Monday, March 12, 2012

Angels in Disguise

Dr. Peter Kreeft, in his book Angels (and Demons) — What Do We Really Know About Them?, reminds us that angels often come to us in unrecognizable ways. As Scripture warns: “Do not neglect hospitality, for some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2)

We hear stories all the time, some even touching our own lives, of mysterious strangers coming to the aid of accident victims, lost hikers, and other distressed individuals. Many times these “helpers” disappear from the scene as quickly as they arrive.

In the lives of the saints, the Church has recorded many similar encounters in which angels–under disguised forms–have intervened in the lives of humans. I wrote about one here not too long ago: St. John Bosco and the big gray dog. (Guess which one was the angel.)

Another one comes to mind in which the angel this time appeared in the form of a beggar to St. Gregory the Great. Lucky for Gregory (and all of us who have benefitted from his historical actions), the great Pope treated the “beggar” with Christian charity and kindness over and above what was expected of him.

In honor of St. Gregory's death anniversary (March 12), here’s an excerpt from my book, Partners in Holiness, that tells the story of that miraculous encounter:

St. Gregory and the Beggar

Silvia read the letter a second time. She was not surprised that her son, Gregory, was ill. His severe fasts were well known among the religious communities in and around Rome. Silvia's convent was near the monastery of St. Andrew, where Gregory lived with his fellow monks.

If only I could tend to him myself, she thought. I can't bear to lose him so soon after Gordianus.

Tears welled up in her eyes at the memory of her dear husband. She recalled how after his death people she thought were her friends called her crazy for wanting to enter a convent. Why would anyone, they argued, want to trade a luxurious estate on Rome's prestigious Caelian Hill for a secluded cell in a nunnery? Silvia had not been able to answer her critics. The love she felt for Christ and her desire to dedicate the rest of her life to Him were feelings she was unable to describe.

But she never had to explain herself to Gregory. His own passion to serve God, if anything, surpassed her own. The seven monasteries he founded with his inheritance money were proof of his zeal.

No, Silvia had no misgivings about leaving her wealth behind. But now she was glad that she had saved one small keepsake from all her former possessions. It was a handsome silver dish, and she knew just what she was finally going to do with it.

She rushed to the garden and picked as many fresh vegetables as she thought the dish would hold. With meticulous care she cleaned the food and arranged it on the platter. Perhaps Gregory would smile when he saw the memento from their past life together, she thought, as she handed the platter over to a messenger. She hoped he would

Then, turning back to the quiet solitude of the cloister, she busied herself in prayer for her son's recovery.

* * * *

Gregory did eventually recover from his illness. But the damage to his body from the long fasts was irreversible, and was destined to remain with him for the remainder of his life.

If that life could have been spent at St. Andrew's, Gregory would have been overjoyed, sick or not. But the reputation for administrative wizardry he had gained years before in Rome's civil government followed him like a second shadow, and it wasn't long before Pope Pelagius II called on him for his political savvy.

"You will be my envoy to the Emperor," the Pope told Gregory in the summer of 579. "Your mission is to obtain help for us against the Lombards."

Gregory knew that the Lombards, an invading Germanic tribe, were threatening to sack Rome. But what could he do, one monk against a horde? He pleaded with the Holy Father to let him remain in the monastery, but the Pope would not be swayed. Gregory's aristocratic ties could open doors at the imperial court faster than an entire corp of clerics, the Pope reasoned. And with the invaders at the gate, time was of prime importance. Obediently, Gregory traveled East.

For the next seven years, Gregory served in the royal court at Constantinople. Though he tried mightily to muster military support against the Lombards, his efforts were largely unsuccessful. The Emperor's troops were constantly engaged elsewhere, it seemed, and unable to commit to Rome. Nonetheless, Gregory did form many friendships during his stay in Constantinople that would prove valuable in the future.

Upon completing his diplomatic assignment in 586, the only future Gregory envisioned and desired was one spent back at St. Andrew's. For a short time there, within the peaceful solitude of the monastery walls, he resumed his writing and spent long hours contemplating God and His Mysteries with little distraction. For Gregory it was an idyllic life.

But God had other plans for His talented servant.

One evening as Gregory crossed the courtyard on his way to his room, he caught sight of a beggar outside the gate. Ever mindful of the good fortune he had been born into, he never failed to give what he could to the poor. He approached the man and held out his hand to put him at ease.

"Friend, what brings you here?" asked Gregory.

"I have nowhere else to go," replied the man. "I was a merchant by trade, but my goods were lost in a storm at sea. I have not eaten for days."

Gregory's heart ached at the sight and sound of the man's destitution. He reached into his pocket and took out some coins.

 "Take this and get what food you can with it. Come back when you run out."

There will be many more like him, thought Gregory, as he watched the man slip off into the night. He had heard the news that floods were devastating northern Italy and would reach Rome by autumn. The city would likely be devastated.

Several months later, in the midst of the flooding he had feared, Gregory saw the same beggar again. The man looked even more pitiful than before. The Tiber had overflowed, said the beggar, destroying the granaries. There was no food to be found in the city. Gregory at once gave the man a basket of bread and vegetables. The beggar was immensely thankful.

A week later the beggar returned outside the gate. Gregory said a silent prayer of thanks that he had been the first to see the man, as some of the monks were wary of getting too close to strangers these days. Plague had hit the flood-devastated region, and people were fearful of one another.

This poor soul will surely die if he stays here, thought Gregory. If only there was more I could do for him. Suddenly a picture formed in Gregory's mind. Of course! He raced to his room and retrieved from his meager possessions the silver platter his mother had given him years before. He returned to the beggar.

"My friend, take this dish. It's good silver and should fetch a fair price." Then Gregory reached into his pocket and pulled out his last few coins. He forced them into the stranger's hands along with the beloved keepsake. "Now, you must leave the city. Trust in God's goodness, and He will see to your needs."

Walking back from the gate, Gregory was confident God would take care of the poor merchant. When he reached the door he looked back, but the beggar was already gone. Gregory hoped he would see the man again, in better times.

* * * *

In February of 590, Pope Pelagius fell victim to the plague. Given his administrative skills and reputation for personal holiness, Gregory was the obvious choice of successor. Obvious to everyone, that is, but him. The thought of being Pope frightened him so much that he tried to flee in secret. But his plan was soon discovered. On September 3, 590, Gregory was named the sixty-third successor of Peter.

Like every other job he had been given in his life, Gregory performed his papal duties with care and diligence. His experience in civil matters soon proved invaluable when the Lombards invaded Italy and threatened Rome in 592. Through skillful negotiations, Gregory established treaties with the Lombards, and eventually his influence strengthened the Church's presence in Spain and France as well.

Though during much of his papacy Gregory acted in the role of a temporal ruler, he never forgot he was primarily a pastor. There were many people to care for in and around Rome as a result of war, pestilence and famine. Gregory did his best to provide for them all. He made sweeping reforms in the administration of the Church's treasury and used those resources for feeding the hungry, ransoming the imprisoned, and caring for the sick and injured.

No one disputed Gregory's genius for solving problems. But an even greater trait he possessed was humility, a virtue that he himself called "the root of goodness." In no better way did he manifest this virtue than by a practice he began early in his papacy. Each day he would invite twelve poor persons into the papal quarters and serve them a meal himself, in imitation of the Last Supper. On one particular day, Gregory saw that an extra person had entered the dining area.

"Why are there thirteen guests here today?" Gregory asked his steward.

"Your Holiness, I assure you there are only the usual twelve."

"I am certain I see thirteen!" Gregory insisted. But looking around again, he saw only twelve. He shrugged and assumed that fatigue was playing tricks on his mind.

As the evening progressed, Gregory became increasingly drawn toward one of the visitors. Every time he looked at the man, it seemed he was looking into a different face. At one point the man would appear young and handsome; the next, old and noble. There was a quality about him Gregory couldn't quite place, but it was oddly familiar. Finally, he could stand the mystery no longer and approached the stranger.

"Friend, may I ask who you are?”

The man looked at Gregory squarely and replied, "I am the poor merchant to whom you gave twelve pieces of money and the silver dish that held the special memory of your mother. I am your angel, whom God sent to test your charity."

Gregory began to tremble. An angel of God was before him!

"Fear not, Gregory. It is because of that silver dish that God has given you the Chair of Peter. As I was the cause of your being raised to that position, so shall I protect and preserve you in it until death. God will grant you everything you ask through me."

Then the angel vanished. Whether the other guests had even seen him, Gregory was not sure. But he was certain of the angel's words, for they still echoed in his head. And at the same time he felt a remarkable sense of relief, as if the crushing weight of his responsibilities had been lifted.

Buoyed by his angel's promise, Gregory went on to accomplish more in a fourteen-year papacy than many kingdoms achieved in a generation. One of his greatest successes was the evangelization of England, which he accomplished through the missionary work of St. Augustine and monks from his own St. Andrew's Monastery.

When he died at age 64, Gregory left behind over 800 letters and numerous other writings. His influence on Christian civilization, and European history in general, was so profound as to earn him the titles "The Great" and "Doctor of the Church." Yet Gregory, in characteristic humility, always referred to himself as "the servant of the servants of God," a title that has been used ever since by the Popes.

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