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

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), “Dante’s Vision of Rachel and Leah”; Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Continued from part V

Cuthbert Butler first points out that Gregory picked up Augustine’s teaching that “no one can come to contemplation without having exercised the works of the active life, so that the active life is necessary for all, whereas the contemplative is not necessary[, and thus] . . . optional.” (Butler, 249)

Gregory, in fact, not only asserts that the active life is necessary, but also that it has a chronological priority: it must be exercised before one can come to the contemplative life. In fact, he asserted this frequently:

“The active life is lived first, that afterwards the contemplative may be attained to.”[i]

“Perfectness of practice having been received, we come to contemplation.”[ii]

“Every one that is perfect is first joined to an active life for productiveness, and afterwards united to a contemplative life for rest.”[iii]

“The season for action comes first, for contemplation last. . . . The mind should first spend itself in labour, and afterwards it may be refreshed by contemplation.”[iv]

“We ascend to the heights of contemplation by the steps of the active life.”[v]

“The active life is before the contemplative in time, because by good works we tend to contemplation.”[vi]

Gregory, agreeing with Augustine that the contemplative life is better and greater than the active, also follows his teacher in affirming that the active life is more productive than the contemplative – an important thread in the tradition going forward, for monastics as much as for anyone else. On the superiority of the contemplative life, he follows Augustine in using the story of Martha and Mary. On the productiveness of the active, he adopts Augustine’s allegorization of the story of Lia and Rachel.[vii] So for instance in Gregory’s Moralia on Job, we have this:

“Rachel is beautiful but barren, Lia dim-eyed but fruitful, truly in that when the mind seeks the ease of contemplation, it sees more but is less productive in children to God. But when it betakes itself to the labour of preaching, it sees less but it bears more largely.[viii]

Though the above passage links the active life, again, to preaching, Gregory knew it was practiced by all people. For as we’ve seen, through difficult personal experience, as he made the transition from the monastic life to the “secular” life of the highest bishop in the West – with all its “administrivia” and unavoidable interactions in the saeculum – he also came to see that the contemplative life was both (1) accessible to those outside of monasteries and (2) made stronger by the practice of the active life. On the accessibility of the contemplative life to all, he said that the grace of contemplation “is often given to the highest, often to the lowest, often to the ascetic (remoti), sometimes even to the married.”[ix] “Therefore there is no Christian state from which the grace of contemplation can be excluded. Whoever has an interior heart can be illuminated by the light of contemplation.”[x] “For there are faithful people in the Church who love almighty God in such a way that they are perfected in their works and are also engaged in contemplation.”[xi] In fact, not even literacy and the ability to read Scripture was necessary to reach this state of contemplation that many medieval teachers would assume is the proper province of the monastics: “[T]hrough love, even the simplest may repose in heavenly contemplation, though they are unable to meditate on the mysteries of the holy scriptures’.”[xii]

Continued in part VII

[i] Hom. In Ezech. II.ii.10, in Butler, 250.

[ii] Gregory, Mor. xxii.50, in Butler, 250.

[iii] Mor. vi.61, in Butler, 250.

[iv] Mor. vi.60, in Butler, 250.

[v] Mor. xxxi.102, in Butler, 250.

[vi] Gregory, Hom in Ezech. I.iii.9, in Butler, 250.

[vii] These are Butler’s observations, on p. 250. On the allegorization of Lia and Rachel, Butler cites Augustine, c. Faust. Xxii.54, which he has given on p. 231. Then he notes: “In the following places the cases of Lia and Rachel and of Martha and Mary are coupled together: Hom. In Ezech. II.ii,9, 10; Mor. Vi.61; Ep. 1.5; but in Hom. in Ezech. II.ii., Matha and Mary are dealt with alone. The principal passage on Lia and Rachel and the greater productiveness of the active life is introduced by the words: ‘sicut et ante nos dictum est,’ referring clearly to Augustine as the source” (Butler, pp. 250-251).

[viii] Gregory, Mor. vi.61, in Butler, 251.

[ix] Homily on Ezechiel, 2.5.19, in R. A. Markus in Gregory the Great and His World (Cambridge University Press, 1997),31.

[x] Homily on Ezechiel, 2.5.19, in Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 44.

[xi] Homily on Ezechiel, 2.5.1, Markus, Gregory the Great and His World, 31.

[xii] Pastoral Rule, II.122, Markus, Gregory the Great and His World, 31.

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

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

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

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