I have started reading St. Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job in the new English translation by Brian Kerns, O.C.S.O., only occasionally checking a pdf of the Latin. It’s an enormous work—about the length of Augustine’s City of God and Confessions combined— and I have only got through book I, but so far it fully justifies its reputation as a masterpiece.
Scripture, St. Gregory tells us, is “a river both shallow and deep, in which a lamb walks and an elephant swims.” In his commentary (at least in book I— the editorial introduction that the procedure changes later on) Gregory interprets each passage in three senses. First he interprets a few verses in the “historical” sense as applying to Job, and then goes back and interprets them again in an allegorical sense as referring to Christ the head, and then goes back and interprets them a third time in a moral sense as applying to Christ’s body, the Church. He thus takes what we would call the anagogical sense as part of the moral sense.
One theme that struck me particularly in reading book one was hope (perhaps because I had just preached a retreat on that virtue). Here is Gregory on how the burden of earthly life is unbearable without hope:
What indeed could be heavier or more burdensome than to bear the troubles of a passing world without any hope of reward to relieve the mind? (1.XV.22)
Et quid esse gravius atque onustius potest, quam afflictionem saeculi praetereuntis perpeti, et nequaquam ad relevationem mentis gaudia remunerationis sperare?
And again on a donkey as a figure of how hopes makes the burdens of life bearable:
So he offers his shoulders to bear burdens, for he has spotted eternal rest, and he obeys difficult orders at work, regardless of anything his natural weakness may and impossible; he believes it to be light and easy, in hope of the reward. (1.XVI.24)
Quae ad portandum humerum supponit; quia conspecta superna requie, praeceptis etiam gravibus in operatione se subjicit, et quidquid intolerabile pusillanimitas asserit, hoc ei leve ac facile spes remunerationis ostendit.
At the same time I have been reading Benoît Peeters’s Derrida biography, and I was struck by a line from a letter written by the young Derrida to a friend: “If the only thing we can share in this world is despair, I’ll be ready to share it with you, always.” (p. 90). Too things struck me about that line: the first is the inescapable human orientation toward the common good; even in the apparent absence of anything good, one must at least convert one’s despair into a good to be shared. The second is how well the sadness of the line illustrates St. Gregory’s point: what could be heavier or more burdensome than despair?