Peter Comestor: Sermon 102 (English)

Peter Comestor: Sermon 102, The Book of Life

My working translation of the Latin text from PL 171 posted here:

Translation by Jonathan Hall, University of Virginia.
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Posted 12 September 2007. Corrections and suggestions welcome; e-mail
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Sermon 102 [De diversis 15]: The Book of Life

“Hear, O Israel, the commandments of life, and write them in your heart, and I will give you a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut. 4:1).

Brothers, you should diligently attend to these words. For the ones put before you are not my words, but the Lord’s. I do not offer them to you as author, but announce it like a messenger. Three things in succession are proposed to us by God: by what name we are called, and what we are held to do, and third, what reward we await.

We should first examine the honor of the name we will share. For we are called Christians. And what more beautiful, what more honorable to someone, could be imagined than the name of his Creator? If we participate in the name of something, we participate also in the thing itself. For whoever calls himself a Christian, ought himself to walk just as Christ walked, and thus we will really be Israel. For Israel is translated “seeing God,” which without doubt we await, we who imitate Christ. But how this could be, that we could merit seeing God, the vision of whom no souls, nor angels reach, because the Scriptures say, “No one has ever seen God” (Jn. 1:18), and the Lord said to Moses, “No human being will see me and live” (Ex. 33:20). From this it is known, since a person has exterior eyes, which are bodily, and interior eyes, which are mental, that by these spiritual eyes the true Christian reaches the vision of God. This happens while we are on the way, by faith, in the [heavenly] homeland, truly face to face (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12). Here, this is considered from a distance, darkly (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12); there, it is considered in proportion to the thing itself, which is eternal life: “For this is eternal life, that they might know you, and Jesus Christ whom you sent” (Jn. 17:3). And just how we should follow him, he himself declares to us, saying, “Hear, O Israel, the commandments of life,” as if he said, “O Christian, who are seeing God by faith, hear the commandments of life, by observation of which you are protected in eternity!”

But because those things which are heard are easily forgotten by the human mind, those things which are commended in the Scriptures, and they are preserved longer by recalling them to memory, the Lord added, “And write them.” Perhaps you will say about this, “We who did not learn letters, nor know how to write, how can we write?” Open your ears: I will reveal both how you know to write a book, and likewise to read it, a book which you can always have with you without any burden, and by whose teaching you will be wise, as soon as you can have it. It is more precious than gold, and you can have it without money or coin.

You know what a scribe usually does. First, he cleanses the parchment of fat with a razor, and removes the big dirt. Then, he wipes off the hairs and sinews with pumice, which if he did not do, he could not succeed in putting down letters, nor could he keep it long. After that, he lays down a rule, so that he can keep order as he writes. All of which you also ought to do, if you want to have the book which I propose. The parchment of this book will be your heart, which you will have from the words of the Lord, if you see what follows. For after he said, “Write then,” he added, “in your heart.” By this he clearly declared our heart to be the parchment for receiving the commandments of God, which is first cleansed and the dirt removed by the razor of knowledge. About this the Lord says in the Gospel, “Blessed are those with a clean heart, for they will see God” (Mt. 5:8). The Prophet also asks this, saying, “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps. 51:10). The razor of the heart is penitence, by which crimes are removed. It consists of three things: contrition of the heart, confession of the mouth, and satisfaction of a work. To beginners, this is hard and troublesome, but to those who love, it is easy and not burdensome. About this [the Lord says,] “My yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Mt. 11:30). Certain ones of you, in as much as you do not desire to have a clean heart, when some satisfaction is imposed on you, always want to make up an excuse. They say, “How can I fast while others are eating?” and yet they can perhaps sin, when others are refraining. Or if some are commanded as satisfaction to give to the poor, they say their means are not sufficient to them for so much alms—yet nothing seems to be lacking from them to perpetrate evil things. And for such people the yoke of the Lord is not light, because they do not love, nor desire to have a clean heart. Thus in such people no good can last for long.

After cleaning it with the pumice of prayer and alms, the hairs, that is, venial sins, are to be removed. These consist in an excess of laughter, or in an overabundance of food, or in the enjoyment of gossip, or rumors, all of which, if they are turned to use, are crimes. After this, it is proper to lay down a rule for our heart, and thus we can keep order as we write. For certain ones of us have a distorted heart. For when they are prosperous, they praise God; it is said of them, “He will acknowledge you when you do good to him” (Ps. 49:18). When somehow he meets with adversity, he blasphemes, saying “God is not being fair, and the way of the Lord is not fair, nor is he being kind,” when on the contrary he appears very good to the upright. About this the Prophet [says], “How good God is to Israel, to those who are with an upright heart!” (Ps. 73:1). And thus, so that God is always with us, whether in adversity or in prosperity, it is right that as the rule of our heart by which we should be guided we should set the lives of the holy fathers down to imitate: that of that athlete, the good Job, and many others, that of Paul, Martin, and Lawrence. We should consider that the father corrects the son whom he loves. Therefore, have an upright heart, blessing the Lord in all things, knowing that if he sent adversity on you, it is for the correction of sin; if he sent prosperity, it is that you might distribute it to others. Therefore, say always with the Prophet, “I will bless the Lord at all times, his praise will always be in my mouth. Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, just ones, and glorify, all of upright heart” (Ps. 34:1; 32:11).

Therefore, when you have prepared your heart, nothing remains except that I should teach you what you should write. On the first page and the first rule write, “Your God is one God” (Deut. 6:4), that is, believe in the omnipotent Father and love him.

On the second rule of the same page write, “You will not take the name of your God in vain” (Ex. 20:7; Deut. 5:11), that is, believe the Son to be not at all inferior to the Father according to divinity but equal to the Father, and love him. For he dishonors the Father who believes him to have an inferior Son, as if jealous, or unable to beget a Son equal to him. And thus it prohibits believing things about the Son which are not to be believed about the Father himself, and committing perjury or swearing frivolously, which is a great sin.

On the third rule write, “Keep the Sabbath Day,” (cf. Deut. 5:12) that is, believe in the Holy Spirit, because he is our rest and our consolation, both in the present, when on the way, and in the future, when in the [heavenly] homeland. For Sabbath means “rest,” by which we understand the Holy Spirit. One is said to observe it who does not offend it. See, on this page are written the things which pertain especially to the love of God, and this represents the Trinity.

On the second page you should write the things which pertain to the love of neighbor, of which the first is, “Honor father and mother,” (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16), not only offering words, but giving them the things they need, or helping them. However, we do not show as much reverence as we ought, nor give the things they need, but we take away their own things, while the “son asks prematurely about the father’s age” (Ovid, Metamorphoses I.148). But yet it ties on fruit, when it says, “So that you might live long on the earth” (Ex. 20:12; cf. Deut. 5:16), not only in the land of dying, where we clearly see many good things given by their loving parents, but also in the land of living, where no end is anticipated, and they will be rewarded with eternal goods (the land is called that of the dying, where no one comes who does not die, or is dead). But how could they love strangers, who have nothing to do with them, over those who, although I overlook other things, are their flesh and blood?

It follows: “You will not kill” (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17), in which is prohibited murder, whether of body or soul. For there can be murders by act and will of people both living and walking with me, as well as murders of soul by mere corruption by example, when we bring down a neighbor into the error of evil.

Sixth is the commandment of God, “You will not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:14; Deut. 5:18), where is prohibited all illicit sexual intercourse. For all sexual intercourse is illicit, and a criminal sin, other than that which is with a legitimate wife, in which case even excess can be a sin.

Seventh is “You will not steal” (Ex. 20:15; Deut. 5:19), in which is prohibited all pillage, all theft, and all kinds of usury. For who more deserves to be called a thief and a robber than he who when I am sleeping and when I am waking, secretly, not just now, but continually, steals and takes away my things from me?

Eighth is “You will not give false testimony” (Ex. 20:16; Deut. 5:20). By this is prohibited lying and perjury.

Ninth is “You will not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Ex. 20:17; Deut. 5:21), where coveting another’s wife is prohibited. But wasn’t this said earlier, when the Lord prohibited adultery? But because there the act is prohibited, here the desire is: “For if anyone looks at a woman to covet her, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5:28).

The tenth commandment follows, which is “You will not covet your neighbor’s property, not his servant, nor maidservant, nor anything which is his” (Ex. 20:17; Deut. 5:21), in which are prohibited not only pillage and theft, but also the desire and the will to have another’s things.

You see what it is proper to write. After all of these things are written in your heart, it is necessary to protect this book, in case some enemy is permitted to inspect it, or to erase it by applying dirt, or to write in place of them other antithetical things. For our adversary the devil always lies in wait for us, and he erases these things as much as he can, and he writes the opposites, namely, the criminal sins. For to every one of them there is some antithesis. The antithesis of the first commandment is theft, for the soul is stolen by thinking vain things, as one abandons truth who clings to falsehood, following the falsehood of idols; the second, error; the third, love of the world; the fourth, disrespect; the fifth, cruelty; the sixth, fornication; the seventh, greed; the eighth, falsehood; the ninth, adultery; the tenth, desire; and these things are of the devil. And thus you know for certain, if you find any of these in your heart, it will not be a commandment of God, but rather of the devil. Therefore, we ought to assign a locksmith to this book, namely, the grace of God against the cunning of the enemy, which is helpful to prepare for all these things. This received fortification repels impostors far away, but which are thrown in at once when grace leaves. You will have this book; you will be able to read it anywhere, even with closed eyes.

If you ask about the prize which those who write this on their heart and who comply with the commandments of the Lord are rewarded with, hear the Lord, who deceives no one, nor will ever deceive, and whose every word is true: “I will give you a land flowing with milk and honey.” This land is the best, in which you find rivers running with milk and honey; but this is what is said: “[one] running with milk and honey.” By milk, which is from the flesh and blood of animals and is both white and nourishing to bodies, is understood the clarity and glorification of our flesh. For then will our bodies blaze like the sun (cf. Mt. 13:43). By honey, which is sweet-tasting and is made from dew sent from heaven and from flowers, is understood the celestial blessedness of our souls. Therefore this land is the heavenly homeland, where we will be blessed in fullness, in both body and soul, receiving the double robes, namely, agility, immortality, splendor, and impassibility of body, and full knowledge of God, which God promises to those who love him; to which our Lord Jesus Christ himself thinks fit to guide us, who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.