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223

LETTER LII

To Another Holy Virgin.

1. It is the source of great joy to me to hear that you are willing to strive after that true and perfect joy, which belongs not to earth but to heaven; that is, not to this, vale of tears, but to that city of God which the rivers of the flood thereof make glad (Ps. xlvi. 4). And in very truth that is the true and only joy which is won, not from the creature, but from the Creator; which, if once you possess it, no man shall take from you. For, compared with it, all joy from other sources is sorrow, all pleasure is pain, all sweetness is bitter, all beauty is mean, everything else, in fine, whatever may have power to please, is irksome. Indeed, you are my witness in this matter. Ask yourself, for you will believe yourself more readily. Does not the Holy Spirit proclaim this very truth in your heart? Have you not been persuaded of the truth hereof by Him long before I spoke? For how would you, being a woman, or rather a young girl so fair and ingenuous, have thus overcome the weakness of your sex and years; how could you thus hold cheap your extreme beauty and noble birth, unless all such things as are subject to the bodily senses were already vile in your eyes, in comparison with those which inwardly strengthen you to overcome 224the earthly, and charm you to prefer things heavenly?

2. And this is right. Poor and transient and earthly are the things which you despise, but the things you wish for are grand, heavenly, and everlasting. I will say still more, and still speak the truth. You leave the darkness to approach the light; you come forth from the depth of the sea and gain the harbour; you breathe again in happy freedom after a wretched slavery; in a word, you pass from death to life; though up till now, living according to your own will and not God’s, to your own law and not that of God, while living you were dead—living to the world, but dead to God; or rather, to speak more truly, living neither to the world nor to God. For when you wished while wearing the habit and name of religion to live like one in the world, you alone had rejected God from you by your own wish. But when you could not effect your foolish wish, then it was not you that rejected the world, but the world you. And so, rejecting God, and rejected by the world, you had fallen between two stools,8181    Compare in this place Imitation of Christ, Bk. i. c. 25. “A religious person who has become slothful and lukewarm has trouble upon trouble, and suffers anguish on every side, because he lacks consolation from within, and is debarred from seeking it without.” Read also Sermons 3 and 5 upon the Ascension. as they say. You were not living unto God, because you would not, nor to the world, because you could not: you were anxious for one, unwelcome to the other, and yet dead to both. So it must happen to those who promise and do not perform, who make one show to the world, and in their hearts desire something else. But now, by the mercy of God, 225you are beginning to live again, not to sin, but to righteousness, not to the world, but to Christ, knowing that to live to the world is death, and even to die in Christ is life. Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord (Rev. xiv. 13).

3. So from this time I shall not mention again your unfulfilled vow, nor your disregard of your profession. From henceforth your purity of body will not be impaired by a corrupt mind, nor your name of virgin disgraced by disorderly conduct; from henceforth the name you bear will not be a deception, nor the veil you wear meaningless. For why hitherto have you been addressed as “nun”8282    This expression is borrowed from the Rule of S. Benedict, in which it is said that the younger shall call their elders nonna (in monasteries for men nonnus), Chap. lxiii. and “holy virgin” when, professing holiness, you did not live holily? Why did you let the veil on your head give a false impression of the reverence due to you, while your eye launched burning and passionate glances? Your head was clothed, indeed, with a veil, but it was lifted up with pride, and though you were under the symbol of modesty, your speech sounded far from modest. Your immoderate laughter, unreserved demeanour, and showy dress would have accorded better with the wimple8383   Wimple. So all the MS. codices that I have seen, viz., at the Royal Library, Colbert Library, Sorbonne, Royal College of Navarre, S. Victor of Paris MS., MS. of Compiègne, and others at other libraries, which have “with the wimple” (wimplatæ), though all editions except two (viz., that of Paris, 1494, and of Lyons, 1530) have “one puffed up” (uni inflatæ). They ask what “with the wimple” (wimplatæ) means. Of course it is a word formed from wimple or guimple, owing to the easy change of g to w. In French “guimpe” or “guimple” is a woman’s head-dress, once common with women of noble birth (as we learn from the old pictures of noble ladies), but the more simple and modest refrained from wearing it. So we read in the French poet, contained in Borellus’ Glossarium Gallicum:— Moult fut humiliant et simple Elle eut une voile en lieu de guimple.
   Which may be rendered—
She was a lowly girl and simple, And wore a veil in place of wimple.
   Now, however, the word “wimple” is scarcely heard outside the cloisters of nuns.
226 than the veil. But behold now, at the bidding of Christ, the old things have passed away, and all things begin to be made new, since you are changing the care of the body for that of the soul, and are desirous of a beautiful life more than beautiful raiment. You are doing what you ought to do, or rather what you ought to have done long ago, for long ago you had vowed to do it. But the Spirit, who breathes not only where He will but when He will, had not then breathed on you, and so, perhaps, you are to be excused for what you have done hitherto. But if you suffer the ardent zeal wherewith, beyond a doubt, your heart is now hot again, and the divine flame that burns in your thoughts, to be quenched, what remains for you but the certain knowledge that you must be destined for that flame which cannot be quenched. Nay, let the same Spirit rather quench in you all carnal affections, lest haply (which God forbid!) the holy desires of your soul, so late conceived, should be stifled by them, and you yourself be cast into hell fire.


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