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Morals On The Book Of Job: Volumes 1 To 3 -Saint Gregory The Great

Wherein he explains the time, occasion, division, plan, and the method of discourse and of interpretation pursued in his work.

To the Most Devout and Holy Brother, my fellow Bishop Leander, Gregory, the servant of God’s servants.

I. WHEN I knew you long since at Constantinople, my most blessed brother, at the time that I was kept there by the affairs of the Apostolical See, and that you had been brought thither by an embassage, with which you were charged, on counts touching the faith of the Wisigoths, I then detailed in your ears all that displeased me in myself, since for late and long I declined the grace of conversion, and after that I had been inspired with an heavenly affection I thought it better to be still shrouded in the secular habit. For though I had now disclosed to me what I should seek of the love of things eternal, yet long-established custom had so cast its chains upon me, that I could not change my outward habit: and while my purpose still compelled me to engage in the service of this world as it were in semblance only, many influences began to spring up against me from caring for this same world, so that the tie which kept me to it was now no longer in semblance only, but what is more serious, in my own mind. At length being anxious to avoid all these inconveniences, I sought the haven of the monastery, and having left all that is of the world, as at that time I vainly believed, I came out naked from the shipwreck of human life. For as the vessel that is negligently moored, is very often (when the storm waxes violent) tossed by the water out of its shelter on the safest shore, so under the cloak of the Ecclesiastical office, I found myself plunged on a sudden in a sea of secular matters, and because I had not held fast the tranquillity of the monastery when in possession, I learnt by losing it, how closely it should have been held. For whereas the virtue of obedience was set against my own inclination to make me take the charge of ministering at the holy Altar, I was led to undertake that upon the grounds of the Church requiring it, which, if it might be done with impunity, I should get quit of by a second time withdrawing myself; and subsequently notwithstanding my unwillingness and reluctance, at the very time when the ministry of the Altar was a heavy weight, the further burden of the Pastoral charge was fastened on me, which I now find so much the more difficulty in bearing, as I feel myself to be unequal to it, and as I cannot take breath in any comfortable assurance in myself. For because, now that the end of the world is at hand, the times are disturbed by reason of the multiplied evils thereof, and we ourselves, who are supposed to be devoted to the inner mysteries, are thus become involved in outward cares; just as it happened then also when I was brought to the ministry of the Altar, this was brought about for me without my knowledge, viz. that I should receive the mighty charge of the Holy Order, to the end that I might be quartered under less restraint in an earthly palace, whither indeed I was followed by many of my brethren from the monastery, who were attached to me by a kindred affection. Which happened, I perceive, by Divine dispensation, in order that by their example, as by an anchored cable, I might ever be kept fast to the tranquil shore of prayer, whenever I should be tossed by the ceaseless waves of secular affairs. For to their society I fled as to the bosom of the safest port from the rolling swell, and from the waves of earthly occupation; and though that office which withdrew me from the monastery had with the point of its employments stabbed me to death as to my former tranquillity of life, yet in their society, by means of the appeals of diligent reading, I was animated with the yearnings of daily renewed compunction. It was then that it seemed good to those same brethren, you too adding your influence, as you yourself remember, to oblige me by the importunity of their requests to set forth the book of blessed Job; and as far as the Truth should inspire me with powers, to lay open to them those mysteries of such depth; and they made this too an additional burden which their petition laid upon me, that I would not only unravel the words of the history in allegorical senses, but that I would go on to give to the allegorical senses the turn of a moral exercise, with the addition of somewhat yet harder, that I would crown the several meanings with testimonies, and that the testimonies, which I brought forward, should they chance to appear involved, should be disentangled by the aid of additional explanation.

II. At first however, when in this obscure work, which hitherto had been thoroughly treated by none before us, I learnt the extent and character of the task to which I was forced, being overcome and wearied with the mere burthen of hearing of it, I confess that I sank under it. Yet immediately, when, in a strait between my alarms and my devout aspirations, I lifted up the eyes of my mind to the Bestower of all gifts, waiving my scruples, I fixed my thoughts on this, that what an affection flowing from the hearts of my brethren enjoined upon me, could not certainly be impossible, I despaired, indeed, of being a match for these things, but, stronger for my very despair of myself, I forthwith raised my hopes to Him, by Whom the tongue of the dumb is opened, Who maketh the lips of babes to speak eloquently, Wisd. 10:21. Who has marked the undistinguished and brute brayings of an ass with the intelligible measures of human speech. What wonder, then, that a simple man should receive understanding from Him, Who whenever He willeth, utters His truth by the mouths of the very beasts of burthen? Armed then with the strength which this thought supplied, I roused mine own drought to explore so deep a well; and though the life of those, to whom I was compelled to give my interpretation, was far above me, yet I thought it no harm if the leaden pipe should supply streams of water for the service of men. Whereupon, without further delay, I delivered the former parts of the book, in presence, to the same brethren assembled before me; and because I found my time to be then somewhat more free, in treating of the latter portion I used dictation; and when longer intervals of time were at my disposal, many things being added, a small number omitted, and some few left as they were, all that had been taken down in my presence as I spoke, I arranged in books with amendments. For when I was giving the last part by dictation, I in like manner carefully considered the style in which I had spoken the first part, so that my business was both with regard to those parts, which I had given orally, by going through them with a careful correction, to bring them up to somewhat like dictation, and with regard to what I had dictated, that it should not greatly differ from the style of colloquial delivery; so that the one being drawn out, and the other contracted, that which unlike modes produced might be formed into a not inconsistent whole. Though it must be added that the third portion of this work I have so left for the most part as I gave it by word of mouth, because the brethren, drawing me away to other things, would not have this to be corrected with any great degree of exactness. Pursuing my object of obeying their instructions, which I must confess were sufficiently numerous, now by the work of exposition, now by the flights of contemplation, and now by moral instruction, I have completed this work extending through thirty-five books, and six tomes, and hence I shall be often found therein to put rather in the back-ground the order of exposition, and to employ myself at greater length upon the wide field of contemplation and of moral instruction. But yet whosoever is speaking concerning God, must be careful to search out thoroughly whatsoever furnishes moral instruction to his hearers; and should account that to be the right method of ordering his discourse, if, when opportunity for edification requires it, he turn aside for a useful purpose from what he had begun to speak of; for he that treats of sacred writ should follow the way of a river, for if a river, as it flows along its channel, meets with open valleys on its side, into these it immediately turns the course of its current, and when they are copiously supplied, presently it pours itself back into its bed. Thus unquestionably, thus should it be with every one that treats of the Divive Word, that if, in discussing any subject, he chance to find at hand any occasion of seasonable edification, he should, as it were, force the streams of discourse towards the adjacent valley, and, when he has poured forth enough upon its level of instruction, fall back into the channel of discourse which he had proposed to himself.

III. But be it known that there are some parts, which we go through in a historical exposition, some we trace out in allegory upon an investigation of the typical meaning, some we open in the lessons of moral teaching alone, allegorically conveyed, while there are some few which, with more particular care, we search out in all these ways together, exploring them in a threefold method. For first, we lay the historical foundations; next, by pursuing the typical sense, we erect a fabric of the mind to be a strong hold of faith; and moreover as the last step, by the grace of moral instruction, we, as it were, clothe the edifice with an overcast of colouring. Or at least how are the declarations of truth to be accounted of, but as food for the refreshment of the mind? These being handled with the alternate application of various methods, we serve up the viands of discourse in such sort as to prevent all disgust in the reader, thus invited as our guest, who, upon consideration of the various things presented to him, is to take that which he determines to be the choicest. Yet it sometimes happens that we neglect to interpret the plain words of the historical account, that we may not be too long in coming to the hidden senses, and sometimes they cannot be understood according to the letter, because when taken superficially, they convey no sort of instruction to the reader, but only engender error; for here, for instance, it is said, Under Whom they are bent who bear the world. Job 9:13. Now in the case of one so great, who can be ignorant that he never so follows the vain fictions of the poets, as to fancy the weight of the world to be supported by the labour of the giants. Again, under the pressure of calamities he exclaims, So that my soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than life. Job 7:15. Now who that is in his right senses could believe that a man of so high praise, who in a word, we know, received from the Judge of that which is within the reward of the virtue of patience, settled amidst his afflictions to finish his life by strangling? And sometimes even the very literal words forbid its being supposed that perchance they ought to be understood according to the letter. Thus he says, Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived. Job 3:3. And a little while afterwards he subjoins, Let darkness seize it, and let it be involved in bitterness. ver. 5. And in cursing the same night he adds, Lo! let that night be solitary. Assuredly this day of his birth, which rolled itself out in the mere current of time, could never stand fast. In what way then did he wish it might be involved in darkness? For having gone by, it no longer was, neither yet, if it had existence in the nature of things, could it ever feel bitterness; it is evident therefore that the words cannot possibly be spoken of a day without feeling, when the wish expressed is that it be struck with a feeling of bitterness; and if the night of his conception had gone by, blended with the other nights, after what fashion would he have it become solitary, which as it could not be arrested from the flight of time, so neither could it be separated from union with the other nights. Again he says, How long wilt Thou not depart from me, nor let me alone, till I swallow down my spittle. Job 7:19. Yet he had said a little above, The things which my soul refused to touch are as my sorrowful meat. Job 6:7. Now who does not know that spittle is more easily swallowed than food? it is wholly inconceivable then in what connection he, who tells of his taking food, declares that he cannot swallow his spittle. Again he says, I have sinned; what shall I do unto thee, O Thou preserver of men? Job 7:20. Or more unequivocally, Wouldest Thou destroy me by the iniquities of my youth? Job 13:26. And yet in another answer he subjoins, My heart shall not reproach me so long as I live. Job 27:6 How then does his heart not condemn him so long as he lives, who by a public avowal testifies that he has been a sinner, for faultiness of practice and acquittal of conscience can never meet together. Yet doubtless whereas the literal words when set against each other cannot be made to agree, they point out some other meaning in themselves which we are to seek for, as if with a kind of utterance they said, Whereas ye see our superficial form to be destructive to us, look for what may be found within us that is in place and consistent with itself.

IV. But sometimes, he who neglects to interpret the historical form of words according to the letter, keeps that light of truth concealed which is presented to him, and in laboriously seeking to find in them a further interior meaning, he loses that which he might easily obtain on the outside. Thus the Saint saith, If I have withheld the poor from their desire, or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail; or have eaten my morsel myself alone, and the fatherless hath not eaten thereof; … If I have seen any perish for want of clothing, or any poor without covering; if his loins have not blessed me, and if he were not warmed with the fleece of my sheep; Job 31:16–20. where it is to be observed, that if these words be violently strained to an allegorical signification, we make void all his acts of mercy. For as the word of God, by the mysteries which it contains, exercises the understanding of the wise, so usually by what presents itself on the outside, it nurses the simpleminded. It presenteth in open day that wherewith the little ones may be fed; it keepeth in secret that whereby men of a loftier range may be held in suspense of admiration. It is, as it were, a kind of river, if I may so liken it, which is both shallow and deep, wherein both the lamb may find a footing, and the elephant float at large. Therefore as the fitness of each passage requires, the line of interpretation is studiously varied accordingly, in that the true sense of the word of God is found out with so much the greater fidelity, in proportion as it shifts its course through the different kinds of examples as each case may require.

V. This exposition being such as I have described, I have transmitted to your Blessedness for your inspection, not as being due for its worth’s sake, but because I remember that I promised it on your making the request. In which whatsoever your Holiness may discover that is languid or unpolished, let it be most readily excused in proportion as the circumstance is known that it was said in a state of sickness; for when the body is worn down with sickness, the mind being also affected, our exertions to express ourselves likewise become faint. For many a year’s circuit has gone by since I have been afflicted with frequent pains in the bowels, and the powers of my stomach being broken down, makes me at all times and seasons weakly; and under the influence of fevers, slow, but in constant succession, I draw my breath with difficulty; and when in the midst of these sufferings I ponder with earnest heed, that according to the testimony of Scripture, He scourgeth every son whom He receiveth; Heb. 12:6. the more I am weighed down by the severity of present afflictions, from my anticipations for eternity, I gather strength to breathe with so much the better assurance. And perchance it was this that Divine Providence designed, that I a stricken one, should set forth Job stricken, and that by these scourges I should the more perfectly enter into the feelings of one that was scourged. Yet it will be evident to all that consider the thing aright, that bodily ailment hinders the pursuits wherein I labour, and that with no slight power of opposition in this respect, that, when the powers of the flesh are not strong enough to discharge the office of speech, the mind cannot adequately convey its meaning. For what is the office of the body saving to be the organ of the mind; and though the musician be ever so skilled in playing, he cannot put his art in practice unless outward aids accord with himself for that purpose, for we know that the melody which the hand of the proficient bids, is not rightly given back by instruments that are out of order; nor does the wind express his art, if the pipe, gaping with crevices, gives a grating sound. How much more affected in quality then is a thing like this exposition of mine, wherein the grace of delivery is so dissipated by the broken condition of the instrument, that no contrivance of skill can avail to recover it! But I beg that in going through the statements of this work, you would not seek the foliage of eloquence therein: for by the sacred oracles the vanity of a barren wordiness is purposely debarred those that treat thereof, in that it is forbidden to plant a grove in the temple of God. And doubtless we are all of us aware, that as often as the overrank crop shews stalks that abound in leaves, the grains of the ears are least filled and swelling. And hence that art of speaking itself, which is conveyed by rules of worldly training, I have despised to observe; for as the tenor of this Epistle also will tell, I do not escape the collisions of metacism, nor do I avoid the confusion of barbarisms, and I slight the observing of situations and arrangements, and the cases of prepositions; for I account it very far from meet to submit the words of the divine Oracle to the rules of Donatus. For neither are these observed by any of the translators thereof, in the authoritative text of Holy Writ. Now as my exposition takes its origin from thence, it is plainly meet that this production, like a kind of offspring, should wear the likeness of its mother. Now it is the new Translation that I comment on; but when a case to be proved requires it, I take now the new and now the old for testimony, that as the Apostolic See, over which I preside by ordinance of God, uses both, the labours of my undertaking may have the support of both.

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