The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man. — G. K. Chesterton

Saint Gregory the Great - Notre Dame

Abbot of St. Andrews

Soon after his return to his monastery St. Gregory was elected abbot. He found the community regular and fervent, for St. Andrew's had been blessed with a series of superiors who ruled in the true spirit of St. Benedict, guiding the brethren by example and discourse, "reproving the disorderly with sharpness, but exhorting the meek and patient with entreaties," singling out none for favour, "unless a monk be found who surpassed his fellows in obedience and good works."

The new abbot had but to continue the system. Four happy years ensued in labour and prayer and deeds of mercy, in unslackening watchfulness lest abuses should creep in. Later in life he thus advises Conan, Abbot of Lerins:

"Let the good feel that you are kind, the evildoers that you know how to punish. Be careful to love the men themselves, even when you deal severely with their faults. Otherwise correction will be cruelty, and you will lose those whom you wish to improve. A surgeon cuts away what is diseased, without ulcerating the sound part of the limb. Should he press too hard upon the knife, he only injures the person whom he is anxious to benefit. Your kindness must be wary and not lax, your punishments careful and assiduous, not unduly severe. Attend well to this counsel, my beloved son, so that the fervent, while they love you, may have something to fear; and the lukewarm, while they fear you, may have something to love. Thus you yourself may render in safety to God all those whom He hath entrusted to your care."

He was especially careful in the matter of Holy Poverty. In his own words, "The desire to acquire private property is a sure sign that a man bath not the heart of a true monk. When monks possess anything as their own, neither peace nor charity can long endure. How can those despise the world who even in their monastery lust after gold?

Such was the theory. A story in the Dialogues—a pleasant, comforting story his listener calls it—illustrates his firm and tender treatment of the souls whom he guided to God.

"A monk there was in my monastery, Justus by name, skilled in the art of medicine, who served me diligently in my frequent ailments. His brother, Copiosus, still practises as a physician in Rome. When Justus lay at the point of death, the brethren tossing up all his phials and boxes found three golden solidi hidden away among the drugs. This discovery grieved me much. I could not quietly digest so great a sin, for it was a rule in our monastery that all things should be held in common: private ownership was quite forbidden. I pondered what was best to be done, for the cleansing of our dying brother, and for a warning to the others. At length I sent for Pretiosus the prior:

"'See,' quoth I, 'that none of the monks visit Justus in his sickness nor speak to him any comforting words. And should he ask for the brethren, Copiosus is to tell him that they all loathe him for the three coins he hath in hoard. And thus at least before his death the bitterness of his fault may sink into his heart, and sorrow may purge away his guilt. And dig him a grave in some ding-pit or other, and cast the three coins into it together with his body, all present crying out with ore accord, "Thy money perish with thee!" And so cast earth upon him.'

"By God's goodness all fell out as arranged. Justus, when he heard his sentence, straightway sighed for his sin, and in that sorrow gave up the ghost. And the other monks began immediately to give up the trifles which it was quite lawful to have by them for their use and convenience."

A month later the abbot again called the prior, end said to him with a heavy heart:

"Our brother is now a good while tormented in fire. It is high time that we show him some charity, and labour to set him free. Go, therefore, and arrange that for thirty days the holy and health-giving Sacrifice of the Mass be offered for his absolution."

So said, so done. But Gregory, busied with many cares, kept no account of the days. When the thirtieth Mass had been said—the first mention of a trental  or month's mind—Copiosus, who knew nothing of the arrangement, saw his brother in a dream. And Justus said to him, with joy in his countenance:

"Hitherto I have been in bad case. But now all is well. To-day I am received into the company of the Blessed."

Incidentally we gather from the story that the monks lived very frugally, and that the abbot trusted the prior with the details of administration. St. Andrew's was well endowed, and Pretiosus saw to it that there was always a surplus fund for almsgiving and good works. While St. Gregory was abbot, the foundations were laid of the Church which he lived to consecrate.

The memory of his own freedom from money-straits made him, all his life, inclined to help communities less happily circumstanced. Thus in the fifth year of his pontificate, he wrote to Elias, an abbot in Isauria:

"You have asked for fifty shillings to be sent to you for the wants of your monastery. But thinking this too much, you say you will send us back ten, and lest even this be burdensome, you are willing to return still more to us. Because we find that you are very merciful to our charity, we reply to your mercy thus. We have sent fifty shillings already, and lest this be too little we send ten more, and in case this be too little we add yet another twelve."

In another case he instructs his business man to befriend a community of nuns:

"We are impelled by the duty of piety to make due provision for convents, lest those who are known to be set apart for the service of God should suffer want, which God forbid."

He had now leisure to complete his commentary on the Book of Job. He sent a. copy to St. Leander at Seville, and enclosed a covering letter:

"The first parts of the book I preached to the brethren, the latter parts I dictated. Finally, when I had more time at my disposal, I corrected and rearranged all that had been taken down by the brethren as I delivered it in discourse, adding much, omitting a little, bringing the notes taken at Constantinople into harmony with the style of the part dictated in this city. But I have not been able to correct the third part with any degree of exactness, because the brethren continually drew away my attention to other things."

Gregory was lenient to the faulty diction of his scribes, as long as it expressed his real meaning. But he speaks very slightingly of this great work of his, which his own and succeeding ages have held in high esteem. He compares his own expounding of Holy Writ to the brute braying of an ass, to a leaden pipe supplying pure water for the service of men.

When Innocent, the prefect of Africa, wrote for a copy of the Moralia, he sent it indeed, but coupled with the advice

"If you wish to feast on delicious fare, read the works of your countryman, the Blessed Augustine, and do not seek our bran in preference to his wheat."

He was displeased when word reached him that Marinianus, Archbishop of Ravenna, had ordered portions of the work to be read at Matins in his churches.

"With an uninstructed audience," he wrote, it is likely to do more harm than good. Have read instead some commentary on the psalms which may mould the minds of the people to good habits. As long as I live I do not wish that anything I have composed should become generally known."

Marinianus of Ravenna, Maximianus of Syracuse, Augustine the Apostle of England, these and such as these were the men who lived under St. Gregory at St. Andrew's. Their monastic training fitted them peculiarly for the pastoral office which they were to exercise later on. They did not misunderstand, when he chid them in charity for their weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. The abbot-pope thoroughly understood monks. He knew their influence over others, he foresaw their worth to the Church. But as Mgr. Mann so well observes, in his Lives of the Popes:

"The monks were practically a new element m the Church—in the West at least, and in that development they had received through the organizing hand of St. Benedict. Naturally then, time was required to fix their relations to the authorities of the Church, and for themselves to settle down as one of its ordinary working powers."

It needed a monk-pope in the first instance to bring their rule into harmony with Canon Law, so that the rights of abbots and bishops might not clash.

In 6or he issued an encyclical. "Gregory. the Bishop, Servant of the Servants of God, to all bishops.

"The office formerly held by Us in the government of a monastery has shown Us how necessary it is to provide for the quiet of monasteries, and to legislate for their stability. . . . We therefore interdict in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the authority of Blessed Peter the Prince of the Apostles, in whose place we preside over the Church, We forbid any bishop or layman, by any means in the future, to diminish the revenues, or the property, of monasteries, or cells, or farms which belong to them, or to attempt it by fraud or evasion. . . . At the death of an abbot a stranger shall not be elected, unless the brethren themselves choose him of their own free will, and he who is elected shall be consecrated without fraud or bribery. . . . No person, under any pretext, shall be placed over a constituted abbot, unless for crimes which the Sacred Canons declare should be punished. . . .

"We altogether forbid a bishop to celebrate public masses in a monastery, lest occasion be given for any assembly of people in the retreats of the servants of God, or for the introduction of women into their precincts, which is by no means good for their souls. A bishop shall not establish his cathedral chair in a monastery, nor exercise therein any power of any kind, nor make even the slightest regulation, unless requested by the local abbot. Without the knowledge and consent of the abbot no monk may be placed in charge of a church, or be promoted to any dignity."

The bishops accepted the encyclical in the spirit in which it was drafted. One copy is on record, signed by twenty-two bishops and sixteen priests:

"We rejoice in the liberty of the monks, and confirm what your Holiness has written about them."

St. Gregory's letters abound in instances of his zeal for the spiritual and temporal welfare of religious of either sex.

At one time he notifies the Bishop of Cagliari of "an evil which Your Fraternity will remove." Because no procurator had been assigned to any convent in Sardinia, "the virgins dedicated to God are compelled to go through villages and farms to pay taxes and mix themselves up in business only suitable for men.

Other letters empower bishops to consecrate convent chapels, "provided it is clear that no corpse has been buried there," provided also that the convents are suitably endowed. In one case he insists on ten shillings of revenue, free from local tribute, eight slaves, three yoke of oxen, ten horses, ten cows, forty sheep, and four plants for vines. In another the bishop is expected to provide and secure his gift by municipal deed, "a silver chalice, a silver paten, three altar-cloths, ten beds, fifty sets of utensils in brass and iron, two specified farms, two slaves (Maurus and John) and two yoke of oxen." No detail seems too insignificant to escape this watchful father in God.

On the other hand, he is stern with religious who abuse the privileges he was at such pains to secure for them. He is much displeased at a petition from a monastery near Ravenna. "They seem to me themselves worldly-minded since they seek to have a worldling as abbot."

He writes to the monks of Monte Cristo: "We have been told that you do not keep your rule. We are obliged to send to you the abbot Horosius, hearer of this command. He comes to inquire minutely into all your doings, to order whatsoever shall appear to him seemly, and to report to Us. We admonish you to obey him with all reverence, as if his commands come to you direct from Us."

He sends an abbot, weighed and found wanting, with a letter to the Bishop of Palermo. "On no consideration will We allow the bearer, Gregory, abbot and priest of the monastery of St. Theodore, ever again to preside over a house which he has proved himself unworthy to govern. For his negligence has led too many disciples astray. But since he has done penance for a long time here, under our eyes, it is fitting that Your Fraternity shall receive him back into the aforesaid monastery. Urbicus, the prior of my monastery, will send someone to become his prior."

"My monastery "was, of course, St. Andrew's, on the Coelian Hill, whose head superior, during his pontificate, was always called prior instead of abbot. For as long as life lasted, St. Gregory kept in touch with each of his monks. The Dialogues  abound in instances of their holiness and of their happy deaths. His tenderness and zeal are shown still more strikingly in his fatherly pursuit of the ex-monk, Venantius; but the story has to be pieced out from letters extending over a series of years.

Venantius was a rich nobleman of Syracuse who took the habit at St. Andrew's, but forsook the cloister in order to marry Italica, a beautiful and accomplished lady, whose charms, St. Gregory piously hopes, were not the outward covering of a hidden sore in her soul. His friends and clients were numerous. He seems to have been one of the great men in Sicily with influential connections at the Court of Constantinople. Things were going well with the prodigal, when St. Gregory addressed his first letter to him, shortly after he became Pope.

"Many foolishly thought that I should now decline to speak or write to you. But it is not so. My very position compels me, and I cannot be silent. Whether you wish it or not, I shall not hold my peace; for with all my strength I wish you to be saved, or at any rate to free myself from the guilt of your destruction. Remember the habit which once you wore. Ponder how low you have fallen, because you put away from you the thought of the severe judgments of Almighty God. Tremble, while yet there is time, lest you taste the bitterness of His wrath when you can no longer escape from it by tears.

"You know the punishment meted out to Ananias for taking away from God the money which he had vowed. Consider your own peril at the Judgment Seat, for you have withdrawn not coin but yourself whom you have dedicated wholly to God when you became a monk. I speak to you in sorrow; nay, stricken with grief at your sin, I can scarce speak at all. Yet you, conscious of your guilt, you can scarce endure to hear me. You blush, you are confused, you remonstrate. If the words of my dust are so hard to bear, what will you do when your Creator utters your doom? Great is the mercy of Divine Grace! God sees you fleeing from life, and preserves you for life. He sees you proud and bears with your pride. He inspires His unworthy servant to rebuke and admonish.

"I know that when this letter reaches you, your friends and literary clients will immediately assemble. You will seek counsel in a case of life or death from men who are advocates of death, who love not you but your money, who say only what will please for the time. Such men as these, you remember, led you on to your great sin. To quote Seneca, 'Weigh well all matters with your friends, but first of all weigh well your friends themselves.'

"If you want advice, choose me for your adviser. I will counsel you faithfully, for I love not your goods, but you. May Almighty God reveal to your heart with what love and charity my heart embraces you, as far as grace allows. I blame your fault, because I love yourself. I love you so dearly that I will have none of your wicked sin. Believe in my love and come to me for advice, here at the threshold of the Apostles. If perchance you suspect me as too exacting on God's behalf, I am ready to call the whole Church into Council upon the question, and whatever all agree can be done with safety, I shall not oppose, but gladly endorse the common decision. Do as I advise, and may the Grace of God preserve you."

But the ex-monk hardened his heart. In 596 he and his unruly retainers gave such scandal that John, Bishop of Syracuse refused his gifts and forbade Mass to be said in his house. The Pope wrote gently to Venantius, advising him to be reconciled to his bishop and he enjoined the bishop to accept his offerings, and himself to say Mass in the private chapel.

In 601 Italica was dead, and Venantius a dying mar. St. Gregory wrote twice, urging him to care less for his bodily ailments than for the health of his soul.

"Pain is sent to teach us the fear of God, and so to shield us from the punishment our sins deserve. There are millions of men wallowing in wanton ease, headlong in blasphemy and pride, obdurate in robbery and wickedness, who have never had so much as a headache to trouble them, but have been struck down suddenly and plunged into hell fire. It is a token that God does not forsake us, when He scourges us continually through the affliction of the flesh."

In these letters there is no direct reference to Venantius's guilt. But St. Gregory wrote so well to the Bishop of Syracuse:

"Exhort, entreat, set before him God's dreadful judgments, hold out the promise of God's ineffable mercy, so that at even at the last hour he may be induced to return to his former state, and so his great sin may not stand against him in the eternal judgment."

Venantius left two daughters, Barbara and Antonina. St. Gregory expressed annoyance because the emperor and not himself had been appointed guardian to the orphaned girls. But no hint of this comes out in his letter of affectionate advice:

"I implore Almighty God to safeguard you from evil thoughts and from perverse men, and to settle you happily in a marriage whereat we may all rejoice. My sweet daughters, trust in Him to help you. Under the shadow of His defence may you ever escape the snares of the wicked. You say you are hastening to the Threshold of St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles. I fervently hope to see you united in his church to worthy husbands. So may you obtain some little comfort from me, and I may have great joy from your presence . . .

"I accept with pleasure your gift of two rugs which you tell me you have made yourselves. But that I do not believe. You seek to be praised for the work of others. Very likely you have never handled a distaff. Yet this does not trouble me, for I wish you to love reading the Scriptures, so that, when you have husbands, you may know how to order your lives aright and how to conduct your households."

In his last letter to Venantius, St. Gregory alludes to his own gout. This malady had gripped him so acutely that in the year 600 he had not left his bed for two years except to say Mass on feast days.

"Almost immediately I am forced to lie down again so that I may ease the torture with occasional groans. Sometimes the pain is moderate, sometimes excessive; but it is never so moderate as to leave me, and never so excessive as to kill me. Hence it happens that I die daily, and daily am snatched from the jaws of death."

Equal in pathos is his heart-outpouring next year to his spiritual son, Marinianus.

"At one time the pain of the gout is torture. At another, I know not what fire spreads itself all through my body. Sometimes the burning struggles with the gout, and body and mind seem to part company. Between the attacks I am so exhausted that I await death as the only remedy for my ills. Dear brother, ask mercy for me from our All-Merciful God, that He may mitigate the scourge with which He chastens me and grant me patience to endure. Pray, dearest brother, lest the heart (which God forbid!) from over-weariness become impatient, lest murmuring increase the faults which can be thoroughly cured by pain well borne."

It is well to emphasise thus early in his biography that Gregory was one of those master-spirits who have made their mark in history, while themselves a prey to bodily disease. Our own Alfred the Great is a case in point—the King who prayed for some infirmity that would keep him humble, yet not interfere with his work nor render him contemptible in the eyes of his subjects. England's Darling had studied to some purpose, and learnt from St. Gregory to define Patience as "Humility in endurance." And so we apply to this King and to this Pope what Fuller says of a Renaissance ruler, far less loved and love-worthy than either: "His eager soul, biting at the clay of his body, desired to fret a passage through."

Sick or well our holy Pope never slackened in zeal. "He was always busy," writes Paul the Deacon, "providing for the needs of his flock, writing some treatise worthy of the Church, searching out the secrets of heaven in holy prayer,"

Even at St. Andrew's the prayers and tears of Eleutherius could not always win him a respite from the inconveniences of ill-health. Witness his letter to St. Leander, already quoted, where he urges among other apologies for the lack of polish in the Moralia from the Book of job:

"I am suffering from a series of slow fevers. For many a long year the powers of my digestive organs are so disordered that I am always ailing. And what is the body but the instrument of the mind? However skilled the musician, he can extract only grating sounds from a cracked flute. . . . Perchance it is the Will of God that, as one struck by Him, I should expound Job in his affliction, and that under the scourge myself I should better understand the mind of one so scourged."