Filed under: Patristics
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today, I wish to speak about two ecclesiastical writers, Boethius and Cassiodorus, who lived during some of the most trying years of the Christian West, particularly, of the Italian peninsula.
Odoacre, king of the Eruli, a Germanic tribe, had rebelled, bringiing an end to the Western Roman Empire in 476, but soon he succumbed to the Ostrogoths under Theodoric who would control the Italian peninsula for the next several decades.
Boethius, born around 480 in the noble house of the Anicii, entered public life as a young man, becoming senator by the age of 25. Faithful to his family’s traditions, he entered politics, convinced that the principles of Roman society could be integrated with the values of the new populations.
In that new era of an encounter between cultures, he considered it his mission to reconcile and bring together classic Roman culture with the nascent culture of the Ostrogoths. He became very active in politics, even under Theodoric, who respected him greatly at the start.
Notwithstanding his public activity, Boethius did not ignore his studies, dedicating himself in particular to an examination of philosophical and religious themes. But he also wrote manuals of arithmetic, gemoetry, music and astronomy: all with the intention of passing on to the new generations, in those new times, the great Greco-Roman culture.
In this context, namely, in the promotion of the encounter between cultures, he used the categories of Greek philosophy to propose the Christian faith, even here, in search of a synthesis between the Hellenistic-Roman patrimony and the Gospel message. Because of this, Boethius has been described as the last representative of ancient Roman culture and the first of the medieval intellectuals.
His best-known work is De consolatione philosophiae, which he wrote while in prison to make sense of his unjust detention. He was, in fact, accused of plotting against King Theodoric because he had taken on the defense of a friend, Senator Albinus.
But it was simply a pretext. In fact, Theodoric, Arian and barbarian, suspected that Boethius harbored sympathies for the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Boethius was tried, condemned to death, and finally executed on October 23, 524, at the age of 44.
Because of his tragic end, he can speak of his own experience even to contemporary man, and above all, to so many persons who are undergoingg the same fate because of the injustice present in much of ‘human justice’.
In his prison text, he looks for comfort, for light, for wisdom. He writes that he was able to distinguish, precisely in his situation, between apparent ‘good’ – which is absent in jail – and true ‘good’, like authentic friendship, which can be found even in prison.
The highest good is God. Boethius learned – and teaches us – never to yield to fatalism which extinguishes hope. He teaches us that fate does not govern, but Providence, and it has a face. One can speak to Providence, because Providence is God.
That is why even in prison, there is the possibility of prayer, of dialog with him who saves us. At the same time, even in his situation, he kept a sense of the beauty of culture, and recalls the teachings of the great Greek and Roman philosophers – like Plato and Aristolte, whom he had begun to translate into Latin – and Cicero, Seneca, and poets like Tibullus and Virgil.
Philosophy, as the search for true wisdom, is, according to Boethius, the real medicine for the soul (ibid., Book I). On the other hand, man can experience authentic happiness only in his interiority (ibid., Bk II). And so, Boethius could think about his own personal tragedy in the light of a Wisdom text from the Old Testament (Wis 7,30-8,1), which he cites: “Wickedness prevails not over Wisdom; indeed, she reaches from end to end mightily and governs all things well” (Bk III, 12: PL 63, col. 780).
The so-called prosperity of evil ones, moreover, turns out to be false (Bk IV), and proves the providential nature of adverse fortune. The difficulties of life reveal not only how ephemeral the latter is but also that it is eventually useful for identifying and maintaining authentic inter-personal relationships.
Bad fortune, in fact, allows us to distinguish false friends from the true, and makes us understand that nothing is more precious to man than true friendship.
To fatalistically accept a condition of suffering is absolutely dangerous, says the believer Boethius, because “it eliminates at the root the possibility of prayer itself and of theological hope which are the bases of man’s relationship with God” (Bk V, 3: PL 63, COL. 842).
The final peroration of De consolatione philosophiae may be considered s synthesis of Boethius’s entire teaching which he addresses to himself and to all who may find themselves in similar conditions. He writes in prison: “And therefore to fight against the vices, dedicate yourself to a virtuous life oriented by hope which elevates the heart until it reaches heaven with prayers nourished by humility. The impositions you have undergone can change, sometimes refuted as lies, with the enormous advantage that you always have before your eyes the Supreme Judge who sees and knows how things really are” (Bk. V, 6: PL 63, col. 862).
Every detained person, for whatever reason he ends up in jail, knows how onerous this particular human condition is, especially when it is made brutal, as it was with Boethius, by the use of torture. Especially absurd is the condition of those who, like Boethius – whom the city of Pavia honors and celebrates as a martyr to the faith – are tortured to death without any other reason but their political and religious convictions.
Boethius, symbol of countless prisoners unjustly detained through all the ages and in all latitudes, is an objective doorway to contemplating the mystery of the Curcifixion on Golgotha.
A contempoary of Boethius was Marcus Aurelius Cassiodorus, a Calabrian native born in Squillace around 485, who died in the fullness of youth in Vivarium around 580.
He too, born into a high social level, dedicated himself to political life and cultural commitment as few others did in the Western Roman Empire in his time. Perhaps the only ones equal to him in this double commitment were Boethius himself and the future Pope, Gregory the Great (590-604).
Conscious of the need not to allow the human and humanistic patrimony accumulated in the golden age of the Roman empire to vanish into oblivion, Cassiodorus collaborated generously – and at the highest levels of political responsibility – with the new peoples who had entered the confines of the empire and had now settled in Italy.
He too was a model of cultural encounter, dialog and reconciliation. But historical events did not allow him to realize his cultural and political dreams which aimed to creeate a synthesis between Italy’s Roman-Christian tradition and the new Gothic culture.
Those same events convinced him, however, of the providentiality of the monastic movement, which was then affirming itself in Christian lands. He decided to support it, giving over to it all his mateerial wealth and his spiritual forces.
He conceived the idea of entrusting to the monks the task of recovering, conserving and transmitting to posterity the immense cultural patrimony of the ancients so that it would not be lost. For this, he founded Vivarium, a monastery in which everything was organized so that one could appreciate just how invaluable and irrenunciable was the intellectual labor of the monks.
He made sure that even those monks who had no special intellectual training did not only perform material work in agriculture, but also transcribed manuscripts and thus aided in transmitting the great culture of antiquity to future generations.
All this, without minimizing the monks’ monastic and Christian commitment and their charitable activites with the poor.
In his teaching, distributed in various works, but above all in his treatise De anima e nelle Institutiones divinarum litterarum, prayer (cfr PL 69, col. 1108), nourished by Sacred Scripture and the Psalms (cfr PL 69, col. 1149), always has a central place as the nourishment that was needed by everyone.
For example, here is how that most cultured Calabrian introduces his
Expositio in Psalterium: “Having rejected and abandoned in Ravenna all the demands of a political career characterized by the disgusting flavor of worldly concerns, and having benefited with joy from the Psaltery – a book from heaven that is authentic honey to the soul – I plunged avidly like a thirsty man into studying it ceaselessly to allow myself to be permeated by its salutary sweetness after having had enough of the countless bitternesses of active life” (PL 70, col. 10).
The search for God, the impulse to contemplate him, notes Cassiodorus, remains the permanent goal of monastic life (cfr PL 69, col. 1107). But he adds that, with the aid of divine grace (cfr PL 69, col. 1131.1142), one can reach a better fruition of the revealed Word by using the sientific conquests and the ‘profane’ cuultural instruments already possessed by the Greeks and Romans (cfr PL 69, col. 1140).
Personnaly, Cassiodorus dedicated himself to philosophical, theological and exegetical studies without perticular creativity, but he was always attentive to intuitions which he recognized as valid in others. Above all, he read Jerome and Augustine with respect and devotion.
About Augustine, he wrote: “In Augustine, there is such richness that it seems impossible for me to find anything that he has not already treated abundantly” (cfr PL 70, col. 10).
Citing Jerome, he exhorted the monks at Vivarium: “Those who gain the palm of victory are not only those who shed blood or who live in virginity, but all those who, with the help of God, triumph over the vices of the body and keep the right faith. But in order that you may, always with God’s help, more easily defeat the temptations of the world, while being in the world as pilgrims continually on the move, seek above all to guarantee to yourselves the salutary assistance suggested by the first Psalm which recommends meditating night and day on the law of the Lord. Indeed, the enemy will find no breach through which it can attack if all your attention is taken up by Christ” (De Institutione Divinarum Scripturarum, 32: PL 69, col. 1147).
It is an admonition that we can welcome as valid, even for us. In fact, we too live in a time of an encounter of cultures, of the dangers of violence which destroys cultures, and the necessary task of transmitting the great values and teaching the new generations the way of reconciliation and peace.
We find this way by orienting ourselves towards the God with the human face, the God revealed to us in Jesus Chirst.