Celebrating St. Gregory the Great

Pope Gregory I Illustration (source)

Today, March 12, is the feast of St. Gregory the Great also known, especially in the East, as St. Gregory the Dialogist because he wrote a book entitled The Dialogues in which he extolled the Italian saints.

Gregory served as pope from 590 until his death on March 12, 604. Though often seen as Augustinian many modern scholars now see Gregory’s pastoral, ascetic, and soteriological positions more in line with the Eastern Fathers of his time than with St. Augustine. Indeed, Gregory is the only Latin author of the patristic era whose works were translated in Greek during his lifetime.

Gregory’s ordering of the liturgy and chant has formed the spirituality of the Western Church to this day. He composed the liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts which is celebrated on Wednesdays and Fridays of Great Lent in the Eastern Church. Some of his other achievements include refurbishing Rome’s deteriorating churches and defenses, feeding the indigent from papal granaries, and the reintroduction of Roman Christianity to Britain. His broadest and most significant effect on the Church, however, was his contribution to pastoral care. His book The Pastoral Rule is a classic work on the ministry.

In The Pastoral Rule Gregory describes the priest’s responsibilities as a combination of the active life of pastoral administration and the prayerful life of the remote ascetic. Here is what he says:

The spiritual director should not reduce his attention to the internal life because of external occupations, nor should he relinquish his care for external matters because of his anxiety for the internal life. Otherwise, he will either ruin his meditation because he is occupied by external concerns or else he will not give to his neighbor what he owes to them because he has devoted himself to the inner life only. – The Pastoral Rule, Part II, Section 7

Though Gregory is writing to and for priests, his teaching is not limited to the ordained life. We all live with the tension and challenge of balancing both a life of action and a life of contemplation. How do we nurture a deep life of prayer and study and at the same time tend to the demands and joys of our marriage, children, school, work, and all the other stuff life offers and brings us? That is the same question with which Gregory and his priests struggled.

One clear insight from Gregory is that it is not one or the other – action or contemplation; both are equally necessary. Sometimes we use one as a way to ignore or avoid the other. So we stay busy doing good works but have no time to sit in the silence of prayer. Or we never leave the silence of prayer and study in order to feed the hungry, speak out for justice, or spend time with our spouse. These may be over-exaggerations but they are real dangers and have found expression at various times in the history of the church as well as in individual lives.

Action and contemplation form and inform each other, whether we are lay, monastics, or ordained. You cannot have authentic action without contemplation and you cannot have authentic contemplation without action. It becomes a matter of establishing congruence between our inner lives and outer lives. The intersection of our inner life and our outer life, our life of prayer and our life of action, becomes a point of sacrament – an outward and visible manifestation of an inward and spiritual grace.

Gregory does not give a lot of “how to” advice on this issue. Instead he helps us hear the call to our own wholeness and holiness and then sets us on that path, a path of both action and prayer.

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