The Conferences Of John Cassian by John Cassian
Chapter XVII. How all the saints have confessed with truth that they were unclean and sinful.
And therefore with daily sighs all the saints grieve over this weakness of their nature and while they search into their shifting thoughts and the secrets and inmost recesses of their conscience, cry out in entreaty: |Enter not into judgment with Thy servant, for in Thy sight shall no man living be justified;| and this: |Who will boast that he hath a chaste heart? or who will have confidence that he is pure from sin?| and again: |There is not a righteous man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not;| and this also: |Who knoweth his faults?| And so they have recognized that man's righteousness is weak and imperfect and always needs God's mercy, so that one of those whose iniquities and sins God purged away with the live coal of His word sent from the altar, after that marvellous vision of God, after his view of the Seraphim on high and the revelation of heavenly mysteries, said: |Woe is me! for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.| And I fancy that perhaps even then he would not have felt the uncleanness of his lips, unless it had been given him to recognize the true and complete purity of perfection by the vision of God, at the sight of Whom he suddenly became aware of his own uncleanness, of which he had previously been ignorant. For when he says: |Woe is me! for I am a man of unclean lips,| he shows that his confession that follows refers to his own lips, and not to the uncleanness of the people: |and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.| But even when in his prayer he confesses the uncleanness of all sinners, he embraces in his general supplication not only the mass of the wicked but also of the good, saying: |Behold Thou art angry, and we have sinned: in them we have been always, and we shall be saved. We are all become as one unclean, and all our righteousnesses as filthy rags.| What, I ask, could be clearer than this saying, in which the prophet includes not one only but all our righteousnesses and, looking round on all things that are considered unclean and disgusting, because he could find nothing in the life of men fouler or more unclean, chose to compare them to filthy rags. In vain then is the sharpness of a nagging objection raised against this perfectly clear truth, as a little while back you said: |If no one is without sin, then no one is holy; and if no one is holy, then no one will be saved.| For the puzzle of this question can be solved by the prophet's testimony. |Behold,| he says, |Thou art angry and we have sinned,| i.e., when Thou didst reject our pride of heart or our carelessness, and deprive us of Thine aid, at once the abyss of our sins swallowed us up, as if one should say to the bright substance of the sun: Behold thou hast set, and at once murky darkness covered us. And yet though he here says that the saints have sinned, and have not only sinned but also have always remained in their sins, he does not altogether despair of salvation but adds: |In them we have been always, and we shall be saved.| This saying: |Behold Thou art angry and we have sinned,| I will compare to that one of the Apostle's: |O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?| Again this that the prophet subjoins: |In them we have been always, and we shall be saved,| corresponds to the following words of the Apostle: |Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.| In the same way also this passage of the same prophet: |Woe is me! for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips,| seems to agree with the words quoted above: |O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?| And what follows in the prophet. |And behold there flew to me one of the Seraphim, having in his hand a coal (or stone) which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: Lo, with this I have touched thy lips, and thine iniquity is taken away and thy sin is purged,| is just what seems to have fallen from the mouth of Paul, who says: |Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.| You see then how all the saints with truth confess not so much in the person of the people as in their own that they are sinners, and yet by no means despair of their salvation, but look for full justification (which they do not hope that they cannot obtain by virtue of the state of human frailty) from the grace and mercy of the Lord.