Rome had become a provincial town and a dependency of Byzantium. It was governed by an Exarch in Ravenna, but often abandoned to its fate when the barbarians from the north amused themselves from time to time by raiding and pillaging it. For three hundred years no Emperor had visited Rome, and the former queen of the world lay despised in rubbish and ruin. But presently people began to collect and piece together the ruins of temples and palaces, and build churches out of them. Five hundred years after the death of Nero, an already ancient church of St. Peter stood in the middle of the tyrant’s circus, where the martyrs had suffered death. There were at least seven other churches in different parts of the town, and the Bishop of Rome dwelt in the Lateran Palace, near the church of the same name. There were also convents, and on the Appian Way stood the St. Andrew’s Convent, close to the Church of the Cross, which was built at the entrance to the catacombs.
About two o’clock one summer morning, all the fathers and brothers had risen, and read or sung early mass in the chancel. Afterwards the Abbot had gone into the garden in order to reflect. It was still dark, but the stars shone between the olive and orange trees, and the flowers swayed in the gentle breeze of the dawn.
The Abbot, a man of about fifty, strolled up and down in a covered arbour-walk, and every time he reached the south end he remained standing, in order to contemplate a marble tablet, erected by the side of other tablets. It stood over his future grave, which was by the side of the abbots who had already been buried. His name and the year of his birth were engraved upon the marble, while a space was left for the date of his death.
“O Lord, how long wilt Thou forget me?” he sighed, as he turned round again. After he had thus continued walking till daybreak, he sat down in an arbour, in order to write something in a book which he took out of his pocket. The noise of awaking life in the city did not disturb him–nothing disturbed the white-haired man of fifty who had already been two hours on his legs without eating anything. Church bells rang, carts rattled, and the rushing of the Tiber could be heard through all other noises. But the old man continued to write, while his wrinkled face was faintly lit up by the red of dawn. At last steps were heard on the gravel-path; a novice entered the arbour, and placed a bowl of bread and milk by the Abbot. The latter started, as though he had been recalled from far away, and exclaimed, “Leave me in peace!” The novice remained standing, frightened and troubled. Then a little bird, which had been sitting in the arbour, struck up its song. The Abbot looked up, his countenance cleared, he cast a glance on the bowl of milk which he eagerly seized, and was in the act of raising it to his mouth, but, as he noticed the youth’s troubled aspect, he stopped. “Forgive my anger,” he said, “but I was far away. As a penance, I do this!”
He was about to pour the milk on the ground, but in order that it might not be wasted, he poured it on the roots of a reddish-yellow lily that stood in one of the border-beds. As the novice gave no sign of going, the Abbot asked, “You wish to speak with me? Speak!”
“I am not holy; One is holy, the Lord your God in heaven! If you have a complaint, make it.”
“I was a rich youth, who went and sold all that he had.”
“I also did that when I was young, and then built seven convents, but have not regretted it. What have you against it? Why do you complain?”
The youth was silent.
“Is it about the food? There is a famine round us, and we must share with the poor.”
“Not only that, venerable father, but the whole way of living here does not accomplish what it is intended to do.”
“The scanty food does not subdue the flesh, for as I go about hungry the whole day, I involuntarily think only about eating–in church, during prayer, in solitude. The small amount of sleep makes me sleepy the whole day, and I go to sleep in the chancel. Desires, which I had not known before, are aroused by suppression; when I see wine, I feel a real longing to get vital warmth into my body.”
“Then go and ask a brother to scourge you till you swim in your blood, then you will feel the vital warmth return.”
“I have done that, but the blows only waken new desires.”
“Read St. Augustine.”
“I have done that. But the worst of all is the dirt. If I could bathe.
“Are you dirty? That betokens inward defilement. I never bathe, but my body is always clean. But I have noticed, as soon as my thoughts become impure, the body becomes impure! What do you think, then, will do you good? You do not wish to marry. Tertullian says marriage and fornication are the same. And St. Jerome is of opinion that it is better to burn than to marry.”
“But St. Paul.”
“Let St. Paul alone! But what do you want to do?”
“I cannot remain here, for I think that desires can only be extinguished by being satisfied.”
“Servant of Satan! Do you not know that desires never can be satisfied? You were once with your parents. You ate as much as you liked in the morning. Well! Were you not hungry again by noon? Certainly. So you cannot really satisfy yourself by eating! Now I will tell you one thing. You are a child of the world; you don’t belong here; therefore go in peace! Eat of the swine’s husks which do not satisfy; but when you are sick of them, you will be welcome here again. The father’s house always stands open for the prodigal son.”
The youth did not go, but burst into tears.
“No,” he said, “I cannot return to the world, for I hate it and it hates me, but here I perish.”
The Abbot rose and embraced him. “Poor child! Such is the world, such is life; but if it is so, and if you see that it is so, the only thing left is to live it; and count it a point of honour to live till death comes and liberates us.”
“No! I want to die now,” sobbed the youth.
“We may not do that, my son”; the words escaped from the old man. “If you knew … if you knew….”
But he restrained himself: “What shall we do, then? Go to Father Martin and have some food, and a glass of wine, but only one; then go and have a good long sleep. Sleep for a day or two. Then come, that I may see you. Go now–but wait a minute–you must have a dispensation from me.”
He sat down and wrote something on a page which he had torn out of the book. Armed with this permission, the youth departed, looking, however, somewhat hesitatingly and abashed.
The Abbot remained sitting, but did not begin to write again. Instead of that, he commenced crumbling the bread and strewing the crumbs on the table. Immediately a little bird came and picked one up; then there followed several, who settled on the old man’s hand, arms, and shoulders. A spray of vine hung from the roof of the arbour and swayed gently in the wind. Its ring-like tendrils felt about in the air for a support. The Abbot was amused, and placed his finger jestingly into one of the rings: “Come, little thing! here is your support!”
The tendril seemed to hear him, immediately curled round his finger, and formed a ring.
“Shall I get the ring?” jested the old man. “Perhaps I shall be a bishop. God deliver me!”
The Dean appeared in the door of the arbour. “Do I disturb you, brother?”
“No, not at all! I am only sitting here and playing.”
“Birds and flowers! White lilies too? I have never seen such before.”
“White? Just now they were reddish-yellow! Where do you see them?”
The Abbot looked down on the ground where he had poured his milk, and behold! there were only white lilies, without a single yellow one. He did not venture to speak about it, for one cannot speak of such things; but he smiled to himself, and saw a token of grace in it.
“Well, Dean, how goes it in the city?”
“The Tiber is sinking.”
“God be praised; but the whole of Trastevere has been ruined by the flood. I really wish that a great flood would come and drown us all –the whole human race–and very likely it will come some day.”
“Still as hopeless as ever!”
“No, not without hope, but for that world, not for this. Christ says it Himself in the Apocalypse: here is nothing on which one can build; for the best that we have enjoyed was but trouble and misery.”
“Not so, brother.”
“You can flourish in mud, but that I have never done. And it seems as though one were compelled to wade in it with both feet. Did I not begin in my youth to preserve my soul by withdrawing from the world? Then I was compelled to go out into it, thrust into the confusion by force. They made me Prefect of the city. I wished to live in the service of the Lord, and had to distribute eatables for the poor, procure beds for the hospitals, look after drains and water-pipes. The burden of the day’s task hindered my thoughts from rising, and I sank in the swamp of material things–sank so deep that I believed I should never rise again.”
“But the people blessed you.”
“Hush! And I–I who had never worn a sword–had to collect soldiers and march to the field. When I was six years old Rome was pillaged by Totila the Goth, and so ravaged that only five hundred Romans remained. When I was seven years old, there came Belisarius–when I was twelve, Narses. Then I was sent as ambassador to Constantinople –I who hated travelling and publicity. All that I hate, I have been obliged to accept. Now I am tired, and would like to go to rest. I sit here and wait, for my grave to open.”
“Do you remember what Virgil says in the Georgics regarding the labour of the husbandman?”
“No, I hate the heathen.”
“Wait! He says these words of wisdom: ‘If Zeus sends bad weather, mice and vermin, it is to stimulate the husbandman’s energy, and call forth his inventive capacity.’ Misfortune comes to help the world forward.”
“The world goes backward towards its overthrow and its damnation. For five hundred years we have awaited the Redemption, but we have only seen one wild race come after another, to murder and pillage. Do you see any reason in all this sowing without reaping?”
“Blasphemer! Yes, I see how green harvests are ploughed up to fertilise the soil.”
“Dragon’s-seed and hell’s harvest. No–now I go into my grave, and close the door behind me; I have a right to rest after a life so full of trouble and work.”
“The bell is ringing for prime.”
“Jam moesta quiesce querela.”
* * * * *
The Tiber had overflowed Rome, and destroyed quite a quarter of it, but spared the convent of St. Andrew. The Abbot sat again one morning in his garden and wrote, but in such a position that he could see his grave when he looked up from his work. Deep in his writing, he did not hear what was happening around him. But he saw that the flowers in the beds began to shake like reeds, frogs jumped about at his feet, and there was a smell of dampness that was at the same time mouldy and poisonous.
He continued to write, but his eye, although intent on the passage of his pen over the paper, noticed something dark that moved on the ground, spread itself like a black carpet, and came nearer. Suddenly his feet were wet, and a deathlike chill crept up his legs. Then he awoke and understood. The Tiber had risen, and he was driven out of his last refuge. “I will not go,” he cried, as the alarm-bell sounded, and the monks fled.
He went to his cell in the upper story, firmly resolved not to flee. He would not go out into the world again, but would die here. The flood which he had prayed for, had come. But he had a spiritual conflict and agony of prayer in his cell: “Lord, why dost thou punish the innocent? Why dost thou chastise Thy friends and let Thy foes flourish? For five hundred years Thou hast avenged Thyself on Thy children for the misdeeds of their fathers! If that is not enough, then destroy us all at once!”
The water rose and lapped against the walls; the garden was destroyed, and the Abbot’s grave filled with water, but he remained where he was. At one time he sang hymns of praise, then he raged; then he prayed for pardon, and raged again.
After that he set himself to write at the great work which should make him immortal,–his “Magna Moralia.” It was now noon, but he felt no hunger, for by practice he had learned to fast for three days together. During the afternoon, a noise at the window made him look up from his book. There lay a boat, and in it sat the novice Augustinus. The extraordinary, almost comic, aspect of things, elicited a smile from him, and, remembering his conversation with the youth, he asked through the open window, “Well, did you get the wine and good food, you glutton?” “No, venerable Father; I did not want it when I could have it, and then the temptation was over. But now I have to speak of something else. The plague has broken out, and people are dying like flies.”
“The plague too! Oh Lord, how long wilt Thou altogether forget us! The plague too!”
Then he rose. “Everyone to his post! Let us do our duty! Bless the Lord, and die!” The Abbot stepped out of his window into the boat, and left his sinking ship.
* * * * *
The Tiber sank to its level again, but left behind snakes, fishes, and frogs, which died and infected the air. The people had fled to the hills; on the Palatine Hill they had made a hospital out of a church. Here the Abbot of the St. Andrew’s Convent walked about, gave drink to the sick, and spoke comfort to the dying. “Why do you fear death, children?” he said. “Fear life, for that is the real death.” He seemed to be quite in his element here, showed a calm, cheerful temper, and sought to decipher on the faces of the dead, “whether they were happy on the other side.”
Death would have nothing to do with him. Often he went to the other hills, and walked about among the sick and dying, so that the people began to think that he was an immortal who had come down to comfort them. The older ones remembered him as Prefect, when he defended the city against the Goths, Vandals, and Longobards, and his fame continually grew.
The pestilence raged, and the number of the dead increased, so that the corpses could no longer be buried. All occupations ceased, and the peasants brought no more food into the city. There was a famine. The Abbot of the St. Andrew’s Convent, Gregory, lost courage, and wanted to abandon all, “I cannot fight against God, and if it be His will that Rome perish, it is godless to wish to prevent it.” In the midst of this tribulation, Pelagius II, the Bishop or Pope of Rome, as he was afterwards called, died. The people with one voice clamoured for the Abbot Gregory to succeed him. But, like King Saul and the Emperor Julian, he hid himself. He fled from the town to a hermit’s grotto in the Sabine Mountains. But the people came, brought him out, and led him back to Rome, where he was consecrated as Gregory I. For thirteen years Gregory ruled over the former queen city of the world. He was Governor, for the Exarch of Ravenna existed no more, having been driven away by the Longobards. He asked help from the Emperor in Byzantium, but obtained none. He was thrown upon his own resources, and succeeded by the power of his eloquence in disarming King Agilulf, who threatened Rome.
But he was also Bishop, and as such had to govern all the churches of the West. He succeeded in bringing them to abandon Arianism and to accept a single creed, which became the universal or “catholic” confession of faith.
To the heathen of England he sent the former novice Augustine, who had quickly overcome his initiatory difficulties. The little “glutton” ended as Archbishop of Canterbury.
The former retiring and life-weary Abbot had with great effect developed the necessary strength for his duties. The high post to which he had been summoned called out his capacities. He had time for great and small things alike. He reformed the liturgy, wrote letters, composed books, arranged church music. His manner of life, however, was as simple as before. From his cell in the Lateran Palace, he ruled over souls from the Highlands of Scotland to the Pillars of Hercules. His empire was as great as the Caesars’, though his legions were only pen and ink. It was the beginning of the Kingdom of Christ, but it was a spiritual empire, and Gregory was the ruler.