Document: Letter 45
Date: 385
Addressee: Sabinus, bishop of Placentia
English Translation: FC 26.129-134
Summary of Contents: Replies to questions concerning Paradise

After reading my Hexaemeron you determined to ask me if I have added anything on paradise, and indicated that you are very anxious to learn my ideas about it. I wrote on this subject a long time ago when I was not yet an experienced bishop.

I have found that most persons’ opinions about this are divided. Josephus, simply as a historian, says the place was planted with trees and many shrubs and watered, moreover, by a river which branched into four streams. After its waters were gathered into one, this earth was not drained entirely nor did its springs become dry. Even today it breaks forth into fountains and sends streams of water with which, like a loving mother, from full udders it nourishes its young.

Some hold one opinion, others another, yet all agree that in paradise were planted the tree of life and the tree of knowledge which distinguishes good and evil, together with other trees, full of strength, full of life-giving powers, breathing and rational creatures. Wherefore one concludes that the real paradise cannot be considered earthly, nor planted in any particular spot, but situated in the principal part of our nature, which is animated and vivified by the virtues of the soul and the infusion of the spirit of God.

Moreover, Solomon, by inspiration, clearly declared that paradise is within man. And because he expresses mysteries of the soul and the word, or of Christ and the Church, he says of the virgin soul, or of the Church which he desired to present a chaste virgin to Christ: “My sister, my spouse, is a garden enclosed, a garden enclosed, a fount sealed up.”

The word ‘paradise’ in Greek is rendered ‘garden’ in Latin. Susanna was in a paradise (orchard), as we read also in Latin. And Adam was in a paradise, which is also our reading. Do not be disturbed if some Latin texts have the reading ‘garden’ and others ‘paradise.’

Where the virgin is, there, too, is the chaste wife. The chosen virgin holds her seal and enclosures, both in a paradise, so that in the shady bowers of virtues she may be shielded from the fevers of the body and the passions of the flesh.

Therefore, paradise is in the higher part of our nature, luxuriant with the growths of many opinions, where God in the beginning put the tree of life, that is, the root of piety, for this is the very substance of our life, if we give due homage to our Lord and God.

He has planted in us, too, a nursery of the knowledge of good and evil, for man alone among other living creatures of earth has the knowledge of good and evil. There are also many other plants whose fruits are virtues.

Now, since God knew that man’s affection, capable of grasping knowledge, would incline more quickly toward cunning than the perfection of wisdom (for the quality of His handiwork could not be hidden from the Judge who had set down definite boundaries in our souls), He wished to eliminate cunning from paradise and, as the provident Author of our salvation, to put therein the zest for life and for the practice of virtue. So He ordered man to eat of every tree in paradise, but not of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Since every creature, however, is subject to passion, lust stole into man’s affections with the stealth of a serpent. Moses was quite right in representing pleasure in the likeness of a serpent: it is prone on its belly like a serpent, not walking on feet or raised on legs, but it glides along, so to speak, with the slippery folded curves of its whole body. Earth is its food, as it is the serpent’s, for it has no comprehension of heavenly food. It feeds on things of the body and it is changed into many sorts of pleasures, and bends to and fro in twisting wreathes. It has venom in its fangs, and with these the dissolute individual is disemboweled, the glutton destroys himself, the spendthrift is undone. How many men has wine wrecked, drunkenness destroyed, gluttony bloated?

Now I know why the Lord God breathed into the face of man. There is the seat and abode and enticement of lust in the eyes, the ears, the nostrils, the mouth [breathed there] in order to fortify our senses against such lust. These things He infused into us as the serpent did cunning. For it is not pleasure, but labor and continuous meditation, along with the grace of God, which give perfect wisdom.

Yet, because the posterity of the human race is involved in the snares of the serpent, let us imitate the cunning in him so as not to run our head into danger, but guard it unharmed above all else, “For our head is Christ.” Let it remain unharmed so that the serpent’s venom may not have power to harm us, for “Wisdom with riches is good,” that is, with faith, for those who believe in the Lord have riches.

But if the first man, who was placed in paradise and talked with God, could fall so easily, though made from virgin clay, but lately formed at God’s word and created, not yet clotted with the gore of homicide and slaughter, not polluted with shameful and unbecoming deeds, not yet condemned in our flesh to the curse of a tainted heredity how much more easily later on has the slippery road to sin brought the human race to a greater precipice, since one generation in turn succeeds another, a generation more base succeeding one less wicked?

We see how a magnet has such natural force as to attract iron and communicate itself thereto, as some persons, desirous of experimenting, have applied iron rings to the magnet so that it holds all of them in the same way. Then, if to the ring to which the magnet clings they add another ring and so on in succession, although it penetrates each by its natural strength, it holds the first with a stronger, the last with a weaker grasp. How much truer it is that the condition and nature of the human race has fallen from a purer into a less pure state when it reaches the more wicked?

If the natural law is weakened in substances which are incapable of sin, how much more is its vigor dulled by souls and bodies tainted with evil! For, when evil had appeared and innocence been destroyed, there was no one to do good, not even one. The Lord came to restore grace to nature, in fact, to give it increase, that where sin abounded grace might more abound. It is clear, then, that God is the Author of man, and that there is one God, not many gods One who made the world, and one world only, not many, as the philosophers maintain.

First, therefore, He created the world and then the inhabitants of the world for whom all the world was to be a fatherland. Even today, if, wherever the wise man goes, he is a citizen and knows his own, nowhere considering himself a mere pilgrim or a foreigner, how much more was that first man an inhabitant of all the world, and as the Greeks say, a ‘cosmopolite,’ for he was the final work of God, continually talking with God, a fellow citizen of the saints, a groundbed of virtues? Placed over all creatures of earth, sea, and sky, he considered the whole world his dominion; God guarded him as His handiwork, and as a good parent and maker never abandoned him. In fine, He so cherished this creature that He redeemed him when he had been lost, He received him back when he had been banished, and when he died He brought him back to life through the Passion of His only-begotten Son. God, then, is man’s Author, and as a good artisan He loves His own handiwork; as a kind father He does not abandon one He has redeemed, but like a good householder reinstates him in the riches of His own possessions.

Let us beware of having that man, our understanding, enervated by woman, that is, by passion, for she was deceived and beguiled by the pleasures of the senses. Let her not enslave and drag him over to her laws and purposes. Let us flee from sensual delight as from a serpent. It has many allurements, particularly in man. Other living things are wooed by the desire for food, but man, in so far as he has more varied senses of eyes and ears, has so much the greater dangers.

Farewell, and love us as you do, because we love you.

Translation from FC 26.129-134, adapted by SMT

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