Document: Letter 43
Date: c. 389
Addressee: Horontianus
English Translation: FC 26.254-264
Summary of Contents: Answers to questions on Creation

After reading the Hexaemeron which I wrote, you told me that you were disturbed in the course of the sacred narrative and in my discussion of it because more was bestowed upon man than upon any living creature on earth, yet the earth and water produced all those things that fly or are on land or in water before man was produced for whose sake everything was made. You are asking me the reason for this: Moses was silent on this point and I dared not touch on it.

That spokesman of the divine decrees perhaps could have been purposely silent so as not to seem to set himself up as the judge and adviser of heaven’s plans. It is one thing to utter what is inspired by the Spirit of God; it is another to interpret God’s will I think that we, speaking not as interpreters of God, but gathering, as it were, the seeds of reason from human usage, can give an opinion as to why it was becoming for man to be created last. For we have the example which men give us themselves and we also realize that God Himself has instilled into other creatures those practices which man may take as an example for himself.

One who sets out a banquet, as did the rich man in the Gospel (for we must compare divine things with divine things the better to be able to gather our arguments), prepares everything beforehand, kills his bulls and fatlings, and only then invites his friends to dinner. The trifles are first made ready, then the honored guest is summoned. In this way, too, the Lord first prepared for man the food of all animals, then summoned him like a friend to His banquet. Truly is that man a friend, a partaker of divine love, an heir of glory. To man himself He says: “Friend, how didst thou come in here to the banquet?” Those things which precede are furnishings, the friend is the one who is asked last.

Take another example. What is the world but an arena full of fighting? Therefore the Lord says in the Apocalypse: “To the victor I shall give the crown of life,” and Paul says: “I have fought the good fight,” and elsewhere: “No one is crowned unless he has competed according to the rules.” He who initiated this contest is actually Almighty God. When one initiates a contest in this world, does he not prepare all that is necessary for the contest, and only after he has made ready the wreaths for rewards call those who are to contend for the crown, so that the winner may not meet with delay but depart after being given his reward? The rewards of man are the fruits of the earth and the lights of heaven. The former are for his use in the present life; the latter, for his hope of life eternal.

Like an athlete, then, he comes last into the arena; he lifts his eyes to heaven; he sees that the heavenly creation was made subject to vanity not by its own will, but by reason of Him who made it subject in hope. He sees that all creation groaned awaiting redemption. He sees that his whole task awaits him. He lifts his eyes, he sees the crowns of lights, he studies the spheres of moon and stars; “But the just who have conquered will be like the stars in heaven.” He chastises his body so that it will not defeat him in the contest; he anoints it with the oil of mercy; he practices daily exhibitions of virtue; he smears himself with dust; he runs with assurance to the goal of the course; he aims his blows, he darts his arms, but not at empty spaces; he strikes the adversary whom he does not see, because he is watching Him alone to whom all give way, even those who are not seen, at whose name spiritual powers were turned aside. It is he who poises the blow, it is Christ who strikes; he lifts his heel, Christ directs it to the wound. Lastly, although Paul did not see those whom he struck, he struck not as at the air, preaching Christ he dealt wounds to all those spiritual evils which were His enemies. Not undeservedly, then, did man enter the stadium last, and a crown was prepared for him so that heaven might go before him as being his reward.

But our struggle is not only against the spirits of evil, which are in heaven, but also against flesh and blood. We struggle with satiety, we struggle with the fruits of the earth, we struggle with wine, by which even the just man was made drunk, by which the whole army of the Jews was thrown back. We struggle with wild beasts; there is a struggle with the birds of the air, for our flesh, made fat with these, is not put in our service; we struggle with perils of journeying, with perils of waters, as Paul says; we struggle with rods from trees by which the Apostles were beaten. You see what great fights these are. Earth is man’s training ground; heaven his crown. Therefore, as courtesies precede the friend, so do rewards precede the athlete.

Consider another example. In all things the beginning and the end are the most important. If you observe a house, the foundation and roof are most important; if it be a field, it is the sowing and harvest, the planting and the vintage. How pleasant are the graftings of trees, how desirable the fruits! So, too, heaven was formed first, man last, as being a heavenly creature on earth. Although he is compared in body with the beasts, in mind he is counted among celestial beings, for, even as we have borne the likeness of the earthly, so we bear the likeness of the heavenly. How is he not heavenly who was made to the image and likeness of God?

Rightly is heaven first and last in the creation of the world, for in heaven there is what is beyond heaven, there is the God of heaven. Lastly, of him it is understood: “Heaven is my throne,” for God does not sit above the element of heaven but in the heart of man. For this reason the Lord also says: “We will come to him and make our abode with him.” Heaven, therefore, is the first of the works on earth; man is the close or end or last.

Heaven is of the world, man above the world; the one is part of the world, the other an inhabitant of paradise, Christ’s possession. Heaven is considered incorruptible, yet it passes away; man is regarded as corruptible and is clothed with incorruption; the figure of the one perishes, the other rises as being immortal. Yet, according to the authority of Scripture, the hands of the Lord fashioned both. We read of the heavens: “The heavens are the works of your hands.” Man, too, says: “Your hands have made me and formed me,” and “The heavens declare the glory of God.” As heaven is lighted with the splendor of the stars so do men shine with the light of their good works, and their deeds shine before their Father in heaven. The one is the firmament of heaven on high, the other is a similar firmament of which it is said: “Upon this rock I will build my Church;” the one is a firmament of the elements, the other of virtues, and this last is more excellent. They sucked oil out of the hard stone, for the rock is Christ’s body which redeemed heaven and the entire world.

Why should I weave these details further and, as it were, take you over the whole course? The fact is that God made man a partaker of the divine nature, as we read in the Epistle of Peter. Hence, someone says not without cause: “For we are also his offspring.” He granted us a relationship with Himself, and we are of a rational nature so that we may seek that which is divine, which is not far from each one of us, in whom we live and are and move.

When He had bestowed the greatest of graces on man, as though he were His dearest and nearest friend, He gave him everything in the world, so that no one would be without the necessities of life and the good life. One of these is the means of providing pleasure the abundance of the earth’s fruits; another is the knowledge of the secrets of heaven, which inflames the mind with love for his fellow men and longing for virtue by which we can reach the summit of divine mysteries. Both are most excellent to have, as a king of the elements, the use of the sea, and to have all the world’s wealth subject to him creatures of air, land and water; to abound in all things without labor or want in the image and likeness of the adorable Creator, living in the greatest plenty, opening a way and advancing along a path by which to reach the palace of heaven.

You will discover quite early that the traveler on this difficult road is the man who has been so fashioned in purpose of heart and will that he has little association with his body, who enters into no fellowship with vice and is not impressed by flattering words. When he rides the chariot of prosperity he does not scorn the humble, or flee sorrows, or shake off and make light of the praises of the saints, or by desire for glory and bold gain expend all the eagerness of his hope. Sadness does not bow down his mind; wrong-dealing does not break it; suspicion does not arouse it; lust does not stir it. The body’s passions do not overwhelm it; desire for vain objects and the allurements of pleasure do not disquiet it. If you add to these the virtues of chastity, soberness, and temperance, he is easily able to rein in the unruly drives of fickle passions, he sets bounds to his pleasures and desires, he puts an end to irresolution with fairness, he settles doubts with tranquility of mind and body, and, like a good judge, he keeps a harmless peace between the exterior and interior man, stilling each within himself. And if he is in distress, no evil counselor turns him back through fear from the crown of suffering; plainly, he will be brought in not only as a friend but as a son by a father, so that he may enjoy the riches of glory and His inheritance.

Quite rightly is he the last, as it were, the consummation of nature fashioned for righteousness, the judge of right among other living creatures. For example, as among men

Christ is the consummation of the law for all who believe justice, and we are, as it were, beasts in God’s sight, so the Prophet says: “I became as a brute beast before you.” Yet, what is the comparison when He redeemed those who were perishing, and we put them to death He called slaves to liberty and we put the free into captivity? But who is equal to God?

Man, therefore, came the last of all creatures, attractive in appearance, lofty in mind, so that he would be admirable to every creature, having in him, after the image of the eternal God, an invisible intelligence, clothed in human form. This is the intelligence, the power of the soul, claiming for itself like a ruler the direction of soul and body. Other creatures fear this, although they do not see it, as we fear God whom we do not see, and fear the more because we do not see Him.

Since we are in His image and likeness, as Scripture says, let us presume to speak, just as He expresses Himself in the fullness of His majesty, and sees all things sky, air, earth, sea embracing all and penetrating each one, so that nothing passes His notice and nothing exists unless it exists in Him and depends on Him and is full of Him, as He Himself says: “I fill heaven and earth, says the Lord.” In the same way man’s intelligence sees all, and is not seen, and has an invisible nature of its own. Through learning and judgment and perception the mind understands hidden matters, penetrates the secrets of the sea and the deep recesses of all the earth. She searches both parts of nature, in the likeness of the high God whom she imitates and follows, whose image is mirrored in each individual in proportionately small particles. She raises herself into the air and treads above the regions of the clouds; she soars to the heights of heaven by her desire for knowledge and her longing for wisdom; there, held fast for a while by wonder at the stars of heaven, delighted by their brilliant light, she gazes down on the things of the world. She betakes herself to Hesperus and Arcturus and the other unerring planets, and she sees that their wandering is not waywardness, that in order to visit all regions they appear to weave about and wander in and out unerringly. She soars with greater longing to the very embrace of the Father in whom is the only-begotten Son of God telling secrets of God, which will be revealed face to face in a later time. Now, He reveals in part and in mystery to those who are worthy, and He sheds forth the Spirit and from His countenance, like a torrent, a resplendent light, so that man who has been illumined may say: “And there was in my bones a flaming fire, and I am melted on all sides and cannot bear it.” And David says: “Let my sentence come forth from your presence.”

After this digression let me now speak of that vigor of mind through which she governs all outside her, gazes at scattered and far-distant things, subdues animals of greater strength, inspires in others such great respect for herself that they vie with one another in obeying her, as though she were a king, and heed her words. Though irrational, they recognize reason and they are impressed with that learning which nature did not give them. Even wild beasts, seeing her gentleness, grow gentle at her command. They often close their jaws when the sound of a man’s voice restrains them. We see hares caught without injury by the harmless teeth of dogs, and lions will let go their prey if a man’s voice is heard; leopards, too, and bears are driven on or called off by men’s words; horses neigh at men’s applause and slacken their pace because of [men’s] silence, and often, although not whipped, they outstrip those which are lashed, so much more powerfully does the whip of the tongue drive them on.

What shall I say of gifts [of creation]? In order to please man the ram nourishes his fleece and plunges into the stream in order to increase his sheen. Sheep chew richer grasses in order to distend their filled udders with the sweeter juice of milk; they suffer the pains of travail in order to give their gifts to man. Bulls groan all day under the plow which is pressed into the furrows. Camels, besides the task of carrying loads, allow themselves to be sheared like sheep. The various animals make their offering as to a king and pay an annual tax. The horse, taking delight in his rider, prances proudly and, arching his back when his master mounts, offers his back as the rider’s seat. If it still puzzles you why man was made last, let that horse teach us that man was delayed not as a slight, but as an honor. A horse carries one who came after him; he does not despise but fears him; he takes him everywhere with pain to himself. In a moment man reaches distant places, traverses long distances, now on a single horse, now in a triumphal chariot.

Since I have mentioned triumphal chariots, I must refer to the chariot of Elias in which he was carried through the air, and those chariots of elephants on which man the conqueror sits and rules those before him, although he is the last. So, too, the ship’s helmsman sits in the stern, yet he guides the whole ship. That is why, I suppose, it is said, not without purpose in the Gospel, that the Lord Jesus was asleep in the stern, and when He was awakened He commanded the wind and the sea and calmed the storm, showing that He came last because He came as the helmsman. Therefore, the Apostle says: “‘The first man, Adam, became a living soul’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that comes first but the physical, and then the spiritual,” and he added: “The first man was of the earth, earthy: the second man is from heaven, heavenly.”

Rightly, then, is the last one like the sum of the whole work. It is he alone who, like the cause of the world for which were made all things, dwells, so to speak, in all the elements lives amid beasts, swims with fish, flies above the birds, talks with angels, dwells on earth, wars in heaven, ploughs the sea, feeds in the air, is a tiller of the soil, a traveler on the deep, a fisherman in streams, a fowler in the air, an heir in heaven, a joint-heir with Christ. This he does by his energy.

Learn, too, man’s supernatural powers. Moses walked along the bottom of the sea, the Apostles upon it, Habakkuk flew without wings, Elias conquered on earth and had his triumph in heaven.

Farewell, son, and love us, because we love you.

Translation from FC 26.254-264, adapted by SMT

Ambrose Abbreviations

Back to the Writings of Ambrose

Last updated: 5-13-2011

No Responses yet