Chapter 31

CHAPTER XXXI: ST GREGORY THE GREAT (AD 540-604) PART I

Gregory was born at Rome, of a noble and wealthy family, in the year
540. In his youth he engaged in public business, and he rose to be
proctor of Rome, which was one of the chief offices under the
government. In this office he was much beloved and respected by the
people. But about the age of thirty-five, a great change took place
in his life. He resolved to forsake the pursuit of worldly honours,
and spent all his wealth in founding seven monasteries. He gave up
his family house at Rome to be a monastery, in which he became at
first a simple monk, and was afterwards chosen abbot. A pope, named
Pelagius, showed him great favour, by making him his secretary, and
employing him for some years as a sort of ambassador at the
emperor's court at Constantinople. And when Pelagius was carried off
by a plague, in the year 589, the nobles, the clergy, and the people
of Rome all agreed in choosing Gregory to succeed him.

Gregory was afraid to undertake the office. It was necessary that
the emperor should consent to his appointment; and he wrote to beg
that the emperor would refuse his consent. But the governor of Rome
stopped the letter, and all the other attempts which Gregory made to
escape the honour intended for him were baffled; so that in the end
he was obliged to submit, and was consecrated as bishop of Rome in
September, 590.

Gregory felt all the difficulties of his new place. He compares his
Church to an old ship, shattered by winds and waves, decayed in its
timbers, full of leaks, and in continual danger of going to wreck.
The vast quantity and variety of business which he went through
appears to us from the collection of his letters, of which about
eight hundred and fifty still remain. We see from these how he
strove to strengthen his Church in all quarters, and what steps he
took for the government of it. Some of the letters are addressed to
emperors and kings, and treat about the greatest affairs of Church
or State. And then all at once we find him passing from such high
matters to direct that some poor tenant on one of his estates should
be excused from paying a part of his rent, or that relief should be
given to some widow or orphan who had written from a distance to ask
his help.

The bishops of Rome had by degrees become very rich. They had
estates, not only in Italy and Sicily, but in Africa, in France, and
even in Asia. And the people who managed these estates were employed
by Gregory to carry on his other business in the same countries, and
to report the state of the Church to him from all quarters. Very
little of his large income was spent on himself. We may have some
notion of the plain way in which the great bishop lived from one of
his letters to the steward of his estates in Sicily. "You have sent
me," says Gregory, "one wretched horse, and five good asses. I
cannot ride the horse because he is wretched, nor the good beasts,
because they are but asses." He lived chiefly in the company of
monks and clergy, employing himself in study with them. And, in the
midst of all the business which took up his time, he wrote a number
of books, of which some are very valuable. He was also famous as a
preacher. Among his sermons are a set of twenty-two on the prophet
Ezekiel, which he had meant to carry further. But he was obliged to
break off by the attacks of the Lombards, as he told his people in
the end of the last sermon--"Let no one blame me," he says, "if
after this discourse I stop, since, as you all see, our troubles are
multiplied on us. On every side we are surrounded with swords; on
every side we dread the danger of death which is close at hand. Some
come back to us with their hands out off; we hear of some as being
taken prisoners, and of others as slain. I am forced to withhold my
tongue from expounding, since my soul is weary of my life (Job x.
1). How can I, who am forced daily to drink bitter things, draw
forth sweet things to you? What remains for us, but that in the
chastisement which we are suffering because of our misdeeds, we
should give thanks with weeping to Him who made us, and who hath
bestowed on us the spirit of adoption (Rom. viii. 15)--to Him who
sometimes nourisheth His children with bread, and sometimes
correcteth them with a scourge--who, by benefits and by sufferings
alike, is training us for an eternal inheritance?"

Gregory laboured zealously in improving the education of the clergy,
and in reforming such disorders as he found in his Church. He
founded a school for singing, and established a new way of chanting,
which from him has the name of the "Gregorian Chant", and is used to
this day. We are told that the whip with which he used to correct
his choristers was kept at Rome as a relic for hundreds of years.

His charities were very great. On the first day of every month he
gave out large quantities of provisions to the people of Rome. The
old nobility had suffered so much by the wars, and by the loss of
their estates in countries which had been torn from them by the
barbarians, that many of them were glad to come in for a share of
the good pope's bounty. Every day he sent relief to a number of poor
persons in all parts of the city; and he used to send dishes from
his own table to those whom he knew to be in distress, but ashamed
to ask for assistance. Once when a poor man was found dead in the
streets, Gregory denied himself the holy communion for some days,
because it seemed to him that he must be in some measure to blame.
He used to receive strangers and wanderers at his own table, out of
regard for our Lord's words--"Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one
of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto Me." (St.
Matt. xxv. 40).

PART II

Having thus seen something of Gregory's life at home, we must now
look at his proceedings in other quarters.

He had a sharp dispute with a bishop of Constantinople, on account
of the title of "Universal Bishop", which the patriarchs of the
eastern capital had for some time taken to themselves. When we hear
such a title, we may naturally fancy that it signified a claim to
authority over the whole Church on earth. But, as it was then used,
it really had no such meaning. The Greeks were fond of lofty and
sounding titles, which seemed to mean much more than they were
really understood to mean. This fondness appears in the titles of
the emperors and of the officers of their empire, and it was by it
that the patriarchs were led to style themselves "Universal Bishop."
If the title had been intended as a claim to authority over all
Churches, it could only have been given to one person at a time, but
we find that the emperor Justinian gave it to the bishops both of
Constantinople and of Rome, and that he styled each of them "Head of
all the Churches"; and, whatever the patriarchs of Constantinople
may have meant by it, they certainly did not make any claim to
authority over Rome or the western Church.

But there was an old jealousy between the sees of Rome and
Constantinople, ever since the time when the second general council
in 381 gave the bishop of Constantinople the second place of honour
in the whole Church (p 84). This jealousy had grown greater in late
times, when there was no very kindly feeling between the emperors
and their Italian subjects, and when it seemed not impossible that
the bishop of the new capital, backed by the emperor, might even try
to dispute the first place with the bishop of Rome. And Gregory, who
did not understand the Greek language, or how little the Greeks
meant by their fine titles, was ready to take offence at the name of
"Universal Bishop." So, when a bishop of Constantinople, John the
Faster, styled himself so on an important occasion, Gregory objected
strongly,--he wrote to John, to the emperor, and to the bishops of
Alexandria and of Antioch, declaring that the title was proud and
foolish, that it came from the devil, and was a token of
Antichrist's approach, and that it was unfit for any Christian
bishop to use. The emperor, however, would not help him against the
patriarch. John would not yield, and the other eastern patriarchs
(partly from a wish to be at peace, and partly because the words did
not seem offensive to them, as they did to Gregory), were little
disposed to take up his quarrel. After a time, another emperor, who
had special reasons for wishing to stand well with Gregory; forbade
the successor of John to call himself "Universal;" but the title was
soon restored by the emperors to the bishops of Constantinople,
although not until after the death of Gregory. The most curious part
of the story, however, is this--that Gregory's successors in the
popedom have taken up the very title which he condemned so strongly;
and that, instead of using it in the harmless meaning which it had
in the East, they have intended it as a claim to power over the
whole Church,-- that claim of which the very notion filled Gregory
with such horror and indignation, and which he declared to be unfit
for any bishop whatever to make.

PART III

Gregory did much to bring over the Lombards from their
Arianism, and he succeeded in part, although the work was not
completed until after his time. He also laboured earnestly to revive
the Church in France and in other countries. But instead of dwelling
on these things, I shall content myself with telling of the chief
work which he did in spreading the Gospel; and it is one which very
much concerns ourselves.

In those days slavery was common throughout all the known world,
and, although the gospel had wrought a great improvement in the
treatment of slaves, by making the masters feel that they and their
slaves were brethren in Christ, it yet had not forbidden slavery.
But there was a feeling of pity for those who fell into this sad
condition by the chances of war or otherwise. It was a common act of
charity for good Christians to redeem captives and to set them at
liberty. This, indeed, was thought so holy a work, and so agreeable
to the words of Scripture--"I will have mercy, and not sacrifice"
(Hos. vi. 6; St. Matt. ix. 13) that bishops often broke up and sold
even the consecrated plate of their churches in order that they
might get the means of ransoming captives whom they heard of. And,
although slavery was still allowed by the laws of Christian
kingdoms, those laws took care that Christian slaves should not be
under Jews, or masters of any other than their own religion.
Gregory, then, while he was yet a monk, went one day into the
market at Rome, just after the arrival of some merchants with a
large cargo of slaves for sale. Some of these poor creatures,
perhaps, had been taken in war; others had probably been sold by
their own parents for the sake of the price which they fetched; for
we are told that this shocking practice was not uncommon among some
of the ruder nations. As Gregory looked at them, his eyes fell on
some boys with whose appearance he was greatly struck. Their skin
was fair, unlike the dark complexions of the Italians and other
southern nations whom he had been used to see, their features were
beautiful, and they had long light flowing hair. He asked the
merchants from what land these boys had been brought. "From
Britain," they said; and they told him that the bright complexion
which he admired so much was common among the people of that island.
Perhaps Gregory had never thought of Britain before. It was nearly
two hundred years since the Roman troops had been withdrawn from it,
and its habitants had been left to themselves. And since that time
the pagan Saxons had overrun it; the Romans had lost the countries
which lay between them and it; and Britain had quite disappeared
from their knowledge. Gregory, therefore, was obliged to ask whether
the people were Christians or heathens, and he was told that they
were still heathens. The good monk sighed deeply. "Alas, and woe!"
said he, "that people with such faces of light should belong to the
author of darkness, and that so goodly an outward favour should be
void of inward grace." He asked what was the name of their nation,
and was told that they were "Angles". "It is well," he said, "for
they have angels' faces, and such as they ought to be joint-heirs
with the angels in heaven.--What is the name of the province from
which they come?" He was told that it was Deira (a Saxon kingdom,
which stretched along the eastern side of Britain, from the Humber
to the Tyne). The name of Deira sounded to Gregory's ears like two
Latin words, which mean "from wrath." "Well, again," he said, "they
are delivered from the wrath of God, and are called to the mercy of
Christ.--What is the name of the king of that country?" "Aella," was
the answer. "Alleluiah!" ("Praise to God!") exclaimed Gregory, "the
praises of God their maker ought to be sung in that kingdom."

He went at once to the pope, and asked leave to go as a missionary
to the heathens of Britain. But, although the pope consented, the
people of Rome were so much attached to Gregory that they would not
allow him to set out, and he was obliged to give up the plan. Yet he
did not forget the heathens of Britain, and when he became pope,
although he could not himself go to them, he was able to send others
for the work of their conversion.

An opening had been made by the marriage of Ethelbert, king of Kent,
the Saxon kingdom which lay nearest to the continent, with Bertha,
daughter of Charibert, a Frankish king, whose capital was Paris (AD
570). As Charibert and his family were Christians, it had been
agreed that the young queen should be allowed freely to practise her
religion, and a French bishop, named Luidhard, came to England with
her, and acted as her chaplain. Ethelbert by degrees became much
more powerful than he was at the time of his marriage, and in 593
he was chosen "Bretwalda," which was the title given to the chief of
the Saxon kings. This office gave him much influence over most of
the other kingdoms; so that, if his favour could be gained, it was
likely to be of very great advantage for recommending the Gospel to
others. But Ethelbert was still a heathen, after having been married
to Bertha about five-and-twenty years, although we may well suppose
that she had sometimes spoken to him of her religion, and had tried
to bring him over to it. And perhaps Bertha may have had a share in
sending Gregory the reports which he mentions, that the Saxons in
England were ready to receive the Gospel, and in begging him to take
pity on them.

PART IV

In the year 596 Gregory sent off a party of monks as missionaries to
the English Saxons. The head of them was Augustine, who had been
provost (that is, the highest person after the abbot--p 150) of the
monastery to which the pope himself had formerly belonged. And, at
the same time, Gregory directed the manager of his estates in France
to buy up a number of captive Saxon youths, and to place them in
monasteries, that they might learn the Christian faith, and might
afterwards become missionaries to their own countrymen.

When Augustine and his brethren had got as far as the south of
France, they heard many terrible stories of the English, so they
took fright at the thought of going among such savages, whose very
language was unknown to them; and Augustine went back to Rome to beg
that they might be allowed to give up their undertaking. But Gregory
would not consent to this. He encouraged them to go on, and he gave
Augustine letters to some French kings and bishops, desiring them to
assist the missionaries, and to supply them with interpreters who
understood the language of the Saxons. Augustine, therefore,
returned to the place where he had left his companions. They made
their way across France, and in 597 he landed, with about forty
monks, in the Isle of Thanet.

Ethelbert lived at Canterbury, the capital of the Kentish kingdom,
at no great distance from the place where the missionaries had
landed. On receiving notice of their arrival, he sent to desire that
they would remain where they were until he should visit them; and
within a few days he went to them. The meeting was held in the open
air; for Ethelbert had a superstitious fear that they might do him
some mischief by magical arts, if he were to trust himself under a
roof with them. The missionaries advanced in procession, with a
silver cross borne before them, and displaying a picture of the
crucified Saviour; and, as they slowly moved onwards, they chanted a
prayer for their own salvation and that of the people to whom they
had been sent. Ethelbert received them courteously, and desired them
to sit down: and then Augustine made a speech, telling the king that
they were come to preach the word of life to him and to his
subjects. "These are indeed fair words and promises which you bring
with you," said Ethelbert; "but, because they are new and uncertain,
I cannot at once take up with them, and leave the faith which I and
all my people have so long observed. But as you have come from far
and as I think you wish to give us a share in things which you
believe to be true and most profitable, we will not show you
unkindness, but rather will receive you hospitably, and not hinder
you from converting as many as you can to your religion."

He then granted them a lodging in his capital, and ordered that they
should be supplied with all that they might need. As they drew near
to Canterbury, they again displayed the silver cross, and the banner
on which the Saviour was painted; and they entered the city in
procession, chanting a litany which Gregory had made for the people
of Rome, during the great plague which carried off pope Pelagius.

A little way outside the city they found a small church which had
been built in the days of the old British Christianity, and in which
Luidhard had since held his service for Queen Bertha and the
Christians of her court. It was called by the name of St. Martin;
for even before the Saxon invasion his name had become so famous
that many churches were called after it; and we may well believe
that Queen Bertha, on arriving from France, was glad to find that
the church in which she was to worship had long ago been named in
honour of the great saint of her own land. There Augustine and his
brethren now held their service; and the sight of their holy,
gentle, and self-denying lives soon drew many to receive their
instructions. Ethelbert himself was baptized on Whitsunday, 597,
and, although he would not force his people to profess the Gospel,
he declared himself desirous of their conversion.

Gregory had desired Augustine, if he met with success in the
beginning of his mission, to return from Britain into France and be
consecrated as a bishop. He now obeyed this direction, and was
consecrated at Arles; and without any delay he again crossed the
sea, and renewed his labours among the Saxons. Such was his progress
in the work of conversion, that at Christmas of the year in which he
first landed in Britain ten thousand persons were baptized in one
day. Four years later, Gregory made him an archbishop; and he sent
him a fresh body of clergy to help him, with a large supply of
books, vestments, and other things for the service of the Church. He
also gave him instructions how to proceed, so as to advance the true
faith without giving needless offence to the prejudices of the
heathen.

Augustine's chief difficulties, indeed, were not with the Saxons,
but with the clergy of the ancient British Church, whom he could not
succeed in bringing to an agreement. We must not lay the blame
wholly on either side; if the Britons were somewhat jealous and
obstinate, Augustine seems to have taken too much upon himself in
his way of dealing with them. But, whatever his faults may have
been, we are bound to hold his memory in honour for the zealous and
successful labours by which the Gospel was a second time introduced
into the southern part of this island. Before his death, in 604, he
had established a second bishop for Kent, in the city of Rochester,
and one at London, which was then the capital of the kingdom of
Essex. And by degrees, partly by the followers of St. Augustine, and
partly by the Scottish monks of Icolumbkill (p 139), all the Saxon
kingdoms of England were converted to the Christian faith.

In the same year with Augustine, Gregory also died, after a long and
severe illness, which obliged him for years to keep his bed, but
could not check his activity in watching over the interests of
religion.

Gregory had intended that Augustine should be archbishop of London,
because in the old Roman days London had been the chief city of
Britain; and it might seem natural that the chief bishop of our
Church should now take his title from the capital of all England.
But when Gregory sent forth his missionaries he did not know that
England had been divided by the Saxons into several kingdoms. In
consequence of this division of the country, Augustine, instead of
becoming archbishop of London, fixed himself in the capital of Kent,
the first kingdom which he converted, and then the most powerful of
all. Hence it is that his successors, the primates of all England,
to this day, are not archbishops of London but of Canterbury.

And, although Canterbury be not now a very large town, it is a very
interesting place, and is full of memorials of its first archbishop.
The noble cathedral, called Christ Church, stands in the same place
with an ancient Roman-British church which Augustine recovered from
heathen uses and consecrated in honour of the Saviour. Close to it
are the remains of the archbishop's palace, built on the same
ground with the palace of Ethelbert, which he gave up to the
missionaries. A little church of St. Martin still stands on a rising
ground outside the city, on the spot where Bertha and Luidhard had
worshipped before the arrival of Augustine, and where he and his
brethren celebrated their earliest services. And, although it has
been rebuilt since then, we may still see in its walls a number of
bricks which by their appearance are known to be Roman,-- the very
same materials of which the little church was built at first, while
the Romans were yet in Britain, fourteen centuries and a half ago;
nay, it is even supposed that some part of the masonry is Roman,
too. Between St. Martin's and the cathedral lay the great monastery
of St Peter and St. Paul, which Augustine began to build. He died
before it was finished; but, as soon as it was ready, his body was
removed to it, and in it Queen Bertha and her husband were
afterwards buried. After a time the name of the monastery was
changed to St. Augustine's, and for hundreds of years it was the
chief monastery of all England. The Reformation in the sixteenth
century put an end to monasteries; and the buildings of St.
Augustine's went through many changes until in the year 1844 the
place was turned to a purpose similar to that which Augustine and
Gregory had at heart when they undertook the conversion of England;
for it is now a college for training missionaries. And, as Gregory
wished that Saxon boys should be brought up with a view to
converting their countrymen, so there are now at St. Augustine's
College young men from distant heathen nations, receiving an
education which may fit them hereafter to become missionaries of the
Church of England to their brethren. (Among those who were at the
College when this volume was first printed was Kalli, the Esquimaux,
of whom an account has since been written by the Rev. T. B. Murray,
and published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. He
afterwards went to the diocese of Newfoundland, where he died of
consumption.) Nor is the good Gregory forgotten in the city which
owes so much to him; for within the last few years a beautiful
little church called by his name has been built, close to the
college of St. Augustine.

Here this little book must close. It ends with the replanting of the
Gospel in our own land. And, if hereafter the story should be
carried further, some of its brightest pages will be filled by the
labours of the missionaries who went forth from England to preach
the faith of Christ in Germany and the adjoining countries.