“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.