R.A. Markus argues that Gregory the Great (540-604) can only be properly understood if we see him as “belonging to two worlds at once…the world of Ambrose, Augustine, John Cassian, and their contemporaries, and the world of his medieval successors” [Gregory the Great and His World (Cambridge University Press, 1997), pg. xii].
Gregory’s two worlds were that of the older and more unified late Roman Empire with its grandiose social and political legacy and rich educational heritage, and that of the emerging gap between the East and West with its attendant decline of the West into decentralized, culturally-impoverished, unstable, feudal-like conditions. An educated man from a wealthy and influential family with cosmopolitan social connections demanding a very active lifestyle, Gregory himself nevertheless sought the quiet life of a contemplative monk. His ardent wishes notwithstanding, he was destined for a higher calling which would echo through the ages in the lives of many who would attempt to follow his example.
Here’s a sampling of the tension between action and contemplation in which Gregory felt himself trapped:
“Under the colour of the episcopate I have been brought back to the world [ad saeculum sum reductus] and here I labour under such great earthly cares as I do not recall having been subjected to even in my life as a layman.” [Ep. I.24, cited by Markus, pg. 13].
“We are not to go against the judgment of the Lord who disposes, I have obediently followed what my Lord’s merciful hand has alloted to me.” [Ep. I.26, cited by Markus, pg. 14]
Like a later pope who would take his name (Gregory VII) precisely to emphasize a continuance of his spirit and mission, Gregory felt forced to live in two worlds at once, and strove to harmonize his activities in those worlds. Like many later clergymen after the dissolution of the Western Empire, he struggled also to relate spiritual and temporal activities without letting the latter eat up the former. He remarked of this, “whoever is called a ‘pastor’ is so heavily involved in exterior business that it is often unclear whether he performs the office of a pastor or that of an earthly potentate.” (Ep. I.24, cited by Markus, pg. 13). At the intersection of the waning classical world and the emerging medieval world, Gregory the Great stands as a pivotal figure whose influence goes far beyond anything he himself could ever have imagined.