In the Byzantine tradition, Pope St Gregory I is given the epithet “Διάλογος – the Dialogist.” This comes from a collection of stories of the lives of Saints, several of whom were people he knew personally, titled “the Dialogues”, since it is cast as a conversation between Gregory himself and one of his deacons, named Peter. The second among four books is dedicated to St Benedict, whose feast day is traditionally kept on this day, the anniversary of his death in 547. In the mid-8th century, Pope St Zachary translated them into Greek, and they came one of the fairly few Latin patristic works to be quite widely diffused in the Eastern Roman Empire.
Here is an excerpt, the 36th and 37th chapters, in which St Gregory mentions the writing of the Rule, for the sake of which Benedict is known as the Father of western monasticism, and the story of his passing.
“… vir Dei inter tot miracula, quibus in mundo claruit, doctrinae quoque verbo non mediocriter fulsit. Nam scripsit monachorum regulam, discretione praecipuam, sermone luculentam. Cujus si quis velit subtilius mores vitamque cognoscere, potest in eadem institutione regulae omnes magisterii illius actus invenire: quia sanctus vir nullo modo potuit aliter docere quam vixit.
Eodem vero anno quo de hac vita erat exiturus, quibusdam discipulis secum conversantibus, quibusdam longe manentibus, sanctissimi sui obitus denuntiavit diem: praesentibus indicens ut audita per silentium tegerent; absentibus indicans quod vel quale eis signum fieret quando ejus anima de corpore exiret. Ante sextum vero sui exitus diem aperiri sibi sepulturam jubet. Qui mox correptus febribus, acri coepit ardore fatigari. Cumque per dies singulos languor ingravesceret, sexta die portari se in oratorium a discipulis fecit, ibique exitum suum dominici corporis et sanguinis perceptione munivit, atque inter discipulorum manus imbecillia membra sustentans, erectis in coelum manibus stetit, et ultimum spiritum inter verba orationis efflavit.
Qua scilicet die duobus de eo fratribus, uni in cella commoranti, alteri autem longius posito, revelatio unius atque indissimilis visionis apparuit. Viderunt namque quia strata palliis atque innumeris corusca lampadibus via recto orientis tramite ab ejus cella in coelum usque tendebatur. Cui venerando habitu vir desuper clarus assistens, cujus esset via quam cernerent, inquisivit. Illi autem se nescire professi sunt. Quibus ipse ait: Haec est via qua dilectus Domino coelum Benedictus ascendit. Tunc itaque sancti viri obitum sicut praesentes discipuli viderunt, ita absentes ex signo quod eis praedictum fuerat, agnoverunt.
(The Triumphal Way of St Benedict, by Johann Michael Rottmayr, 1722; fresco on the ceiling of Melk Abbey in Austria. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Uoaei1; CC BY-SA 3.0 AT)
… the man of God, amongst so many miracles for which he was famous in the world, was also outstanding in no small way for the word of his teaching. For he wrote a rule for his monks, which is excellent for discretion and eloquent in style. And if anyone should wish to know more detail about his character and life, he can find in the institution of that same rule all the acts of his teaching: since the holy man could in no way teach other than as he himself lived.
Now in the same year in which he was to depart from this life, he told the day of his most holy death to some of his disciples, some of whom lived with him, and some dwelt far off, enjoining those that were present to keep what they heard secret, and telling those that were absent what sign would take place when his soul should leave his body. And six days before his death, he ordered that his sepulcher be opened, and soon being taken with fever, he began to grow faint with burning heat. And when the sickness daily increased, on the sixth day, he had himself carried by his into the oratory, where he fortified himself for his departure by receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood; and holding up his weak members amid the hands of his disciples, he stood with his own lifted up to heaven, and in the middle of praying, breathed his last.
Now on that very day, the exact same vision of him was revealed to two of the brethren, one as he was staying in his cell, and the other far away. For they saw that a road hung with tapestries and shining with countless lamps stretched away towards the east, from his cell up to heaven, and at the top there stood a man, reverently attired, who asked whose way it was they beheld. But they professed that they did not, and he said to them, ‘This is the way by Benedict, beloved of God, ascended to heaven.’ Therefore, the disciples saw as if present the holy man’s death, and thus they who were absent, by the sign which had been foretold them, also knew of it.”
March 15th, the Ides of March in the ancient Roman dating system, is of course the single most famous date in ancient Roman history, the day of Julius Caesar’s assassination. One of the great ironies of Roman history is that Caesar himself was one of the great rhetoricians of so-called Golden Age Latinity, but three of the most important primary accounts of his assassination are in Greek: those in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, and the Roman Histories of Appian and Cassio Dio. Here is Suetonius’ account from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.
… diu cunctatus an se contineret et quae apud senatum proposuerat agere differret, tandem Decimo Bruto adhortante, ne frequentis ac iam dudum opperientis destitueret, quinta fere hora progressus est, libellumque insidiarum indicem ab obvio quodam porrectum libellis ceteris, quos sinistra manu tenebat, quasi mox lecturus commiscuit. Dein pluribus hostiis caesis, cum litare non posset, introiit curiam spreta religione Spurinnamque irridens et ut falsum arguens, quod sine ulla sua noxa Idus Martiae adessent: quanquam is venisse quidem eas diceret, sed non praeterisse.
Assidentem conspirati specie officii circumsteterunt, ilicoque Cimber Tillius, qui primas partes susceperat, quasi aliquid rogaturus propius accessit, renuentique et gestu in aliud tempus differenti ab utroque umero togam adprehendit: deinde clamantem, ‘ista quidem vis est!’ alter e Cascis aversum vulnerat paulum infra iugulum. Caesar Cascae brachium arreptum graphio traiecit conatusque prosilire alio vulnere tardatus est; utque animadvertit undique se strictis pugionibus peti, toga caput obvoluit, simul sinistra manu sinum ad ima crura deduxit, quo honestius caderet etiam inferiore corporis parte velata. Atque ita tribus et viginti plagis confossus est, uno modo ad primum ictum gemitu sine voce edito, etsi tradiderunt quidam Marco Bruto irruenti dixisse: καὶ σὺ τέκνον? Exanimis diffugientibus cunctis aliquamdiu iacuit, donec lecticae impositum, dependente brachio, tres servoli domum rettulerunt. Nec in tot vulneribus, ut Antistius medicus existimabat, letale ullum repertum est, nisi quod secundo loco in pectore acceperat.
The Death of Caesar, by Vincenzo Camuccini, 1804 ca.; Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
… he hesitated for a long time whether to stay at home and put off what he had proposed to do in the senate; but at last, urged by Decimus Brutus not to disappoint the full meeting which had already been waiting for him for some time, he went forth at almost the fifth hour; and when a note revealing the plot was handed him by someone on the way, he put it with others which he held in his left hand, intending to read them presently. Then, after several victims had been slain, and he could not get favorable omens, he entered the curia in defiance of portents, mocking Spurinna and reproving him as a false prophet, because the Ides of March were come without bringing him harm; though Spurinna replied that they had indeed come, but not gone.
As he took his seat, the conspirators gathered about him as if to pay their respects, and straightway Tillius Cimber, who had assumed the lead, came nearer as though to ask something; and when Caesar with a gesture put him off to another time, Cimber caught his toga by both shoulders, then as Caesar cried, ‘Why, this is violence!’ one of the Cascas stabbed him from one side just below the throat. Caesar caught Casca’s arm and ran it through with his stylus, but as he tried to leap to his feet, he was stopped by another wound. When he realized that he was being attacked on every side by drawn daggers, he wrapped his head in his robe, and at the same time with his left hand he drew its lap down to his feet, in order to fall more decently, with the lower part of his body also covered. And thus was he stabbed with twenty-three wounds, with just one groan, but no word, uttered at the first stroke, though some have written that as Marcus Brutus rushed at him, he said (in Greek), ‘You too, child?’ As they all fled, he lay lifeless for some time, and finally three slaves put him on a litter and carried him home, with his arm hanging down. And among so many wounds, in the opinion of the doctor Antistius, none was found to be fatal, except the second one in the breast.
On this day in the year 840, one of the biographers of Charlemagne, a man named Einhard, died at the age of roughly 65. (His name is also spelled “Einhardt” and “Eginhard.”) He was born into a noble family in East Franconia, the German-speaking lands of the Carolingian Empire, and sent to be educated as a scribe at the abbey of Fulda, one of the most important centers for the evangelization of early medieval Germany. In his later teens, the abbot sent him to work at Charlemagne’s court, then flourishing as a literary and cultural center under the influence of the great Alcuin of York. He became an important adviser to the emperor, whom he also served as a master builder, working on several important projects. After Charlemagne’s death, he became the private secretary of his son and successor, Louis the Pious, and it was in this period that he wrote the Vita Karoli Magni. Like many noblemen of his age, he founded a monastery, and after the death of his wife in 836, retired to it and served as its abbot, although he was never ordained a cleric.
Here is an interesting excerpt from the Life which describes Charlemagne’s relationship with foreign states. One of the kings mentioned, Aldefonsus, was the ruler of two of the small Spanish states in the northern part of the Iberian peninsula, the area not under Islamic domination. “Aaron, king of the Persians” is the contemporary Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid.
“Auxit etiam gloriam regni sui quibusdam regibus ac gentibus per amicitiam sibi conciliatis. Adeo namque Hadefonsum Galleciae atque Asturicae regem sibi societate devinxit, ut is, cum ad eum vel litteras vel legatos mitteret, non aliter se apud illum quam proprium suum appellari iuberet. Scottorum quoque reges sic habuit ad suam voluntatem per munificentiam inclinatos, ut eum numquam aliter nisi dominum seque subditos et servos eius pronuntiarent. Extant epistolae ab eis ad illum missae, quibus huiusmodi affectus eorum erga illum indicatur. Cum Aaron rege Persarum, qui excepta India totum paene tenebat orientem, talem habuit in amicitia concordiam, ut is gratiam eius omnium, qui in toto orbe terrarum erant, regum ac principum amicitiae praeponeret, solumque illum honore ac munificentia sibi colendum iudicaret. Ac proinde, cum legati eius, quos cum donariis ad sacratissimum Domini ac salvatoris nostri sepulchrum locumque resurrectionis miserat, ad eum venissent et ei domini sui voluntatem indicassent, non solum quae petebantur fieri permisit, sed etiam sacrum illum et salutarem locum, ut illius potestati adscriberetur, concessit; et revertentibus legatis suos adiungens inter vestes et aromata et ceteras orientalium terrarum opes ingentia illi dona direxit, cum ei ante paucos annos eum, quem tunc solum habebat, roganti mitteret elefantum. Imperatores etiam Constantinopolitani, Niciforus, Michahel et Leo, ultro amicitiam et societatem eius expetentes conplures ad eum misere legatos. Cum quibus tamen propter susceptum a se imperatoris nomen et ob hoc eis, quasi qui imperium eis eripere vellet, valde suspectum, foedus firmissimum statuit, ut nulla inter partes cuiuslibet scandali remaneret occasio. Erat enim semper Romanis et Grecis Francorum suspecta potentia. Unde et illud Grecum extat proverbium: ‘τὸν Φράγκον φίλον ἔχεις, γείτονα οὐκ ἔχεις.’
(The Emperors Charlemagne and Charles V, on the frontispiece of the editio princeps of Einhard’s Life, printed at Cologne in 1521, during the reign of the latter. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
He also increased the glory of his kingdom by the friendship which he established with certain kings and peoples. For he joined Aldefonsus, the king of Galicia and Asturias, to himself in so close an alliance that he, whenever he sent letters or ambassadors to Charles, he ordered that he should be called by no title other than his liegeman. Further, by his rich gifts, he so inclined the kings of the Scots to his will that they always called him their lord and themselves his subjects and servants. There are letters are still in existence sent by them to him in which this affection towards him is shown. With Aaron, the king of the Persians, who except for India, ruled over nearly all the East, he had so harmonious a friendship that the former valued his favor before the friendship of all the kings and princes in the whole world, and held that he alone deserved to be cultivated with titles and presents. And therefore, when Charles’ ambassadors, whom he had sent with offerings to the most holy sepulcher of our Lord and Savior and to the place of His resurrection, came to (Aaron) and proclaimed the good will of their master, he not only granted them what they asked, but also granted that that sacred place of our salvation should be reckoned as a his possessions. He further sent ambassadors of his own back along with those of Charles, and forwarded to him immense presents – robes and spices, and other riches of the East – and a few years earlier he had sent him at his request an elephant, which was then the only one he had. The (Byzantine) emperors Nicephorus, Michael, and Leo, also sent many ambassadors to him, of their own accord asking for his friendship and alliance. And Charles was held in great suspicion by them, because he had taken the imperial title, and thus seemed to want to take their empire from them; but in the end a very solid treaty was made with them, so that there might remain no occasion of quarrel between the two parties. For the Romans and the Greeks always suspected the Frankish power; hence there is a well-known Greek proverb: ‘keep the Frank as a friend, but not as a neighbor.’ ”
Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Pope St Gregory I in the year 604, after a reign of 13½ years. His feast was for many centuries kept on March 12, but this year, because it falls on a Sunday of Lent, it would be translated to today or omitted. This custom is still observed in some places, but on the calendar of the Novus Ordo, he has been moved to September 3rd, the anniversary of his election in 590.
St Gregory is without any doubt one of the most important Popes in all of the Church’s history, and is one of three traditionally give the title “the Great” along with Ss Leo I (440-61) and Nicholas I (858-67). As the de facto civil administrator of Rome, he kept the city running, and its population fed, laying the ground for the official establishment of the Papal state. His influence gave a definitive shape to the Roman liturgy, and the traditional chant of the Roman Rite is still called “Gregorian” in his honor. His many letters, sermons and theological writings had a profound influence on the Christian Middle Ages. As an example of this, when St Thomas Aquinas wrote his commentary on Job, more than six-and-a-half centuries after Gregory’s death, he concluded his introduction by saying, “We intend to briefly explain … this book… according to the literal sense; for the blessed Pope Gregory has opened up for us its mysteries so subtly and clearly that it seems that nothing need be added.”
One of Gregory’s most important works is the Regula Pastoralis, a long treatise on the duties of the clergy. Despite the growing cultural differences between the Eastern and Western churches in his time, the Byzantine Emperor Maurice had it translated into Greek and distributed throughout the empire. In Carolingian Gaul, it became customary to present a copy to every newly ordained bishop, which is why it is preserved in any unusually large number of manuscripts. It also holds the distinction of being the one of the very first books ever translated into Old English, as part of a personal project of King Alfred the Great (871-99) which also included his collection of Saints’ lives known as the Dialogues.
There have been various periods in the Church’s history when the lives of many clergymen were very decadent, but St Gregory’s was not one of them. Nevertheless, the Regula Pastoralis leaves no doubt as to his realistic awareness of the many dangers that await those in spiritual authority, as evidenced by his very first paragraph.
(Pope St Gregory the Great, by the Italian painter Defendente Ferrari, ca. 1485-1540)
“Nulla ars doceri praesumitur, nisi intenta prius meditatione discatur. Ab imperitis ergo pastorale magisterium qua temeritate suscipitur, quando ars est artium regimen animarum. Quis autem cogitationum vulnera occultiora esse nesciat vulneribus viscerum? Et tamen saepe qui nequaquam spiritalia praecepta cognoverunt, cordis se medicos profiteri non metuunt: dum qui pigmentorum vim nesciunt, videri medici carnis erubescunt. Sed quia auctore Deo ad religionis reverentiam omne jam praesentis saeculi culmen inclinatur, sunt nonnulli qui intra sanctam Ecclesiam per speciem regiminis gloriam affectant honoris; videri doctores appetunt, transcendere caeteros concupiscunt, atque attestante Veritate, primas salutationes in foro, primos in coenis recubitus, primas in conventibus cathedras quaerunt; qui susceptum curae pastoralis officium ministrare digne tanto magis nequeunt, quanto ad humilitatis magisterium ex sola elatione pervenerunt. Ipsa quippe in magisterio lingua confunditur, quando aliud discitur, et aliud docetur. Quos contra Dominus per prophetam queritur, dicens: Ipsi regnaverunt, et non ex me; principes exstiterunt, et ego ignoravi. Ex se namque, et non ex arbitrio summi Rectoris regnant, qui nullis fulti virtutibus nequaquam divinitus vocati, sed sua cupidine accensi, culmen regiminis rapiunt potius quam assequuntur.
No one presumes to teach an art unless he has first learned it with intent meditation. What rashness is it, then, is the pastoral authority assume by the unlearned, when the government of souls is the art of arts! For who can be ignorant that the wounds of the thoughts are more hidden even than those of the bowels? And yet often men who have no knowledge whatsoever of the spiritual precepts do not fear to profess themselves physicians of the heart, while those who are ignorant of the effect of drugs blush to appear as doctors of the flesh! But because, through God’s influence, all the highest ranks of the present age are inclined to reverence religion, there are some who within the holy Church, through the appearance of rule, affect the glory of honor. They seek to appear as teachers, they covet superiority to others, and, as the Truth attests, they seek the first greetings in the market-place, the first place at banquets, the first seats in assemblies (Matt. 23:6-7). And the more they have reached the magisterial position of humility only out of pride, the less able they are to administer worthily the office of pastoral care they have undertaken. Indeed, in a magisterial position language itself is confounded when one thing is learned and another taught. And against these, the Lord complains by the prophet, saying, ‘They have reigned, and not by Me; they have been stood forth up as princes, and I knew it not.’ (Hosea 8, 4.) For they reign of themselves, and not by the will of the Supreme Ruler, who, supported by no virtues, and in no way divinely called, but inflamed by their own desire, seize the supreme rule rather than attain it.” (Reg. Past. 1.1)
In the Eastern churches, among the most famous of the early martyrs is a group of forty soldiers who died for the Faith during the persecution of the emperor Licinius, in 320 A.D. Their feast is kept in the Byzantine Rite on March 9th; in the West, it has been fixed to the 10th since the early 17th century.
These men belonged to the Twelfth Legion (nicknamed Fulminata), stationed in the region of central Asia Minor which the Romans called Lesser Armenia, near the town of Sebaste. Presented with the usual choice to either sacrifice to the pagan gods or be killed, at first they all refused to sacrifice, and were therefore left naked overnight on a frozen lake to die of exposure. When one of them yielded, his place was taken by one of their guards, who spontaneously stripped off his clothes and joined them. (There are several accounts of martyrdoms in which by-standers were inspired to embrace Christianity on the spot by witnessing the constancy of the martyrs in their suffering.) In the morning, when it was discovered that some of them were still alive, they were dispatched by having their legs broken.
The bodies were then cremated, and their mixed remains taken to Caesarea in Cappadocia, about 120 miles to the south-west of Sebaste. Among the earliest accounts of their martyrdom are sermons of St Basil the Great, bishop of that city in the later 4th century, of his brother, St Gregory of Nyssa, and their contemporaries Ss Ephraim the Syrian and John Chrysostom.
(An ivory relief panel of the Forty Martyrs, made in Constantinople in the 10th century; now in the Bode Museum in Berlin.)
Devotion to these martyrs was introduced into the West by St Gaudentius, who was bishop of Brescia in northern Italy from 387 to 410. While traveling through Cappadocia on his way to the Holy Land, he had received some of their relics from Basil’s nieces. On returning to Brescia, he built a church called the “Concilium Sanctorum – the Assembly of the Saints”, where he deposited these and other relics acquired during his travels. One of his extant sermons was preached at the dedication of this church, and the largest part of it (roughly two-thirds, in fact) is dedicated to these martyrs.
“… Ecclesia Caesariensis exsultat, et nostra fraternitas non immerito gloriatur, reservatum sibi providentia Dei salutare munus intelligens. Portionem reliquiarum sumpsimus, et nihil nos minus possidere confidimus, dum totos quadraginta in suis favillis honorantes amplectimur: sicut illa in Evangelio fidelis mulier quae per fimbriam Christi salvata est, oram tenuit vestimenti, et virtutem divinitatis exegit: attactu fimbriae medelam credenti fides traxit, et salutem quam praesumpserat, acquisivit. Itaque pars ipsa quam meruimus, plenitudo est; dividi enim quadraginta isti martyres ab invicem nullo modo possunt, quorum sunt inseparabiles et indiscretae reliquiae. Nam sicut animas eorum igneus ille Spiritus Dei, salutaris fidei unitate conjunxit … ita etiam membra eorum concremans ignis in unum favillae corpus redegit.
Habemus ergo et hos quadraginta, et praedictos decem sanctos, ex diversis terrarum partibus congregatos; unde hanc ipsam basilicam eorum meritis dedicatam, ‘Concilium Sanctorum’ nuncupari oportere decernimus. … Tot igitur justorum patrocinio adjuvandi, tota fide, omnique desiderio, supplices secundum eorum vestigia curramus; ut ipsis intercedentibus, universa quae poscimus, adipisci mereamur, magnificantes Christum Dominum tanti muneris largitorem; cui omnis honor, virtus, et gloria, cum Patre, et cum Spiritu Sancto, ante omnia, et nunc, et semper, et in cuncta saecula saeculorum. Amen.
(The relic altar of the church of St John the Evangelist in Brescia, built on the site of St Gaudentius’ Consilium Sanctorum.)
… the church of Caesarea rejoices, and we as brethren deservedly boast, knowing that a salutary gift has been reserved for us by God’s providence. We have received a portion of the relics, and we trust that what we possess is in no way lesser, as we embrace all forty of them, honoring them in their ashes; just as that faithful woman in the Gospel who was saved through Christ’s hem, touched the edge of His garment, and brought out (of it) the might of God. By the touch of that hem, her faith drew forth healing, because she believed, and thus she acquired the deliverance which she anticipated. Therefore, that part which we have merited is the fullness; for these forty martyrs can in no way be divided from each other, whose relics are inseparable and closely joined. For just as that fiery Spirit of God joined their souls in the unity of the saving Faith … so also the fire that burnt their limbs brought them together as one body of ash.
Since we have these forty, and the ten Saints mentioned before (in the first part of the sermon) gathered together from various parts of the world, we have decided that this very basilica, dedicated to their merits, should be called ‘the Assembly of the Saints.’ … Therefore, since we shall be helped by the patronage of so many just ones, with all our faith and all our longing, let us humbly run in their footsteps; so that by their intercession, we may merit to obtain all that we ask for, glorifying Christ the Lord, the Giver of so great a gift; to Whom be all honor, power and glory, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, before all things, and now, and forever, unto all the ages of ages. Amen.”
On Tuesday, we looked at the Passion of Ss Perpetua and Felicity, one of the most important surviving accounts of an early Christian martyrdom. The Church in Roman Africa was justifiably proud of its many martyrs, and St Augustine, himself an African, often preached about them, especially on their feast days. Here is an excerpt of one of the four sermons he preached about Perpetua and Felicity, in which he plays on the meaning of their names, “everlasting happiness.”
“Hodiernus dies anniversaria replicatione nobis in memoriam revocat, et quodammodo repraesentat diem, quo sanctae famulae Dei Perpetua et Felicitas coronis martyrii decoratae, perpetua felicitate floruerunt, tenentes nomen Christi in praelio, et simul invenientes etiam suum nomen in praemio. Exhortationes earum in divinis revelationibus, triumphosque passionum, cum legerentur, audivimus; eaque omnia verborum digesta et illustrata luminibus, aure percepimus, mente spectavimus, religione honoravimus, caritate laudavimus. Debetur tamen etiam a nobis tam devotae celebritati sermo sollemnis, quem si meritis earum imparem profero, impigrum tamen affectum gaudio tantae festivitatis exhibeo. Quid enim gloriosius his feminis, quas viri mirantur facilius, quam imitantur? Sed hoc illius potissimum laus est, in quem credentes, et in cuius nomine fideli studio concurrentes, secundum interiorem hominem, nec masculus, nec femina inveniuntur;
… solemnitates eorum, sicut facimus, devotissime celebremus, sobria hilaritate, casta congregatione, fideli cogitatione, fidenti praedicatione. Non parva pars imitationis est, meliorum congaudere virtutibus. Illi magni, nos parvi: sed benedixit Dominus pusillos cum magnis. Praecesserunt, praeeminuerunt. Si eos sequi non valemus actu, sequamur affectu: si non gloria, certe laetitia: si non meritis, votis: si non passione, compassione: si non excellentia, connexione. Non nobis parum videatur quod eius corporis membra sumus, cuius et illi, quibus aequiparari non possumus, ‘quia si unum membrum patitur, compatiuntur omnia membra: ita cum glorificatur unum membrum, congaudent omnia membra.’ … Miramur eos, miserantur nos. Gratulamur eis, precantur pro nobis. Illi corpora sua tamquam vestimenta straverunt, cum pullus Dominum portans in Ierusalem duceretur: nos saltem velut ramos de arboribus caedentes, de Scripturis sanctis hymnos laudesque decerpimus, quas in commune gaudium proferamus. Omnes tamen eidem Domino paremus, eumdem magistrum sequimur, eumdem principem comitamur, eidem capiti subiungimur, ad eamdem Ierusalem tendimus, eamdem sectamur caritatem, eamdemque amplectimur unitatem.
(St Augustine in His Study, ca. 1498, by an anonymous Austrian painter known as the Master of Grossgmain. Image from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)
This day as it comes around each year recalls to our memory, and in a certain way, represents for us the day on which God’s holy servants Perpetua and Felicity, adorned with the crowns of martyrdom, flourished in perpetual felicity, holding onto the name of Christ in battle (with the devil), and at the same time also finding their own names in the reward. We heard of the encouragement they received in divine revelations, and of the triumphs of their sufferings as they were being read (this refers to the ancient custom by which the passions of the martyrs were read during the Mass), and all those things, recounted in such glowing words, we perceived with our ears, and saw them with our minds; we honored them with our devotion, and praised them with love. However, a solemn annual sermon is also owed by us to the celebration of such universal devotion; but if what I offer is quite unequal to their merits, I can still show my own energetic feelings at the joy of so great a feast. For what is more glorious than these women, whom men admire more easily than they imitate them? But this is most especially the praise of Him in whom they believed, and in whose name they ran the race together with faithful zeal, so that according to the inner self they are found to be neither male nor female; …
… let us celebrate their feasts as we are doing, most devoutly, with sober cheer, in a holy assembly, with faithful thoughts and confident proclamation (of their sanctity.) It is no small part of imitation, to rejoice together in the virtues of those who are greater. They are great, we are little; but the Lord has blessed the little with the great (Ps. 113, 21). They have gone ahead, they have stood out before us. If we cannot follow them in deed, let us follow in affection; if not in glory, then certainly in joy; if not in merit, then in desire; if not in suffering, then in fellow feeling; if not in excellence, then in our relationship with them. Let it not seem to us too small a matter that we are members of the same body as they, even though we cannot compare with them, ‘for if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; so too, when one member is glorified, all the members rejoice with it.’ (1 Cor. 12, 26) …We admire them, they have compassion on us. We congratulate them, they pray for us. They laid down their bodies like garments (on the road), when the colt carrying the Lord was led into Jerusalem (Matt. 21, 1-9); let us at least, as if we were cutting branches from the trees, pluck hymns and praises from the Scriptures, that we may offer them for our common rejoicing. In the end, we all obey the same Lord, follow the same teacher, accompanying the same leader, are joined to the same head, make our way to the same Jerusalem, pursue the same charity, and embrace the same unity.”
On this day in the year 203 AD, two young women named Perpetua and Felicity were martyred in the arena at Carthage. Their feast is one of the earliest and most widespread celebrations of Christian Saints, attested at Rome by the mid-4th century, and at Antioch no more than 50 years later. St Thomas Aquinas died on the same day in 1274, and for a long time, his feast displaced theirs in the Roman Rite, but in the post-Conciliar calendar reform, he was moved to January 28th, and the martyrs restored to their traditional day.
Perpetua and Felicity were arrested and imprisoned along with three other catechumens during the persecution begun by Septimius Severus; they were soon joined by Saturus, their catechist, who surrendered himself voluntarily in order to remain with them, and then baptized. During their imprisonment, Perpetua kept a diary, in which she describes visions beheld by herself and Saturus, as well as the visits of her father, who tried to persuade her to abandon Christianity and save herself, but to no avail. This diary was incorporated into the written account of their acts, one of the most precious surviving testimonies to the experiences of the early martyrs, and their extraordinary courage.
Felicity was pregnant at the time of her arrest, and feared that she would be unable to die for the Faith with the others, since Roman law forbade the execution of a pregnant woman. But her prayers and those of the group were answered, and the child was safely delivered a month early. During her labor, a guard asked her how she thought she could bear the attacks of the wild beasts, since she was suffering so much from the natural pains of childbirth. To this she replied, “there will be another in me, who will suffer for me, because I also am about to suffer for Him.” And likewise, Perpetua had a vision of herself in which she became a gladiator and fought victoriously against another, “horrible in appearance”, i.e. the devil.
The truth of these visions was realized in their execution. They were exposed to the wild beasts in the amphitheater, attacked and tossed on the horns of a wild cow, but after they had both been injured, Perpetua seemed to come out of an ecstasy, not noticing her condition, and saying, “I don’t know when we will be brought out to that cow.” They were then supposed to be dispatched by gladiators, but the young man tasked with killing Perpetua was unable to steady his hand for the blow; she therefore guided him to it. The editor of their Acts, (believed by many scholars to be the first Latin-speaking Church Father, Tertullian), comments, “Fortasse tanta femina aliter non potuisset occidi, quia ab immundo spiritu timebatur, nisi ipsa voluisset. – Perhaps so great a woman could not have been slain unless she herself willed it, since she was feared by the impure spirit.”
Here is one of the most beautiful passages from St Perpetua’s diary, her account of her first vision, by which she came to know that she would die as a martyr.
(The Virgin and Child with Ss Perpetua and Felicity, by an anonymous Polish painter, ca. 1520; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
“Video scalam auream mirae magnitudinis pertingentem usque ad caelum et angustam, per quam non nisi singuli ascendere possent: et in lateribus scalae omne genus ferramentorum infixum. Erant ibi gladii, lanceae, hami, machaerae; ut si quis negligenter, aut non sursum adtendens ascenderet, laniaretur et carnes ejus inhaererent ferramentis. Et erat sub ipsa scala draco cubans mirae magnitudinis, qui ascendentibus insidias parabat, et exterrebat ne ascenderent. Ascendit autem Saturus prior, qui postea se propter nos ultro tradiderat, et tunc cum adducti sumus, praesens non fuerat: et pervenit in caput scalae, et convertit se ad me, et dixit mihi, ‘Perpetua, sustineo te. Sed vide ne te mordeat draco ille.’ Et dixi ego, ‘Non me nocebit in nomine Domini Jesu Christi.’ Et de sub ipsa scala quasi timens me, lente elevavit caput: et cum primum gradum calcassem, calcavi illius caput.
Et ascendi et vidi spatium horti immensum, et in medio horti sedentem hominem canum, in habitu pastoris, grandem, oves mulgentem; et circumstantes candidati millia multa. Et levavit caput et adspexit me, et dixit mihi, ‘Bene venisti, tecnon.’ Et clamavit me, et de caseo quod mulgebat dedit mihi quasi buccellam, et ego accepi junctis manibus, et manducavi: et universi circumstantes dixerunt, Amen. Et ad sonum vocis experrecta sum, commanducans adhuc dulcis nescio quid. Et retuli statim fratri meo, et intelleximus passionem esse futuram: et coepimus nullam jam spem in saeculo habere.
I saw a golden ladder of marvelous height, reaching up even to heaven, and narrow, so that people could only ascend it one by one; and on the sides of the ladder was fixed every kind of iron weapon. There were swords there, lances, hooks, daggers, so that if any one went up carelessly, or not looking upwards, he would be torn to pieces and his flesh would cleave to the iron weapons. And under the ladder was lying a dragon of wonderful size, who lay in wait for those who ascended, and tried frightened them from climbing. And Saturus went up first, who had subsequently delivered himself up freely on our account, not having been present at the time that we were taken prisoners. And he reached the top of the ladder, and turned towards me, and said, ‘Perpetua, I am waiting for you; but be careful that the dragon do not bite you.’ And I said, ‘In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, he shall not hurt me.’ And from under the ladder itself, as if in fear of me, it slowly lifted up its head; and as I trod upon the first step, I trod upon his head.
And I went up, and I saw an immense extent of garden, and in the midst of the garden a white-haired man sitting in the dress of a shepherd, of a large stature, milking sheep; and standing around were many thousand white-robed ones. And he raised his head, and looked upon me, and said to me, ‘Thou art welcome, child.’ And he called me, and from the cheese as he was milking he gave me as it were a little cake, and I received it with folded hands; and I ate it, and all who stood around said Amen. And at the sound of their voice I was awakened, still tasting a sweetness which I cannot describe. And I immediately related this to my brother, and we understood that it was to be a passion, and ceased thenceforth to have any hope in this world.”
As we noted two days ago, eight of the twelve books of St John Cassian’s Institutes for Monasteries treat of the principal vices which monks must struggle to overcome, and yesterday, we saw the Greek word which he uses in book five for the vice of gluttony, “gastrimargia.” The eleventh book deals with a vice to which he also gives a Greek name, “cenodoxia”, a compound of “kenos – empty” and “doxa – glory.” Under his influence, the word was known throughout the Middle Ages, and even appears in one of the prayers in the Roman Missal. The English translation of it, “vainglory”, is obviously based on it, but the Latin equivalent, “vanigloria”, is late and rare.
Here is the conclusion of Cassian’s words on the subject, in which he identifies the remedies for it.
“… athleta Christi, qui verum ac spiritalem agonem legitime certare desiderat, hanc multiformem variamque bestiam omnimodis superare festinet, quam nobis ex omni parte velut multiplicem nequitiam occurrentem tali remedio poterimus evadere, ut cogitantes illud Davidicum eloquium: Dominus dissipavit ossa eorum, qui hominibus placent. Primitus nihil proposito vanitatis et inanis gloriae capessendae gratia nosmetipsos facere permittamus. Deinde ea quae bono initio fecerimus, observatione simili custodire nitamur, ne omnes laborum nostrorum fructus post irrepens cenodoxiae morbus evacuet. Quidquid etiam in conversatione fratrum minime communis usus recipit, vel exercet, omni studio ut jactantiae deditum declinemus, et ea quae nos possunt inter caeteros notabiles reddere, ac veluti solis facientibus laus apud homines sit conquirenda, vitemus. His enim vel maxime indiciis cenodoxiae lethale contagium nobis inhaerere monstrabitur; quod facillime poterimus effugere, si consideremus non solum fructum laborum nostrorum nos penitus amissuros, quoscumque cenodoxiae proposito fecerimus, sed etiam reos magni criminis factos, aeterna supplicia velut sacrilegos soluturos; utpote qui ad injuriam Dei opus, quod ejus obtentu nos oportuit agere, hominum gratia maluimus exercere, ab eo qui occultorum est conscius, homines Deo, et gloriam mundi gloriae Domini praetulisse convicti.
(The Allegory of Vanity, 1632-36, by the Spanish painter Antonio de Pereda (1611-78))
… the athlete of Christ who desires to strive lawfully in this true and spiritual combat, should hasten by all means to overcome this many-formed and variable beast, which, as it meets us on every side like some manifold wickedness, we shall be able to avoid by such a remedy as this; thinking on that saying of David, ‘The Lord has scattered the bones of those who please men.’ (Ps. 52, 6) From the first, let us not allow ourselves to do anything with the suggestion of vanity, and for the sake of obtaining vainglory. Then, let us strive with the same care to maintain what we have begun well, lest afterwards the malady of vainglory should creep in and make void all the fruits of our labours. And anything which is of very little use or value in the common life of the brethren, let us avoid as something which leads to boasting, along with all things that can render us noteworthy among the others, and likewise, those things for which credit would be gained among men, as if we were the only people who did it. For by these signs especially, the deadly taint of vainglory will be shown to cling to us: but we shall be able to avoid it most easily, if we consider that we shall not only completely lose the fruit of those labors of ours which we have performed at the suggestion of vainglory, but that we shall also be made guilty of a great sin, and as impious persons undergo eternal punishments, inasmuch as we have wronged God by doing for the favor of men what we ought to have done for His sake, and are convicted by Him who knows all secrets of having preferred men to God, and the praise of the world to the praise of the Lord.”
One of the Greek words for “gluttony” is “γαστριμαργία”, a compound derived from “γαστρ- – stomach” and “μάργος – mad, furious”: hence, “madness of the belly.” St John Cassian, whose feast we noted yesterday, was fluent in both Greek and Latin, but when he wrote his Institutes, he preferred to transcribe the term into Latin as “gastrimargia”, rather than use the normal Latin word “gula.” This must be because “gula”, which at first meant simply “throat”, can also mean the more neutral “taste” or “appetite”, and Cassian felt it was not sufficiently pejorative to describe a vice, whereas the Greek term, which contains a root meaning “madness”, cannot be taken in a positive sense.
Here then is a piece of his wisdom about the discipline of fasting, something appropriate to the current Lenten season, taken from the fifth book of the Institutes, “On the spirit of gluttony”, chapter 5.
“̆… super jejuniorum modo haud potest facile uniformis regula custodiri, quia nec robur unum cunctis corporibus inest, nec, sicut caeterae virtutes, animi solius rigore parantur. Et idcirco, quia non in sola fortitudine mentis consistunt, cum corporis enim possibilitate participant, talem super his definitionem traditam nobis accepimus, diversum esse refectionis quidem tempus ac modum et qualitatem, pro impari scilicet corporum statu, vel aetate ac sexu: unam tamen esse omnibus pro mentis continentia et animi virtute castigationis regulam. Neque enim cunctis possibile est hebdomadibus protelare jejunia, sed ne triduana quidem, vel biduana, inedia refectionem cibi differre. A multis quippe aegritudine et maxime senio jam defessis, ne usque ad occasum quidem solis jejunium sine afflictione toleratur. Non omnibus infusorum leguminum esus convenit enervatus, nec cunctis purorum olerum habilis est parcimonia, nec universis sicci panis refectio castigata conceditur. Alius quantitate librarum duarum saturitatem non sentit; alius librae unius, sive unciarum sex edulio praegravatur; attamen unus in omnibus his continentiae finis est, ne quis juxta mensuram capacitatis suae saturitatis oneretur ingluvie. Non enim qualitas sola, sed etiam quantitas escarum, aciem cordis obtundit, ac mente cum carne pariter impinguata, noxium vitiorum fomitem igneumque succendit.
(A Greek icon of St Onuphrius, one of the Egyptian desert Fathers; his life was written by St Paphnutius, whom John Cassian knew personally. He is traditionally shown in this manner, with a body made very thin indeed by long periods of fasting. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
… concerning the manner of fasting, a uniform rule cannot easily be observed, because not every body has the same strength; nor is it like the rest of the virtues, acquired by steadfastness of mind alone. And therefore, because it does not consist only in mental strength, since it has to do with the possibilities of the body, we have received this explanation concerning it which has been handed down to us, that there is a difference of time, manner, and quality of refreshment in proportion to the difference of condition of various bodies, both in age and sex: but there is one rule of restraint for all as regards continence of mind, and the virtue of the spirit. For it is not possible for all to prolong their fast for weeks, or to postpone some refreshment during an abstinence of two or three days. By many people also who are worn out with sickness and especially with old age, a fast even up to sunset cannot be endured without suffering. The weakly food of moistened beans does not agree with everybody: nor does a sparse diet of fresh vegetables suit all, nor is a scanty meal of dry bread permitted to all alike. One man does not feel satisfied with two pounds, for another a meal of one pound, or six ounces, is too much; but among them all, there is one aim and object of continence, that no one may be overburdened according to the measure of his appetite by gluttony. For not only the quality, but also the quantity of food dulls the keenness of the heart, and, when the mind is surfeited along with the flesh, kindles the harmful and fiery incentive to the vices.”
In the Byzantine Rite, February 29th is the feast day of one of the greatest among the early patriarchs of Christian monasticism, St John Cassian. Just as those who are born on that day customarily keep their birthdays on February 28th outside of leap years, he is usually commemorated at Compline on the evening of that day. Although he is recognized as a Saint in the West, he is honored with a feast almost nowhere apart from Marseilles in southern France, where he died ca. 435 A,D., at the age of roughly 75. His life and career are a perfect demonstration of the transnational culture created by the Roman Empire, with the Latin and Greek languages as parts of its foundation, and within which the early Church found fertile ground for sowing the seed of the Gospel.
It is believed that he was born ca. 360 in the region between the Danube river and the Black Sea which the Romans called Scythia Minor, and is now known as Dobruja, in the states of Romania and Bulgaria. When he was around 20, he and a close friend named Germanus traveled to the Holy Land, and embraced monastic life in a monastery near Bethlehem. But the heart of the growing monastic movement was in Egypt, and after a few years, they decided to go there, to live and learn among the great fathers of the desert. Around the turn of the 5th century, they moved to Constantinople, where the bishop, St John Chrysostom, ordained Cassian a deacon, and made him his cathedral treasurer.
In 404, Chrysostom was unlawfully deposed from his see and banished through the influence of the Empress Eudoxia, and Cassian was among the clerics sent to Rome to plead his case with Pope St Innocent I. He may have been ordained a priest at this point, but nothing is known of the next ten years of his life, nor of the fate of his friend Germanus. By 415, he had settled in Province, and begun the work of establishing monastic life in that region, modeled on what he had learned in the Egyptian desert.
(An icon of St John Cassian; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
To that end, he also wrote two books of tremendous importance for monasticism the West.
The first is titled “De institutis coenobiorum – on the Institutes of the monasteries” (from Greek “koinos bios – common life.”) The first of its twelve books explains the symbolism of the monastic habit, while the second and third are concerned with the manner of praying the psalms at the services of the night and day respectively. The fourth is called “de institutis renuntiantium – on the rules of those who renounce”, a technical term for those who have newly renounced the world and embraced the monastic life. Each remaining book treats of one of the capital vices, following the classification of the Egyptian monk Evagrius Ponticus: gluttony, fornication, greed, anger, sadness, dejection, vainglory, and pride. (Half of these are called by their Greek names: ‘gastrimargia’ for gluttony, ‘philargyria’ for greed, ‘acedia’ for dejection, and ‘cenodoxia’ for vainglory. These last two words became very common in the Middle Ages through Cassian’s influence, even as his distinction of eight capital vices was revised down to seven.)
His second book, the “Collationes – Conferences”, reports the teachings of various Egyptian monks on subjects pertinent to their spiritual and ascetic life: one named Isaac speaks on prayer, another named Joseph on friendship etc.
Although he does not use Cassian’s name, St Benedict refers to the Conferences three times in his Rule, twice in chapter 42.
“Omni tempore silentium debent studere monachi, maxime tamen nocturnis horis. Et ideo omni tempore, … mox surrexerint a cena, sedeant omnes in unum, et legat unus Collationes vel Vitas Patrum aut certe aliud quod ædificet audientes, … Si autem ieiunii dies fuerit, dicta Vespera, parvo intervallo mox accedant ad lectionem Collationum, ut diximus. Et lectis quattuor aut quinque foliis, vel quantum hora permittit, omnibus in unum occurentibus per hanc moram lectionis, si qui forte in adsignato sibi commisso fuit occupatus, omnes ergo in unum positi conpleant, et exeuntes a Conpletoriis, nulla sit licentia denuo cuiquam loqui aliquid.
At all times, monks must be given to silence, especially, however, during the hours of the night. And therefore at all times, … as soon as they have risen from their evening meal, let all sit together in one place, and let someone read the Conferences or the Lives of the Fathers, or something else that will edify the hearers; … But if it was a fast-day, then, when Vespers have been said, and after a short interval, let them next come together for the reading of the Conferences, as we have said; and when four or five pages have been read, or as much as the hour will permit, and all have assembled in one place during the time of the reading, let him also come who was perchance engaged in work enjoined on him. All, therefore, having assembled in one place, let them say Compline, and after going out from Compline, let there be no more permission from that time on for anyone to say anything.”
On the basis of this passage, it became a normal custom for Benedictine monasteries to have readings done in the refectory at all or most meals. The Latin name of Cassian’s Conferences, “collationes” therefore came by transference to mean “a small repast”, and even to this day, Italian uses the term “prima collazione – first conference”, to mean breakfast. Cassian’s writings were also translated into Greek, and widely circulated in the East. Excerpts from them are included in the anthology known as the Philokalia, one of the most important and influential spiritual works in the Eastern Christian tradition.
(The sarcophagus of St John Cassian in the crypt of the Abbey of St Victor in Marseilles. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Robert Valette, CC BY-SA 4.0)
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