Document: Letter 19
Date: c. 385
Addressee: Vigilius, Bishop of Trent
English Translation: FC 26.174-189
Summary of Contents: Advice to Vigilius on his role as bishop

You have asked me what should be the chief points of your teaching now that you are newly ordained to the office of bishop. Because you have built up your spirit so fittingly you have been deemed worthy of this great office; it is now your duty to build up others.

Realize, first of all, that you have been entrusted with the Church of the Lord, and therefore you must prevent any scandal from intruding and causing her body to become common by contamination with heathens. For this reason, Scripture says to you: “Do not marry any Chanaanite woman but go into Mesopotamia, to the house of Bathuel, that is, the house of wisdom, and choose there a wife for you.” Mesopotamia is a region in the East bounded by the two largest rivers in that area, the Euphrates and the Tigris, which have their rise in Armenia and flow by different courses into the Red Sea. Now, the Church is signified by the word Mesopotamia, for she waters the minds of the faithful with the great streams of wisdom and justice, pouring on them the grace of holy baptism, typified by the Red Sea, and washing away sin. Teach the people, therefore, to seek ties of marriage not with strangers but from the households of Christians.

Let no one defraud a hireling of his wages, because we, too, are hired men of God, hoping for the reward of our labors from Him. You, too [you must say], O merchant, whoever you are, are refusing the hireling the wages in money, a cheap and passing thing. But to you the reward of heavenly promises will be refused, as the Law says: “You shall not refuse the hire of the hireling.”

Do not lend your money for interest, since Scripture says that he who does not lend his money at usury will dwell in the tabernacle of God, 4 because one who takes the gain of usury is overthrown. Therefore, if a Christian man has money, let him lend it as if he were not to receive it back, or at least only to receive the principal which he lent. By so doing he receives no small profit of grace. Otherwise his actions would be deception, not assistance. For, what is more cruel than to lend money to one who has none and then to exact double the amount? If one cannot pay the simple amount, how will he pay double?

Let us take Tobias as an example, for until the end of his life he never asked back the money which he had lent, and then he did so more because he did not want to cheat his heir than to exact and recover the money which he had lent out. Nations have often failed because of usury and this has been the cause of public calamity. So it is especially up to us bishops to root out these vices which seem to entangle most men.

Teach them to welcome strangers willingly rather than to do what they ought merely from necessity. Thus, in offering hospitality they will not reveal an inhospitable state of mind and in the very giving of welcome to a guest spoil their favor by wrong-doing. Rather, let hospitality be fostered by the practice of social duties and by services of kindness. Rich gifts are not asked of you, but a willing performance of duty, full of peace and harmonious agreement. A dinner of herbs is better with friendship and love than a banquet adorned with choice victuals, if sentiments of love are not there. We read that nations have been destroyed with utter loss because they violated the oath of hospitality, and dreadful wars have arisen because of lust.

There is hardly anything more deadly than being married to one who is a stranger to the faith, where the passions of lust and dissension and the evils of sacrilege are inflamed. Since the marriage ceremony ought to be sanctified by the priestly veiling and blessing, how can that be called a marriage ceremony where there is no agreement in faith? Since spouses should pray in common, how can there be love of their common wedlock between those differing in religion? Many have betrayed their faith when lured by women’s charms, as did the people of the patriarchs at Beelphegor. This is why Phineas lost his sword and killed the Hebrew and the Madianite woman, and soothed God’s wrath so that all of the people would not be destroyed.

Why should I mention many examples? Of the many, I shall set forth one, and by the mention of this one it may be clear how dangerous it is to marry a woman who is a stranger [to the faith]. Who more than the Nazarite, Samson, ever was mighter and from the cradle more endowed with strength by the Spirit of God? Yet he was betrayed by a woman and because of her he was unable to stay in God’s good favor. I shall tell you the events of his birth and his entire life, arranging it in the manner of a story, not word for word, but in substance, according to the account of the sacred book which goes as follows:

For many years the Philistines held the Hebrews in subjection after their surrender, for they had lost the prestige of faith by which their fathers had gained victory. Yet the mark of their election and the ties of their heritage had not been entirely obliterated by their Creator. But, because they were often puffed up by success, He delivered them for the most part into the power of the enemy, so that with manly dignity they would seek from heaven the remedy of their ills. We submit to God at a time when we are overwhelmed by other reverses; success puffs up the mind. This is proved not only in other matters but especially in that change of fortune by which success returned again from the Philistines to the Hebrews.

When the spirit of the Hebrews had been so crushed by long and injurious subjection that no one with manly vigor dared to encourage them to freedom, there arose in their behalf a great hero, Samson, whose destiny was ordained by God’s words. He was not numbered with the many, but outstanding among the few; he was without question easily reckoned as surpassing all in bodily strength. We must regard him with great admiration from the very beginning, not because he gave great evidence of temperance and sobriety from boyhood by abstaining from wine, nor because as a Nazarite he was ever faithful to guard his sacred trust, with locks unshorn, but because from his youth – a period of softness in others, but truly remarkable in him – he worked amazing deeds of strength, perfect beyond the measure of human nature. By his deeds he soon gained credence for that divine prophecy. For no slight cause had such great graces preceded him that an angel came down to foretell to his parents his unexpected birth, the leadership he would hold, and the protection he would give his people who had been tormented so long by the oppressive rule of the Philistines.

His godfearing father was of the tribe of Dan, of no mean station in life, pre-eminent among others. His mother, a barren woman, was not unfruitful in the virtues of the soul. She was worthy to receive into the dwelling of her soul the vision of an angel, whose command she obeyed and whose words she fulfilled. She did not permit herself to know even the secrets of God without her husband’s sharing of them; she told him that a man of God had appeared to her, of wondrous beauty, bringing her a prophecy that a child would be born. Because she trusted his promises she shared with her husband her trust in these heavenly pledges. When he learned them, he devoutly begged God in prayer that he might also be granted the favor of a vision, saying: “O Lord, let thy angel come to me.”

I do not think, as a certain author has supposed, that he did this out of jealousy for his wife, who was remarkable for her beauty, but rather because he was moved by a desire for a favor from heaven and wished to share the benefit of the heavenly vision. One depraved by vices of the soul would not have found such favor with the Lord that an angel would return to his house, give the admonition which the fulfilling of the prophecy entailed, be suddenly raised in the form of a glowing flame, and depart. This vision, which so frightened the husband, the wife interpreted more auspiciously, turning it to joy and removing his anxiety. She said that to see God was a proof of favor, not of ill will.

Samson, then graced by such favors from heaven, turned his thoughts to marriage as soon as he reached manhood, whether because he detested in his mind the free and familiar manner of deceitful lust in the young, or because he was seeking a reason for loosing from the necks of his people the power and harsh tyranny of the Philistines. Going down, therefore, to Thamnatha (this is the name of a city in that country which then was inhabited by the Philistines), he saw a maiden of pleasing appearance and beautiful countenance. He asked his parents, who were guiding him on his way, to ask her in marriage for him. They did not realize that his purpose was so set that, if the Philistines refused her to him, he would become very angry, nor that they, if they gave their consent, would be bringing an end to the wrong treatment of the conquered. Since from intercourse a sense of equality and kindness grows apace, and, if offense is given, the desire for revenge becomes deeper, his parents thought that he should avoid her because she was a stranger. In vain did they try to change his purpose by lawful objections; finally, then, they gave their consent to the wishes of their son.

Samson obtained his request and upon his return to visit his promised bride he turned off the road for a short while; there a lion came out of the woods to meet him, a truly fierce beast, because released from the forest. No comrade, no weapon was ready at hand; the shame of fleeing and an inner sense of power gave him courage. As the lion rushed upon him he caught it in his arms and killed it with his grasp, leaving it lying there beside the road on a heap of forest wood. The spot was thick with the grassy growth of fodder and planted, too, with vineyards. He felt sure that the spoils of a savage beast would be of little importance to his beloved spouse, because the times of such events [as marriage] are made charming not by savage trophies but by genteel joys and festal garlands. Later, upon his return along the same road, he stumbled upon a honeycomb in the lion’s belly, and carried it off as a gift to his parents and the maiden, for such gifts suit a bride. After he had tasted the honey, he gave them the honeycomb to eat, but he did not disclose where it came from.

By chance one day, during a nuptial feast, the young people at the banquet challenged one another to a game of question and answer. And while one caught up the other with spicy banter, as is the custom on such occasions, the contest, which had begun in fun, grew heated. Then Samson proposed the question to his fellow guests: “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.” He promised as the reward for their wisdom that those who guessed it should have thirty shirts and the same number of coats, for that was the number of men present, but if they did not solve it they should pay a forfeit.

Since they could not untie the knot and solve the riddle, they prevailed upon his bride, using repeated threats and constant entreaty, that she ask her husband for the answer to the question as a mark of his devotion in return for her love. Truly terrified in mind, or perhaps in the plaintive manner of a woman, she began her supposedly loving complaints, pretending that she was sorely grieved that her husband did not love her: she who was his life partner and confidant did not know her husband’s secret and was treated like the rest of his friends and not entrusted with her husband’s secret. She even said: You hate me and do not love me whom until now you have deceived.”

These and other remarks overcame him and, weakened by her womanly charms, he revealed to his beloved the riddle which he had proposed. She in turn revealed it to her countrymen. Seven days later, before sunset, which was the time agreed for the solving of the riddle, they gave the answer which they had learned and which they expressed thus: “What is stronger than a lion? What is sweeter than honey?’ And he answered that nothing is more treacherous than woman, saying: “lf you had not ploughed with my heifer, you had not found out my riddle.” Immediately he went down to Ascalon, slew thirty men, stripped off their garments and gave them as the reward he had promised to those who had solved the riddle.

Moreover, he did not live with the girl whose treachery he had learned, but, instead, returned home to his own country. But the maid, in fear and dread of the wrath of one so wronged, afraid lest his wrath be vented on her, agreed to marry another man, one whom Samson considered a friend of his, a bridal companion on his wedding day. Even though their union was offered as an excuse, she did not escape the peril of his hatred. When this became known and he was denied an opportunity of going to his wife, for her father said that she had married someone else, but that he might, if he wished, marry her sister, sorely stung with wrong, he made plans to wreak public revenge in anger over his personal affront. He caught three hundred foxes and, at the end of summer when the grain was ripe in the fields, coupled them tail to tail and fastened torches between their tails, tying them with unbreakable knots. Then, to avenge the affront, he sent them into the standing cornfields which the Philistines had cut. The foxes, driven mad by the fire, spread the blaze wherever they ran and burned the corn stalks. Greatly disturbed by their loss, for their entire harvest had perished, the owners went and told their leaders. They dispatched men to the Thamnathite woman, who had given her loyalty to more than one husband, and also to her house and parents. They said that she was the cause of her own destruction and harm, but that it was not right for the husband who was wronged to avenge himself by injuring the whole people.

Samson still did not content himself with this wrong against the Philistines, nor was he content with what he had done in revenge. He slaughtered them in a great orgy of bloodshed and many died by the sword. He then went to Elam to a stream in the desert. The rock there was a fortification belonging to the tribe of Judah. The Philistines, who did not dare attack him or to climb the steep and hazardous fortification, denounced the tribe of Judah and rose up, urging the tribe to battle. They saw that justice would be done otherwise, if the men, who were their subjects and paid tribute, seemed about to lose a rightful and fair treatment in public affairs just because of another’s crime. In consultation, they demanded that they hand over the perpetrator of such a crime and on this condition they would be unharmed.

The men of the tribe of Judah, hearing this stipulation, gathered 3,000 of their men and went up to him, maintaining that they were the subjects of the Philistines and had to obey them, not from choice but through fear of danger. They put the blame for their deed upon those who had the right to force them. Then he said: “And what form of justice is it, O race of the sons of Abraham, that the wrong of first betrothing and then stealing my spouse should be my punishment, and that one may not avenge with impunity a wrong done to one’s home? Are you stooping in submission to little domestic slaves? Will you make yourselves agents of another’s insolence and turn your own hands upon yourselves? If I must die for the sorrow which is understandably mine, I will gladly die at the hands of the Philistines. My home has been assailed, my wife has been harassed. If I may not live without their evil deeds, at least I may die without crimes being committed by my people. Have I not returned an injury which I received? Have I inflicted it? Consider whether the exchange was a fitting one. They complain of damage to their crops; I, the loss of my wife. Compare sheaves of wheat and the marital union. They have themselves seen proof of my pain, the injuries which they have avenged. See what service they consider you worthy of. They want the one put to death whom they thought should be avenged, whom they injured, and to whom they gave the weapon of revenge. If you bring my neck to bend to the proud, hand me over to the enemy, but do not yourselves kill me. I do not shrink from death, but I dread your being contaminated. If you yield to those insolent men through fear, bind my hands with cords. Defenseless though they be, they will find their weapons in the knotted cords. Surely, the enemy must think you have made sufficient payment of your promise if you deliver me alive into their power.”

In answer, the 3,000 who had climbed up the mountain gave him an oath that they would not use force against his life provided he would wear chains, so that they could hand him over and free themselves of the crime with which they were charged.

When he had received their pledge, he left the cave and abandoned his rocky fortification. When he saw the strong Philistines approaching to take him, although he was bound with double cords, he groaned in spirit and broke his bonds. Then, seizing the jawbone of an ass lying there, he struck a thousand men and put the rest to flight in a magnificent display of strength, while battle lines of armed men fell back before a single defenseless man. Any and all who dared to approach him were slain with easy effort. Flight staved off death for the rest. Thus, even today, the place is called Agon, because there Samson won a great victory by his overwhelming strength.

I wish that he had been as controlled in victory as he was strong against the enemy! But, as usually happens, a soul unused to good fortune, which ought to have attributed the outcome of the engagement to God’s favor and protection, attributed it to himself I saying: “With the jawbone of an ass I have destroyed … a thousand men.” He neither erected an altar nor sacrificed a victim to God, but, failing to sacrifice and taking glory to himself, he called the place “the killing of the jawbone” to immortalize his triumph with an everlasting name.

Soon he began to feel a fierce thirst; there was no water and he could no longer stand to bear his thirst. Knowing that to attain human help would not be easy and that it would be difficult without divine aid, he called upon and begged almighty God, who he thought would not help him because of his offense against Him, and because he had unwisely and carefully attributed any success to himself. No, he even assigned the victory to almighty God, saying: “You have given this very great deliverance into the hand of your servant, and it has been my help. And behold! Because I die of thirst, I am placed by my need of water into the power of those over whom you gave me a great triumph.” Then God’s mercy opened the earth when he threw down the jawbone, and a stream issued from it and Samson drank and resumed his spirit and called the place “the invoking of the spring. Thus, by his prayer, he atoned for his vaunting of victory. Men expressed different opinions, noticing how arrogance might speedily bring harm and humility make atonement without offense.

When in the course of events he had brought an end to the war with the Philistines, despising his people’s cowardice and scorning the enemy bands, he went off to Gaza. This city was in the territory of the Philistines, and he lived there in a certain lodging house. The people of Gaza immediately took note and hastily surrounded his lodging place, putting a guard at all the doorways so that he could not plan to flee by night. When Samson became aware of their preparations he anticipated the plot they had laid for the nighttime, and taking hold of the columns of the house, lifting all the wood framework and the weight of the tower on his strong shoulders, he carried them up to the top of a high mountain which faced Hebron, where the Hebrew people dwelled.

But when with free and untrammeled gait he passed not only beyond the limits of his home country, but also the boundaries which his ancestors had been taught to observe by custom, he soon found that he was playing with death. With small faith he contracted a marriage with a foreign-born wife and should have been cautious then or later. But he did not refrain from again forming a union, this time with Delila, who was a prostitute. Out of love for her he caused her to tempt him with the wiles of an enemy. For the Philistines came to her and each man promised her eleven hundred pieces of silver if she would find out in what lay the source of his strength. If they but possessed this secret he could be surrounded and taken.

She who had once prostituted herself for money, cleverly and craftily amid the banquet cups and the charms of her love, in admiration, as it were, of his pre-eminent bravery, began to question him about it and to ask him how it was he so excelled others in strength. Then, too, as though she were fearful and anxious, she begged him to tell his beloved what bond precisely would put him in the power of another. But he was still prudent and strong-willed and he countered deceit with deceit against the harlot’s treachery, saying that if he were bound with supple green boughs he would be as weak as other men. When they learned this, the Philistines had Delila put boughs on him like chains while he slept. Then, as if suddenly awakened, the hero felt his famed and customary strength, broke his bonds, and fought back against the many who had their strength untrammeled.

After a short time, Delila, like one who had been made fun of, began to complain passionately and to ask again and again what his real skill was, demanding proof of his affection for her. Samson, still strong of purpose, laughed at her tricks and suggested to her that if he were bound with seven brand-new ropes he would come into the power of his enemy. This also was tried, in vain. The third time he pretended that she had drawn him out regarding the mystery, but in reality, being nearer to a fall, he said that his strength would leave him if seven hairs of his head were cut and woven into a coverlet. This, too, deceived the tricksters.

Later, when the woman boldly deplored the fact that he mocked her so many times and when she lamented that she was unworthy to be entrusted with her lover’s secret and begged as a remedy that which she saw was likely to mean a betrayal, she gained his confidence by her tears. And just as it was due that a man of bravery who had been invincible all this time, should pay the price, he opened up the wounded recesses of his soul: the strength of God was in him; he was holy to the Lord and by His command he let his hair grow, for, if he cut it, he would cease to be a Nazarene and would lose the use of his strength! When the Philistines discovered his weakness, through the woman, they gave her, the slave of their price, the reward for the treachery and thus concluded the affair.

Next, by her charms as a harlot she drew the weary lover to sleep and, summoning a barber, she cut seven hairs of his head with a razor. At once his strength was reduced by the treachery of the forbidden act. At length, awaking from sleep, he said: “I shall do as before and shall shake myself over my enemies.” But he knew neither swiftness of soul nor strength. Force was not his, and grace had left him. Chiding himself further for having put his trust in women, he thought he would make further trial of the effect of his infirmity, so he allowed his eyes to be blinded, his hands bound, and his feet chained as he entered the prison which throughout his many vicissitudes he had never known.

With the passage of time his hair began to grow; then, during a crowded banquet of the Philistines, Samson was brought from prison and shown before the people. About 3,000 men and women were there. They taunted him with cruel remarks, they surrounded him with mocking jests which he bore with greater stamina and beyond what his blind appearance suggested, for he was a man of great native strength. To live and to die are functions of nature, but mockery belongs to the base-born. The wish arose in him, therefore, either to compensate for such insults by revenge or preclude any more insults by death. He pretended that he could no longer support himself, because of the weakness of his body and the knots of his shackles, and he asked a servant boy, who was guiding his steps, to put him near the pillars which supported the house. Placed there, he grasped with both hands the support of the entire building and, while the Philistines were intent upon the sacrifices of the feast in honor of their god Dagon, through whom they thought the adversary had come into their hands, accounting the woman’s treachery among the benefits of heaven, he called to the Lord, saying: “Lord, once more remember your servant so that I may revenge myself on the Gentiles for my two eyes. Let them not give glory to their gods, because with their help they have gotten me in their power. I count my life as of no worth. Let my soul die with the Philistines, so that they may know that my weakness no less than my strength is deadly.”

So he shook the columns with mighty force and he loosened and shattered them. The crash of the roof came next and fell on him and hurled headlong all those who were looking on from above. There in great confusion lay heaps of lifeless men and women, and, though slain, he attained his wished-for triumph, greater than all his former victories, and a death not inglorious or lacking luster. Although he was inviolable here and hereafter, and was not to be compared in his life to men who experienced war, in his death he conquered himself and made his invincible soul despise death, giving no thought to the end of life which all men fear.

Through his valor he ended his days with numerous victories and found the captive not undone but triumphing. The fact that he was outwitted by a woman must be attributed to his nature, not to his person; his condition was human rather than his fault less. He was overwhelmed, and yielded to the enticements of sin. And when Scripture bears witness that he slew more in death than when he had the light of life, it seems that he was made a captive more to work the ruin of his adversaries than to become cast down or counted less. He never experienced degradation, for his grave was more famous than had been his power. Finally, he was overwhelmed and buried not by weapons but by the dead bodies of his enemies, covered with his own triumph, leaving to posterity a glorious renown. Those people of his, whom he had found captive, he ruled in liberty for twenty years and then, entombed in the soil of his native land, he left behind the heritage of liberty.

Because of this example, men should avoid marriage with those outside the faith, lest, instead of love of one’s spouse, there be treachery.

Farewell, and love us, because we love you.

Translation from FC 26.174-189, adapted by SMT

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