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Gregory the Great
Dialogues, Book IV

Chapter Thirty-six: of those souls which seem as it were through error to be taken out of their bodies: and of the death and reviving of a monk calleo Peter: of the death, likewise, and raising up again of one Stephen: and of the strange vision of a certain soldier.

GREGORY. When this happeneth, Peter, it is not, if it be well considered, any error, but an admonition. For God of his great and bountiful mercy so disposeth, that some after their death do straightways return again to life, that having seen the torments of hell, which before when they heard they would not believe, they may now at least tremble at, after they have with their eyes beheld them. For a certain Sclavonion, who was a monk and lived with me here in this city in my Monastery, used to tell me that at such time as he dwelt in the wilderness, that he knew one Peter, a monk born in Spain, who lived with him in the vast desert called Evasa  which Peter (as he said) told him how, before he came to dwell in that place, by a certain sickness he died, and was straightways restored to life again, affirming that he had seen the torments and innumerable places of hell, and divers, who were mighty men in this world, hanging in those flames; and that as himself was carried to be thrown also into the same fire, suddenly an Angel in a beautiful attire appeared, who would not suffer him to be cast into those torments: but spake unto him in this manner: "Go thy way back again, and hereafter carefully look unto thyself, how thou leadest thy life": after which words his body by little and little became warm, and himself, waking out of the sleep of everlasting death, reported all such things as happened about him: after which time he bound himself to such fasting and watching, that though he had said nothing, yet his very life and conversation did speak what torments he had seen and was afraid of: and so God's merciful providence wrought in his temporal death that he died not everlastingly.

But because man's heart is passing obdurate and hard, hereof it cometh that though others have the like vision, and see the same pains, yet do they not always reap the like profit. For the honourable man Stephen, whom you knew very well, told me of himself, that at such time as he was upon business resident in the city of Constantinople, that he fell sick and died; and when they sought for a surgeon to bowel him, and to embalm his body, and could not get any, he lay unburied all the night following: in which space his soul was carried to the dungeon of hell, where he saw many things, which before when he heard he little believed. But when he was brought before the judge that sat there, he would not admit him to his presence, saying: "I commanded not this man to be brought, but Stephen the smith ": upon which words he was straightway restored to life, and Stephen the smith, that dwelled hard by, at that very hour departed this life: whose death did show that the words which he heard were most true. But though the foresaid Stephen escaped death in this manner at that time, yet three years since, in that mortality which lamentably wasted this city (and in which, as you know, men with their corporal eyes did behold arrows that came from heaven, which did strike divers), the same man ended his days: at which time a certain soldier being also brought to the point of death, his soul was in such sort carried out of his body, that he lay void of all sense and feeling, but coming quickly again to himself, he told them that were present, what strange things he had seen. For he said (as many report that know it very well) that he saw a bridge, under which a black and smoky river did run, that had a filthy and intolerable smell: but upon the farther side thereof there were pleasant green meadows full of sweet flowers, in which also there were divers companies of men apparelled in white: and such a delicate savour there was, that the fragrant odour thereof did give wonderful content to all them that dwelt and walked in that place. Divers particular mansions also there were, all shining with brightness and light, and especially one magnificent and sumptuous house which was a building, the brick whereof seemed to be of gold, but whose it was, that he knew not.

There were also upon the bank of the foresaid river certain houses, but some of them the stinking vapour which rose from the river did touch, and some other it touched not at all. Now those that desired to pass over the foresaid bridge, were subject to this manner of trial: if any that was wicked attempted to go over, down he fell into that dark and stinking river; but those that were just and not hindered by sin, securely and easily passed over to those pleasant and delicate places. There he said also that he saw Peter, who was steward of the Pope's family, and died some four years since, thrust into a most filthy place, where he was bound and kept down with a great weight of iron: and inquiring why he was so used, he received that answer, which all we that knew his life can affirm to be most true: for it was told him that he suffered that pain, because when himself was upon any occasion to punish other, that he did it more upon cruelty than to shew his obedience; of which his merciless disposition none that knew him can be ignorant. There also he said that he saw a Priest whom he knew: who coming to the foresaid bridge, passed over with as great security, as he lived in this world sincerely.

Likewise, upon the same bridge he said that he did see this Stephen, whom before we spake of, who being about to go over, his foot slipped, and half his body hanging beside the bridge, he was of certain terrible men, that rose out of the river, drawn by the legs downward: and by certain other white and beautiful persons, he was by the arms pulled upward: and whiles they strove thus, the wicked spirits to draw him downward, and the good to lift him upward, he that beheld all this strange sight returned to life, not knowing in conclusion what became of him. By which miraculous vision we learn thisvthing concerning the life of Stephen, to wit, that in him the sins of the flesh did strive with his works of alms. For in that he was by the legs drawn downward, and by the arms plucked upward, apparent it is, that both he loved to give alms, and yet did not perfectly resist the sins of the flesh, which did pull him downward: but in that secret examination of the supreme judge, which of them had the victory, that neither we know, nor he that saw it. Yet most certain it is, that the same Stephen, after that he had seen the places of hell, as before was said, and returned again to his body, did never perfectly amend his former wicked life, seeing many years after he departed this world, leaving us in doubt whether he were saved or damned. Whereby we may learn, that when any have the torments of hell shewn them, that to some it is for their commodity, and to others for their testimony: that the former may see those miseries to avoid them, and these other to be so much the more punished, in that they would not take heed of those torments, which they both knew and with their eyes beheld.

PETER. What, I beseech you, was meant by the building of that house in those places of delight, with bricks of gold? For it seemeth very ridiculous, that in the next life we should have need of any such kind of metal.

What is meant by the building of the house in those pleasant places. And of one Deusdedit, whose house was seen to be built upon the Saturday.54

GREGORY. What man of sense can think so? but by that which was shewn there, whosoever he was, for whom that house was built, we learn plainly what virtuous works he did in this world: for he that by plenty of alms doth merit the reward of eternal light, certain it is, that he doth build his house with gold. For the same soldier who had this vision said also, which I forgot before to tell you, that old men, and young, girls, and boys, did carry those bricks of gold for the building of that house: by which we learn that those to whom we shew compassion in this world, do labour for us in the next. There dwelt also hard by us a religious man, called Deusdedit, who was a shoemaker, concerning whom another saw by revelation that he had in the next world an house a building; but the workmen thereof laboured only upon the Saturday. Who afterward enquiring more diligently how he lived, found that whatsoever he got by his labour all the week, and was not spent upon necessary provision of meat and apparel, all that upon the Saturday he bestowed upon the poor in alms at St. Peter's church: and therefore see what reason there was, that his building went forward upon the Saturday.

PETER. You have given me very good satisfaction touching this one point: yet desirous I am further to know, what the reason was that some of those habitations were touched, by the stinking vapour, and some were not; and what is meant by the bridge and river which he saw.

GREGORY. By the representation of these things, Peter, are expressed the causes which they do signify. For the bridge, by which he beheld God's servants to pass unto those pleasant places, doth teach us that the path is verystrait which leadeth to everlasting life: and the stinking river, which he saw running beneath, signifieth that the filthy corruption of vice in this world doth daily run to the downfall of carnal pleasure. And that some of the habitations were touched with the stinking vapour, and some were not, what is meant else, but that there be divers which do many good works, yet in their soul they are touched with the delight of carnal sins? and therefore very great reason there is, that in the next world such should taste of a stinking vapour, whom filthy carnality did delight in this; and therefore blessed Job, perceiving the pleasure of the flesh to be stinking, pronounceth this sentence of the wanton and carnal man: His sweetness be worms. But those that do preserve their heart free from all pleasure of carnal thoughts, have not their houses touched with any such stinking vapour: and here we have also to note, that he saw one and the same thing both to be a vapour and also to have an ill savour, because carnal delight doth so obscure the soul which it hath infected, that it can not see the brightness of true light: for the more pleasure it hath in the inferior part, the more darkness it hath in the superior, which doth hinder it from the contemplation of heavenly mysteries.