Document: Letter 31
Date: c. 387
Addressee: Iranaeus
English Translation: FC 26.420-424
Summary of Contents: Answers to various questions posed by Iranaeus

You have made a wise decision to seek an answer to the question whether there is some difference in God’s love of those who have had the faith since childhood and of those who have believed only in the course of youth or later manhood. Holy Scripture has not failed to note this problem, nor has it left the matter untouched. Indeed, the Lord our God said meaningfully to the Prophet Joel: “Lament with me over my spouse in sackcloth and for the husband of her youth,” while He wept either for the synagogue that formerly, in her virginity, had been espoused to the Word of God, or perhaps for a soul that had fallen from grace. Her offense had led her into serious crimes so that she became hated and, having been cast aside because of her stain of impurity and the foul marks of wickedness and the stains of unbelief, she became an object of pity and a person despised, far removed from the grace of that spouse who had been worthy to hear the words: “I will espouse you to me in faith and justice and mercy.”

There is good cause to consider her an object of pity since she has lost her claim to a reward and experienced so heavy a loss of the dowry of virtue that she has been deprived of the spouse of her virginity. According to our merits the Word of God either lives or dies in us. If our desires and works are good, the Word of God lives and works in us; if our thoughts and deeds are dark, the Sun of Justice goes down. He teaches us to lament for such a soul. For, as those who have the bridegroom must rejoice and feast, so must that soul mourn when the spouse has been taken away, as it is said of the Apostles in the Gospel: “for when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, then will they fast in those days.”

This soul, therefore, formerly experienced joy and gladness, when she had the Virgin Word. She did not fast, since those were the days for feasting and banqueting; the Bridegroom was present, lavishing on all the riches of plenty, the stores of heavenly food, and the flow of wine which gladdens the hearts of men. But, after she had lost the Bridegroom through her deeds, she was ordered to do penance in sackcloth for her sins and to weep for herself because Christ who is the Virgin Word died and was crucified for her.

Sometimes a soul is espoused at an early age and never bears any other yoke, but from the beginning vows the virginal flower of her faith to Christ and is united to Him from the first in mysteries of piety, receiving a training in holiness as the heifer does the yoke. This is the soul of Jewish stock, from the race of ancient patriarchs, who, if she had kept her course of faith unstumbling, would have been counted worthy of great merit, the virginal spouse of the Word, as the woman who took hold of justice and went to meet him like a mother, and will receive him like a wife married of a virgin.

The other, too, has been taken from the Gentiles; each is spouse of the one Word, and this is a great mystery. This is shown you in the Book of Kings: David had two wives, Achinaa the Jezrahelite, and Abigail whom he took later. The first was somewhat severe, the other full of mercy and graciousness, a kindly and generous soul who saw the Father with face unveiled, gazing on His glory. She received that heavenly dew of the grace of the Father, as her name is interpreted. What is the dew of the Father but the Word of God, which fills the hearts of all with the waters of faith and justice?

Beautifully does the true David say to this soul what was said to Abigail: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me, and blessed be your customs.” And again He says to her: “Go in peace into your house, behold now I have heard your voice and have honored your face.

In the Canticles, too, these are the words of the bridegroom to his bride: “Show me your face and let me hear your voice.” Then she was sent away, since she had another husband who was called, in Hebrew, Nabal, which, in Latin, means foolish, harsh, unkind, ungentle, ungrateful, for he did not know how to show gratitude. Later, when her husband died, David the Prophet took her as his wife, since she was set free from the law of her husband. Through this union is signified the mystery of the Church of the Gentiles which would believe, for, after losing her husband to whom she was at first united, she made her way to Christ, bringing a dowry of piety, of humility, and of faith, and enriched with the heritage of mercy.

But here it is not this wife who is deplored, but Achinaa who was hostile to her brother, so that her brother made trouble for her. And in their persons it is said: “You have made us a byword among the heathens, a shaking of the head among the people. And the Devil, finding her off guard, tore her like a lion and took away her beauty, and overturned her vineyard and fig tree where everyone used to rest, and he made her harvest wither.

God had pity when they were parched and white with drought, and He said to the Prophet: “Lament with mee over my spouse wearing a sackcloth, over the husband of her youth,” that is to say, over the dead husband of a soul of this sort, or over the synagogue. In another place, too, He shows His disapproval because she had forgotten her promise, forgotten her love, was unmindful of grace, strayed from obedience, and had lost her former affection as a wife. He reproves her with His words, recalling to her mind and repeating to her her tenderness, her expressions of devotion: “Did you not call me one of your household, the parent and pattern of your virginity?”

For that soul the Virgin Word is dead when the Word of God has died through unbelief. He suffers grief, He appoints an intercessor, so that she will be called to penance whereby she may earn compassion. She who is prudent in understanding and beautiful to look upon, like Abigail, was won for Him in battle. Her adversaries were conquered, and her husband, who in the midst of spiritual wickedness struggled and fought so as not to lose his beautiful wife, is dead. So, like a victorious and loving spouse, he gives her sweetness and grace, cleansing from her all that might obscure her beauty. He takes off the garments of her captivity, laying aside even the hair of her head, that is, the curls of sin which seem to be superfluous parts of our person, because “for a man to wear his hair long is degrading.” Thus, in oneness of faith she may strive to reach to perfect manhood, to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ, and, laying aside all the troubles of the soul, be grounded in love, and may grow up in the Lord Jesus, bringing growth to the whole body.

This is the soul which the Law shows you in the guise of a good woman, for if you see her among the prizes of war and desire to have her as your wife: “You shall bring her,” he says, “into your house.” And in order that you may give her the whole interior of your house, the possession of all your body, you may take away her raiment, you may cut off her transgressions, and with a razor which is not too sharp, lest it come to evil, you may pare off the slough of your passion and your idle feelings. Therefore, “You will shave her head,” he says, “so that the eyes of the wise man, which are in his head, will suffer no harm.” “And she will sit,” he says, “thirty days in your house,” lamenting the sins of her generation, the lies of her wicked father, the Devil, who wishes to gather what he has not sown. Then, being cleansed by the purification of this mystical number, she may get possession of the keys of marriage.

Very aptly he says: “And after that you shall go into her,” to enter completely into your soul, and recollect yourself within her, and dwell in her, and stay with her, letting all your life be in her. So you will be not in the flesh but in the spirit, and endeavor to bring her to share your life, knowing she will give you of her goods. Enjoying her favor, may you say: “And I was a witty child and had received a good soul.” And she will answer: “I will take you, and bring you into my mother’s house, into the chamber of her that bore me.” The good mother of souls is that Jerusalem which is in heaven.

She will be your wife and, finding you, she will kiss you. And if afterwards she please you not, because she chastises her body and brings it into subjection, you will not allow her to be a slave, that is, to the pleasures of the body, nor will you make her a subject of the flesh, but let her remain free. You will not let her go, for that is to sell her; you will not despise her, but you will allow her to serve her God in purity of faith and in the sobriety of good works.

Farewell, and love us, because we love you.

Translation from FC 26.420-424, adapted by SMT

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Last updated: 5-9-2011

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