Document: Letter 27
Date: c. 387
Addressee: Iranaeus
English Translation: FC 26.458-463
Summary of Contents: Answers to various questions posed by Iranaeus

You have intimated that you find difficulty with the text: “Let us sacrifice the abominations of the Egyptians to God.” The solution of your difficulty is to be found in the words of Genesis that the Egyptians abominated the shepherd of the flock, not so much because of the shepherd as because of the flock. The Egyptians, you know, were tillers of the land, but Abraham and Jacob and, later, Moses and David, were shepherds, who put a sort of royal stamp upon this occupation.

The Egyptians, consequently, abominated the offerings of sacrifice, that is, the perfect pursuit of the virtues and the full pursuit of obedience. The very thing which they viciously hated, good persons regard as a sincere and pious act. A person given to sensual pleasure hates the work of virtue ; the glutton shuns it. The body of the Egyptian, given to pleasure, has an aversion for the virtues of the soul, abominates restrictions, and shuns the exercise of virtue and all works of this kind.

The very things which the Egyptian shuns he who is an Egyptian rather than a mere man embrace these, knowing what befits a man. Keep away from the things which they follow and choose, because wisdom and foolishness cannot blend. And just as wisdom eludes those who are in the ranks of the foolish and intemperate, so does chastity elude them. The foolish and the unchaste man is alienated from the goods and inheritance which belong to the wise and the chaste.

The two holy daughters of that union, Lia and Rachel, the one meaning ‘labored’ the other ‘strong in desire,’ tried to avoid not the tie of blood but the difference of their manners. When they learned from their conversation with the much-tried Jacob that he wished them to part from their country in order to escape the enmity and anger of Laban and his sons, they answered: “Have we anything left among the goods and inheritance of our father’s house? Has he not counted us as strangers and sold us, and eaten up the price of us?” Notice, first of all, how the foolish and envious man estranges himself and wants to part from the hard-working woman who practices a close discipline over herself. Realizing that they will be a burden to him, he considers it an advantage to part from them and he looks upon this leave-taking as his reward and the enjoyment of his desire.

Let us hear how foolishness has not the possessions of virtue, for they say: “All the riches and glory which the Lord gave our fathers will belong to us and our sons.” Rightly do they say that they were taken, God being their judge, since He is the Author of all good, and the foolish lose His favor. Because wicked and weak men cannot grasp the beauty of the divine inheritance, the man who is strong and brave, having a courageous spirit within himself, becomes the heir. Yet, who is strong except God alone who rules and guides all things?

The possession of God is owed to such as these, as Isaias says: “This is the inheritance of those who believe in the Lord.” Very aptly does he say: “This is the inheritance,” for that alone is the inheritance; there is no other. The inheritance is not a treasure which men stumble upon blindly, and passing things have not the quality of an inheritance. The only inheritance is that in which God is the portion, as the Lord’s holy one says: “God is my inheritance,” and again: “I have become an heir of your precepts.” You see what are the possessions of the just man: God’s commandments, His words, His precepts. In these he is rich; on these he feeds; with these he is delighted as if by all riches.

Lia and Rachel, possessing these, did not need their father’s riches, his base coins, foolish outward show, and lack of spiritual vigor. Being rich and free themselves, they thought their father not rich, but in dire need. Those who partake of good and liberal training think that the foolish are not rich, but needy and poor in fact, in dire distress all the while the rich man abounds in the wealth of kings and proudly boasts of his power over gold.

We must flee the company of such men even though they are united to us by ties of blood. Association with the foolish is harmful, for it corrupts and darkens the prudent mind. Just as a holy man will associate with a holy man, so will the wicked associate with the wicked. It is a frequent occurrence for one who hears his own ideas attacked with rage much as he wishes to cling to his way of continence to be yet tinged with the dye of foolishness, for rightly do discipline and insolence prove contrary and repugnant to one another.

When the much-tried [Jacob] asked their opinion, they [the daughters of Laban] gave responses prompted by virtue tried by long practice, saying: “Have we anything left among the goods and inheritance of our father’s house?” that is to say, “Are you asking whether we wish to part from him? Do you really not understand that we can have no desire for his company, and we are not held by the desire for riches or delight in luxury which is sweet to worldlings. These we consider pitiable and alien to us; these we think are full of want and need.”

They add still another reason for their departure, the fact that Laban had lost the true glory and store of good treasure into which they were born. We were given strength of mind, a good coinage, a spiritual money, stamped with the image and likeness of God. He lost these because he chose the splendid things of this world rather than those which are true and useful for his life. The beauty of these escapes the man who is ignorant of the goods of heaven, since he has tricked himself and deceived himself in his judgment of what is beautiful. Now hear his [Laban’s] words and be the judge.

He pursued blessed Jacob and his daughters, thinking he would find his same sin in them and thereby have the right to detain them. He chided the just man, and all along reason within him chided him so that he could find no answer nor give a reason why he should detain him. “If you had told me,” he said, “I would have let you go.” In this he disclosed why it was that the just man was fleeing, so that he would not follow him or detain him, or so that he would not leave surrounded by such a retinue. First, he was unwilling to put himself at the service of so many masters and to have to be set free by Laban, like a servant. Then, because he was a man intent on virtue and endeavoring to find the true road to virtue, he wanted no one to lead him because the word of God sufficed. “These,” he said, “have instructed me to depart and accompany me on my way.”

“But how,” he said, “would you have dismissed me? With that joy of yours which is full of sadness? With timbrels and instruments of poorly modulated harmony and the soft notes of flutes sounding discordant strains? With mute voices and cymbals jarring the senses? Did you think that these could please me or call me back? It is these which I have fled, fearless before your words of scorn. I fled that these might not follow me, so that in leaving I would take along none of your gifts.”

With guides like these one does not reach the Church of Christ whither Jacob was directing his way, in order to lead there the wealth of the nations, to bring in the riches of the heathens, to transplant his posterity, fleeing the shadows of vain things, preferring to senseless images of virtue the breathing beauty of virtue, preferring serious matters to those that bring applause. You see how the heathens adorn their banquets and announce their feasts. These practices are distasteful to devout minds. By these many are deceived, being captivated by pleasant banquets, choruses of dancers, and at the same time they fly from fasts, think they are hard, and believe that they are dangerous and bad for the body.

“Did you think that I wanted your gold? You do not possess the gold tried by the fire with which the just are tried. Did I want your silver? You do not possess the silver, for you have not the brightness of heavenly conversation. Perhaps I hoped that you would give me some of your slaves to serve me? I am looking for free men; I am fleeing the slaves of sin. Perhaps I needed comrades for the journey and guides for the road? Would that they could follow me! I would show them the paths of the Lord. You who do not know the Lord, how can you know His paths? Not everyone who enters, but those who have been chosen by the Lord, walk His paths, although no one is excluded.

“Let him who is prepared follow me; let him take the road which leads to Mesopotamia. Let him who seeks that country pass through the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, the waters of fortitude and justice, the tears of penance and the baptism of grace. Here is the path of the army of God, since all who belong to the Church are soldiers of God. Here is the flock marked with all kinds of virtues, the flock which Jacob chose for himself. Every soul that is unmarked is unwise and untaught, knowing no discipline. Those that are marked are rich in good works and wealthy in grace.

“Let him who comes first be reconciled with his angry brother. Let him who comes here dwell in Sichem, the precious and real storehouse of virtues where wounded chastity receives full revenge. Let him who comes here wrestle with God so that he may strive to imitate Him, coming close to Christ’s humility and Passion. Let him take up his cross and follow Christ. Lastly, a good combatant is not envious or puffed up. He even blesses his combatant by giving him a reward.”

Let us follow blessed Jacob and his paths so that we may reach these sufferings, these contests, his shoulder. Let us reach patience, the mother of the faithful, and Isaac, the father, that is, one capable of joy who abounds in happiness. Where there is patience there is happiness, because after tribulation comes patience, and patience works experience in which there is hope, in which we are not confounded. Christ will not be ashamed of one who is not ashamed of the cross of Christ.

Farewell, my son, and do not be ashamed to ask questions of your father, as you are not ashamed to glory in the sufferings of Christ.

Translation from FC 26.458-463, adapted by SMT

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Last updated: 5-6-2011

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