Fathers of the Church

Epistle CXXII: to Rechared, King of the Visigoths

Description

This epistle is from Book IX of the Register of the Epistles of Saint Gregory the Great. Gregory rejoices that the Goths have been brought out of Arianism to the true faith, and praises Rechared for his part in it. He also commends the king for his efforts against the deceit of the Jews, and exhorts him to virtue in his personal life and in his government.

Provenance

St. Gregory (b. 540 in Rome) was elected pope at the age of 50, serving from 590 to 604. In 14 years he accomplished much for the Church. England owes her conversion to him. At a period when the invasion of the barbarian Lombards created a new situation in Europe, he played a great part in winning them for Christ. At the same time, he watched equally over the holiness of the clergy and the maintenance of Church discipline, the temporal interests of his people of Rome and the spiritual interests of all Christendom. He removed unworthy priests from office, forbade the taking of money for many services, and emptied the papal treasury to ransom prisoners of the Lombards and to care for persecuted Jews and victims of plague and famine. Gregory also reformed the liturgy, and it still contains several of his most beautiful prayers. The name "Gregorian chant" recalls this great Pope's work in the development of the Church's music. His commentaries on Holy Scripture exercised a considerable influence on Christian thought in the Middle Ages. Following his death in 604, his numerous epistles, including the following letter, were compiled into the Papal Register of Letters.

by Gregory the Great in 590-604 | translated by James Barmby, D.d

Gregory to Rechared, &c.

I cannot express in words, most excellent son, how much I am delighted with thy work and thy life. For on hearing of the power of a new miracle in our days, to wit that the whole nation of the Goths has through thy Excellency been brought over from the error of Arian heresy to the firmness of a right faith, one is disposed to exclaim with the prophet, This is the change wrought by the right hand of the Most High (Ps. lxxvi. 11). For whose breast, even though stony, would not, on hearing of so great a work, soften in praises of Almighty God and love of thy Excellency? As for me, I declare that it delights me often to tell these things that have been done through you to my sons who resort to me and often together with them to admire. These things also for the most part stir me up against myself, in that I languish sluggish and unprofitable in listless ease, while kings are labouring in the gathering together of souls for the gains of the heavenly country. What then shall I say to the coming Judge in that tremendous assize, if I shall then come thither empty, where thy Excellency shall bring after thee flocks of faithful ones, whom thou hast now drawn to the grace of a true faith by assiduous and continual preaching? But this, good man, by the gift of God, affords me great comfort, that the holy work which I have not in myself I love in thee. And, when I rejoice with great exultation for thy doings, the results of thy labour become mine through charity. With regard, therefore, to the conversion of the Goths, both for your work and for our exultation, we may well exclaim with the angels, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of goodwill (Luk. ii. 14). For we, as I think, owe the more thanks to Almighty God for that, although we have done nothing with you, we are nevertheless par-takers in your work by rejoicing with you. Further, how gladly the blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, has accepted the gifts of your Excellency your very life witnesses evidently to all. For it is written, The vows of the righteous are his delight (Prov. xv. 8). For indeed in the judgment of Almighty God it is not what is given, but by whom it is given, that is regarded.

For hence it is that it is written, The Lord had respect unto Abel and to his gifts, but unto Cain and to his gifts he had not respect (Gen. iv. 4, 5). To wit, being about to say that the Lord had respect to the gifts, he was careful to premise that He had respect unto Abel. Thus it is plainly shewn that the offerer was not acceptable by reason of the gifts, but the gifts were so by reason of the offerer. You shew, therefore, how acceptable your offering is, seeing that, being about to give gold, you have first given gifts of souls by the conversion of the nation subject to you.

With regard to your telling us that the abbots who were sent to us to bring your offering to the blessed Apostle Peter bad been wearied by the violence of the sea and returned to Spain without accomplishing their voyage, your gifts were not kept back, for they reached us afterwards; but the constancy of those who had been sent has been tried, as to whether they knew how with holy desire to overcome dangers in their way, and, though fatigued in body, by no means to be wearied in mind. For adversity which comes in the way of good purposes is a trial of virtue, not a judgment of reprobation. For who can be ignorant how prosperous an event it was that the blessed Apostle Paul came to Italy to preach, and yet in coming suffered shipwreck? But the ship of the heart stood unharmed among the billows of the sea.

Furthermore, I must tell you that I have been led to praise God the more for your work by what I have learnt from the report of my most beloved son Probinus the presbyter; namely that, your Excellency having issued a certain ordinance against the perfidy of the Jews, those to whom it related attempted to bend the rectitude of your mind by offering a sum of money; which your Excellency scorned, and, seeking to satisfy the judgment of Almighty God, preferred innocence to gold. With regard to this what was done by King David recurs to my mind, who, when the longed for water from the cistern of Bethlehem, which was wedged in by the enemy, had been brought him by obedient soldiers, said, God forbid that I should drink the blood of righteous men (1 Chron. xi. 19). And, because he poured it out and would not drink it, it is written, He offered it a libation to the Lord. If, then, water was scorned by the armed king, and turned into a sacrifice to God, we may estimate what manner of sacrifice to Almighty God has been offered by the king who for His love has scorned to receive, not water, but gold. Wherefore, most excellent son, I Will confidently say that thou hast offered as a libation to the Lord the gold which thou wouldest not have in opposition to Him. These are great things, and redound to the praise of Almighty God.

But in the midst of all these things we must guard with vigilant attention against the snares of the ancient foe, who, the greater gifts he sees among men, with the more subtle snares seeks to take them away. For robbers too do not look out for empty travellers to seize them on their road, but such as carry vessels of gold and silver. For indeed the present life is a road. And every one must needs be the more on his guard against ambushed spirits in proportion as the gifts are greater which he carries. It is the duty, then, of your Excellency, with regard to this so great gift which you have received in the conversion of the nation subject to you, to keep with all your might, first humility of heart, and secondly cleanness of body. For where it is written, Every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted (Luke xiv. 11; xviii. 14), it is assuredly evident that he truly loves what is lofty who does not cut off his soul from the root of humility. For often the malignant spirit, in order to destroy the good that previously he had not power to oppose, comes into the mind of the worker after accomplishment of his work, and agitates it with silent thoughts of self-praise, so that the deluded mind admires itself for the great things that it has done. And, being exalted in its own sight through hidden tumour, it is deprived of the grace of Him Who bestowed the gift. For hence it is that it is said through the voice of the prophet to the soul that waxes proud, Having trust in thy beauty thou flayedst the harlot because of thy renown (Ezek. xvi. 15). For indeed a soul's having trust in its beauty is its presuming within itself on its righteous doings. And it plays the harlot because of its renown, when in what it has done aright it desires not the praise of its Maker to be spread abroad, but seeks the glory of its own reputation. Hence again it is written through the prophet, In that thou art more beautiful, go down (Ezek. xxxii. 19). For the soul goes down because of being more beautiful when, owing to the comeliness of virtue whereby it ought to have been exalted before God, it falls from His grace through elation. What then is to be done in this case but that, when the malignant spirit employs the good things that we have done to exalt the mind, we should ever recall to memory our evil deeds, to the end that we may acknowledge that what we have done sinfully is our own, but that it is of the gift of Almighty God alone when we avoid sins. Cleanness also of body is to be guarded in our strivings after well-doing, since, according to the voice of the apostolic preacher, The temple of God is holy, which temple ye are (1 Cor. iii. 17). And again he says, Far this is the will of God, even your sanctification (1 Thess. iv. 3). As to which sanctification, what he means by it he shews by straightway adding, That ye should abstain from fornication, that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour, not in the lusts of concupiscence.

The very government also of your kingdom in relation to your subjects ought to be tempered with moderation, test power steal upon your mind. For a kingdom is ruled well when the glory of reigning does not dominate the disposition. Care also is to be taken that wrath creep not in, lest whatever is lawful to be done be done too hastily. For wrath, even when it prosecutes the faults of delinquents, ought not to go before the mind as a mistress, but attend as a handmaid behind the back of reason, that it may come to the front when bidden. For, if once it begins to have possession of the mind, it accounts as just what it does cruelly. For hence it is written, The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God (Jam. i. 20). Hence again it is said, Let every man be swift to hear, but slow to speak, and slow to wrath (Ib. 19). However I doubt not that trader the guidance of God you observe all these things. Still, now that an opportunity of admonition has arisen, I join myself furtively to your good deeds, so that what you do though not admonished you may not do alone, having an admonisher to boot. Now may Almighty God protect you in all your doings by the stretching out of His heavenly arm, and grout you prosperity in the present life, and alter a course of many years eternal joys.

We have sent you a small key from the most sacred body of the blessed apostle Peter to convey his blessing, containing iron from his chains, that what had bound his neck for martyrdom may loose yours from all sins. We have given also to the bearer of these presents, to be offered to you, a cross in which there is some of the wood of the Lord's cross, and hairs of the blessed John the Baptist, from which you may ever have the succour of our Saviour through the intercession of His forerunner.

Moreover we have sent to our most reverend brother and fellow-bishop Leander a pallium from the See of the blessed Apostle Peter, which we owe both to ancient custom, and to your character, and to his goodness and gravity.

A long time ago, when a certain Neapolitan youth came hither, your to me most sweet Excellency had thought fit to charge me to write to the most pious Emperor to the end that he might search in the record office for the treaties that had formerly been concluded with the prince Justinian of pious memory as to the claims of your kingdom, so as to gather from them what he should observe with regard to you. But there were two things seriously in the way of my doing this. One was that the record-office in the time of the aforesaid prince Justinian of pious memory had been so burnt by a fire which had crept in suddenly that hardly any paper of his times remained. The other was that, as no one need be told, thou oughtest to look in thy own archives for the documents that are against thee, and produce these instead of my doing so. Wherefore I exhort your Excellency to arrange matters suitably to your character, and carefully to carry out whatever makes for peace, that the times of your reign may be memorable with great praise through many courses of years. Furthermore, we have sent you another key from the most sacred body of the blessed apostle Peter, which, being laid up with due honour, may multiply with blessing whatever it may find you enjoying.

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (LNPF II/XIII, Schaff and Wace). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.