More than all other people, it’s Paul who shows us what we are, how noble our nature is and what measure of virtue we’re able to achieve. And now he arises from the place he has arrived at and, in a clear voice, to all those who condemn our nature, he defends us on the Lord’s behalf, urging us towards virtue, stopping the shameless mouths of those who blaspheme and proving that there’s very little difference between us and the angels, if we but guard ourselves.
Without having a different nature, without receiving a different soul, nor living in another world, but, having been brought up on the same land and place, with the same laws and customs, he surpassed all the people who’ve ever lived since our race was founded. Where are those people who say that virtue’s difficult and evil’s easy? Because Paul rejects this, saying: ‘For this slight, momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.’ And if such afflictions are slight, how much more so are our pleasures.
This is not the only admirable thing about him- that, because he was so greatly disposed he didn’t suffer from his efforts at gaining virtue- but that he also exercised virtue without reward. We, of course, don’t put up with pains for the sake of virtue even if there are rewards. He, on the other hand, sought it without any prizes, and easily overcame anything that was considered a hindrance to it. And he never invoked the weakness of the body, the difficulties of his circumstances, the tyranny of nature, nor anything else as an excuse. Even though he’d taken on more responsibility than generals and all the kings of the earth, he was on top of things every single day and, although the dangers increased, he still displayed youthful enthusiasm. This is why he declared: ‘Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead’. And while he was awaiting death, he invited others to enjoy it with him: ‘Rejoice and be glad for me’. Even though he was threatened by dangers and suffered insults and every form of dishonor, he still rejoiced, writing to the Corinthians: ‘Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, persecutions’. He called these the armour of righteousness, showing that he derived great benefits even from them and that he was protected on all sides from his enemies. And although they tormented him everywhere, despised him, defamed him, he went from strength to strength and proudly planted trophies all over the earth, thanking God: ‘Thanks be to God who always leads us in triumphal procession’.
And he sought maltreatment and insult about his preaching more than we seek honour, and death more than we seek life, and poverty more than we seek riches, and pains more than others seek comforts- not just a little more but much more- and sorrow more than others seek joy and to pray for his enemies more than others cursed them. And he overturned the order of things, or rather we’ve reversed them. What he did was keep that order as God had ordained it. Because what we said above [the positive things] are in accordance with nature, but the rest [the negative], are against it. The proof of this? That Paul, who was a human being, observed the former rather than the latter. The only thing that was dreadful for him, and which he avoided, was conflict with God- nothing else. Just as, of course, nothing else was desirable for him, other than pleasing God. And I’m saying nothing about the present or the future. And don’t tell me about cities, nations, kings, armies, money, satrapies and dynasties, because he thought them less than a spider’s web. But just think about what’s in the heavens and then you’ll understand the powerful love he had for Christ. Because this was a filter for him, Paul admired neither the status of the angels, of the archangels or anything else.
He had within him the greatest thing of all- love of Christ. And with this, he considered himself the most fortunate of men. Without it, he had no desire to become one of the dominions, the principalities or powers, but with this love he desired to be among the least and the lost, rather than among the first and foremost. For him, there was only one hell: to lose that love. That was Gehenna for Paul, that was punishment, that was infinite evil, just as delight was to achieve that love. That was his life, his world, his angel, his present, his future- kingdom, promise and wealth untold. Anything that didn’t lead to this he thought neither unpleasant nor pleasant. In the same way that he wrote off all visible things, as if they were sodden grass. The tyrants and the cities that foamed with rage against him, seemed like mosquitoes, while the torments and punishments were like so many childish games, which he suffered for Christ.
He accepted them with joy and was prouder of his chains than Nero was when he had the royal diadem on his head. He spent his time in prison as if he were in heaven and accepted the blows and whippings more gladly than others seized prizes. He loved the pains no less than the trophies, because for him that’s what they were. This is why he called them grace. But note this well. It was a prize to die and be with Christ, but the contest was in staying alive. Yet he preferred the latter to the former, since he thought it was more necessary for him. Being separated from Christ was a struggle and an effort, whereas being with Him was the prize. But, for the sake of Christ, he preferred the struggle.
You might say that all of that was a pleasure for him, because it was for Christ’s sake. I also say that: that what for us would be a cause of sorrow brought him great satisfaction. So why do I talk about the dangers and other tribulations? Because he was genuinely in a constant state of grief. This is why he said: ‘Who is sick and I’m not sick, who is made to stumble and I’m not indignant?’ But you might say that he even had sorrow as a satisfaction. Those who lose their children and are allowed to mourn, are comforted; but when that’s forbidden to them they’re distressed. Nobody’s ever mourned their own woes as much as he did those of other people. How do you think he behaved when, given that the Jews aren’t saved, he prayed to fall from heavenly glory so that they might be? It’s obvious that, if they weren’t going to be saved, this was much worse for him. If it hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have asked for this. But he thought it a lighter burden and one that had greater consolation. It wasn’t just that he wanted it, but he cried aloud, saying: ‘I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart’.
How can you compare him to anyone else, given that he suffered almost every day on behalf of all the inhabitants of the world, all together, and for the gentiles, and for the cities and for each person individually. To what iron or to what diamond? What can you call that soul of his: golden or adamantine? It was more resistant than any diamond and more valuable than gold or precious stones. It outdid the resilience of a diamond and the value of gold. So with what element can we compare it? With nothing that exists. But if gold could become diamond and diamond gold, then we might compare it with them.
But why should we compare it with diamonds and gold? Compare the whole world and you’ll see that Paul’s soul was of greater value. Paul talks about those who were prominent because they wore the skins of animals and lived in caves and holes in the earth, but we could say so much more about him, since he really was more worthy than any of them. So if the world wasn’t as valuable as Paul, what was? Heaven, perhaps? But even that’s too small. Because, to heaven and the things to be found there, he preferred the love of the Lord, which was as preferable to him as goodness is better than evil. He’d have preferred it to an infinite number of heavens. This is why he doesn’t love us in the same way as we love him, but so much more that it’s impossible to present it in words.
Just look at what he was deemed worthy of even before the future resurrection. He was taken up into Paradise, elevated to the third heaven, where he was shown things so ineffable that it was forbidden for anyone to mention. And quite rightly. He walked upon the earth as if he were consorting with angels. This is how he did everything, and, although he had a mortal body, he demonstrated the purity of the angels, and, although he was subject to such needs, he tried never to seem inferior to the heavenly powers. He traversed the whole world like an eagle and disdained pain and danger as if he were incorporeal. He looked down on earthly things as if he had already gained heaven and he was always as alert as if he were associating with the bodiless powers.
Of course, angels have often undertaken to protect various nations, but none of them took such great care of the nations entrusted to them as Paul did of the whole world. And don’t tell me that it wasn’t Paul who did these things that I’m saying. Even if it hadn’t been him who performed all this, he still wouldn’t have been unworthy of this praise, because he prepared himself to be worthy of this great grace. Michael undertook the protection of the nation of the Jews, but Paul took on the land and the sea, the inhabited and the uninhabited parts. I’m not saying this to belittle the angels- perish the thought- but to show that it’s possible, even though we’re human, to be with them and to stand close to them. Why didn’t the angels undertake this? So that you’d have no justification when you’re indifferent and so that you wouldn’t be able to have any recourse to some ‘difference in nature’ when you’re apathetic. In any case, the miracle’s even greater. How is it not wonderful and strange that words expressed in human language should banish death, forgive sins, repair our broken nature and make heaven on earth?
This is why I’m amazed at God’s power, this is why I marvel at Paul’s willingness: because he received such grace and because he made himself into this person. And I ask you not merely to admire but to imitate this example of virtue, because then we’ll be able to receive the same crown as he did. And if you have any doubts on hearing that, if you manage to do the same, you’ll get the same reward as Paul, listen to what he himself says: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for Him to be made manifest’.
Do you see how he’s inviting all into the same society? Since there are the same things for everyone, let’s make sure that we become worthy of the blessings that have been promised to us. And let’s not look solely at the size and extent of the achievements, but also at the passionate willingness through which he wrested such grace. And also at the kinship of nature, because we have all of that in common. In this way, the excessively difficult will seem easy and unburdensome for us. If we but labour for this short time, we’ll wear that incorrupt and immortal crown, by the grace and loving-kindness of our Lord, Jesus Christ, to Whom belong glory and power, now and forever and unto the ages of ages, Amen.
Saint John Chrysostom