Gregory the Great (II): Active Or Contemplative

The basic distinction between “active” and “contemplative” (or, “practical” and “theoretical”) lives had been explored for centuries prior to Gregory. According to Markus [Gregory the Great and His World (Cambridge University Press, 1997)] it had roots not just in Jewish ideas, but in the Greeks as well. Origen had combined the two as parts of a process, the practical preparing one for the contemplative. By Gregory’s time, the two had been separated and characterized two very different approaches amongst Christians (pg. 17). Contemplative life was often associated with monastic orders, while active life was the domain of the less spiritual.

John Cassian represented a distinct departure from this dichotomy, for through successive parts of his Conferences he tried to “telescope” the two lives into a “unified spiritual ideal.” For Cassian, the contemplative was no longer “the height of perfection achieved by the ascetic or the hermit at the end of his ascesis,” but was “the life of the monk, preferably communal, who had equipped himself to read and to understand the scriptures, and to teach them to others when called to do so” (pg. 18).

Gregory the Great felt the tension betweent the two modes of life most acutely, and ardently sought a resolution. This was what lay behind his writing of the Regula pastoralis in the early months of his pontificate. Torn out of his beloved monastic seclusion and thrust into the limelight of often vigorous public activity, Gregory felt afflicted like Job, and tricked, like Jacob, into conjugal duties with Leah (the active life) instead of Rachel (the contemplative life) (pg. 20).

In writing on the ministry of the pastor to his flock, Gregory discovered the resolution to his anxiety: his concept of “the two lives” of the pastor. “By contemplation we rise to the love of God; by preaching we return to the service of our neighbor.” (Moralia VI.37.56, cited by Markus, pg. 23). The contemplative mind engages in action for the sake of those weaker than itself, but must occasionally return to contemplation to renew its own fire (pg. 24). Just as Jesus himself came forth from the comfort of communion with the Father to benefit the many, so must the pastor come forth from the comfort of his contemplation to serve his flock.

Gregory’s concept of service was structured by the Late Antique assumption of universal hierarchical order (pp. 26-33). His concept of the role of the bishop had connections with Cicero’s idea of the rector rei publicae (leader of the republic), and connoted aspects of the preacher (praedicator), teacher (doctor), superior (praepositus), and ruler (regens). Significantly, given Gregory’s context as bishop of Rome in a time when bishops were increasingly forced to take up secular affairs as well as spiritual because of the collapse of imperial authority in the West, Gregory saw the rector aspect of his episcopate as having political overtones.

For Gregory, the rector must be all things to all men, and carefully watch his own conduct, striving to manifest love and humility in his rulership. In Gregory’s context, “The superior held power over his subjects for their good.” Furthermore, “Gregory did not question the paternalistic implications.” (pg. 30).:”(To my mind this fact of Late Antique Roman worldview, the concept of the paterfamilias, or fatherly ruler of the family, is a significant key to understanding the way that Catholics, as inheritors and preservers of much of the Late Antique way of life, think and act. Paternalism can become a tyranny–Ephesians warns fathers not to exasperate their children–but it is not per se a tyranny. Nor is following where Father leads per se the act of a mindless sycophant, as some forms of overwrought Protestant polemics imagine.)”: “The rector’s office is above all a magisterium humilitatis.” (teaching office of humility (pg. 31). “The good or ‘elect’ ruler who serves the subject’s interests has a claim on their obedience, amounting to reverence for God’s authority.” (pg. 31).:”(This issue of the ruler’s authority being tied to his fidelity to his divine call to serve his subjects’ good will be a focal point of later Medieval debates. It’s interesting to me to find this in Gregory the Great, because it is usually associated with Germanic notions of authority that came into Christian society later, especially during the early feudal period.)”:

Gregory’s concept of the different hierarchical orders in the Church is regulated by the concept of increasingly deep exposition of Scripture: “those who seek the purity of the contemplative life are to be shown not the ordinary things about the sacred scripture, but rather the higher and more sublime things, so that the more they are delighted by the superior goods they hear about, the more ardently they might raise themselves to the heights by seeing.” (I Reg. III.124, cited by Markus, pg. 32). At the last, “Gregory’s iamge of the Church is that of a vast community of contemplation, its members ranked according to the level they are able to attain. In this community the work of the preacher expounding the Bible is crucial.” (pg. 33).

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