p. 84b Epistle XXXIV.
To Venantius, Ex-Monk, Patrician of Syracuse 1331 .
Gregory to Venantius, &c.
Many foolish men have supposed that, if I were advanced to the rank of the episcopate, I should decline to address thee, or to keep up communication with thee by letter. But this is not so; since I am compelled by the very necessity of my position not to hold my peace. For it is written, Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet (Isa. 1:0, Isa. 58:1). And again it is written, I have given thee for a watchman unto the house of Israel, thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and declare it to them from me (Ezek. iii. 17). And what follows to the watchman or to the hearer from such declaration being kept back or uttered is forthwith intimated; If, when I say to the wicked, Thou shalt surely die, thou declare it not to him, nor speak to him, that he may turn from his wicked way and live, the wicked man himself shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Yet if thou declare it to the wicked, and he turn not from his iniquity and from his wicked way, he himself indeed shall die in his iniquity, but thou hast delivered thy soul. Hence also Paul says to the Ephesians, My hands are pure this day from the blood of all of you. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God (Acts 20:26, 27). He would not, then, have been pure from the blood of all, had he refused to declare unto them the counsel of God. For when the pastor refuses to rebuke those that sin, there is no doubt that in holding his peace he slays them. Compelled, therefore, by this consideration, I will speak whether you will or no; for with all my powers I desire either thee to be saved or myself to be rescued from thy death. For thou rememberest in what state of life thou wast, and knowest to what thou hast fallen without regard to the animadversion of supernal strictness. Consider, then, thy fault while there is time; dread, while thou canst, the severity of the future judge; lest thou then find it bitter, having shed no tears to avoid it now. Consider what is written; Pray that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the Sabbath day (Matth. xxiv. 20). For the numbness of cold impedes walking in the winter, and, according to the ordinance of the law, it is not lawful to walk on the Sabbath day. He, then, attempts to fly in the winter or on the Sabbath day, who then wishes to fly from the wrath of the strict Judge when it is no longer allowed him to walk. Wherefore, while there is time, while it is allowed, fly thou from the animadversion which is of so great dreadfulness: consider what is written; Whatsoever thine hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is neither work, nor device, nor wisdom, in the grave whither thou hastenest (Eccles. ix. 10). By the witness of the Gospel thou knowest that divine severity accuses us for idle talk, and demands a strict account of an unprofitable word (Matth. xii. 36). Consider, then, what it will do for perverse doing, if in its judgment it reprobates some for talking. Ananias had vowed money to God (Acts v. 2 seq.), which, afterwards, overcome by diabolical persuasion, he withheld. But by what death he was p. 85b mulcted thou knowest. If then he was deserving of the penalty of death who withdrew the money which he had given to God, consider of how great penalty thou wilt be deserving in the divine judgment, who hast withdrawn, not money, but thyself, from Almighty God, to whom thou hadst devoted thyself in the monastic state of life. Wherefore, if thou wilt hear the words of my rebuke so as to follow them, thou wilt come to know in the end how kind and sweet they are. Lo, I confess it, I speak mourning and constrained by sorrow for what thou hast done. I scarce can utter words; and yet thy mind, conscious of guilt, is hardly able to bear what it hears, blushes, is confounded, remonstrates. If, then, it cannot bear the words of dust, what will it do at the judgment of the Creator? And yet I acknowledge the exceeding mercy of heavenly grace, in that it beholds thee flying from life, and nevertheless still reserves thee for life; that it sees thee acting proudly, and still bears with thee; that through its unworthy servants it administers to thee words of rebuke and admonition. So great a thing is this that thou oughtest anxiously to ponder on what Paul says; We exhort you, brethren that ye receive not the grace of God in vain: for he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succoured thee. Behold now is the acceptable time, behold now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. vi. 1 seq.).
But I know that, when my letter is received, forthwith friends come about thee, thy literary clients are called in, and advice about the purpose of life is sought from the promoters of death; who, loving not thee, but what belongs to thee, tell thee nothing but what may please thee at the time. For such, as thou thyself rememberest, were those thy former counsellors, who drew thee on to the perpetration of so great a sin. To quote to thee something from a secular author 1332 , “All things should be considered with friends, but the friends themselves should be considered first.” But, if in thy case thou seekest an adviser, take me, I pray thee, as thy adviser. For no one can be more to be relied on for advice than one who loves not what is thine, but thee. May Almighty God make known to thy heart with what love and with what charity my heart embraces thee, though so far only as not to offend against divine grace. For I so attack thy fault as to love thy person; I so love thy person as not to embrace the viciousness of thy fault. If, therefore, thou believest that I love thee, approach the threshold of the apostles, and use me as an adviser. But if perchance I am supposed to be too keen in the cause of God, and am suspected for the ardour of my zeal, I will call the whole Church together into counsel on this question, and whatever all are of opinion should be done for good, this I will in no wise contradict, but gladly fulfil and subscribe to what is decided in common. May Divine grace keep thee while accomplishing what I have warned thee to do.
The relations of Gregory to this Venantius are interesting; other letters throwing light on them being III. 60; VI. 43, 44; IX. 123; XI. 30, 35, 36, 78. Venantius was a patrician, resident in Sicily, who, having become a monk, had discovered that he had mistaken his vocation and returned to secular life. In the letter before us he is kindly, but very earnestly, written to, in the hope of inducing him to retrace a step which, from Gregorys point of view, was so dangerous to his friends soul. But the remonstrance was in vain. Venantius appears, from an allusion in the letter, to have been associated with a literary set of friends who took a view of the purpose of life not in accordance with the monastic theory: and other motives may have disposed him to listen to their advice, since we find him afterwards married to a lady called Italica. She appears to have been, like Venantius of patrician rank, and resident in Sicily and to have possessed property there; for see III. 60, an epistle addressed to “Italica Patricia,” remonstrating with her for her alleged harsh treatment of certain poor people, who were under the protection of the Church. It appears from this letter that Gregory had known her previously, and it is observable that he makes allusion to her personal charms (pulchritudo in superficie corporis). There being no allusion in this letter to any husband, it cannot be concluded that she was, at the time when it was written, married to Venantius: but we may reasonably suppose her to have been the same Italica who was subsequently addressed as his wife, for see IX. 123, “Domno Venantio patricio et Italicæ jugalibus.” The marriage may possibly have taken place soon after Gregorys first letter to Venantius, which, if the date assigned be correct, was written in the 9th Indiction (a.d. 590–l). It cannot well have been much later, since in the 4th Indiction, i.e. a.d. 600–1 (still supposing the assigned dates correct) there were two girls, the issue of the marriage, who were also written to by Gregory after their fathers death, and seem then to have been already old enough to be betrothed. See XI. 35, 36, 78. At some time subsequent to his marriage we find a letter of serious admonition addressed to Venantius (VI. 43), who had quarrelled with his bishop on some matters of business, and acted violently.
But, notwithstanding all such causes for displeasure, Gregory continued on terms of cordial friendship with the married couple, and took a warm interest in their children. Having heard of Venantius being dangerously ill, he wrote a letter of sympathy, addressed to him and his wife jointly, and at the end sent greetings to his “most sweet daughters, the lady Barbara and the lady Antonina” (IX. 123). Subsequently, when Venantius was suffering from gout, he addressed him earnestly, but kindly; and, when he was on his death-bed, and the inheritance of the daughter was in jeopardy owing to certain claims made by certain persons on their fathers estate, he wrote a short kind letter to the little ladies, bidding them keep up their spirits so as to comfort their father, assuring them that he himself would protect them after their fathers death, and speaking of the debt of gratitude he owed for the goodness to himself of both their parents. The mother not being written to, or alluded to as alive, may be supposed to have died previously. At the same time he wrote to John, bishop of Syracuse (the same bishop with whom Venantius had been once for a time at variance), urging him to do what he could to induce Venantius, even in his last moments, to resume the monastic habit for the safety of his soul and no less urgently charging him to take up the cause of the orphan girls. Lastly (XI. 87), the girls are once more addressed by Gregory in a kind letter, from which it seems, that, young as they must have been, marriage was already in contemplation for them, and in which he expresses his hope of seeing them at Rome. The correspondence thus summarised is peculiarly interesting, as shewing both Gregorys strong sense of the sin and danger to the soul of returning to the world from the monastic life, and also the continuance of his friendship and affection to one who had thus sinned, and the interest he could still take in his domestic happiness and the welfare of his family.85b:1332
Seneca, Epist. 3: “Tu omnia cum amico delibera, sed de ipso prius. Post amicitiam credendum est; ante amicitiam judicandum.”