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The Forgotten Tales of Gregory the Great

Three years into his pontificate, Pope St. Gregory the Great asked his friend Peter the Deacon to set down some stories of the lives of Italian saints. Here is one:

Andrew, the Bishop of Fundi, lived a virtuous life and discharged the duties of his office with care. Well-convinced of his chastity, he thought nothing of keeping a nun among his household. Yet the devil, who never rests, assaulted Bishop Andrew’s imagination with alluring images of the woman.

One night, it happened that a travelling Jew found himself in Fundi and sought shelter in the abandoned temple of Apollo, and, although not a believer, crossed himself to ward off evil spirits and fell asleep.

At the stroke of midnight, the Jew was awakened by a troop of demons entering the the temple. They assembled and took turns describing the various ways they had led astray the servants of God. The last to speak reported how he had so fired the passions of the local bishop that the man had gone so far as affectionately to pat on the back the nun who lived in his household.

To these demonic proceedings, the Jew, crouched in a corner of the temple, listened with terror. When the demons discovered him, they demanded to know on what grounds he dared to lodge in their temple, but on seeing that he was marked with the sign of the cross, they cried out, “Alas! Here is any empty vessel and yet it is signed and sealed!” and fled.

The Jew also fled the temple and sought out Bishop Andrew.

“What temptation is it that so troubles your soul?” he demanded of the bishop. The bishop denied any temptation, but the Jew pressed him, saying “Why do you deny it? Is it not true that just yesternight you were so tempted that you patted this woman on her back?”

The Jew then told the bishop of his encounter with the assembly of wicked spirits, at which point Bishop Andrew fell prostrate and begged the mercy of God. He then rose up and dismissed the nun from his household. Next he went to the temple of Apollo and consecrated it to St. Andrew the apostle. Finally, he baptized the Jew who had saved him. “And thus,” concluded Gregory, “by God’s providence, the Jew, by seeking the spiritual health of another, attained the same for himself.”

Peter the Deacon answered, “This story causes me great fear, yet gives me great cause for hope.”

“You answer correctly,” replied Gregory. “Our weaknesses should cause us fear of God’s judgement, but they are also to be drawn to God’s mercy.”

Stories from a Credulous Age?

Gregory’s Dialogues were his most popular work and remained so for centuries after his death, for they provided a brand of simple and lively spiritual direction that appealed to the common man. Nonetheless, the Dialogues are a stumbling block for St. Gregory’s present-day admirers.

Why? Gregory the Great was a man of extraordinary talents and energy. He was prefect of Rome at the age of 30. He raised up a monastery on the Caelian Hill. He served as papal ambassador to Constantinople. He sent forth the mission under St. Augustine of Canterbury that converted England. His penitential procession brought an immediate end to the plague in Rome. He negotiated with emperors, exarchs, and Lombard princes. His Liber Regulae Pastoralis remained the Church’s handbook for bishops for centuries. Indeed, King Alfred the Great (d. 899) delivered an English translation to all his clergy. Gregory suppressed corruption and simony in the Church. He managed the operation and commerce of vast estates in Sicily, and he fed the poor of Rome afflicted with famine. His expertise ranged from a staggering command of Scripture and theology to the breeding of cattle and the buying and selling of farm implements. There is almost nothing in the present-day organization, structure, operation, and liturgy of the Church today that does not bear Gregory’s fingerprints, and all that he accomplished, he did while suffering constant pain from a variety of infirmities.

How is it, then, that so remarkable and brilliant a man wrote, in the words of one skeptic, “an astonishing grab bag of stories about the next world and its inhabitants in which ghosts abound”?

Edward Gibbon ridicules “the entire nonsense of the Dialogues,” and the Oxford scholar who authored the 1905 classic two-volume study of Gregory, Frederick Homes Dudden, could not understand how “the clear headed man who managed the papal estates with such admirable skill” wrote such “wild tales of demons and wizards and haunted houses, of souls made visible, of rivers obedient to written orders, of corpses that scream and walk” (Dudden, 356).

Even Fr. Herbert Thurston, editor of Butler’s Lives of Saints, feels a need to apologize for the Dialogues: “St. Gregory’s methods were not critical,” he writes,

and the reader today must often feel misgivings as to the trustworthiness of his informants. Modern writers wonder whether the Dialogues could have been written by anyone so well balanced as St. Gregory, but the evidence in favor of his authorship seems conclusive; and we must remember that it was a credulous age and that anything unusual was at once put down to supernatural agency. (I, 570)

Fr. Thurston probably means no malice in describing Gregory’s age as credulous, a word that means prone to believe too readily. But by the time his edition of Butler’s Lives was published, the world had already passed, as Cardinal Newman observed, into a condition far worse than credulity—unbelief. And only in an age of unbelief would folks worry about the veracity of these tales.

Was there really a nun who had to be exorcised because she failed to bless her snack and inadvertently gobbled up a little devil that had been sitting on her lettuce? Did a hungry bear let loose by the impious king of the Goths to devour the bishop of Populonium instead prostrate itself and kiss the feet of the holy man? What about the nobleman who violated his own goddaughter, yet for fear of shame attended Mass in his sinful state and died seven days later? Did his grave really catch fire and burn until all his bones were consumed? Was a boy who was a horrible blasphemer hauled away by demons at the tender age of eight?

We are free to believe these stories or not, but what is certain is that the Dialogues are altogether worthy of their author, and they are deserving of their popularity among the people of the Christian Age, the foundation of which was laid by St. Gregory the Great. Christians in our own time would benefit very much from meditating on this forgotten classic for at least five reasons.

Theology for Everyman

First, the format of the Dialogues is well-suited to instruction. Second, the Dialogues comprise delightful and engaging stories. Third, the Dialogues tell of the replaying of scriptural events in the lives of Christians of Gregory’s age. Fourth, they represent Gregory’s deliberate effort to create a new martyrology for an age in the Church during which there were few actual martyrs. Fifth, the Dialogues are a masterpiece of spiritual direction, for they stress as central to holiness the virtue of humility, and they expose, among other moral dangers, the consequences of seeking human respect. Before illustrating these five qualities with a passage or two from the Dialogues, some background is useful.

The Dialogues, written in the years A.D. 593 and 594, are divided into four books. Books I and III contain stories from the lives of bishops, monks, abbots, priests, deacons, and nuns, who—like the martyrs of old—embraced self-denial and humility in the presence of God’s will and worked miracles in the service of spreading the faith. Book II (the best known and most widely available in English) is Gregory’s Life of St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of western monasticism. Book IV considers heaven, hell, and purgatory, and much of our Western understanding of the afterlife can be traced to this book; portions of it—bridges spanning sulphuric rivers which sweep away the damned, for example—can fairly be described as Dantesque. We know Dante read St. Gregory, because the account of the founding of St. Benedict’s Abbey at Monte Cassino that Benedict delivers in Canto 22 of the Paradiso is taken from Book II, Chapter 8 of the Dialogues.

The Dialogues were to the common man of the Christian Age what St. Augustine’s City of God was to the theologian. Why were they so popular?

The Dialogues are conversations between Gregory and his friend since youth, Deacon Peter, whom Gregory calls “my most beloved son.” Throughout the Dialogues, Peter asks Gregory to address this or that matter of theology or apologetics. Occasionally, Gregory cites a passage in Scripture to answer the question. More often, he responds with a story from the life of a contemporary Italian saint.

Deacon Peter often asks for a point to be clarified or raises an objection that Gregory refutes with charity. This question-and-answer device calls to mind St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, and it should not surprise us to learn that Thomas cites Gregory no fewer than 374 times in the 242 articles that make up the Second Part of the Summa.

The Dialogue of Heaven and Hell

Chapter 44 of Book IV of the Dialogues provides an excellent example of Gregory’s use of this question-and-answer method to lead his reader to the truth. Peter asks if those in hell will burn there forever. Gregory responds that this is a certainty. Peter then asks if Christ did not merely threaten eternal punishment to keep men from committing sins. Gregory explains that if Christ’s threats were false, then false also would be his promises of salvation to provoke us to lives of virtue. Peter tries a different tack: How can a sin, he asks, be justly punished without end when the sin itself had an end when it was committed? Gregory answers that God judges the heart of the sinner, and it is those who would continue sinning had they not died that God condemns to hellfire—that is, the unrepentant souls who die in a state of mortal sin.

But Peter is determined. He suggests that no judge who loves justice takes pleasure in cruelty; a just master gives punishment so that his servants may cease their wicked life. To what end do the wicked burn forever if there is no hope of them amending their evil ways? Gregory assures Peter that God takes no pleasure in the the torments of wretched men. He offers, however, a reason for the suffering of the damned we might not immediately recognize: to call to the minds of the just in heaven the torments they have escaped, so that they will ever be grateful to God for his divine assistance in overcoming their sins. Peter counters by asking how the saved in heaven can be holy if they do not pray for their enemies as we have been commanded to do. Gregory answers that understood in this command is the possibility that the hearts of our enemies may be turned to fruitful penance, a possibility that does not exist among the damned. With a series of objections and answers, Gregory leads Peter, and us, to the truth about hell.

A Narrative Delight

In his stories, such as in the one of the traveling Jew and Bishop Andrew, Gregory creates unique, believable characters. The bishop is a holy man, but like many who strive for sanctity, he is tortured by a common temptation. His temptations, however, are not limited to those of the flesh. He also suffers from a lack of humility. He imagines himself beyond the grasp of so base a sin as lust.

The traveling Jew is also a believable character. He is not a believer, but he shows prudence. He knows that supernatural evil operates in the world, so he takes a practical approach: What is the harm in making the sign of the cross? That he is not a Christian is a significant message of the story: Providence makes use of unexpected vessels.

Even the demons are nuanced characters. They are clever and patient, methodical yet gleeful about their victories in the service of darkness. The demon who has been leading the bishop astray has the patience of a muskie fisherman; he recognizes a victory in getting the bishop to give the nun a mere friendly pat on the back, knowing that this kind of seemingly innocent familiarity will lead to deeper sins.

Gregory makes the story engaging by uniting two plots, creating tension, and describing fearful scenes. The appearance of the demons at the stroke of midnight and their diabolical council could be taken from the pages of a horror novel of our own time. He leaves the reader desiring a resolution, but he does not give it immediately. The bishop at first refuses to acknowledge his sin. When at last he does, we feel, as Gregory wants us to, the shame the bishop feels at having his dark secret exposed. When at last the story is resolved, it is done so swiftly. The nun is dismissed; the temple is consecrated; the Jew is converted. Good has triumphed.

Gregory shows a flair for the dramatic. Book II is full of high adventure in the struggle against evil. When St. Benedict is assaulted with a terrible temptation of the flesh (prefigured by a small black bird flying around his face), he casts off his clothing, throws himself into a bed of nettles, and rolls about, mercilessly tearing his skin. When one of Benedict’s monks attempts to break his vows and leave the abbey, he is assaulted by a dragon at the abbey gate, after which he becomes a model monk. Benedict commands a crow to carry off a poisoned loaf of bread. In another story, while the rest of the abbey stands perfectly sound and intact, a single cell collapses on and kills a malicious monk.

Echoes of Scripture

Throughout the Dialogues, the lame walk and the dumb speak. Water is turned into wine and lamp oil. Food is multiplied. Animals and other things in the natural world are controlled. In all of these miracles it is easy to identify a scriptural archetype. Why?

In Gregory’s age, martyrdom was no longer widespread, so the model for Christian life became the monastics, whom St. Augustine calls Servi Dei, the Servants of God. When we see that expression in the Dialogues, it has this specific meaning. Through prayer and fasting, the monastics embraced a new kind of self-imposed martyrdom. Because their prayers comprised almost entirely recitation of Scripture, they fully expected scriptural warrants to be worked out in day-to-day experience.

Of Gregory’s age, Fr. Hugh Barbour, O. Praem., Prior of St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange County, California, explains,

Scripture was not simply the historical record of the foundations of Christianity, but it was the model of Christian life. The Scriptures were both the source from which, and the standard whereby, one understood the mysterious structure of day-to-day life. Thus, the events of the Bible continued to happen again and again in the lives of the holy men and women who spent their days reciting Scripture and struggling to live up to the model it offered.

We read in the Dialogues about a miraculous flow of wine from an abbey whose vineyard has been ruined by a hailstorm. We read about an abbot who raises a boy from the dead, and we read about a bishop who restores sight to a blind man. Spiritual realities that appear in Scripture are repeated in the present. If such events are uncommon today, it is not so much an indictment of the veracity of the stories of the supernatural in the Dialogues as much as it is of our own age that long ago abandoned an intimate relationship with Scripture.

The working of miracles, Gregory is at pains to point out, is evidence of a holy life, but such a life finds its origin in virtue, especially humility, which, Gregory teaches, is a new kind of martyrdom.

A New Martyrology

Martyrdom had not altogether disappeared in Gregory’s day. Persecution of Christians continued in Persia off and on through the early seventh century. In the West, periodic persecutions raged under Vandals, pagan and Arian Goths, and Lombards. Gregory, in fact, describes persecutions under the Lombards. On one occasion, 400 Christian prisoners of the barbarians were hacked to death with swords because they refused to offer sacrifice to a goat’s head. Gregory’s vivid description of the diabolical dance the barbarians perform as they pass around the goat’s head and chant blasphemous incantations, and of the rage with which they slay their Christian prisoners, is terrifying.

Nonetheless, by the time Gregory had become pope, many Lombards were accepting baptism. Whence abundant examples of Christian holiness (the ideal expression of which was martyrdom) could be found throughout the first three centuries of the Church’s life, Gregory understood that the faithful of his age needed contemporary examples of holiness even if their lives did not end in martyrdom.

The new Christian ideal was the monk, who patiently endured the assaults of the devil, who loved his enemies, who practiced continuous mortification, and who resisted carnal desires. In their hearts they “sacrificed themselves to almighty God, and are thus martyrs in times of peace,” Gregory wrote.

Superabundant Humility

Central to the monastic ideal was humility, and not just any humility, but a level of humility a Benedictine monk named St. Bernard of Clairvaux, some five centuries after Gregory, would term superabundant humility. Sufficient humility, taught St. Bernard, orders our relationship with God, consists in our submitting ourselves to the authorities in our lives, and keeps us from imposing ourselves on our equals. Abundant humility consists in submitting ourselves to our equals and not imposing ourselves on those lower than us. Superabundant humility consists in submitting ourselves to those who are lower than us, as, indeed, our Lord himself did. It is this level of humility that Gregory praises in the Dialogues because it is humility born out of love for God.

Bishop Andrew of Fundi, for example, when confronted with his sin, confesses to an unbeliever. Thus humbled, he is able to resolve events to the glory of God. Gregory also tells the story of a certain sacristan named Constantius who, lacking oil, filled the lamps in his Church with water. The lamps burned nonetheless. Deacon Peter, on hearing this tale marvels at the miracle, but marvels more at the man’s humility of soul. Gregory goes on to describe a man who had traveled a great distance to see Constantius, having heard of the miracles he had performed. When he found him, he could not believe that the great wonderworker was a man of such small stature. So short he was that he needed a ladder to fill his lamps. The traveler ridiculed Constantius, saying that he could not possibly be the great man he had heard about, at which point Constantius climbed merrily down from his ladder and embraced the man around his legs saying, “Only thou dost truly behold what I am.”

The Church’s great saints all regarded themselves as Constantius did: as the worst of sinners who only with God’s grace could lead upright lives, and who without God’s grace would be liable to commit terrible sins. Constantius gives us another valuable lesson: The humble man can never be humiliated, and through him God will work wonders. (See “A Bishop Becomes a Willing Slave,” page 24.)

Ages of Light and Darkness

In 1904, 1300 years after the death of Gregory the Great, another great pope, Pius X, in his encyclical Iucunda Sane, praised Gregory the Great, who set

princes and peoples docile to his words . . .  on the path of a civilization which was noble and fruitful . . . as it was founded on the incontrovertible dictates of reason and moral discipline. [I]n those days, the people, albeit rude, ignorant, and still destitute of all civilization, were eager for life, and this no one could give except Christ, through the Church. . . . And truly they had life and had it abundantly . . . (12-13)

“Today, on the contrary,” continued Pius, contrasting Gregory’s age with our own, “although the world enjoys a light so full of Christian civilization and in this respect cannot for a moment be compared with the times of Gregory, yet it seems as though it were tired of that life which has been and still is the chief and often the sole fount of so many blessings” (IS 14).

The cost of this spiritual fatigue, Pius explains, is

so much loss of eternal salvation among men, . . . [f]or all supernatural order is denied, and, as a consequence, the divine intervention in the order of creation and in the government of the world and in the possibility of miracles; and when all these are taken away the foundations of the Christian religion are necessarily shaken. Men even go so far as to impugn the arguments for the existence of God . . . (IS 15)

If Gregory’s age was more credulous—open, as Pius says, to the possibility of miracles—it was an age, for all its horror, brighter than the darkness of unbelief that is the central mark of our own time. Gregory’s Dialogues offer us a window into an age of belief, but more than that, a path to restoring our sense of the divine. Our prayer should be to be at least as docile as the peoples and princes to whom Gregory pointed the way.


A Bishop Becomes a Willing Slave

The life of St. Paulinus, as told by Gregory, illustrates how God works wonders through a humble soul. Paulinus served as bishop of Nola during the fifth century, when southern Italy was overrun by hoards of cruel barbarians (Gregory calls them Vandals, but they were probably Visigoths). Bishop Paulinus exhausted his considerable fortune on almsgiving and on ransoming Italian prisoners from the barbarians. When he had spent all that he had, a widow, whose only son had been enslaved by the son-in-law of the Vandal king, came to St. Paulinus and begged him to help her ransom her son. Unable to pay the ransom, the bishop said he would offer himself, disguised as a servant, in exchange for the widow’s son.

Together they traveled to see the king’s son-in-law, who asked Paulinus his trade. Paulinus answered that he had some skill at keeping a garden. Seeing that the bishop had an honest face, the king’s son-in-law agreed to the exchange and set the widow’s son free.

For some time after, Paulinus kept his master’s garden and brought him different herbs every night to eat with his dinner. The king’s son-in-law was impressed with the bishop’s gardening skills and in time began to forsake his barbarian companions, preferring the conversation and company of his holy gardener. During one such conversation, Paulinus told his master that his father-in-law would soon die and that he needed to consider how he planned to govern the kingdom. Alarmed by this counsel, the king’s son-in-law went to the Vandal king and reported the conversation. The Vandal king asked to meet this unusual gardener.

“Join me for dinner tomorrow night,” said his son-in-law.

When Paulinus entered the son-in-law’s dining room the following evening, the king was overcome with fear and pulled aside his son-in-law.

“I dreamt last night,” he said, “that I stood before a panel of judges, and this man who is your gardener was one of them. The judges took from me the whip that I have used to punish so many slaves. Find out who this man is, for I am certain that he is no ordinary gardener.”

When the son-in-law asked Paulinus who he was, the holy bishop said, “I am your servant, whom you took for ransom for the widow’s son,” but the king’s son-in-law told him of the king’s dream and demanded to know what he had been before he became his gardener. Paulinus revealed that he was the bishop of Nola, at which point the king’s son-in-law prostrated himself before Paulinus and begged him to make any request he desired. Paulinus asked that all the people of his diocese whom the king had enslaved be set free, and this wish the son-in-law granted right away.

The barbarian king did die soon after and his severe government with him, and Paulinus, who in great humility had made himself a slave, returned to his see with a vast company of his people, just as our Savior had done who took on the form of a servant so that we should not be servants of sin.

Deacon Peter’s response to this story should be our own, “When I hear that which I cannot imitate, I desire more to weep than to say anything.”


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