I know that Satan has sought to sift you as wheat, and that the Lord has allowed him so to do that He may shew the wheat, and prove the gold, crown the athletes, and proclaim the victors' names. Nevertheless I fear and tremble, not indeed distressed for the sake of you who are noble champions of the truth, but because I know that it comes to pass that some men are of feebler heart. If among twelve apostles one was found a traitor, there is no doubt that among a number many times as great any one might easily discover many falling short of perfection. Thus reflecting I have been confounded and filled with much discouragement, for, as says the divine Apostle, |whether one member suffer all the members suffer with it.| We are members one of another,| and form one body, having the Lord Christ for head.| Yet one consolation I have in my anxiety, when I bethink me of your holiness. For brought up as you have been in the divine oracles, and taught by the arch-shepherd what are the good shepherd's marks, there is no doubt that you will lay down your life for the sheep. For, as the Lord says, |he that is an hireling| when he sees |the wolf coming,| |fleeth because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep,| but |the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.| Just so it is not in peace that the best general shews his inborn valour, but in time of war, by at once stimulating others and himself exposing himself to peril for his men. For it would be preposterous that he should enjoy the dignity of his command, and, in the hour of need, run out of danger's way. Thus the thrice blessed prophets ever acted, making light of the safety of their bodies, and, for the sake of the Jews who hated and rejected them, underwent all kinds of peril and toil. Of them the divine apostle says |they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain by the sword; they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented, of whom the world was not worthy; they wandered in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.| Thus the divine apostles travelled preaching over all the world, without home, bed, bedding, board, or any of the necessaries of life, but scourged, racked, imprisoned, and undergoing countless kinds of death. And all this they underwent, not for the sake of their friends, but voluntarily facing these perils for the sake of the men who were persecuting them. A far stronger claim is made on you now to accept the peril at present assailing you, for the sake of fellow-believers and brothers and children. This affection is shown even by unreasoning animals, for sparrows may be seen fighting with all their force in behalf of their brood, and putting out in their defence all the strength they have; other kinds of birds moreover undergo danger for their young. But why do I speak of birds? Bears too, and leopards, wolves, and lions, voluntarily suffer any pain for the safety of their offspring, for instead of fleeing from the hunter they will await his attack and do battle for their young.
I have adduced these instances not as though anointing your piety for endurance and courage by the example of brute beasts, but to console myself in my despondency, and to be assured that you will not leave Christ's flock without a shepherd when wolves make their attack, but will invoke the Lord of the flock to help you and will heartily do battle in its behalf. A crisis like this proves who is a shepherd and who a hireling; who diligently feeds the flock and who on the other hand feeds on the milk and thinks little of the safety of the sheep. |But God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape that ye may be able to bear it.| But one thing I do beseech your reverence, and that is to have greater heed of the unsound; and not only to strengthen the unstable but also to raise the fallen, for shepherds by no means neglect those of their flock who have fallen sick, but keep them apart from the rest, and try in every possible way to restore them, and so must we do. We must make them that are slipping stand up, and give them a helping hand and a word of encouragement. When they are bitten we must heal them; we must not give up the attempt to save them nor leave them in the devil's maw. Thus ever acted the divine Apostle Paul; and when the Galatians, after receiving the baptism of salvation, and the gift of the divine Spirit, fell away into the sickness of Judaism, and received circumcision, he wailed and lamented more exceedingly than the most affectionate mother, and tended them and freed them from that infirmity. We can hear him exclaiming, |My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you.| So too the teacher of the Corinthians, who had committed that abominable fornication, he both chastised as might a father, and very skilfully treated, and after cutting him off in the first Epistle, readmitted him in the second and says, |So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him and comfort him lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.| And again, |Lest Satan should get an advantage of us for we are not ignorant of his devices.| In the same manner too those who partook of things offered to idols he properly rebuked, suitably exhorted, and freed from their grievous error.
Wherefore our Lord Jesus Christ permitted the first of the apostles, whose confession He had fixed as a kind of groundwork and foundation of the Church, to waver to and fro, and to deny Him, and then raised Him up again. And thus He gave us two lessons: not to be confident in our own strength, and to strengthen the unstable. Reach out, therefore, I beseech you, a hand to them that are fallen, |draw them out of the horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set their feet upon a rock,| and |put a new song into their mouth, even praise unto our God,| that their example of life may become an example of salvation, that |many shall see it and fear and shall trust in the Lord.| Let them be prevented from participating in the holy mysteries, but let them not be kept from the prayer of the catechumens, nor from hearing the divine Scriptures and the exhortation of teachers, and let them be prohibited from partaking of the sacred mysteries, not till death, but during a given time, till they recognise their ailment, covet health, and are properly contrite for having abandoned their true Prince and deserted to a tyrant, and for having left their benefactor and gone over to their foe.
The same lessons are given us by the precepts of the holy and blessed Fathers. I write as I do, not to teach you piety, but to remind you as a brother might, knowing well that even the best of pilots in the moment of the storm needs monition even from his men. So the great and famous Moses, renowned throughout the world, who did those mighty works of wonder, did not refuse the counsel of Jethro, a man still sunk in idolatrous error; for he did not regard his impiety, but acknowledged the soundness of his advice. Moreover I implore your piety to offer earnest prayer to God in my behalf that for the remaining days of my life I may live in accordance with His laws.
Thus have I written by the most honourable and religious presbyter Stephanus, whom on account of the goodness of his character I have seen with great pleasure.