Meet Greg: Pope, Saint and Pastor

Brief Biography
Gregory the Great was born in about 550 AD to wealthy parents of senatorial rank. He was educated as one of his class and went on to serve as the Prefect for Rome during the threat of Lombard invasion in 573. In 574 he retired and founded six monasteries with his personal funds. He also converted his father’s house into a monastery for himself and others. In 579 Gregory’s monastic life was interrupted when Pope Pelagius II made him the seventh Deacon, to care after the Christian community in Rome. Shortly thereafter the Pope sent him to Constantinople to gain the Emperor’s understanding of Rome’s peril and his military support. His seven years of work in Constantinople gave him exposure to Eastern theology, spirituality and church life. It was here that he began writing Moralia Job. Shortly after he returned to Rome hoping to resume a monastic life, the Pope died and Gregory was the popular choice for his replacement. With personal doubts about his own qualifications to serve as shepherd of the entire church and informed fears about the hectic schedule of a pope, Gregory temporarily
resisted his appointment. Shortly after being appointed Pope, he published Regula Pastoralis (Pastoral Care), which included an explanation of his hesitancy to be appointed to that position. Later he wrote his Dialogues full of stories of saint’s miracles. After 14 years as Pope, Gregory died, in his 50’s.

 Greg's Life Goal Though Gregory did not state explicitly what he thought to be the chief end of life in my readings, one can safely say that Gregory believed that life was to be lived for God, and for His glory. This is, of course, consistent with biblical texts and Christian writings, such as Jonathan Edwards’ dissertation concerning The End for Which God Made the World. Perhaps typical of one who has tasted the joys of contemplation, Gregory longed very much to spend his life in this enjoyment of God. So much so that it is not too great of a stretch to see a connection between Gregory’s thought and that of a contemporary Christian leader, John Piper. Piper’s ministry revolves around his reworking of the Canterbury Confession of man’s purpose which he believes can be understood as: “To glorify God by enjoying him forever”. As will become apparent as we explore Gregory’s thinking and writing, he considered it very lamentable that he should be drawn away from monastic life and the quiet contemplation it allowed. Had Gregory had his wish, he would have spent the remainder of his days as a simple monk, enjoying contemplation, fleeing earth and essentially living in heaven by having it always before his mind. Beliefs In regard to the state of humankind, Gregory had a robust view of humanity’s total depravity: “Human free will in man’s fallen state can do nothing good of itself” . Gregory’s assumption of the sovereignty of God and predestination was so dominant that in some cases it limited Gregory’s understanding of the efficacy of mortal works such as prayer: “nothing had happened which God had not predestined. Anastatius’ prayer had altered nothing” . Complementary to human depravity, Gregory also held that “Good men are like God; that is to say, they have, so far as it is possible to fallen men, both the ‘image’ and the ‘likeness’ to God in which they were created… [though]…not the same as Christ’s likeness to the Father” . In terms of anthropology “Gregory adopts the old division of a person into soul and body…the function of the body…is to be the ‘organ of the soul’, serving it through five senses” . This division is particularly important to note, especially as it concerns the role of the physical body. Like the other Church Fathers before him and the Catholic Church in general, Gregory was an ascetic. This means essentially that he considered the physical body as a great liability because it is the soul’s connection to physical world and all it’s temptations. “For Gregory, man’s very embodiment is troublesome.

Because the body connects man with the exterior world, it is the mediating link between soul and a world so full of temptations” . Gregory takes this logic even to speak of the senses as “inadvertently gateways to sin. Sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch are roads through which the soul or mind travels outside and falls to lusting after things outside its own substance” . Gregory encourages “refusing to pay attention to importunate messages carried by the body’s senses”. Though his language is harsh, it can not be said that Gregory considered the to be body inherently evil, only a terrible danger. Gregory was much more fond of the rational capacities which dwell within man and wrote “Even though reason is man’s better half, paradoxically the body makes man special to God” .

It is especially this vulnerability of man that prompts God’s inordinate grace. It should be noted that Gregory firmly believed in an afterlife, of much greater value than this life. Consistent with Catholic theology, Gregory held to a belief in purgatory as a place of “cleansing fire before judgment, because some minor faults that may remain to be purged away”. Purgatory is thus a means of grace, and not of condemnation as it is commonly thought by Protestants. Though Gregory speaks of the sufferings of this world as working for us cleansing, Purgatory is a final perfecting, of melting away all dross that one may be presented to God as wholly righteous.  

Greg's Other Goals
In keeping with Gregory’s belief that God was given much glory through holy lives, chief among Gregory’s secondary aims was righteous Christian living. Prerequisite to holy living is true conversion. Gregory’s considerable missionary efforts demonstrate this aim. “Of all the early Popes, there was none who so exerted himself to spread the Catholic faith throughout the countries subject to the influence of the Apostolic See” . Purity of heart and simplicity were to be the goal of both clergy and laypersons. This belief prompts Gregory’s call to pastors: “The primary task of the pastor or rector is not only to preach but to do so to such effect that his people are righteous” . It is not enough simply that people would hear truth, they must be prompted to live rightly. In his urging unto the study of Scripture he ultimately desires that his readers “may sigh more eagerly for the things eternal, that [their] soul[s] may be kindled with greater longings for heavenly joys” . This, it seems to Gregory, is how one can give God the greatest glory, not to mention how one can avoid the fires of hell and purgatory. As chief means to the righteous living of a preacher’s flock is the preaching of the Word. Because of Gregory’s belief in the multi-layered meanings of Scripture, he highly valued exegesis saying: “It is then above all the preacher’s task, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, to unfold for his listeners the hidden meanings of Scripture” .  

Greg's Method Gregory’s methods of evangelism and missionary work show careful consideration to meeting the needs of the heathen. One account of Gregory’s missionary works indicate his understanding of the importance of cultural sensitivity. When Gregory encountered English slave boys in the Roman forum he had them purchased and sent to him in Rome. “It was doubtless Gregory’s intention that these lads, converted and educated under his own supervision, should one day be sent back to their own country as missionaries…he hoped to utilize their acquaintance with the language, customs, and religion of their country…” . Gregory discouraged forcing Jews into baptism, for “only if they are genuinely converted by preaching will they remain Christians, and that is the end to be sought for…” . To this effect Gregory “consistently advocates kindness, persuasion, an emphasis upon they joys of Christian hope rather than upon the fear of judgment, whose terrors may frighten prospective converts away” . To achieve conversion of heathens and righteous living in the people of God, Gregory considered effective preaching to be the primary tool. Of all that Gregory was charged to do in his role he considered “admonishing his flock, whether collectively or in private conversations” as possessing the “highest importance” . His understanding of effective preaching and admonition bear strong resemblance to the lifestyle preaching portrayed in Richard Baxters’ The Reformed Pastor. Gregory writes in Pastoral Care,

every preacher should make himself heard rather by deeds than by words…they who give utterance to words of holy preaching, should first be awake in the earnest practice of good deeds. 
The example set by the preacher “should so far surpass the conduct of the people” that “his manner of life he may show the way of life to his subjects, and that the flock, following the teaching and conduct of its shepherd, may proceed the better through example rather than words” . Fundamentally, Gregory declares that the pastor “must be and do what he preaches” . In his presentation of the gospel, the heart of the preacher must be sensitive to his audience because “Doctrine taught does not penetrate the minds of the needy, if a compassionate heart does not commend it to the hearts of hearers; but the seed of the word does germinated promptly, when the kindness of a preacher waters it in the hearer’s heart” . Gregory is most famous perhaps for his delineation of 36 pairs of types of people and his explication of how they ought to be exhorted in Pastoral Care. This catalog is a glaring example of how Gregory believed that effective preaching, to reach the goal of righteous living, was preaching that took into consideration the spiritual state of those needing exhortation. Before each delineation between types of people, Gregory restates “The same exhortation is not suitable for everyone…” . In order for the preacher to discern which type of exhortation is suitable for a person Gregory advocates “transfiguring the person of the unbeliever into himself” thereby learning “personally how he ought to compassionate others, how he should bestow on them what he would rightly wish them to bestow on himself, if their places were interchanged” . This, apparently, is precisely what Gregory did to arrive at his catalogue of exhortations for various types of people. Numerous times  

Gregory promotes adaptive exhortation. Both the intensity and the content of preaching are to be adjusted to the audience’s needs. He tells preachers that they must “learn to temper [their] preaching to the capacity of the listener, so that those with weak eyes are not blinded by the light” . Concerning subject matter he writes: “the discourse of a teacher should be adapted to the character of the hearers, so as to be suited to the individual in his respective needs, and yet never deviate from the art of general edification” . This explicit sensitivity to the condition of his hearers, which has been heralded in modern times by John Dewey and Lois Lebar, was somewhat of a rarity at the time of Gregory’s writing. Lebar and Dewey, who advocate meeting the student where they are, were influential voices during the rise of the progressive schooling model. This adaptability in preaching is unlike postmodern religious relativism in that it maintains the truth of one gospel and aims to “edify all in the one virtue of charity…by using one and the same doctrine, but not by giving to all one and the same exhortation” . The message remains the same, it is the packaging that is to be altered to best meet the hearer. This sensitivity is not merely perfunctory, but at core an emotional and spiritual sensitivity that is engaged out of familial love. For care must be taken that loving-kindness, like that of a mother, be displayed by the ruler towards his subjects, and correction given as by a father…In other words, gentleness is to be mingled with severity; a compound is to be made of both, so that subjects may not be exasperated by too great a harshness, nor enervated by excessive tenderness. The ‘sanctity’ which Gregory sought to cultivate in himself and others is promoted by the same disciplines with which we are admonished today. Prayer, fasting, Scripture reading, study and memorization, the study of the saints, and all the rest are the very same which Gregory recognizes as means to achieving personal sanctity. Gregory praises his aunt Tarsilla’s sanctity reached through “a life of constant prayer, recollection and severe self-denial” . What Made Gregory Effective Several things must be mentioned concerning Gregory’s effectiveness. Gregory was not a revolutionary thinker. Instead his forte was in making truth accessible and practical. This can be attributed to his aforementioned transfiguration into the place of others, and subsequent alteration in presentational style. Also key to Gregory’s ministry was his uncanny ability to take his own spiritual experiences and struggles and to connect them with others. Gregory is praised for communicating well with both scholars and the uneducated. This is in large part because his teaching is “preeminently practical… [and] instructions for making the speculative insights of the contemplation work out in actions” . Much of his emphasis on application was the result of his own struggle with the balance between contemplation and action. As a monk, Gregory had been fully committed to a life of contemplation. But in his appointment to other positions he was required to have earthly things on his mind. Gregory laments this but in his struggle comes to believe that “the mind in contemplation sees further but it is less productive” . This relationship of contemplation and action had generally been seen as strictly superior – inferior relationship, with favor given to contemplation. “Gregory was breaking new ground in insisting in this way on the interdependence of contemplation and action in every fully Christian life” . “For Gregory the two commandments are inseparable” . He eventually concluded that “it ought to be possible for a Christian to be fully and perfectly both contemplative and active” . Gregory’s ability to do much of his teaching out of principles which he had struggled for, in large part enabled him to connect more fully with those to whom he was ministering. It was perhaps because he was ministering from his experience that Gregory had sensitivity to the condition of those who heard him; because he was speaking out of where he was, he could meet people where they were.

 Be like Greg After a study of St. Gregory many things in his teaching suggest themselves to my life and ministry. To be honest, in thinking about this section of the assignment I figured that I would have to search for something to apply. Instead, the promptings God has been giving me have come largely from other sources, and been strongly confirmed in Gregory’s teachings. As I sat through the historical mentor presentations of my classmates, it was apparent that prayer was an integral part of each Christian champion’s life. This didn’t surprise me at all, until it occurred to me that they didn’t simply pray a lot to try to be these great Christians. They prayed because they truly believed in the power and value prayer, and their lives showed it. Upon this realization I had no choice but to say to myself, “Well, Chris, you think prayer is a waste of time don’t you?” Of course I believe prayer as a matter of doctrine, but as obvious as the abundance of prayer in the lives of the saints makes their belief in prayer apparent, so my famine of it reveals my true belief. Looking at Gregory’s life offered another perspective on prayer. His tremendous grief at having been called into service that required him to give up monastic life illustrates his deep love for contemplation. I’m sure I don’t have a complete grasp on all that contemplation entails, but what I do understand makes it certain that contemplation and prayer are inextricably linked and are both all about being wrapped up in the presence of God. Gregory loved contemplation because he loved God, and in contemplation he met God. So now I am forced to admit that not only do I lack real belief in the value of prayer, but I also lack the true enjoyment of that fellowship with God, or perhaps I lack true fellowship with him in my prayer time. As I talked to a friend the other night, I’m convinced that the only viable avenue to achieving either of these, a belief in or an enjoyment of prayer, is prayer. It sounds a bit silly, but I have no hope in me just telling myself, “Ok, Chris, believe in prayer” or “Pray, and like it!”. These things can not simply be willed. Knowing prayer’s worth and loving prayer will only be happen as I spend time praying. Another theme present in Gregory’s teaching is the application of what is known. Discussion early in the semester about inoperant beliefs and the disturbingly high information / action ratio of our culture hit me with considerable weight. Recently I posted message for class discussion along these lines, indicating that I’m still unsettled about how much I’ve heard and how little I’ve done with it this semester. Several days ago a friend pointed out that chapel often is another example of this. Students are easily tempted to think that the positive emotional feeling they get after a challenging chapel message is in fact how they are supposed to respond to it. Instead, we settle for intellectual and emotional affirmation and forgo putting learning into practice. As I fumbled through the quotes I’d taken from my study I came across these words of Gregory: “We hear the words of God if we act upon them.” Of course it is so, for didn’t our Lord speak extensively about those who hear his words and put them into practice? (Lk. 6 / Mt. 7, 13) I can’t help but wonder how it is that I could have so twisted this teaching to think that hearing was doing, when it is in fact doing that demonstrates hearing. I must learn for myself and in my ministry that hearing the gospel with ears is nothing if it is not heard with ears to hear that will produce practiced knowledge. As an ascetic, Gregory talked quite comfortably about the body as an enemy of the soul, and about the afflictions that saints have put them through in order to conquer temptation. In his Dialogues he tells a story of Saint Benedict. After narrowly escaping an “unusually violent temptation” after a woman, he “noticed a thick patch of nettles and briers next to him” and “he flung himself into the sharp thorns and stinging nettles. There he rolled and tossed until his whole body was in pain and covered with blood. Yet, once he had conquered pleasure through suffering, his torn and bleeding skin served to drain the poison of temptation from his body” . Gregory believed that the body and the soul were connected in such a way that bodily afflictions resulted in spiritual victory. Gregory believed in two kinds of martyrdom, one of a violent death and one that takes place in the heart. This second martyrdom is the condition when “the soul is eager and ready for suffering even if there is no open persecution” . This does not suggest that holy people like pain, or that they think it is good in and of itself, rather that they regard physical pain as working spiritual gain and that they are willing to make that exchange. What I see here for my application is this disregard for the physical in the light of the spiritual. I seek to be one that would give all the earthly pleasures up, or accept all earthly pain for a slight spiritual gain, of much more worth than what the world can offer or threaten. What Gregory grasped that I long to embrace is an acknowledgment in my life that earthly conditions are of very little consequence and comfort ought to be quickly compromised for righteousness or heavenly gain. I believe this is what Scripture means by death to self, and I want it. Throughout the year my interest in the history of the Church and the lives of the saints has been growing, fed by my attendance at a liturgical worship service and my work as a research assistant along the same lines. Not only did my study of Gregory fall in line with this, but he further encouraged me to continue this investigation.

Unlike many Christians operating in a modernist mindset, Gregory placed great worth in the study of the lives of the saints and the ecumenical councils. For some this confidence upon tradition has manifested itself as a degrading of the authority of the Scripture but Gregory “did not regard them as two independent authorities of equal importance. Rather, he seems to look upon Scriptures as the final and supreme authority, of which Tradition was the handmaid rather than the rival” . I believe that my interest in Tradition will play a significant part in my ministry, and keeping a proper respect and caution toward it will be crucial as I attempt to benefit from those who have gone before me. I wish I had room in this paper to address some of Gregory’s other profitable teachings. He writes wisely about the role of the church, about the sacred-secular divide and profoundly about the balance between contemplation and action. He contributes to the discussion concerning the teaching of liberal arts and sounds like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in admonishing preacher the guilty of their sin. As the nature of this assignment suggests, as Christians we are not only individuals. We are members of a Christian community that spans both the globe and time. Exploration of varied cultural expressions and understandings of God and of the same throughout the past can contribute volumes to our conceptions of God and to our understanding of our own cultural and societal perspective. I look forward to the reopening of the Church’s eyes to these resources. Written in 2005 as a senior at Wheaton College.

No comments:

Post a Comment