Document: Letter 29
Date: c. 387
Addressee: Iranaeus
English Translation: FC 26.437-447
Summary of Contents: Answers to various questions posed by Iranaeus

After resting my mind a while during my reading, turning from my intensive study, I began thinking of the versicle which we had used at first Vespers: “You are beautiful above the sons of men,” and also: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good tidings.” Truly, nothing is more beautiful than that Highest Good which is exceedingly beautiful to preach, the setting forth of a continuous discourse, and the footsteps, as It were, of the preaching of the Apostles. Who is capable of this? Those to whom God gave the power not only to announce Christ but also to suffer for Him.

As far as we are able, let us give our attention to that which is beautiful, comely, and good; let us be occupied with it, let us hold it in mind, so that by its glow and light our souls may become lovely and our minds transparent. For, if our eyes are refreshed with green fields and beautiful groves, after being clouded by mist, or if grassy hills take away the blur of the sick man’s gaze, while his pupils and eye-balls seem to take on color, how much more does the eye of the mind, when it gazes upon the Highest Good, turning to It and feeding on It, become bright and shining, and so fulfill the words of Scripture: “My soul shall be filled as with marrow and richness.” One who wisely understands the souls of his flock cares for the grass of his field so that he will have large pastures, for the sweet grasses make the lambs fatter, and their milk is more healthful. The rich use these pastures, they who “have eaten and adored,” for it is the saint of God who is placed in these good pastures of faith.

The flocks of sheep are also nourished with that hay which makes them produce fleeces of wisdom and provides them the mantle of prudence. Perhaps, too, this is the mountain hay upon which the Prophet’s words distilled “like snow upon the hay.” The wise man diligently seeks this so that his sheep may be a covering for him, a sort of spiritual cloak. Thus the soul which clings to the Highest Good, which is divine, has its own food and clothing. This is what the Apostle Peter urged us to search for, so that by acquiring this knowledge we may become partakers of the divine nature.

The good God discloses a knowledge of this to His saints, bringing it forth from His good treasures as the sacred writing proves: “The Lord swore to your fathers to give and open his excellent treasure.” From this heavenly treasure He gives rain to His earth in order to bless all the works of your hands. The rain signifies the utterance of the Scripture which bedews the soul which is rich and plentiful in good works so that it may have the rain of grace.

David went in search of the knowledge of this Good, as he himself declares: “One thing I have asked of the Lord; this will I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to enjoy the sweetness of the Lord and to behold his temple.” And he immediately adds in this psalm that this is the Highest Good: “I believe that I shall see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living.”Here [on earth] He is sought; there [in heaven] he will be fully seen lace to face. This Good is in the house of God, in His secret abode and sanctuary. Again he says: “We shall be filled with the good things of thy house.” In another place, too, he shows that this is the fullness of blessings: “May the Lord bless you out of Sion, that you may see the welfare of Jerusalem.” Blessed is he, therefore, who lives there in the entrance of faith, in the abode of the spirit, in the dwelling of devotion, in the life of virtue.

Let us abide there and remain in Him of whom Isaiah says: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach peace and preach good tidings!” Who are those who preach except Peter, Paul, and all the Apostles? What do they preach to us except the Lord Jesus? He is our peace, He is our Highest Good, for He is the Good from Good, and from a good tree is gathered good fruit. Then, too, His spirit is good, that Spirit which receives the servants of God from Him and brings them into the right way. Let no one who has the Spirit of God in him deny that He is good, since He says Himself: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” May there come into our soul, into our innermost heart, this Good which the kind God gives to those who ask Him. He is our Treasure; He is our Way; He is our Wisdom, our Righteousness, our Shepherd and the Good Shepherd; He is our Life. See the number of good things in the one Good!

The Evangelists preach these good things to us. David in search of these good things said: “Who will show us good things?”  And he shows that the Lord Himself is our Good, saying: “The light of thy countenance is signed upon us.” Who is the light of the Father’s countenance except the brightness of His glory, the image of the invisible God, in whom the Father is both seen and glorified, as He also glorifies His Son?

The Lord Jesus Himself, therefore, is the Highest Good whom the Prophets announced, the angels made known, the Father promised, and the Apostles preached. He came to us like ripeness, and not only as ripeness but as ripeness in the mountains, so that in our counsels there would be no bitterness or unripeness, and in our actions and our manners there would be no harshness or hardness. He Himself was the first to preach good tidings to us and said: “I myself who spoke am here;” that is, I who spoke in the Prophets, I am present in the body which I took of a virgin; I am present, the inward likeness of God, the express image of His person; and I am present as man. But who knows Me? They saw a man, yet they believed that His works were greater than man. Was it not as man that He wept for Lazarus, and greater than man that He raised him from the dead? Again, was it not as man that He was scourged, and greater than man that He took away the sins of all the world?

Let us hurry to Him in whom is that Highest Good, since He is Goodness Itself. He is the patience of Israel calling you to penance, so you will not come to judgment but may receive the remission of sins. “Do penance,” he says. He is the one of whom the Prophet Amos cries: “Seek you good.” He is the Highest Good, for He needs nothing and abounds in all things. Well may He abound, for in Him dwells bodily the fullness of divinity. Well may He abound, of whose fullness we have all received, and in whom we have been filled, as the Evangelist says.

If the soul, with its capacity for pleasure and delight, has tasted this True and Highest Good and has adhered to both with the means at her disposal, putting away sorrow and fear, then is she wonderfully inflamed. Having embraced the Word of God, she knows no bounds, she knows no satiety, and says: “You are sweet, O Lord, and in your joy teach me your laws.” Having embraced the Word of God, she desires Him above every beauty; she loves Him above every joy; she is delighted with Him above every perfume; she wishes often to see, often to gaze, often to be drawn to Him that she may follow. “Your name,” she says, “is as oil poured out,” and that is why we maidens love You, and vie with one another but cannot attain to You. Draw us that we may run after You, that from the odor of ointments we may receive the power to follow Thee.

The soul presses forward for a glimpse of hidden mysteries, to the very abode of the Word, to the very dwelling place of that Highest Good, and His light and brightness. In that bosom and secret dwelling place of the Father she hastens to hear His words, and having heard them she finds them sweeter than all things. Let the Prophet who has tasted this sweetness teach you, when he says: “How sweet are your words to my lips, above honeycomb to my mouth.” What else can a soul desire when she has once tasted the sweetness of the Word, when she has once seen its brightness? When Moses remained on the mountain forty days to receive the Law, he had no need of food for the body. Elias, going to that rest, asked that his soul be taken away from him. Even Peter himself, foreseeing on the mountain the glory of the Lord’s Resurrection, did not wish to come down, and said: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” How great is the glory of that Divine Essence, how great the graces of the Word at which even angels wish to gaze!

The soul which beholds this Highest Good needs not the body, and, knowing that she should have very little familiarity with it, she shuns the world, she withdraws herself from the chains of the flesh, she casts off all the bonds of earthly pleasure. Thus Stephen beheld Jesus and had no fear of being stoned; in fact, while he was being stoned he prayed, not for himself, but for those by whom he was being murdered. Paul, too, caught up into the third heaven, did not know whether he was in the body or out of it; caught, I say, into paradise, he no longer had need of the body, and after hearing the word of God he was ashamed to descend to the infirmities of the body.

With the knowledge of what he had seen and heard in paradise, he cried out saying: “Why, as if still viewing from the world do you lay down rules: ‘Do not touch; nor handle; nor taste!’ things which must all perish in their very use!” He wished us to be in the world in figure, not in actual possession and use of it; so to use the world as if we did not use it, as if we were but passing through, not residing in it, walking through as in a dream, not with desire, so that with the speed of thought we might pass through the shadow of this world. He himself, too, walking by faith, not by sight, was a pilgrim from the body and present with the Lord, and although he was on earth, his conversation was not on earth, but in heaven.

Therefore, let the soul which wishes to approach God raise herself from the body and cling always to that Highest Good which is divine, and lasts forever, and which was from the beginning and which was with God, that is, the Word of God. This is the Divine Being “in which we live and are and move.” This was in the beginning, this is: “The Son of God, Jesus Christ in you,” he says, “in whom there was not Yes and No, but only Yes was in him.” He Himself told Moses to say: “He who is has sent me.”

Let our soul be with this Good, and, if possible, let it be there always, so that it can be said of us: “My soul is always in your hands.” Such will be the case if it is not in the body, but in the spirit, if it does not entangle itself with things of earth. When it is concerned with the flesh, then the charms of the body creep over it, it tosses with anger and indignation, it is afflicted with sadness, it is cast down through arrogance, it is troubled with sorrow.

These are the dangerous illnesses of the soul by which it is often brought near death and its eyes are so blinded that they do not see the light of true glory and the richness of the eternal inheritance. But, if it keeps them always fixed on God, it will receive from Christ the splendor of wisdom, so that it will have its gaze illumined by the knowledge of God, and look upon the hope of our calling, and gaze on that which is good, well pleasing, and perfect. The good is well  pleasing to the Father. That which is well pleasing is perfect, as you read in the Gospel where the Lord says: “Love your enemies, so that you may imitate your Father, who sends rain on the just and the unjust.” This proves what constitutes goodness. Later He concludes, saying: “Be perfect, as your Father who is in heaven is perfect.” Charity is perfect; it is the fulfilling of the law. “For what is so good” as charity which thinks no evil?

Flee the regions where enmity, ambition, and contention have their dwelling. Let your soul open itself to grasp this good so that it may fly above the clouds, that it may be renewed like the eagle, and like the eagle spreading its wings with new vigor in its pinions, it may not fear to soar aloft, to leave this earth, because an earthly habitation weighs down the soul. Let it put off the old, let it lay aside the desire for evil, let it wash clean its eyes so that it may see the fount of true wisdom, the fount of eternal life, which flows and pours itself upon all and has no needs. Who has ever given Him anything, since “from Him, and through Him, and in Him” are all things?

The fount of life is that Highest Good which bestows the substance of life on all, because it has life abiding in itself. It receives from no one as though it were needy; it lavishes goods upon all and borrows from others nothing for itself, for it has no need of us. It says, too, in the person of mankind: “You do not need my goods.” What is more lovely than to approach Him and cling to Him? What pleasure can be greater? What else can he desire who sees and tastes freely of this fount of living water? what realms? what powers? what riches? when he sees how pitiable are the condition? of kings, how changeable the status of their power, how short the span of this life, in how great bondage even sovereigns must live, since they live at the will of others and not their own.

Does any rich man make his way to eternal life unless he is provided with money, the riches of virtue, the portion of all, the only thing a rich man cannot have? Happiness does not consist in using, but in seeing how you may despise these riches, how you may consider them void of truth, judge them vain and useless, and love, instead, the beauty of naked truth which discloses the utterly false vanities of the world.

Lift up your eyes, then, my soul, those eyes of which the Word of God says to you: “You have wounded me in the heart, O my sister, my spouse, you have wounded me in the heart with one of your eyes.” Go up to the palm, overcome the world so that you may reach the height of the Word. Leave aside the vain show of this world, leave aside its wickedness. Bring, rather, goodness of heart which possesses grace in the tree of life, provided she will wash her robes and enter the city which is the true grace of the saints. There is the tabernacle of God, around which the scribes of the Lord are encamped, where neither day nor sun nor moon provide light, but the Lord Himself is the light illuminating that whole city, for He is the Light of the world, Surely, He is not a visible light, but He is the brilliance of the mind in the souls of men, upon whom He pours Himself with the radiant light of wisdom and reason, which the Gospel says inspires the inmost soul with the warmth of His spiritual power.

If a man has taken up his residence in that heavenly city, let him not leave its life and customs, since he is an inhabitant. Let him not again depart, nor retrace the steps, I do not say, of the body, but of the heart. Let him not come back from there. Behind him. is wantonness; behind is impurity. When Lot went to the mountains, he left behind the sins of Sodom, but the woman who looked back could not reach the higher ground. Your feet should not turn back, neither should your actions turn back. Your hands should not hang idle, nor should the knees of your devotion and faith become weak. Let no weakness cause your will to backslide, nor evil deeds recur. You have made your entrance, now remain. You have reached this place, stand firm. “Being safe, save your life.”

In your ascent, take the straight path; it is not safe to turn back. Here is the road; there is downfall. Here is the path upward; there, a precipice. There is work in ascending, danger in descending. The Lord who is powerful will protect you if you are grounded and hedged round with the ramparts of the Prophets and the bulwarks of the Apostles. For this reason, the Lord says to you: “Enter and tread the grape, for the vintage time is here.” Let us be found within, not out of doors. In the Gospel, too, the Son of God says: “Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take his vessels.” Surely, He does not mean our present dwelling but that one of which “He has spread the sky like a roof.”

Remain within, therefore, within Jerusalem, within your soul which is peaceful, meek, and tranquil. Do not leave it or go down to take your vessels with honors or riches or pride. Remain within, so that strangers may not pass through you, so that neither sins nor vain works nor useless thoughts may pass through your soul. This will not happen if you wage a holy war against the snare of the passions in behalf of devotion and faith and in the pursuit of truth, if you will put on the armor of God in your fight against spiritual diseases and the cunning of the Devil who tempts our senses with cunning and fraud. Yet, he is easily crushed by the gentle warrior who does not sow discord, but, as befits the servant of God, teaches faith with moderation and refutes those who are his adversaries. Of this man Scripture says: “Let the warrior who is gentle arise,” and the weak man says: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”

Supported by this faith, even the weak man will prevail, his soul will be holy, and this mountain of the Prophets and the Apostles will drop down sweetness upon him. The hills, too, will pour out milk as did that hill which gave milk to the Corinthians to drink. And waters will flow upon him from his vessels and the depths of his wells, or from his belly will flow living waters, spiritual waters which the Holy Spirit gives to the faithful. May He deign to water your soul, too, so that in you there may abound the fount of water springing up into life everlasting.

Farewell, and love us as a son, because we love you as a father.

Translation from FC 26.437-447, adapted by SMT

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Last updated: 5-7-2011

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