St. Gregory the Great: The Sincere and the Insincere

St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome (From Wikimedia Commons)
St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome
(From Wikimedia Commons)

Today is the feast of St. Gregory the Great (called in the East “Gregory the Dialogist”), pope of Rome. He is mostly known in the Orthodox Church for his association with the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts (with which, it is my understanding, he probably didn’t have any real connection).

One of his most beautiful gifts to posterity is his work Pastoral Care (sometimes called The Book of Pastoral Rule). It is a wonderful handbook on two subjects—the character of one who would be a pastor and how he ought to admonish various kinds of people. The sections on admonitions pair up two kinds of people and how to speak with them.

Today I want to share the section that my bookmark happened to be on:

How to admonish the sincere and the insincere.

Admonition 12. The sincere are to be admonished in one way, the insincere in another. The sincere are to be commended for their intention of never saying anything false, but they should be warned that they should know how to withhold the truth on occasion. For, just as falsehood always harms him who utters it, so the hearing of the truth has sometimes done harm. Wherefore, the Lord, tempering speech with silence in presence of His disciples, says: I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.

The sincere are, therefore, to be admonished that, as the avoidance of deceit is always profitable to them, so they should utter the truth always profitably. They are to be admonished to unite prudence with the virtue of sincerity, that they may thus have that security which comes of sincerity, without forfeiting the safeguard of prudence. Wherefore, the statement by the teacher of the Gentiles: But I would have you to be wise in good, and simple in evil. So, the Truth Himself admonishes His elect, saying: Be ye wise as serpents and simple as doves. For, in truth, in the hearts of the elect the wisdom of the serpent should sharpen the simplicity of the dove, and the simplicity of the dove temper the wisdom of the serpent, so that they be not seduced by their prudence to be crafty, nor grow slack by their simplicity in the exercise of the understanding.

On the other hand, the insincere are to be admonished to realise how burdensome is the business of duplicity which they guiltily bear. For in the fear of discovery they ever try to defend themselves even dishonourably, and are ever agitated with fear and apprehension. Now, nothing is more safely defended than sincerity, nothing easier to speak than the truth. But when a man is forced to defend his deceit, his heart is wearied with the toilsome labour of doing so. Wherefore, it is written: The labour of their lips shall overwhelm them. For what fills them now, envelops them afterwards, as by it the mind that is now elevated with a soothing disquietude, is then oppressed with bitter retribution. Wherefore, it is said by Jeremias: For they have taught their tongue to speak lies, they have laboured to commit iniquity; in other words, they who could have been the friends of truth without labour, labour to sin, and as they decline to live in sincerity, they are at pains to perish laboriously.

For commonly, though they are discovered in their fault, they shrink from being known for what they are, and they screen themselves under a veil of deceit, and the fault which is quite obvious they try to excuse. The result is that often one who aims at reproving them, led astray by the mists of disseminated falsehood, finds that he has all but lost the certain conviction he had been holding concerning them. Hence it is rightly said by the Prophet, under the similitude of Judea, against the soul that sins and excuses itself: There hath the hedgehog had its hole. Here the term hedgehog symbolises the duplicity of the insincere mind that craftily defends itself. For when the hedgehog is discovered, its head is seen, its feet are obvious, its whole body revealed; but the moment it is captured, it gathers itself up into a ball, draws in its feet, hides its head, and the thing disappears in the hands of him who holds it, whereas before all the parts were visible.

Such, indeed, is the case of insincere minds when detected in their transgressions. The head of the hedgehog is seen in that one perceives from what beginnings the sinner approaches his crime. The feet of the hedgehog are visible, because one sees by what steps the evil was done, and yet by advancing excuses suddenly, the insincere mind gathers up its feet, inasmuch as every vestige of the evil is concealed. It withdraws its head, because by strange pleas a proof is offered that evil was not even initiated. The thing remains, as it were, in the hand of him who holds it, like a ball, for he who reproves the evil, suddenly loses sight of all that he had learnt, and holds the sinner enfolded in his own consciousness; and the other who had seen the whole at the moment of capture, loses all knowledge of the sinner, being deluded by the subterfuges of his wicked pleas. Therefore, the hedgehog has its nest in the wicked, that is, the duplicity of a malicious mind by withdrawing within itself conceals itself in the obscurity of its self-defence.

Let the insincere be told what Scripture says: He that walketh sincerely, walketh confidently; for sincerity of conduct is an assurance of great security. Let them be told what is said by the mouth of the wise men: The holy spirit of discipline will flee from the deceitful. Let them be told what is again attested by Scripture: His communication is with the simple. Now, God’s communication is the revelation of secrets to human minds by the illumination of His presence. He is, therefore, said to communicate with the simple, because in the case of supernal mysteries He illumines with the ray of His visitation the mind of those whom no shadow of duplicity obscures. But it is the particular evil of the double-minded that, while they deceive others by their perverse and double-dealing conduct, they glory as though they were singularly prudent beyond others; and because they disregard a severe retribution, they, poor fools, take delight in what is to their own harm.

Let them be told how the Prophet Sophonias [i.e., Zephaniah] holds out over them the stroke of divine reproof, when he says: Behold, the day of the Lord is coming, great and horrible…. That day is a day of wrath, a day of darkness and obscurity, a day of clouds and whirlwinds, a day of the trumpet and alarm against all the fenced cities and against all the high corners. What else is expressed by fenced cities but minds suspicious and ever surrounding themselves with the defence of deceit, minds which, as often as their sin is reproved, do not allow the darts of truth to approach them? And what is symbolised by high corners (a wall being always double at its corners) but insincere hearts which, in shunning the simplicity of truth, are, as it were, doubled back on themselves by their perverse duplicity? And, what is worse, by the very fault of insincerity they uplift themselves in their thinking with the proud assumption of prudence. Therefore, the day of the Lord comes, full of vengeance and rebuke, on fenced cities and lofty corners: the wrath of the Last Judgment destroys human hearts that have been closed against the
truth by bulwarks, and destroys what had been enveloped in duplicity. Then these fenced cities fall, because souls which showed themselves impervious to God shall be lost. Then the lofty corners fall down, because hearts that lifted themselves up in the prudence of insincerity, are stricken down by a just sentence.