Our Lord says in the Gospel: ‘A certain nobleman went away to a distant country to gain a kingdom for himself, and returned’ (Luke 19:12). Our Lord is teaching us in these words of the nobility of our created nature, how divine the end is to which we can come through grace and also how we should attain it. These words also touch on a great part of Scripture.
We should know first of all that we possess in ourselves two natures, one that is body and the other spirit, as is evident to all. Thus one book states: whoever knows themselves, knows all creatures, for all creatures are either body or spirit.1 Thus the Scriptures say of us that there is in us an outer man and another, inner man (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16). To the outer man there belongs everything which, while it adheres to the soul, is nevertheless enclosed by flesh and mixed up with it and which cooperates with each and every member of the body, such as the eye, the ear, the tongue, the hand and so forth. All this Scripture calls the old, the earthly, the outer, the hostile or the slavish man.
The other person in us is the inner man, which Scripture calls the new, the heavenly, the young, the noble man, or the friend. And this is the one which is meant when our Lord says that ‘a certain nobleman went away to a distant country to gain a kingdom for himself, and returned’.
We should know furthermore that St Jerome says, as do the masters in general, that everyone has from the very beginning of their existence a good spirit, which is an angel, and an evil spirit, which is a devil. The good spirit counsels and ceaselessly impels us to what is good and divine, to what is virtuous, heavenly and eternal, while the evil spirit counsels us and impels us towards what is temporal and passing, to what is immoral, wicked and of the devil. The same evil spirit maintains a constant dialogue with the outer man and, through him, it ceaselessly and secretly waylays the inner man, just as when the serpent beguiled Eve and, through her, beguiled Adam. The inner man is Adam. The man in the soul is the good tree which constantly brings forth good fruit, of which our Lord speaks (cf. Matt. 7:17)2 He is also the field in which God sows his image and likeness and in which he plants the good seed, which is the root of all wisdom, all skills, all virtues and all goodness: the seed of divine nature. And the seed of divine nature is God’s Son, God’s Word (Matt. 13:24).
The outer man is the hostile and wicked man who has sown and cast tares on the field. Of him St Paul says, ‘I find in me that which hinders me and is opposed to what God commands and what God counsels and what God has spoken and still speaks in the highest, in the ground of my soul’ (cf. Rom. 7:23). And elsewhere he complains: ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’ And he says again that our spirit and flesh are constantly at odds with one another. The flesh is immorality and evil, while the spirit counsels love of God, joy, peace and every kind of virtue (cf. Gal. 5:17-23). Whoever follows the spirit and lives according to him and his counsel, shall have eternal life (cf Gal. 6:8). The inner man is the one of whom our Lord speaks when he says: ‘A certain nobleman went away to a distant country to gain a kingdom for himself.’ That is the good tree of which our Lord says that it always produces good fruit, never bad, since it wills the good and inclines to it, to goodness as it exists freely in itself, untouched by this or that. The outer man is the evil tree, from which good fruit can never come.
Even pagan masters, such as Cicero and Seneca, speak of the nobility of the inner man, that is the spirit, and the worthlessness of the outer man, that is the flesh, saying that no rational soul can exist without God and that the seed of God is in us.3 With a good, wise and industrious farmer, that seed would flourish all the more and would grow up towards God, whose seed it is, and the fruit would be akin to God’s nature. The seed of a pear tree grows into a pear tree, that of a nut tree into a nut tree, and the seed of God grows into God. But if the good seed has a foolish and wicked farmer, then weeds will grow, smothering the good seed and pushing it out, so that it cannot reach the light or grow to its full height. But as the great master Origen says: since it is God himself who has engendered this seed, sowing and implanting it, it can never be destroyed or extinguished in itself, even if it is overgrown and hidden. It glows and gleams, shines and burns and always seeks God.4
Augustine says that the first stage of the inner or new man is achieved when we live according to the example of good and holy people, even though we still clutch at chairs and lean against the walls and we still drink at the breast.5
The second stage comes when we no longer consider external images, even those of good men and women, but run and hasten towards the teaching and counsel of God and divine wisdom, turning our back on the world and our face towards God. Then we clamber off our mother’s lap and smile at our heavenly Father.
The third stage is reached when we increasingly withdraw from our mother, removing ourselves more and more from her lap, shedding concern and fear so that even if it were in our power to inflict evil and injustice on all people without difficulty, we would not desire to do so, since through our love we are so bound to God in eager devotion that he finally establishes and leads us in joy and sweetness and blessedness to where all that is unlike God and alien to him is hateful to us.
The fourth stage comes when we grow and become ever more rooted in love and in God, so that we are prepared to take upon ourselves any trial, temptation, unpleasantness and suffering willingly and gladly, eagerly and joyfully.
The fifth stage is when we live altogether at peace in ourselves, quietly resting in the overflowing wealth of the highest and unutterable wisdom.
The sixth stage comes when we are stripped of our own form and are transformed by God’s eternity, becoming wholly oblivious to all transient and temporal life, drawn into and changed into an image of the divine, and have become God’s son. Truly, there is no stage higher than this, and here eternal peace and blessedness reign, for the end of the inner man and the new man is eternal life.
For this inner and noble man, in whom God’s seed has been sown and planted, and for the way in which God’s seed and the image of the divine nature and essence, God’s Son, becomes manifest so that we become aware of him, or is even sometimes hidden from us, for all this the great master Origen has a metaphor when he says that the image of God, God’s Son, is in the ground of the soul like a spring of living water. But when someone throws earth upon it, that is earthly desire, then it becomes choked and blocked so that we no longer see it or know that it is there. And yet it still remains active and living in itself, and if we remove the earth with which it has been covered, then it appears again and we can see it. And he says that this truth is spoken of in the Book of Genesis, where we read that Adam dug springs of living water in his field which wicked people covered over, and that when the earth was later removed, the springs of living water appeared again (Gen. 26:15ff.).6
And there is another metaphor for this, which is that of the sun that shines without end. But whenever a cloud or mist comes between us and the sun, we can no longer see the sunshine. In the same way, when the eye is impaired, diseased or veiled, then the sunshine is no longer visible. And I have sometimes presented another clear analogy: when a master sculpts a figure from wood or stone, he does not place the figure in the wood but cuts away the sections that cover and conceal it. He gives the wood nothing but rather takes from it, cutting away the overlay, scraping off the rust and then polishing what lay hidden beneath. This is the treasure which lay hidden in the field, as Our Lord says in the Gospel (Matt. 13:44).
St Augustine says that when the human soul is turned fully upwards towards eternity, towards God alone, then the image of God shines brightly.7 But when the human soul is turned outwards, even towards the practice of external virtues, this image is completely hidden. This is why women cover their heads, while men have their heads uncovered, according to the teaching of St Paul (cf. 1 Cor. ii:4ff.). Therefore, everything to do with the soul which tends downwards receives from that to which it tends an overlay or headscarf, but that part of the soul which strives upwards is the pure image of God, the birth of God, revealed in a soul laid bare. Speaking of the nobleman, and of how the image of God, God’s Son, the seed of divine nature, is never destroyed within us, that even if it is sometimes covered up, King David says in the Psalter: Even if many kinds of vanity, suffering and adversity befall us, we still remain in the image of God with his image in us. The true light shines in the darkness, though we may not be aware of it (cf. John 1:5).
‘Do not consider that I am brown,’ says the Song of Solomon, ‘I am black but lovely; it is the sun that has burnt me’ (S. of S. 1:5—6). The ‘sun’ is the light of this world and signifies that even what is best and highest in us, having been created and made, obscures and discolours God’s image in us. Solomon says: ‘From silver remove the dross and it emerges wholly purified’ (Pro. 25:4), meaning God’s image, his Son, in the soul. And that is also what our Lord means when he says that ‘a nobleman went away’, for we must take leave of all images and of ourselves, becoming distant from them and unlike them, if we are really to receive and become the Son in the bosom and heart of the Father.
Every kind of mediation is alien to God. God says, ‘I am the first and the last’ (Rev. 22:13). There is neither distinction in the nature of God nor in the Persons of the Trinity according to the unity of their nature. The divine nature is One, and each Person is both One and the same One as God’s nature. The distinction between essence and existence is apprehended as One and is One. Distinction is born, exists and is possessed only where this Oneness no longer obtains. Therefore it is in Oneness that God is found, and they who would find God must themselves become One. ‘A man,’ our Lord says, ‘went away…’.8 In distinction we shall find neither Oneness, essence, God, rest, blessedness or contentment. Be One then, so that you shall find God! And truly, if you are properly One, then you shall remain One in the midst of distinction, and the multifold will be One for you and shall not be able to impede you in any way. The One remains equally One in a thousand times a thousand stones as it does in four stones, and a thousand times a thousand is just as certainly a simple number as four is a number.
A pagan master says that the One is born from the all-highest God.9 It is his nature to be one with the One. Whoever seeks it at a point beneath God, deceives themselves. And, fourthly, the same master says that this One has a special affinity with virgins or maids, as St Paul says: ‘I have given you in marriage, pure virgins, to the One’ (cf. 2 Cor. 11:2). This is exactly how we should be, for our Lord says: ‘A man went away…’.10
One meaning of the Latin for ‘man’ or ‘human being’ in the true sense of the word is that person who entirely submits to God, together with all that they are and possess, turning their face up to God and not to their own possessions which they know to be behind, beneath and beside them. This is true and perfect humility; its name comes from the earth. But I do not wish to speak further of this now. When we say ‘man’, then this word also signifies that which is above nature, above time and above everything which leans towards time or itself smacks of time, and the same is true with respect to space and corporality. Moreover, this ‘man’ has in a certain sense nothing in common with anything else, that is, he is neither formed nor made like this or that, and knows nothing of ‘nothingness’ so that nowhere can we find or ascertain any nothingness in him, and nothingness has been so removed from him that we can find only pure life, essence, truth and goodness in him. Whoever is made like this, is a ‘nobleman’ indeed, no more and no less.
But there is another explanation and elucidation of what our Lord means by ‘nobleman’. We should realize that those who know God in his bare essence also know all creatures; for knowledge is a light of the soul, and all people have a natural desire for knowledge since even the knowledge of evil things is good. Now the masters say: when we know a creature in its own essence, then this is an ‘evening knowledge’ in which we see creatures in images of multiplicity and distinction. But when we know creatures in God, then that is called a ‘morning knowledge’, and in this way we see creatures without any distinctions, stripped of images and likeness in the Oneness which God himself is.11 This too is the ‘nobleman’ of whom our Lord says: ‘A nobleman went away’. He is noble because he is One, knowing God and creature in Oneness.
I want to turn now to yet another meaning of the term ‘nobleman’. I say that when the self, the soul, the spirit sees God, then it knows itself also as knowing subject: that is, it knows that it sees and knows God. Now it has been the opinion of some, and indeed seems credible, that the seed and flower of blessedness reside in that knowledge in which the spirit knows that it knows God, for if I possessed all bliss and had no knowledge of it, then what good would it do me and what kind of bliss would it be?12 But I say that this is definitely not the case. Even if it is true that the soul would not be blessed without this, it does not follow that this is blessedness, for blessedness consists primarily in the fact that the soul sees God in himself. It is in this that the soul receives the whole of her nature and life and all that she is from the ground of God, knowing nothing of knowledge nor of love nor of anything else at all. Only in God’s essence does she become wholly still. There she knows nothing but essence and God. But when she knows and understands that she sees, knows and loves God, then this both results from and is a reflex back to the former, according to the natural order of things.13 After all, no one knows themselves to be white except those who are white. Therefore, whoever knows themselves to be white builds and supports themselves on being white, deriving their knowledge not directly and unreflectingly from the colour in itself but rather from that which is white in the present, not deriving their knowledge from the colour alone in itself but rather from coloured or white objects, thus knowing themselves to be white. The colour white is something far less substantial and far more superficial than being white. A wall and the foundations upon which a wall stands are two different things.14
The masters say that the power through which the eye sees is quite different from that through which it knows that it sees. The former, the seeing, is something which it takes from the colour, rather than from that which is coloured. Thus it is of no consequence whether that which is coloured is a stone or a piece of wood, a person or an angel: the essential thing is only that it has colour.
In the same way I say the nobleman derives his whole essence, life and blessedness solely from God, with God and in God, and not from knowing, seeing or loving God or anything of that kind. Therefore our Lord says truthfully that eternal life consists in this, in knowing God as the one true God (John 17:3) and not in knowing that we know God. For how should we know ourselves to know God when we do not even know ourselves? Indeed, it is not ourselves and other things that we know, but rather God alone, if we are blessed in the root and ground of blessedness. But when the soul knows that she knows God, then she has knowledge simultaneously of God and of itself.
But now there is one power, as I have said, through which we see and another through which we know and understand the fact that we see. It is true that here below, in this life, that power by which we know and understand that we see is nobler and better than that power by which we see, since nature begins her work at the weakest point while God begins his at the point of perfection. Nature makes a man or woman from a child and a chicken from an egg, while God makes the man or woman before the child and the chicken before the egg. Nature first makes the wood warm and then hot, and only then does she generate fire, while God first gives all creatures being and only later, within time and yet timelessly and individually, he gives them all that belongs to being. Similarly, God bestows on us the Holy Spirit before he gives us the gifts of the Spirit.
Thus I say that although there cannot be blessedness without us consciously knowing that we see and know God, God forbid that our blessedness should be founded on this. If someone else is happy with this, then all well and good, but I do not want it. The heat of fire and the essence of fire are quite different from each other and are astonishingly far apart by nature, although they exist in close proximity within time and space. Seeing God and seeing ourselves are wholly separate from each other and distinct.
Therefore our Lord rightly says that ‘A certain nobleman went away to a distant country to gain a kingdom for himself, and returned’. For we must be One in ourselves and must seek it in ourselves and in Oneness and must receive it in Oneness, which means to say that we must first simply look upon God and that when we know that we know and see God, then this is our ‘return’.
All that has been stated here was prophesied by Ezekiel when he said that ‘a mighty eagle with great wings, long-pinioned, rich with many-coloured plumage, came to the pure mountain and, taking the pith or marrow of the highest tree, plucked off its crown of leaves and brought it down’ (Ezek. 17:3–4). What our Lord calls a nobleman, the prophet calls a great eagle. Now what is nobler than that which is born, on the one hand, from all that is highest and best in the creature and, on the other, from the most inward ground of divine nature and the divine desert? In the prophet Hosea our Lord says: ‘I will lead the noble soul into a wilderness and there I will speak into her heart’ (Hos. 2:14). One with One, one from One, one in One and one in One in all eternity. Amen.