To the Abbot of a Certain Monastery at York, from Which the Prior Had Departed, Taking Several Religious with Him.
1. You write to me from beyond the sea to ask of me advice which I should have preferred that you had sought from some other. I am held between two difficulties, for if I do not reply to you, you may take my silence for a sign of contempt; but if I do reply I cannot avoid danger, since whatever I reply I must of necessity either give scandal to some one or give to some other a security which they ought not to have, or at all events more than they ought to have. That your brethren have departed from you was not with the knowledge nor by the advice or persuasion of me or of my brethren. But I incline to believe that it was of God, since their purpose could not be shaken by all your efforts; and that the brethren themselves thought this also who so earnestly sought my advice about themselves; their conscience troubling them, as I suppose, because they quitted you. Otherwise, if their conscience, like that of the Apostle, did not reproach them, their peace would not have been disturbed (Rom. xiv.22). But what can I do that I may be hurtful to no one neither by my silence nor by my reply to the questions asked me? Thus, perhaps, I may relieve myself of the difficulty if I shall send those who question me to a person more learned, and whose authority is more reverend and sacred than mine. Pope S. Gregory says in his book on the Pastoral Rule, |Whosoever has proposed to himself a greater good does an unlawful thing in subordinating it to a lesser good.| And he proves this by a citation from the Gospel, saying, No one putting his hand to the plough and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God (S. Luke ix.62); and he proceeds: |He who renounces a more perfect state which he has embraced, to follow another which is less so, is precisely the man who looks back| (Part iii. c.28). The same Pope in his third Homily on Ezekiel, adds: |There are people who taste virtue, set themselves to practise it, and while doing so contemplate undertaking actions still better; but afterwards drawing back, abandon those better things which they had proposed to themselves. They do not, it is true, leave off the good practices they had begun, but they fail to realize those better ones which they had meditated. To human judgment these seem to stand fast in the good work, but to the eyes of Almighty God they have fallen, and failed in what they contemplated.|
2. Here is a mirror. In it let your Religious consider, not the features of their faces, but the fact of their turning back. Here let them determine and distinguish their motives, their thoughts, accusing or excusing them with that sentence which the spiritual man passes who judges all things, and is himself judged by no one. I, indeed, cannot rashly determine whether the state which they have left or that which they have embraced was the greater or less, the higher or lower, the severer or the more lax. Let them judge according to the rule of S. Gregory. But to you, Reverend Father, I declare, with as much positive assurance as plain truth, that it is not at all desirable that you should set yourself to quench the Spirit. Hinder not him, it is said, who is able to do good, but if thou canst, do good also thyself (Prov. iii.27, Vulg.). It more befits you to be proud of the good works of your sons, since a wise son is the glory of his father (Prov. x.1). For the rest, let no one make it a cause of complaint against me that I have not hidden in my heart the righteousness of God, unless, perhaps, I have spoken less of it than I ought, for the sake of avoiding scandal.