Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part V

Johannes Vermeer, “Christ in the House of Mary and Martha”; Wikipedia, public domain

Continued from part IV

Augustine’s claim for the superiority of the contemplative over the active life, which sets the tone for the church for the next millennium, seems based on two things: (1) the early and medieval Christian understanding of the superiority of the eternal over the temporal life with all its struggles and unmet needs in the fallen world. Note we need not say “eternal/spiritual” and “temporal/material,” for there is a New Creation, with its own kind of materiality – so that is a false separation. I’m not sure whether Augustine makes that separation or not, but he does note that material need will be wiped away in the eternal life. Which brings us to Augustine’s second source on the preferability of the contemplative over the active life: (2) the Gospel story of Mary and Martha.

Here is Augustine on both of these themes:

“Martha chose a good part, but Mary the better. What Martha chose passes away. She ministered to the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless: but all these pass away,–there will be [a time – or rather, an eternity] when none will hunger nor thirst. Therefore will her care be taken from her ‘Mary hath chosen the better part . . . which shall not be taken away from her.’ She hath chosen to contemplate, to live by the Word (Sermon clxix.17).” (in Butler, 233)

Note this early identification, in Augustine, of the active life with Matt 25 type works of compassion to those in need. It is clear that he is not here denigrating Martha’s choice or the active life entirely:

“Martha’s part is holy and great; yet Mary hath chosen the better, in that while her sister was solicitous and working and caring for many things, she was at leisure and sat still and listened.”[i]

And again – a passage that seems to push the contemplative life toward the future:

“Both are praiseworthy: but the one is laborious, the other leisured [there are those classical categories again]. What Martha was doing, there we are; what Mary, that we hope for. While in this life how much can we have of Mary’s part? For even now we do somewhat of her work, when removed from business and laying aside our ordinary cares. Inasmuch as we do thus, we are like to Mary.[ii]

So a lot of this seems to boil down to a comparison between human action and experience in time, and human action and experience in eternity. This also relates strongly to the use of the term “secular” for those caught up in the business, and the busy-ness, of the world, which include not just ordinary layfolk but also, significantly, clergy – all distinguished from monastics, who set aside much of that busyness and world-engagement (engagement with the hurly-burly of this present age – the saeculum)for pursuit of (contemplation of) the eternal, which we can but taste in this world, but will enjoy eternally in the next.

We might observe that Augustine’s rejoinder to the “busyness thesis” (put forward as early as the 3rd century by Antony and the early desert fathers) is that we are required to engage in the active life out of love for neighbor. This is not surprising, as it would be consistent with Paul’s teachings, for instance, in both letters to the Thessalonians.

But we may suspect that, since Augustine lived before the rise and widespread flourishing of Benedictine monasticism in the West, this defense of the active life may not survive that rise. So next, it will be helpful to look at two sources deeply tied to that rise: the 6th-century monk-pope Gregory the Great, who was the only biographer (one may say: hagiographer) of Benedict—and, as Butler says, the “first and greatest Western exponent” of the monastic life “next to St Benedict himself,” and the 11th-century leader of the Cistercians, Bernard of Clairvaux – a rigorous and austere reformer who we would expect, of all writers, would cast suspicion on the active life in defending the sanctity and preeminence of the contemplative (but we don’t get to Bernard in this draft).

I think Gregory is a particularly good source for testing the “busyness thesis.” To see that, it helps to understand something of his adult life [and here my regular readers might want to skim the nutshell bio of the next few paragraphs, as I’ve shared much of it here before]. An educated Roman of aristocratic stock, Gregory was in 573 appointed to the highest civil position in Rome, that of prefect. For at least a year he oversaw the city’s police force, food supply and finances. But this honored position did not fit him well; he was troubled in his heart.

What was bothering Gregory? “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.” So Gregory made a decision that he described as a conversion. In a letter to his friend the Spanish bishop Leander, Gregory explained that, led astray by “long-standing habit” and a sense of civic duty, he had put off conversion for too long. Now, however, he said, “I fled all this with anxiety…. Having left behind what belongs to the world … I escaped naked from the shipwreck of this life.” What Gregory did, in fact, was take oaths of obedience, poverty and celibacy and become a monk.

By Gregory’s day the monastic vision based on Antony and his Egyptian “desert fathers” had grown into an empire-wide phenomenon. As they multiplied in number and spread out into the empire’s hinterlands, the early medieval monks learned not only from Antony and the Gospels, but also from Plato and such Neoplatonists as Plotinus (205-270). These and other Greek philosophers had sought truth with their whole hearts—desiring above all to see God (the ultimate Form behind the appearances of the world) and yearning to undergo the necessary disciplines to do so. A Christianized version of this platonic, ascetic quest—known as “the way of contemplation”—reached and captivated Gregory by way of his two favorite authors, Augustine and John Cassian. For both these figures, the contemplative way involved “the soul’s effort in entering into itself, gathering itself from dispersal among the material images of its daily occupation, and rising in inner ascent.”

One thing is clear: for Gregory, the monastery would provide blessed relief from the never-ending details of administration, the lot of the leader. When he entered the monastery, he no doubt thought he had escaped the administrative grind once and for all. And for three blissfully happy years, it seemed as though he had.

But it was not to be. First, Pope Benedict I recognized a masterful administrator tor when he saw one, and in 578 he called Gregory out of his happy seclusion to become one of the seven deacons of Rome, an office carrying heavy duties. Then 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.

From this duty he returned seven years later, in 586, and reentered his beloved monastery, St. Andrew, where he again prayed, sang and studied Scripture with the brothers. But now he also labored as aide to Pope Pelagius II, his schedule increasingly filled with “worldly duties”—a taste of things to come.

But then in 590 Pope Pelagius II died—and the blow struck: the people and church turned to Gregory, unanimously electing him pope.  Immediately, Gregory was swamped with business as never before. It absorbed his hours, filled his thoughts and troubled his heart. To a former bishop of Antioch he wrote: “I am being smashed by many waves of affairs and afflicted by the storms of a life of tumults, so that I may rightly say: I am come into deep waters where the floods overflow me [Ps. 69:2].” His separation from the contemplative life now seemed absolute and irreversible. He wrote: “My sad mind, laboring under the soreness of its engagements, remembers how it went with me formerly in the monastery, how all perishable things were beneath it, how it rose above all that was transitory, and, though still in the body, went out in contemplation beyond the bars of the flesh.”

Whatever the dangers to his soul, the new pope felt obliged to pour himself out in labor for his people, healing and calming whom he could among a populace battered by war, plague and famine. His heart still aching for the life of the monastery, the shepherd spent his life for his sheep. He turned to relieving his people’s distress with the resources of the church; with the senators and other civil administrators gone, the church was the people’s last resort. In the end, he nearly drained the church treasury, selling off church lands to provide for the poor.

Moreover, the emperor was gone to the East, and distracted by wars there, so Gregory found himself, in the face of incursions by the Germanic “barbarian” peoples, managing supply lines and troop movements.

Through the agonizing necessity of entering the papacy and fulfilling it in a way that honored God, Gregory was forced to confront the defining issue of his life and ministry: the question of the relationship between the contemplative and the active life. As he worked on this question, drawing from Augustine, John Cassian, and other authors, Gregory forged a remarkable synthesis between the active and contemplative lives. To see this, we now turn to Gregory’s own teachings on the subject.

Continued in part VI

[i] Augustine, Sermons, clxxix, in Butler, 233.

[ii] Augustine, Sermons, civ.4 in Butler, 233.

2 responses to “Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part V

  1. Pingback: Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part VI | Grateful to the dead

  2. Pingback: Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part IV | Grateful to the dead

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