Epistles to Ansgar: Letter 01

7 December AD 2023, Feast Day of St. Ambrose

Dear Godson,

To instruct you in the mysteries of the faith is the duty and joy of a godfather. It falls on a godfather to introduce, as best he may, to his godson the God who is to Our Father in Heaven, and tell of His wonders.

This is an auspicious day to begin the task for Saint Ambrose, whose feast today it is, is famed for reconciling the opposite parties when controversy divided the Church.

So might these letters aid you in finding fit words to say to tell of the faith within you, and to explain with those who have ears to hear how the gift from God called reason and the gift from God called faith are not now, and can never be, at odds.

But where to begin?

Were I to teach you geometry, beloved godson, it would be proper to begin at the premises and common notions and definitions, for these are the beginning of that study. But the faith is in all things and informs all things, and so anywhere is a proper beginning: all roads lead to Rome.

So I will start with this letter, this sentence. I am late in writing it. Alas, I take up my pen tardily, but readily. I meant to do this yesterday, but it slipped my mind.

Therefore let me be an example for you: In later years, when you find yourself to have fallen short, perhaps less perfect in charity than you should have been, do not allow this imperfection to hinder the speed at which you will begin to repent and to make amends.

Even in so small as thing as failing to remember to write a letter, we Sons of Adam know what is right, and we do not do it. We are imperfect beings who cannot escape the longing for perfection.

Why is that? What is man?

Human life has two elements, ever at odds with each other. On the one hand, life on earth is hopeless. On the other hand, we have hope from some world beyond the world.

As ever, man falls. As ever, man fails.

So it has been since the first man walked in naked blessedness amid the garden of paradise atop a holy mountain, where the tree of life grew. Preferring his wife to his creator, who, in turn, preferred the twisted words of a tempter, both sought knowledge of good and evil outside God, beyond God, and in a way God forbade.

Next to the tree of life was the tree of death, which is called the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And the fruit of this tree was forbidden to man, and man told his wife not to eat it, and she resolved not even to touch it, lest she die. However, in short order, both took the fruit, and ate.

By this act, the holy parents of mankind were cursed, were cast out and cast down, and the path back to the tree of life was barred by the fiery sword of an angel.

And yet not all hope was lost. In Christ we have an advocate and master who will love, support, teach, and guide us to stand again when we have fallen, and return our feet to the proper path. He hung himself on the cross for us, to make it bloom for us as the tree of life once more. The tip of the fiery sword is broken off, and so a small gap, a straight and narrow path, is open to paradise.

Yet the story of Adam and his sons, Eve and her daughters, is odd indeed, and many a confusion and question likely to seek out the unwary heart, and plant the seed of doubt. Wisdom plucks such weeds, but not without some effort.

We wonder why Adam’s progeny are punished for Adam’s sin? Why is the punishment so harsh? Indeed, we wonder why was evil allowed to enter the world at all? Why were the innocent first parents of man exposed to the danger of temptation and fall?

The answer is mysterious, for the punishment is not a punishment in the sense that pain is inflicted on an evil-doer to disincentivize his desire to do evil. It is a punishment in the sense that reality is real, hence fire will burn you and water will drown you, if you are foolish with fire or water, and deal with them in the wrong way, in the wrong amount, or at the wrong time. Wisely used, they will warm and bath you.

What is wisdom? The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God. It is obedience to God. God is light and life, reason and rightness,

What is folly? The fool in his heart says there is no God, or that He will not see, or does not care what you do. The fool says reality is elastic, and can be bent to his will. Reality says whatever you stretch too far, or bend too much, with snap back and swat you.

The Curse of Adam is terrible, perhaps beyond bearing. The result was to turn from lucent, aethereal, invulnerable, immortal beings, to mortal men, subject to foulness, to burdens, to pain and woe and loss and death. And yet we are all his children: such is our inheritance. We cannot inherit endless life from a father who is mortal, for he has no immortality to pass to his progeny.

Such is the condition of man into which you have been born, my godson. Had you been born to other parents, richer or poorer, in days past or days to come, of any tribe or race or tongue, mortality would have been your lot: no one is immune from sin, sickness, longing, loss, and the ever turning wheel of fortune and misfortune.

Harsh indeed is the curse. And yet one cannot see it could have been otherwise.

For God is light. If one flees the light, one finds darkness. God is goodness. If one flees the good, one stumbles into evil. God is life. To flee from life is to enter the valley of the shadow of death.

God is rests in perfection. God is abundance. To flee his friendship is to enter the realm of woe, of want, of toil.

God is reason. This means He is rule and right order. God is harmony and peace. God is the creator. To rebel against God is to enter a life where man must till the soil through thorns and pests, and eat bread through the sweat of his face; and woman gives birth in pain.

God is law. When Man rebels against God, Man allow both fallen spirits and fallen nature to rebel against Man. This is because to go against the law of nature is to go against the order of nature.

God is might and power. Loss of power is powerless. God puts animals and angels under the dominion of Man: but we cannot command the wind and wave, nor summon rain by our word, or inflict a drought. We cannot put a hook through the jaw of a sea monster, and tame it to be a songbird. The stars do not rise or set at our command, nor will the sun and moon stand still above the valley of Ajalon for any merely mortal man. Nor can we heal the sick nor raise the dead by our word. All the pains of nature, all the wildness of the wilderness, is in rebellion against us, even as we are in rebellion against our natural king, lord, and master.

Such is the reality of sin. Such is the reality of reality.

Here the reality of life on earth:

Death comes to all, to prince or prelate, serf or slave, and spares no maiden for her beauty, no soldier for his bravery, no scholar for his learning, no preacher for his eloquence. Even the antediluvians and ancient patriarchs blessed with lifespans measured in centuries are not among us now. The mother of death is sin, who likewise visits all. War and famine, pestilence and anarchy, visit no realm where death is unknown: all other things that bedevil mankind walk in the wake of our mortality.

Pride and the sins that flow from it, on the other hand, are spiritual, and were known before death entered the world: for the angels who followed the father of the all the sons of pride into the hellfire knew that sin, and preferred it to piety.

The condition of man would be hopeless were hope not given us.

There is one over whom death has no claim. Those who die in Christ do not die, but only sleep, and rise again as He is risen. In ancient Rome, the law could not touch those a tribune touched, for he granted immunity from prosecution. Christ is our tribune. At His touch, the law of this mortal world is no more.

Do we welcome this gift? It is not in our nature to do so.

Man disobeys God and flees Him. Yet God pursues. God woos. God weds us. We are adulteresses, playing the harlot and dallying with idols more suited to our low tastes and low estate: pagan gods and fallen angels allure the eye and demand we kneel and serve them; or passions, possessions, worldly honors, pelf or applause or passing pleasures found in alehouses, cathouses, casinos, the groves of academia or the halls of power.

Service to any idol of any sort is slavery. Service to God is freedom. God wishes us to be free. No pagan god ever lead a race of slaves out of a land of bondage. Only the God of Moses did this thing. No realm of man ever freed the slaves of other races, or even spoke of it. Only Christendom did this thing.

But if God wishes us freedom, why allow us to enslave ourselves to sin? Why allow evil to tempt us? Why let the snake of sin get within earshot of poor, innocent, naïve and childlike Eve, the mother of mankind?

Odd indeed that God allowed a poisonous tree to grow in the perfect garden of paradise. Any parent of ordinary common sense takes the trouble to lock cabinets were medicines or cleaning fluids are stowed which might harm any ignorant child who might ingest them. Any father seeing his baby nigh a poisonous snake would snatch up the one and drive off the other, or kill it with a blow. How is the Heavenly Father more negligent than this?

The question assumes Adam and Eve were children. They were not. Both were fully formed, able to speak and reason, and their minds were not clouded by the passions and sinful predispositions which make virtue so difficult for us. Self-denial is not natural for mortal men. But Adam before the Fall was not so hindered in his mind and soul, nor was his wife.

They knew what they were doing. They did it anyway.

Why did Adam sin, if he knew better? Good question. It is for the same reason that you sin despite knowing better, or any man: sin is when a man puts a lesser good above the supreme good. He imagines God is in conflict with the lesser good. He picks the lesser good. His thought and his decision are wrongheaded and wrong-hearted.

In reality, the conflict is illusion: whatever one must surrender to stay true to God, will be restored, or was never needed to begin with, a was never thing it was any loss to lose.

The temper implied that the fruit of this tree was a magic fruit that would teach the wife knowledge of good and evil, a divine knowledge, above what God knew. She would be as god if she ate.

Yet obviously she already knew the difference between good and evil, or else she would not have been given a word to follow that she was able to obey or disobey. Consider: A dog can be conditioned or trained to obey, by inflicting pain when he disobeys, but he cannot decide to disobey, or be led astray by unreasonable reasoning or meaningless words. Men can.

If a dog is well trained, and obeys commands promptly, we salute the man who trained the dog. We do not salute the dog. The trainer has done a difficult thing. He merits the credit. On the contrary, if a man decides to obey a command he knows he ought, and he resists the temptation to shirk or defy a lawful command, we salute him. The man has done a difficult thing. He merits the credit.

But no magic fruit can open a man’s eyes so that he knows good and evil. A baby knows what woe is from even the moment he was born, for he wails. As the baby grows, he learns that in reality, some actions lead to weal and some to woe, some lead to pleasure or to pain. Later, as he matures, he learns that some pleasures are true, and lead to happiness, and some pleasures are false, and lead to woe. Likewise some pains are honest signs that one should avoid what is painful. Other pains are false sign, hiding a long term good that can only be gained by sacrifice. Wisdom, which is obedience to God, that is, obedience to the good, is knowing what acts lead to pleasure and pain, and knowing what pleasures and pains lead to happiness or woe.

But the adult, if he has no defect in his mind, knows good and evil, pain and pleasure, true and false, weal and woe. Even a creature living in paradise never encountering nor seeing death knows these things are not to be desired, or otherwise the first man would not have been told that the outcome of eating of the forbidden tree was death, and that word would have had no meaning to him. No matter how we interpret the story of Eden, if we interpret it in a way that makes no sense, then we are missing the sense Moses meant when he wrote it, or the sense the angel speaking these things to Moses meant.

Why is it called the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Because, whenever one eats what God has forbidden, you are then known to be evil; and if not, known to be good.

The tree is not a magic tree that teaches a philosophical definition of the words good and evil. It is a tree that makes one known to be good or evil, whereas before one merely might have been one or the other.

But why have the tree of death so close to the tree of life? Why not put it in another garden, on a distant continent, beyond the mountains, or on the dark side of the moon, far out of Adam’s curious reach?

Anything is what it is and is not what it is not[i]. Life is not life unless non-life is death. In this case, if God is life, turning away from God is death. Obeying God means obeying reality, both physical and moral reality. To disobey reality is to enter delusion and delirium, a realm of darkness where nothing works and nothing makes sense. All words are confounded in the realm of the unreal. All works are thwarted. There is nothing there but wailing and the gnashing of teeth.

The two trees were sacramental in any case, a physical reality representing a spiritual truth. Either they make sense as symbols, or they do not. If they do not make sense as symbols, and merely had a literal reality, then, yes one of the trees could have been at the north pole and the other in Arizona. But then the tale would be harder to understand, not easier.

Man would have found some other way to disobey, not so close at hand, and the example of the disobedience. Hence the poetical clarity of the forbidden fruit growing right next to the tree of life would not have been clear. This fruit, let it be noted, Eve was not forbidden at that time to eat, and which she made no attempt to pluck. Life was in arm’s reach. She plucked up death instead, and put it in her mouth.

Such is the nature of sin. Such is the nature of disobedience. Such is the nature of man.

So why did God plant a garden, put in these trees, and allow man the choice to obey or disobey? God could make purely spiritual beings who do not need to eat or walk the earth: such things are angels. God could make purely animal beings who act only as they are trained and taught, never freely deciding whom to love. Such are beasts.

God also could make Man, who is made in the divine image and likeness, a creature, like him, capable of reason, of volition, of speech, of creativity. Such a creature has more than instinctive love. He can obey or disobey. He can love or hate.

And anyone who does not see, or pretends not to see, that being a man is better than being a beast, is not a man, or not an honest one.

Finally, one can ask why God did not save Adam from this Fall?

That answer is the simplest of all. He did. Christ saves man from death and hell.

But we still must freely choose to pluck and eat the fruit of the tree of life. The tree is the horrible barren wood we call the cross, meant as an instrument of torture and death by the Romans, made into the sign of endless life by God. The fruit hanging from it is Christ. To eat the fruit of life is the host of the eucharist.

Welcome to life, little godson.


John Charles Justin-martyr Wright



[i] A thing is what it is and is not what it is not.
Because we live in a time when men will deny even the self-evident, and word of clarity is unfortunately needed here. Even rivers and clouds which are made of numberless droplets are defined by being what they are, and being not what they are not. A river might go dry, or flood, or shift it its course, and the flowing water is not the same collection of droplets from hour to hour, nor even from moment to moment. But we know the Mississippi is not the Amazon. One is here and one is there. Likewise, a cloud does not have a hard, sharp, clear edge like the edge of a table or a sword. Clouds are cloudy. If you walk through a cloudbank, the fog is thick, then it is thin, a then a few drops remain, or a wisp, and they you are no longer befogged. One can quarrel over how thin the fog must before one is official outside the fogbank, but that answer will always be cloudy as well, and perhaps arbitrary. But the difference between when one is in the cloud and not in the cloud is clear enough.