The prophet Zechariah once had a vision of four successive chariots, each pulled by a pair of horses, emerging between two brazen mountains. The first pair of horses were red, the second black, the third white and the fourth were grey and strong. What does it all mean, he asked the angel?
The angel told him:
These are the four winds of the heaven, which go forth to stand before the Lord of all the earth. That in which were the black horses went forth into the land of the north, and the white went forth after them: and the grisled went forth to the land of the south. And they that were most strong, went out, and sought to go, and to run to and fro through all the earth.
Adapting an exposition of Pope Gregory IX, we can see this as a reference to the four great religious rules in the Church. The earliest is that of St Basil. He is symbolized by the red or chestnut horses, since this is the closest a horse can be to the imperial colour: and his very name means king or emperor. His horses are not said to go to some new location, since Catholic religious life in the East has on the whole not moved far, down the centuries, from those places where it began.
The black horses represent the rule of St Benedict, and in their chariot are the black monks. Starting in Monte Cassino, or Nursia if you prefer, they “went forth into the land of the north,” and filled it with their monasteries.
The white horses stand for the rule of St Augustine. Why do these ‘go forth after’ the black ones, when Augustine lived a hundred years before Benedict? Perhaps because the Orders which have perpetuated his rule in the Church are ones that came later – the Premonstratensians and the Dominicans. These Orders also go forth after, that is, imitate, the Benedictines in being committed to a solemn choral office. The religious of these two Orders wear white, hence the white horses.
The last of the great rules is that of St Francis, symbolised by the strong, grey horses pulling his chariot of grey friars. Why do they go to the land of the south? At first I wondered if this could be a reference to the evangelisation of South America; but the Dominicans were prominent in this as well. Perhaps then it stands for some future great effort of evangelisation of the Muslims, foreshadowed by the early Franciscan martyrs of north Africa, and by St Francis’s own attempt, ultimately successful according to the Fioretti, to convert the sultan of Egypt. May then the strong sons of Francis go forth against the sons of Mahomet and slay them, with the sword not of steel but of the Spirit!