Biographies & Memoirs


Colmar | June 24, 833

The Field of Lies

ANASTASIUS pulled aside the heavy curtains covering the opening of the Pope’s tent and slipped inside.

Gregory, fourth of that name to occupy the Throne of St. Peter, was still at prayer, kneeling on the silken pillows placed before the exquisite carved ivory figure of Christ that occupied the place of honor in his tent. The figure had survived the perilous journey over ruined roads and bridges, through the high and treacherous passes of the Alps, without a scratch. It gleamed as brightly here, in a crude tent pitched on this alien Frankish land, as it had in the safety and comfort of Gregory’s private chapel in the Lateran Palace.

“Deus illuminatio mea, Deus optimus et maximus,” Gregory prayed, his face alight with devotion.

Watching soundlessly from the entryway, Anastasius wondered, Was I ever so simple in my faith? Perhaps once, when he was very small. But his innocence had died the day his uncle Theodorus had been murdered in the Lateran Palace before his eyes. “Watch,” his father had told him then, “and learn.”

Anastasius had watched, and learned—learned how to conceal his true feelings behind the mask of manners, learned how to manipulate and deceive, even betray, if necessary. The rewards of that knowledge had been gratifying. At nineteen, Anastasius was already vestiarius—the youngest man ever to hold so high a position. Arsenius, his father, took great pride in him. Anastasius meant to make him prouder still.

“Christ Jesus, give me the wisdom I need this day,” Gregory continued. “Show me the way to avert this unholy war and reconcile these rebellious sons to the Emperor their father.”

Is it possible that he does not know, even yet, what he stands to lose this day? Anastasius could scarcely believe it. The Pope was such an innocent. Anastasius was only nineteen, less than half Gregory’s age, and already he understood far more about the world.

He is ill suited to be Pope, Anastasius thought, not for the first time. Gregory was a pious soul, there was no denying that, but piety was an overrated virtue. The man had a nature better suited to the cloister than the papal court, whose subtle politics were forever beyond his reach. Whatever had Emperor Louis been thinking of when he had asked Gregory to make the long journey from Rome to the empire of the Franks to serve as mediator in this crisis?

Anastasius coughed discreetly, to attract Gregory’s attention, but he was lost in prayer, gazing at the Christ figure with a look of exaltation.

“It is time, Holiness.” Anastasius did not hesitate to interrupt the Pope’s devotions. Gregory had been at prayer for over an hour, and the Emperor was waiting.

Startled, Gregory looked around, and seeing Anastasius, nodded, crossed himself, and stood, smoothing the bell-shaped purple paenula which he wore over the papal dalmatic.

“I see you have drawn strength from the Christ figure, Holiness,” Anastasius said, helping Gregory put on the pallium. “I too have felt its power.”

“Yes. It is magnificent, isn’t it?”

“Indeed. Especially the beauty of the head, which is large in proportion to the body. It always reminds me of the first Epistle to the Corinthians: ‘And the head of Christ is God.’ A glorious expression of the idea that Christ combines in His person both natures, God-hood and manhood.”

Gregory beamed appreciatively. “I don’t think I have ever heard that thought so well expressed. You make a fine vestiarius, Anastasius; the eloquence of your faith is an inspiration.”

Anastasius was pleased. Such papal praise might well translate into another promotion—to nomenclator, perhaps, or even primicerius? He was young, it was true, but such high honors were not beyond ambition. Indeed, they were but way stations on the path to the single overarching ambition of Anastasius’s life: to be Pope himself one day.

“You overprize me, Sire,” Anastasius said with what he hoped was becoming modesty. “It is the perfection of the sculpture, and not my inadequate words, which deserves your praise.”

Gregory smiled. “Spoken with true humilitas.” He put his hand fondly on Anastasius’s shoulder and said gravely, “It is God’s work we do this day, Anastasius.”

Anastasius studied the Pope’s face. He suspects nothing. Good. Obviously, Gregory still believed that he could mediate a peace between the Emperor and his sons, still knew nothing of the secret arrangements that Anastasius had so carefully and quietly carried out, following his father’s explicit instructions.

“Tomorrow’s dawn will see a new peace in this troubled land,” Gregory said.

That is true enough, thought Anastasius, though the peace will not be of the kind you envision.

If all went as planned, tomorrow at dawn the Emperor would awake to find that his troops had deserted in the night, leaving him defenseless before the armies of his sons. It was all agreed upon and paid for; nothing that Gregory said or did this day would make the slightest whit of difference.

But it was important that the papal mediation occur as planned. Negotiating with Gregory would allay the Emperor’s suspicions and distract his attention at this crucial juncture.

It would be judicious to offer Gregory some encouragement. “It is a great thing you do today, Holiness,” Anastasius said. “God will smile upon it, and upon you.”

Gregory nodded. “I know it, Anastasius. More surely at this moment than ever before.”

“Gregory the peacemaker, they will call you, Gregory the Great!”

“No, Anastasius,” Gregory reproved. “If I succeed in this day’s work, it will be God’s doing, not mine. The future of the Empire, upon which Rome’s security depends, hangs in the balance today. If we win through, it will be with His help alone.”

Gregory’s selfless faith fascinated Anastasius, who regarded it as a freak of nature akin to having six fingers on one hand. Gregory was a genuinely humble man, Anastasius decided—but then, considering his talents, he had every reason to be humble.

“Accompany me to the Emperor’s tent,” Gregory said. “I would like you to be there when I speak with him.”

Everything is going smoothly, Anastasius thought. When this was over, he had only to return to Rome and wait. Once Lothar was crowned Emperor in his father’s place, he would know how to reward Anastasius for the work he had done here.

Gregory went to the door of the tent. “Come then. Let us do what must be done.”

They walked out onto the open field crowded with the tents and banners of the Emperor’s army. It was hard to believe that by tomorrow morning the colorful riot of activity would all be gone. Anastasius tried to imagine the look on Louis’s face when he stepped outside his tent and found the quiet fields stretching bare before him.

Passing the royal guard, they arrived at the imperial tent. Just outside, Gregory paused to murmur one last prayer. “Verba mea auribus percipe, Domine …”

Anastasius watched impatiently while Gregory’s full, almost feminine lips soundlessly formed the words of the fifth psalm: “… intende voci clamoris mei, rex meus et Deus meus …”

Pious fool. At that moment Anastasius’s contempt for the Pope was so strong that he had to make a conscious effort to keep his voice respectful.

“Shall we go in, Sire?”

Gregory raised his head. “Yes, Anastasius, I am ready.”

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