For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing about Augustine of Canterbury’s letter to Pope Gregory the Great as documented in Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Today will be my last post about this letter as we’ve reached the final question:
IX. Augustine’s ninth question: May a man receive communion after a sexual illusion in a dream; or, if a priest, may he celebrate the holy mysteries? (Bede, pg. 81)
Like Gregory’s other answers to Augustine, this question also has several answers depending on the surrounding circumstances. Gregory tells Augustine that the cause of these dreams is the result of three types of actions: “over-eating…excess or lack of bodily vigour [sic], and…impure thoughts” (pg. 82). If the dream is the result of “bodily vigour [sic]” (pg. 82) then “it need not be feared”(pg. 82). Gregory says people shouldn’t worry about it because it’s not something that the person directly caused. Instead, these dreams are something that just kind of happens in the mind. However, this is not the case for the other two actions.
If the sexual dream was caused by gluttony then things should be taken a bit more seriously. Gregory says that “a greedy appetite” has the power to “run riot and overloads the repositories of the bodily fluids” and as a result, “the mind is to blame” (pg. 82). Even though Gregory has no problem saying that the priest caused these dreams because of his gluttony, he also tells Augustine that the priest is still allowed to say masses on feast days and “administer the sacrament” (pg. 82) if there are no other priests around to do it for him. However, Gregory does wish that the priest would be moved by “humility” and “refrain from offering the holy mysteries under these circumstances” (pg. 82).
Interestingly, the priest can still receive communion as long as he hasn’t “been excited by impure thoughts” (pg. 82). Gregory goes on to explain that while some people have these sexual dreams they “are not mentally disturbed” (pg. 82) by them. He argues that even though the brain “remembers nothing that occurs during sleep” it still remembers “greedy appetites” (pg. 82). On the sinfulness scale, Gregory considers gluttony induced lust bad, but it’s still pretty low in terms of just how terrible it really is.
But what if a priest is having sexual dreams because they are having sexual thoughts while awake? Well, according to Gregory that’s pretty bad, but it’s important to consider how the priest reacts to it. Are these sexual thoughts merely intrusive suggestions? Does he “take pleasure in it” (pg. 83)? Or does he “assent to it” (pg. 83)? Each scenario is caused by a different thing:
“Suggestion comes through the devil, pleasure through the flesh, and consent through the will.” (pg. 83)
Once the priest knows what kind of impure thought he’s been having he can figure out how to move on from there. Gregory says that even though the devil may suggest a sin, “no sin is committed unless the flesh takes pleasure in it” (pg. 83). But if a person’s body takes pleasure in this action, “sin is born” (pg. 83). That being said, Gregory argues that it’s only when “deliberate consent is given, sin is complete” (pg. 83).
Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.