Gregory the Great: Monks, missions – Contemplation, action

The top of St Gregory’s crozier

I’ve been doing some reading on and of Pope St Gregory I ‘the Great’ (pope, 590-604, saint of the week here) recently, and this ‘last’ of the Western Fathers bears much relevance to my recent discussions of both contemplative prayer and of the ongoing demise of white Anglophone Christianity.

In R.A. Markus’ Gregory the Great and His World, there is a good discussion of Gregory’s own spiritual ideal of the contemplative life and how he was forced to reconcile that ideal with his own calling to be Bishop of Rome. It is a standard trope in Late Antiquity that one resists being ordained bishop but finally acquiesces. Every once in a while, though, we meet a figure who seems to genuinely have preferred the cloister and the cell to the cathedral and the throne. Gregory the Great is one, St Gregory of Nazianzus another. Shortly after being elected Bishop of Rome, Gregory writes:

Yet in this way, I have been bought back to the world in the guise of a bishop, in which I am as much a slave to earthly cares, as I remember being a slave to them in my life as a layman. For I have lost the profound joys of my peace and quiet, and I seem to have risen externally, while falling internally. Wherefore, I deplore my expulsion far from the face of my Creator. For I was trying every day to move outside the world, outside the flesh, to drive all corporeal images from my mind’s eye and to regard the joys of Heaven in an incorporeal way. Not only with my words but also with the innermost parts of my heart I kept saying, panting before a vision of God: “My heart said unto you, I have sought your face, your face, Lord, shall I seek.’ (Ps 26 (27):8) But desiring nothing in this world, fearing nothing, I thought I was standing on some high pinnacle, in such a way that I could believe that what I had learnt from the prophet promised by God was almost fulfilled in me: ‘I will raise you above the heights of the earth.’ (Is. 58:14) For a man is ‘raised above the heights of the earth’ who contemptuously spurns even the very things that appear noble and glorious in the present world. But suddenly driven by a tornado from the pinnacle of this temptation, I have fallen headlong into fears and trepidations, because, although I am afraid of nothing for myself, yet I greatly fear for those who have been entrusted to me. From all sides I am shaken by the waves and weighed down by the tempest of affairs …’ Ep. 1.5 to Theoctista, sister of the Emperor Maurice, October 590 (trans. J.C. Martyn)

Gregory’s main outline of how to wed these two lives is the Pastoral Rule. Rather than seeing them as two stages of progression as many other ascetics would — from the active to the contemplative — Gregory saw the two forms of life working in an integrated manner, operating cooperatively. At different times of life, the same Christian can experience each of these forms of life. And the duty of the pastor is, in fact, to take the grace and knowledge and peace attained through contemplation and use it in the service of others, through preaching the Word of God in particular.

In the Pastoral Rule, Gregory argues that someone who has been given gifts from God through seclusion and the contemplative life sins if he rejects the call from the church to the service of the people of God. At Rome, Gregory lived in community with fellow monks and promoted monks within the ranks of the Roman clergy throughout his tenure of the Apostolic See. Because Gregory was such a fan of St Benedict, some think this the Benedictine ideal, but it is actually Augustinian, for the Rule of St Augustine is for clergy, not cloistered monks.

Gregory, the first monk to be Rome’s Bishop, would send a band of monks, with a monk at the their head, to evangelise the English. An interesting thesis put forth, I believe, by Dudden’s 1905 work on Gregory the Great is that Gregory wanted monks to convert the English in a manner integrated with his own monastic programme within Latin Christianity. By so doing, the Anglo-Saxon church would be a bulwark of monastic missionaries in the North; their influence could later extend South into Gaul and Germania (which it would; see my posts on Sts Boniface and Willibrord).

Dudden, I think, goes too far in his analysis of Gregory’s works, hunting for references to St Benedict’s Rule. It is not, as far as I can tell, explicitly referenced by Gregory, and all of the parallel ideals of the Rule are easily found in Sts Augustine and John Cassian as well as western canon law. That is, Gregory the Great was not imposing and enforcing the Rule; the Rule simply stands at the end of a long tradition of monastic practice. Nevertheless, St Gregory certainly promoted his own view of monachism, a view influenced by the same sources that influenced the Rule of St Benedict.

But his own transplantation from the contemplative to the active life means that he has adapted this monastic ideal. The cloister is to go abroad and adventure. The fruits of contemplation are to be shared. Evangelistic preaching is to be wedded with meditative silence.

Perhaps a renewed commitment to both contemplation and mission will help us revitalise our congregrational life and bring more people to faith?

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