather we should lament the fact that our consolation is still unknown to us, that comfort cannot comfort us, just as sweet wine is unpleasant for those who are ill. We should regret, as I have written above, that we cannot strip ourselves entirely of the forms of creatures, being transformed into goodness with all that is ours.
We should also consider in our suffering that God speaks the truth and that his promises are founded upon himself as truth. If God failed in his word, in his truth, then he would fail also in his own divinity and would no longer be God, for he is his word, his truth. And his word is that our sorrow shall be turned into joy (Jer. 31:13; John 16:20). Now, truly, if I knew for certain that all the stones in my possession were going to turn to gold, then the more stones I had and the bigger they were, the happier I would be. Indeed, I would ask for more stones and, if I could, would get big ones and many of them. The more I had of them and the bigger they were, the happier I would be. In this way we would certainly be greatly consoled in all our grief.
And another point, similar to the last one. No barrel can hold two different drinks. If it is to contain wine, then the water must be poured out so that the barrel is quite empty. Therefore, if you wish to be filled with God and divine joy, then you must pour the creatures out of yourself. St Augustine says: ‘Pour out, so that you may be filled. Learn not to love in order that you may learn to love. Turn away, so that you may be turned towards.’15 In short, if anything is to be receptive and to receive, it must be empty. The masters say that if the eye had its own colour when it perceives, then it would see neither that colour nor any other. But since it is not itself any particular colour, it can perceive all colours. The wall has its own colour, and thus it can see neither that colour nor any other and takes no pleasure in colour, neither in gold nor sky blue nor the colour of coal. But the eye has no colour and yet does possess it in the truest sense, for it recognizes colour with delight and pleasure and joy.16 The more perfect and pure the powers of the soul are, the more perfectly and comprehensively they can receive the object of their perception, embracing and experiencing a greater bliss, and the more they become one with that which they perceive, to such a degree indeed that the highest power of the soul, which is free of all things and which has nothing in common with anything else at all, perceives nothing less than God himself in the breadth and fullness of his being. And the masters prove that nothing can be compared in terms of bliss and delight with this union, this interpenetration and ecstasy. Therefore our Lord says: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (Matt. 5:3). They are poor who have nothing. ‘Poor in spirit’ means this: just as the eye is poor and bereft of colour, and is thus receptive to all colours, so too those who are poor in spirit are receptive to all spirit, and the spirit of all spirits is God. Love, joy and peace are the fruits of the spirit. Possessing nothing, being naked, poor and empty, transforms nature. Emptiness draws water uphill and causes many other miracles of which we cannot speak here.
Therefore, if you wish to discover and to possess complete joy and consolation in God, you must ensure that you are free of all creatures and of all the consolation which they provide. Certainly, for as long as the creature can comfort you and does so, you will never find true consolation. But when nothing can console you except God alone, then indeed he will console you and with him and in him all that gives delight. If you are comforted by what is not God, you will find no consolation either in this life or the next. But if creatures do not give you comfort or pleasure, then you will find consolation both now and hereafter.
If it were possible for us to empty a cup completely and to keep it empty of all that might fill it, even air, then the cup would without doubt deny and forget its own nature and would be drawn up to heaven by its emptiness. In the same way, being naked and poor and empty of all creatures draws the soul up to God. Likeness and warmth also draw us upwards. We attribute likeness to the Son in the Godhead, warmth and love to the Holy Spirit.17 Likeness or identity in all things, but especially and primarily in the divine nature, represents the birth of the One, while the likeness of the One, in the One and with the One is the origin and source of flowering and fiery love. The One is origin without beginning. Likeness is the origin of the One alone and receives this, the fact that it exists and that it exists as origin, from and in the One. Love by nature flows and springs forth from Two as One. One as One does not produce love, any more than Two as Two does, while Two as One necessarily produces according to its nature a powerful and fiery love.
Now Solomon says that all the waters, which means to say all creatures, flow back and return to their origin (Eccles. 1:7). Thus what I have said is necessarily true: likeness and fiery love draw us upwards, raising the soul to the primal origin of the One, which is ‘Father of all that is in heaven or earth’ (cf. Eph. 4:6). Thus I say that likeness, born of the One, draws the soul into God, as he is One in his hidden unity, for that is what the One means. We have a visible analogy for this when material fire ignites wood, for then a spark takes on the nature of fire and becomes identical to the fire which is attached to the lower part of the heavens.18 It immediately forgets about and gives up its father and mother, brother and sister on earth and shoots upwards to its heavenly father. Fire is the father of the spark here below, while its mother is the wood, and its brother and sister are other sparks, for which the first spark does not wait. It goes speedily upwards to its true father, which is the sky, for whoever knows the truth, knows that fire, in so far as it is fire, is not the real father of the spark. The real father of the spark and of all that has the nature of fire is the sky. Furthermore, we should note that this spark not only takes leave of father and mother, brother and sister on earth, but rather takes leave of, forgets and denies its very self for the sake of the loving drive it feels to come to its true father, the sky, for it must necessarily be extinguished in the cold of the air. Yet it wants to proclaim the natural love it has for its true and heavenly father.
Just as before we spoke of emptiness and bareness, saying of the soul that the more she is pure, naked and poor, the fewer creatures she possesses and the emptier of all things she is which are not God, then the more purely she grasps God and does so in him, becoming one with God and gazing upon him as he gazes upon her, face to face, being transformed into his likeness, as St Paul says (2 Cor. 3:18). I now say exactly the same of likeness and the fire of love for, to the extent that something is more like something else, to that extent it rushes towards it, and does so more swiftly and is filled with greater happiness and joy on account of its movement. The further it departs from itself and from everything which is not that towards which it hastens, and the more unlike itself it becomes and unlike all that is not its goal, to that extent it becomes ever more like the thing to which it is drawn. Since likeness flows from the One and attracts and draws by and in the power of the One, neither peace nor satisfaction comes to that which attracts or to that which is attracted until they become one in the One. Therefore our Lord spoke through the prophet Isaiah to the effect that there is no sublime likeness nor peace of love that satisfies me until I am myself revealed in my Son and I am myself consumed and burned in the love of the Holy Spirit (cf. Isaiah 62:1). Our Lord asked his Father that we should be one with him and in him and not just united. We have a clear analogy for this passage and this truth in nature, which is even a visual one. When the fire acts, igniting the wood and setting it ablaze, then the fire reduces the wood to something small, quite unlike its former self, removing from it its bulk, coldness, mass and moistness, and making the wood more and more like itself. And yet neither the fire nor the wood is satisfied or contented with any warmth, heat or likeness until the fire has given birth to itself in the wood and has conveyed to it its own nature and its own being so that all becomes a single fire, equally one, without distinction and knowing neither increase nor decrease. And this is why, until the process is complete, there is always smoke, crackling and contention between the fire and the wood. But when all the differences between them have been removed, the fire is still and the wood is silent. I also say in truth that the secret power of nature hates hidden likeness in so far as this contains distinction and duality, and that it seeks in it the One, which nature loves in likeness solely for its own sake, just as the mouth seeks and loves the taste or sweetness in and of wine. If water had the taste which wine has, then the mouth would not prefer wine to water.
This is why I said that a soul in a state of likeness hates likeness and does not love it in itself and for its own sake. She loves it rather on account of the One which is concealed within it and which is her true ‘father’, the origin without beginning of ‘all that is in heaven and earth’. Therefore I say that so long as likeness can be found between fire and wood and is manifest, there can never be true delight or silence, rest or satisfaction. This is why the masters say that fire comes through conflict, anger and unrest, and that it happens within time, while the birth of fire and desire is beyond time and space. No one finds that joy and delight either go on too long or are too remote. Our Lord meant all the things I have described when he said: ‘A woman giving birth to a child endures sorrow, pain and suffering, but when the child is born, she forgets the pain and woe’ (John 16:21). Therefore God too urges us in the gospel to ask our heavenly Father that our joy might be complete (cf. John 15:11), and St Philip said: ‘Lord, show us the Father and it will suffice us’ (John 14:8), for ‘Father’ indicates birth and not likeness, and it denotes the One in which likeness is reduced to silence and all that desires to be is still.
Now we can clearly see why and how it is that we remain unconsoled in all our suffering, hardship and injury. This comes always and solely from the fact that we are far from God and are not free of creatures, being unlike God and lacking in divine love. But now there is another point, and whoever wishes to consider this will fittingly receive consolation in their external injury and pain.
If someone were to take a particular path or set about a particular task, or even abandon one, and then were to suffer an injury of some kind (perhaps they might break a leg or an arm, or lose the sight of an eye, or fall ill), then if they constantly think to themselves, ‘If only you had taken another path, or set about another task, this would never have happened to you’, they shall remain without consolation and will necessarily be grief-stricken. Therefore they should think to themselves, ‘If you had taken another path or if you had set about or had abandoned another task, then you might easily have suffered greater injury and misfortune.’ And thus they will be comforted.
Now take another case. Suppose that you have lost a thousand marks. Do not lament their loss but rather thank God, who gave you a thousand marks in the first place and who has allowed you to earn eternal life through the practice of the virtue of patience, which many thousands of people have been denied.
Another point which can bring us consolation. If it were the case that someone who had possessed honour and comfort for many years were now to lose these by divine decree, then this person should reflect wisely and thank God. When they become aware of their present injury and hardship, they will realize for the first time how great was their earlier advantage and security and they should thank God now for the security which they previously enjoyed without really being aware of how well off they were, and should refrain from complaining. They should consider that by their natural being men and women possess nothing other than wickedness and weakness. All that is good and goodness has been given on loan to them by God and not for their own possession. For whoever knows the truth, knows that God, the heavenly Father, gives all that is good to the Son and the Holy Spirit, while he does not give but rather only lends goodness to creatures. The sun gives warmth to the air, but it only lends air light. Therefore when the sun sets, the air loses light but warmth remains in it, since it has been given to the air as its own possession. Thus the masters say that God, the heavenly Father, is Father and not Lord either of the Son or the Holy Spirit But God-Father-Son-and-Holy-Spirit is one Lord and is the Lord of creatures. And we say that God was Father from eternity but, from that point on when he made creatures, he was also Lord.
Now I say: since all that is good, consoling or existent in time is only on loan to us, what right do we have to complain if he who lent it to us, wishes to take it back again? We should thank God that he has lent it to us for such a long time. And we should thank him for not taking back all that he has lent us, for it would be perfectly fair for God to take back all that he has lent us if we become indignant when he takes from us just a part of what has never been ours and of which we have never been the true owner. Thus Jeremiah the prophet, when he was in great suffering and lament, well says: ‘How great and manifold are God’s mercies that we are not destroyed’ (Lam. 3:22). If someone who had lent me their jacket, fur-coat and cloak took back their cloak, while leaving me the jacket and fur-coat in the cold, then I should properly be grateful to them and relieved. Note how wrong it would be of me to get angry and to complain when I lose something, for if I wish that the good I have should be given and not lent, then I should desire myself to be Lord and the Son of God both perfectly and by nature, though I am not yet even God’s Son by grace, since it is the property of the Son of God and of the Holy Spirit to respond to all things in the same way.
We should also know that natural human virtue has without doubt such excellence and power that there is no external work which is too difficult or indeed which is sufficiently demanding for this virtue to express itself fully in it and by it and to prove its own worth. Therefore there is an inner work which neither time nor space can support or contain and in which there is something which is divine and akin to God and which, similarly, is beyond time and space. It is equally present in all places and at all times, and is like God in this, whom no creature can wholly embrace and whose goodness no creature can possess in itself. Therefore there must be something more inward and elevated, something uncreated, with neither dimension nor mode of being, on which our heavenly Father can imprint himself, pouring himself forth, and in which he can reveal himself: as Son and Holy Spirit.19 Also we cannot impede the inner activity of virtue any more than we can God. This activity shines out day and night. It extols God, praising him and singing a new song, as David says: ‘sing God a new song’ (Ps. 95:1). But the activity which is external, which is constrained by time and space, which is hemmed in, which can be impeded or restricted, which becomes weary and aged through passage of time and usage, sings praise that is earthbound and is not pleasing to God. But the former activity means to love God and to desire the good and goodness, whereby all that we wish and intend to do with a pure and undivided will in all our good works is already achieved, just as is the case with God, of whom David writes: ‘All that he has intended, he has already done and performed’ (cf. Ps. 135:6).
We have a visible proof of this teaching in the stone, whose external work it is to fall to the ground and to lie there. This work can be impeded, and it does not fall on every occasion nor does it always fall the whole way. But the stone has another, more internal, work: its tendency to move downwards, which is innate and which neither God nor creature nor anyone else can take from it. The stone performs this work without ceasing, day and night, and if it were to lie for a thousand years in a high place, then it would not incline downwards any more or any less than it did on the first day.
In the same way I say of virtue that she has an inner work, which is a striving and inclination towards all that is good, and a fleeing from and resistance to all that is wicked and evil because of its unlikeness to goodness and to God. And the more the work is evil and alien to God, the greater is her resistance to it, while the more significant and similar to God the work is, the easier, more congenial and delightful it becomes. It is virtue’s sole complaint and sorrow – in so far as virtue can experience sorrow – that this suffering for the sake of God and all her external work within time is far too restricted for her to find full expression and self-realization within it. Through practice she becomes strong, and she becomes rich by showing generosity. It is not having suffered and having survived suffering in the past that she desires but rather that she should always suffer for the sake of God and righteousness without ceasing. All her joy lies in suffering, and not in having suffered, for God’s sake. Therefore our Lord says pointedly: ‘Blessed are those who suffer for righteousness’ sake’ (Matt. 5:10). He does not say: ‘those who have suffered’. A person of this kind hates suffering which is in the past, for having suffered is not the suffering which they love, but is rather the loss and relinquishing of that suffering for God which they love. Thus I say that such a person also hates suffering in the future, for it too is not actual suffering. However, they hate suffering in the future less than suffering in the past because having suffered is more remote from and alien to suffering since it is entirely past. But if someone is going to suffer in the future, then this does not entirely remove from them the suffering that they love.
St Paul says that he wishes to lose God for the sake of God in order that the glory of God should be increased (Rom. 9:3). It is maintained that St Paul said this when he was not yet perfect. But I say that these words sprang from a perfect heart. It is also maintained that he only wished to be separated from God for a moment, but I say that someone who is perfect would be equally unwilling to be separated from God for an hour as for a thousand years. But if being separated from him were God’s will and to his glory, then it would be as easy to be apart from him for a thousand years or even the whole of eternity as it would for a day or an hour.
The inner work is also divine, God-like and possessed of divine qualities in that, even if there were a thousand worlds, all creatures together would not amount to more than God on his own by so much as a whisker, and so I say, as I have already said, that the external work, its size and extent, its length and breadth, cannot increase the goodness of the inner work to any degree whatever, since this contains its goodness in itself. Thus the outer work can never be minor, when the inner work is a major one, and the outer work can never be major or good when the inner work is a minor one and without value. The inner work always determines in itself all the dimensions of the outer work, its whole breadth and extent. The inner work receives and draws the whole of its being from nowhere but the heart and in the heart of God: it receives the Son and is born as Son in the womb of the heavenly Father. But this is not the case with the outer work, which receives rather its divine goodness through the inner work as something given and poured out in a descent of the Godhead which then becomes clothed with distinction, number and divisibility, all of which properties however, together with their like, are remote from God and alien to him, as is likeness itself. All these things inhere and rest in the individual instance of the good, which is illumined and is creature and is entirely blind to goodness and the light as such and to the One in which God gives birth to his only begotten Son and, in him, to all those who are the children, the begotten sons, of God. It is there that we find the origin and flowing-out of the Holy Spirit, and from him alone, in so far as he is the spirit of God and God himself is spirit, the Son is conceived in us.20 The Spirit flows forth from all those who are the sons of God, according to whether they are born purely of God to a greater or lesser degree, transformed within God and after his likeness and are removed from all multiplicity (which can still be found in even the highest angels according to their nature), removed in fact even from goodness and truth and from all that permits the merest hint or shadow of distinction by being thought or named, and are devoted to the One which is free of all multiplicity and distinction, in which God-Father-Son-and-Holy-Spirit sheds and is stripped of all distinctions and properties, and is One. This One makes us blessed, and the further we are from the One, the less we are the sons and Son of God and the less perfectly the Holy Spirit rises up in us and flows forth from us; while, on the other hand, the closer we are to the One, the more truly we are God’s sons and Son, and the more truly God-the-Holy-Spirit flows forth from us. It is this which is meant when our Lord, the Son of God in the Godhead, says: ‘Whoever drinks from the water that I give, in him a fountain of water shall arise, springing up to everlasting life’ (John 4:14), in which, according to St John, he was referring to the Holy Spirit.21
In accordance with his nature, the Son in the Godhead bestows nothing other than sonship, that is being born of God, the source, origin and flowing-out of the Holy Spirit, of God’s love, and the full, true and perfect savour of the One, who is the heavenly Father. Thus the voice of the Father says to the Son from heaven: ‘You are my beloved son in whom I am beloved and well-pleased’ (cf. Matt. 3:17), for certainly no one loves God with a pure and sufficient love who is not God’s son. For love, which is the Holy Spirit, springs and flows from the Son, and the Son loves the Father for his own sake, the Father in himself and himself in the Father. Thus our Lord says very rightly: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (Matt. 5:3), which means: those who have shed their own, human spirit and who approach God in a state of nakedness. And St Paul says: ‘God has revealed it to us in his spirit’ (Col. 1:8).
St Augustine says that they who are stripped of their own spirit best understand Holy Scripture, seeking the meaning and truth of Scripture in itself, that is in the Spirit in which it was written and spoken: in the Spirit of God. St Peter says that all holy people have spoken in God’s Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21). St Paul says that no one can ascertain and know what there is in men and women but the Spirit which is in them, and no one can know the Spirit of God and what is in God but the Spirit which is of God and which is God (1 Cor. 2:11). Thus one text, a gloss, says properly that no one can understand or teach St Paul’s writings unless they possess the same Spirit in which St Paul spoke and wrote.22 And this is my constant complaint, that unintelligent people who neither possess nor have any part of the Spirit of God wish to understand with their primitive human reason what they hear or read in Scripture, which was spoken and written down by the Holy Spirit and in the Holy Spirit, and so do not consider the words: ‘What is impossible for men, is possible for God’ (Matt. 19:26). And this is no less true of the natural sphere: what is impossible for our lower nature is customary and natural for our higher nature.
Now add to this what I have said before: namely that a good person, born in God as the son of God, loves God for his own sake and in himself, as well as many other things which I have said. To understand this better, we should know, as I have said often enough before, that someone who is good, who is born of goodness and born in God, enters into the complete nature of God. Now, according to Solomon, it is part of God’s nature that he performs all things for his own sake, which means that he considers no ‘why’ outside himself but considers rather the ‘for his own sake’; he loves and performs everything for his own sake. When therefore someone loves themselves and all things and carries out their works not for the sake of a reward, for honour or convenience, but only for the sake of God and his glory, then this is a sign that such a person is the son of God.
Furthermore, God loves for his own sake and performs all things for his own sake, which means to say that he loves for the sake of love and he acts through his works for the sake of acting, for without doubt if God had never given birth to his only begotten Son in eternity, then having given birth in the past would not be the same as giving birth in the present. Thus the saints say that the Son is born eternally and that he will continue to be born without ceasing. Neither would God have created the world, if having created were not the same as still creating. Therefore, God created the world in such a way that he still creates it without ceasing.23 All that belongs to the past and future is alien and remote to God. Accordingly, they who are born of God as the son of God, love God for his own sake, which means that they love God for the sake of loving God and they act through their works for the sake of acting. God never tires of loving and acting, and all that he loves is for him a single love. Thus it is true that God is love. This is why I have said above that the good person always desires to suffer for love, not to have suffered for love: it is suffering in the present that brings them what they love. Such a person loves suffering for the sake of God and does suffer for the sake of God. Thus they are God’s son, formed in God and in his image, who loves for his own sake, which means to say that he loves for the sake of love and acts for the sake of acting, and so God loves and acts without ceasing. God’s acting is his very nature, his being, his life, his blessedness. And truly, suffering for God’s sake, acting for God’s sake is the life, activity and blessedness of the son of God, that is to say of a good person in so far as they are the son of God, since our Lord says: ‘Blessed are they who suffer for righteousness’ sake’ (Matt. 5:10).
Moreover, I say in the third place that a good person, in so far as they are good, possesses the nature of God not only in the fact that they love all that they love and do all that they do for the sake of God, whom they love therein and for whose sake they act, but they who love do so also for their own sake, for it is the God-Father-Unborn that they love and it is the God-Son-Born who does the loving. Now the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father: Father and Son are one. In the book that follows this one you can read of how the innermost and highest part of the soul finds and receives God’s Son, and the process of becoming God’s Son, in the bosom and heart of the heavenly Father. There I have written ‘On the nobleman, who went into a distant country to gain a kingdom for himself, and returned’ (Luke 19:12).24
We should know too that in the natural realm the impress and influence of the highest and noblest nature is more blissful and delightful for every being than its own nature and essence. It is the nature of water to flow downwards into the valley, and that is its essence. But under the impress and influence of the moon in the sky above, it abandons and forgets its own nature by flowing uphill, and it finds this far easier than flowing downhill. We can ascertain if we are in the right spiritual state by whether we would have bliss and joy in abandoning and taking leave of our own natural will and in going out of ourselves entirely in all those things which God wills us to endure.
And this is the proper meaning of our Lord’s words when he says: ‘Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine must renounce self; he must take up his cross and follow me’ (Matt. 16:24), which means that they should shed and lay down everything which belongs to the cross and to suffering.25 For truly, whoever has abandoned themselves and gone entirely out of themselves, for such a person nothing can be a cross, or pain or suffering, but for them all is bliss, joy and the heart’s delight and they will come and follow God truly. For just as nothing can oppress God or cause him suffering, neither can anything cause them pain or suffering. Thus when our Lord says, ‘Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine must renounce self; he must take up his cross and follow me’, then this is not only a commandment, as is usually said, but it is also a promise and a divine instruction as to how the whole of our suffering, action and life can be turned to bliss and joy, and it is more a reward than a commandment. For such a person has everything that they desire, since they desire nothing which is bad, and this is blessedness. Therefore once again our Lord rightly says: ‘Blessed are they that suffer for righteousness’ sake.’
Moreover, when our Lord, the Son, says ‘he must take up his cross and follow me’, he means: become a son, as I am Son, God-begotten, and become the same One that I am and that I receive, dwelling and abiding in the bosom and heart of the Father. Father, says the Son, I desire that whoever follows me, whoever comes to me, should be where I am (John 12:26). No one really comes to the Son, as far as he is Son, but they who themselves become a son, and no one comes to where the Son is, who is One in One in the bosom and heart of the Father, but they who are a son.
‘I,’ the Father says, ‘will lead her into the wilderness and speak to her heart’ (Hos. 2:14). Heart to heart, one in one, is how God loves. God hates all that is alien or remote from this; God draws and entices to the One. All creatures seek the One, even the lowest, and the highest perceive the One: taken beyond their own natures and transformed, they seek the One in the One, the One in itself. Thus the Son can say: in the Godhead the Son is in the Father, and where I am, there too shall be those who serve me, follow me and come to me.26
But there is another consolation. We should know that it is impossible for the whole of nature to break, spoil or even to touch something, without meaning to improve what is touched. Nature is not content with creating something which is only as good, and she always wishes to make something which is better. But how? A wise doctor never touches the damaged finger of his patient, thus causing them pain, if he does not wish to make the finger or the whole patient better and thus bring relief. If he can make the person and the finger better, then he does so; and if he cannot, he amputates the finger in order to improve the condition of the person. And it is very much better to give up the finger in order to save the person than to lose both the finger and the person. A single loss is better than a double loss, especially when the one would be incomparably greater than the other. We should know too that by their nature the finger and the hand and every limb of our body far prefer the person of which they are a member to themselves and that they willingly and cheerfully accept pain and travail for that person’s sake. I can say confidently and truthfully that such a member of the body does not love itself at all except for the sake of that and in that of which it is a part. Therefore, it would be entirely appropriate and natural for us not to love ourselves in any way except for the sake of God and in God. And if this is the case, we will find everything that God wants from us and in us to be both easy and delightful, especially if we are certain that God could much less tolerate any deficiency or loss if he did not intend or recognize in it a far greater advantage. Truly, if someone does not put their trust in God in this respect, then it is only right that they should experience suffering and pain.
Now there is a further consolation. St Paul says that God punishes all those who he accepts and receives as sons (cf. Heb. 12:6). Suffering is part of being a son. Since God’s Son could not suffer in the divinity and in eternity, the heavenly Father sent him into time so that he should become human and could suffer. Therefore, if you wish to be a son of God but do not wish to suffer, you are in the wrong. In the Book of Wisdom it is written that God tests and examines to see who is righteous, just as we test and examine gold, melting it in an oven (cf. Wisd. 3:5–6). It is a sign of the trust that a king or prince places in a warrior when he sends him into battle. I once saw a ruler who at times would send a man out, who he had newly received into his retinue, and would then attack him himself and fight with him. Once it happened that he was almost killed by one man, who he wished to test in this way, and he held this servant in greater regard than before.
We read that the evil spirits once caused especially great suffering to St Anthony in the desert, and when he had overcome the pain, our Lord appeared to him visibly and joyfully. Then the holy man said: ‘O Lord, where were you just now when I was in such great need?’ Our Lord replied: ‘I was here, as I am now. But I wished, I desired to see, how devout you are.’27 A piece of silver or gold is pure and yet, if we wish to make a container from it for the king to drink from, then we heat it far more than we normally do. Thus it is written of the apostles that they rejoiced to be found worthy to suffer ignominy for God’s sake (Acts 5:41).
God’s Son by nature wished to become human by grace in order that he could suffer for your sake, while you wish to become a son of God, who is more than human, in order that you neither can nor need to suffer for the sake of God or for your own sake!
If only we would remember and consider how great is the joy that God himself in his way, all angels and all those who know and love God, have in the patience of someone who endures suffering and harm for God’s sake, then truly this thought alone should by rights bring us consolation. After all, we give our goods away and experience hardship in order to please even our friend and to show him a kindness.
We should consider too that if we had a friend who was suffering for our sake, who was experiencing pain and hardship, then it would be right for us to be with them and to comfort them with our presence, offering them all the consolation that we could. Therefore in the psalms our Lord says that he is with a good person in their suffering (Ps. 34:17). From these words we can extract seven points and seven reasons for consolation.
Firstly, there is St Augustine’s comment that to show patience when we suffer for God’s sake is better, more precious, more noble and sublime than all that could be taken from someone against their will, which is to say merely their outward possessions.28 God knows, we will find no one who loves this world who is so rich that they would not gladly and willingly experience great pain and tolerate it for a long time in order subsequently to become the powerful ruler of the whole world.
Secondly, not only on the basis of what God says do I deduce that he is with us in our suffering, but I take it from and in the text, and say: if God is with us in our suffering, then what more do we want, what else do we want? I desire nothing other than God and nothing more than him, if I am as I should be. St Augustine says: ‘They who are not satisfied with God lack wisdom and are greedy’, and elsewhere he says: ‘How can we be satisfied with God’s outward and inward gifts if God himself does not satisfy us?’29Therefore he says again in another place: ‘Lord, if you reject us, then give us another You, for you are all we desire.’30 Therefore the Book of Wisdom says: ‘All good things have come to me at once together with God, the Eternal Wisdom’ (Wisd. 7:11). In one way this means that nothing is or can be good that comes without God, and all that comes with God is good, and is so since it comes with God. Of God himself I shall be silent. If all the creatures of the whole world were to be robbed of the being that God gives them, they would be a pure nothingness: unpleasing, valueless and hateful. This statement that all good things come with God conceals other, precious meanings, which we cannot pursue here.
Our Lord says: ‘I am with those who suffer’ (Ps. 91:15). Concerning this St Bernard says: ‘Lord, you are with us when we suffer, so make me suffer always so that you will always be with me, and so that you shall always be mine.’31
Thirdly, I say the fact that God is with us when we suffer means that he himself shares our suffering. Indeed, whoever knows what truth is knows that what I say is true. God shares our suffering, indeed he suffers in his own way more readily and incomparably more than they do who suffer for his sake. Now I say that if God himself desires to suffer, then it is only right and proper that I too should suffer, for I desire what God desires, if my attitude of mind is right. Every day I pray, and God commands me to pray, ‘Lord, may your will be done’. And yet, when it is God’s will that I should suffer, I complain at the suffering, which is quite wrong. I affirm too that God so wishes to suffer with us and for us when we suffer only for his sake, that he suffers without suffering. Suffering is so blissful for him that suffering is not suffering for him at all. And so, if we were rightly disposed, suffering would not be suffering for us either, but rather delight and consolation.
In the fourth place, I say that a friend’s compassion naturally lessens our suffering. If I am consoled when another person shares in my suffering, then I will be comforted even more if it is God who suffers with me.
In the fifth place, if I can be ready and willing to suffer with someone whom I love and who loves me, then it is right and proper that I should readily suffer with God, who suffers with me and for me on account of the love he bears me.
In the sixth place, I say if it is the case that God suffers before I do when I suffer for his sake, then all my suffering, however great it may be, will easily turn into consolation and joy. It is a natural truth that when someone undertakes a task with another purpose in mind, then the final goal for the sake of which they begin the work is more precious to them and their labour less important, touching them only with respect to that for the sake of which they do it. He who builds, hewing wood and dressing stone in order to erect a house which will stand against the summer heat and winter cold, has his heart set first and foremost on the house, and would never chisel the stone and get down to the work if it were not for the sake of the house. Now we well know that when a sick person drinks sweet wine, they pronounce it bitter, and rightly so, for the wine loses all its sweetness on the outside in the bitterness of the tongue before it can penetrate within, to where the soul discerns taste and forms a judgement. The same is true, although to an incomparably higher degree, when someone performs all their works for the sake of God alone, when God is the mediator who enfolds the soul most closely, when nothing can touch the soul or heart of the person which has not first lost its bitterness through God and his sweetness, and has had necessarily to lose it, becoming pure sweetness before ever being able to touch their heart.
But there is another example and comparison, for the masters say that there is fire beneath the heavens, all around, and so no rain or wind or any storms or tempests can approach the heavens from below so that they come into contact with them in any way.32Everything is burned up and consumed by the heat of the fire before it reaches the heavens. In the same way, I say, everything that we suffer and do for God’s sake is sweetened by his sweetness before it reaches the heart of him or her who acts and suffers for the sake of God. For this is the meaning of the words ‘for God’s sake’, since nothing can reach the heart which does not first pass through the sweetness of God, where it loses all its bitterness. It too is burned by the hot fire of God’s love which enfolds within itself the good person’s heart.
Now we can clearly see how easily and in how many different ways a good man or woman receives consolation on all sides when they act, suffer or are in pain. This happens in one way if they act and suffer for God’s sake and in another when they are immersed in divine love. We can also tell whether we are doing all our works for God’s sake and whether we are immersed in divine love since truly, in so far as we are full of grief and without consolation, to that extent we have not acted for God’s sake alone nor – take note – have we been constant in God’s love. ‘A fire,’ says King David, ‘comes with God and before God, that burns up all around whatever God finds opposed to him and unlike him’ (Ps. 97:3), which is to say grief, despair, unrest and bitterness.
There still remains the seventh reason for consolation in the statement that God is with us in our suffering and indeed that he suffers with us. The nature of God can be the source of great consolation for us since he is pure oneness, being free of any accretive multiplicity of distinction even at a conceptual level, and since everything which is in him is God himself. This being true, I say that everything which the good person suffers for the sake of God, he or she endures in God and God suffers with them in their suffering. If my suffering is in God and God shares in it, how then can suffering be grievous for me, when suffering loses its grievousness and my suffering is in God and is God? Truly, just as God is truth and wherever I find the truth I find my God, who is truth, so too, in the same way exactly, when I find pure suffering in God and for God’s sake, I find God as my suffering. Whoever does not realize this should blame their own blindness rather than me or the truth and loving kindness of God.
Let your suffering be like this therefore for the sake of God, since this is such a great source of benefit and blessing. ‘Blessed are they,’ our Lord said, ‘who suffer for righteousness’ sake’ (Matt. 5:10). How can our God, who loves goodness, allow his friends, who are good people, not constantly to suffer? If someone had a friend who accepted suffering over a period of a few days in order to gain great benefit, honour and advantage for a long time, and if the first person wished to prevent this, or if it were their wish that someone else should prevent it, then you would not say that they were the friend of the second person or that they loved them. For this reason, God could easily not allow his friends, that is good people, ever to be without suffering if it were not the case that they can suffer without suffering. All the goodness of external suffering comes and flows from the goodness of the will, as I have stated above. Therefore, the good person does actually suffer in God, before the face of God and for his sake, everything which they might wish and be willing to endure, even hunger to endure for God’s sake. King David says in the psalter: ‘I am ready in all distress, and my sorrow is ever present in my heart and in my face’ (cf. Ps. 38:18). St Jerome says that a pure wax which is soft and pliable enough to twist into whatever shapes we desire already contains within itself all that can be made from it, even if no one is actually making anything from it at the time.33 I have also written above that the stone is no less heavy when it is not actually lying on the ground; all its weight results from the fact that it tends downwards and is inclined in itself to drop. And I have also described above how the good person has already done in heaven and on earth everything that he or she has wished to do, and in this respect is like God.
Now we can see the stupidity of those who are generally struck by the fact that good people suffer pain and hardship, and who have the idea that this is the result of such people’s hidden sins. Sometimes they even say: ‘Oh, I thought that so-and-so was a good person. How is it that they suffer so much pain and hardship, and I thought that they had no vices?’ I agree with this, and say that if such a person really did feel pain and if this pain really were a suffering and misfortune for them, then they would indeed not be good and without sin. But if they are good, their pain is neither suffering nor misfortune but is rather a great good fortune for them and is blessedness. God, who is truth, says: ‘Blessed are they who suffer for righteousness’ sake’ (Matt. 5:10). Thus we read in the Book of Wisdom that ‘the souls of the righteous are in God’s hand. Foolish people think and believe that they die and perish… but they are at peace’ (Wisd. 3:1–3). When Paul writes of how many saints have sometimes had to endure many different kinds of pain, he says that the world was unworthy of them (Heb. 11:32–38). And these words, if correctly understood, have three meanings. The first is that this world is not worthy of the presence in it of many good people. But the second meaning is better and is that the goodness of the world seems worthless and hateful; God alone has value, and therefore they are precious to God and are worthy of him. The third meaning is this, that the world, that is to say those who love this world, are not worthy to suffer pain and hardship for the sake of God. Therefore it is written that the holy apostles rejoiced that they were found worthy to suffer in God’s name (Acts 5:41).
Enough of words. In the third section of this book I shall write about the different kinds of comfort with which a good person should be able to console themselves in their suffering and which are to be found not only in what the good and the wise have said but also in what they have done.
We read in the Book of Kings how a man cursed King David and hurled abuse at him. Then one of the friends of David said that he was going to strike the dog dead. But the King answered: ‘No! For it may be that God intends my welfare by this insult’ (2 Sam. 16:5–12).
In the Book of the Fathers we read of how a man complained of his sufferings to a holy father, who replied: ‘Do you wish, my son, that I should ask God to take them away from you?’ The other said: ‘No, father. They are good for me, that I well know. But ask God to give me his grace in order to suffer them willingly.’34
A sick man was once asked why he did not beseech God to make him well again. He replied that he was unwilling to do that for three reasons. The first was that he was convinced that God in his love could not permit him to be ill if it were not for his own good. A second reason was that a good person necessarily desires what God wills and not that God should will what it is that they want, for that would not be right. Therefore, if it was God’s desire that he should be ill (and if God did not wish this, it would not be so), then he too should not wish to be well again. For without doubt, if it were somehow possible for God to make him better without this being his divine will, then being healed would have no point or value for him. Desiring something comes from love, and not desiring something comes from a lack of love. It was much better, preferable and advantageous for him to be ill with the love of God, than to be physically well but without God’s love. What God loves, has existence, while what God does not love, has no existence, as the Book of Wisdom says (Wisd. 11:25). This also contains the truth that all that God wills is good merely by virtue of the fact that God wills it. Indeed, personally speaking, I would prefer it if someone who is rich and powerful, a king perhaps, loved me but gave me nothing for a while than if he immediately gave me something while withholding his love from me: if he gave me nothing for the time being out of love, that is, because he wished to shower gifts upon me at a later point in time. But supposing even that the man who gives me nothing for the moment does not intend to give me anything later on either, he might still change his mind and give me something. I should patiently wait and see, especially as his gift is one of grace and is unearned. It is also certain that if I care nothing for someone’s love, and my will is opposed to theirs except in so far as I want them to give me something, then such a person is doing the right thing if they do not give me anything, disliking me rather and abandoning me to my misfortune.
The third reason why it would be pointless and demeaning for me to ask God to make me better again is that I am reluctant to ask the rich, loving and generous God for something as insignificant as this. Supposing I travelled to see the Pope one or two hundred miles away, and said as I stepped before him, ‘Holy Father, I have made a difficult and costly journey of two hundred miles to see you and I beseech you, whatever the reason for my coming here, to give me a single bean!’ Indeed, he himself and anyone who was near by would justifiably say that I was a fool. But now it is a certain truth that everything good, even the whole of creation, is less beside God than a single bean is beside the whole of the physical world. That is why I should rightfully disdain to ask God to make me better, if I am good and wise.
I say too that it is the sign of a weak spirit if the passing things of this earth cause someone joy and despair. We should be thoroughly ashamed of ourselves before God, his angels and our fellow men and women if we ever become aware of this in us. After all, we feel great shame if we have a facial disfigurement which is only visible on the outside. What more can I say? The books of the Old and New Testament, as well as those both of the saints and pagans, are full of accounts of how devout men and women have sacrificed their lives or willingly denied themselves for the sake of God or because of their own natural virtue.
Socrates, a pagan master, says that virtues make impossible things possible, even pleasant and easy to do.35 Nor let us forget that pious woman of whom the Book of Maccabees speaks, who one day saw and heard the terrible, barbaric and hideous tortures which were inflicted on her seven sons and who did so cheerfully and with self-restraint, urging each individually not to be afraid but willingly to give up body and soul for the sake of God’s justice (2 Mace. 7). With this the present book comes to an end, although I wish to make two further points.
The first is that a good and godly person should be heartily ashamed of ever having succumbed to pain when we consider that in the hope of only a small reward and trusting to his luck, a merchant often journeys so far abroad over such difficult paths, over mountain and dale, desert and sea, his life and goods constantly threatened by robbers and murderers, suffering a lack of food, drink and sleep, and other discomforts, and yet does all this willingly for the sake of such small and uncertain profit.36 A knight in battle risks his possessions, his life and his soul for the sake of a glory that is brief and passing, and yet enduring just a little suffering for God and for eternal blessedness seems such a big thing to us!
The other point I wish to make is that a number of unintelligent people will say that many things I have written in this book and elsewhere are not true.37 I answer such people by quoting from the first book of St Augustine’s Confessions where he says that God has already made everything that lies in the future, one or two thousand years away, for as long as the world exists, and that he will still create today all that lies several thousand years in the past. Is it my fault if someone does not understand that? And elsewhere he says again that those people evidently love themselves too much who wish to blind others in order to hide their own blindness.38 For me it is enough to say that what I say and what I write is true in me and in God. Whoever sees a piece of wood which has been dipped into water, sees it as being bent, although it is actually perfectly straight. This comes from the fact that water is denser than air. Therefore the stick is not bent but is straight both in itself and in the eyes of those who see it in the purity of the air.
St Augustine says: ‘Whoever inwardly perceives, without any concepts, impressions or visual images, what no external sight has mediated, knows what is true. But they who know nothing of this, laugh out loud and mock at me, and I pity them. Meanwhile, such people want to see and know eternal things and divine works and wish to stand in the light of eternity, while their heart still flies about in yesterday and in tomorrow.’39
A pagan master, Seneca, says: ‘We should speak of things that are great and sublime with minds that are great and sublime and with an exalted soul.’40 They will say that such teachings should not be spoken and written down for unlearned people. To this I say that if we do not teach the unlearned, then no one will be learned and no one will be able to speak or write. The unlearned are taught so that they may become learned. If there were nothing new, then there could be nothing that is old. ‘Those who are healthy,’ says the Lord, ‘do not need healing’ (Luke 5:31). The doctor is there in order to heal the sick. But if there is someone who does not understand these words aright, then what can that person do who rightly speaks these right words? St John preaches the holy gospel to all believers as well as to unbelievers, so that they too may be believers, and yet he begins his gospel with the most sublime things that we can say about God in this life; and both his words, and those of our Lord, have been misunderstood.
May the loving and merciful God, who is Truth itself, allow myself and all those who read this book to find and realize the truth which is in us. Amen.