Those who have had experience of the sins of the flesh are to be admonished to observe vigilantly with how great benevolence God opens the bosom of His pity to us, if after transgressions we return to Him, when He says through the prophet, If a man put away his wife, and she go from him and become another man's, shall he return to her again? Shall not that woman be polluted and contaminated? But thou hast played the harlot with many lovers; yet return again to me, saith the Lord (Jer. iii.1). So, concerning the wife who has played the harlot and is deserted, the argument of justice is put forward: and yet to us returning after fall not justice, but pity is displayed. Whence we are surely meant to gather how great is our wickedness, if we return not, even after transgression, seeing that, when transgressing, we are spared with so great pity: or what pardon for the wicked there will be from Him who, after our sin, ceases not to call us. And indeed this mercifulness, in calling after transgression, is well expressed through the Prophet, when to man turned away from God it is said, Thine eyes shall see thy teacher, and thine ears shall hear the word of one behind thy back admonishing thee (Isai. xxx.20, 21). For indeed the Lord admonished the human race to their face, when to man, created in Paradise, and standing in free will, He declared what He ought to do or not to do. But man turned his back on the face of God, when in his pride he despised His commands. Yet still God deserted him not in his pride, in that He gave the Law for the purpose of recalling man, and sent exhorting angels, and Himself appeared in the flesh of our mortality. Therefore, standing behind our back, He admonished us, in that, even though despised, He called us to the recovery of grace. What, therefore could be said generally of all alike must needs be felt specially with regard to each. For every man hears the words of God's admonition set as it were before him, when, before he commits sin, he knows the precepts of His will. For still to stand before His face is not yet to despise Him by sinning. But, when a man forsakes the good of innocence, and of choice desires iniquity, he then turns his back on the face of God. But lo, even behind his back God follows and admonishes him, in that even after sin He persuades him to return to Himself. He recalls him that is turned away, He regards not past transgressions, He opens the bosom of pity to the returning one. We hearken, then, to the voice of one behind our back admonishing us, if at least after sins we return to the Lord inviting us. We ought therefore to feel ashamed for the pity of Him Who calls us, if we will not fear His justice: since there is the more grievous wickedness in despising Him in that, though despised, He disdains not to call us still.
But, on the other hand, those that are unacquainted with the sins of the flesh are to be admonished to fear headlong ruin the more anxiously, as they stand upon a higher eminence. They are to be admonished to be aware that the more prominent be the place they stand on, so much the more frequent are the arrows of the lier-in-wait by which they are assailed. For he is wont to rouse himself the more ardently, the more stoutly he sees himself to be vanquished: and so much the more he scorns and feels it intolerable to be vanquished, as he perceives the unbroken camp of weak flesh to be set in array against him. They are to be admonished to look up incessantly to the rewards, and then undoubtedly they will gladly tread under foot the labours of temptation which they endure. For, if attention be fixed on the attained felicity apart from the passage to it, the toil of the passage becomes light. Let them hear what is said through the Prophet; Thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs, Whoso shall have kept my sabbaths, and chosen the things that l would, and kept my covenant, I will give unto them in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters (Isai. lvi.4, 5). For they indeed are eunuchs, who, suppressing the motions of the flesh, cut off within themselves affection for wrong-doing. Moreover, in what place they are held with the Father is shewn, forasmuch as in the Father's house, that is in His eternal mansion, they are preferred even before sons. Let them hear what is said through John; These are they which have not been defiled with women; for they are virgins, and follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth (Rev. xiv.4); and how they sing a song which no one can utter but those hundred and forty four thousand. For indeed to sing a song to the Lamb singularly is to rejoice with Him for ever beyond all the faithful, even for incorruption of the flesh. Yet the rest of the elect can hear this song, although they cannot utter it, because, through charity, they are joyful in the exaltation of those others, though they rise not to their rewards. Let those who are unacquainted with the sins of the flesh hear what the Truth in person says concerning this purity; Not all receive this word (Matth. xix.11). Which thing He denoted as the highest, in that He spoke of it as not belonging to all: and, in foretelling that it would be difficult to receive it, He signifies to his hearers with what caution it should be kept when received.
Those who are unacquainted with the sins of the flesh are therefore to be admonished both to know that virginity surpasses wedlock, and yet not to exalt themselves above the wedded: to the end that, while they put virginity first, and themselves last, they may both keep to that which they esteem as best, and also keep guard over themselves in not vainly exalting themselves.
They are to be admonished to consider that commonly the life of the continent is put to shame by the action of secular persons, when the latter take on themselves works beyond their condition, and the former do not stir up their hearts to the mark of their own order. Whence it is well said through the Prophet, Be thou ashamed, O Sidon, saith the sea (Isai. xxiii.4). For Sidon is as it were brought to shame by the voice of the sea, when the life of him who is fortified, and as it were stedfast, is reproved by comparison with the life at those who are secular and fluctuating in this world. For often there are some who, returning to the Lord after sins of the flesh, shew themselves the more ardent in good works as they see themselves the more liable to condemnation for bad ones: and often certain of those who persevere in purity of the flesh seeing that they have less in the past to deplore, think that the innocency of their life is fully sufficient for them, and inflame themselves with no incitements of ardour to fervour of spirit. And for the most part a life burning with love after sin becomes more pleasing to God than innocence growing torpid in security. Whence also it is said by the voice of the Judge, Her sins which are many are forgiven, for she loved much (Luke vii.47); and, Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth more than over ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance (xv.7). Which thing we the sooner gather from experience itself, if we weigh the judgments of our own mind. For we love the land which produces abundant fruit after thorns have been ploughed out of it more than that which has had no thorns, but which, when cultivated, yields a barren harvest. Those who know not the sins of the flesh are to be admonished not to prefer themselves to others for the loftiness of their superior order, while they know not how great things are done by their inferiors better than by themselves. For in the inquisition of the righteous judge the quality of actions changes the merits of orders. For who, considering the very outward appearance of things, can be ignorant that in the nature of gems the carbuncle is preferred to the jacinth? But still a jacinth of cerulean colour is preferred to a pale carbuncle; because to the former its show of beauty supplies what the order of nature denied it, and the latter, which natural order had preferred, is debased by the quality of its colour. Thus, then, in the human race both some in the better order are the worse, and some in the worse order are the better; since these by good living transcend the lot of their lower state, and those lessen the merit of their higher place by not coming up to it in their behaviour.