... we are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure. — Samuel Johnson

Saint Gregory the Great - Notre Dame




Monk and Business Man

St. Benedict's "tiny rule suited for beginners" had stood the test of sixty years before it won St. Gregory's praise as "marvellously discreet and clear." It was framed originally for men "wisely unlearned" like their founder, who had fled from the haunts of men to build their monasteries in the wilderness and eat their bread in the sweat of their brow. Obviously, it had to be somewhat modified to suit the circumstances of St. Andrew's, a monastery well endowed and established in the heart of Rome. Six hours a day of manual toil was too much, two hours of study not enough.

But the main principles of the Benedictine Order remained intact.

At St. Andrew's, as at Monte Cassino, a postulant of mature age was kept knocking at the gate for some days to try his perseverance. Then he was admitted to the guest house and after some days, to the novitiate. Here an old monk, skilled in the art of training souls, studied his vocation and character, and warned him of the difficulties and discomforts in the hard path of obedience. Three times the whole rule was read in his presence, and the question formally put:

"It thou canst observe it, enter. If thou cant not, liber discede, thou art free to depart."

At St. Andrew's, as at Monte Cassino, the monks had "to obey without delay." St. Benedict wrote in his rule: "For the preservation of peace and charity, it is expedient that the entire government of the monastery depend upon the will of the abbot. Furthermore, the brethren shall obey one another, knowing that by this path of obedience they shall go to God."

To foster the habit of prompt, uncomplaining obedience, great stress was laid on the twelve degrees of humility by which, says St. Benedict, "the monk will gradually ascend to that perfect love of God which casteth out fear, so that whatsoever in the beginning he forced himself to observe, he shall at length do without effort, not now through fear of hell, but for the love of Christ, out of a good custom and a delight in virtue."

St. Andrew's, like Monte Cassino, was a "Castle of God" where the monks clad in the armour of obedience, enlisted under the standard of Christ for strenuous service of labour and prayer.

Divine worship was their principal duty—Opus Dei  St. Benedict calls it, "the work of God to which all other work must be subordinated." The days and nights were parcelled out into liturgical hours when the brethren met in choir, to stand reverently in the sight of God and His angels, and to sing the Divine praises with heart and voice in unison.

Between times arts and crafts were plied. The work was for the sake of the monk, not the monk for the sake of the work. "If any one be proud of the skill he has in his craft, because he thereby seems to gain something for the monastery, let him be removed from that craft and not exercise it again, unless after humbling himself he obtains leave from the abbot." This was the rule in St. Andrew's as in Monte Cassino. "Let the devil never catch you idle "was a favourite saying with St. Benedict and Hs spiritual sons.

No monk was exempt from his share in the manual work about the house and grounds. Even on Sundays and festivals, "if a brother be unwilling or unable to meditate or to read, he shall be given some work that he can do." The other monks thought none the worse of those whose temperament needed to be thus indulged. St. Gregory remarks in his Moralia  from the Book of Job:

"Some men are so restless that if they have leisure from work they labour more grievously, for they suffer greater tumults of heart the more freely they are left to thought. Often those who could contemplate God in quiet fail on account of stress of work. Often, too, those who could fulfil His Holy Will when occupied in human purposes have their life extinguished by the sword of contemplation."

And yet in this busy house each one lived his life alone with God. Silence, strictly insisted on, helped to recollection. Pious reading supplied food for holy thoughts. Some time was set apart each day for meditation on the Holy Scripture—that sea, as St. Gregory was the first to call it, "where a lamb can wade, and where an elephant soon swims beyond his depth." Copies of the Bible multiplied in the library awmries, comments on the sacred text were laboriously collated from the writings of the old Fathers. Treatises were written and homilies composed and delivered by those in whom the abbot recognised a special gift.

A letter from St. Gregory, when Pope, to an abbot whom he found somewhat remiss in his duties, shows the importance he attached to intellectual work. "I do not find that the brethren of your monastery, whom I have met give time to reading. Consider how great a sin it is if, when God gives you sustenance from the offerings of others, you neglect to study His commandments."

Nor would he have the studies entirely restricted to sacred authors. The masterpieces of Latin literature he looked upon as aids to a fuller understanding of Holy Writ.

"The devils know full well," he remarked, that minds well trained in secular learning can more easily reach a high level in things divine. When they strive to take away from our hearts all inclination to study, it is but to hinder us from forging the lance or sword which would be of use to us in the spiritual combat we all have to sustain."

In the sixth century, especially in half-pagan districts, such a weapon might easily prove too sharp-edged to be wielded with safety. Towards the close of his life St. Gregory was "filled with grief and vehement disgust "when a report reached him that the Bishop of Vienne in Gaul gave lectures on profane authors to his friends.

"I cannot mention it without a blush," he writes in 601, "and I hope it is untrue. For the same mouth cannot sing the prates of Jupiter and the praises of Jesus Christ. Bethink yourself how abominable it is for a bishop to recite verses which are unseemly in the mouth of a Christian layman."

Holy Poverty was very strictly observed. "Let no one presume, without leave from the abbot, to give, receive or hold as his own anything whatsoever, book, tablets, pen, etc." Yet the monks had, for the asking, all they required, "that all pretence of necessity may be removed." The clothing was decent and not too coarse; in winter the cowl was lined with wool.

Flesh meat was forbidden fare. But, except on fast days, there were always two meals. Always at the chief meal a pint of wine was allowed each monk, and there were two hot dishes "because of the infirmities of different people, so that he who cannot eat of one may make his meal of the other."

Special provision was made in the rule for the care of the sick, and Gregory was often on the sick list. The constraint of silence, change m diet, broken sleep, minute obedience, absorption in prayer and study, rough work to which he was unused, all these things tried severely a man not inured to hardship and no longer in his first youth. It was a great change from magistrate to monk, and it soon began to tell upon his health. In the Dialogues he tells of the state to which he was reduced one Lent, when over and above the austerities ordered by the Church and prescribed by his rule, the Benedictine is exhorted "to make some offering in the way of abstinence from food or drink, sleep or laughter, that so he may await the feast of Easter with spiritual joy and desire. Yet he must acquaint the abbot with what he offers, and do it with his consent and blessing."

"I was so sick," writes St. Gregory, "that I often swooned and was continually at death's door unless I did eat something. And when I found that I might not refrain from often eating upon Holy Saturday, a day on which even old people and little children fast, I began to sink more from sorrow than from weakness."

And then he bethought himself of a holy old monk named Eleutherius, "a humble and simple soul, whose tears were of force with God. I went with him, privately, into the oratory and begged him to obtain for me, by his prayers, the strength to fast that day." With humility and tears he fell to his prayers and blessed me after a while and went away. And at the sound of his blessing my stomach grew so strong that all thought of food and all feeling of sickness vanished completely.

"All day long I busied myself about the affairs of the monastery and never troubled about my health. Indeed, feeling myself so well and strong I began to doubt whether I had eaten or not. And I could very well have gone on fasting till next day.

Flesh meat was allowed by the rule to the infirm; but Gregory, though always sickly, never seems to have required such dispensation. Plain vegetables, properly cooked, suited his needs. But who could guarantee the cooking, when the brethren in the kitchen were changed each week? Sylvia's hermitage, however, was not far distant, and the abbot was willing she should send every day, hot in a silver dish, the portion of pulse which she had carefully prepared for him with her own hands. History is silent as to whether any strengthening condiments were mixed with the food. An abbot's wisdom and a mother's love are fertile in expedients.

A pretty story attaches to the silver dish. One day there came to St. Andrew's a stranger with a pitiful tale of his ships wrecked at sea. Gregory, who seems at that time to have had charge of the alms-giving, gave him six crowns, with kindly words of hope. Next day the stranger came again, urging the greatness of his losses and the little help he could get from his friends. And again he received six crowns. Yet a third time he came: he was disgraced for ever, should he meet his creditors without means to pay his debts. The alms-chest was by this time quite empty, and there was no ether money available in the house. But Gregory, who knew his mother's heart, gave her the merit of the good deed and sent the stranger away quite satisfied with the silver dish.

Years afterwards, when Sylvia had long since passed to her reward and her son was Pope, twelve poor men were entertained each day at dinner in the Lateran Palace. And one day, writes John the Deacon, the Pope counted thirteen and asked the attendant for an explanation.

"Believe me, holy Father," replied the man in a confident tone, "there are only twelve, as you yourself gave order."

And, however often they counted the guests during the meal, the servant always found twelve and the Pope thirteen. Moreover, St. Gregory noticed that the poor man seated nearest him frequently altered his features; sometimes he seemed a young man, sometimes old and venerably grey. So when the Pope dismissed the twelve with his blessing, he took the thirteenth by the hand, led him apart and asked him his name.

"Refresh your memory," came the smiling reply. "Know in me the shipwrecked merchant who came to you, when you were writing in your cell on the hill Scaurus. You gave me twelve crowns and the silver dish in which your mother, the blessed Sylvia, sent you your cooked pittance of pulse. And you gave with such cheerful heart that I knew for certain Christ had destined you to be head of His Church on earth, successor and Vicar of Peter the Prince of the Apostles."

"How could you know?" exclaimed Gregory amazed.

"Because I am an angel, sent by God to test your constancy."

We have given the incident in John the Deacon's words, and we accept it as literally true, full fain, however, for further detail. Was Gregory abbot at the time or simply a monk? How far did he yield to natural impulse when he gave away his mother's dish? If fault there were—and the angel had no word of blame for him—we may rest assured the saint speedily and amply atoned for it and grew in humility. But what a light it throws on the straitening of Holy Poverty on a man who had ample funds at his disposal, and who hitherto and henceforth was always solicitous, "lest a poor man who asks to be comforted depart in sorrow."

This constancy in his care for the poor is a feature in Gregory's career on which his biographers are bound to lay stress. Holy Church, herself, emphasizes it in one of the antiphons for his feast.

"Like an eagle, whose shining wings cover the world with their dazzling radiance, he provided for the needs of all, both little and great, in the large-hearted breadth of his charity."

When he entered religion, he was perfectly aware that he put from him all choice in the allotment of his alms. He did not even know whether his superiors would see fit to make use of his administrative ability in the service of the needy. The yoke of Holy Poverty, however, never seems to have galled unduly. The yoke of obedience sometimes did. He tells us himself:

"It is not very hard for a man to forsake what he has. It is exceedingly laborious for a man to renounce what he is."

Yet in the prime of manhood he deliberately determined to order henceforth his life by rule, whole-heartedly acquiescent in the arrangements of his superiors. He had but a year's novitiate in which to test, whether or not, the strain was beyond his powers, or rather beyond the grace given him from on high. All too quickly passed that precious year. Later on in life, when he was in a position to make changes in the Rule of St. Benedict, he deemed it prudent to lengthen this time of probation in the case of all religious.

We find him writing to a bishop of Naples: "Let Your Fraternity strictly interdict all monasteries from venturing to tonsure novices before they have completed two years in monastic life. During this space let careful proof be made of their life and manners, lest any of them should not afterwards hold fast to his choice. It is a grievous matter when untried men are banded together in the service of any man. How mach more grievous is it to allow untried men to consecrate themselves by life-long vow to the service of the Most High God."

The Holy Pope had, perhaps, his own experiences in mind when he further legislated in 601.

"Henceforth monks shall not be moved to other monasteries, or raised to Sacred Orders, or be employed in any ecclesiastical position, without the consent of their abbot."

It would have been worse than useless for his own abbot to have objected when, shortly after his profession, Gregory was chosen by the Pope then reigning to be one of the cardinal deacons who were charged with the superintendence of the ecclesiastical regions of Rome.

His duties now obliged him to spend several hours each day outside the walls of St. Andrew's. The religious habit won him still greater respect than the trabea  "aglow with silk and jewels "which he once wore in the streets as prefect of the city. The manifold works of mercy in which he engaged endeared him to the people among whom he worked.

It was quite in the course of business that he halted one day in the market-place and asked questions about the three flaxen-haired, rosy-cheeked, blue-eyed boys from Yorkshire whom he saw there exposed for sale. For the laws of Rome provided that heathen slaves should have leisure and opportunity for religious instruction, and it was the deacon's duty to make sure that these laws were obeyed.

"The pity of it," he mused aloud, "that the Prince of Darkness should hold such bright beings in thrall and that, with such wondrous grace of form, they should lack the inward beauty of the grace of God."

And as he took down on his tablets the needful particulars, he hid his emotion in the string of puns with which Bede has made us familiar.

"Angles? Yes, they have angelic faces and should be coheirs with the angels of heaven! They come from Deira? De-ira  from the wrath. Verily they shall be snatched from God's ire and called to the mercy of Christ! Their king, you say, is called Ella? Soon shall Alleluia  be sung in Ella's land!" The monk went on his way with downcast eyes and even gait, with brain and heart aglow. Henceforth those bright faces haunted him through the busy day, and through the prayerful watches of the night. And the slave-dealer, no doubt, became more careful in his treatment of the lads and warned intending purchasers of the interest taken in them by the popular deacon. Perhaps, punning in his turn, he told how Gregory, "the watchman," would follow their career with watchful eyes and never rest until with shepherd's crook he had gathered them in grege suo, among his flock.

But the affair was not to end in mere word-play. Gregory was afire with missionary zeal, and he never ceased entreating Pope and abbot, until he wrung from each permission to leave the good work he was doing in Rome in order to preach the Gospel or be killed for Christ amid the fens and moorlands of the island in the north.

And, once consent obtained, he wasted no time in farewells. Very early one morning, long before the City was astir, he stole noiselessly out of Rome, with a few companions, before even the news of his departure could be bruited abroad.

On the third day of their journey the little band halted for their noonday meal. And while men and horses rested in the shade, Gregory took out his book. Perhaps he had some arrears of office to make up. And to! a locust alighted on the open page, and a drowsy voice was heard to murmur:

"Locusta, loco sta!  See a locust, stay where you are!" For the insect was of evil omen, betokening hindrance to a journey begun.

Gregory, of course, attached no importance to the superstition. But he was eager for an excuse to shorten the halt; and so under cover of a rebuke to the trifler, he gave orders for an immediate start. But scarcely were the horses caught and the saddle-girths made tight, when a messenger spurred into their midst, with a peremptory order to turn back.

For Rome was in an uproar when the news leaked through that Gregory had left the City, never more to return. Three mobs waylaid the Pope as he went to St. Peter's, and greeted him with clamorous reproach:

"Apostolic Father, what have you done? You have offended St. Peter! You have ruined Rome! Why did you suffer Gregory to depart?

The Pope, nothing loath, recognised the people's voice, in this case at any rate, as the Voice of God. He despatched a courier forthwith to recall the people's favourite. Gregory obeyed at once, without a protest. It was not as missionary but as Pope that he was to deserve the title "Apostle of the English."

Disappointment was tempered with the joy of resuming religious routine. Looking back on his years at St. Andrew's he could write, later on, with unfeigned regret:

"In those days I could refrain my tongue from idle words, and keep my mind, almost continually, in an attitude of prayer."

He had, of course, resigned his regionary duties, and the Pope seemed in no hurry to give him back his employment. In reality there was other work awaiting him which reached further in importance to the interests both of the Church and of Rome.

Pelagius intended to name him Apocrisarius (in Latin, Responsalis  or Answerer), the Pope's nuncio and business agent at the Court of Constantinople. This time the citizens made no objection to his departure. Within living memory the post of apocrisarius had provided good training for more than one Pope.