When details get you down: How one of church history’s busiest, most spiritual leaders beat the rat race

In the rush of our shot-out-of-a-cannon lives, It’s so easy for us to feel drained, dried-out, and distant from God. Recently I had the chance to share the response of one spiritual giant (and ordinary, wounded man) to this syndrome. Over the years, Leadership Journal editor Marshall Shelley has graciously allowed me to share stories of some of history’s most intriguing Christian leaders in the pages of his high-quality magazine.

By the way, for those who like to bemoan the current state of the churches categorized under the loose heading “evangelical,” I would point out that any movement whose leaders are wise enough to look to the church’s heritage for wisdom has got a powerful antidote to modern fads and crotchets. Mr. Shelley knows this particularly well: his father, Bruce Shelley, is a church historian (long of Denver Seminary, author of Church History in Plain Language):

When Details Get You Down
Maintaining a spiritual life amid war, famine, and plague is what made Gregory the Great.

How can I maintain a spiritual life while dealing with people’s incessant problems and needs? The question didn’t originate with a pastor whose cell phone kept interrupting his prayer life. It goes back at least as far as Gregory, the first practicing monk to be elected, over his own objections, to the papacy. Gregory (540-604) preferred the life of solitude and contemplation, but it was his abilities as a leader as well as his writings on the integration of the inner life with active ministry that that caused him to be called, “Gregory the Great.” When he became pope in 590, Rome had been attacked for several years by the Lombards, a fierce Germanic tribe that had crossed the Alps to plunder the Eternal City. The emperor, distant in Constantinople, was distracted by a war with Persia, and could not offer aid to Rome. The years of war, famine, and plague had prompted Rome’s senatorial class to flee the city, when meant that the newly-elected Pope Gregory I was the only civil authority left. So he was immediately thrust into managing supplies and troop movements, and negotiating with terrorists.

In July 592, he averted disaster by negotiating a difficult peace with a local Lombard duke. But the following year the worst occurred: the Lombard king himself, Agilulf, besieged Rome. In an act unprecedented in the history of the papacy, Gregory met Agilulf on the very steps of St. Peter’s to negotiate. With diplomatic words and generous tribute, Gregory persuaded the marauding king to leave the city untouched.

Thus Romans came to owe their pope more than a spiritual allegiance. Gregory’s “secular” responsibilities extended far beyond relations with the Lombards. He gave leadership as Rome suffered under plague, flooding, and crop failure.

Gregory lamented, “Cities have been destroyed, fortifications overthrown, provinces depopulated, no cultivators occupy the land. …” Every fresh crisis demanded an a response. How hard for a “monk pope,” amid the maelstrom, to find time for his first passion—the exercises of devotion and prayer.

Every pastor today who is torn between preparing reports for the next elders meeting or spending time in study and prayer recognizes the tension: busyness vs. intimacy with Christ, Martha’s service vs. Mary’s worship.

This was Gregory’s continuous struggle, and his writings on the balance between those two was perhaps his greatest legacy. In his Pastoral Care, Gregory formulated a pattern of spiritual renewal in the midst of busyness, spiritual leadership amid secular demands. No wonder the Roman Catholic Church, for centuries, put Gregory’s writings into the hands of every newly consecrated bishop.

The Making of a Prefect/Priest
Born into a wealthy family and educated in grammar, rhetoric, law, and letters, Gregory was well prepared for public service, and in 573 he served as prefect of Rome, the highest civil position in the land, overseeing the city’s police force, food supply, and finances. But the work left Gregory unsatisfied. His heart was troubled.

Gregory’s family had been pious: his mother and two of her sisters are regarded as saints in the Roman Catholic Church. His family line also contained two popes, Felix III (483-92) and Agapetus I (535-6). Not surprisingly, young Gregory had read and meditated on Scripture, developing a “love of eternity” that made him yearn for a life of devotion to God.

As prefect, however, such full-time devotion seemed impossible.

“While my mind obliged me to serve this present world in outward action,” he wrote, “its cares began to threaten me so that I was in danger of being engulfed in it not only in outward action, but, what is more serious, in my mind.”

After a one-year term of office, Gregory made a decision that he described as a conversion: he would escape from “the things of the world” as from a doomed shipwreck. He took vows of obedience, poverty, and celibacy, and became a monk. He dissolved the extensive estates he had inherited from his father, converting seven properties into monastic houses. Within one of these, his beloved St. Andrew’s, he could follow the ancient path to intimacy with God by retreating to monasticism’s daily rounds of discipline, prayer, and Bible reading.

It’s hard for modern Christians to appreciate what that monastery meant to Gregory. We view monasticism as a gloomy life of self-denial. While Gregory agreed that serious effort was needed to separate oneself from the distractions of daily life, he spoke more often of the joys and graces of the contemplative life (see sidebar). In his Commentary on I Kings, he insisted, “To enjoy the light within is not the result of our effort but of God’s loving kindness.”

For Gregory the monastery offered relief from the never-ending details of administration, the lot of the leader.

Disrupted Devotions
When Gregory entered the monastery, he expected to spend his life there. And for three years, a period he later recalled as the happiest in his life, it seemed as though he would.

But it was not to last. In 578 Pope Benedict I called Gregory out of his happy seclusion to become one of the seven deacons of Rome, an office carrying heavy administrative duties.

The next year, Pope Pelagius II sent the talented monk as apocrisiarus (residential ambassador) to Constantinople, the center of the beset empire, to seek military support from the Emperor Justinian. There Gregory stayed for seven years, making his petitions, but shunning the pomp and glory of the emperor’s court. Instead he lived a monastic life with some monks who accompanied him from Rome.

In 586, Gregory was at last recalled from his fruitless Eastern duty (the emperor never did pledge support to the beleaguered West). He re-entered his beloved monastery, St. Andrew, where he again prayed, sang, and studied Scripture. But in addition, he also served as an aide to Pope Pelagius II, his schedule increasingly filled with “worldly duties”—a taste of things to come.

Then during the bitter winter of 589-90, the Tiber River burst its banks, destroying property, farmland, and lives. Even worse, a devastating plague and famine followed. Pope Pelagius II succumbed to that plague in February 590. Gregory’s election to the papacy was unanimous.

But he refused the position, having previously borne more public and administrative responsibilities than he wanted. Some accounts say he went into hiding to evade the office. He certainly wrote a letter to the emperor, begging to be let off.

Six months later, the emperor’s response arrived, confirming Gregory’s election. He was horrified, but the people of Rome would not be denied their chosen leader. On September 3, 590, led by Roman ministers, a crowd grabbed Gregory bodily and marched him into the basilica of St. Peter. On that day, the Western Church gained one of its most outstanding leaders. And Gregory lost the desire of his heart for an uninterrupted life of study and contemplation.

He was immediately swamped with business as never before. It absorbed his hours, filled his thoughts, and troubled his heart. In a letter he wrote: “I am being smashed by many waves of affairs and afflicted by a life of tumults, so that I may rightly say: I am come into deep waters where the floods overflow me [Ps. 69:2].”

The situation in Rome was grim. After the years of war, plague, and famine, and with most of the senators and other civil administrators gone, the church was the only institution left to distribute food and supplies to the poor. As historian Judith Herrin tells it: “In the vacuum left by senatorial flight, the church became a directing force in and around Rome, securing supplies and distributions of food to the poor as best it could. … It was to their bishop that Romans looked for the city’s protection and their own well-being. When other, older traditions failed, the city turned to its Christian past and apostolic foundation.”

Gregory “felt obliged to do everything possible to relieve suffering, to calm the inhabitants in the days of mass burials and collective hysteria,” writes Herrin. First, he began to lead penitential processions through the seven districts of Rome, praying for relief from their distress. Then he turned to relieving his people’s distress with the resources of the church, in the end, nearly draining the church treasury, and selling off church lands to provide for the poor. Under Gregory, the church took a giant step toward its medieval status as the agency most responsible for the society’s general welfare.

Gregory now had to confront the defining issue of his life: the question of the relationship between the contemplative and the active life. The contemplative life was focused on the eternal; the active life was lived amid the world’s distractions. This was the “secular” life, from the Latin saeculum, which meant something like “this present generation.” Gregory was torn between the eternal and the temporal, between that which lasts and those things that are passing but ever pressing.

The cloister was considered a blessed, privileged place, free from the fleeting and often misleading urgencies of life in the here-and-now. To many, including Gregory in his younger years, pursuing a secular agenda and focusing on the eternal could not be reconciled. How could one concentrate on eternity when dealing with people’s temporal demands was so … daily?

Living the Spiritual Cycle
In the first five months of his papacy, Gregory did two things that brought him to some resolution. First, he rethought his own life vocation. Second, he wrote the book that would be the most widely read text on pastoral care for the next millennium: the Rule of Pastoral Care. Working from clues in Augustine, John Cassian, and others, he forged a remarkable synthesis between the active and contemplative lives.

The biblical story that came alive for him on this matter was that of Rachel and Leah. In that allegoric way of thinking that seems odd today but which was standard then, Gregory saw “Rachel” as the contemplative life: beautiful but infertile—and at first, completely unattainable. As Gregory wrote to the Empress Theoctista upon his elevation to the papacy, he had been “coupled in the night … to the fertile Leah”—that is, the life of active ministry.

In the biblical story, “Jacob begins with Leah, attains Rachel, and returns to Leah.” It was something like this that Gregory discovered while leading in turbulent Rome. How could life with the productive Leah and the beautiful Rachel be combined?

Gregory concluded that “activity precedes contemplation, but contemplation must be expressed in service to one’s neighbor.” In order to become truly spiritual, one must move not only away from the distractions of the flesh to reach the spirit, but also back from the heights of the spiritual life to the practical concerns of bodily life.

In other words, these two modes of life were not as mutually exclusive as he and the church had taught. Gregory concluded that each strengthens the other in a never-ending cycle: the contemplative life equipping us for the active life, and the active life grounding us in acts of love to our neighbors, to keep us from floating off into spiritual pride and irrelevance.

Actively Contemplative
Now he saw those who lived the active life—marked at its best by such physical and spiritual ministries as feeding the hungry and caring for the sick, teaching the ignorant and humbling the proud—as better equipped to experience the contemplative life than those who absorbed all their hours in study and meditation.

Pastors, insisted Gregory, must live a higher life, one that combines both action and contemplation. If we want to know why, we need only to look at the life of Jesus: he ate and drank with sinners by day, performed miracles of healing and fed the multitudes. But throughout the night, he prayed on a mountain.

To Gregory, the lesson was clear: service and prayer are the two essential sides of a redemptive and productive ministry. By living an active life, full of works of neighbor-love; expressing the virtues of faith, hope, and charity; growing in the fruit of the Spirit, one arrives at more intense and joyful contemplation.

The question remains: How do we achieve true contemplation in the midst of busyness? Gregory recommended a number of specific practices:

Read and study Scripture.

Cultivate humility and other virtues, such as discernment.

Recognize your own sinfulness and God’s holiness—and allow yourself to experience the resulting “fear of the Lord.”

And step away from your busyness at times, withdrawing from exterior distractions into interior contemplation.

This was always the most important spiritual discipline for Gregory. You must “turn away from the distractions of knowing about things to the serious, even frightening, task of reflection on the inner self.”

But never, of course, should you remove yourself from the life of active charity to others. That was Gregory’s temptation as a newly elected pope, yearning for the old peace of the cloister. But through a papacy remarkable for its intensive activity (his over 800 extant letters deal with every imaginable sort of administrative matter), he came to disagree with his culture’s elevation of the monastic life above all others. He lived the “Rachel-Leah life,” continuously cycling between contemplation and action. And he saw that it was good.

Discernment and Its Source
To many of us today, Gregory’s synthesis might seem cliché: of course we must serve others to grow in grace. Of course we must recharge our spiritual batteries to be effective leaders. But Gregory went beyond these simple ideas.

He insisted that to those engaged in the active life, everything in their experience and in the world becomes an instrument of God’s direct, special communication to them. Chance meetings. Storms. Landscapes. Crafted objects. A thousand other things.

The awareness that God is speaking to us in our daily experiences of the world raises the question: How can we tell when it’s God talking? Gregory insisted that we foster and practice discernment. In the ancient world, this and other spiritual virtues belonged almost exclusively to the monk, nun, and priest. But Gregory believed any person could attain spiritual discernment.

In addition, Gregory believed that a key ingredient in developing discernment and to hear clearly and directly from God is suffering. Surrounded by the miseries of war, plague, and famine, Gregory himself suffered from ill-health throughout his papacy. (A wise professor of mine once said that the great spiritual divide between people runs not between rich and poor, female and male, young or old, or the like, but between those who’ve enjoyed good health and those who’ve had serious physical ills. I think he was right. Perhaps nothing more radically impinges on a person’s soul than chronic or incurable disease.)

From his own suffering, along with deep exegetical engagement with the Book of Job, Gregory concluded that suffering was not an absolute evil, but rather a special case of God’s personal communication to his people. Suffering forces us beyond our own resources to discern a deeper dependence on God.

For Gregory, even in suffering, God is at work to discipline and form us for holiness and service. Thus the goal of the Christian life would no longer be the complete absence of sin and suffering—as it had been for some monastics. Rather, by integrating the active life, with all its brokenness and distraction and frustration, into his understanding of the spiritual life, Gregory gives all Christians, and especially pastors, a chance to develop discernment, holy sorrow, stability of life, and tranquility of soul.

Chris Armstrong teaches church history at Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, MN. He’s author of Patron Saints for Postmoderns.

Gregory on the Sweetness of the Contemplative Life
In his commentary on Job, written for his monastic brothers, Gregory wrote that the Christian life in contemplation “already bears down all earthly desires beneath itself, already mounts above all the objects that it sees are of a nature to pass away, is already lifted up from the enjoyment of things external, and closely searches what are the invisible good things, and in doing the same is frequently carried away into the sweetness of heavenly contemplation; already it sees something of the inmost realities as it were through the mist, and with burning desire strives to be admitted to the spiritual ministries of the angels; it feeds on the taste of the unencompassed Light, and being carried beyond self, disdains to sink back again into self.”

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