I have always loved this image of St Gregory the Great, Apostle of the English. The Holy Spirit whispering into his ear may be a rather hackneyed artistic convention, but I think it is also a reminder of the huge difference between writers then and now. The Romantics taught us to see the writer as a demi-god, a creative whose ‘one talent it was death to hide’. We think of dark and moody geniuses, starving to death in cold attics or roaming the Ligurian coast; or, if our idea of the writer has moved on a bit, we think of celebrity authors tapping out their regular 3,000 words a day, with a literary agent to handle the PR and constant appearances in the media to nurse their image. Not so with Gregory, or with the Late Antique or early medieval writers generally. Neither their words nor their ends were entirely their own. They were not masters but servants.
I think that waiting upon the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the hours of preparation by way of reading and prayer, may be the secret of Gregory’s brevity and acuity. His letters, for example, are, for the most part, deceptively short, but what a wealth of content they display! Greek friends may be less vocal in their admiration (for even a holy pope may have his shortcomings, and Gregory certainly did), but he wrote sensibly and compassionately about conversion, marriage, women and many other topics. He was a monk, so perhaps it was the monastic habit of thinking much and saying little that enabled him, even as pope, to avoid that shipwreck of the soul he so much feared. The weak joke ascribed to him, Non Angli, sed angeli, (‘Not Angles, but angels’) may be apocryphal but it, too, reminds us of another important truth. A self-centred charity is no charity at all. If we really believe what we profess, we’ll want to share the Good News with others, and that is the most charitable thing we can do. Something to ponder on St Gregory’s day or any day.