It is easy to hate and it is difficult to love. This is how the whole scheme of things works. All good things are difficult to achieve; and bad things are very easy to get. — Confucius

Saint Gregory the Great - Notre Dame




Missionary Monks

Brunehaut's niece by marriage, Bertha, the daughter of Caribert, King of Paris, had a heathen husband, Ethelbert, King of Kent, whose political supremacy stretched beyond his own boundaries as far as the Humber, the Severn and the Tamar. Luidhard, a French bishop, went with Bertha as her chaplain, and said Mass for her in the ruined chapel of St. Martin, hard by the walls of Canterbury. But neither bishop nor queen made any impression on the religion of the country or the king.

Years had not weakened the high resolve formed long ago in the slave-market at Rome. In the autumn of 595 St. Gregory ordered Candidus, the priest in charge of the papal estates in Provence, to spend the revenues on clothes for the poor, and on English slave boys, seventeen or eighteen years of age, whom he must send for their education to monasteries in Rome. A priest was to go with them to begin their instruction, and to baptize in case of death on the way.

In the following spring a band of monks left Rome to preach the Gospel in Kent. At their head was Augustine, who had once shared Gregory's cell in St. Andrew's, and became later his confidential secretary. At Marseilles and at Aix they were hospitably entertained, and frightened, too, with gruesome tales of the savagery of the Angles for whose sake they had set forth. The difficulty of making themselves understood by Frenchmen who spoke no Latin, brought home to them, moreover, the fact that they would have to live among barbarians of whose language they knew not a word.

In short, they were so disheartened that St. Augustine had to leave them in the monastic islets of Lerins, and hasten back to Rome to plead for their recall. But the Pope sent him again forward with a letter of encouragement dated July the 23rd:

"Gregory, servant of the servants of God, to his brethren the servants of Our Lord Jesus Christ, on their way to England.

"Better not to begin a good work than to leave off after having once begun. My beloved sons, you have begun this work with the help of God. You must strive strenuously to complete it. Be not deterred by the toils of the journey nor by the tongues of detractors. Onward in God's Name! The more you have to suffer the brighter will be your glory eternally. Obey in all things, with humble reverence, Augustine, your prior, whom we now appoint your abbot. Whatever he tells you to do will be of profit to your souls. May the grace of the Almighty guard and guide you! May he grant me to behold from the heavenly shore the fruit of your exertions. If I cannot share your toil as your fellow-worker, I can at least rejoice in your harvest. For God knows I lack not the goodwill to work."

Augustine brought with him other letters which the Pope had written to such influential persons as could help the missionaries on their journey. He begged Brunehaut, "accustomed to good works," to furnish safe conduct. He begged her grandsons to supply them with interpreters. He wrote to the King of Neustria on their behalf, and to all bishops through whose dioceses their road lay.

Only in Anjou did they meet with incivility. Here they had to shelter for the night under the spreading branches of an elm tree. Here the people shrank from them as from werewolves, and the women cursed them and yelled revilingly.

The French interpreters had swelled the band to forty when they landed at Ebbesfleet, on the low flat beach in treeless Thanet Here they halted and sent messengers to King Ethelbert, to tell how they had come to him from Rome with the best tidings, even the assurance, to all who would accept it, of eternal joys in heaven with the living and only God.

A few days later the king gave them audience in the open air, for he feared bewitchment if he received the missionaries indoors. But they advanced, says Bede, "with divine not magic might, bearing aloft a great silver Cross and the picture of Our Saviour painted on a gilded board, and entreating in chanted litany that Our Lord would save both themselves and those to whom they came."

Then Augustine stood forth—a man of reverend and gentle mien, of patrician bearing, a head and shoulders above his fellows. At the king's command he sat and told through his interpreters "how the pitiful Jesus by His Own Agony had redeemed the sinful world and opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all true believers."

"Fair words and promises are these," quoth Ethelbert, "but new to us and of uncertain import. I cannot all at once forsake that which I and all Englishmen have from infancy held sacred. But since you have come to us from afar to make known to us what you believe to be best and true, we shall do you no hurt, but treat you kindly and supply your needs. Neither do we forbid you to preach and to bring over as many as you can to your religion."

So the black-robed procession passed on to Canterbury, where the king allotted them their lodgings. As they entered the city gates, they raised the Cross on high, and chanted:

"We beseech Thee, O Lord, in all Thy Mercy! Turn away Thy wrath from this city and from Thy holy house! For we have sinned. Alleluia!"

The monks lived in Canterbury after the fashion of the early Christians, says Bede, "in prayer, in vigils and in fasting, preaching the Word of Life to as many as came to listen, refusing all gifts save the bare necessaries of life, ready to die, if need were, for the truths they taught. And many believed and were baptized, won over by the simplicity of their innocent life and by the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine."

Soon the king himself became a Christian. He compelled none to embrace the faith, only he showed more affection to the believers, as his fellow-citizens in the Kingdom of God.

"For he had learnt from his instructors and leaders to salvation that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary and not constrained."

King Ethelbert was baptized on Whitsun Eve in St. Martin's Church. On the following Christmas Eve ten thousand of his subjects were born again to Christ in the waters of the Swale, near the mouth of the Medway. Between these dates St. Augustine had crossed over to France, and come back consecrated "Archbishop of the English."

The title may have been premature, since all the converts thus far were Jutes and Saxons. But in a sense it was prophetic. Christianity was to prove more powerful than race in welding together the isolated kingdoms of the Heptarchy.

Ethelbert with his Great Lords signed and sealed a charter granting land to St. Augustine and his monks at Canterbury.

"I swear and ordain, in the Name of Almighty God, the Just and Sovereign Judge, that the land thus given is given for ever, that it shall not be lawful for me or my successors to take any part thereof from its owners. If any one attempt to lessen or annul our gift, let him be in this life deprived of the Holy Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, and in the Day of Judgment cut off from the company of the Saints."

But before the foundations could be dug at Canterbury, St. Augustine sent two of his companions to Rome with such glad tidings that St. Gregory could write in a letter to the patriarch of Alexandria:

"Your messenger found me sick and leaves me sick. But God grants to me gladness of heart to temper the bitterness of my bodily pain. . . . I know you will rejoice in my joy, and that you have helped me by your prayers. The people of the Angles, in their remote angle of the earth, have until now been worshippers of stocks and stones. Moved by your prayers, God inspired me to send a monk of my monastery to preach the Gospel there. News has just reached me of his well-being, and of such marvellous doings that he and his companions seem endowed with the power of the Apostles. More than ten thousand Englishmen received Holy Baptism on the Feast of Our Lord's Nativity. . . . Your prayers are fruitful in places where you are not, while your works are manifest in the place where you are."

The missionaries had built their monastery before the envoys returned, and with them Paulinus and Meletus.

"They brought with them," says Bede, "the pallium for Augustine, and a goodly store of altar vessels and priestly vestments, relics of the holy apostles and martyrs, and many books." They brought gifts also and letters for the king and queen.

To Bertha, St. Gregory administered a mild rebuke: "Long ago you should have striven, with the prudence of a true Christian, to turn the heart of your husband to the faith which you profess. Well-instructed and pious as you are, this duty should have been neither tedious nor difficult. With the help of Divine grace, you must now study to recover with increase what has been lost through neglect. I pray that your love and devotion may make the angels in heaven share my joy in your Christian life."

He wrote to Ethelbert: "Almighty God puts good men in power, that through them He may bestow the gifts of His Mercy. Guard with all care, my glorious son, the grace you have received from on High. . . . Build up a nation in holy purity, exhorting, threatening, encouraging, chastising, and giving good example yourself. . . . You have with you our very reverend brother, Bishop Augustine. If you give ear to what he tells you, Almighty God will be moved to hearken to him when he prays for you."

A special courier overtook the envoys on their road with a letter of useful advice. The heathen temples, if well built, should be used for Christian worship. "Once the idols are thrust out, purify the temples with Holy Water and erect altars enclosing relics. For the people will come more readily to the old familiar spots, and putting error from their hearts, adore therein the living God."

The festivals of Holy Church are to take the place of the beer-feasts in honour of the heathen gods. "Let them no longer slaughter oxen to the devil, but kill them, to the glory of God, for their own eating, with thanksgiving to the Giver of all good things. Thus while we leave them some enjoyment to the senses, they may more easily be led to desire the joys of the soul. It is impossible to change in an instant all the habits of these uncultured minds. A mountain is not climbed by leaps and bounds, but steadily step by step."

These were some of the suggestions which St. Meletus was to convey to St. Augustine by word of mouth, "that he, being on the spot, may consider how he is to order all things." Augustine the monk had hitherto had his superior and his rule to regulate his actions. Augustine the bishop—a bishop, moreover, in a heathen land—could not always find it fitting to conform in every detail to Roman practice. He had submitted to the Pope ten questions on points of discipline: St. Gregory dealt with each fully, but remarked:

"I suppose you have been asked these questions, and wish for my judgment to confirm your own. But Your Fraternity ought to be able to decide such things yourself. . . .

"You are familiar, my brother, with the customs of the Roman Church in which you were bred. But it pleases me that you should choose from the different Churches in Gaul as well, the things that seem to you devout and according to reason for use in England."

In St. Gregory's mind there were eventually to be two archbishops in England, one at London and one at York, each with twelve suffragans. Augustine is to hold the primacy as long as he lives; afterwards it is to pass from Canterbury to whichever archbishop happens to be senior in date of consecration. As yet he is the only bishop in England. He may, if he chooses, invite other bishops from Gaul as witnesses when he consecrates a bishop.

"Married people are invited to weddings, to share in the joy of bride and bridegroom and to wish them well. In like manner, it behoveth that when a man is closely united to God in the sacred ministry, there should be present those who can rejoice in his advancement, and jointly pour forth their prayers for his safe keeping."

He is to confer with the Bishop of Arles if he sees in the Bishops of Gaul anything amiss that may be mended. "But we give you no authority over the bishops in Gaul," St. Gregory is careful to add. "Only by persevering kindness and the display of good works for their imitation may you labour for their reform. For it is written, "Thou shalt not move a sickle into another man's harvest.' All the bishops of Britain, however, we commit to Your Fraternity, so that you may instruct the unlearned, strengthen the weak, punish with authority the perverse."

In accordance with the Pope's command, the bishop of the English met in conference the bishops and teachers of the Southern British Churches, at a place near Malmesbury, called in Bede's time "Augustine's Oak." He urged them, for Christ's dear sake, to work with him in Catholic harmony at the conversion of the heathen, and "compelled by real necessity, he bowed his knees to the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and prayed that a blind Englishman there present might receive his bodily sight."

The cure that followed on the instant convinced the Britons that Augustine was indeed a man of God. But they would enter into no engagements without the consent of their people. So the date was fixed for another and more formal conference, to discuss the differences between the Roman and the Celtic uses.

Seven bishops and many learned monks from Bangor were chosen delegates by the Britons. "A holy and discreet hermit "advised them to exercise their private judgment (or his!) with regard to Augustine's fitness to be their father in God.

"If at your approach he shall rise, hearken to him submissively, assured he is the servant of Christ. But if he shall despise you and remain seated, let him also be despised by you."

The Britons saw fit to arrive late, and St. Augustine, the Pope's representative, saw fit to receive them sitting. "Forthwith they flew into a rage, charged him with pride, and endeavoured to contradict every word he said." In vain did Augustine offer to yield to them many of the points in dispute:

"If ye will keep Easter at the Pope's time, and administer baptism according to the Roman rite, and jointly with us preach the Word of God to the English nation, we will readily tolerate all the other things you do, though contrary to the custom of the Universal Church."

But they would have none of him as archbishop, and murmured among themselves: "Since he did not rise to greet us even now, he will despise us as of no worth if we begin to be under him."

And Augustine broke up the conference with the dark foreboding: "If ye will not accept peace from brethren, ye shall have to accept war from enemies. If ye will not preach the way of life to the English, ye shall have to undergo the vengeance of death at the hands of Englishmen."

And so it befell. For Ethelfrith, King of the Northumbrians, defeated the Welsh with great slaughter at the place called Carlegion, or the City of Legions. Twelve hundred and fifty of the monks from Bangor stood on the battle-field, with one Brocmail appointed to defend them, while they prayed against the swords of the barbarians. And King Ethelfrith cried out:

"These men indeed bear no weapons, yet they cry out to their God against us, and oppose us by their prayers."

He ordered his men to fall upon them, and twelve hundred of the monks were slain. The other fifty saved their lives by flight.

Augustine was a saint in heaven, says Bede, before his prophecy was thus fulfilled. Nor did St. Gregory live long enough to express himself on the failure of the conference. The points at issue were, after all, of minor importance. The divergence in the date of Easter was an error in arithmetic not in dogma. The tonsure varied even on the continent. For the Greeks shaved the whole head, the Romans left a round fringe of hair. In Gaul long locks were left at the back unshorn, for among the Franks short hair marked out the thrall.

As regards baptismal rites, St. Gregory himself judged it expedient that the Spanish Churches should differ from the use of Rome, "so long as there is nothing at variance with the faith." At Rome the waters of regeneration were poured three times. But St. Leander lived in the midst of Arians, and so the Pope wrote to him:

"Since nowadays the heretics immerse the infant three times I think it ought not to be done by you, lest in numbering the immersions they divide the Divinity, and if we adopt their practice they boast that they have changed our methods."

St. Augustine may have insisted overmuch on these points of discipline. But as to receiving the Britons seated, he deserves no blame—unless, and only unless, he omitted to state clearly in the preliminaries the authority he held from the Pope.

The old British Church in Wales has been described as "an aggregate of clans centering in a few great monasteries," and Irish monks had leavened it with their own deep reverence for Rome. The great abbey of Bangor, with its "seven times three hundred monks," was itself an Irish foundation, and most of the Welsh bishops were trained at Bangor. We have no grounds for assuming that the sons of St. Comgall at Bangor were less loyal to the Holy See than the sons of St. Columcille at Iona, or than St. Columban and his spiritual family at Luxeuil, that Irish colony in the Vosges which, at that very time, was gladdening the Pope by their labours to spread the faith in the Black Forest and in the Rhineland.

St. Columban's letters to St. Gregory and his successors are not always respectful in tone. "Pardon me," he writes to Pope Boniface, "if my words sound offensive in pious ears, The native liberty of my race has made me overbold." But always in these letters Rome is "the chief seat of the orthodox faith," and in Rome "the pillar of the Church stands firm." The Pope is the Shepherd of Shepherds, the General-in-Chief of God's Army.

"To the Chair of St. Peter," he writes, "we Irish are especially bound. For however great and glorious Rome may be esteemed elsewhere, it is that Chair alone which makes her great and glorious among us. Over other nations the prodigious fame of ancient Rome has spread as something supremely august; but the Irish have only heard of it since the chariot of Christ came rolling to us across the sea, drawn by those two swift coarsers St. Peter and St. Paul. . . . There has never been a heretic, a Jew or a schismatic among us. We preserve unchanged the Catholic Faith, as it was first delivered to us by the Pope, the successor of the Holy Apostles."

St. Columcille died in Iona just one week after King Ethelbert was baptized in Kent. His thirty faithful years in Scotland cannot have escaped the notice of St. Gregory. How otherwise account for the fine passage in his Moralia  from the Book of Job, a book which he does not seem to have retouched since he sent a copy to St. Leander in 595

"Lo that Britain, whose tongue has uttered savage sounds but now echoes the Alleluia of the Hebrews! Lo that wild sea, lying calm and submissive at the feet of the saints! Those turbulent tribes that the princes of earth could not quell by the sword, see how the simple word of the priests has curbed their pride. See that unbeliever who never dreaded troops of fighting men. Now that he believes, he is obedient to the voice of the meek. He knows fear now, but it is the fear of sin. Preaching and miracles have strengthened him in the grace of God, and he yearns with his whole heart to come to glory everlasting."

It was because he knew what rich harvest crowned the zeal of Columcille in the North that Gregory built high hopes on the missionary adaptability of the Celts in South Britain. The two saints never met in the flesh. Legends, however, have been invented to bring them face to face by bilocation, and there was long treasured at Iona the brooch which it was fondly fancied the Pope gave the abbot in exchange for his pen.

Better authenticated is the anecdote of the Irish pilgrims who visited Rome and returned to their own country. Then, as now, Irishmen were careful as to cleanliness in body and in soul whenever they approached the Holy Table. But, as we have said in the first chapter, the Roman aqueducts were out of repair, and it was inconvenient to supply the pilgrims with all the water they desired. So their Roman hosts informed them it was sinful to take baths on Sunday. The pilgrims believed them in good faith. One of the number, St. Conal, on his return to Ireland induced the monks of his monastery to forego all washing and shaving on days when the Church forbade servile work.

St. Gregory was wroth with the Romans when the story reached his ears. "If men desire to bathe for the luxury and pleasure of it," he wrote in 594, "we do not permit it even on weekdays. But if they desire it for the sake of health and cleanliness, we do not forbid it even on Sundays. For if it be a sin to take baths on a Sunday, the face even ought not to be washed on that day. Why deny to the whole body what is allowed without scruple to its parts?"