No fool can be silent at a feast. — Solon of Athens

Saint Gregory the Great - Notre Dame




At Constantinople

Pope Pelagius II had been a monk at Monte Cassino. He allowed Gregory to select his suite among the brethren at St. Andrew's, and quite a band of tried and trusty comrades embarked with him at Ostia for the Golden Horn.

We have grounds for assuming that they went by ship. St. Gregory uses sea-metaphors so freely and so feelingly that he must himself, at one time or another, have become familiar with the dangers of the deep. Besides, he travelled with an embassy. The Patrician, Pamphronius, was carrying to Constantinople Rome's tribute of three thousand pounds in gold, together with an urgent request for military aid. For the Lombard armies were let loose upon the Campagna, hindering the food-supplies from reaching Rome. It is not likely such a convoy would choose the official route—along the Appian Way, and the Egnatian Road on the other side of the Adriatic. For this would mean running the gauntlet of the Duke of Benevent's troops in Italy, as well as of the brigands in Thessaly and Thrace.

It was in the freshness of the early summer that the ship cast anchor in the sunlit waters of the Golden Horn, a crescent-shaped creek affording seven miles of quiet backwater from the rapid currents of the Bosphorus. The fairest, richest and most cultured city in the world stretched before the travellers in beautiful panorama, with open spaces and buildings grouped in orderly arrangement over the Seven Hills and downwards to the water's edge, "like a robe embroidered to the very hem."

For Constantine had planned his capital imperially; and earthquakes and fires and riots provided his successors with opportunities for improving on his plan. The emperors had old Rome in their minds, as a model easy to surpass. They had the architectural masterpieces of classic Greece to incorporate, with thought and taste, into their monuments. They had marbles in their quarries to supplement these antiques, and artists in their employ fit to carry out their ideas. And never was there stint of money to pay for all this magnificence.

Yet St. Gregory, at his first glimpse of the city, must have been more impressed with the busy life astir in the port. Unlike the ancient seat of empire, now decaying slowly on the Tiber—handicapped by bad harbours and shut in by mountains from the rest of Europe—Rome on the Bosphorus was an active, industrial centre, easily accessible by land or sea, controlling the Danube lands and the markets of the Euxine shores, and moreover fronting the East. Merchant ships from everywhere rode at anchor in the Golden Horn. Foreign traders thronged the streets, offering their wares in barter for the silk, pottery, mosaics and jewel-work which were manufactured in the city and its environs.

At Constantinople no one was allowed to eat his bread in idleness. Able-bodied citizens who refused to work had to seek a home elsewhere. Strangers who lingered in the city without working at their trade or profession were expelled by the quaestor, unless they could show cause, such as a lawsuit, for remaining on.

Our travellers had not far to seek for a church where they might thank God for mercies during the voyage, and invoke His blessing on their work in Constantinople. The shrine of Saints Sergius and Bacchus stood on the southernmost of the quays. Here the services were according to the Latin rite. Here walls and pillars were covered with ex-votos  from the grateful mariners of the West.

During the next six years St. Gregory often came to this quiet sanctuary to join in the prayers familiar to him from childhood. But be found food for piety too in the more ornate ritual of the Greeks. Did he not borrow largely from the Byzantine liturgy later on when he compiled his Sacramentary?  He could study the elaborate ceremonial at its best in Santa Sofia, the great basilica just rebuilt on a scale to justify Justinian's boast:

"Solomon, I have surpassed thee!

There was nothing like Santa Sofia in Old Rome. Its peculiar glory was the perfect balance of its system of domes which kept the interior flooded with radiance. At any hour of the day the mosaic pavement sparkled in the sunshine "like a meadow full of flowers in bloom." The light flashed full on the forest of pillars, showing up the delicate tracery of the capitals, and glinting back in rainbowed tints from plinth and shaft.

Some of these pillars were of Phrygian porphyry, red and silver, "powdered with bright stars"; others of Spartan marble, "emerald green, showing slanting streaks, blood-red and livid white"; while yet another variety from the quarries of Lydia suggested to the imaginative chronicler Procopius, "blue corn-flowers in grass with here and there a drift of fallen snow." The High Altar was of solid gold. Forty thousand pounds' weight of silver adorned the sanctuary. The ambo sparkled with gems.

Gregory was to assist at many a stately function in Santa Sofia; the funeral of the emperor and the patriarch, the crowning and the consecration of their successors, the wedding of the new emperor and the christening of his heir. And dearly as he loved the beauty of God's house, he rejoiced more, as he worshipped amid its structural magnificence, because "the emperor and the patriarch show on every occasion that their Church is subject to the Apostolic See."

The Pope's representative had his lodging in the Placidia wing of the emperor's own palace. Gregory and his companions could find quiet nooks for prayer, for study, and for recreation in the beautiful gardens and woodlands sloping downwards to the Bosphorus. They followed, as far as possible, the same rule of life as at St. Andrew's.

"In losing the peace of my monastic home," wrote Gregory, "I learn its value. For when I had it, I did not esteem enough that treasure which needs to be cherished with the utmost care."

He blessed God for inspiring so many of his brethren to follow him from Rome.

"In this I see clearly the Hand of the Most High. For their example, like a firm cable, held me fast moored to the shore of prayer, while I was buffeted to and fro on the restless billows of worldly concerns. I fled to their company as to a haven of safety, and daily in their midst strengthened my soul against the disturbance of temporal business, by the intercourse of study and careful discussion of the Holy Scriptures."

From the discourses he then delivered, he compiled later on his Moralia  from the Book of Job, to show, says Bede, "how far this book is to be understood literally, how it is to be referred to the mysteries of Christ and His Church, and in what sense it is to be adapted to every one of the faithful."

His audience was not restricted to his own monks. There were notable Latins at Constantinople during those years, none more notable than St. Leander of Seville, who had come to beg the emperor to intervene on behalf of the persecuted Catholics in Spain.

St. Leander was the closest friend St. Gregory ever had. They were never to meet elsewhere on earth; 'yet, years afterwards, the Italian wrote to the Spaniard: "The image of thy countenance is for ever imprinted upon my innermost heart." The two saints had much in common. Both were accurate theologians, both diligent students of Holy Scripture, and both skilled in music. St. Leander, moreover, was always the friend of monks, and became from first acquaintance an ardent admirer of St. Gregory. He spent much of his leisure at the Placidia, joining in the religious exercises and studies, very helpful with his criticism and sound advice. St. Gregory laid bare his heart to him with all its weaknesses. He told him of his long struggle with grace, before he could bring himself to forsake the world; he told him of his grief and anxiety at finding himself again entangled in worldly affairs. We shall hear more of St. Leander later on.

Despite the handicap of language, St. Gregory also made friends among the Greeks. Foremost among these we may mention Eutychius, the patriarch of Constantinople, whom the Easterns honour among the saints. He was a man of holy life, famous for his miracles, for his alms-deeds, for his firm stand against imperial encroachments. At one time Justinian drove him from his see, but the clamour of the citizens brought him back, when he had spent twelve happy years in a monastery. On the first Sunday after his return he distributed Holy Communion for six hours in Santa Sofia.

Eutychius was an acute thinker. But in his sermons and in his writings he maintained that the bodies of the just shall rise in glory, "impalpable and more subtle than the air or wind." St. Gregory did not fail to show him he was wrong, and urged among other texts the words of the Risen Lord to His Apostles:

"A spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see Me to have."

Eutychius argued, in his turn, that Our Lord spoke thus to remove all doubt of His Resurrection.

"What!" exclaimed Gregory, "would you have us doubt of the very thing which cured the doubt of the Apostles?"

The point was argued in the presence of the emperor, who ordered the patriarch to burn his books. Eutychius, thus silenced, would not own himself convinced. Ill-health may have had to do with his pertinacity, for he did not long outlive his defeat. Gregory, ill himself at the time, sent him kind greetings on his death-bed; and the messengers brought back word that the sick man took hold of the skin of his own emaciated hand, and said to them in a clear voice, "I acknowledge that in this very finch I shall rise again and behold my God."

Bede the Venerable, when he tells the story, accuses Eutychius of heresy. We think St. Gregory would have disapproved of the word. He always disliked the dogma-mongers who indulged in controversy for the delight of proving their opponent a heretic. Such religious discussion was fashionable in the East.

"There are many orthodox persons," he regrets, "who fancy they are fighting heretics, while really they are creating heresies."

His own practice was to deal personally with those who uttered novelties, offensive to pious ears. More often than not a straightforward, heart-to-heart talk satisfied him that they did not really hold the foolish opinions imputed to them. A man might say, for instance, that Baptism did not really forgive actual sin, and yet mean nothing worse than that contrition is an essential disposition for the baptism of adults. Another might begin by maintaining that a marriage is dissolved when one of the contracting parties enters religion, and end by smiling at his own absurdity, or stand aghast at the issues involved, when the question was put before him in all its aspects.

Eutychius was followed in the see of Constantinople by John the Faster, a stern man, "the despot of his own passions," and with little pity for the weaknesses of other men. Thus he insisted that a man convicted of sorcery should be burnt alive, even though the emperor himself pleaded that the criminal should be given time and opportunity to repent. As representative of the Holy See, Gregory must have had his tact and his courtesy strained to the utmost in his dealings with John. The time had not yet come when as Pope he could write to the patriarch in all charity:

"Your Fraternity well knows what the Canons say about bishops who seek to make themselves feared by stripes. The illustrious preacher, St. Paul, says, 'Reprove, entreat, rebuke with all patience and doctrine.' It is an unheard of method of preaching to extort faith by stripes."

St. Gregory must also have been disgusted with John's arrogant attitude towards his brother patriarchs of Alexandria and of Antioch. He must have watched uneasily the trend in "the emperor's bishop "to make Constantinople supreme in ecclesiastical matters throughout the East. Much, he foresaw, depended on the individual character of the reigning monarch.

Two emperors succeeded each other while he was at Constantinople: Tiberius, grey-eyed, tall and yellow-haired; and Maurice, short, sturdy, red-faced and bald. And the two were as unlike in disposition as in appearance.

With Tiberius, Gregory's intercourse was always agreeable. The emperor received the embassy with every mark of honour. His own wars, however, absorbed his military resources. All he could do for Rome was to send back the tribute, and advise the Pope to hire the Franks to fight the Lombards. It would relieve Italy too, he suggested, if the Lombard dukes could be persuaded to come with their troops and help the emperor in his campaigns against the Persians and the Avars.

A brave and able soldier was Tiberius, and a great and generous Christian, who considered in his alms-giving less what the needy ought to receive than what an emperor ought to bestow. He strengthened his defences by the levy and upkeep of a large and well-disciplined army. But he would not conscript recruits from the agricultural classes, and he scorned to fill his coffers with gold wrung from the taxpayers at the cost of bitter suffering.

"Our treasury will never be empty so long as there are poor to relieve and captives to ransom." Such was his reply, when the empress dowager reproached him with squandering in an hour sums which it had taken her husband years to collect.

And sure enough, he never lacked for ready money. One day, the story goes, he noticed a slab in the pavement of his palace with a cross engraven thereon.

"We fortify our brow and breast with the Sign of Redemption," he exclaimed, "yet here we tread it under foot."

He ordered the slab to be removed, and a second and yet a third which lay underneath. In the hollow thus exposed a vast amount of gold and gems was found, enough to satisfy his needs, and gratify his benevolent impulses.

Tiberius had no son to succeed him. When he felt his bodily forces failing, he betrothed his younger daughter, Constantia, to Maurice, the one among his generals whom he considered worthiest to wear the crown.

"I pray you, Maurice," he exhorted, "let your reign be the noblest epitaph in my honour. Shame not the hopes of those who have thus trusted you. Look upon the sceptre as an emblem of slavery, and not as denoting the unbridled exercise of power. Prefer reproof to flattery in your counsellors. Seek to be loved rather than feared by your subjects. And remember that, whether you follow my advice or not, you will one day stand before the Judgment Seat of God whose verdict no bribes can sway."

Maurice, the new emperor, came to the throne at the age of forty-three. A rough, hard-working soldier, well acquainted with the details of administration, he made a good subordinate, but lacked the qualities essential to success at the head of the State. His brave death belongs to another chapter, and the story of the trouble he was to cause St. Gregory.

For the present Maurice was all smiles and goodwill. Like Tiberius he had no men, not even a duke, to spare for Italy. But he begged the Pope's representative to act as godfather when a son was born to him "in the purple." And Gregory made some valued friends at his Court, notably the physician Theodore, who could always be relied upon to transmit disagreeable messages in the least disagreeable manner. The Empress Constantia, also, and her sister Theoctista continued through life his staunch and loyal friends. Both these ladies spoke Latin like their mother tongue. They came to St. Gregory for advice about their souls, and attended as respectful listeners at the discussions in the Palace Placidia.

Our saint had the gift of making and of keeping useful friends. Maximianus his abbot "upon charity came to visit him with others of his monks," wisely foreseeing that to guide St. Gregory in the paths of holiness was the greatest service he could render to the Church. He resigned St. Andrew's to the abbot Valens, and came to Constantinople, where he abode at the Placidia a year, or maybe two. We read in the Dialogues  of "the wrath and favour of God "which he tasted in the homeward journey.

For a storm befell him in the Adriatic. "The sea did so rage with the fury of the winds that the mast was swept overboard and the sails floated upon the waves. The ship, battered by boisterous billows, leaked so fast that it seemed not so much the ship in the waters as the waters in the ship." The sailors and passengers, "void of all hope in this life," gave one another the kiss of peace, and strengthened their souls for death by Holy Communion. And then, "God who had wonderfully terrified their minds did still more wonderfully preserve their lives." For the ship, thus full of water, held on her course for yet another week. On the ninth day all were safely landed in the port of Crotona. "The reverend man, Maximianus, was the last to leave the ship, and as soon as he set foot on shore the vessel sank. Whereby God gave them to understand that when it was laden, His own Divine Hand did direct and preserve it; and when it was empty and His Hand withdrawn, it could not continue above the water."

Gregory in his turn received letters of recall in 586. Pelagius meant to utilize his talent for writing good business letters, and perhaps foresaw in him his own successor.

No need now to make the journey by sea. We may assume that the Court functionaries accompanied the Pope's representative in honourable escort as far as the eastern boundary of the city. As he parted from them beneath the triple archway of the Golden Gate, he could look backward for the last time to the great porphyry pillar in the Agora of Constantine, and from his heart repeat the prayer which the imperial founder had engraved on its plinth:

"O Christ, Master and Ruler of the universe, to Thee have I consecrated this obedient city, and this sceptre and the power of Rome. Do Thou guard it and deliver it from all harm."

The six years which St. Gregory spent in Constantinople, gave good training for his future career. He had learnt to make allowances for the effects on human character of climate, luxury and form of government. He had studied the needs and tendencies and trend of thought in the Eastern Churches. He had made many valuable friendships. He had secured the good-will of influential persons about the Court. He had seen the perils of autocracy in both Church and State, and learned to treat his own underlings with esteem and confidence. He had realized that the emperor was a broken reed to lean upon, and that the West must save itself by its own exertions, and by the vigorous and independent action of the Holy See.

He had now four more years at Rome, in immediate preparation for his responsibilities as the Vicar of Christ upon earth.