Gregory the Great's Transvaluation of Life and Death

Old and simpleminded, Bishop Januarius of Cagliari was exasperating to rebuke. The bishop had usurped a neighbor's land; the very circumstances were appalling. After plowing the field one Sunday morning, Januarius stopped to celebrate the Mass, and when solemnities were over, the old bishop returned to finish the job, uprooting even the boundary markers of the fields. “We still spare your gray hairs,” Pope Gregory the Great wrote in an angry warning. But “the nearer you approach death, the more careful and fearful you ought to become.” Death should inspire the bracing, purifying fear that motivates repentance and reform.

Death shapes life—be it a denial of death that bereaves modern life of heroism and purpose, or the memento mori that fashions a life of philosophical intensity. Because the central tenet of Christianity is the promise of immortality through Christ’s triumph over death and the devil, attitudes toward death become crucial in understanding Christianity. This is an obvious point, but one worth reiterating. The Christian’s sight must always be set on the next world, and in consequence life in this world must be ordered and disciplined to attain that cherished goal. At issue, then, is precisely how this process works in Gregory’s thought.

Like writers before him, Gregory believes that death brings true life (vera vita): it is the gateway to eternity, and it inspires the virtue that is the life of the soul. But death is also the end of life as we know it, and Gregory is quite honest about this. Paradoxically, death is both to be welcomed and yet to be feared. An analysis of this unsettling ambivalence illuminates the centrality of sacrifice in Gregory's thought: all actions, including living and dying, must be done not for oneself but for God. Within this perspective, fear of death and submission to death become essential in the salvific process as sacrifices to God.

Gregory's thoughts on death unfold in layers of ambiguities. On one hand, Gregory will minimize death and offer consolations. He assures us that death of the mere body “should not in the least be feared, and he provides several reasons. Following Platonic tradition, death is a separation of the composite soul and body that liberates the soul from its fleshly prison. Even the dissolution (solvere) of the flesh should not be feared, for such decay only facilitates the release of the soul from the body; it is a sort of liberating fragmentation.

Death can appear relatively benign in other images as well. Quite frequently, Gregory employs the classical imagery of sleep, as well as the euphemisms of “departure” (egressus, exitus ), and “passing(recessus ). Death is also God’s summons to the next world, an order Gregory can take quite literally. The Dialogues show a startling case of mistaken identity in such a context. On his way to Constantinople, an aristocrat, Stephen, takes ill and dies suddenly. He is conducted to Hell, where he sees with his own eyes the punishments he had formerly heard of and not believed in. The noble is brought before the infernal court for trial. But marvelously, the judge dismisses his case, explaining that he had ordered the aristocrat's neighbor, Stephen the blacksmith, to be brought down for trial—not him. Apparently, mistakes can occur even in the other world.

Such relatively benign imagery might suggest that death is part of a natural process, as the ancient Greeks thought. This is not the case, and here Gregory follows Hebraic tradition. Death was not ordained by God any more than sin and evil were. Death was a needless misfortune, introduced when the devil's wicked persuasions caused man’s Fall. For this reason, the word death often simply refers to the devil. After Adam's sin, death became a debt (debitum) all humanity owed God in repayment for their transgressions. Death is thus an irruption of the natural order. And even though this Fall made possible the generosity of the Redeemer's mercy, death is always an evil associated with the devil and man’s loss of Paradise.

In bleaker moments, Gregory uses images capturing death's fini­tude and desolation. As a terminus, death's ruthless finality forces us to recognize that our lives are not in our own control. “However great your temporal influence and prosperity may be,” Gregory advises Gulfaris, magister militum of Istria, “it has an end—the limit of death.” Death means that, “What we love is ended entirely; and something begins where pain is never ended.”

We cannot stop it. Death reminds us of our essential fallibility and impotence, not only in securing worldly prosperity, but even in assuring moral continuity. “In what virtue can we flourish,” Gregory asks, when we are “weighed down with the body? . . . To this [question], we have in our very selves the answer of death, so that we should not trust in ourselves” (cf. 2 Cor. 1.9). Death proves our pathetic vulnerability, the difficulty, and perhaps even the impossibility, of persevering in virtue.

Death is a limit, not only to our power and accomplishment but also to our troubles! Freeing the soul from its fleshly prison, death would also extinguish the temptations that cause sin. Even more mercifully, death puts an end to fear of death itself. In heaven, among the angels, God, and infinite light, we shall feel “no fear of death” and we shall delight “in the gift of eternal incorruption,” Gregory writes. Fear itself is an evil; death ends the fear that death brings. Fear of dying should give way to a contempt for death; for priests, to a willingness to die sacrificially as shepherds for their flock; for the faithful, to a willingness to die in secret, if not public, martyrdom . But contempt for death can be also a very personal desire for release. In his final years, Gregory writes poignantly of his longing for death.  Death is the cure for suffering: “to live is punishment” and “death is the only remedy.” His “only consolation is the expectation of death.” Such candid expressions suggest the sincerity of his earlier writings: his realism (or pessimism) is grounded in his personal experience as one who identified himself with the sufferings of Job.

Nevertheless, Gregory is honest about the anxieties death can cause. It can make us doubt the survival of the spirit. If death is the dissolution of the body, Gregory can appreciate just what this means to the average person. In the Dialogues, he admits to Peter the importance of our carnal existence: “We are born carnal and doubt the existence of anything we cannot see with our bodily eyes.” Thus, it is very difficult to imagine the survival of the soul when the body wastes away. Significantly, a great part of the fourth book of the Dialogues aims to prove the survival of the soul after the body dies, an exercise that would not be necessary if death did not indeed seem to most people like the complete end. For this reason, grief must be limited, for excessive tears imply that one doubts the eternal life of the soul and is bereft of hope.

On a deep level, Gregory recognizes that death ravages the body and causes pain. The burden of sickness precedes it, and the separation of the soul from the body is painful.. Gregory imagines the body as “empty” after the soul has departed, like the channel of a river that has dried up. Dryness, then, is associated with death. Gregory himself complains that gout has afflicted him, so that his “body is dried up even as if in burial.” This dryness suggests the body's return to dust—dust that could vanish on the breath of the wind. Indeed, death is a destruction so complete that Gregory can liken oblivion to it. Similarly, death is annihilation and extinction (funditus exstinguere), for “what we put to death, we cause that it should not exist at all.Death is “the way where we go, and do not return by it” (Job 16:22). Only certain saints will enjoy peaceful deaths; for many, death is a raging battle with demons for control of the soul in its final hours, a fierce struggle that parallels the apocalyptic catastrophes of Gregory's times.

However distressing, physical death is not meant to be the focus of the Christian's fear. It is only the external death of the body and the soul's separation from the flesh. What one must truly fear is the internal death of the soul, the second and true spiritual death when the soul is severed from God. This death means everlasting punishment for the soul as well as for the body that would “never completely die in punishment, since it always exists in dying.” The monumental horror of the second death of the soul and the accompanying torment of the body puts the first death into its proper perspective. The result is that death and life are transvalued, as Gregory writes: “To compare temporal life with eternal life, it must be called death rather than life. For what else is our daily slide into corruption, but a kind of extension of death ?” Like Ambrose, Augustine, and others before him, Gregory cites Paul in Galatians 6:14: “For me Christ is to live, and to die a gain.” He also speaks of death as true life (vera vita), as we have noted. This true life of the soul after death is the goal of all Christians. The greatest fear must be the possibility of the second death of the soul that separates Christians from God forever.

But what is it exactly about this second death that Gregory fears most? Gregory does speak of separation from God, and certainly of punishment, but he does not discuss the physical torments of Hell with the gruesome detail of later medieval writers. Instead, the primary focus of Gregory's anxiety and fear is the moment of confrontation with the Judge—the moment of truth. “Already, the avenger is dragging them to judgment.” In this final reckoning, the fear is that one might be weighed in the balance and found wanting. Gregory fears the shame, the guilt, the blushing, the humiliating revelations that will confound the sinner as he is convicted of failing his Lord. But perhaps in being so personal and psychological, this fear can become manageable.

Gregory's strategy is to cure fear with more fear: to quote Publilius Syrus, “The pain that kills pain acts as a medicine.” “Certain death awaits everyone. Do not refuse to ponder the uncertain knowledge of your temporal life,” Gregory preaches. So many uncertainties lie beyond human calculation, but death is inevitable. However, the anxieties that such uncertainties cause can be nourished as fears and transformed to become useful weapons against the certainty and necessity of death. Christians must fear retribution not only for sins they have committed but also for secret sins of which they are unaware. “And if he has avoided all evil deeds that he can recognize, when he comes before the strict judge, he dreads the more those evils in himself which he could not recognize,” Gregory writes. Wicked deeds are one thing. But, Gregory asks, are we able to offer an explanation for our thoughts? How many are our sins? Has our penitence been sufficient for them? The Lord has gathered up our secret sins, as if in a little sack, and only on Judgment Day will they be revealed for all to see. We should fear embarrassing surprises. “Even if [the Christian] is conscious of what he did,” Gregory writes, “he still does not know how minutely his deeds will be judged.” The severity of the Judge remains a mystery, but one is prudent to expect his harshness: Christ died a death he did not owe to pay the debt of death man owed. Think of how angry he will be at Judgment, Gregory warns.  Sudden death is the final terrifying uncertainty because it can undermine all precautions. Like a thief in the night (compare Luke 12.39), death can “come unforeseen, breaking into the dwelling of our body . . . And when the spirit does not foresee its coming losses, death snatches it unaware to punishment.” Foresight is the precious remedy of control against such dangerous uncertainties. Significantly, this virtue of foresight links Gregory with the Stoic tradition that inspires so much of his moral theology.

What distinguishes the good Christian from the weak soul is precisely this foresight—the piercing awareness of uncertainty and the cultivation of a defensive discipline of fear and penitence because of it. In contrast, the wicked man mistakes uncertainty for certainty because of his trust in temporal life.

[He] puts his trust in the life of the flesh and thinks that those things continue for long which he holds at the moment . . . [he] never reflects how uncertain his happiness is; which, if he did consider the uncertainty of fleeting life, he would never hold for a certainty things uncertain.

The proud think they have some control over their fate by direct action. They think they can “delay death with gifts,” but they are deceived. In various ways, they try to extend their lives, but this is impossible, for inevitably “death meets the undisciplined.”

Meanwhile, good Christians cultivate the fearful solicitude that comes from a full recognition of life's uncertainties. Gregory advises the empress's ladies-in-waiting: “until that day [of death] comes you ought to be ever suspicious and fearful, to be afraid of faults and wash them with daily tears.” Even St. Paul still had fears, and if “one who is caught up into heaven still fears, shall one whose conversation is still on earth desire already not to fear? . . . Security is the mother of carelessness,Gregory concludes. Indeed, the Lord has ordained that the final hour of our departure be unknown, precisely “so that our spirit may always be on guard. Then, since we cannot exactly foresee it, we may continually make ready for it.” Uncertainty marshals foresight. The soul should always be on the qui vive.

Despite their foresight and careful planning, Christians should not expect a calm death, even though they may be just. As Christ fell into agony in Gethsemane, he represented in himself the struggles of his members, who suffer terror and dread approaching death. We should not be alarmed if we so suffer and fear. Indeed, “the elect are always afraid of a strict judgment, and they especially dread it” upon dying: “Their fear is more acute the nearer their eternal retribution approaches. In the Dialogues, Gregory mentions a saintly man who suffered violent fear at death, but who returned to tell of the wonderful welcome he had received in heaven. Gregory tells also of a saintly deacon of Marsia brutally decapitated by the Lombards. But marvelously, such fearful deaths can be purgative, restoring the soul to salvation: “Generally, the very dread that grips a departing soul is sufficient to purify it of its minor faults," Gregory states.

Consequently, good Christians always keep the certain uncertainty of death before their eyes before they meet the dreadful Judge. They are conscious that fear is purgative, a cleansing fire burning pride and instilling the penitential disposition necessary to meet the Judge. In homily 37, Gregory likens this confrontation with the Iudex Tremendus to facing battle with a king (cf. Luke 14:16-33): one must send out a delegation and plead for terms of peace while the king is still some distance away. The delegation sent out before us—of tears, works of mercy, and the slaughter of propitiatory victims on the altar—mediates for us and secures peace. All these are sacrifices to Gregory, whether of compunction and contrition, of alms and good works, of one's very self, and especially of the Mass. Suffering is not minimized, not even in the Eucharistic sacrifice. “The sacrifice of the altar, offered with tears and generosity of heart, pleads in a unique way for our forgive­ness," Gregory explains, “because the one who, himself rising from the dead will never die again (Rom 6:9) is even now suffering for us anew through this sacrifice in his own mysterious way. As often as we offer him the sacrifice of his passion, we renew his passion for our forgiveness.” As Christ mysteriously suffers for us in the sacrifice of the Eucharist, we should offer ourselves in sacrificial tears as we make that sacrifice. Such was the behavior of the saintly Cassius, bishop of Narni. He performed the sacrifice of the Mass nearly every day, “and his life corresponded to the sacrifice”: he gave alms and presented himself as a tearful offering even as he sacrificed the holy victim at the Mass. More than a just penitent, Cassius makes God his “debtor” by his supererogatory acts of goodness and penitence.

Such sacrifices expiate sins (and perhaps earn merit), and it is in this light that the fear of death makes sense, allowing us to locate the significance of death in Gregory's theology. The dread and terror of death that one feels as purification become sacrifices to God: “consideration of the shortness of man's life is itself an offering of great power with our Creator,” Gregory writes. What else can man do facing God's overwhelming power but be humble and offer himself in sacrifice? In the final analysis, Gregory is facing an existential dilemma: how to deal with Necessity—that which is beyond human control. For Gregory, the problem is as much suffering as death. That death is the cure for suffering may be an irony reflecting Gregory's own preoccupations, but the model for dealing with both death and suffering is that of sacrifice: to submit willingly to the inevitable ordination of God, and to be transformed by the alignment of one's will with God's. This dialectical movement of embracing the negative to attain the positive, of suffering the compunction of fear to rise to the compunction of joy, of enduring adversity to gain prosperity, or of dying to be reborn anew is a pattern found on many levels of Gregory's thought. As he writes in Moralia 24.11.34:

All these things God works three times in everyone (Job 33.29), namely conversion, the trial by temptation, and death. For in these three, one first suffers sharp pains of grief, and is afterwards comforted by the great joys of security. But because the minds of the Elect suffer in each of these three stages, that is in the pain of conversion, the trial of temptation, or the fear of dissolution [at death], and is purified and set free by this very suffering, it is appropriately added: “That He may recall their souls from corruption and enlighten them with the light of the living” (Job 33:80 ).

To recall from “corruption” to “the light of the living” is to move from death to rebirth. These stages which structure Christian life are all types of deaths and transformations.  What is crucial is that Christians align their wills with God's ordination in sacrifice to accomplish this transformation. The pattern of self­abnegation in conversion and the trial of ascetic life is also the pattern of abnegation requisite to facing death. Paul sacrificed himself for Christ in his conversion, saying, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). This sacrifice of self brings a transformation and transcendence of one's merely human identity. As Gregory explains: “Unless someone foresakes himself, he is not able to draw near to the one who is above him. He cannot embrace what is beyond him if he does not know how to sacrifice himself.” We must be one with Christ to conquer death with him; we become one by the transformative union accomplished through sacrifice. Facing death, Paul longed to die for Christ, and this meant a paradoxical transformation of the will. Paul “hated his own life by loving it,” that is, by delivering himself up to death for Jesus, so that he might raise it from the death of sin to life. Peter experiences a similar paradox of willing. Gregory writes:

He could not have suffered for Christ had he been utterly unwilling. By the power of the spirit, he loved the martyrdom which by the weakness of the flesh he did not will. While he feared the suffering in his body, in his spirit he exulted over the glory. So it came about that he willed the torment of martyrdom even as·he was unwilling.

He explains that this is like drinking bitter medicine, which is unpleasant, to restore the health that is pleasant. These paradoxical struggles of the will, which the saints experience, explicate Christ's own passion facing death for us: Christ “freely willed to yield to the death to which we come unwillingly.” Christ conquers death by freely submitting to divine ordination, to Necessity.

Only when Christians have made a sacrifice can they hope to conquer death. Fear can grip anyone, the timid or the proud. Fear works in a salutary way when the will is set straight to conform with God's will (orthothelitism), and this is a sacrifice, as Paul says in Romans 12:1: “We must offer ourselves to him: a living sacrifice; dedicated and fit for acceptance.” Christians have transformed the will to embrace suffering; even dreadful death becomes an act of will. Bishop Cassius of Narni, mentioned above, spends his whole life sacrificially. His death is one of exquisite tranquility and con­trol, as are the other good deaths in the Dialogues. Gregory likens Cassius's death to that of Christ, who said, “‘It is finished,’ bowed his head and gave up the ghost" (John 19:30). “What the Lord did by his power, his servant did through his vocation,” that is, through his willing response to God's call.

As the saints come to will what is unwilling, even as Christ did, they too will conquer death in sacrificial obedience. Paradoxically, by embracing and cultivating the fear of death, they can triumph over death. As Gregory writes: “So death itself will be defeated when it comes, if we always fear it before it comes.”

Good deaths are a matter of degree, like the holiness for which they are a reward. The bloody martyrdom of persecution may no longer be possible, although the disorders of the times may allow one to die in the adversities that are God's chastisements, and this is a good thing. The “secret martyrdom” of asceticism “in time of peace” is possible and highly esteemed. When one “slays one's desires” and “conquers [one's] heart,” “God is appeased by this sacrifice, [and] at the time of his merciful judgment, he will approve of the victory of our peace.” Such an ascetic life is one of living death: holy men “pass through life daily undergoing death,” they despise the transitory for the sake of the eternal. But not everyone can be buried in the “grave” of contemplation, safe from sin and temptation. Some must work in the world, but they can still preserve their inward holiness, like Count Theophanes, who dies in the odor of sanctity.

As holiness is a matter of degree, so too salvation is a continuing process in Gregory. Even the good—indeed, especially the good—have feared death. While some might be granted visions of welcoming saints as consolation, others may endure a fierce battle with demons for possession of the soul. A terrifying death may purge the sinner of remaining sins; if more cleansing is necessary, a harder purification by fire awaits, or perhaps some grimy tenure in the baths as a lowly attendant, as Gregory shows us in the Dialogues. Most important, death need not be faced on one's own resources alone, or even in one's own lifetime. Christians have the “blessing of the viaticum,” martyrs and saints to intercede with God on their behalf, and the community of the Church can continue to offer the sacrifice of the Eucharist after a Christian's death, that sacrifice which alone has power to change the status of the soul after death. All these help us keep a balance: “Let our sins trouble us, without casting us into despair,” Gregory writes. “Seek helpers and protectors. Even the one who is Judge wants to be asked [for forgiveness] so he will not have to punish sinners. If we are “fearful in our confidence,” we also have “help in our fear.”

Gregory's views mark a step in the evolution of Christian attitudes toward death. Gregory did not minimize the fear of death or deny its destructiveness, as earlier Fathers such as Ambrose had done. He went beyond Augustine, who had acknowledged that fear of death was natural, if Christ could fear in Gethsemane. For Gregory, death has become an extremely perilous crossing, even as the process of salvation has become a most uncertain struggle: one remains ignorant of the outcome of one's penitence, but still one knows it must be performed. Gregory cultivates the fear of death as necessary to purify the soul, conquering death by fear of death, yet such a strategy has its dangers of excess and despair. But hope could be restored knowing that the Christian did not face death alone. The Church, the communio sanctorum, takes on increasing responsibility for the fate of individuals, by providing sacraments, such as the viaticum, Masses for the dead, and daily Masses; by offering a community of the faithful praying for the deceased; and by providing saints to intercede for the departed. All become forces molding a weak soul into a state where the Christian comes to make that alignment and submission of will.

The Christian is conforming his will with that of the community in the Lord's prayer and at the liturgy, which echoes, “Let Thy will be done.” The plea of the Lord's prayer, “Deliver us from evil,” is realized in the Christian life in the context of the community of the Church, which has made us “become one with the Ruler of the world” who is “alone free among the dead.” So in Paul's words, “in fear and trembling” one gains eternal life. The terror of death is not just the “natural” terror of Augustine, but has become itself useful blessing. Ironically, and paradoxically, it becomes a kind of consolation to the just to know the ubiquity of fear within that community of the saints. On the issue of death, as in so many other things, Gregory marks the transition from the late antique Church to that of the Middle Ages.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This excerpt is adapted from Gregory the Great: A Symposium, edited by John Cavadini. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.

Featured Image: Ghrilandaio, St. Gregory's Announcement of Death to St. Fina, 1473; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Carole Straw

Carole Straw is Professor Emerita of History at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection.  

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