Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Worthy of Imitation 2

GrgGrt.jpg“Every time we come closer to God, our desire for him is amplified; in the very fulfillment of the desire, there is planted a deeper yearning to experience more of the beloved.” One of the saints I have read very little of, but who is now on my reading list, is Gregory the Great, the so-called “monk pope.” And Chris Armstrong, in Patron Saints for Postmoderns: Ten from the Past Who Speak to Our Future, observes: “as Augustine was the father of medieval theology, Gregory was the father of medieval spirituality” (37). His tomb in St Peter’s is pictured above.

How do you balance the active demands of life with the need for contemplation? How do you balance the demands of everyday with the yearning for withdrawal and prayer and the need to be alone with God?
Gregory can be a source of much encouragement for anyone who struggles with the tension between an active life of service and a yearning for a life of contemplation. Born into a wealthy and land-lush family, educated among the elite, and already appointed to a key political post in Rome in the 6th Century, Gregory abandoned it all to pursue love of God as a monk. But others, led in God’s providence, had a more active life in mind.

Gregory experienced the uncertainty of life itself in the Roman world in which he came of age — the Goths and Ostrogoths and not to mention Justinian and the Lombards; he knew what it was like to watch the culture of the classical Roman world collapse — he saw it happen; and he knew spiritual disappointment as he longed for and loved the monastic life of contemplation but was eventually called into the center of the Church and medieval world as Pope Gregory.
It was this conflict — his love of the monastic life and his calling into the active life — that led Gregory to one of the greatest insights of the spiritual tradition: to see service as a form of contemplation. In some ways he anticipates the sanctification of work in Luther. Gregory inherited a more dualistic framework: the contemplative superior life; the ordinary secular life. But he took this all up a notch to sanctify the ordinary. Those who lived a life of service were even better prepared for the life of contemplation.
Furthermore, he saw all of life as filled with the presence of God, a theme called “world sacramentaism” by Armstrong.
If you’d like to see his advice for pastors, his book, The Book of Pastoral Rule: St. Gregory the Great (Popular Patristics Series)
, has proven to be one of the greatest pastoral theologies ever (also called The Rule of Pastoral Care). 
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D.L. White

posted September 9, 2009 at 4:16 am

Praise God for Gregory. He had a great missionary heart, and sent Augustine (not hippo, the other one) to England to share the gospel with the Brits. He gave Augustine and the early missionaries lots of sound advice, including this bit, from Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History”: “…that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected…”

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posted September 9, 2009 at 9:44 am

Does Gregory really sanctify the ordinary – or does he only sanctify the work of those called to service in the church … pastors, missionaries, etc?

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Scot McKnight

posted September 9, 2009 at 9:47 am

RJS, good question. I have read precious little of Gregory but have his book on order. It may be an extension to the ordinary (that I or Armstrong have made — not sure right now) but Gregory’s point is that the via activa is preparation for the via contemplativa rather than an intrusion into the via activa.

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Chris Armstrong

posted September 9, 2009 at 10:21 am

One of my scholarly sources (I don’t have the reference at hand right now) insisted that for Gregory, though the monastic life was to be preferred, “even the married” might experience contemplation. Further, he said that spiritual pride could certainly prevent the cloistered man or woman from experiencing God even to the degree that a humble housewife might.
For the whole theme of Gregory’s “world-sacramentalism,” check out Carole Straw, _Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection_, chapter 2 (“A Sacramental Vision”). An example of her observations in that chapter:
?The whole universe is a unity and proportional mixture of spiritual and carnal elements. . . . Gregory?s Christianity is never removed from the world?it is very much in it. For to perceive the world and natural life in sympathy with man is to possess a closeness to that world, a certain communion with the universe. Such a spirituality cannot ignore or reject either the natural world or the secular world of men. God?s universe is an organic whole, embracing so many and such different forms of life. Accommodation and integration remain open possibilities.? (p. 65)
Straw is a wonderful source, clearly outlining and deeply illustrating the key themes of Gregory’s spirituality.

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Chris Armstrong

posted September 9, 2009 at 10:26 am

Here’s a short summary on the theme of Gregory and the busy-ness of our secular vocations: .

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posted September 9, 2009 at 10:42 am

Interesting article.

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John W Frye

posted September 9, 2009 at 12:03 pm

Thanks for the link to the CT article. I’ve been interested in how the early church contemplatives pointed out the vast interior of the human soul/spirit/”inner person”–the geography of the soul–and that one can cultivate an inner contemplative spirituality in the midst of “secular” activities. Do you see this, too?

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