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Home > Fathers of the Church > Registrum Epistolarum (Gregory the Great) > Book IX, Letter 127

Book IX, Letter 127

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From S. Columbanus to Pope Gregory .

To the holy lord, and father in Christ, the Roman [pope], most fair ornament of the Church, a certain most august flower, as it were, of the whole of withering Europe, distinguished speculator, as enjoying a divine contemplation of purity (?) . I, Bargoma , poor dove in Christ, send greeting.

Grace to you and peace from God the Father [and] our [Lord] Jesus Christ. I am pleased to think, O holy pope, that it will seem to you nothing extravagant to be interrogated about Easter, according to that canticle, Ask your father, and he will show you; your elders and they will tell you Deuteronomy 32:7. For, though on me, who am indeed a trifler (micrologo) may be branded that excellent expression of a certain wise man, who is reported to have said, on seeing a certain woman, contupictam , I do not admire the art, but I admire the brow, in that I who am vile write to you that are illustrious; yet, relying on my confidence in shy evangelical humility, I presume to write to you, and impose on you the matter of my grief. For writing is not in vain, when necessity compels one to write, though it be to one's betters.

What, then, do you say concerning Easter on the 21st or 22nd day of the moon, which (with your peace be it said) is proved by many calculators not to be Easter, but in truth a time of darkness? For it is not unknown, as I believe, to your Efficiency, how Anatolius (a man of wonderful learning, as says Saint Hieronymus, extracts from whose writings Eusebius, bishop of Cæsarea, inserted in his Ecclesiastical History, and Saint Hieronymus praised this same work about Easter in his catalogue) disputes with strong disapprobation about this age of the moon. For against the Gallican Rimarii , who erred, as he says, about Easter, he introduced an awful sentence, saying, Certainly, if the rising of the moon be delayed till the end of two watches, which indicates midnight, light does not overcome darkness, but darkness light; which thing is certainly not allowable in the Easter Festival, namely, that any part of the darkness should dominate over the light, since the solemnity of the Lord's Resurrection is light, and there is no communion of light with darkness. And, if the moon has not shone forth till the third watch, there is no doubt that the moon has risen on its 21st or 22nd day, in which it is not possible for a true Paschal offering to be made. For those who lay down that it is possible for a true Easter to be celebrated at this age of the moon, not only are unable to affirm this by authority of divine Scripture, but also incur the guilt of sacrilege and contumacy and peril of their souls, while affirming that the true Light, which dominates over all darkness, can be offered while there is any domination of darkness. Also in the book of holy dogma we read, Easter, that is, the solemnity of the Lord's Resurrection, cannot be celebrated before the beginning of the vernal equinox is past, to wit, that it may not come before the vernal equinox : which rule assuredly Victorius has gone beyond in his cycle, and hereby has already introduced error into Gaul, or to speak less boldly, has confirmed one of old standing. For indeed how can either of these things stand with reason; either that the Lord's Resurrection should be celebrated before His Passion (the thought of which is absurd), or that the seven days sanctioned by the Lord's command in the Law, during which only it is enjoined that the Lord's Passover could lawfully be eaten (which are to be numbered from the 14th day of the moon to the 20th), should against law and right be exceeded? For a moon in its 21st or 22nd day is out of the dominion of light, as having risen at that time after midnight; and, when darkness overcomes light, it is said to be impious to keep the solemnity of light. Why then do you, who art so wise, the brilliant lights indeed of whose sacred genius are diffused, as in ancient times, through the world — why do you keep a dark Easter? I wonder, I confess, that this error of Gaul, ac si Schynteneum , has not long ago been swept away by you; unless I should perchance suppose, what I can hardly believe, that, as it is evident that you have not corrected it, it has your approval.

In another way, however, may your Expertness be more honourably excused, if, fearing to subject yourself to the mark of Hermagoric novelty, you are content with the authority of your predecessors, and especially of pope Leo.

Do not, I pray you, in such a question trust to humility only or to gravity, which are often deceived, Better by far is a living dog in this problem than a dead lion Ecclesiastes 9:4. For a living saint may correct what had not been corrected by another who came before him. For know that by our masters and the Irish ancients, who were philosophers and most wise computists in constructing calculations, Victorius was not received, but held rather worthy of ridicule or of excuse than as carrying authority. Wherefore to me, as a timid stranger rather than as a sciolist, afford the support of your judgment, and disdain not to send us speedily the suffrage of your Placability for assuaging this tempest which surrounds us; since, after so many authors whom I have read, I am not satisfied with that one sentence of those bishops who say only, We ought not to keep the Passover with the Jews. For this is what the bishop Victor formerly said; but none of the Easterns accepted his figment . But this the benumbing (numb?) backbone of Dagon; this the dotage of error drinks in . Of what worth, I ask, is this sentence, so frivolous and so rude and resting, as it does, on no testimonies of sacred Scripture; We ought not to keep the Passover with the Jews? What has it to do with the question? Are the reprobate Jews to be supposed to keep the Passover now, seeing that they are without a temple, outside Jerusalem, and Christ, who was formerly prefigured, having been crucified by them? Or, can it be rightly supposed that the 14th day of the moon for the Passover was of their own appointment, and is it not rather to be acknowledged to be of God's, who alone knew clearly with what mysterious meaning the 14th day of the moon was chosen for the passage [out of Egypt]. Perhaps to wise men and the like of you this may be in some degree clearer than to others. As to those who make this objection, although without authority, let them upbraid God for that He did not then beforehand guard against the contumacy of the Jews by enjoining on them in the Law nine days of unleavened bread, if He would not have us keep the Passover with them, so that the beginning of our solemnity should not exceed the end of theirs. For, if Easter is to be celebrated on the 21st or 22nd day, from the 14th to the 22nd nine days will be reckoned, that is, seven ordered by God, and two added by men. But, if it is allowed for men to add anything of their own accord to divine decree, I ask whether this may not seem opposed to that sentence of Deuteronomy, Lo (he says), the word which I give unto you, you shall not add unto it nor take from it Deuteronomy 4:2.

But in writing all this more forwardly than humbly, I know that I have involved myself in an Euripus of presumption attended with great difficulty, being perchance unskilled to steer out of it. Nor does it befit our place or rank that anything should be suggested in the way of discussion to your great authority, and that my Western letters should ridiculously solicit you, who sits legitimately on the seat of the apostle and key-bearer Peter, on the subject of Easter. But you ought to consider not so much worthless me in this matter as many masters, both departed and now living, who confirm what I have pointed out, and suppose yourself to be holding a colloquy with them: for know that I open my thick-lipped month dutifully though it may be incoherently and extravagantly. It is for you, therefore, either to excuse or to condemn Victorius, knowing that, if you approve him, it will be a question of faith between you and the aforesaid Hieronymus, seeing that he approved Anatolius, who is opposed to Victorius; so that whoever follows the one cannot receive the other. Let, then, your Vigilance take thought that, in approving the faith of one of the two authors aforesaid who are mutually opposed to each other, there be no dissonance, when you pronounce your opinion, between you and Hieronymus, lest we should be on all sides in a strait, as to whether we should agree with you or with him. Spare the weak in this matter, lest you exhibit the scandal of diversity. For I frankly acknowledge to you that any one who goes against the authority of Saint Hieronymus will be one to be repudiated as a heretic among the churches of the West: for they accommodate their faith in all respects unhesitatingly to him with regard to the Divine Scriptures. But let this suffice with respect to Easter.

But I ask what your judgment is about those bishops whom you have written of as simoniacal, and whom the writer Giltas calls pests. Should communion be had with them? For there are known to be many such in this province, whereby the matter is made more serious. Or as to others, who having been polluted in their diaconate, are afterwards elected to the rank of bishops? For there are some whom we know to have conscientious scruples on these grounds; and in conferring with our littleness about them, they wished to know for certain whether they may minister without peril after such transgressions; that is, either after having bought their rank for money, or after adultery in their diaconate. I mean, however, concealed adultery with their dependents , which with our teachers is accounted as no less criminal.

As to a third head of enquiry, say in reply, I pray you, if it is not troublesome, what should be done in the case of those monks who for a closer sight of God, or inflamed by a longing for a more perfect life, going against their vows, leave the places of their first conversion, and, against the will of their abbots, the fervour of monks compelling them, either go free or fly to deserts. The author Vennianus enquired about these of Giltas, who replied to him most elegantly: yet still to one who is anxious to learn there is ever an increase of greater fear. These things, and much more which epistolary brevity does not admit of, might well have been enquired about more humbly and more clearly in a personal interview, but that weakness of body and the care of my fellow-pilgrims keeps me bound at home, though desirous of going to you, so as to draw from that spiritual vein of a living well and from the living water of knowledge flowing from heaven and springing up unto eternal life. And, if my body were to follow my mind, Rome would once more be in danger of being itself despised; seeing that — even as we read in the narration of the learned Hieronymus how certain persons once came to Rome from the utmost boundaries of the Heuline coast ; and then (wonderful to be told) sought something else outside of Rome — so I too, saving reverence for the ashes of the saints should seek out longingly, not Rome but you: for, though I confess myself not to be wise, but thirsty, I should do this same thing if I had time and opportunity.

I have read your book containing the Pastoral Rule, short in style, lengthy in teaching, full of mysteries; and acknowledge it to be a work sweeter than honey to one that is in need. Wherefore bestow, I pray you, on me who am thirsty for what is yours, the works on Ezekiel, which, as I have heard, you have elaborated with wonderful genius. I have read the six books of Hieronymus on that prophet; but he has not expounded the middle part. But, if you will do me the favour, send for me to the city some of your remaining writings; to wit, the concluding expositions of one book, and (? namely) the Song of Songs from that place where it is said, I will go to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense, to the end, treated with short comments, either of others, or your own: and I beg that you would expound the whole obscurity of Zachariah, and make manifest its hidden meaning, that Western blindness may give you thanks for this. I make unreasonable demands, and ask to have great things told me: who can fail to see this? But it is true also that you have great things, and know well that from a little less, and from much more should be put out to use. Let charity induce you to write in reply; let not the roughness of my letter hinder you from expounding, seeing that it is my mode of expression that has been in fault, and I have it in my heart to pay you due honour. It was for me to provoke, to interrogate, to request: it is for you not to refuse what you have received freely, to put your talent out to use, to give to him that asks the bread of doctrine, as Christ enjoins. Peace be to you and yours; pardon my forwardness, blessed pope, in that I have written so boldly; and I pray you in your holy prayers to our common Lord to pray for me, a most vile sinner. I think it quite superfluous to commend to you my people, whom the Saviour judges fit to be received, as walking in His name; and if, as I have heard from your holy Candidus , you should be disposed to say in reply that things confirmed by ancient usage cannot be changed, error is manifestly ancient; but truth which reproves it is ever more ancient still.

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Source. Translated by James Barmby. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 13. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1898.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.

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