Abba Gregory The Great - Part 1
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Gregory the Great?
Gregory the Great, who is considered the fourth great doctor of the church and served as Pope for the last 15 years of his life, always lamented his position and would have gladly renounced it to return to the life of solitude where he fell so madly in love with Jesus.
Upon his election to the pontificate in 590 AD he said,
“I have lost the comfort of my calm, and, appearing to be outwardly exalted, I am inwardly and really fallen.”
He stated that his goal was that he…
“…might spiritually behold heavenly joys. Neither desiring nor fearing any thing in the world…”
But lamented after taking office…
“I am come into the depth of the sea, and the tempest hath drowned me.”
His joy was solitude and prayer before Jesus, but his call was to lead the church into unity that was desperately needed in his lifetime.
The church had been divided over doctrinal heresies and divisions over practice. The world was declining into the dark age. Rome had been invaded and was ravaged by plague. The first order of business that Gregory saw to upon his election was to organize prayer around the city that the cloud of death brought on by the plague would lift, and miraculously, it did.
Gregory the Great had won the people early in his life. He was born into a wealthy family, who had already seen in its lineage two men arise to great leadership generations before. His father was a politician, but absconded his position and dedicated his service to Christ after Gregory was born. His mother, Sylvia, did likewise and has been counted a saint in church history.
He was born in 540 AD, and by the age of 34 was appointed by the emperor as the chief magistrate and governor of Rome. He was educated in grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy, and he was known as an exemplary student. When his father passed away shortly thereafter, Gregory began planting monasteries, six in Sicily and one in his own home in Rome. He left the public life, appointed a monk named Valentius as abbot of the monastery in his own home, submitted to Valentius’ leadership, and entered into the life of stillness, silence, and communion with Christ.
His stay at the monastery lasted only a few years before he was called on to serve in various capacities in the church at Rome and Constantinople. By 584, he found himself back in Rome, serving the current Pope, and overseeing the affairs of the monastery he had originally planted.
Though he never ventured to the Egyptian desert like so many others, he is considered one of the influential fathers of the monastic movement, especially as it relates to holding an active church office, yet practicing the disciplines of the monastic routine. Later in life he wrote an influential book titled “The Book of Pastoral Care”, and in it he laid out the importance of the devotional life as it relates to serving the church. He organized the book into four sections, firstly, how one should be identified and appointed as a leader, secondly, the lifestyle of a Godly leader, thirdly, how a Godly leader should teach others, and lastly, that…
“…every day he should become aware of his own infirmity.” It was his view that… “above all other qualities for the pastoral charge, he requires an eminent gift of prayer and contemplation.”
As the head of the church, he was known to invite the poor to dine with him at his table. He was loved for his generosity and compassion.
“In the beginning of every month he distributed to all the poor, corn, wine, pulse, cheese, fish, flesh, and oil: he appointed officers for every street to send every day necessaries to all the needy sick; before he ate he always sent off meats from his own table to some poor persons.”
Once, after having invited 12 poor men to dine with him, he inquired of the one managing the monastery why a 13th had arrived. The man did not know what Gregory was talking about, and Gregory shortly realized that he was the only one aware of the 13th member of the dinner party. After the meal, the 12 men had departed, but Gregory took the 13th man by the hand and asked him where he had come from and what was his name. The man, whose face had changed throughout the meal from that of an old man to that of youth, answered him,
”And why do you ask me my name? It, too, is remarkable.”
Gregory slowly realized that this was no mere man, but an angel of the Lord standing in front of him. The angel prophesied over his life and told him that he would eventually become head of the church. Gregory’s response was to fall to his face and worship God.
Gregory wrote extensively. From the record of correspondences due his position, to his teachings on Job, Ezekiel, the active and contemplative life, and pastoral ministry, we see a man pierced to the heart by God. He was convinced that any good leader would need to understand the issues of the human heart.
“And yet how often do men who have no knowledge whatever of spiritual precepts fearlessly profess themselves physicians of the heart, though those who are ignorant of the effect of drugs blush to appear as physicians of the flesh!”
The spiritual man was to be a “physician of the heart.”
The Spiritual Life
Gregory set the stage for our understanding of the spiritual life as the intermingling between this life and the next.
“…this limited world resembles the night, while the future life is like the day. Now, just as when the night is ending the day begins to shine with light before the sun fully rises, the darkness somehow mingling with the light, before the darkness of night completely fades and is overcome by the light of the coming day, so exactly are things in this world. The end of this world is being mingled with the dawn of the future life…”
As Jesus said,
“The Kingdom of God has drawn near.”
He connects the distinction between the coming future world and the limited world we live in with spiritual sensitivity.
“In this world we are unable even to discern one another’s thoughts, whereas in the future life we will be able to see that all that we have in our hearts is also in the hearts of others.”
In his teaching on the Spirit of Prophecy, he goes into more depth regarding this concept.
Gregory separated the spiritual life into two categories, the Active life and the Contemplative life. These two categories became the standard definition for centuries in the spiritual writings of church life. He said,
“The active life is to give bread to the hungry, to teach the ignorant with the word of wisdom, to set aright the lost, to recall a proud neighbour to the life of humility, to care for the weak, which services each of us should perform, and provide the wherewithal of subsistence for those entrusted to us.”
The active life could be summed up as what you do that relates to service towards others. Things such as caring for the poor, reaching out to the lost, and supporting those doing the work of service.
The contemplative life is the life lived towards God.
The contemplative life had everything to do with intimacy with God. It was the life that burned with passion towards the One.
He compared the active life to Martha and the contemplative life to Mary.
“Martha and Mary, one of whom was cumbered about much serving but the other sat at the Lord’s feet and heard His words (Luke 10:38:42).”
Martha served, but Mary sat.
But he is not so quick to disparage Martha’s service.
“Behold Martha’s part is not censured but Mary’s is praised. Nor does He say that Mary has chosen a good part but the best, so that Martha’s too was shown to be good.”
If Mary’s part is said to be the best, it shows that Martha’s was still considered good. The active life was a necessary component to the spiritual life, and the contemplative life should move the spiritual one into the active life.
Gregory said that in the beginning of the spiritual life a man weeps for fear of judgement, as the spiritual life find maturity, the man laments his distance from God.
The movement of spiritual progress is from fear of God to desire for God.
He goes on to say that after a time…
“…there is born within the soul a certain assurance with regard to forgiveness.”
As the thirsting soul grows…
“…this soul, which shortly before wept from the fear that it might be condemned, begins afterwards to weep bitterly once again, but now because it is so far from the Kingdom of Heaven.”
He tells his disciple that the goal of the spiritual life is purity and innocence in the image of God.
“Peter, both the purity and the innocence of the human heart can achieve much before Him Who is alone pure and innocent in nature. For His true servants are separated from earthly things and do not know how to say anything idle; nor do they allow their minds to be distracted by empty words. Hence, they find that God more readily listens to them than to other men, since they are eager to become, as far as they can, like Him in purity and innocence.”
He goes on to demonstrate the necessity of purity in the spiritual life.
“God judges our actions according to our intentions, for Scripture says, ”The Lord grant to thee according to thine own heart” (Psalm 19:5). It is possible for someone ostensibly to be fulfilling a commandment of God and yet, in serving some passion, to destroy his good deed through evil thoughts.”
God judges the heart and intent behind actions, not the actions themselves. Many do good things with wrong motive. The wrong motive sows into the interior life distance from God, not purity of conscience.
Growth in Godliness is not just about external display, it is about the heart.
“Fulfilling a commandment is one thing and practicing a virtue is another…Fulfilling a commandment consists in doing what has been commanded; practicing a virtue means acting in conformity with the truth.” The spiritual life begins in the heart, in conformity with the truth, and is seen in actions.
He says this regarding approaching the spiritual life with wrong motive.
“He who seeks these rewards in order to receive glory from men, and not for the sake of their inherent goodness, will hear the following words of Scripture: ”Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss” (James 4:3).”
The spiritual life begins as forgiveness settles deep in the heart, it matures into desire for God, and is best seen in purity of intent and innocence before Him.