Gesta Romanorum Vol. I (1871)/Of bad Example

Gesta Romanorum Vol. I  (1871) 
Anonymous, translated by Charles Swan
Of bad Example



In the reign of Otho there was a certain slippery priest, who created much disturbance among his parishioners, and many were extremely scandalised. One of them, in particular, always absented himself from mass, when it fell to the priest's turn to celebrate it. Now it happened on a festival day, during the time of mass, that as this person was walking alone through a meadow, a sudden thirst came upon him; insomuch, that he was persuaded, unless present relief could be obtained, he should die. In this extremity, continuing his walk, he discovered a rivulet of the purest water, of which he copiously drank. But the more he drank, the more violent became his thirst. Surprised at so unusual an occurrence, he said to himself, "I will find out the source of this rivulet, and there satisfy my thirst." As he proceeded, an old man of majestic appearance met him, and said, "My friend, where are you going?" The other answered, "I am oppressed by an excessive drought, surpassing even belief. I discovered a little stream of water, and drank of it plentifully; but the more I drank, the more I thirsted. So I am endeavouring to find its source, that I may drink there, and, if it be possible, deliver myself from the torment." The old man pointed with his finger. "There," said he, "is the spring-head of the rivulet. But tell me, mine honest friend, why are you not at Church, and with other good Christians, hearing Mass?" The man answered, "Truly, Master, our priest leads such an execrable life, that I think it utterly impossible he should celebrate it, so as to please God." To which the old man returned, "Suppose what you say is true. Observe this fountain, from which so much excellent water issues, and from which you have lately drunk." He looked in the direction pointed out, and beheld a putrid dog with its mouth wide open, and its teeth black and decayed, through which the whole fountain gushed in a surprising manner. The man regarded the stream with great terror and confusion of mind, ardently desirous of quenching his thirst, but apprehensive of poison from the fetid and loathsome carcase, with which, to all appearance, the water was imbued. "Be not afraid," said the old man, observing his repugnance: "thou hast already drank of the rivulet; drink again, it will not harm thee." Encouraged by these assurances, and impelled by the intensity of his thirst, he partook of it once more, and instantly recovered from the drought. "Oh! master," cried he, "never man drank of such delicious water." The old man answered, "See now; as this water, gushing through the mouth of a putrid dog, is neither polluted, nor loses aught of its natural taste or colour, so is the celebration of mass by a worthless minister. And therefore, though the vices of such men may displease and disgust, yet should you not forsake the duties of which they are the appointed organ." Saying these words, the old man disappeared; and what the other had seen he communicated to his neighbours, and ever after punctually attended mass. He brought this unstable and transitory life to a good end; and passed from that which is corruptible to inherit incorruption. Which may our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of Mary, grant to all. (8)


My beloved, the Emperor is God, in whose kingdom, that is, in the world, there is an evil priest; namely, every perverse Christian. For as the priest provides for the spiritual welfare of his parishioners, so the Christian is required to watch over and preserve the spiritual gifts communicated in baptism. The bad priest, through the influence of a bad example, causes many to separate from the community; and therefore, St. Gregory well says, that "as often as he does an ill action, he loses a soul." In like manner, the bad Christian occasions the condemnation of multitudes by the attraction of wicked examples and enticing words. If any of you, to whom I now speak, have been so deluded, act like the parishioner in our story. Walk across the meadows, that is, through the world, until you find one whom your soul esteems and loves—to wit, that old man, who is Christ, revealed by actions of benevolence and mercy. But, in the first place, drink of the rivulet although it should not immediately extinguish your thirst. That rivulet is baptism, which alone is able to quench the drought occasioned by original sin. Yet should the evil nature of that origin prevail, and you fall again into error, then seek out the fountain, and there drink. For that fountain is our Lord Jesus Christ, as he witnesses of himself. "I am a fountain of living water, springing up into eternal life." John iv. The streams or veins of that fountain are the words of Scripture, which too frequently issue from the mouth of a putrid dog; that is, of an evil preacher. If it should be asked, why the spring of pure water is made to flow through the rank jaws of a dog, rather than through those of any other animal, it is answered, that Scripture more usually compares it with a priest, than with anything else; and as in a dog there are four excellent qualities, described in the following couplet.

"In cane bis bina sunt; et lingua medicina,
"Naris odoratus, amor integer, atque latratus."

[In a dog there are four things: a medicinal tongue; (9) a distinguishing nose; an unshaken faith, and unremitting watchfulness.]
So priests, who would be useful in their station, ought diligently to cultivate these four properties. First, that their tongue possess the power of a physician in healing the sick in heart, and probing the wounds of sin; being careful, at the same time, that too rough a treatment does not exacerbate rather than cure: for it is the nature of dogs to lick the body's wounds. Secondly, as a dog, by keenness of scent distinguishes a fox from a hare, so a priest, by the quickness of his perception in auricular disclosures, should discover what portion of them appertains to the cunning of the fox—that is, to heretical and sophistical perverseness; what to internal struggles and timorous apprehensions, arising from the detestation of evil or hopelessness of pardon; and what to the unbroken ferocity of the wolf or lion, originating in a haughty contempt of consequences; with other gradations of a like character. Thirdly, as the dog is of all animals the most faithful, and ready in defence of his master or his family, so priests also, should show themselves staunch advocates for the Catholic faith; and zealous for the everlasting salvation, not of their parishioners alone, but of every denomination of true Christians, according to the words of our Lord, John x. "A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep." Also, John i. "Christ laid down his life for us." And we, in humble imitation of our divine Master, ought to lay down our lives for our brethren. Fourthly, as a dog by barking betrays the approach of thieves, and permits not the property of his master to be invaded—so, the faithful priest is the watch-dog of the great King: one, who by diligence in his calling, prevents the machinations of the devil from taking effect; from drawing the soul out of that high treasury composed of the precious blood of Christ; and where alone the amazing price of our redemption is eternally reposited.

Note 8.Page 49.

The Church of England holds the same doctrine which this beautiful tale inculcates. "Although in the visible Church, the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the ministration of the word and sacraments; yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their ministry, both in hearing the word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men." Article XXVI.

Note 9.Page 51.

"A medicinal tongue."

Lovell, in his Panzoologicomineralogia has enumerated all the rare properties which ancient medicine attributed to dogs; but what particular virtue the tongue was held to possess, does not appear. This must have been a work of immense labor; yet it is very useless.