While Benedict and his monks peacefully worked and prayed at Monte Cassino, the Gothic War (536-53) passed up and down Italy like a withering flame, leaving disorder and poverty in its wake. Urban economy was in chaos. Political institutions lay in ruins; in Rome no secular authority survived except that of imperial legates weakly supported by unpaid and distant troops. In this collapse of worldly powers the survival of ecclesiastical organization appeared even to the emperors as the salvation of the state. In 554 Justinian promulgated a decree requiring that “fit and proper persons, able to administer the local government, be chosen as governors of the provinces by the bishops and chief persons of each province.”8 But Justinian’s corpse was hardly cold when the Lombard invasion (568) subjected northern Italy again to barbarism and Arianism, and threatened the whole structure and leadership of the Church in Italy. The crisis called forth a man, and history once more testified to the influence of genius.
Gregory was born at Rome three years before Benedict’s death. He came of an ancient senatorial family, and his youth was spent in a handsome palace on the Caelian Hill. On the death of his father he fell heir to a large fortune. He rose rapidly in the ordo honorum, or sequence of political plums; at thirty-three he was prefect—as we should say, mayor—of Rome. But he had no taste for politics. Having finished his year of office, and apparently convinced by the condition of Italy that the ever-heralded end of the world was at hand,9 he used the greater part of his fortune to found seven monasteries, distributed the rest in alms to the poor, laid aside all vestiges of his rank, turned his palace into the monastery of St. Andrew, and became its first monk. He subjected himself to extreme asceticism, lived for the most part on raw vegetables and fruits, and fasted so often that when Holy Saturday came, on which fasting was pre-eminently enjoined, it seemed that another day of abstinence would kill him. Yet the three years that he spent in the monastery were always recalled by him as the happiest of his life.
Out of this peace he was drawn to serve Pope Benedict I as “seventh deacon”; and in 579 he was sent by Pope Pelagius II as ambassador to the imperial court at Constantinople. Amid the wiles of diplomacy and the pomp of palaces he continued to live like a monk in habit, diet, and prayer;10 nevertheless he gained some helpful experience of the world and its chicanery. In 586 he was recalled to Rome, and became Abbot of St. Andrew’s. In 590 a terrible bubonic plague decimated the population of Rome; Pelagius himself was a victim; and at once the clergy and people of the city chose Gregory to succeed him. Gregory was loath to leave his monastery, and wrote to the Greek emperor asking him to refuse confirmation of the election; the city prefect intercepted the letter; and as Gregory was preparing flight he was seized and brought by force to St. Peter’s, and there was consecrated Pope; or so we are told by another Gregory.11
He was now fifty, and already bald, with large head, dark complexion, aquiline nose, sparse and tawny beard; a man of strong feeling and gentle speech, of imperial purposes and simple sentiment. Austerities and responsibilities had ruined his health; he suffered from indigestion, slow fever, and gout. In the papal palace he lived as he had in the monastery—dressed in a monk’s coarse robe, eating the cheapest foods, sharing a common life with the monks and priests who aided him.12 Usually absorbed in problems of religion and the state, he could unbend into words and deeds of paternal affection. A wandering minstrel appeared at the gate of the palace with organ and monkey; Gregory bade the man enter, and gave him food and drink.13 Instead of spending the revenues of the Church in building new edifices, he used them in charity, in gifts to religious institutions throughout Christendom, and in redeeming captives of war. To every poor family in Rome he distributed monthly a portion of corn, wine, cheese, vegetables, oil, fish, meat, clothing, and money; and every day his agents brought cooked provisions to the sick or infirm. His letters, stern to negligent ecclesiastics or to political potentates, are jewels of sympathy to persons in distress: to a peasant exploited on Church lands, to a slave girl wishing to take the veil, to a noble lady worried about her sins. In his conception the priest was literally a pastor, a shepherd caring for his flock, and the good Pope had every right to compose his Liber pastoralis curae (590), a manual of advice to bishops, which became a Christian classic. Though always ailing and prematurely old, he spent himself in ecclesiastical administration, papal politics, agricultural management, military strategy, theological treatises, mystic ecstasies, and a solicitous concern with a thousand details of human life. He chastened the pride of his office with the humility of his creed; he called himself, in the first of his extant epistles, servus servorum Dei, “servant of the servants of God”; and the greatest popes have accepted the noble phrase.
His administration of the Church was marked by economic wisdom and stern reform. He struggled to suppress simony and concubinage in the clergy. He restored discipline in the Latin monasteries, and regulated their relations with the secular clergy and the pope. He improved the canon of the Mass, and perhaps contributed to the development of “Gregorian” chant. He checked exploitation on the papal estates, advanced money to tenant farmers, and charged no interest. But he collected due revenues promptly, slyly offered rent reductions to converted Jews, and received, for the Church, legacies of land from barons frightened by his sermons on the approaching end of the world.14
Meanwhile he met the ablest rulers of his day in political duels, won often, sometimes lost, but in the end left the power and prestige of the papacy, and the “Patrimony of Peter” (i.e., the Papal States in central Italy) immensely extended and enhanced. He formally acknowledged, but in practice largely ignored, the sovereignty of the Eastern emperor. When the duke of Spoleto, at war with the Imperial exarch of Ravenna, threatened Rome, Gregory signed a peace with the duke without consulting the exarch or the emperor. When the Lombards besieged Rome Gregory shared in organizing defense.
He mourned every minute given to earthly concerns, and apologized to his congregation for his inability to preach comforting sermons amid the worldly cares that troubled his mind. In the few years of peace allowed him he turned happily to the task of spreading the Gospel through Europe. He brought the rebellious bishops of Lombardy to submission, restored orthodox Catholicism in Africa, received the conversion of Arian Spain, and won England with forty monks. While Abbot of St. Andrew’s he had seen some English captives exposed for sale in a slave market at Rome; he was struck, says the patriotic Bede, by their
white skin and comely countenance and hair of excellent beauty. And beholding them awhile he demanded, as they say, out of what region or land they had been brought. And it was answered that they came from Britain, where such was the appearance of the inhabitants. Again, he asked whether the people of that island were Christian men … and answer was made that they were paynims. Then this good man … “alas,” quoth he, “it is a piteous case that the author of darkness possesseth such bright beautied people, and that men of such gracious outward sheen do bear a mind void of inward grace.” Again, therefore, he enquired what was the name of that people. Answer was given that they were called Angles. Whereon he said, “Well are they so called, for they have an angel’s face, and it is meet that such men were inheritors with the angels in heaven.”15
The story—too pretty to be credible—goes on to say that Gregory asked and received of Pope Pelagius II permission to lead some missionaries to England; that Gregory started out, but was halted by a locust dropping upon the page of Scripture that he was reading; “locusta!” he cried; “that means loco sta”—stay in your place.16 Impressed soon afterward into the papacy, he did not forget England. In 596 he sent thither a mission under Augustine, Prior of St. Andrew’s. Arrived in Gaul, the monks were turned back by Frank stories of Saxon savagery; those “angels,” they were informed, “were wild beasts who preferred killing to eating, thirsted for human blood, and liked Christian blood best of all. Augustine returned to Rome with these reports, but Gregory reproved and encouraged him, and sent him back to accomplish peaceably in two years what Rome had transiently achieved by ninety years of war.
Gregory was not a philosopher-theologian like the great Augustine, nor a master of style like the brilliant Jerome; but his writings so deeply influenced and expressed the medieval mind that beside him Augustine and Jerome seem classical. He left behind him books of popular theology so rich in nonsense that one wonders whether the great administrator believed what he wrote, or merely wrote what he thought it well for simple and sinful souls to believe. His biography of Benedict is the most pleasing of these books—a charming idyl of reverence, with no pretense to critical sifting of legend from fact. His 800 letters are his best literary legacy; here this varied man reveals himself in a hundred phases, and gives unconsciously an intimate picture of his mind and times. HisDialogueswere loved by the people because they offered as history the most amazing tales of the visions, prophecies, and miracles of Italy’s holy men. Here the reader learned of massive boulders moved by prayer, of a saint who could make himself invisible, of poisons rendered harmless by the sign of the cross, of provisions miraculously supplied and increased, of the sick made whole and the dead restored to life. The power of relics ran through these dialogues, but none more marvelous than the chains that were believed to have bound Peter and Paul; Gregory cherished these with adoration; he sent filings from them as presents to his friends; and with one such offering he wrote to a sufferer from ailing eyesight: “Let these be continually applied to your eyes, for many miracles have been wrought by this same gift.”17 The Christianity of the masses had captured the mind or pen of the great Pope.
His deeper venture into theology took the form of the Magna moralia—a six-volume commentary on the Book of Job. He takes the drama as literal history in every line; but also he seeks in every line an allegorical or symbolical significance, and ends by finding in Job the full Augustinian theology. The Bible is in every sense the word of God; it is a complete system of wisdom and beauty in itself; and no man should waste his time and debase his morals by reading the pagan classics. However, the Bible is occasionally obscure, and is often couched in popular or pictorial language; it needs careful interpretation by trained minds; and the Church, as custodian of sacred tradition, is the only proper interpreter. Individual reason is a weak and divisive instrument, not designed to deal with supersensual realities; and “when the intellect seeks to understand beyond its powers, it loses even that which it understood.”18 God is beyond our understanding; we can only say what He is not, not what He is; “almost everything that is said of God is unworthy, for the very reason that it is capable of being said.”19 Hence Gregory makes no formal attempt to prove the existence of God. But, he argues, we can adumbrate Him by considering the human soul: is it not the living force and guide of the body? “Many of our time,” says Gregory, “… have often seen souls departing from the body.”20 The tragedy of man is that by original sin his nature is corrupt, and inclines him to wickedness; and this basic spiritual malformation is transmitted from parent to child through sexual procreation. Left to himself, man would heap sin upon sin, and richly deserve everlasting damnation. Hell is no mere phrase; it is a dark and bottomless subterranean abyss created from the beginning of the world; it is an inextinguishable fire, corporeal and yet able to sear soul as well as flesh; it is eternal, and yet it never destroys the damned, or lessens their sensitivity to pain. And to each moment of pain is added the terror of expected pain, the horror of witnessing the tortures of loved ones also damned, the despair of ever being released, or allowed the blessing of annihilation.21 In a softer mood Gregory developed Augustine’s doctrine of a purgatory in which the dead would complete their atonement for forgiven sins. And like Augustine, Gregory comforted those whom he had terrified by reminding them of the gift of God’s grace, the intercession of the saints, the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice, the mysterious saving effect of sacraments available to all Christian penitents.
Perhaps Gregory’s theology reflected his health as well as the frightening chaos of his time. “In eleven months,” he wrote in 599, “I have rarely been able to leave my bed. I am so tormented with gout and painful anxieties that… every day I look for the relief of death.” And in 600: “For nearly two years I have been confined to my couch, so afflicted with pain that even on festivals I can hardly get up for three hours to celebrate Mass. I am daily at the point of death, and daily being driven back from it.” And in 601: “It is long since I have been able to leave my couch. I look longingly for death.”22It came in 604.
He dominated the end of the sixth century as Justinian had dominated its beginning; and his effect on religion was exceeded in this epoch only by that of Mohammed. He was not a learned man, nor a profound theologian; but because of his simplicity he influenced the people more deeply than the Augustine whose lead he followed with engaging humility. In mind he was the first completely medieval man.23 While his hand managed a scattered empire, his thought dwelt on the corruption of human nature, the temptations of ubiquitous devils, and the approaching end of the world. He preached with power that religion of terror which was to darken men’s minds for centuries; he accepted all the miracles of popular legend, all the magical efficacy of relics, images, and formulas; he lived in a world haunted with angels, demons, wizards, and ghosts. All sense of a rational order in the universe had departed from him; it was a world in which science was impossible, and only a fearful faith remained. The next seven centuries would accept this theology; the great Scholastics would toil to give it the form of reason; it would constitute the tragic background of The Divine Comedy.
But this same man, superstitious and credulous, physically shattered with a terrified piety, was in will and action a Roman of the ancient cast, tenacious of purpose, stern of judgment, prudent and practical, in love with discipline and law. He gave a law to monasticism, as Benedict had given it a rule; he built the temporal power of the papacy, freed it from imperial domination, and administered it with such wisdom and integrity that men would look to the papacy as a rock of refuge through tempestuous centuries. His grateful successors canonized him, and an admiring posterity called him Gregory the Great.