Fathers of the Church
Epistle XXVI: to Theoctista, Patrician
by Gregory the Great in 590-604 | translated by James Barmby, D.d
Gregory to Theoctista, &c.
That your Excellency, though placed in so great a tumult of affairs, is full of the fruitfulness of the sacred word, and incessantly pants after eternal joys, for this I give great thanks to Almighty God, in that in you I see fulfilled what is written of the elect fathers, But the children of Israel walked on dry land through the midst of the sea (Exod. xv. 19). But on the other hand, I am come into the depth of the sea, and the storm hath overwhelmed me (Ps. lxviii. 3). But you, as I see, walk with dry feet through the waves of secular affairs to the country of promise. Let us give thanks, then, to that Spirit who lifts up the hearts which He fills; who amid the tumults of men makes a solitude in the soul; and in whose presence there is no place, wherein a soul moved by compunction can be, which is not a secret one. For you inhale the odour of eternal sweetness, and so ardently love the bridegroom of your soul as to be able to say with the heavenly bride, Draw me after thee; we run in the odour of thine ointments (Cant. i. 3). But in the letters of your Excellency I find this deficiency; that you have been unwilling to tell me about your most serene mistress, how studiously she reads, or how she is moved by compunction in her reading. For your presence ought to be of great advantage to her, that amid the billows of affairs under which she continually suffers and by which, whether she will or no, she is drawn abroad, she may be recalled inwardly to the love of the heavenly country. And this also you ought to investigate, as often as tears are given her for her soul, whether her compunction arises still from fear, or whether now from love.
For there are two kinds of compunction, as you know: one that is afraid of eternal pains, the other that sighs for heavenly rewards; since the soul that is athirst for God is first moved to compunction by fear, and afterwards by love. For in the first place it is affected to tears because, while recollecting its evil doings, it fears to suffer for them eternal punishments. But, when fear has died away in the anxiety of a long sorrow, a certain security has birth from a sense of pardon; and the mind is enflamed with love of heavenly joys. And one who previously wept for fear of punishment begins afterwards to weep most bitterly for being kept back from the kingdom. For the soul contemplates what are those choirs of angels, what is the very society of blessed spirits, what the vision of the inward brightness of God; and laments more for the lack of unending good than it wept before when it feared eternal evil; and thus it comes to pass that the compunction of fear, when perfected, draws the mind to the compunction of love. All this is well described in the sacred and true history, understood figuratively, which says, Axa the daughter of Caleph sighed sitting on an ass. And her father said to her, What wouldest than? Who answered, Give me a blessing, Thou hast given me a South and dry land; give me also a watered land. And her father gave her the upper springs, and the nether springs (Josh. xv. 18). For indeed Axa sits on an ass, when the soul presides over the irrational motions of the flesh. And sighing she seeks a watered land from her father, because the grace of tears is to be sought with great longing from our Creator. For there are some who have already freely received the gift of speaking in behalf of justice, of protecting the oppressed, of giving of their own to the needy, of having ardour of faith, but have not yet the grace of tears. These, that is to say, have a South and dry land, but still need springs of water; because, while they are occupied in good works, wherein they are great and fervent, they have still sore need (either from fear of punishment, or from love of the heavenly kingdom) to lament the sins which they cannot be without while they live. But since, as I have said, there are two kinds of compunction, her father gave her the upper springs and the nether springs. For the soul receives the upper springs, when she afflicts herself in tears for desire of the heavenly kingdom; but she receives the nether springs, when she shudders with weeping at the punishments of hell. And indeed the nether springs are given first, and the upper springs afterwards. But, because the compunction of love is far above the other indignity, there was need for the upper springs to be mentioned first, and the nether springs afterwards. You then, who through the operation of the Almighty Lord know by experience both kinds of compunction, ought anxiously to try to discover day by day how much you are profiling your most serene mistress by your words.
Further, I beg you to take especial care to instruct in good morals the little lords whom you are bringing up, and to admonish the glorious eunuchs who are appointed to attend them that they should speak to them such things as may move their minds to mutual charity between themselves and to gentleness towards subjects; lest, if they should conceive now any grudge against each other, it should break out openly hereafter. For in truth the words of those who bring up children will be either milk, if they are good, or poison if they are evil. Let them therefore so speak now to the little ones that the latter may shew hereafter what good words they had sucked from the months of those who nursed them.
Furthermore, my beloved son, Sabinianus the deacon, has brought thirty pounds of gold, sent by your Excellency to be given for the redemption of captives and for distribution to the poor; with regard to which I rejoice, but tremble for myself, seeing that I shall have to render an account before the tremendous Judge, not only of the substance of Saint Peter, Prince of the apostles, but also of your possessions. But to you may Almighty God return heavenly things for earthly, and eternal for temporal. I have now to inform you that from the city of Crotona, which, lying on the Adriatic Sea in the land of Italy, was taken last year by the Lombards, many noble men and many noble women were led away captive, and children were parted from their parents, parents from their children, husbands from their wives, and wives from their husbands; of whom some have already been redeemed. But, because of the heavy prices put upon them, many have remained so far in the hands of those most abominable Lombards. But I sent at once for their redemption a moiety of the money sent by you. Out of the other moiety I have arranged for the purchase of bed-clothes for the handmaidens of God whom you in Greek language call monastriae; seeing that they suffer from grievous bareness in their beds during the very severe cold of this winter; there being many of them in this city. For, according to the official list of them, they are found to be three thousand in number. They do indeed receive fourscore pounds a year from the possessions of Saint Peter, Prince of the apostles. But what is this for so great a multitude, especially in this city, where everything is so dear? Their life, moreover, is such, and strict to such a degree in tears and abstinence, that we believe that, but for them, not one of us could have subsisted for so many years in this place among the swords of the Lombards.
Furthermore, I send you, as a blessing from Saint Peter the apostle, a key from his most sacred body; with respect to which key the miracle has been wrought which I now relate. A certain Lombard, having found it on his entrance into a city in the parts beyond the Po, and, paying no regard to it as Saint Peter's key, but wishing to make something of it for himself in that he saw it to be of gold, took out a knife to cut it. But presently seized by a spirit, he plunged the knife wherewith he had thought to cut it into his own throat, and in the same hour fell down dead. And when Autharith, king of the Lombards, and many others belonging to him came to the place, and he who had stabbed himself was lying apart in one place dead, and this key on the ground in another, exceeding fear came upon all, so that no one ventured to lift this same key from the ground. Then a certain Lombard who was a Catholic, and known to be given to prayer and almsgiving, Minulf by name, was called, and himself lifted it from the ground. But Autharith, in consideration of this miracle, made another golden key, and sent it along with this to my predecessor of holy memory, declaring what kind of miracle had through it occurred. I have taken thought, then, to send your Excellence this key, through which Almighty God cut off a proud and faithless man, that through it you who fear and love Him may be enabled to have both present and eternal welfare.
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/XII, Schaff and Wace). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.