St Gregory the Dialogist: Are You Too Busy to Look into Your Own Soul?

Feast of St Hyacinth the Martyr of Caesarea

Gregory_the_Great_Square_5.jpegGREGORY: At length, proving once again that the very life of the just is a burden to the wicked, they [the monks] tried to find a means of doing away with him [St. Benedict of Nursia] and decided to poison his wine. A glass pitcher containing the poisoned drink was presented to the man of God during his meal for the customary blessing. As he made the sign of the Cross over it with his hand, the pitcher was shattered even though it was well beyond his reach at the time. It broke at his blessing as if he had struck it with a stone.

Then he realized it had contained a deadly drink which could not bear the sign of life. Still calm and undisturbed, he rose at once and after gathering the community together addressed them. “May almighty God have mercy on you,” he said. “Why did you conspire to do this? Did I not tell you at the outset that my way of life would never harmonize with yours? God and find yourselves an abbot to your liking. It is impossible for me to stay here any longer.” Then he went back to the wilderness he loved, to live alone with himself in the presence of his heavenly Father.

Peter: I am not quite sure I understand what you mean by saying “to live with himself.”

Gregory: These monks had an outlook on religious life entirely unlike his own and were all conspiring against him. Now, if he had tried to force them to remain under his rule, he might have forfeited his own fervor and peace of soul and even turned his eyes from the light of contemplation. Their persistent daily faults would have left him almost too weary to correct his own, and he would have been in danger of losing sight of himself without finding them. You see, Peter, great anxieties can carry us out of ourselves almost entirely. Every time this happens, we are no longer with ourselves, even though we still remain what we are; we are too busy with other matters to look into our own souls.

Surely we cannot describe as “with himself” the young man who traveled to a distant country where he wasted his inheritance and then, after hiring himself out to one of its citizens to feed swine, had to watch them eat their fill of pods while he went hungry. Do we not read in Scripture that as he was considering all he had lost “he came to himself and said, ‘How many hired servants there are in my father’s house who have more bread than they can eat?’” If he was already “with himself,” how could he have come “to himself”?

Blessed Benedict, on the contrary, can be said to have lived “with himself” because at all times he kept such close watch over his life and actions. By searching continually into his own soul he always beheld himself in the presence of his Creator. And this kept his mind from straying off to the world outside.

Peter: But what of Peter the apostle when he was led out of prison by an angel? According to the Scriptures, he too “came to himself and said, ‘Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the power of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.’”

Gregory: There are two ways in which we can be carried out of ourselves, Peter. Either we fall below ourselves through sins of thought, or we are lifted above ourselves by the grace of contemplation. The young man who fed the swine sank below himself as a result of his shiftless ways and his unclean life. The apostle Peter was also out of himself when the angel set him free and raised him to a state of ecstasy, but he was above himself. In coming to themselves again, the former had to break with his sinful past before he would find his true and better self, whereas the latter merely returned from the heights of contemplation to his ordinary state of mind.

Now the saintly Benedict really lived “with himself” out in that lonely wilderness by always keeping his thoughts recollected. Yet he must have left his own self far below each time he was drawn heavenward in fervent contemplation.

Peter: I am very grateful to you for that explanation.

~St Gregory the Dialogist, Life and Miracles of St. Benedict


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