Advocate of God and consoler of Mary, this is the story of the "first" thief, whose wonderful eleventh hour conversion and defense of the holy Kingship of Christ on Calvary, merited him the everlasting title, "The Good."
Monsignor Gaumé opens his book with a graphic, even ugly, description of the true face of a highway brigand in the days of the Caesars. He presents the first meeting of our Egyptian thief and the Son of God in the idolatrous land of the Pharaohs on the occasion of the flight of the impoverished Holy Family away from the sword of Herod.
The rest of this profoundly inspiring account begins on the "Mount of the Skull." It is the story of the Passion as seen through this most unlikely of characters. Meet Dismas; a dying man whose only request from his "Lord" was but a "remembrance" in His Kingdom! Rejoice for a man who was the first to be with Christ "in Paradise."
Table of Contents
The Robbers of Judea
Traditions Concerning the Good Thief
Name and Origin of the the Good Thief
The Good Thief’s Manner of Life
The Scourging (continued)
The Way of Sorrow
Mount Calvary (continued)
The Suffering of the Cross
Conversion of the Good Thief
Causes of the Good Thief’s Conversion
The Wondrous Nature of the Good Thief’s Conversion
Faith of the Good Thief
Hope of the Good Thief
Charity of the Good Thief
Prudence and Justice of the Good Thief
Fortitude and Temperance of the Good Thief
The Good Thief’s Claim to Martyrdom
The Good Thief’s Reward
The Good Thief’s Reward (continued)
The Glory of the Good Thief
The Glory of the Good Thief (continued)
What Became of the Relics of the Good Thief
On Devotion to the Good Thief
Charity of the Good Thief
Charity is the crowning of the spiritual edifice. Without charity, faith would be void, and hope vain. We have seen how great was the faith of the Good Thief; how perfect, his hope. Let us now consider the measure of his love. Love tends always to union with its object; so that to love is to unite. When the thoughts of our friend are our thoughts; when his tastes and interests are our interests and tastes; his joys and sorrows, ours; his losses, our losses; and his life forms, as it were, one with our life; then, indeed, is our love, true love. Now charity — the highest form of love — has, so to speak, two hands; with the one it holds fast to God, with the other, it clings to its neighbor. With the first, it raises itself up to its Heavenly Father; with the second, it draws after it its brethren and helps to bring them also to God, our One true End, and lasting reward. Thus, charity fulfils the prayer of Christ, and makes us all one, even as He and His Father are one.
When charity has fully penetrated a soul, and has shown itself by works that require a great and exceptional degree of courage, a courage stronger than death, then do we term such charity heroic. We do not hesitate to describe as such the charity of Dismas.
In the order of Nature, we do not see the sun suddenly leap out of the night and change the darkness into perfect day; neither does the traveler, with one bound, reach the tops of the mountain; but slowly, and gradually, all things are done. The greatest end has, usually, but a small beginning. And, it is the same, in the order of grace. Hence the maxim: Nemo repente fit summus. Perfection is not reached with lightning speed. It is the fruit of much labor — of weary vigils, and fastings, and sufferings, and pain.
But, sometimes, though rarely, God sees fit to dispense with the laws He has made, and thus we occasionally see certain happy souls attain, in a short time, to the greatest height of perfection. In the first rank of these privileged beings, stands the Good Thief. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the seed of grace developed, in him, into the goodly tree of virtue. Nothing was wanting, neither the roots of faith, the stem of hope, nor the flowers and fruits of charity. His whole soul was on fire with the love of God, and so his past sins were burnt away and utterly destroyed.
“On the cross,” says St. Gregory, “the hands and feet (of the Good Thief) were held and transfixed by the nails; nothing in him was left free, save his heart and his tongue. Inspired by God, he offered up to Him all he had to dispose of: with his heart he believed in justice, his tongue proclaimed it. According to the testimony of the Apostle, there are three chief virtues which must dwell in the hearts of the faithful; and these are faith, hope, and charity. On a sudden, being filled with grace, the thief received these (virtues into his soul), and he preserved them upon the cross.”1
The other fathers speak in the same sense. Let us now listen to the seraphic St. Bernardine of Siena. He says of Dismas: “All that he had, he offered up to Jesus, as a sacrifice of perfect love. Crucified, he could no longer make use of his hands and feet; his heart and tongue alone were free. He offered them both: the first as a sacrifice of sweet‑smelling odor, burnt by the flames of love; the second as the mouth-piece of the first.”2
What more shall I say? Let me cry out with the blessed Amadeus: “O aromatic, sweet‑smelling phœnix, thou art more pleasing, in the presence of the King, than cinnamon, or balm, or the precious spikenard.”3
The charity which consumed the heart of the Good Thief, inspired his tongue. Herein lies the proof of its heroic perfection. As soon as Dismas had recognized the innocence and divinity of Christ, he understood also the cause of His sufferings. That cause was none other than the sins of men; and truly could the thief say within himself: “I am the worst of sinners. It is for my sake that He drinks the cup of bitterness to the dregs; to save me from everlasting torments, He is covered with wounds from head to foot. He dies to give me life.” Or, in the words of a great saint: “The wounds of Christ were not Christ’s own wounds, but rather the wounds of sin. So the thief, seeing, as it were, his own wounds in the body of his Lord, loved Him the more.”4
And such is his love that, forgetting his own sufferings, he thinks only of the sufferings of Jesus, and breaks forth into words of heroic boldness. He takes up the defence of the Messias, and proclaims his innocence; and so doing fears not to brave the hatred and wrath of the assembled synagogue.5
“This man hath done no evil. What crimes do you accuse Him of, ye, who have condemned Him — thou, Pilate, who didst expressly declare His innocence, and ye, Annas, Caiaphas, priests and ancients of the people? Was it a crime to preach to you the kingdom of God, and His love to men? Was it a crime to heal your sick, to raise your dead? Was it a crime to convert sinners, to comfort the afflicted, to feed the poor, to deliver those possessed? For which of these things is it, that ye have outraged and insulted Him, spat upon Him, covered Him with wounds, and nailed Him to the shameful cross? I and my companion, indeed, are guilty, and we are rightfully condemned; but He, Jesus of Nazareth, hath done no evil.” All this, and much more, was contained in those few words of the Good Thief: “This man hath done no evil.” Who can fail to admire such generous courage?
“Let us examine carefully,” says a pious hermit, “what manner of man was this robber — lest, being ignorant of the cause of his hope, we should fall into the sin of presumption. All the friends, and neighbors, and kinsmen, and even the disciples of our Lord had left Him and fled. As it had been foretold: “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep shall be dispersed.” Even the disciple, whom Jesus loved, had not remained with Him all the time of His passion. The Apostles seemed one and all to have forgotten the many signs and wonders they had witnessed, and the power of doing things yet even greater, which their Master had given them. But while the Apostles deserted Him Whom they had previously confessed, the robber, who had not known Him during life, confessed Him, now that He was at the point of death.”6 His faith and courage being such, we need not wonder at the greatness of his hope, nor at its reward.
As we have said, charity has two hands. With the one, Dismas seized hold of, and clung on to Christ, his Savior; with the other, he strove to take hold of his fellow sufferer for the sake of bringing him to God, so that, after having shared his crimes and punishment, he might also share the never‑ending happiness he so confidently hoped for, for himself.
Fear is the beginning of wisdom — Dismas therefore turned all his efforts towards awakening fear in the heart of his companion. “Neither dost thou fear God?” he asked him reproachfully. Thou art about to die — yet fearest thou not Him Who is about to judge thee? Surely we were guilty enough already, thou needst not add to thy past sins this new guilt; thou needst not insult and blaspheme the Just.
Then, as a skilful preacher, the Good Thief addresses himself even to the weakness of his compeer; he touches his self‑love. Wherefore, he says, dost thou insult Him? Dost thou not see that every word thou sayest against Him falls back with tenfold force upon thyself; seeing thou art under the same condemnation? But we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds. Moreover, if our companion were guilty, as indeed He is innocent, it would be mean and cowardly to insult Him, now that He is in the midst of torments.
But He is not only innocent: He is holy; He is very God! He is dying for us both: for all mankind. Be not so blind as to refuse to acknowledge Him for what He is. It is not too late — repent thee of thy sins; ask pardon and thou shalt obtain it. I have found the true way that leadeth unto life everlasting — come, let us journey on together on the new road, as we did on the old; but if not, we shall be for ever separated, for thy road leadeth to destruction.7
Unhappily, we know that the words of the Good Thief fell upon the hard rock — that they failed altogether to effect the conversion of his companion. But his charity was all the more meritorious, in that it received no reward in this world. He risked much, and, apparently, gained nothing; for in rebuking and exhorting his fellow sufferer, Dismas took upon him to defend our Lord, and thus drew down upon himself the wrath and hatred of the Jews, who were not slow to wreak their vengeance upon him. For this reason it was that, as tradition tells us, Dismas was the first of the thieves to have his legs broken. In this way his enemies were able at once to punish and to silence him.
With Venerable Bede, I ask once again: “Who can help admiring the heroic charity of this thief?”8 I say more; let us not be content with barren admiration, let us strive — each one in our own sphere and measure — to reproduce in ourselves what we admire in him.
Prudence and Justice of the Good Thief
We have already seen in what high degree the Good Thief was possessed of the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity. We will now endeavor to show that the cardinal virtues were not behind in hand in the work of his sanctification; but that, on the contrary, his prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance were in no wise less perfect than his faith, and hope, and love.
The prince of theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas, defines prudence as a good counselor, to be consulted in all things pertaining to the life of man, and to the great End of that life.”1 We must, however, distinguish between the virtue of prudence and its counterfeit, worldly craftiness, which has improperly usurped the same name. Such false prudence is either earthly and animal, or it is devilish. It may help a man to enrich and advance himself; it may enable him to realize his ambition; but in so doing it destroys his best happiness, for, in the search after the goods of this world, he loses sight of those of the world to come. All his life long, Dismas had been under the influence of this false prudence. He had been a successful robber, and had often escaped human justice. But at last he had been overreached, and he was now paying the penalty — a few moments more, and he would have passed from the agonies of the cross to the everlasting torments of hell.
But suddenly, he was converted, and true prudence entered his soul, together with that glorious company of virtues we have already described. At once it showed itself in the examination he made of his past life, in the consequent confession of his guilt, and in the prayer which he addressed to our Lord. Dismas no longer deceived himself. He began to understand what it is to die. He saw that there remained to him but a few seconds of what is commonly called life, but which is, in reality, nothing better than a living death. Without hesitation, he turned his thoughts towards that life which is alone worthy of the name — the life which begins on the other side of the grave, and which is to everlasting.
By the light of the divine virtue of prudence, Dismas saw at once the means he must make use of to obtain eternal life. He was enabled to discern the Son of God in the Man who was dying by his side; enabled also to understand the motive of His death. Seeing that He was dying to save mankind, Dismas was only helping Him to realize His object, when he asked of Him salvation. The thought of his crimes humbled him, indeed, and moved him to sorrow, but it could not hold him back; for, however great his sins, he knew that the mercy of his Savior was infinitely greater. He had heard Him pray for those who were putting Him to death, and reviling and blaspheming Him. How much more would He be likely to show mercy to His fellow sufferer, if he asked it of Him.
Human prudence would have pronounced it folly to ask a boon of one he had so lately been insulting; but not so divine prudence. By faith, he had come to know the one true God, in the person of Jesus Christ Whom He had sent; hope had taught him where to put his trust; charity had shown him how to love aright: it remained for prudence to point out to him the best use to make of so much mercy. “This ingenious, clever thief,” says St. Gregory of Nyssa, “had perceived the treasure, and, making the most of his opportunity, he possessed himself of life everlasting. A truly sagacious and beautiful use of the art of robbery!”2
Prudence did not only suggest to Dismas to ask pardon, but it showed him also how to deserve it. It made him understand that it is necessary to confess the sins we would have forgiven; and so, briefly, he acknowledged that his death was but the just punishment of his crimes. This one word was enough to set forth their heinousness.
St. Chrysostom, in commenting on this proof of exquisite prudence, says: “Listen to his perfect confession! No man suggested it, neither did any force him to make it. Of his own free will he publicly confessed his iniquities, saying: ‘We are justly condemned, for we receive the due reward of our deeds, but this Man hath done no evil.’ He dared not say ‘Remember me in thy Kingdom’ until he had first rid himself, by confession, of the load of sin. See, then, what a great thing is confession! The thief confessed, and Paradise was opened to him; he confessed, and thereupon so great a trust and confidence were given him, that, notwithstanding a life of crime, he was enabled to ask a kingdom.”3
In his mode of asking, we see fresh evidence of the divine virtue of prudence. He earnestly desired eternal life, but how dared he ask for it? True, that with exceeding great humility, he had made confession of his sins. True, again, that he, and he alone, had taken upon himself to vindicate the innocence of our Lord. Yet would he say to himself: How is it possible that, after such a life as mine, Heaven should be given me at the very first sign of repentance? Does God make so little account of His Kingdom as to be willing to bestow it on one so unworthy, for the mere asking? Some such thoughts as these must surely have passed through the mind of the Good Thief.
But in the midst of his perplexity, prudence came to his aid. Ask little, it said to him, and thou wilt obtain much. God does not stoop to measure His gifts, nor to proportion them to our merits, or even to our prayers. He gives freely, without stint. He loves to give what man had not even thought of asking. For God is good, and He is generous. He is almighty, and His mercy knows no bounds.
In accordance, therefore, with the dictates of prudence, the thief, as we know, asked only a simple remembrance. “Remember me when Thou shalt come into Thy Kingdom.” What more humble? “He dared not say,” writes St. Lawrence Justinian, “give me the Kingdom; make me to share in Thy glory; but only this — ‘Remember me.’ He knew himself to be unworthy to enter the eternal Kingdom, for he was a sinner, his heart and hands steeped in guilt. How could he expect to follow where, by the light of grace, he knew that Christ was about to make his triumphal entry.”4
Prudently, but with firm hope, Dismas had made his request. We shall, presently, consider the gracious answer he received. We share his hope. Oh! let us be equally prudent in striving to imitate his humility. Self‑abasement is a magnet which attracts the best gifts of God, as it is written, “he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
We come, now, to the second of the cardinal virtues. Justice is usually defined as an upright intention of rendering to all, that which is due: to God, everything that we have, since He is Lord of all; and to our neighbor, much, for we are bound to love him as ourselves. Or, as St. Thomas words it: “Justice is that uprightness of mind by which a man does, in every matter, the thing which is right.”5 The whole duty of man consists in love — love of God, and love of his neighbor. Now, justice gives us the measure, in which to fulfill this duty.
First, therefore, we have justice towards God, which may be divided into the four kinds of homage due — homage of praise, because of His great glory and infinite perfections; homage of thanksgiving for His countless gifts; homage of satisfaction for sin, whether of commission or omission; and, finally, homage of repentant sorrow for such of His graces as we may have neglected.6
Now, from what we have already said of Dismas, it would seem unnecessary, to show categorically the perfect manner in which he complied with each one of these obligations. Still the love we bear this great Saint, unhappily too little known, obliges us to say a few words on each point of his perfection — even though at the risk of repetition. We will here content ourselves with briefly pointing out that the Good Thief rendered to God all these kinds of homage, by adoring the divinity of Christ as soon as it was made known to him on the cross; by proclaiming, praising, and defending Him from calumny and reproach; by freely confessing his own sins, and acknowledging that he had justly incurred death as their punishment; and by suffering patiently its worst agonies, as an expiation of his guilt. Moreover, by the prayer he addressed to our Lord, Dismas further proclaimed Him as the author of all good, and so fully paid the debt of justice owing to God.
Now, secondly, as regards justice towards his neighbor. This debt, also, he paid to the last farthing. Before all, he repaired the scandal of his evil life by avowing the justice of his chastisement. To all, whether Jews or Romans, Pharisees or publicans, priests or people, he proclaimed the innocence of the Lamb of God; and, by His innocence, His Divinity also — for had He not been the Son of God, He would have been indeed, as they falsely said, an impostor and a seducer. Dismas feared not to speak the truth, at whatever cost. He owed it to God, and he owed it to his neighbor. He did all that in him lay to enlighten and convert those around him — more especially to save that other thief who had been his companion in wickedness, and whom he now longed to gain as his companion in repentance, and everlasting happiness. His was not the fault, if his efforts proved vain. Nor did their apparent failure in any wise diminish his merit or his consequent glory.
When we consider all the circumstances of time and place, we cannot help repeating that the justice of the Good Thief, as well as all his other virtues, seems to us to have reached a perfection so great as to be unsurpassed, if not unrivalled, by that of any other Saint. None other, we may safely say, showed more heroic zeal for the glory of God, and the conversion of souls: more humility, more faith, more trust, more perfect love, at any given moment of his life, than did Dismas in the midst of the agonies of death.
It may not here be out of place, to insert the following eloquent passage, taken from a sermon of the Abbot Godfrey of Vendome: “Four great things were possessed by the thief, who confessed Christ upon the cross — wisdom, which by the light of faith made known to him the divinity of Christ, and, this, when all the disciples had left and abandoned Him; justice, which, through charity, made him rebuke the blasphemies of the other thief; holiness, which enabled him to pray to Christ with faith and love; and, lastly, the reward, for he was given a share in the Redemption, according to the words of our Lord: ‘This day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.”7