Light, life, and love selections from the German Mystics

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NOW the thieves who were crucified with Jesus reviled Him. But after a while, the one who hung on the right side of Christ, when he saw His great patience and long-suffering, wherewith He so lovingly prayed to His Father for those who cast reproaches upon Him and cruelly tortured Him, became entirely changed, and began to be moved with very great sorrow and repentance for his sins. And he showed this outwardly, when he rebuked his fellow-thief, who continued to revile Christ, saying: "Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?" "Although" (he would say) "thou art so obstinate as not to fear men, and thinkest nought of thy bodily pain, yet surely thou must fear God, in the last moments of thy life--God, who hath power to destroy both thy body and soul in hell. And though we suffer the same punishment with Him, our deserts are very different. We, indeed, suffer justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds, but this man hath done nothing amiss." He, who but lately was a blasphemer, is now a confessor and preacher, he distinguishes good from evil, blaming the sinner, and excusing the innocent: the unbelieving thief has become the confessor of almighty God. O good Jesus, this sudden change is wrought by Thy right hand, at which he hung. Thy right hand touched him inwardly, and forthwith he is changed into another man. O Lord, in this Thou hast declared Thy patience, out of a stone Thou hast raised up a child unto Abraham. Verily, the penitent thief received the light of faith solely from that bright light on the candlestick of the Cross, which shone there in the darkness and scattered the shades of night. But what does this signify, save that our Lord Jesus, out of the greatness of His goodness, looked upon him with the eyes of His mercy, although He found no merit in him, except what it pleased Him out of His goodness to bestow? For as God gives to His elect, out of His goodness alone, what no one has a right to demand, so out of His justice He gives to the wicked what they deserve. For this cause David says: "He saved me because He desired me." And this is why the thief, before the Lord touched his heart with the beams of His grace and love, joined the other thief in reviling Christ, thus showing first what his own character was, and afterwards what was wrought in him by grace. At first he acted like the other, being, like him, a child of wrath; but when the precious blood of Christ was shed as the price of our redemption and paid to the Father for our debt, then the thief asked God to give him an alms for his good, and at once received it. For how can one alms diminish that inexhaustible treasure? How could our tender Lord, whose property is always to have mercy, have refused his request? Indeed He gave him more than he asked. Yet how could the thief escape the glow of the fire which was burning so near him? Truly this was the fire, which the Father had sent down from heaven to earth, which had long smouldered, but now, kindled anew, and fed by the wood of the Cross, and sprinkled with the oil of mercy, and fanned, as it were, by the reproaches and blasphemies of the Jews, sent up its flames to heaven, by which that thief was quite kindled and set on fire, and his love became as strong as death, so that he said: "I indeed suffer no grievous penalty, for it is less than I deserve; but that this innocent One, who has done no wrong, should be so tortured, contrary to justice and righteousness, this, truly, adds grievous sorrow to my sorrow." O splendid faith of this thief! He contemned all the punishment that might be inflicted on him: he feared not the rage of the people, who were barking like mad dogs against Jesus: he cared not for the chief priests: he feared not the executioners with their weapons and instruments of torture; but in the presence of them all, with a fearless heart he confessed that Christ was the true Son of God, and Lord of the whole world: and at the same time he confounded the Jews by confessing that He had done nothing amiss, and therefore that they had crucified Him unjustly. O wondrous faith! O mighty constancy! O amazing love of this poor thief, love that cast out all fear! He was indeed well drunken with that new wine which in the wine-press of the Cross had been pressed out of that sweet cluster, Jesus Christ, and therefore he confessed Christ without shame before all the people. At the very beginning of the Passion, the apostles and disciples had forsaken Christ and fled; even St Peter, frightened by the voice of one maidservant, had denied Christ. But this poor thief did not forsake Him even in death, but confessed Him to be the Lord of heaven in the presence of all those armed men. Who can do justice to the merits of this man? Who taught him so quickly that faith of his, and his clear knowledge of all the virtues, save the very Wisdom of the Father, Jesus Christ, who hung near him on the Cross? Him whom the Jews could not or would not know, in spite of the promises made to the patriarchs, the fulfilment of prophecies, the teaching of the Scriptures, and the interpretation of allegories, this poor thief learned to know by repentance. He confessed Christ to be the Son of God, though he saw Him full of misery, want, and torment, and dying from natural weakness. He confessed Him at a time when the apostles, who had seen His mighty works, denied Him. The nails were holding his hands and feet fixed to the cross; he had nothing free about him, except his heart and his tongue; yet he gave to God all that he could give to Him, and, in the words of Scripture, "with his heart he believed unto righteousness, and with his tongue he made confession of Christ unto salvation." O infinite and unsearchable mercy of God! For what manner of man was he when he was sent to the cross, and what when he left it? (Not that it was his own cross, that wrought this change, but the power of Christ crucified.) He came to the cross stained with the blood of his fellow-man; he was taken down from it cleansed by the blood of Christ. He came to the cross still savage and full of rage, and while he was upon it he became so meek and pitiful that he lamented for the sufferings of another more than for his own. One member only was left to him, and at the eleventh hour he came to work in God's vineyard, and yet so eagerly did he labour that he was the first to finish his work and receive his reward. Indeed he behaved like a just man; for he first accused himself and confessed his sins, saying, "and we, indeed, justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds." Secondly, he excused Christ, and confessed that He was the Just One when he said "but this Man hath done nothing amiss." Thirdly, he showed brotherly love, for he said, "dost not thou fear God?" Fourthly, with all his members, or at least with all that he could offer, and with loving eyes and a devout heart and a humble spirit, he turned himself to Christ and prayed earnestly, "Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom." How great was the justice and humility and resignation which he showed in this prayer, for he asked only for a little remembrance of himself, acknowledging that he was not worthy to ask for anything great. Nor did he pray for the safety of his body, for he gladly desired to die for his sins. It was more pleasant for him to die with Christ than to live any longer. Nor did he pray that our Lord would deliver him from the pains of hell, or of purgatory, nor did he ask for the kingdom of heaven; but he resigned himself entirely to the will of God, and offered himself altogether to Christ, to do what He would with him. In his humility he prayed for nothing except for grace and mercy, for which David also prayed when he said, "Deal with Thy servant according to Thy mercy." And therefore, because he had prayed humbly and wisely, the Eternal Wisdom, Who reads the hearts of all who pray, heard his prayer, and, opening wide the rich storehouse of His grace, bestowed upon him much more than he had dared to ask. O marvellous goodness of God! How plainly dost Thou declare in this, that Thou desirest not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live. Now Thou hast manifested and fulfilled what Thou didst promise aforetime by Thy prophet: "When the wicked man shall mourn for his sins, I will remember his iniquity no more." Thou didst not impose upon him many years of severe penance, nor many sufferings in purgatory for the expiation of his sins; but just as if Thou hadst quite forgotten his crimes, and couldst see nothing in him but virtue, Thou didst say: "This day shalt thou be with Me in paradise." O immeasurable compassion of God! Our tender Lord forgot all the countless crimes which that poor thief had done, and forgave him when he repented, and gave so great and splendid a reward to the good which there was in him, small indeed though it was. Our loving God is very rich; He needs not our gifts; but He seeks for a heart which turns to Him with lowliness and resignation, such a heart as He found in this poor thief. For He says Himself: "turn to Me, and I will turn to you." And so when this thief so courageously and effectively turned to God, his prayer was at once not only accepted but answered. For our Lord did not reject his prayer, or say to him: "See how I hang here in torment, and I behold before My eyes My mother in sore affliction, and I have not yet spoken one word to her, so that to hear thee now would not be just." No, our Lord said nothing of this kind to the thief. Rather, He heard his prayer at once, and made answer in that sweet word, "Amen, I say unto thee, this day shalt thou be with Me in paradise." O tender goodness, O marvellous mercy of God! O great wisdom of the thief! He saw that the treasures of Christ were wide open, and were being scattered abroad. Who then should forbid him to take as much as would pay what he owed to his Lord? And O the accursed hardness of the impenitent thief, whom neither the rebuke of his associate, nor the patience of Christ, nor the many signs of love and mercy that shone forth in Christ, could melt or convert! He saw that alms were plentiful at the rich man's gate, that more was given than was asked for, and yet he was too proud and obstinate to ask. He saw that life and the kingdom of heaven were being granted, and yet he would not bend his heart to wish for them: therefore he shall not have them. He loved better revilings and curses, and they shall come unto him, and that for all eternity. These new first-fruits of the grape, which our Lord gathered on the wood of the Cross from our barren soil, by much sweat of His brow and much watering with His own precious blood, He sent with great joy as a precious gift to His heavenly Father, by His celestial messengers the holy angels. But if there is joy among the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth, how must they rejoice and exult at the salvation of this thief, of whom they had almost despaired? We can picture to ourselves with what joy the Father of heaven received these first-fruits of the harvest of His Son's Passion. But Christ Himself, though He felt some joy at the thief's conversion, was still more afflicted thereby, for by His wisdom He foresaw that this thief would be the cause of perdition to many, who would resolve to pass their whole lives in sin, hoping to obtain pardon and grace at the moment of death. Truly a most foolish hope, for nowhere in the Scriptures do we read that it has so happened to any man. In truth, they who seek after God only when they must, will not, it is to be feared, find Him near them in their time of need. In the meantime, none can trust too much in God, and no one has ever been forsaken by Him, who has turned to Him with his whole heart, and leant upon Him with loving confidence.
THERE stood also by the Cross of Jesus His most holy and ever-virgin mother Mary; not in order that His sufferings might thereby be lessened, but that they might be greatly augmented. For if any creature could have given consolation to the Lord while He hung on the Cross, no one could have done it so fitly as His blessed mother. But since it was God's will that Christ should die the most bitter of deaths, and end His Passion without any comfort or relief, but with true resignation, His mother's presence brought Him no consolation, but rather added to His sufferings, for her sufferings were thereby added to His, and this added yet more to His affliction. Who then, O good Jesus can discover by meditation how great was Thy inward grief, for Thou knowest the hearts of all, when Thou sawest all the body of Thy holy mother tortured by inward compassion, even as Thou wast tortured on the Cross, and her tender heart and maternal breast pierced with the sword of sharp sorrow, her face pale as death, telling the anguish of her soul, and almost dead, yet unable to die. When Thou beheldest her hot tears, flowing down abundantly like sweet rivers upon her gracious cheeks, and over all her face, all witnesses to Thee that she shared in Thy sorrow and love; when Thou heardest her sad laments, forced from her by the weight of her affliction; when Thou sawest that same tender mother, melted away with the heat of love, her strength quite failing her, worn out and exhausted by the pains of Thy Passion, which wasted her away; all this, truly, was a new affliction to Thee on the Cross; it was itself a new Cross. For Thou alone, by the spear of ,Thy pity, didst explore the weight and grievousness of her woes, which to men are beyond comprehension. All this, indeed, greatly increased the pain of Thy Passion, because Thou wast crucified not only in Thy own body, but in Thy mother's heart; for her Cross was Thy Cross, and Thine was hers. O how bitter was Thy Passion, sweet Jesus! Great indeed was Thy outward suffering, but far more grievous was Thy inward suffering, which Thy heart experienced at Thy mother's anguish. It was now, beyond doubt, that the sword of sorrow pierced her through, for the queen of martyrs was terribly and mortally wounded in that part which is impassible--that is, the soul; she bore the death of the Cross in that part which could not die, suffering all the more her grievous inward death, as outward death departed further from her. Who, O most loving mother, can recount or conceive in his mind the immeasurable sorrows of thy soul, or thine inward woes? Him whom thou didst bring forth without pain, as a blessed mother free from the curse of our first mother Eve, who instead of the pains of labour wast filled with joy of spirit, and who for thy refreshment didst listen to the sweet songs of the angels as they praised thy Son, thou hast now seen slain before thine eyes with the greatest cruelty and tyranny. How manifold was that sorrow of thine, which thou wast permitted to escape at His birth, when thou sawest thy blessed and only Son hanging in such torment on the Cross, in the presence of a cruel and furious crowd, who showered upon Him all the insults and contumely and shame that they could think of; when thou sawest Him whom thou didst bear in thy pure womb without feeling the burden, so barbarously stretched on the Cross, and pierced with nails; when thou sawest His sacred arms, with which He had so many times lovingly embraced thee, stretched out so that He could not move them, and covered with red blood, His adorable head pierced with sharp thorns, and His whole body one streaming wound, while thou wast not able to staunch or anoint any of those wounds. What must thy grief have been when thou sawest Him whom thou hadst so often laid on thy virgin bosom that He might rest, without anything on which to lean His sacred head; and Him whom thou hadst nourished with the milk of thy holy breasts, now vexed with vinegar and gall. O how thy maternal heart was oppressed when thou beheldest with thy pure eyes that fair face so piteously marred, so that there was no beauty in it, and nothing by which He could be distinguished. How did the wave of affliction beat against and overflow and overwhelm thy soul! Truly, if even a devout man cannot without unspeakable sorrow and pity revolve in his mind the Passion of thy Son, what must have been thy Cross, thy affliction, who wast His mother and sawest it all with thine eyes? If to many friends of God and to many who love Him, thy Son's Passion is as grievous as if they suffered it themselves, if by inward pity they are crucified with thy Son, how terribly, even unto death, must thou have been crucified inwardly, when thou didst not only ponder and search into the outward and inward pains of thy Son in thy devout heart, but sawest them with thy bodily eyes? For never did any mother love her child as thou lovedst thy Son. And if St Paul, who loved so much, could say, out of his ardent love and deep pity for thy Son, "I am crucified with Christ; and I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus," how much more wert thou crucified with Him, and didst inwardly receive all His wounds, being made, in a manner, an image and likeness of thy crucified Son?
ABOUT the ninth hour our Lord Jesus cried with a loud voice, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" He cried with a loud voice, that He might be easily heard by all, and also that by this wondrous word He might shake off from our souls the sleep of sloth, and cause them to wonder and marvel at the immeasurable goodness of God to us. Therefore He saith, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" For the sake of vile sinners, for evil and thankless servants, for sinful and disobedient deceivers, Thou hast forsaken Thy beloved Son and most obedient Child. That Thy enemies, who are vessels of wrath, might be changed into children of adoption, Thou hast slain Thine own Son, and given Him over to death like one guilty. "O my God, why, I pray Thee, hast Thou forsaken me?" For the very cause why men ought to praise and give thanks to Thee, and love Thee with an everlasting love; because Thou hast delivered Thy dear Son to death for their redemption, and sacrificed Him willingly, for this reason they will find ground for blasphemy and reproach against Thee, saying, "He saith He is the Son of God. Let God deliver Him now if He will have Him." Why, O my God, hast Thou willed to spend so precious a treasure for such vile and counterfeit goods? Besides, this word may be understood to have been spoken by Christ against those who seek to diminish the glory of His Passion, by saying that it was not really so bitter and terrible, owing to the great support and comfort which He drew from His Godhead. Let those who speak and think thus know that they renew His Passion and crucify Him afresh. It was to prove the error of such men that our Lord cried with a loud voice, and said, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" It is as if He had said these words to His own Divine nature, with which He formed one Person--for the Godhead of the Father and of the Son is all one--wondering, Himself, at His own love, which had so cast Him down and worn Him out and humbled Him, and that He who brings help to all mankind should have forsaken Himself, and offered Himself to suffer every kind of pain, impelled thereto by conquering love alone. Again, we should not be wrong, if we were to interpret this word which Christ spoke out of the exceeding bitterness of His sorrow in the following way--namely, that His spirit and inward man, taking upon itself the severe judgment of God upon all sinners, and at the same time discerning clearly and feeling and measuring in Himself the intolerable weight of His Passion, on this account cried out in a sorrowful voice to His Father, and complained tenderly to Him because He had been cast into these dreadful torments; as if the goodness of His Father had become so embittered against the sins of men, that in the ardour of His justice He had quite forgotten the inseparable union between His passible humanity and His impassible Godhead, and therefore in the zealousness of His justice had quite given up His passible nature to the cruelty and malice of fierce men, that they might waste it away and destroy it. For this reason, therefore, He said, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" This word has besides an inward meaning, according to which Christ, in His sensitive parts, complained to His Father that He had been forsaken by Him. For as many as contend for His honour, and endure patiently the troubles of this world, our merciful God so moderates and tempers their crosses and afflictions by the inpouring of His divine consolation, that by His sensible grace He makes their crosses hardly felt; but He left His own beloved Son quite without any comfort, and so deprived Him of all consolation and light, that He endured as much in His human nature as had been ordained by the Eternal Wisdom, according to the strictness of justice, as much as was needed to atone for so many sins. And indeed our salvation was the more nobly and perfectly achieved, in that it was done and finished without any light at all, in absolute resignation and abandonment. For a chief cause of the Passion was to show clearly how great was the injury and insult brought upon His most high Godhead by the sins of the human race. Now as the knowledge of Christ was greater and more acute than that of all other beings, in heaven or in earth, so much the greater and heavier was His sorrow and agony. Nay more--what is more wonderful than anything--whatever afflictions have been endured by all the saints, as members of Christ, existed much more abundantly in Christ their Head; and this I wish to be understood according to the spirit and reasonably. For all the saints have suffered no more than flowed in upon them through Christ, joined to them as His members, who communicated to them His own afflictions. For He took upon Himself the afflictions of all the saints, out of His great love for His members, and wondrous pity, and He suffered far greater internal anguish than any of the saints, nay, more even than the blessed Virgin, His mother, felt her own sharp sorrow and sickness of heart. For if an earthly father loves his child so much, that in fatherly pity he takes upon himself the sorrows of his child, and grieves for them as if he suffered them himself, what must have been Christ's Cross and compassion for the affliction of His members, and above all, of those who suffered for His name's sake? Truly He bore witness to His members, how much He suffered from their afflictions, and how great was His inward pity for their sufferings, when He took all their debt upon Himself, and abolished all the penalties which they had merited, so that they might depart free. The same is most amply proved by the words which He spoke to St Paul, when He said, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?" For the persecution which Saul had stirred up against the disciples, the members of the Lord, was not less grievous to Him than if He had suffered it Himself. Therefore He says to His friends and members, "He who touches you, touches the apple of Mine eye." For is there anything suffered by the members, which the Head does not suffer with them, He whose nature is goodness, and whose property is always to have mercy and to forgive?
OUR most tender Lord was so worn out and parched by the extreme bitterness of His pain and suffering, and by the great loss of blood, that He cried, "I thirst." A little word, but full of mysteries.

In the first place it may be understood literally. For it is natural for those who are at the point of death to feel thirst, and to desire to drink. But how great was the drouth felt by Him who is the fountain of living water, but who was now worn out and parched by the heat of His ardent love, when he could truly say, "I am poured out like water," and "My strength is dried up like a potsherd." For not only did He shed all His own blood, and pour out moisture by tears, but the very marrow of His bones, and all His heart's blood, were consumed for our sakes by the heat and flame of love. Therefore He said rightly, "I thirst."

But, secondly, the word may be understood spiritually, as if Christ said to all men, "I thirst for your salvation." Hence St Bernard says: "Jesus cried, I thirst, not, I grieve. O Lord, what dost Thou thirst for? For your faith, your joy. I thirst because of the torments of your souls, far more than for My own bodily sufferings. Have pity on yourselves, if not on Me." And again, "O good Jesus, Thou wearest the crown of thorns; Thou art silent about Thy Cross and wounds, yet Thou criest out, I thirst. For what, then, dost Thou thirst? Truly, for the redemption of mankind only, and for the felicity of the human race." This thirst of Christ was a hundred times more keen and intense than His natural thirst. And, besides, He had another sort of thirst--that is to say, a thirst to suffer more, and to prove to us still more clearly His immeasurable love, as if He said to man, "See how I am worn out and exhausted for thy salvation. See how terrible are the pains and anguish which I endure. The fierce cruelty of man has almost brought Me to nothing; the sinners of earth have drunk out all My blood, and yet I thirst. Not yet is My heart satisfied, nor My desire accomplished, nor the fire of My love quenched. For if it were possible for Me, and according to My Father's will, that I should be crucified again a thousand times for your salvation and conversion, or that I should hang here, in all this pain and anguish, till the day of judgment, I would gladly do it, to prove to you the immeasurable love which I bear you in My heart, and to soften your stony hearts and rouse you to love Me in return. This is why I hang here so thirsty by the fountain of your hearts, that I may watch the pious souls who come hither to draw from the deep well of My Passion. Therefore, the maiden to whom I shall say, 'Give Me to drink a little water out of the pitcher of thy conscience'--the water of devotion, pity, tears, and mutual love--and who shall let down to Me her pitcher, and shall say, 'Drink, my Lord; and for Thy camels also--that is, Thy servants, who carry Thee about daily on their bodies, and who by night and day are held bound fast by Thy yoke, I will draw the water of brotherly love'--that is the maiden whom the Lord hath prepared for the Son of My Lord, even the bride of the Word of God, united to My humanity. And she shall be counted worthy to enter, like a bride with her bridegroom, into the chamber of eternal rest, when the Bridegroom invites her, saying, 'Come, My blessed bride, inherit the Kingdom of My Father. For I was thirsty, and thou gavest Me drink.'"
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