Wednesday, June 07, 2017

The curious tale of Florentius and the bear ~ early 6th century Italy

A Hermit with a Bear by Mikhail Nesterov (1925).
Monday was the feast of Saint Florentius, one of the martyrs killed during the reign of the Roman emperor Decius in the mid-3rd century AD. Given that I operate under the blogonym "Florentius", my ears always perk up a little when I hear the name. Unfortunately, little is known of this Florentius other than that he was martyred under Decius near Perugia along with companions named Marcellinus, Cyriacus, Faustinus, and Julianus.

But his name recalled to my mind a different Saint Florentius from a few centuries later whose atypical life was recorded in The Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great. This Florentius is commemorated on May 23, so perhaps a post about him is not too far out of place.

Saint Florentius of Nursia was an Italian hermit who lived in the same locale that would later generate the great Saint Benedict, the father of Western monasticism. He was active in this area of central Italy about the time that Theodoric and his Goths first took control in Ravenna—that is, the late 5th century AD. In Gregory's Dialogues, Florentius is closely associated with Euthicius, another saint from the same region. When Euthicius was chosen to be an abbot of a nearby monastery, it fell to Florentius to upkeep the empty oratory left behind by his friend. But Florentius was lonely caring for the oratory all by himself, so he asked God to send him a friend:
Having ended his devotions, [Florentius] went forth, where he found a bear standing before the door, which by the bowing down of his head to the ground, and shewing in the gesture of his body no sign or cruelty, gave the man of God to understand that he was come thither to do him service, and himself likewise did forthwith perceive it. And because he had in the house four or five sheep which had no keeper, he commanded the bear to take charge of them, saying: "Go and lead these sheep to the field, and at noon come back again": which charge he took upon him, and did daily come home at that hour: and so he performed the office of a good shepherd, and those sheep, which before time he used to devour, now fasting himself, he took care to have them safely kept. 
Florentius became famous for his virtue and holy mode of life, and maintained his friendship with his shepherd, Brother Bear. Unfortunately, some became jealous of him:
Four of Euthicius' monks, swelling with envy that their master wrought not any miracles, and that he who was left alone by him was famous for so notable a one, upon very spite went and killed his bear. And therefore, when the poor beast came not at his appointed hour, Florentius began to suspect the matter: but expecting yet until the evening, very much grieved he was that the bear, whom in great simplicity he called his brother, came not home. The next day, he went to the field, to seek for his sheep and his shepherd, whom he found there slain; and making diligent inquisition, he learned quickly who they were that had committed that uncharitable fact. Then was he very sorry, bewailing yet more the malice of the monks than the death of his bear; whom the reverent man Euthicius sent for, and did comfort him what he might.
The evil monks should have known better than to mess with Florentius...
But the holy man Florentius, wonderfully grieved in mind, did in his presence curse them, saying: "I trust in almighty God, that they shall in this life, and in the sight of the world, receive the reward of their malice, that have thus killed my bear which did them no harm;" whose words God's vengeance did straight follow, for the four monks that killed the poor beast were straight so stricken with a leprosy, that their limbs did rot away, and so they died miserably.
Good man that he was, however, Florentius was terrified and sorry for what had been wrought through his prayers.
The man of God, Florentius, was greatly afraid, and much grieved, that he had so cursed the monks; and all his life after he wept, for that his prayer was heard, crying out that himself was cruel, and that he had murdered those men. Which thing I suppose almighty God did, to the end that he should not, being a man of great simplicity, upon any grief whatsoever, afterward presume to curse any.
Pope Gregory, continuing his dialogue with his interlocutor named Peter, turns the incident into a "teachable moment":
PETER: "What? is it any great sin, if in our anger we curse others?"
GREGORY. "Why do you ask me whether it be a great sin, when as St. Paul saith: 'Neither cursers shall possess the kingdom of God?' Think, then, how great the sin is, which doth exclude a man out of heaven."   
PETER: "What if a man, haply not of malice, but of negligence in keeping his tongue, doth curse his neighbor?"
Click to order.
GREGORY: "If before the severe judge idle speech is reprehended, how much more that which is hurtful. Consider, then, how damnable those words be, which proceed of malice, when that talk shall be punished which proceedeth only from idleness."
PETER: "I grant it be most true."
The Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great, written in the late 6th or early 7th century, is filled with such strange stories of the miraculous and the extraordinary, offering a rare window into life during a time when Roman civilization was crumbling, and Italy was on the cusp of Dark Ages desolation.

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