The Sermons of St. Antony
Translated by Paul Spilsbury
(The fifth Gospel, for the second Sunday of Lent: Jesus took Peter.)
(First, a sermon for preachers: Come up to me upon the mount.)
1. Jesus took Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain, etc. [Mt 17.1]
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
Come up to me into the mount, and be there. And I will give thee two tables, the law and the commandments, which I have written, that thou mayst teach the children of Israel. [Ex 14.12]
Moses (‘Drawn from the waters’ [cf. Ex 2.10]) represents the preacher who irrigates the minds of the faithful with the water of doctrine, springing up to eternal life [cf. Jn 4.14]. The Lord says to him, Come up to me into the mount. ‘The mount’, because of its height, represents the excellence of a holy life. The preacher must leave behind the valley of temporal things, and climb up it by the ladder of divine love. There he will find the Lord, for the Lord is found in the excellence of a holy life. As Genesis says:
On the mountain the Lord will see, [Gen 22.14]
that is, in the excellence of a holy life, the Lord makes him see and understand what he owes to God, and what to his neighbour.
I will give thee two tables. The two tables stand for the knowledge of the two Testaments, which alone contain and impart knowledge. This is the only true knowledge, which teaches us to love God, despise the world and subdue the flesh. These are the things the preacher must teach to the children of Israel, and on them depend all the Law and the prophets [cf. Mt 22.40]. But where can such precious knowledge be found? Truly, ‘on the mount’. Come up to me into the mount, and be there, for there is the change of the right hand of the Most High [Ps 76.11], the Transfiguration of the Lord, the contemplation of true joy. So today’s Gospel says, Jesus took Peter and James and John, etc.
2. In this Gospel there are five points worthy of special attention:
The ascent of Jesus Christ with the three Apostles upon the mountain;
His Transfiguration;
The appearance of Moses and Elijah;
The bright cloud overshadowing them; and
The proclamation by the Father’s voice, This is my beloved Son.
As God may inspire us, let us see what is the moral significance of these five, to the honour of God and the benefit of your souls.
(A sermon for penitents or religious: When thou shalt come to the oak of Thabor.)
3. Let us say, then: Jesus took Peter and James and John.
These three Apostles, the special companions of Jesus Christ, may be understood as three virtues of our soul, without which no-one can climb the mountain of light, the excellence of holy conversation. Peter is the one who acknowledged, James (or Jacob) is ‘the supplanter’, John is ‘the grace of the Lord’. Jesus took Peter, and you too must take Peter, you who believe in Jesus and hope for salvation from Jesus. Peter is the acknowledgement of your sins, which consist in these three things: pride in the heart, lust in the flesh and avarice in the world. Take James, too. He is the supplanting of these vices, so that you may tread the pride of your spirit under the foot of reason; so that you may mortify the lust of your flesh, and repress the vanity of the deceitful world. And take John, the grace of the Lord, which stands at the door and knocks [cf. Apoc 3.20], so that it may enlighten you to recognise the evil things you have done, and help you in the good things you have begun to do.
These are the three men of whom Samuel told Saul, in the first book of Kings:
When thou shalt come to the oak of Thabor, there shall meet thee three men going up to God to Bethel, one carrying three kids, and another three loaves of bread, and another carrying a bottle of wine. [1Kg(Sm) 10.3]
The oak of Thabor and Mount Thabor stand for the excellence of a holy life, which may well be called ‘an oak’, ‘a mount’, or ‘Thabor’. An oak, because it is constant and unbending through perseverance to the end; a mount, because it is high and lifted up by the contemplation of God; and Thabor (‘the coming light’) by the enlightening of good example. These three things are required in the excellence of a holy life: that it be constant in itself, contemplative towards God, and enlightening to our neighbour. When you come to or prepare to climb the oak or mount of Thabor, these three men going up to God will meet you. These three are Peter who recognises, James who supplants and John the grace of God. Peter bears three kids, James three loaves, and John a bottle of wine.
‘Peter’ is he who recognises himself as a sinner, and he carries three kids. The goat represents the stink of sin, and the three goats are the three kinds of sin which in general we commit: pride in the heart, unruliness in the flesh and avarice in the world. Whoever wants to climb the mountain of light must carry these three kids. That is to say, he must recognise himself as a sinner in these three ways.
‘James’ is he who uproots the vices of the flesh, and he carries three loaves of bread. Bread represents the sweet savour of the mind, consisting in humility of heart, chastity of body and love of poverty. No-one can have this savour unless he has first uprooted the vices. He carries three loaves of bread, the threefold savour of the mind which represses pride of heart, restrains the unruliness of the flesh and drives away the avarice of the world.
‘John’ is he who (with God’s grace going before him and following) keeps all these faithfully and perseveringly. He carries a bottle of wine, and the wine in the bottle is the grace of the Holy Spirit in a good will. Jesus took Peter and James and John: do you also take these three men, and climb mount Thabor.
(A sermon on the Nativity of the Lord or for a feast of blessed Mary: Jacob saw in his sleep a ladder.)
4. But, believe me, the climb is hard because the mountain is high. Do you want to climb it with ease? Then you must use the ladder of which we read and sing in the Office reading for this Sunday:
Jacob saw in his sleep a ladder lifted up and standing upon the earth, and the top thereof touching heaven; the angels also of God ascending and descending by it, and the Lord leaning upon the ladder. [Gen 28.12-13]
Notice each word, and how it is concordant with the Gospel. ‘He saw’- that is the knowledge of sin, of which St Bernard1 says, "Let not God give me any other vision to see, save to know my sins." ‘Jacob’ (which is the same as James) is the supplanting of the flesh. Of him, Esau said,
He hath supplanted me this second time. [Gen 27.36]
‘In sleep’ means the grace of God, which brings the sleep of quiet and peace. Sleep is described like this by the Philosopher2 : "Sleep is the resting of an animal’s powers, with a strengthening of its natural abilities.2 When someone sleeps the sleep of grace, what is carnal in him rests from its depravity, and he attends to what is spiritual. So it says in Genesis:
When the sun was setting, a deep sleep fell upon Abraham,
and a great horror seized upon him. [Gen 15.12]
By the sun, we understand carnal pleasure, which when it lies down allows sleep (the ecstasy of contemplation) to fall upon us, and a great horror seizes us regarding our past sins and the pains of hell. Would you hear of the increase of what is spiritual, and the remission of what is carnal? I sleep, says the Bride in the Canticles, but my heart keeps watch in the contemplation of heavenly things. So it is well said that Jacob saw in his sleep a ladder. By it you can climb Mount Thabor.
5. This ladder has two sides and six rungs by which to climb. The ladder represents Jesus Christ, who two sides are his divine and his human nature. The six rungs are his humility, poverty, wisdom, mercy, patience and obedience.
He was humble when he took our nature and looked upon the humility of his handmaid.
He was poor in his birth, when the poor virgin who bore the very Son of God had no-where to lie down.
He was wise in his preaching (for he began to do and to teach [Acts 1.1]).
He was merciful in his kindly treatment of sinners (I came not to call the just, but sinners to repentance [Mt 9.13]).
He was patient in the face of scourges, blows, spitting (wherefore he says by Isaiah, I have set my face like a flint. [Is 50.7]) When a stone is struck, it does not strike back or murmur against whoever breaks it. So Christ,
when he was reviled, did not revile; when he suffered, he threatened not. [1Pt 2.23]
And finally,
he was made obedient even to death, death on a cross. [Phil 2.8]
This ladder stands upon the earth, as he stood in his preaching and working of miracles. It touches heaven because (as St Luke says) He spent the night in the prayer of the Lord [Lk 6.12].
This ladder has been set up, so why do you not climb it? Why do you crawl upon the earth, on hands and knees? Climb! Jacob saw angels going up and down by the ladder. Go up, you angels, you prelates of the Church and you faithful of Jesus Christ! Go up, I say, to contemplate how sweet the Lord is [Ps 33.9]. Go down to help and counsel, for your neighbour needs these. Why climb by any other way, when you can go up by the ladder? On either side of where you want to climb, there is a sheer precipice. O foolish and slow of heart [Lk 24.25]- I will not say, ‘to believe’, because you do believe, as even the demons believe, [Jas 2.19]- but how hard and slow you are to action! Do you think you can climb Mount Thabor by some other way to reach the rest which is light and the glory of heavenly bliss; some way other than by the ladder of humility, poverty and the Lord’s Passion? Indeed you can not! The Lord’s word is:
He who would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow me. [Mt 16.24]
And Jeremiah says:
Thou shalt call me Father and shalt not cease to walk after me. [Jer 3.19]
St Augustine3 tells us that "The doctor sips the bitter potion first, so that the sick man may not be afraid to drink it." St Gregory4 says that "By a bitter cup to drink we come to the joy of health;" and, "To save your life you would endure fire and sword."5 Go up, then, and do not be afraid, because the Lord is leaning upon the ladder, ready to receive those climbing it. In this way, then, Jesus took Peter and James and John, and went up onto a high mountain.
(A sermon for the faithful of the Church: Moses and Aaron, and on the property of the sapphire.)
6. There follows, secondly: And he was transfigured before them [Mt 17.2].
Press yourself like soft wax against this shape, that you may receive the shape of Jesus Christ, whose
face did shine as the sun; and his garments became white as snow. [ibid]
There are four things to notice in this text: his face, the sun, his garments and the snow. Let us see the moral significance of each of them.
Note that in the front of the head (which in a human being we call the face) there are three senses, arranged and disposed in a most orderly manner: sight, smell and taste, with smell as it were a kind of balance between sight and taste. In a similar way there are three spiritual senses in the face of our soul, arranged in due order by the wisdom of the supreme maker: the sight of faith, the smell of discernment and the taste of contemplation.
7. Of the sight which is faith, we read in Exodus that
Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abiu, and seventy of the ancients of Israel went up; and the saw the God of Israel; and under his feet as it were a work of sapphire stone, and as the heaven when clear. [Ex 24.9-10]
This text describes all those who see, and what they should see (that is, believe), with the eye of faith. Moses (‘drawn from the waters’) represents all religious, who ought to be drenched with the water of tears. To this end they have been taken out of the river of Egypt, that they may ‘sow in tears’ in this fearful desert, and afterwards ‘reap in exultation’ in the promised land. Aaron the high priest (‘mountainous’) represents all the greater prelates of the Church, who are established upon the mountain of dignity. Nadab (‘spontaneous’) stands for all who are subject to authority, and who should obey freely and not by coercion. Abiu (‘their father’) stands for all who are married according to the rites of the Church, to become parents of children. The seventy elders of Israel are all the baptized, who in Baptism received the Spirit of sevenfold grace.
All these see and believe (and should see and believe) the God of Israel. Under his feet as it were a work of sapphire stone indicates what they should believe. The words ‘the God of Israel’ express the divinity, while "under his feet" denotes the humanity of Jesus Christ, whom we should believe to be true God and true man. Moses, in Deuteronomy, says of these feet:
They that approach to his feet shall receive of his doctrine. [Dt 33.3]
So, too, it is said that Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his words [cf. Lk 10.39]. ‘Under the Lord’s feet’ (that is, after the Incarnation of Jesus Christ) there appeared the work of the Lord, like a sapphire stone and like the clear sky. Sapphire and the sky are the same colour.
Note that the sapphire has four properties: it has the appearance of a star; it destroys the plague; it resembles a clear sky; and it restrains blood. In this way, the sapphire resembles Holy Church, which began from the Incarnation of Christ, and which will last until the end of the world. She is divided into four orders: Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors and Virgins, which we understand properly by analogy with the properties of the sapphire.
The sapphire has the appearance of a star, and so represents the apostles who first showed forth the morning-star of faith to those sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death [cf. Lk 1.79]. By its touch, the sapphire destroys the plague (which is a deadly sickness), and so it represents the martyrs who, by their martyrdom, destroyed the plague of idolatry. Having the same colour as the sky, the sapphire stands for confessors who, reckoning all temporal things to be rubbish, have hung themselves by the thread of divine love in contemplation of heavenly bliss. They say with the Apostle, Our conversation is in heaven [Phil 3.20]. The sapphire also restrains the blood, and so represents virgins who, for love of the heavenly Bridegroom, totally restrain in themselves the blood of carnal lust. This, then, is the wonderful work of the sapphire stone which appeared under the Lord’s feet. This makes clear to you what your soul should see, and what it should believe with the eyes of faith.
(A sermon on discretion: Thy nose is as the tower of Libanus, etc.)
8. In the Canticle of Love, the sense of smell (good judgement, discretion) is alluded to in the words:
Thy nose is as the tower of Libanus that looketh towards Damascus. [Cant 7.4]
Again, there are four words to note especially in this verse: nose, tower, Libanus and Damascus. The nose represents discretion, the tower humility, Libanus (Lebanon, ‘whitening’) chastity and Damascus (‘blood-drinking’) the malice of the devil. The ‘nose’ of the soul is the virtue of discretion, which sniffs out vice and virtue as the nose distinguishes nice and nasty smells. It also scents from a distance the approaching temptations of the devil. So Job says (referring to the just man):
He smelleth the battle afar off, the encouraging of the captains and the shouting of the army. [Job 39.25]
The faithful soul senses with her ‘nose’ (the virtue of discretion) the battle of the flesh, the encouraging of the captains (the misleading suggestions of vain reasoning, which under the guise of holiness may lead the soul to fall into the pit of iniquity), and the shouting of the army, the temptations of the demons who roar like beasts. (The word translated as ‘shouting’ actually implies a bestial noise.)
The nose of the Bride must be like the Tower of Libanus. The virtue of discretion is to be found most of all in humility of heart and chastity of body. Humility is well-called ‘the tower of chastity’, because like a tower which defends a castle, humility of heart defends the chastity of the body against the spears of fornication. If the Bride’s ‘nose’ is like that, she can look boldly towards ‘Damascus’ (the devil) who desires to drink the blood of our souls. She sees very clearly his malice and subtlety.
(A sermon on contemplation: Taste and see, and on the property of the sun.)
9. Regarding the ‘taste’ of contemplation, the Prophet says;
Taste and see how sweet the Lord is. [Ps 33.9]
‘Taste’: that is to say, press within your mind’s throat, and by this pressure recognise, the blessedness of that heavenly Jerusalem, the glorification of holy souls, the ineffable glory of the angelic dignity and the everlasting sweetness of the Trinity and Unity. Taste, too, how great it will be to share the glory of the choirs of angels, to praise God with untiring voice, to behold the presence of the face of God, to gaze upon the manna of the divinity held in the urn of his humanity. If you taste these things, truly you will see how sweet the Lord is. Blessed is that soul whose face is characterised and equipped with such senses!
Note, too, how the sense of smell is situated like a balance between sight (faith) and taste (contemplation). In faith, discernment is necessary lest we try to ‘approach and see the burning bush’ [Ex 3.3], or lest we try to undo the latchet of the shoe [Lk 3.10]; in other words, lest we try to fathom the secret of the Lord’s Incarnation. Just believe; that is enough. It is not within your power to undo the fastening. Solomon says:
He that is a searcher of Majesty shall be overwhelmed by glory. [Prov 25.27]
So let us firmly believe, and simply confess.
In contemplation, discernment is also necessary so that we do not try to be more wise than it behoveth to be wise [cf. Rom 12.3]. To this end, Solomon says in Proverbs:
My son, thou hast found honey [the sweetness of contemplation];
eat what is sufficient for thee, lest being glutted therewith thou vomit it up. [Prov 25.16]
He ‘vomits up honey’ who, not being content with the grace that has been freely given him, wants to pin down the sweetness of contemplation by human reason. He does not pay attention to what Genesis says, that when Benjamin was born, Rachel died [cf. Gen 35.17,19]. Benjamin represents the grace of contemplation, Rachel stands for human reason. When Benjamin is born, Rachel dies, because when the mind is lifted above itself in contemplation and beholds something by the light of the divinity, all human reason fails. This failure of reason is what is meant by the ‘death of Rachel’. As someone6 has said, "Nobody can reach by human reason the place to which Paul was carried up." So the ‘smell’ of discernment should be like a balance between the ‘sight’ of faith and the ‘taste’ of contemplation; then the face of our soul will shine like the sun.
(A sermon on the mercy of God towards converted sinners: If your sins be as scarlet.)
10. Note also these three qualities in the sun: brightness, whiteness and heat. These three properties correspond very well with the aforementioned senses of the soul. The brightness of the sun corresponds to the spiritual sense of sight which is faith, which beholds and believes things unseen, in the brightness of its own light. Whiteness, that is to say cleanness and purity, corresponds to the spiritual sense of smell, discernment. This is appropriate, for just as we hold our nose and turn away from a bad smell, so by the virtue of discernment we should turn away from the uncleanness of sin. The sun’s heat corresponds to the spiritual taste, contemplation, in which there is truly the heat of love. That is why St Bernard7 says: "It is impossible that the supreme Good be seen and not loved." God himself is love.
Pay attention then, beloved, and see how useful and salutary it is to take these three companions and go up onto the mountain of light. There, truly, is the transfiguration from the form of this world, which is passing away [cf. 1Cor 7.31] into the form of God which remains for ever and ever. Of this it is said, His face shone like the sun. Let the face of our souls too shine like the sun, so that what we see by faith we may show forth by our works; so that by the virtue of discernment we may pursue outwardly, in purity of action, the good which we perceive inwardly; and so that what we taste in the contemplation of God we may radiate in the warmth of our love for our neighbour. That is how our face will shine like the sun.
11. There follows:
His raiment was made white as snow, as no fuller on earth could make it. [Mk 9.2]
The raiment of our soul is our body and its members. These must be white, according to the words of Solomon:
At all times let thy garments be white. [Eccles 9.8]
What sort of whiteness? The whiteness of snow. Through Isaiah, the Lord promises to sinners who are converted:
If your sins be as scarlet, they shall be made as white as snow. [Is 1.18]
Consider ‘scarlet’ and ‘snow’: scarlet is material dyed the colour of blood and fire, snow is cold and white. Fire denotes the heat of sin, and blood its uncleanness. The cold of snow stands for the grace of the Holy Spirit, and its whiteness for cleanness of mind. So when the Lord says, If your sins be as scarlet, he is saying that if you are converted he will pour into you the grace of the Holy Spirit to put out the fire of sin and wash away its uncleanness. So he says by Ezekiel:
I will pour upon you clean water and you shall be cleansed from all your filthiness. [Ezek 36.25]
Our clothes (our bodily members) should be ‘white as snow’. The coolness of the snow (compunction of heart) should extinguish the burning of sin, and the whiteness of holy conversation should wash away the uncleanness of sin.
Another way of looking at it is this: the clothes of the soul are the virtues. Clothed with these, our soul will appear glorious in the sight of God. Today’s Scripture reading refers to these clothes, saying that
Rebecca put on Jacob very good garments, which she had at home with her. [Gen 27.15]
Rebecca (the Wisdom of God the Father) clothes Jacob (the just man) with good garments (the virtues, woven and made by the hand of Wisdom herself), which she has with her in the treasury of her glory. She really does have them, because God is Lord and owner of all. She really does have them, because God gives to all whom he will, when and how he will. These garments she puts on Jacob, the just man. These garments are white in their effect, because they make a man white not (I would say) just as snow, but even whiter than snow. Garments like these no ‘fuller’- no preacher, that is- can ever make on earth by the cleansing work of preaching.
(A sermon for a prelate: And there appeared Moses and Elias.)
12. There follows, thirdly:
And there appeared to them Moses and Elias talking with him. [Mt 17.3]
To the just man- thus transfigured, thus illuminated and thus clothed- there appear Moses and Elijah.
Moses was a man exceeding meek above all men that dwelt upon earth. [Num 12.3]
His eye was not dim, neither were his teeth moved. [Dt 34.7]
Moses represents the meekness of patience and mercy. Like an obedient child, or like an animal which is responsive to its master’s hand, he was responsive to the hand of divine grace. His eye- that is, his reason- was not dimmed by the grime of hatred, nor was it obscured by the cloud of rancour. His teeth were not moved to murmur against anyone, nor to bite them by detraction.
Elijah (who, as the third book of Kings tells, slew the prophets of Baal at the Brook Kishon) stands for the zeal of justice. Baal means ‘master’ or ‘devourer’, and Kishon means ‘their hardness’. He who is truly aglow with zeal for justice slays the prophets and servants of pride (which always seeks to be master) and of greed and lust (which devour all things) with the sword of preaching, denunciation and excommunication: so that being dead to vice, they may live to God [cf. Gal 2.19]. He does this at the Brook Kishon, the abounding hardness of their hearts whereby they store up for themselves wrath in the day of wrath, when the just judgement of God shall be revealed [cf. Rom 2.5].
The Lord says of this hardness, to Ezekiel:
Those to whom I send thee are children of a hard neck and of an obstinate heart; for all the house of Israel are of a hard forehead and a stiff neck. [Ezek 2.4; 3.7]
The person with a ‘hard forehead’ is someone who, when rebuked, not only despises the correction but is not even ashamed of the sin. Jeremiah rebukes him, saying:
Thou hast a harlot’s forehead, thou wouldst not blush. [Jer 3.3]
So Moses and Elijah, the meekness of mercy and zeal for justice, should appear with the just man when he is transfigured upon the mount of holy conversation, so that like the Samaritan he may pour wine and oil upon the wounds of the man who has been attacked; so that the sharpness of wine may give bite to the soothing oil, and the soothing oil may temper the sharpness of the wine.
For this reason it is said in Matthew that the angel who appeared at the Resurrection of Christ had a countenance like lightning, and raiment like snow [cf. Mt 28.3]. The lightning denotes the severity of judgement, the whiteness of snow the gentleness of mercy. The angel (that is, the prelate) should have a countenance like lightning, so that at his holy conversation the women (here standing for weak and feeble minds) may be terrified at his gaze. So Esther was, as we are told in that Book:
When King Assuerus had lifted up his countenance, and with burning eyes had shown the wrath of his heart, the queen sunk down. And her colour turned pale: and she rested her weary head upon her handmaid. [Est 15.10]
But the prelate, like Assuerus, should stretch out the golden sceptre of kindness, and put on raiment like snow, so that those whom fatherly strictness has corrected should be comforted by a mother’s kindness. There is a saying, "When you feel the chastisement of your father, take refuge on the breast of your mother."
The prelate should be like the pelican, who is reputed to slay his children, but then to draw blood from his own body and pour it upon them to revive them. The prelate, though he corrects his children, those subject to him, with the scourge of discipline; and even ‘slays’ them with the sword of harsh rebuke: should recall them to penitence, the life of the soul, by his own blood, the compassion of his heart and the shedding of tears, which Augustine8 calls "the blood of the soul".
(A sermon for the dedication of a church or on the feast of a martyr or confessor: After all things were perfected.)
13. If these three things come to pass in you, namely: the ascent of the mountain, the transfiguration, and the appearance of Moses and Elijah, then the fourth will follow:
Behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them.
There is a similar incident towards the end of Exodus, where it says:
After all things were perfected, the cloud covered the tabernacle of the testimony, and the glory of the Lord filled it. [Ex 40.31-2]
There were four things in the tabernacle of testimony: the seven-branched candlestick, the table of proposition, the ark of the covenant and the golden altar [cf. Ex 25]. The "tabernacle" is the just man. The tent reminds us that man’s life is a warfare on earth [Job 7.1], and armed soldiers are accustomed to attack the enemy from their camp. The just man, prepared for battle, both attacks and defends. It has been said,9 "It is a skilful adversary that makes you a skilful fighter." This tent is ‘of testimony’, referring to the witness that the just man has not only ‘from those outside’ [cf. 1Tim 3.7], whose witness is not always reliable, but from within himself, the glory of a good conscience [cf. 2Cor 1.12] and not the tongue of someone else.
In this tent of witness, the ‘gold candlestick of beaten work’, with its seven lamps, is the compunction of the just man’s golden heart, beaten with many sighs as by so many mallets. The seven lamps of this candlestick are the three kids, three loaves of bread, and the bottle of wine which the three companions mentioned earlier carry. In the just man’s tabernacle is the ‘table of proposition’, by which we understand the excellence of holy life, upon which the loaves of proposition should be placed, the refreshment of preaching to be set before everyone. (That is why the Apostle says, I am a debtor to the Greek and to the barbarian [Rom 1.4]. There, too, is the ‘ark of the covenant’, containing the manna and the rod. The ark, the mind of the just man, should contain the manna of meekness (so that he may be a Moses) and the rod of correction (so that he may be an Elijah). There is also the golden altar, meaning the firm intention of persevering to the end. On this altar, the incense of devout compunction is offered daily, together with the sweet-smelling perfume of prayer.
14. So the words are appropriate, After all things were perfected, the cloud covered the tabernacle of the testimony. The cloud which covers such a tabernacle, in which all things belonging to perfection are made perfect, so that the glory of the Lord fills it, is the cloud spoken of in today’s Gospel,
And a bright cloud overshadowed them.
The grace of God overshadows the just man who is transfigured on the mountain of light, the mountain of holy conversation. It hides him from the heat of worldly prosperity, from the rain of carnal desire, and from the storm of demonic persecution. Then he is made capable of hearing the whisper of a gentle breeze [cf 3Kg 19.22], the sweet voice of God the Father, saying:
This is my most dear Son, hear him. [Mt 17.5]
He is truly worthy of being called a son of God, if he takes the three companions who have been mentioned, goes up the mountain, changes himself from the form of this world to the form of God, has Moses and Elijah as companions, and is overshadowed by the bright cloud.
We ask you then, Lord Jesus, to make us climb from this vale of tears to the mountain of a holy life; so that we may have the form of your Passion printed upon us, and be strengthened with the meekness of mercy and with zeal for justice. Then, in the day of judgement, may we be found fit to be overshadowed by the bright cloud; and hear the voice of joy, gladness and exultation, the voice which says:
Come, ye blessed of my Father (who blessed you on Mount Tabor), receive the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world.
May he, to whom all honour, glory, praise, dominion, majesty and eternity is due, deign to bring us to that kingdom. And let every spirit say: Amen.
1 BERNARD, reference unknown
2 ARISTOTLE, De somno et vigilia, 3
3 AUGUSTINE, Ennar. in Ps. 98.3; PL 37.1259
4 cf. GREGORY, Moralium XXXI, 33, 70; PL 76.612
5 OVID, Remedia amoris, 229
6 cf. RICHARD OF ST VICTOR, Beniamin minor 73-74; PL 196.52-53
7 BERNARD (=GUIGO), Epistola ad fratres II,3,18; PL 184-350
8 cf. AUGUSTINE, Epistola 262.11; PL 33.1081
9 OVID, Epist. ex Pont. II,3,53
(The Gospel for the same Sunday: Jesus went out. )
(First, a sermon for preachers: Israel went out.)
1. And Jesus went from there and retired into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And, behold, a woman of Canaan, who came out of those coasts, crying out, said to him: Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David, etc. [Mt 15.21-22]
We are told in the first book of Kings that:
Israel went out to war against the Philistines, and camped by the Stone of Help. [1Kg(Sam) 4.1]
Israel means ‘the seed of God’, and signifies the preacher (or his preaching) of which Isaiah says:
Except the Lord of Hosts had left us seed (i.e. preaching), we had been as Sodom; and we should have been like to Gomorrha. [Is 1.9]
He should go out to war against the Philistines (Philistine means ‘falling through drink’), the demons who, being drunk with pride, fell from heaven. He goes out to battle against them when, by his preaching, he strives to rescue the sinner from their hands; but this he can only do if he camps by the Stone of Help.
The ‘Stone of Help’ is Christ, who is referred to in this Sunday’s Office reading:
Jacob took a stone, and putting it under his head, slept. [Gen 28.11]
In this way, the preacher should rest his head (his mind) upon Jesus Christ, the Stone of Help; so that he may rest upon him, and in and through him overcome the demons. This is the meaning of the words, ‘encamped by the Stone of Help’, because he sets the camp of his conversation, and pitches the tents of his preaching, beside Jesus Christ who is his help in time of trouble, and he trusts in him, and attributes everything to him.
So, in the name of Jesus Christ, I will go out against the Philistine (the demon), that I may in this preaching avail to free from his hand the sinner made captive by sin; and I trust entirely in his grace, which goes forth for the salvation of his people [cf. Hab 3.14]. As the present Gospel says, Jesus went out, and retired into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon.
2. In summary, this Gospel contains three main points: the going out of Jesus Christ; the petition of the Canaanite woman for her daughter, afflicted by the demon; and the freeing of her daughter. We shall explore the moral significance of these three.
(A sermon on contempt of the world: Jacob, being departed from Bersabee.)
3. Jesus went out, says Matthew. The going-out of Jesus signifies the way the penitent man goes out from the vanity of the world, as we hear in the Office reading for this Sunday:
Jacob, being departed from Bersabee, went on to Haran. [Gen 28.10]
Note the concord between the two Testaments: Jesus went from there and retired to the coasts of Tyre and Sidon (Matthew); and Jacob, being departed from Bersabee, went on to Haran (Moses, in Genesis).
Jacob means ‘supplanter’, signifying the converted sinner who treads the sensuality of the flesh beneath the foot of reason. He goes out from Bersabee (meaning ‘the seventh well’), which stands for the insatiable desire of the world, which is the root of all evils [cf. 1Tim 6.10]. John refers to the well in his Gospel, where the Samaritan woman says to Jesus:
Sir, thou hast nothing wherein to draw, and the well is deep. [Jn 4.11]
Jesus replied:
Whosoever drinketh of this well shall thirst again. [Jn 4.13]
O Samaritan woman, how truly do you say that the well is deep! The desire of the world is deep indeed- it is bottomless! That is why everyone who drinks the water of this well, transitory riches and delights, will thirst again. ‘Again’, because as Solomon says in Proverbs:
The horse-leech has two daughters that say, Bring, bring. [Prov 30.15]
The ‘horse-leech’ is the devil, who thirsts for our soul’s blood, and desires to suck it. His ‘two daughters’ are riches and pleasures, which always say, Bring, bring.. and never say, It is enough.
The Apocalypse says of this same well (or pit):
The smoke of the pit arose, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened.. And from the smoke of the pit there came out locusts upon the earth. [Apoc 9.2-3]
The smoke which blinds the eyes of reason goes up from the pit of worldly desire; the great furnace of Babylon. Sun and air are darkened by this smoke. ‘Sun and air’ stand for religious, who are like the sun because they should be pure, warm and full of light; and like the air because they should be contemplatives, ‘airy’.
But, forced out by sin, smoke has gone forth from the pit of cupidity and blackened them all. As Jeremiah complains in Lamentations:
How is the gold become dim, the finest colour is changed. [Lam 4.1]
Sun and gold, air and the finest colour- these have the same meaning, so that the splendour of both the sun and of gold is made dim, and the air and the finest colour is changed. The words "dimmed" and "changed" are appropriate, for the smoke of cupidity dims the splendour of religious life, and covers the fine colour of heavenly contemplation with soot. Contemplation infuses the face of the soul with fine colours, white and red: white for the Lord’s Incarnation, red for his Passion; ivory-white for chastity, burning red for the ardent desire for the heavenly bridegroom.
4. Alas and alas! How changed is this fine colour today, blackened by the smoke of cupidity! As it is further written:
From the smoke of the pit came out locusts upon the earth.
Locusts, because of their ability to jump, represent all religious who (by putting together the two feet of poverty and obedience) ought to leap upwards to the heights of eternal life. But, for shame! They jump backwards, going out from the smoke of the pit upon the earth. As Exodus says, they cover the face of the earth [Ex 10.5]. Nowadays there is not a market-place, not a court- whether secular or ecclesiastical- where you will not find monks and religious. They buy, and sell again.
"They build up and pull down, squaring the circle."1
In their law-suits they gather parties, appear before judges, hire lawyers and barristers, and call witnesses. With these, they are prepared to swear oaths for the sake of transitory things, frivolous and vain. Tell me, you fatuous religious, was it in the prophets, or in the Church’s Gospels, or in St Paul’s epistles, or in the Rules of St Benedict or St Augustine, that you found these lawsuits, these wanderings, these disputes about transitory and perishable things, these shouts and protests? Did not, rather, the Lord say to Apostles, monks and all religious (and not just by way of counsel, but by precept) that they should choose the way of perfection? In Luke’s Gospel he says:
But I say to you: Love your enemies. Do good to them that hate you. Bless them that curse you and pray for them that calumniate you. And to him that striketh thee on one cheek, offer also the other. And, him that taketh away from thee thy cloak, forbid not to take thy coat also. Give to everyone that asketh thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods, ask them not again. And as you would that men should do to you, do you also tho them in like manner. And, if you love them that love you, what thanks are to you? For sinners also love those that love them. And, if you do good to them who do good to you, what thanks are to you? For sinners also do this. [Lk 6.27-33]
This is the Rule of Jesus Christ, to be preferred to all rules, institutions, traditions or new ideas, because, The servant is not greater than his Lord; neither is the apostle greater than he that sent him [Jn 13.16]. Pay attention! Listen and look, all you peoples! is there any madness, any presumption, like that of such religious? In their Rule or constitutions it says that each monk or canon should have two or three tunics, and two pairs of trousers, suitable for winter and summer. If by chance they lack these somewhere or at some time, they complain that due order is not being observed, that the Rule is being miserably broken! See how carefully they keep rules and regulations regarding the body, but keep little or not at all the Rule of Jesus Christ, without which they cannot be saved!
And what shall I say about clerics, and about the prelates of the Church? If any bishop or prelate contravenes a decree of Alexander or of Innocent, or of some other Pope, straightaway he is accused, summoned, convicted and deposed! But if he commits some mortal offence against the gospel of Jesus Christ, which it is his principal responsibility to uphold- no-one either accuses him or rebukes him! They all love what is their own, not what is of Jesus Christ [cf. Phil 2.21]. And so, in Matthew, Christ himself says of all these, whether religious or clerics:
You have made void the commandment of God for your tradition. Hypocrites, well hath Isaias prophesied of you, saying: This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain do they worship me, teaching doctrines and commandments of men. [Mt 15.6-9]
And he says again, in Luke:
Woe to you, Pharisees, because you tithe mint and rue and every kind of herb, and pass over judgement and the charity of God. Now these things you ought to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Woe to you, Pharisees, because you love the uppermost seats in the synagogues and salutations in the market place. Woe to you lawyers also, because you load men with burdens which they cannot bear, and you yourselves touch not the packs with one of your fingers. Woe to you lawyers, for you have taken away the key of knowledge. You yourselves have not entered in; and those that were entering, you have hindered. [Lk 11.42,43,46,52]
So it says rightly in the Apocalypse that
The smoke of the pit arose as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened. And from the smoke of the pit there came out locusts upon the earth.
(A sermon for penitents: The things which before my soul would not touch, and on the three-fold temptation by the devil, and in what ways nocturnal pollution occurs.)
5. The pit of worldly cupidity is called ‘the seventh well’ for two reasons: either because it is the cess-pool of seven sorts of crime (for cupidity is the root of all evils, the Apostle says [1Tim 6.10]); or because just as in Genesis the seventh day is not said to have an evening [cf. Gen 2.2], so cupidity never reaches a point of satisfaction. From this wretched pit the sinner comes out: Jacob, being departed from Bersabee, went on to Haran; and Jesus went from there and retired to the coasts of Tyre and Sidon.
What these three names (Tyre, Sidon and Haran) mean, we shall see. Tyre means ‘distress’, Sidon means ‘hunting for grief’, and Haran means ‘high’ or ‘indignation’. So the penitent, going out from the cupidity of the world, retires to the region of Tyre, that is, of distress. There is, in fact, a two-fold distress for the penitent. The first is that which he has for the sins he has committed; the second is that which he undergoes from the three-fold temptation of the devil, the world and the flesh. Of the first of these, Job says:
The things which before my soul would not touch, now, through anguish, are my meats. [Job 6.7]
To the penitent, over and above the contrition he feels for his sins, constant vigils, an abundance of tears and frequent fasting are as it were delicate foods. Previously, before he turned back to penitence, his sensual soul, sated with temporal things, abhorred their touch. Whence Solomon says in Proverbs:
A soul that is full shall tread upon the honeycomb;
and a soul that is hungry shall take even bitter for sweet. [Prov 27.7]
6. Of the second anguish, the three-fold temptation of the just man, Isaiah says:
As the whirlwinds come from Africa, desolation comes from the desert, from a terrible land.
A grievous vision is told me... Therefore are my loins filled with pain:
anguish hath taken hold of me, as the anguish of a woman in labour.
I fell down at the hearing of it; I was troubled at the seeing of it.
My heart failed, darkness amazed me. [Is 21.1-2,3-4]
We should note these words: the whirlwind (the devil’s suggestion), the desolation (the world’s cupidity) and the grievous vision (the temptation of the flesh). The whirlwind from Africa is the devil’s suggestion, disturbing and troubling the soul of the penitent. Whence it says in Job:
A violent wind came on a sudden from the side of the desert, and shook the four corners of the house. And it fell upon and crushed the children of Job. [Job 1.9]
This violent wind, which blows from the desert region, is the sudden assault of the devil, coming strongly and without warning. It shakes to the very foundations the ‘four corners of the house’, the four chief virtues of the just man’s soul; and alas! Sometimes it causes him to fall into mortal sin, so that ‘Job’s children’, the works and good desires of the just man, die.
7. The desolation from the desert is cupidity. It comes from the desert of the world, full of wild beasts, and it seeks to lay waste the wealth of poverty in the holy man who is contrite and penitent. So Joel says:
Fire hath devoured the beautiful places of the wilderness,
and the flame hath burnt up all the trees of the country. [Joel 1.19]
The fire of cupidity eats up and devours the ‘beautiful places of the wilderness’, the prelates and ministers of the Church who are set up in the desert of the world, and given by God to be the beauty and ornament of the Church itself. The flame of avarice burns up ‘all the trees of the country’, that is, all religious. These are well termed ‘trees of the country’, the country being the religious state into which they have been transplanted from the region of deceit and worldly vanity, to bring forth the fruit of heavenly glory.
8. The grievous vision, told from a terrible land, is the temptation of the flesh. It is well termed ‘a terrible land’, because it is made horrid and abominable by wandering thoughts, careless words, perverse deeds and many things unclean and filthy. The temptation of the flesh is called ‘a grievous vision’, because it comes chiefly through the medium of the eyes. That is why the Philosopher2 says, "The eyes are the first lances of lust," and why Jeremiah, in Lamentations, bewails:
My eye hath wasted my soul. [Lam 3.51]
Blessed Augustine3 says, "The shameless eye is herald of the shameless heart," and so, in the words of blessed Gregory,4 "The eyes should be held captive, because they are like robbers." In the fourth book of Kings we read how robbers led captive a little maid from the land of Israel, and she served the wife of Naaman the leper [cf. 4(2)Kg 5.2]. The robbers are the eyes, which steal the maiden of modesty and chastity from the land of Israel (the mind of the just man who sees God), and make her serve the wife (fornication) of Naaman the leper (the devil). From this wife the leprous devil begets many leprous sons and daughters.
An alternative interpretation is this: the temptation of the flesh is called ‘a grievous vision’ because it often comes in dreams, and leads to the pollution of the body; which greatly distresses (and so it should) the mind of the just man. So Job says:
Thou wilt frighten me (i.e. let me be frightened) with dreams, and terrify me with visions;
so that my soul rather chooseth hanging, and my bones death. [Job 7.14-15]
When the just man feels himself afflicted with horrible imaginations and dreams, he should get up straight away and suspend his soul in the contemplation of heavenly things; and he should afflict the bones of his unruly body, as it experiences a passing pleasure, with groans and blows.
This pollution usually comes in one of four ways. It may be that the organ which holds the semen is over-full, or else it may be due simply to bodily weakness. If so, there is little or no sin. But it may result from over-indulgence in food and drink, and if this becomes a habit it may be mortal. Or it may result from having gazed deliberately on a woman, with full consent of mind: and then it is altogether mortal.
So the penitent, who has left Bersabee and withdrawn to the region of Tyre, says: Just as the whirlwinds come from Africa (i.e. the suggestions of the devil), so desolation (cupidity, which lays waste everything) comes from the desert (the world); and so too from the terrible land (wretched flesh) the grievous vision is told me. Alas, alas! Lord God, where am I to flee from so great a whirlwind, so great a desolation, so grievous a vision? What am I to do? Hear what the penitent himself adds:
Therefore are my loins filled with pain, anguish hath taken hold of me,
as the anguish of a woman in labour.
When the ‘grievous vision from the terrible land’ is told to the penitent, his limbs are filled with pain, not pleasure. So he says with the Prophet: Burn my reins, etc. [Ps 25.2], Anguish hath taken hold of me... Truly that penitent has withdrawn to the region of Tyre, when he says, Anguish hath taken hold of me. What anguish? That of a woman in labour. If there is no greater physical pain than that of childbirth, there is no spiritual anguish greater than that of a just man in the midst of temptation. So it says in Exodus:
The Egyptians hated the children of Israel, and afflicted them and mocked them; and they made their life bitter. [Ex 1.14]
The Egyptians are the demons, wicked sinners and carnal motions. These all hate the children of Israel, the just. The demons afflict them, sinners mock them, and carnal motions make their life bitter.
9. The next words are:
I fell down at the hearing of it, I was troubled at the seeing of it.
My heart failed, darkness amazed me.
Each of these phrases must be related to its corresponding phrase. The penitent says, When I heard the whirlwinds coming from Africa, I fell at once upon the earth, on my face, and prayed the Lord not to let me be carried away by that whirlwind. The just man, when he hears the whispering of the devil, should straightway fall down in prayer, because this kind of demon is not cast out except by prayer and fasting [cf. Mt 17.20]. I was troubled when I saw coming the desolation of worldly cupidity. He does well to be troubled. The just man ought to have a troubled soul and face, whenever any desire for temporal things tries to allure him, lest it laugh at him. My heart has failed from the impulse of lust. The darkness of eternal death has amazed me, when the grievous vision from the terrible land was told me. As one key pushes out another key, so the fear of hell drives out the pleasure of lust. It is well said of the penitent man that he departed from Bersabee, withdrew to the region of Tyre, and went on to Haran.
See how well Tyre and Haran (anguish and the heights) go together. He who wants to reach the heights cannot do so without anguish. So the penitent who wants to climb to the fulness of eternal life must first pass through Tyre. That is why the Lord says in Luke:
Ought not Christ to have suffered these things (Tyre),
and so to enter into his glory (Haran)? [Lk 24.26]
What should we do, then, for the penitent who goes forth from the pit of worldly desire and journeys to the heights of heavenly happiness? The mountain is high, the ascent is very difficult, and the pain is intense. That he may not grow faint on his journey, we must make him a ladder, by which he can climb easily. It is the one referred to in this Sunday’s lesson:
Jacob saw in his sleep a ladder, standing upon the earth, etc. [Gen 28.12ff]
(A sermon for religious: And thou, son of man, take wheat.)
10. This ladder has two sides and six rungs, to climb up. This ladder is the sanctification of the penitent, of which the Apostle says in today’s Epistle:
This is the will of God, your sanctification; that you should abstain from fornication, that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour. [1Thess 4.3-4]
The sides of the ladder are contrition and confession. The six rungs are the six virtues in which the whole sanctification of soul and body consists: the mortification of self-will; the strictness of discipline; the virtue of abstinence; the consideration of our own weakness; the exercise of the active life; and the contemplation of heavenly glory. Of these six, the Lord spoke to Ezekiel, saying:
And thou, O son of man... take thee wheat and barley and beans and lentils and millet and fitches, and put them in one vessel, and make thee loaves. [Ezek 4.1,9]
The wheat, which dies when cast in the earth, means the mortification of self-will;
the barley, which has a strong stem, is the strictness of discipline;
the beans, food of fasters, are the virtue of abstinence;
the lentils, poorest and cheapest of foods, are the consideration of our weakness;
the millet, which needs a lot of tending, is the exercise of the active life;
the fitches (vetches) or wild oats, a climbing plant, is the contemplation of heavenly glory.
Because our sanctification and cleansing consists in these, we should take them and put them in our vessel, of which the Apostle says, Let every one of you know how to possess his vessel in honour and sanctification. From these six elements let us make ourselves loaves, so that refreshed by them we may withdraw to the region of Tyre and go on to Haran. As it says, Jesus left those parts, and withdrew to the region of Tyre.
(A sermon on confession, in which five things are necessary: Jesus went out and retired into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, and the four elements of a bow and a harp.)
11. There follows: And Sidon. Sidon means ‘hunting for sorrow’. A hunter who wants to hunt effectively needs five items of equipment: a horn to blow, a swift and lively dog, a polished sharp spear, a quiverful of arrows and a bow. He needs the horn to alarm the prey, and the dog to catch it, a spear to kill it, and a bow and arrows so that he can shoot from afar those animals he cannot get near enough to spear. This huntsman is the penitent, to whom the Father says in this Sunday’s lesson:
Take thy arms, thy quiver and bow, and go abroad; and bring me of thy hunting,
that I may eat and my soul may bless thee. [cf. Gen 27.3-4]
The arms of the penitent son are the quiver and the bow. The arrows are the prickings and pains of contrition in the heart, of which Job says:
The arrows of the Lord are in me, the rage whereof drinketh up my spirit. [Job 6.4]
The Lord’s arrows are the prickings of conscience, which mercifully wound the sinners heart, so that as he feels indignation against himself because of sin, he humbles the spirit of pride. So there is added, The rage thereof drinketh up my spirit (i.e. consumes my pride). The bow represents confession, and so the Lord says in Genesis:
I will set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be the sign of a covenant
between me and between the earth. [Gen 9.13]
Between God and the earth (that is, the sinner, to whom it was said: Earth thou art and to earth shalt thou return.) is set the bow of confession, the sign of the covenant of peace and reconciliation. See how appropriately the bow represents confession:
12. A bow has four parts: two flexible horns, a hard and unyielding middle, and a soft string which bends the horns. In the same way there are four parts to confession. The two horns are sorrow for past sins and fear of eternal punishment. The middle, hard and unbending, is the firm intention that the penitent should have never to return to his vomit. The soft string is the hope of pardon, which truly bends the two horns, sorrow and fear, from their rigidity. From a bow like this are shot the sharp arrows of the mighty [Ps 119.4].
The huntsman (the penitent) should have also a horn to blow, a dog and a spear. The horn is the cry of naked accusation, the dog is the bark of a biting conscience, the spear is the fulfilment of the proper punishment or satisfaction. Along with the bow of confession, the sinner should have the horn of naked accusation and the dog of a biting conscience, lest he allow anything of sin or its circumstances to remain untouched. He should also have the spear of punishment, indignation and satisfaction: to chastise himself, to feel shame and to make amends for his sins; so that he should find as many sacrifices as the offences he has committed. This is the good hunting of which the Father says to his son, Bring me of thy hunting, that I may eat and my soul may bless thee. This is the hunting referred to in today’s Gospel: Jesus went out, and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
(A sermon against the curious and those straying after worldly matters: Dina went out.)
13. And behold, a woman of Canaan, who came out of those coasts, crying out, said to him: Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously troubled by a devil. [Mt 15.22]
Notice how the Canaanite mother first goes out, and then prays for her daughter, when Jesus had withdrawn to the region of Tyre and Sidon. It is when the sinner has gone out from the world, and from the insatiable appetite of his flesh; when he has retired to the region of Tyre (the anguish he feels in contrition) and Sidon (the hunting he must do in Confession), that the Canaanite woman, the sinful soul which recognises the evil she has done previously, begins to cry out and say: Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David. This should be the proper prayer of the penitent soul, who follows David’s example in doing true penance after committing adultery and murder, and is converted to penance. She says, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David, as if to say, "Lord, you took flesh from the family and tribe of David, so that you might bestow the grace of forgiveness, and extend the hand of mercy, upon those converted sinners who follow David’s example and hope in your mercy, and who do penance." So, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David.
14. Who answered her not a word. [Mt 15.23]
How mysterious are God’s counsels! How fathomless are the depths of eternal wisdom! The Word- who was in the beginning with the Father, and through whom all things were made [cf. Jn 1.1,3]- answered not a word to the Canaanite woman, the penitent sinner. The Word, who made the tongues of infants eloquent [Wisd 10.21], and gives a mouth and wisdom [Lk 21.15], answered not a word! O Word of the Father, creating and restoring all things, governing and sustaining all things, answer me at least one word- me, a wretched woman; me, a penitent! Let me prove to you through your own prophet, Isaiah, that you should answer. Through him, the Father made a promise to sinners concerning you, saying:
The word which shall go forth from my mouth:
it shall not return to me void,
but it shall do whatsoever I please
and shall prosper in the things for which I sent it. [Is 55.11]
What has the Father willed? In fact, that you should receive the penitent and answer him a word of mercy. Did you not say: My meat is to do the will of him who sent me? [Jn 4.34]. Have mercy on me, then, son of David: answer me a word, O Word of the Father.
I will prove by the authority of your prophet Zechariah that you should have mercy and answer. This is what he prophesied of you:
In that day there shall be a fountain open to the house of David
and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem:
for the washing of the sinner and of the unclean woman. [Zech 13.1]
O fountain of love and mercy, who were born of that blessed ground, the Virgin Mary, who was of the house and family of David: wash away the filth of the sinner and the unclean woman! Have mercy on me, then, son of David; my daughter is grievously troubled by a devil.
Why does the Word answer not a word? Surely, to incite the soul of the penitent to greater contrition, to a more piercing sorrow. So the Bride says of him in the Canticles:
I sought him and found him not: I called, and he did not answer me. [Cant 5.6]
15. Let us see more clearly what is grieving this Canaanite woman. My daughter, she says, is grievously troubled by a devil. There is a concordance to this troubling in the Office Over what sorrow does this Canaanite woman grieve? Let us take a closer look reading for this Sunday, where it says:
And Dina the daughter of Lia went out to see the women of that country. And when Sichem, the son of Hemer the Hivite, the prince of that land, saw her, he was in love with her: and took her away, and lay with her, ravishing the virgin. And his soul was fast knit unto her. [Gen 34.1-3]
This is how my daughter is grievously troubled by a devil. Lia means ‘laborious’ and Dina means ‘cause or ‘judgement’. Lia is the soul of the penitent, who labours insistently at the work of penance. She says, with the Prophet, I have laboured in my groaning [Ps 6.7]. She is the woman of Canaan (meaning ‘business’). The business of the penitent soul is to despise the world, afflict the flesh, and to weep for past sins and never again commit anything to weep for. The daughter of this Canaanite, of Lia, is a person’s own mind or conscience, and it is well named ‘Dina’ (‘cause’ or ‘judgement’) because one should lay the cause of one’s sins before the judge (the priest), and freely accept the judgement and sentence handed out. And here it should be noted that by the ‘mind’ or ‘conscience’ of a person I mean nothing other than the penitent’s own soul. In sacred Scripture, different persons very often represent one and the same thing; so that here the Canaanite woman and her daughter, morally, signify the soul of one penitent.
16. Of this soul is said: Dina went out to see the women of that country.
The women of that country represent the beauty, abundance, vanity and pleasure of the temporal things of this world. They are called ‘women’ because they weaken men’s minds, just as in the third book of Kings we read that Women turned away the heart of Solomon [3(1)Kg 11.3]. Beauty and temporal abundance beguile the heart of the wise man. The unhappy soul goes out to see these women when she takes delight in the abundance and beauty of temporal things. Then the unhappy outcome is what follows:
When Sichem, the son of Hemor the Hivite, the prince of that land, saw her, he was in love with her.
Sichem means ‘labour’ and Hemor is ‘an ass’; Hivite is ‘wild’ or ‘worst’.
Sichem is the devil, who is always labouring to do evil. I have gone round about the earth, and walked through it [Job 2.2]. He is called ‘son of Hemor the Hivite’, because by the stupidity and ferocity of pride, from being an angel he became a devil; from a son of the highest glory he became a son of eternal death. He is called prince ‘of the land’, in reference to those who are ‘earthly minded’ [cf. Phil 3.19]. The Prince of this world is cast out, says the Lord [Jn 12.31]. When he sees the unhappy soul, who ought to be bearing the cause and judgement of her sins, wandering through temporal vanities, he does what it says: he made love to her, took her away, lay with her and ravished the virgin, and his soul was fast knit to her.
The devil ‘makes love’, when he suggests sin to her; he ‘takes her away’ when she consents to his suggestion; he ‘lies with her and ravishes her virginity’ when the evil thought about produces an overt action; his ‘soul is knit to her’ when she is held captive and bound with the web of evil custom. See how grievously my daughter is troubled by the devil! Have mercy on me, then, thou son of David, for my daughter is grievously troubled by a devil, Sichem the son of Hamor the Hivite. And the Lord, whose mercies are without number, had pity on the daughter troubled by the devil, and wonderfully set her free.
17. And so follows, in the same passage of Genesis:
Two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, the brothers of Dina, taking their swords, entered boldly into the city, and slew all the men; and they killed also Hamor and Sichem, and took away their sister Dina, out of Sichem’s house. [Gen 36.25-26]
Simeon means ‘hearing sadness’, and represents contrition in the heart; Levi means ‘addition’, and represents confession by the mouth, which should be added to contrition of heart. These two sons of Jacob (the penitent man), brothers of Dina (his soul), must sieze the swords of divine love and fear, and slay the devil, his pride, and everything that belongs to him (sin and its attendant circumstances); thus are they able to free their sister, the soul, who is held captive in the devil’s house and bound with the chain of evil custom.
Let us pray then, beloved, the Lord Jesus: that by his holy mercy he will grant us to go out from the vanity of the world, and so withdraw to the region of Tyre and Sidon, contrition and confession, that our daughter-soul may be freed from the devil and his temptations, and placed in the blessedness of the eternal kingdom. May he grant this, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Let every man say: Amen.
1 cf. HORACE, Epistolae, I,1,10
2 cf. ISIDORE, Synonimorum II,16; PL 83.849
3 AUGUSTINE, Regula 6; PL 32.1381
4 GREGORY, Moralium XXI,2,4; PL 76.190
Copyright in this translation belongs to the author, Revd Dr S.R.P.Spilsbury




Liturgy Archive

Liturgical Year

Daily Devotionals


Bibles & Reference


Other Reading



shopify site analytics