Discernment of spirits

11. Sermon Preached in Vinegia on Monday in Holy Week 1539

By Bernardino Ochino da Siena

Translated by Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap

Translator’s note: This translation is based on the introduction, text and footnotes which were published by P. Costanzo Cargnoni O.F.M. Cap. In I Frati Cappuccini: Documenti e testimonianze dell primo secolo, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, vol III/1, pp.2231-2241. The only additions to the notes made by the translator are references to Francis of Assisi: The Early Documents, edited by Regis Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., J. A. Wayne Hellmann, O.F.M. and William J. Short O.F.M. Conv., New York City Press, New York, London, Manila, for an English version of quotations from the Writings or Biographies of St Francis.

Introduction by Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap

When reflecting on the anointing that took place at Bethany and on the negative reaction of Judas in this sermon Bernardino Ochino examines the concrete aspects of discernment of spirit, that is, what is “the process, the norms, the rules and the path” that give a Christian the certainty that he is doing the right thing. He tells the worldly wise that it is not the use of the faculty of reason or the intellect. He tells the Jews that it is not just the Mosaic Law. The true and more perfect rule instead is the law of the Gospel which Ochino perceptively contrasts with the natural law and the Mosaic Law. To the objection that there are many heretics among Christians who renounce the obligation to go to confession, to fast, to obey the Pope and the Magistrates and the existence of Purgatory, Ochino replies clearly, also if very calmly, which according to a modern historian is a sign of his inner frustration, or the beginning of a state of crisis that is indicative of a frame of mind like that of Nicodemus. This seems to be especially true as he emphasises the authority of conscience and of inner inspiration taking precedence over external conformity to a law or perhaps even to an external command given by Christ.

11. Sermon Preached in Vinegia on Monday in Holy Week 1539[1]

5729 As his Passion approached our Saviour did not try to remain hidden and in an attempt to remove the hardness of heart of the Jews he returned to Bethany so that they would recall the resent miracle where Lazarus was raised on the fourth day, where a meal had been prepared for him and where Mary attended to him.[2]

Martha fed Christ and her heart was smitten by love’s flame. Oh, happy Martha because you fed Christ on what you had, and he fed you with his burning love! When Mary Magdalene saw that her sweet spouse was exhausted and spent, she took a flask of precious ointment made from aromatic spices and went to the feet of Jesus and anointed them and dried them with her hair.[3] Oh the faith of Magdalene! The Jews persecuted Christ and she comforted him with perfumed ointment which symbolised how in the primitive Church Christians were persecuted and martyred while nevertheless the Church Militant embraced them and consoled them.

The disciples were scandalised especially Judas who was the worst. Christ had given him the duty of holding the money as Christ’s cashier which was the worst thing possible for someone who was greedy. This is why he said: Would it not have been better not to have been so wasteful at this apostolic dinner and to have sold the ointment for twenty denarii and given that to the poor rather than washing Christ’s feet with it?” [4] The other disciples said the same thing. When Christ our Redeemer not only wanted to put a stop to the grumbling but also wanted to show himself as our advocate and placate the Apostles, yet not excuse Judas, he said: Sinite illam ut in die sepulturae meae servet illud.[5] This was to let us know that we should never think of something as being evil that is done out of charity. This would always be the wrong way to think.

5730 What is mortally sinful can never be something good. However, no matter whether it is good or bad it always appears to be good. Praeterea we should not assess things by using worldly wisdom, because our worldly judgement of whether things are good or bad is often mistaken about what is good or bad. I will give you an example. There was a hermit who lived in the desert doing penance and he kept some sweet-smelling roses and lilies with him to contemplate God’s generosity in creation and to thank him for the countless gifts that he had bestowed on nature. Nevertheless, had you seen this you might have been scandalised. Our judgement is not accurate. Most of the time the way we make judgements is controlled by the senses. Because of this Christ said that our worldly chatter is false and because of this he said we should not talk about others.

Tell me: if Mary Magdalene had anointed a dead body you would not have complained, why grumble because she anointed him when he was weary, exhausted and tired? Because of this I draw the conclusion that there are many who are walking without knowing whether they are on the right or the wrong road. Someone might say: “I want to follow Paul.” Another will say, “I want to follow Apollo, and another Caiaphas.”[6] One proposes one way while another proposes a different way. Even though you have lived for twenty-five, thirty, forty or fifty years, you might still not know whether you are travelling the correct safe road, if you are not sure what you should do or where you are going. You have become just like someone who set out on a journey and started out on a road and did not know where it was leading him. That person would always be anxious and would say: “I do not know if this road is the right road,” and he would wonder whether he ought to go back. Therefore, it is also a great error not to know and not to find out and ascertain what is needed for our salvation.

Therefore, I want to give you some good news this morning. With the help of God, I hope to simply and clearly show you the road, the norms and the rule and how to journey towards heaven very safely and securely. This is so you will be afraid no longer, nor have any doubts, or turn back, but walk with the utmost certainty. However, first of all do what you need to do,[7] then give me your attention and we shall begin.

5731 Someone who is worldly might say: “I do not care about all these rules because I follow one very good rule in my house, and I have the means to see that it is observed. Therefore, I do not need rules. The reason for this is that God gave me an intellect by means of which I can rise up to the knowledge of the things in heaven, and through the enlightenment of the intellect we can know what is good and what is bad.

God has also given us the faculty or reasoning to know and to discern what is good and what is bad so that we would be able to do what is good and avoid what is bad. God made the human race to perfection and if that had not been enough, he would have given it more instructions. However, he knew that this was sufficient to grasp the two precepts that God gave human beings, that is, to love God and to love their neighbours as they loved themselves because they would obtain knowledge through the faculty of their intellect and discover how to carry it out with the faculty of reasoning and this would be enough. Therefore, there is no reason to look for other ways, other norms or other rules outside of what God has given us and what our intellect can work out and understand and if we use this, we will be able to know higher things.

Because of this we have no need for a better rule or for a better teacher than God and what he has given us. This is why the Prophet said: Quis ostendit nobis bona?[8] How are we to know what things are good and what are bad? The same Prophet said: Signatum est super nos lumen vultus tui Domine; dedisti laetitiam in corde meo.[9] Oh, we are gifted with your light, O Lord, and so our soul and our intellect cannot err. Thus we can go about with clean hands because we have been sealed with divine light and there is no need to be afraid or anxious.”

5732 Oh what gorgeous reasoning is the reasoning of those who are worldly wise! Oh, do you not know that how the intellect was very dark when it was created? Before the fall mankind was very intelligent. His knowledge was clear and glowing. However, after the fall it was so dark that it could no longer discern what was right. Consider what Aristotle says in the De anima. How many stupid and senseless things does he say as if he were mad? Then go and read Plato who says when he is speaking about the final destiny of the soul that in addition to what the wise men say there are a further three hundred opinions about the final destiny of the soul. Now think, if they cannot understand the most important thing, which is the soul, how can they understand other things? Once the worldly-wise go beyond certain limits, certain rules, they do not know a thing. However, they pronounce a thousand pieces of nonsense, and madness about the intellect, which was darkened by sin, and cannot discern what the truth is.[10]

5733 Now perhaps a Jew will step forward and say: “natural law was instituted by God and it contains the law to love God and to love one’s neighbour as you love yourself. However, because the natural law was not perfect and full of shades of meaning God chose a special beloved nation and thus claimed the Jewish people as his most beloved as he was their God. We were the ones that exemplify the two commandments of love most clearly, and the ones to whom God spoke and delivered the tablets. Paul says as much plainly in his epistles. He says that we are the children of God and the Hebrew People are his people, whom he bound to himself by his precepts. He gave us[11] so many prophetic figures and so many gifts so that we could say that the Law of Moses was the most perfect and that it came from heaven. These two commandments of love became the distinguishing marks of his nation so perfectly that nothing else needed to be added.”

I respond to this and say that the Mosaic Law is much more perfect than the natural law, but still it is not perfect, because everything was open to interpretation, everything was veiled under the cover of symbols. They were laws characterised by fear, strong chains and menaces. The Christian law is based on love. It is the law of charity. It is more perfect than the natural law and much more perfect than the Mosaic because we have Christ’s law expressed in a better way: Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem.[12] Thus the law of the Gospel is a sweet path, a safe path and the path of love and charity. The only bonds are what bind us to Christ on the wood of the cross. To the Jews the law was an unbearable burden; to Christians it is gentle and sweet. This is why Christ said: Iugum enim meum suave est et onus meum leve.[13] The burden that I place on my Christians is a sweet yoke and a light load.

5734 The Christian law is discreet and realistic because he does not allow anything that is extreme; for what is excessive is wrong. It takes no delight in what is extravagant or avaricious since virtue lies in the middle and consists in big-heartedness. It is neither presumptuous nor timid but makes us strong. It neither makes you proud nor puts you down but promotes the middle-ground of prudence. It does not make you overconfident or depressed but allows you to be temperate. Finally, all the moral virtues and any goodness that there is are to be found in the law of the Gospel, as Paul says in a hundred places.

However, you have to understand that our Christian teaching is based on faith that burns with love, so that it lifts a person up to God. You will not find this in any other law, in any other sect as you can see clearly. Mahomet’s sect does not appear to have a law. It does not appear to have the bonds of precepts. To me it seems to set poor souls free to commit grave sins and to allow them to be lustful and fall into all kinds of vice and to engage in every type of sensuality and lust to such an extent that you could not call it a law, rather the destruction of law that promotes every kind of grave sin. The Christian Law is something that provides a rule, norms, a path and a guide for a perfect way of life by means of which we may be led to heaven. Neither the natural law nor the Mosaic Law is able to do this to the same extent as the law of the Gospel.

5735 The natural law has symbols, the Mosaic Law has prophecies and the law of the Gospel has the truth. The natural law gave just a little bit of enlightenment, the Mosaic gave more but it was under a veil like a lantern. However, the law of the Gospel was very bright and clear. The natural law came from mankind, the Mosaic from the angels but the Gospel law comes from the Son of God. The natural law was revealed during the night, the Mosaic at dawn and the Gospel law at midday. Symbols led the natural law, a column of fire led the Mosaic and the Gospel law was led by Christ on the cross. The natural law fed on flowers, the Mosaic on manna and the Gospel law on the flesh and blood of the Son of God. The natural law binds you by means of remorse of conscience, the Mosaic by means of precepts and the Gospel law means of love. The natural law directs us towards Christ, the Mosaic paints a picture of Christ and the Gospel law gives him to us in the flesh and in life-giving spirit. The natural law moves us to admiration, the Mosaic to becoming enlightened and the Gospel law to becoming perfect. The natural law makes us servants, the Mosaic makes us free and the Gospel law makes us lords. The natural law functioned in a time of war, the Mosaic during a ceasefire and the Gospel law during a time of peace. The natural law made demands on us, the Mosaic Law predestined us and the Gospel law made us holy. The natural law guides us for this world, the Mosaic law for the promised land and the Gospel law guides us into heaven.

So in conclusion I say that the law of the Gospel is the most perfect, the best and most noble law that you could find and this includes both the entire natural law and Mosaic Law.[14] Let us have a short pause.

5736 Our Christian and Gospel law possesses the greatest perfection so that nothing could be added that would improve it for a genuinely sincere Christian to be endowed with a greater faith or more ardent charity that would move him to such an extent that he would feel obliged and constrained to do wonderful things. Thus we can find nothing better than this.

You could say to me: “What you say is true. However, there are many heretics who are saying all kinds of things. So what about all those things? Alright I will tell you, but please allow me to say about one hundred words on the subject which might be helpful in these days when there are so many heretics.[15] If this means that we take up more time than usual remember that these are holy days.

So what are they saying? They say that we should not go to confession. They say it is bad. However, if you were to ask them: “Would it hurt someone to be sorry for his sins and accuse himself of them? They say, no. Thus it is not a bad thing to make a confession. To confess is quite safe even were it not obligatory.

Then they go on and say: We are not obliged to fast. They say that it is bad. However, you should ask them whether it is bad for someone to fast in order to chastise his body so that it will not rebel against the spirit or kick against God or is it bad when he does it as penance for the sins he has committed. They will say no. So it is better for you to fast as it will not do you any harm and give you more assurance. They do not admit this.

5737 Praeterea they say that we do not have to obey the Pope or other magistrates. This is not true. Even if you were not obliged to obey and they told you to do something virtuous, Christian and good, something that pertained to your salvation and God’s honour, you would be bound to carry it out. Immo I will say this: you would be obliged even though you were in Turkey for love of the Republic, and dummodo [provided that] it was not against God, or your salvation or something that was a mortal sin. Thus you, my Lord, and every other person is obliged to obey the lords and other magistrates even if they are very evil.

Paul says that you are to obey and not tantum bonis et modesties, sed etiam discolis.[16] Thus you should obey the magistrates as long as they do not command something that is mortally sinful. Most of all you should obey the Pope, except in anything sinful, because Christ has left him as his vicar on earth and the Church militant has been established[17] by the Holy Spirit.

They also say that we do not have to perform any works because as long as anyone has faith it is enough to take them to heaven. If this were true, would doing good works that were not obligatory be evil? We say that it is certainly good to do good works, and this is undeniable. Therefore, it is better to do what is good.

5738 They also say that there is no Purgatory, that it is bad and that there is no reason for it to exist. They say that it is not mentioned in Sacred Scripture, but I say that it is mentioned. If all of Sacred Scripture was burnt would we have nothing to believe in? However, even if we could not find that it was mentioned in sacred Scripture that would not mean that it did not exist. So if you do not want to believe in Purgatory because it is not in sacred Scripture, why do you want me not to believe in it because you cannot find it in Scripture? There are many things that you would not find mentioned in Scripture. However, Purgatory is mentioned. In addition to that we are obliged to believe in it through our faith.

They say a thousand other silly things that make no sense and have no basis, except in their dreams and their pride and the greed that lives in their heart and in their love of self. Because they are filled with malice, they are blind to the light of God, so that Christ says: Si oculus tuus simplex fuerit, totum corpus tuum lucidum erit.[18] If your eye was enlightened by simple faith and not darkened by sin, your entire body, and your actions would be enlightened and would shine in the sight of your Lord and then you would behave in a virtuous manner until you reached heaven in the presence of Christ. Let us conclude these hundred words or so.

5739 In these days we ought to show more charity than in the rest of the year because in these days we should model ourselves on Christ crucified who was so generous on the wood of the cross that he enriched us with grace by giving himself to us.

These days are called holy because in these three days the events that took place were more wonderful than anything that happened during the days in the thirty years that he lived on earth. I recommend to you the poor nuns of Santa Maria di Grazia, outside Brescia,[19] holy women who live a good life, they are at your doors [waiting for you].

5740 You might say to me: “If the Christian law commands me to do something and my spirit wants me to do something else, what should I do? When I give alms, I have doubts when it seems to me that I could do more and that this would not be enough on account of my sins.” Perhaps you might think that you should give all that you possess for the love of God to ease your doubts. Someone else might say: “When I fast, I think that I should fast more. Some fast until they faint, and then I do not know if I have to follow the precepts of the Church or the impulse of the spirit.” I ask you: “If Christ asked you to do something and the spirit told you to do something else which of these injunctions should you follow?” “For certain I would say – it is certain that you ought to follow the spirit when you are convinced that the spirit is founded on God and vibrant charity.”

If you want to know what Christ said, here it is. When he met the ten lepers, he said to all of them: Ite et ostendite vos sacerdotibus.[20] They departed with vibrant faith and while they were on their way they were cured. When one of them saw that he was cured he did not obey Christ by going to the priest, but he returned to Christ, thanking him with the utmost charity for the gift that he had given him and prostrating himself on the ground he thanked him. On seeing this Christ said: Nonne decem mundati sunt, et novem ubi sunt? Ten were cleansed where are the other nine? Non est inventus qui rediret et daret gloriam Deo nisi hic alienigena.[21] Note that he did not rebuke him for not having obeyed his command to go to the priest because he wanted him to obey the inspiration that came through love.

5741 Therefore whenever you feel moved by a good spiritual insight and by ardent charity follow it because it is the kind of book that will always advise and instruct you without leading you astray.[22] If you want to perform a work of mercy turn to your spiritual insight and to your conscience and they will tell you what you should do. If you want to make donations, go to charity that will counsel as to what is good and what is not. Note my ladies: you who readily give gifts to all kinds of causes, even though I am not blaming you, do not be too anxious to give. There are also some confessors who make their penitents promise not to sin again and yet they sin again later. Are such confessors not doing the wrong thing when such people make a bad confession because they think that the friar is greater than God? Therefore, get your advice from love, which will tell you what you ought to confess or not. Follow your right intentions.

When you have felt hatred towards someone and you are still upset about the injury he has caused you, turn towards what charity suggests and that will tell you that you have to forgive your enemies and embrace them and assist them in their needs in imitation of our Christ on the cross who has forgiven your sins so many times and who, while on the cross, prayed to the Father for those who were crucifying him. Then charity will tell you to forgive and go to meet [53v] them for the love of God. However, if you think that approaching your enemy will only make him gloat do not go at all since God will recognise your right intention.

5742 In the same way if you feel contempt and know that if you go to meet your enemy it will provoke you into becoming angry and to utter words of hatred, and if you think that having a conversation with him will put you into the occasion of sin, charity will advise you and say: Do not go, and avoid the situation in which by speaking to him the devil could bring on words in both parties that would give rise to hatred. Thus charity will say: Avoid the occasion. If you were to go with a charitable feeling, charity will demand that you arm yourself with strength and cast aside bad habits and evil conduct. Charity will demand that you recognise the countless gifts that you have received from God. Then you will become aglow with love and burn with it and be transformed by God’s divine love that will prompt you what to do. When you do this, you will be happy and come to possess heaven.

  1. The sermon was delivered on Monday 11th March 1539
  2. The Gospel of the day was Jn 12:1-8.
  3. Mk 14:3. At the time it was the common opinion that Mary, the sister of Lazarus, was to be identified with Mary Magdalene.
  4. Mk 14: 5
  5. Mk 14: 6
  6. Cf. 1 Cot 1: 12.
  7. Ochino is asking the audience to pay attention and be quiet. In order to get rid of all external distractions before he goes on with the subject. He wants them to blow their noses and clear their throats as we have also seen in other sermons.
  8. Ps 4: 6 (Vulg.)
  9. Ps 4: 7. The text has vultus instead of vultus.
  10. This is a rather negative appraisal which reflects the opinion of those who opposed humanism and approved of the radical spirituals.
  11. In the text vi instead if ci
  12. Jn 13: 34
  13. Mt 11:30
  14. This is a magnificent page, even when viewed from a literary point of view, in the way it sets out the differences between he natural, the Mosaic and the Gospel law.
  15. Here Ochino contradicts the ideas being spread by Lutherans and Calvinists, and especially the Anabaptists, who do not go to confession, do not fast, who disobey the Pope and civic authorities, do not perform good works and consider Purgatory to be the invention of Roman theologians. See how calmly he responds to such objections and does not adopt the intense emotion of other Catholic preachers. This could be the reason why he was accused of not having been strongly opposed to heresy at a time when it was spreading.
  16. 1 Pet 2:18 not only the good and gentle but also the harsh.
  17. Netta in the text = retta
  18. Mt 6:2; Lk 11:24
  19. This Monastery is not mentioned in the list of Francesco Gonzaga and thus is difficult to identify
  20. Lk 17:14
  21. Lk 17:17-18
  22. The emphasis on the spirit as an infused, interior, clear light, a kind of subjective, individual illumination and inspiration is the most delicate point in the teaching of Bernardino Ochino. It is barely mentioned here, but, when he was frustrated at the time of his conversion, it caused him to disobey the Church and the constituted authority. In a sermon that followed the one preached in Geneva he said: “The spirit of God should be the rule that all men and angels obey by readily following one’s own prudent judgement and indeed the words that Christ addressed to the Samaritan leper.” (cf. La seconda parte delle prediche [Ginevra 1562], pred. 50; Del modo per cognoscere le divine inspirationi et seguitarle, f. CC3rv).