How God speaks to us through suffering, sin, and sorrow: Gregory the Great

Talking with a colleague today about Pope Gregory I (the Great; 540 – 604), we both concluded the same thing: Gregory was one deep spiritual theologian who still needs to be heard today. My colleague told me that Calvin held Gregory in high esteem and once called him “the last of the orthodox popes.” Here’s a bit of what I learned about Gregory while writing Patron Saints for Postmoderns:

(If you are intrigued by what follows, then the next place to go is Carol Straw’s Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection.)

A Spirituality of the Everyday

Gregory . . . insisted that while pastors or laypeople are engaged in the active life, everything in their experience and in the world becomes potentially an instrument of God’s direct, special communication to them. Chance meetings. Storms. Landscapes. Crafted objects. A thousand other things. God is always speaking to us if we but have ears to hear and eyes to see. Unlike Augustine, who believed God both hid and revealed himself (thus keeping humans aware of how dependent they are on him), Gregory emphasized “God’s involvement with creation and the sacramental presence of spiritual truths in the things of this world.” In teaching this world-sacramentalism, Gregory launched another powerful force in the emergence of the new, sacred world of the medievals.

Of course, the possibility that God is speaking to us in our daily experiences in the world raises the question: How can we tell when it’s God talking? Here Gregory insisted that Christians foster and practice discretio (discernment). In the ancient world, this virtue belonged almost exclusively to the monk, nun and priest. But Gregory believed any person could attain spiritual discernment.

One of the places Gregory felt the average person heard most clearly from God was in experiences of suffering. Surrounded by the miseries of war, plague and famine, Gregory himself suffered from ill-health for the whole of his pontificate. (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 experiences of suffering, along with deep exegetical engagement with the book of Job, he 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 our dependence on God.

Despite Gregory’s frankness about suffering and his pessimism about the fate of the world, we find in his writing “an underlying sense of the triumph of joy and peace.” In the midst of all our trials, our longing for God “transforms the suffering we undergo, and even the sins we continue to commit, into stages of growth.” He did not counsel his readers to inflict suffering on themselves, as did the extreme ascetics. Rather, he told them to humbly accept God’s will and expect that he is faithful to complete the work he has begun in us.

Because even in times of sin and suffering, God is at work to discipline and form us for further service, the goal of the Christian life for Gregory was not the complete protection from any possibility of sin— as it seems to have been for some monastics. Rather, by integrating the active life, with all its brokenness and distraction and suffering, into his understanding of the spiritual life, Gregory gave all Christians a chance to develop discernment, holy sorrow, stability of life and tranquility of soul. All Christians. This is an inclusive, openended spirituality. Because “no part of life remains untouched by the sacred, no part of life need necessarily be excluded from the Christian.” Ordinary layfolk might even, by the grace of God, experience in their daily lives the stability and tranquility formerly thought to be available only to monastics.

The virtue of compunctio (“compunction”) was perhaps the dearest of the virtues to Gregory. Often thought of as a kind of godly sorrow (2 Cor 7:10-11), the Latin word literally means “piercing.” It is rooted in Acts 2:37, which tells how Peter’s hearers at Pentecost were “pierced to the heart.” Cassian, Benedict and others had followed up this clue by closely associating compunction with conversion, but it was Gregory who made it a central value in Western spirituality.

Gregory’s teaching on compunction emerged from his “deeply felt sense of the radical insufficiency of all terrestrial goods in relation to those of the heavenly world.” Moving compunction beyond simple sorrow for sin, he expanded the term to refer to “the whole of the Christian’s attitude toward present existence in relation to the underlying desire for the stability and joy of heaven.” Compunction certainly involved tears, and sometimes it might involve a terrifying fear of God. But though those sorts of negative feelings might come chronologically first in our lives, they provided a doorway to a higher emotion: “the compunction of love”—or more simply, desire for God.

Augustine had experienced this God-directed desire, replacing his out-of-control sexual desires—“Our hearts are restless until they rest in [God],” he had said in his Confessions. Now Gregory deepened and elaborated Augustine’s thought. Our desire for union with God operates in a kind of cycle, never to be fulfilled on this earth. Every time we come closer to God, our desire for him is amplified; in the very fulfillment of the desire, there is planted a deeper yearning to experience more of the beloved. We sense the beauty of God. We desire him. We experience him, yet immediately desire him more. In a later chapter, on Margery Kempe, we will see how powerful this Gregorian teaching about compunction would become for medieval Christians. This sort of influence led the great modern writer on monasticism and mysticism Jean Leclercq to call Gregory “The Doctor of Desire.”

3 responses to “How God speaks to us through suffering, sin, and sorrow: Gregory the Great

  1. Chris,
    I haven’t read much of his works, just pieces, although I would like to read more of his writings and more about him. What I have read about him has taught me that he was one of the few, if the not the only medieval pope, who was truly spiritual and acted on the principles of Christ. If not for him, Augustine wouldn’t have gone to Kent. If I remember correctly, Gregory had to use his persuasive talent to get Augustine to go, as like Moses he didn’t feel he was worthy of the task set for him.

    As I have a chronic health condition that I’m in remission from, I really appreciate Gregory’s thoughts on suffering and how it relates to the human and divine. Suffering does separate the wheat from the chaff, if a person is willing to humble himself and be open to what God is offering to him. It is a gift, although there are those who are blind to this and refuse to give themselves over to the Creator. But life happens to us all, and we have choices to make, and we all have different experiences we must go through.

    So, my thoughts are that for church historians and and those in the ministry, Gregory is a medieval Christian we need to know about and need to appreciate. His life and works were relevant in his times, as well as to our own.

  2. Chris,

    This is so deep and dense, that I wish I had a printer to print this out to re-read and think about. For now, I’ll have to save the page and come back to it.


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