Contempt for the world

5. Forth sermon at Lucca 1538

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.2155-2167. 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 Castanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap

Bernardino of Ochino provided the city of Lucca with another reason for detaching itself from its wealth and riches and being more merciful towards the poor, namely, the worthlessness of the changing, treacherous, “untrustworthy and deceitful” world that is the apple of the earthly paradise and as weak as a grain of millet. Its pleasures and wealth are shadows that relate fictitious stories that are like the plot in a comedy sketch. Anyone who truly wants to keep what they have should invest in heaven giving what is superfluous to the poor and instead lift his gaze towards the things of heaven and replenish Christ who is the empty vase that is signified by those who are poor.

5649 The disciple whom Christ loved whose life and writings always breathed his Master’s ardent charitable love[1] tells us who are Christians as well as everyone: Nolite diligere mundum neque ea quae in mundo:[2] this means: “My Christians, do not love the world, or the things of the world.”

Yesterday, we saw how we should become intoxicated with the love of Christ and which road we should follow.[3] Today I want us to consider what we should do to despise the world with its concupiscence, for it is not possible for us to love Christ if we do not hate the world.

I want to speak and preach about the practice of having contempt. It is certainly something that is both helpful and necessary. Pay close attention. Let us begin in the Name of Christ.

[This is a wicked world: objections]

5650 This world is a wicked world and treacherous, untrustworthy and lacking faith and a world[4] that is truly lacking every good, it is unhappy, full of misery, ignoble, unstable, and insatiable. Its joys are painful, its pleasures distasteful, what it deems to be sweet is bitter, what it regards as healthy is sick, its life is everlasting death.

Others would say: “Brother, you are being unjust in speaking ill of the world and so I want to present reasons to praise and defend the world. You know well and cannot deny that the world is the image and likeness of what was in God’s mind ab aeterno and everything that comes from God is good, even very good and perfect. Thus it is by means of this world that we come to know that more perfect world that is the heavenly homeland. St Paul said: Invisibilia enim ipsum a creatura mundi per ea quae facta sunt intellecta conspiciuntur.[5] David said: Delectasti me Domine in factura tua, [6] that is, O Lord, how great are your works. It is by the world that we are fed, acquire knowledge and possess so very many good things, enjoy wealth, pleasure, gain honours and through these things achieve stateliness.”

[Response to the objections]

5651 I tell you that it is a wicked world, treacherous, dishonest and a great charlatan and completely the opposite of what you have said.

Firstly, I do not deny that this world is the image and likeness of the world that conceived of in the Divine mind and so far as that is concerned it is very good and perfect. However, its inhabitants were so degenerate that they have acted in opposition to all of this.

Secondly, I deny that the reason why we were created was to know everything through creatures. All creatures owe their origin and beginning to God. Our nourishment also comes from God, not from the world. If our nourishment went missing even for one year and the sun did not rise, nor rain fall on the earth, our heavenly Father could ask you whether the earth or the world with all its powers could possibly give you something to eat.

Third, we receive knowledge and all its benefits from God not from the world.

Fourth, you say that the world gives you such honours, stateliness and pleasure. You should admit that this stateliness, these honours and wealth and everything else are shadows and dreams.

[The world is a traitor]

5652 Would you like to have an example of its duplicity and unpredictability? How many kinds of assets, riches, honours, posts, happiness, pleasure, comfort, prospects, health and security were offered to the Duke of Florence?[7] In spite of this he lost it all in a flash. How many things did the people of this city promise to Clement, Leo X and Adrian,[8] and other Supreme Pontiffs, Cardinals, Bishops, Emperors, Kings, Dukes, Counts and other people! In spite of this they were all cunningly deceived, lost the faith and everything else.

Do you not know, from your own experience, how much you have been promised that turned out to be a trick? If you have not yet been cheated, you will be cheated in many ways, just the same as others have been cheated whom you have seen loaded with false pleasures, fabricated riches and useless honours.

Long life was given to old promises, even though they did not deliver and destroyed trust. Insensitive youngsters, proud women will disappoint you because they envy you and they will slaughter you as they have slaughtered others in the past.

Why do I waste time on creatures? Let us come to Christ. Did they not persecute Christ, our most innocent Redeemer, for thirty-three years through persistent bitter harassment? Their final act of persecution was on the cross! Do they not continue to persecute and put down all those who are good? They kick them, put them down, mock them and show hatred towards them. Therefore, Christ said: Si mundus vos odit, scitote quia me priorem vobis odio habuit. [9] That means: “If the world hates you know now that it hated me first and that it hated me before it hated you.”

Therefore, make yourself say, I do not believe those who love the world. When you say to someone: Invisibilia enim ipsius etc. or Delectasti me Domine in factura sua, you are telling the truth. However, you do not rejoice in the Lord but take comfort in what is false in the world, and in its fogginess, in its traps and snares, and follow the false streams of the pleasures of this world, and abandon the vital and genuine fountain of living waters,[10] that this expression exemplifies and epitomises. There are real treasures amassed beneath the poor garment that this world holds in contempt. Thus St Paul said: Invisibilia enim ipius a creatura mundi. Oh that you would abandon riches and embrace poverty, move away from light and seek darkness!

[The world is a big apple]

5653 Therefore let us say that the world is like a big apple that was intentionally depicted by the tree of life in paradise that was forbidden to Adam and Eve, who were very happy until they tasted it. They were so happy in paradise and ate so much delicious fruit. However, as soon as they tasted the forbidden fruit they were cast out and overcome with sadness,[11] which is the same that we, their children, experience every day.

The same could be said of us, my Christians, and if we deny ourselves and trample on this blind world completely, and do not develop a taste for what it offers and holds out, we shall be happy, joyful and free. However, as soon as we partake of the apple of the false world and become involved in its enticements,[12] and its snares, and follow its flattery and speciousness, we shall be cast out and deprived of grace and full of problems.[13]

[The world is a grain of millet]

5654 I have said that the world is like an apple. However, it is certainly more wretched and much worse because it is like a grain of millet. What is this when compared to the heavens? Thus some mathematicians say that a single star is larger than the entire earth. Think of how vast is the first heaven, and of how much more extensive the second heaven in proportion to the first, and the second compared to the third, and the third to the fourth. Then think of how much greater is the crystalline heaven compared to the others.[14] Now, my good Christian, you be the judge, as to what is the grain of animal millet when compared to such vastness.

You say that there is nothing exists that is bigger than what you can see. Let us see about that. You can be deceived if a small coin is placed over your eye so as to stop you seeing the world, which you admit[15] is large. Likewise, the small world, when it is placed over your eyes, means that you cannot see heavenly things. You cannot see what is large because you sight is impeded by what is small.

In addition to this, the grain of millet is tiny in comparison to the elements of water, air and fire.[16] The four elements contribute much more than the grain. You, my Christian soul, stand to forfeit what is infinite and pertains to heaven for such a small sum.

5655 Listen to Gregory[17] who says: “Si consideremus quae et quanta sunt quae nobis promittuntur in coelis, viliscunt animo omnia quae habentur in terris. Temporalis vita aeternae vitae comparata, mors est potius dicenda quam vita. That is: “When we consider how great are the things that we are promised to have in heaven, all that we have on earth certainly becomes like dung and mud.[18] Thus all of the joys and pleasures of the world, when compared to heavenly happiness, are like a weight, a burden that is wretched and distasteful.”

Do you want me to make it clearer? Climb up a high tower and look down: people will look like crows. Go up higher and people will seem to have disappeared. If you could go up to heaven, you would see how vile and despicable are the things of earth in comparison to the heavenly realities, and you would learn to despise lower and fragile things. If you climbed up to heavenly things, you would be ashamed of having loved what is the dung and mud of this wretched world.

[To rise to heavenly things]

5656 Rise up, rise up, therefore, with your mind and with all of your soul, to heavenly matters, if you really want to understand the wickedness, wretchedness and unhappiness of earthly things and if you want to achieve genuine contempt for the world, with its concupiscence, and to have contempt for yourself. Oh, if only God would allow you to rise up to heaven, even for just a short moment, and see the Most Blessed Trinity, which is the perfect, highest and infinite good, and then immediately return to this world! I tell you for certain that you would cry for your entire life and be very ashamed when you considered how you loved such vile things and gave[19] all your love to them and despised heavenly things.

To give an example: ants are despicable and small but when they have gathered[20] twenty-three or forty grains they consider themselves to be happy and rich. Tell me: if you had seen any of them wanting to take the highest place or searching for greater honours although they considered themselves to be happy and rich would you not have laughed? So, my Christian, you are a worm and not a man,[21] and the least in this great prison cave, and yet you think of yourself as being the foremost individual and better than others, comfortable and wealthy, just because you own palaces and have plenty money. Oh, how wretched and truly blind!

This is why Democritus, who was sensible, laughed at the comparisons that we make and Diogenes cried continually.[22] As well as this you own a big and beautiful palace and believe that you are important because you live there. However, when you go four miles around the city, and you see the entire city, your palace seems to be nothing in comparison to the rest of the city. So too the fleeting, damaged, wretched and frail things of this world are nothing and indeed reek and are something putrid in comparison to heavenly things. But since you are submerged in these second-rate goods you think that they are valuable. But, oh intelligent soul, if you distance and remove yourself from such tawdry things and raise yourself up, these human commodities will look like nothing or like dung.

[The world is but a reflected image: the example of a small child]

5657 Consider the example of a mirror that reflects the likeness of your body. Is the image not based on the reality? So too the world is a reflection, an image, and all its finite pleasures, its comforts and wealth are images and reflections of what is true because they are images of the heavenly world, as St Paul said: Invisibilia enim ipsius a creaturis etc.

Oh Christian, what happens to you is the same as what happens to a small child. [23] As soon as he is born his mother feeds him in a very dark enclosed place where he cannot see any light or anything else until the age of seven years. The mother then brings in a lit candle, and holding the child upright, places the candle behind his shoulder. The child sees the shadow of his body and immediately thinks that this is the reality, and thus, by firmly adhering to this opinion he thinks that he is nothing more than his shadow.

Thus, O Christian, you are also enclosed in a similar dark enclosure, the prison of this world, and immersed in passing and corrupt things, without the light of grace. Once you receive the light of grace from the Holy Spirit by means of compunction or by having the Word of God preached to you, it will show you that the world is a shadow. However, you are so attached to your opinion that you believe that the shadow is the reality, the ultimate truth.

5658 Just like you, the rich young man and many like him in our day, believe what you believe and tamen evanuerunt in cogitationibus suis.[24] That is, their thoughts vanished into smoke. So too for you, you wealthy man who does not believe, this is what will happen to you, and also to you who are worldly minded, if you do not change your life and what you believe. The same thing will happen to those who do not listen and who are not willing to believe. Et evanuerunt in cogitationibus suis.

This is also like the other small child that his mother called into the garden to show him a bucket of water. When he looked in the bucket, he saw a star and he stretched out his hand to grab it and he could not. You too, my Christian, you think that you can keep the things of this world. Do you not see? When a person is near death, he calls his family and friends and has them summon a notary and says in his will: “I leave this, I leave that, I leave the other”. He leaves everything behind because he cannot take it with him. He has nothing that he could take because he has given it all to the poor and deposited the earnings in heaven with Christ as far as he could.[25]

Therefore, send the dividends on ahead, change your life, and strip off the old man, clothe yourself in Christ,[26] cancel your sins by giving alms, do not delay, do not rely on the promises of others. I leave it up to you to provide other examples.[27]

[The world is a stage]

5659 Others have said that the world is a stage. Indeed, it really is a stage.

Do you know how they produce comedies and dramas? If you do not know I will tell you so that you do know.[28] They select a large theatre, hall or room in which they set up buildings, castles and rooms in which they place silk costumes that look beautiful. The buildings are make-believe, not real. They then pick fifteen or twenty young people whom they dress in one or other of the costumes. You see a poor little child made to play the part of a king or a duke, another plays a wealthy man, while another who is wealthy, happy and powerful becomes poor, miserable and sick. You will see one of them raised up with another put down and degraded. You will see those who are good being persecuted and those who are wicked being rewarded and wicked young people being acclaimed while those who are good and the elderly are mocked. In the end the play finishes and the buildings, the rich people, the dukes and the lords whom you at first thought to be real come down to nothing. The world is like that, like this production, its buildings, its houses, its goods, its pleasures, its happiness, its charm and its wealth are finite.

For many people, men or women, nobility or common people, rich or poor, this comedy begins at birth. You may see someone who is poor and miserable become wealthy, someone who is a bastard become a prince,[29] someone who is an ordinary person become a noble. You will often see those who are good being persecuted, cast out and hurt: these are those whom the world does not respect.[30] You will see those who are wicked and sinful raised up above others, honoured and shown deference along with the highest earthly esteem and happiness.

Finally, when the comedy, which runs for forty or fifty minutes, is over when a fever breaks out and the hour of death arrives, and the comedy ends. Just as we were naked when we came from out mother’s womb, we depart naked.[31] With respect to worldly possessions, wealth, nobility, glory and everything else we are all equal and there is no longer any difference between those who are wealthy and those who are poor, those who are powerful and those who are not, or between the servant and the master.

[How this is relevant to the city of Lucca]

5660 Therefore, Christian, what do you hope for? You place your hope in reflected images and in theatrical productions and in the phony world that is filled with despair, made uneasy by continual anger, resentment, hatred, hunger, pestilence, continuous wars as you can see in unhappy Italy with its fierce disturbances.[32]

You, O Lucca, were the silver vase in which the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood were preserved by the miraculous fire, when the church was completely burnt down. Therefore, I say to you dear Lucca you have been preserved miraculously from the fires of tribulation that have raged in Italy. Therefore, you ought to be a sacred vase that feeds Christ better than any other city, in the person of those who are poor. You ought to be the sacristy of virtue and Christian perfection. However, alas, you have been just the opposite, because the other cities that have not received the graces that you received, have recognised your grace whereas you have not.[33]

The Queen of Sheba had a most beautiful kingdom in the East that she displayed to everyone claiming that no kingdom was better than her kingdom. All those who saw it praised it and said that there was no better kingdom. At length two Jews went there praised it greatly and said to the Queen: “Did you know that Solomon has one that is much more beautiful.” When she heard this the Queen immediately went to Solomon’s kingdom, leaving her kingdom, because she believed what the two Jews had said.[34]

Now that you have become wealthy in this world and involved your soul in usury and theft as well as entangling the souls of your children, you too think that you can use the world as you please as if there was no other world or a better kingdom. Alas, two Jews have led you to believe that if there was another world and you compared it with your world that it would be pondus, non subsidium. You would find that your world when compared with the world of the two Jews was a burden, miserable and unhappiness itself.

[Final summary]

5661 Therefore, O my city, in your thoughts and feelings go along with the Queen to Solomon’s kingdom, destroy your kingdom which Solomon said was: Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas, praeter amare Deum.[35] All that you can see and experience under heaven is vanity, except to love God.

Listen to Jeremiah who said: Vanae sunt operationes vestrae et risu dignae.[36] All, all of man’s activities, wealth and status are vanity and worthy of ridicule and laughter, because Christ said: Regina Austri surget in iudicio cum generatione ista et condemnabit eam.[37] On judgement day the queen of the South will pass judgement on you and will condemn you.

Therefore, believe the Holy Spirit and this preacher and do not be attached to the shadows of this world, because, my Christian, all these things are like shadows. Just as shadows cannot supply what you need, even if they were infinite in number, so too the things of this world will not fulfil you or give you rest. All of these things are like dreams, for although dreams appear to be real as soon as you wake up you will find that they are not true but false.[38] This world’s goods are no more and no less than that.

Therefore, I challenge you to turn your back on this world which is traitorous and deceitful, so that you will be happy in this life and in the next.

  1. A very beautiful way of describing St John, the Apostle.
  2. 1 Jn 2:15.
  3. This was the topic in the third sermon at Lucca.
  4. Mondo in the text means mondato, spoglio; from the Latin mundus.
  5. Rom 1:20
  6. Ps 91:5 (Vulg.),
  7. He is referring to Alessandro de’Medici who was given the title of Duke of Florence in 1532 by Charles V and who in 1537 was assassinated, with the help of a hired assassin, by his cousin Lorenzino, a person who was given to orgies. Note how Ochino is speaking about this in 1538 when the events were still fresh.
  8. That is Clement VII (+ 1534), Leo X (+ 1527) and Adrian VI (+ 1523).
  9. Jn 15:16.
  10. Jer 2:13
  11. Gen 2:8-9,15-17; 3:1-20.
  12. gruppi, or tangled knots,
  13. Cf Job 14:1
  14. The Medieval cosmology adopted by Dante and the Scholastics was derived from models proposed by Ptolemy, a Greek, through Almagest the Arab. It portrayed the universe as consisting of nine spheres (or heavens), with one centre point, one linked to the other until they reached the crystalline sphere, that is the sphere of spheres, which had no stars, the heaven of the heavens, according to the wise man Al-Hasen (Ibn al Haitham), who is mentioned at length by Onorio d’Autun in Imago mundi and Bernardo Silvestro in De mundi universitate.
  15. Domandi = chiami.
  16. In the Medieval way of thinking these are the three basic components of creation. The fourth is earth. These are the elements that St Francis sung about in the Canticle of Brother Sun.
  17. St Gregory the Great, Hom. 37 in Evang. n. 1 (PL 76, 1275)
  18. As you can see the translation provides for greater oratorical emphasis than does the text.
  19. Although he has changed the grammatical structure, what Ochino means to say is that you ought to be ashamed of giving in to those things etc.
  20. Raunano in the text = radunano
  21. Cf Ps 21:7 and Job 25:6
  22. With regard to Democritus and Diogenes see above note 16 in the sermon to the University students in Perugia (n. 5620) and note 4 in the first sermon in Lucca (n. 5630)
  23. Concerning the image of a small child and of the world as a “dark prison”, which we have already seen, see B. Nicolini, Il pensiero di Bernardino Ochino, Napoli 1939, 49: 53-57. See more generally D. Bertrand Barraud, Les idées philosophiques de Bernardin Ochino, de Sienne, Paris 1924.
  24. Rom 1:21.
  25. Cf. Mt 6:20
  26. Cf. Col 3:9; Eph 4: 22; Rom 13:14
  27. Even from a distance in time this splendid page gives us some idea of how Ochino’s preaching conveyed the message.
  28. Ochino must have known something from his experience with young people.
  29. This occurred frequently in the Italian courts at the time of the Renascence.
  30. Cf. Heb 11:38
  31. Cf. Job 1:21; Wisdom 7:6; 1 Tim 6:7.
  32. He is referring to the conflicts between the Pope and Charles V, between the House of Augsburg and the Valois, as well as conflicts between various Italian states. Guicciardini said something the same in his famous Storia d’Italia which covered up to 1534. All the disasters that afflicted Italy began with the French invasion of Naples in 1494, which followed the golden era in Florence and in Italy in the days of Lawrence the Magnificent.
  33. Undoubtedly, he is referring to the rising of the “straccioni” (ragmen) that broke out in the republic of Lucca in 1531-32 and progressed in a particularly gory and brutal way. Ochino’s words were so effective that on 17th May 1538 some of the citizens went to the Magnifico Counsiglio with a petition to ask that the poor “wherever they were could be comforted and not be forced to starve,” or at least have supplies provided “for those who were the most in need and wretched.” Cf. Lucca, Arch. Di Stato, Colloqui, vol. 7 f. 77r; B. Nicolini, Sul rapporti diBernardino Ochino con le città di Bologna e di Lucca, in id., Aspetti della vita religiosa politica e letteraria del Cinquecento, Bologna 1963, 30 note 28.
  34. Cf. 1 Kgs 10:1-2; 2 Chron. 9:1-12.
  35. Eccl. 1:2. However the quote seems more likely to have come from the famous Imitation of Christ bk 1, ch4, n. 11
  36. Jer 10:15.
  37. Mt 12:42; Lk 11:31.
  38. Cf. Ps 75: 6.