Home      Back to Trinity 10





St. Gregory the Great on Contemplation


from Book V of his Moralia in Job 



Job Ch. 4  Ver. 12.  Now a hidden word was spoken to me.


50.  For the invisible Son is called ‘the hidden Word,’ concerning Whom John saith, In the beginning was the Word. [John 1, 1]  Which he the same person teaches to be ‘hidden’ in that he adds, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  But this ‘hidden Word’ is delivered to the minds of the Elect, when the power of the Only-Begotten Son is made manifest to believers.  By ‘the hidden word’ we may also understand the communication of inward Inspiration, concerning which it is said by John, His anointing teacheth you of all things. [1 John 2, 27]  Which same inspiration on being communicated to the mind of man lifts it up, and putting down all temporal interests inflames it with eternal desires, that nothing may any longer yield it satisfaction but the things that are above, and that it may look down upon all, that, from human corruption, is in a state of uproar below.  And so to hear ‘the hidden word’ is to receive in the heart the utterance of the Holy Spirit.  Which same indeed can never be known save by him, by whom it may be possessed.  And hence it is said by the voice of Truth concerning this hidden utterance, And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with, you for ever; even The Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive. [John 14, 16. 17.]  For as that ‘Comforter,’ after the Ascension of the Mediator, being another Consoler of mankind, is in Himself invisible, so He inflames each one that He has filled to long after the invisible things.  And because worldly hearts are set upon the things that are seen alone, the world receiveth Him not, because it doth not rise up to the love of the things that are unseen.  For worldly minds, in proportion as they spread themselves out in interests without, contract the bosom of the heart against the admission of Him.  And because out of mankind there are few indeed, who, being purified from the pollution of earthly desires, are opened by that purification to the receiving of the Holy Spirit, this word is called ‘a hidden word,’ since, surely, there are particular persons that receive that in the heart, which the generality of men know nothing of.  Or truly this same inspiration of the Holy Spirit is ‘a hidden word,’ in that it may be felt, but cannot be expressed by the noise of speech.  When, then, the inspiration of God lifts up the soul without noise, ‘a hidden word’ is heard, in that the utterance of the Spirit sounds silently in the ear of the heart.  And hence it is added;

And mine ear as it were stealthily received the veins of the whispering thereof.


51.  The ear of the heart ‘receives stealthily the veins of heavenly whispering,’ in that both in a moment and in secret the inspired soul is made to know the subtle quality of the inward utterance.  For except it bury itself from external objects of desire, it fails to enter into the internal things.  It is both hidden that it may hear, and it hears that it may be hidden; in that at one and the same time being withdrawn from the visible world its eyes are upon the invisible, and being replenished with the unseen, it entertains a perfect contempt for what is visible.  But it is to be observed that he does not say, Mine ear received as it were by stealth the whispering thereof; but the veins of the whispering thereof; for ‘the whispering of the hidden word’ is the very utterance of inward Inspiration itself; but ‘the veins of the whispering’ is the name for the sources of the occasions whereby that inspiration itself is conveyed to the mind.  For it is as if It opened ‘the veins of its whispering,’ when God secretly communicates to us in what ways He enters into the ear of our understandings.  Thus at one time He pierces us with love, at another time with terror.  Sometimes He shews us how little the present scene of things is, and lifts up our hearts to desire the eternal world, sometimes He first points to the things of eternity, that these of time may after that grow worthless in our eyes.  Sometimes He discloses to us our own evil deeds, and thence draws us on even to the point of feeling sorrow for the evil deeds of others also.  Sometimes He presents to our eyes the evil deeds of others, and reforms us from our own wickedness, pierced with a wonderful feeling of compunction.  And so to ‘hear the veins of Divine whispering by stealth,’ is to be made to know the secret methods of divine Inspiration, at once gently and secretly.


52.  Though we may interpret whether ‘the whispering’ or ‘the veins of whispering’ in another way yet.  For he that ‘whispers’ is speaking in secret, and he does not give out, but imitates a voice.  We, therefore, so long as we are beset by the corruptions of the flesh, in no wise behold the brightness of the Divine Power, as it abides unchangeable in itself, in that the eye of our weakness cannot endure that which shines above us with intolerable lustre from the ray of His Eternal Being.  And so when the Almighty shews Himself to us by the chinks of contemplation, He does not speak to us, but whispers, in that though He does not fully develope Himself, yet something of Himself He does reveal to the mind of man.  But then He no longer whispers at all, but speaks, when His appearance is manifested to us in certainty.  It is hence that Truth saith in the Gospel, I shall shew you plainly of the Father. [John 16, 25]  Hence John saith, For we shall see Him as He is. [1 John 3, 2] Hence Paul saith, Then shall I know even as also I am known. [1 Cor. 13, 12.]  Now in this present time, the Divine whispering has as many veins for our ears as the works of creation, which the Divine Being Himself is Lord of; for while we view all things that are created, we are lifted up in admiration of the Creator.  For as water that flows in a slender stream is sought by being bored for through veins, with a view to increase it, and as it pours forth the more copiously, in proportion as it finds the veins more open, so we, whilst we heedfully gather the knowledge of the Divine Being from the contemplation of His creation, as it were open to ourselves the ‘veins of His whispering,’ in that by the things that we see have been made, we are led to marvel at the excellency of the Maker, and by the objects that are in public view, that issues forth to us, which is hidden in concealment.  For He bursts out to us in a kind of sound as it were, whilst He displays His works to be considered by us, wherein He betokens Himself in a measure, in that He shews how Incomprehensible He is.  Therefore, because we cannot take thought of Him as He deserves, we hear not His voice, yea, scarcely His whispering.  For because we are not equal to form a full and perfect estimate of the very things that are created, it is rightly said, Mine ear as it were by stealth received the veins of whispering; in that being cast forth from the delights of paradise, and visited with the punishment of blindness, we scarcely take in ‘the veins of whispering;’ since His very marvellous works themselves we consider but hastily and slightly.  But we must bear in mind, that in proportion as the soul being lifted up contemplates His excellency, so being held back it shrinks from His righteous perfectness [rectitudinem].  And hence it is rightly added;

Ver.13.  In the horror of a vision of the night.


53.  The horror of a vision of the night is the shuddering of secret contemplation.  For the higher the elevation, whereat the mind of man contemplates the things that are eternal, so much the more, terror-struck at her temporal deeds, she shrinks with dread, in that she thoroughly discovers herself guilty, in proportion as she sees herself to have been out of harmony with that light, which shines in the midst of darkness [intermicat] above her, and then it happens that the mind being enlightened entertains the greater fear, as it more clearly sees by how much it is at variance with the rule of truth.  And she, that before seemed as it were more secure in seeing nothing, trembles with sore affright from her very own proficiency itself.  Though, whatever her progress in virtue, she does not as yet compass any clear insight into eternity, but still sees with the indistinctness of a certain shadowy imagining.  And hence this same is called a vision of the night.  For as we have also said above, in the night we see doubtfully, but in the day we see steadily.  Therefore because, as regards the contemplating the ray of the interior Sun, the cloud of our corruption interposes itself, nor does the unchangeable Light burst forth such as It is to the weak eyes of our mind, we as it were still behold God ‘in a vision of the night,’ since most surely we go darkling under a doubtful sight.  Yet though the mind may have conceived but a distant idea concerning Him, yet in contemplation of His Greatness, she recoils with dread, and is filled with a greater awe, in that she feels herself unequal even to the very skirts of the view of Him.  And falling back upon herself, she is drawn to Him with closer bonds of love, Whose marvellous sweetness, being unable to bear, she has but just tasted of under an indistinct vision.  But, because she never attains to such an height of elevation, unless the importunate and clamorous throng of carnal desires be first brought under governance, it is rightly added,

When deep sleep falleth upon men.


54.  Whoever is bent to do the things which are of the world, is, as it were, awake, but he, that seeking inward rest eschews the riot of this world, sleeps as it were.  But first we must know that, in holy Scripture, sleep, when put figuratively, is understood in three senses.  For sometimes we have expressed by sleep the death of the flesh, sometimes the stupefaction of neglect, and sometimes tranquillity of life, upon the earthly desires being trodden underfoot.  Thus, by the designation of sleep or slumbering the death of the flesh is implied; as when Paul says, And I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep. [1 Thess. 4, 13] And soon after, Even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him. [ver. 14]  Again, by sleep is designated the stupefaction of neglect; as where it is said by that same Paul, Now it is high time to awake out of sleep. [Rom. 13, 11]  And again, Awake, ye righteous [Vulg.], and sin not. [1 Cor. 15, 34]  By sleep too is represented tranquillity of life, when the carnal desires are trodden down; as where these words are uttered by the voice of the spouse in the Song of Songs, I sleep, but my heart waketh. [Cant. 5, 2]  For, in truth, in proportion as the holy mind withholds itself from the turmoil of temporal desire, the more thoroughly it attains to know the things of the interior, and is the more quick and awake to inward concerns, the more it withdraws itself out of sight from external disquietude.  And this is well represented by Jacob sleeping on his journey.  He put a stone to his head and slept.  He beheld a ladder from the earth fixed in heaven, the Lord resting upon the ladder, Angels also ascending and descending.  For to ‘sleep on a journey’ is, in the passage of this present life, to rest from the love of things temporal.  To sleep on a journey is, in the course of our passing days, to close those eyes of the mind to the desire of visible objects, which the seducer opened to the first of mankind, saying, For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened. [Gen. 3, 5]  And hence it is soon afterwards added, She took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat.  And the eyes of them both were opened. [ver. 6, 7.]  For sin opened the eyes of concupiscence, which innocence kept shut.  But to ‘see Angels ascending and descending,’ is to mark the citizens of the land above, either with what love they cleave to their Creator above them, or with what fellow-feeling in charity they condescend to aid our infirmities.


55.  And it is very deserving of observation, that he that ‘lays his head upon a stone,’ is he who sees the Angels in his sleep, surely because that same person by resting from external works penetrates internal truths, who with mind intent, which is the governing Principle of man, looks to the imitating of his Redeemer.  For to ‘lay the head upon a stone’ is to cleave to Christ in mind.  Since they that are withdrawn from this life's sphere of action, yet whom no love transports above, may have sleep, but can never see the Angels, because they despise to keep their head upon a stone.  For there are some, who fly indeed the business of the world, but exercise themselves in no virtues.  These, indeed, sleep from stupefaction, not from serious design, and therefore they never behold the things of the interior, because they have laid their head, not upon a stone, but upon the earth.  Whose lot it most frequently is, that in proportion as they rest more secure from outward actions, the more amply they are gathering in themselves from idleness an uproar of unclean thoughts.  And thus under the likeness of Judaea the Prophet bewails the soul stupefied by indolence, where he says, The adversaries saw her, and did mock at her sabbaths. [Lam. 1, 7]  For by the precept of the Law there is a cessation from outward work upon the Sabbath Day.  Thus her ‘enemies looking on mock at her sabbaths,’ when evil spirits pervert the very waste hours of vacancy to unlawful thoughts.  So that every soul, in proportion as it is supposed to be devoted to the service of God, by being removed from external action, the more it drudges to their tyranny, by entertaining unlawful thoughts.  But good men, who sleep to the works of the world, not from inertness, but from virtue, are more laborious in their sleep than they would be awake.  For herein, that by abandoning they are made superior to this world's doings, they daily fight against themselves, maintaining a brave conflict, that the mind be not rendered dull by neglect, nor, subdued by indolence, cool down to the harbouring of impure desires, nor in good desires themselves be more full of fervour than is right, nor by sparing itself under the pretext of discretion, may slacken its endeavour after perfection.  These are the things she is employed withal: she both wholly withdraws herself from the restless appetite of this world, and gives over the turmoil of earthly actions, and in pursuit of tranquillity, bent on virtuous attainments, she sleeps waking.  For she is never led on to contemplate internal things, unless she be heedfully withdrawn from those, which entwine themselves about her without.  And it is hence that Truth declares by His own mouth, No man can serve two Masters. [Matt. 6, 20]  Hence Paul saith, No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him that hath chosen him to be a soldier. [2 Tim. 2, 4]  Hence the Lord charges us by the Prophet, saying, Be still [Vacate, be at leisure], and know that I am the Lord. [Ps. 46, 10]  Therefore, because inward knowledge is not cognisable by us, except there be a rest from outward embarrasments, the season of the hidden word, and of the whisperings of God, is in this place rightly set forth, when it is said, In the horror of a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in that truly our mind is never caught away after the force and power of inward contemplation, unless it be first carefully lulled to rest from all agitation of earthly desires...