The ocean of human ignorance

Pope Gregory the Great made abundant use of allegory in interpreting the Scriptures, a method not in much favor today when the literal sense predominates. The allegories are sometimes quite fanciful, and I certainly dont recommend them for getting at the literal sense; but they often provide the occasion for acute explorations, if not of the texts themselves, of the life of the Church or the lives of individual Christians, and, among them, of church leaders. In his commentary on the first book of Samuel, Gregory remarked on Chapter 14, in which Jonathan unwittingly disobeyed a command of his father Saul and thus was liable to the kings curse on anyone who should eat before evening. That someone had incurred this curse became clear when Saul received no answer to a prayer. He then ordered lots to be drawn to determine who the guilty party was, placing himself and Jonathan on one side, and the people on the other (I Sam 14:40). Gregory comments:

That by the kings command the people are separated from the king and his son, what does this mean if not that so long as the guilt is hidden and the suspect sought, both superior and inferior persons are to be investigated.

Often it is the people who fail, often it is their ruler, and sometimes the guilt of subjects is ascribed to their leader because his negligence led to their fault. When, then, the evidence indicates that the guilt lies with the people but it is not known where it lies, the king should mingle with them so that a pastor may learn if the guilt is his or the peoples. King Saul was not aware of any guilt that he had committed either by consent or by deed, but he still placed himself under investigation to find out whether the guilt might also be his. It is as when Paul examined himself, although not aware of a sin, and said: "I am not conscious to myself of anything, yet am I not thereby justified; but he that judges me is the Lord" (1 Cor 4:4). It is as if he were saying, "I never cease seeking and finding myself, because if I am hidden to myself, I am not hidden to the One to whom all things are naked." Let the king, then, unaware of that sin which was to be investigated, say: "I along with Jonathan my son will be on the other side," because chosen teachers, when they are severe with others out of zeal for righteousness, never spare themselves or members of their families. For those who separate the people on one side and do not separate themselves while they investigate the sins of their subjects are like those who do not care to investigate themselves in order to find themselves. The ocean of human ignorance is great indeed. For if we can never or hardly ever seek ourselves and find out what sorts of persons we are, how can we investigate others? This is what the Prophet deplores when he says: "My heart abandoned me" (Ps 39:13). It is what the holy Scripture declares: ""Man does not know whether he is worthy of hate or of love" (Qoh 9:1). The fruit of his inquiry the Prophet declares when he says: "Your servant has found his heart" (2 Sam 7:27). If holy people can hardly find their hearts, is it not rash for us to stop inquiring? But perhaps not even the Prophet was able to do it, for he added: "that it may fear you." He would have found his heart if he knew for certain whether he was worthy of hate or of love. One who finds his heart, then, so that he may be safe before God, finds it in order to fear him. But we cannot easily do even that, because when we find our sins and neglect to think about them once found, we are secure, but by the loss of our hearts. (Gregory, On First Book of Kings, Bk. 5, ch. 4, 50)

John Donne, to whom I owe this reference, links it with another passage, from Gregory's moral commentary on the Book of Job, the largest single work in the whole body of patristic writings:

...it is well said by the Prophet, "Return, ye transgressors, to your heart" (Is. 46, 8). For were they to return to their heart, they would pour out themselves in words of outward profession. For what is nearer to us than our heart? What is nearer to us than that thing which is within us? And yet, when it is distracted with wicked thoughts, our heart wanders far away from us. The prophet, then, is sending transgressors a long way indeed when he urges them to return to their hearts: for the more they have distracted themselves with outward things, the harder it is for them to find out how to return to themselves. (Gregory I, Moralia in Job, Pt. 5, Bk 26, ch. 33)

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

Also by this author
"No, we can't"?

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Culture
Books