Gregory the Great: Commentary and Confession

This text comes from the very end of Gregory’s commentary on Job. It is perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read in a biblical commentary. The translation is by James O’Donnell.

Expleto itaque hoc opere, ad me mihi uideo esse redeundum. Multum quippe mens nostra etiam cum recte loqui conatur, extra semetipsam spargitur. Integritatem namque animi, dum cogitantur uerba qualiter proferantur, quia eum trahunt intrinsecus, minuunt. Igitur a publico locutionis redeundum est ad curiam cordis, ut quasi in quodam concilio consultationis ad meipsum discernendum conuocem cogitationes mentis, quatenus ibi uideam ne aut incaute mala, aut bona non bene dixerim. Tunc enim bene dicitur bonum, cum is qui dicit, soli ei a quo accepit per id appetit placere quod dicit. Et quidem mala me aliqua etsi dixisse non inuenio, tamen quia omnino non dixerim, non defendo. Bona uero si qua diuinitus accipiens dixi, meo uidelicet uitio minus me bene dixisse profiteor. Nam ad me intrinsecus rediens, postpositis uerborum foliis, postpositis sententiarum ramis, dum ipsam subtiliter radicem meae intentionis inspicio, Deo quidem ex ea me summopere placere uoluisse cognosco, sed eidem intentioni qua Deo placere studeo furtim se nescio quomodo intentio humanae laudis interserit. Quod cum iam postmodum tardeque discerno, inuenio me aliter agere quod scio me aliter inchoasse. Sic etenim saepe intentionem nostram, dum ante Dei oculos recte incipitur, occulte subiuncta, et eam uelut in itinere comprehendens, intentio humanae laudis assequitur, sicut pro necessitate quidem cibus sumitur, sed in ipso esu, dum furtim gula subrepit, edendi delectatio permiscetur. Unde plerumque contingit ut refectionem corporis, quam salutis causa coepimus, causa uoluptatis expleamus. Fatendum est igitur quod rectam quidem intentionem nostram, quae soli Deo placere appetit, nonnunquam intentio minus recta, quae de donis Dei placere hominibus quaerit, insidiando comitatur. Si autem de his diuinitus districte discutimur, quis inter ista remanet salutis locus, quando et mala nostra pura mala sunt, et bona quae nos habere credimus pura bona esse nequaquam possunt? Sed hoc mihi operae pretium credo, quod fraternis auribus omne quod in me latenter ipse reprehendo, incunctanter aperio. Quia enim exponendo, non celaui quod sensi, confitendo non abscondo quod patior. Per expositionem patefeci dona, per confessionem detego uulnera. Et quia in hoc tam magno humano genere, nec paruuli desunt qui dictis meis debeant instrui, nec magni desunt qui cognitae meae ualeant infirmitati misereri, per haec utraque aliis fratribus quantum possum curam confero, ab aliis spero. Illis dixi exponendo quod faciant, istis aperio confitendo quod parcant. Illis uerborum medicamenta non subtraho, istis lacerationem uulnerum non abscondo. Igitur quaeso ut quisquis haec legerit, apud districtum iudicem solatium mihi suae orationis impendat, et omne quod in me sordidum deprehendit fletibus diluat. Orationis autem atque expositionis uirtute collata, lector meus in recompensatione me superat, si cum per me uerba accipit, pro me lacrimas reddat.

“Now that I have finished this work, I see that I must return to myself. For our mind is much fragmented and scattered beyond itself, even when it tries to speak rightly. While we think of words and how to bring them out, those very words diminish the soul’s integrity by plundering it from inside. So I must return from the forum of speech to the senate house of the heart, to call together the thoughts of the mind for a kind of council to deliberate how best I may watch over myself, to see to it that in my heart I speak no heedless evil nor speak poorly any good. For the good is well spoken when the speaker seeks with his words to please only the one from whom he has received the good he has. And indeed even if I do not find for sure that have spoken any evil, still I will not claim that I have spoken no evil at all. But if I have received some good from God and spoken it, I freely admit that I have spoken it less well than I should (through my own fault, to be sure). For when I turn inward to myself, pushing aside the leafy verbiage, pushing aside the branching arguments, and examine my intentions at the very root, I know it really was my intention to please God, but some little appetite for the praise of men crept in, I know not how, and intruded on my simple desire to please God. And when later, too much later, I realize this, I find that I have in fact done other than what I know I set out to do. It is often thus, that when we begin with good intentions in the eyes of God, a secret tagalong yen for the praise of our fellow men comes along, taking hold of our intentions from the side of the road. We take food, for example, out of necessity, but while we are eating, a gluttonous spirit creeps in and we begin to take delight in the eating for its own sake; so often it happens that what began as nourishment to protect our health ends by becoming a pretext for our pleasures. We must admit therefore that our intention, which seeks to please God alone, is sometimes treacherously accompanied by a less-righteous intention that seeks to please other men by exploiting the gifts of God. But if we are examined strictly by God in these matters, what refuge will remain in the midst of all this? For we see that our evil is always evil pure and simple, but the good that we think we have cannot be really good, pure and simple. But I think it worthwhile for me to reveal unhesitatingly here to the ears of my brothers everything I secretly revile in myself. As commentator, I have not hidden what I felt, and as confessor, I have not hidden what I suffer. In my commentary I reveal the gifts of God, and in my confession I uncover my wounds. In this vast human race there are always little ones who need to be instructed by my words, and there are always great ones who can take pity on my weakness once they know of it: thus with commentary and confession I offer my help to some of my brethren (as much as I can), and I seek the help of others. To the first I speak to explain what they should do, to the others I open my heart to admit what they should forgive. I have not withheld medicine from the ones, but I have not hidden my wounds and lacerations from the others. So I ask that whoever reads this should pour out the consolation of prayer before the strict judge for me, so that he may wash away with tears every sordid thing he finds in me. When I balance the power of my commentary and the power of prayer, I see that my reader will have more than paid me back if for what he hears from me, he offers his tears for me.” 

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