The 'Ship of the Mind': from Pope Gregory to King Alfred.




The theme of the 'Navis Mentis' ('Ship of the Mind') occurs in several of Gregory's writings. Under the guidance of Pope Gregory the Great the Church drifted from its mores in Classical Antiquity and set sail on the oceans of time. The twin lights of Gregory and Augustine illuminated the way of the Ark of the Church during the Medieval Period. The litmotif on the ship of the church can be seen as a continuation of the theme of the ship of the state: [quote Sophocles]
The nautical theme was taken up again, when the European Nations were making their first stirings, by Alfred the Great, in the poetic elaborations of his translation, into Saxon, of St Augustine's 'Soliloqies'.

"Gregory to Leander, &c.

[Note: Leander was then Bishop of Seville, abroad evangelizing the King of the Visigoths, and one of Gregory's confidant's].

I should have wished to reply to your letters with full application of mind, were I not so worn by the labour of my pastoral charge as to be more inclined to weep than to say anything.  And this your Reverence will take care to understand and allow for in the very text of my letters, when I speak negligently to one whom I exceedingly love.  For, indeed, I am in this place tossed by such billows of this world that I am in no wise able to steer into port the old and rotten ship of which, in the hidden dispensation of God, I have assumed the guidance.  Now in front the billows rush in, now at the side heaps of foamy sea swell up, now from behind the storm follows on.  And, disquieted in the midst of all this, I am compelled sometimes to steer in the very face of the opposing waters; sometimes, turning the ship aside, to avoid the threats of the billows slantwise.  I groan, because I feel that through my negligence the bilgewater of vices increases, and, as the storm meets the vessel violently, the rotten planks already sound of shipwreck. 
With tears I remember how I have lost the placid shore of my rest, and with sighs I behold the land which still, with the winds of affairs blowing against me, I cannot reach.  If, then, thou lovest me, dearest brother, stretch out to me in the midst of these billows the hand of thy prayer; that from helping me in my labours thou mayest, in very return for the benefit, be the stronger in thine own."

"Gregory to Leander, &c.

I confess that in advancing outwardly I have fallen much inwardly, and I fear that I am of the number of those of whom it is written, Thou didst cast them down while they were lifted up (Ps. lxxii. 18(7)). For he is cast down when he is lifted up who advances in honours, and falls in manners. For I, following the ways of my Head, had determined to be the scorn of men and the outcast of the people, and to run in the lot of him of whom again it is said by the Psalmist, The ascents in his heart he hath disposed in the valley of tears (Ps. lxxxiii. 7(8)); that is, that I should ascend inwardly all the more truly as I lay outwardly the more humbly in the valley of tears. But now burdensome honour much depresses me, innumerable cares din me, and, when my mind collects itself for God, they cleave it with their assaults as if with a kind of swords. My heart has no rest. It lies prostrate in the lowest place, depressed by the weight of its cogitation. Either very rarely or not at all does the wing of contemplation raise it aloft. My sluggish soul is torpid, and, with temporal cares barking round it, already almost reduced to stupor, is forced now to deal with earthly things, and now even to dispense things that are carnal; nay sometimes, by force of disgust, is compelled to dispose of some things with accompanying guilt. [...]  But in the midst of all this I implore thee by Almighty God to hold me who am fallen into the billows of perturbation with the hand of thy prayer. For I sailed as it were with a prosperous breeze when I led a tranquil life in a monastery: but a storm, rising suddenly with gusty surges, caught me in its commotion, and I lost the prosperity of my voyage; for in loss of rest I suffered shipwreck. Lo, now I am tossed in the waves, and I seek for the plank of thy intercession, that, not being counted worthy to reach port rich with my ship entire, I may at least after losses be brought to shore by the aid of a plank."

"Letter to Cyriacus, Bishop of Constantinople.

Now you say in your letter that you had exceedingly wished for rest. But in this you shew that you have fitly assumed pastoral responsibility, since, as a place of rule should be denied to those who covet it, so it should be offered to those who fly from it. And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron (Hebr. v. 4). And again the same excellent preacher says, If one died far all, then all died; and Christ died for all. It remaineth that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again (2 Cor. v. 14, 15). And to the shepherd of holy Church it is said, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Feed My sheep (John xxi. 17). From which words it appears that, if one who is able refuses to feed the sheep of Almighty God, he shews that he does not love the chief Shepherd. For if the Only-begotten of the Father, for accomplishing the good of all, came forth from the secrecy of the Father into the midst of us, what shall we say, if we prefer our secrecy to the good of our neighbours? Thus rest is to be desired by us with all our heart; and yet for the advantage of many it should sometimes be laid aside. For, as we ought with full desire to fly from occupation, so, if there should be a want of some one to preach, we must needs put a willing shoulder under the burden of occupation. And this we are taught by the conduct of two prophets(2), one of whom attempted to shun the office of preaching, while the other desired it. For to the Lord who sent him Jeremias replied saying, Ah, Lord God, I cannot speak; far I am a child (Jer. i. 6). And when Almighty God sought for some one to preach, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Isaias offered himself of his own accord, saying, Here am I, send me (Isai. vi. 8). Lo, different voices proceeded outwardly from the two, but they flowed from the same fountain of love.
For indeed there are two precepts of charity; to wit, the love of God and of one's neighbour. Wherefore Isaias, wishing to profit his neighbours by an active life, desires the office of preaching; but Jeremias, longing to cling assiduously to the love of his Maker by a contemplative life, protests against being sent to preach. What, then, one laudably desired the other laudably shrunk from: the latter lest by speaking he should lose the gains of silent contemplation; the former lest by keeping silence he should feel the loss of diligent work. But this is nicely to be observed in both, that he who refused did not resist finally, and he who wished to be sent saw himself previously purged by a coal from the altar; that so no one who has not been purged should dare to approach sacred ministries, nor any one whom heavenly grace chooses refuse proudly under a show of humility.
Moreover I find yon in your epistles seeking with great longing after serenity of mind, and panting for tranquillity of thought apart from perturbation. But I know not in what manner your Fraternity can attain to this. For one who has undertaken the pilotage of a ship must needs watch all the more as he further recedes from shore, so as sometimes to foresee from signs the coming storms; sometimes, when they come, either, if they are small, to ride over them in a straight course, or, if they swell violently, to avoid them as they rush on by steering sideways; and often to watch alone when all who are without charge of the ship are at rest. How, moreover, having undertaken the burden of pastoral charge, can you have serenity of thought, seeing that it is written, Behold giants groan under the waters (Job xxvi. 5)? For, according to the words of John, The waters are peoples (Rev. xvii. 15). And the groaning of giants under the waters means that whoso in this world has increased in degree of power, as though in a sort of massive size of body, feels the load of greater tribulation by so much the more as he has taken on himself the care of ruling peoples. But, if the power of the Holy Spirit breathes upon the afflicted mind, forthwith what was done bodily for the people of Israel takes place with us spiritually. For it is written, But the children of Israel walked upon dry land in the midst of the sea (Exod. xiv. 29). And through the prophet the Lord promises saying, When thou passest through the waters. I will be with thee, and the rivers shall not overflow thee (Isai. xliii. 2). For the rivers overflow those whom the active business of this world confounds with perturbation of mind. But he who is sustained in mind by the grace of the Holy Spirit passes through the waters, and yet is not overflowed by the rivers, because in the midst of crowds of peoples he so proceeds along his way as not to sink the head of his mind beneath the active business of the world. I also, who, unworthy as I am, have come to a place of rule, had sometimes determined to seek some place of retirement: but, seeing the Divine counsels to be opposed to me, I submitted the neck of my heart to my Maker's yoke; especially reflecting on this, that no hidden places whatever can save the soul without the grace of God; and this we observe sometimes, when even saints go astray."

From Gregory's 'The Book of Pastoral Rule' (The Bishops Book):

"But for the most part those who covet pastoral authority mentally propose to themselves some good works besides, and, though desiring it with a motive of pride, still muse how they will effect great things: and so it comes to pass that the motive suppressed in the depths of the heart is one thing, another what the surface of thought presents to the muser's mind. For the mind itself lies to itself about itself, and feigns with respect to good work to love what it does not love, and with respect to the world's glory not to love what it does love. Eager for domination, it becomes timid with regard to it while in pursuit, audacious after attainment. For, while advancing towards it, it is in trepidation lest it should not attain it; but all at once, on having attained, thinks what it has attained to be its just due. And, when it has once begun to enjoy the office of its acquired dominion in a worldly way, it willingly forgets what it has cogitated in a religious way. Hence it is necessary that, when such cogitation is extended beyond wont, the mind's eye should be recalled to works already accomplished, and that every one should consider what he has done as a subordinate; and so may he at once discover whether as a prelate he will be able to do the good things he has proposed to do. For one can by no means learn humility in a high place who has not ceased to be proud while occupying a low one: one knows not how to fly from praise when it abounds, who has learnt to pant for it when it was wanting: one can by no means overcome avarice, when advanced to the sustentation of many, whom his own means could not suffice for himself alone. Wherefore from his past life let every one discover what he is, lest in his craving for eminence the phantom of his cogitation illude him. Nevertheless it is generally the case that the very practice of good deeds which was maintained in tranquillity is lost in the occupation of government; since even an unskilful person guides a ship along a straight course in a calm sea; but in one disturbed by the waves of tempest even the skilled sailor is confounded. For what is eminent dominion but a tempest of the mind, in which the ship of the heart is ever shaken by hurricanes of thought, is incessantly driven hither and thither, so as to be shattered by sudden excesses of word and deed, as if by opposing rocks? In the midst of all these dangers, then, what course is to be followed, what is to be held to, except that one who abounds in virtues should accede to government under compulsion, and that one who is void of virtues should not, even under compulsion, approach it?"

From Waerferth's Translation of Gregory's 'Dialogues':

[Note: Waerferth was Bishop of Worcester and a friend of Alfred the Greats who commissioned this translation.]

"Behold, indeed I am now battered by the waves of the great sea and struck in the ship of my mind by the storms of the powerful tempest, and when I recall my previous life, as if with eyes turned behind me, I sigh when I see the shore. Everything is even now more grievous, while tossed by huge waves I am carried off, only with difficulty am I now able to see the harbour that I forsook."

From King Alfreds translation into saxon of Augustines Soliloquies (composed in the form of a Socratic dialogue):

"Then she said: Did you learn with your eyes or with your mind? Then I said: I learned it with both: first with the eyes and then with the mind. The eyes brought me to the understanding. But when I had understood it, then I stopped looking with the eyes and thought; because it seemed to me that I could think about much more of it than I could see, since the eyes fastened it to my mind. So it is when a ship brings a man over the sea: after he comes to land, then he permits the ship to stand still, because it seems to him that he can go more easily without it than with. Although it seems easier to travel on dry land with a ship than it seems to learn any discipline with the eyes and without reason- yet sometimes the eyes must give aid thereto."

"For these things it is necessay that you look rightly with the eyes of the mind to God, as directly as the ship's anchor-cable is stretched straight from the ship to the anchor; and fasten the eyes of your mind on God as the anchor is fastened to the earth. Even if that ship is out on the sea in those waves, it is sound and unbroken, if the cable holds, because one end is fixed on the earth and the other on the ship."

[Alternate translation:
"R. Whether lernedest thou by the eyes, or by the mind? A. By both I learned it: first, by the eyes, and afterwards by the mind; the eyes brought me into the understanding; after I understood it, I left off the looking with the eyes, and thought; for it seemed to me that I could think much more than I could see of it, after the eyes had fasted it to my mind; as a man brings a ship over sea. When he then comes to land, then leaves he the ship to stand; for it seems to him then that he can go more easily without it than with it. Easier it seems to me, however, to go with a ship on dry land, than it seems to me to learn any craft with the eyes without the reason, though the eyes must sometimes help thereto. R. For these things it is needed that thou look with the mind's eyes right to God, as right as the ship's anchor-string is stretched right from the ship to the anchor; and fasten the eyes of thy mind on God, as the anchor is fastened on the earth. Though the ship be out on the sea, among the billows, it will be sound [and] unbroken, if the string holds out, for the one end of it is fast in the earth, and the other in the ship. A. What is that which thou callest the mind's eyes? R. Reason, besides other crafts. A. What are those other crafts? R. Wisdom, (or knowledge,) and humility, and wariness, and moderation, and righteousness, and mercy, discretion, steadiness, and well-wishing, cleanness, and continency. With these anchors thou shalt fasten the string on God, which shall hold the ship of thy mind.
A. The Lord God do me all as thou teachest me. I would if I might: but I cannot understand how I may get the anchors, or how I may fasten them, unless thou more clearly teach me. R. I can teach thee. But first I should ask thee, how many of this world's lusts thou hast forsaken for God. After thou then hast told me that, then I can tell thee without every doubt, that thou hast gotten so many of the anchors as thou hast forsaken of the lusts in the world."]

"... thou shalt see God with the eye of thy mind, as clearly as thou now seest the sun with the eyes of the body.
But he who wishes to see God, shall have his mind's eyes hale; that is, that he have fast belief, right hope, and full love. ...The sight by which we shall see God is understanding; the understanding is between two things, between that which understands and that which is there understood, and is fast on both; as love is between the lover and that which he there loves; on each it is fast, as we formerly spoke about the anchor-string, that the one end was fast on the ship, the other on the land."

"...tho the soul be ful-framed, and full clean, the while that it is in the body, it cannot see God so as it wishes, for the body's heaviness and trouble, but with much toil, through belief, and hope, and love; which are the three anchors that hold the ship of the mind amid the dread of the waves. The mind, however, has much comfort in that which it believes and well knows;- that the mischances and unhappiness of this world are not everlasting; as the ship's master, when the ship sits most inconveniently at anchor, and the sea is roughest, then knows for certain that wild weather is to come."

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