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


Image by Simon from Pixabay; public domain

Continued from part VI

On the efficacy of the active life as an aid to the contemplative life, Gregory’s understanding of “the mixed life”—especially, but (as we’ve seen) not exclusively for pastors and bishops—is one of his greatest legacies to the church. Bernard McGinn notes that while Gregory dwelt, “at times obsessively,” on married life’s dangers—especially owing to its unavoidable entanglements with the “outside” world—yet, “he believed that the combination of the vita activa and vita contemplativa to which the praedicatores [preachers] were called was the highest and most important form of life in the church.”[i]

The importance of this point may be seen in the fact that Gregory identified the two lives as oriented to the two parts of the “law of love” – love of God and love of neighbor.[ii]

Perhaps not surprisingly, given his own liberality with the coffers of the church on behalf of those in need, one of the elements of the active life that he taught pastors to practice was the economic work of providing for their people’s material needs and “earthly necessities.” In fact, he argued that if they did not do so, their words would not be heard well – and they would deserve it![iii]

His only caution was that pastors who allow themselves to get too caught up in the busyness of caring for their people’s everyday needs, and also carrying out the other business of the church, will end up spiritually vacuous, and thus failing as shepherds. They will “pant after” the “cares of this world” “night and day,” and “think it pleasure if they are drowned in business,” and “rejoice in the pressure of worldly commotions” (nice phrase there) – and by so doing, end up “ignorant of those inward things which they ought to have taught others.” (Pastoral Rule, 2.7, in Butler, 257)

Not only is the exercise of the active life mandated by the law of love, and not only will it (when judiciously pursued) assist in the people’s reception of their shepherd’s preaching, but it actually has salutary effects for the contemplative life:

“Each soul the broader it is in the love of its neighbour, the higher also will it be in the knowledge of God. . . . Let us compassionate our neighbour [sic] by love, that we may be joined to God by knowledge. Let us condescend to our least brethren on earth, that we may be the equals of the angels in heaven (Hom. in Ezech. II.ii.15).” (261)

Nonetheless, and this is an important emphasis for our third, “worldliness thesis,” about the ways engagement in the world can indeed hamper contemplation, it is not just the busyness of the active life that can prove problematic, but also, as Antony and his time understood, we must guard our souls against the toxic anger and litigiousness, etc., of the public square, if we wish to follow the path of holiness (and this feels like a word in season to the age of social media):

“When my business is done I try to return to my inner self, but cannot, for I am driven away by vain tumultuous thoughts (Ep. i.5, ad Theoctistam).” (262)

In fact, even the response of the holy and pure heart to injustice in the world—as it roils the emotions—can work against the contemplative life of devotion to God.[iv]

Remember, when reading all these urgings to “tranquility,” that the tradition stressed that it was the sheer busyness of family life that stood as the primary impediment to the contemplative life for the married.[v]

That busyness works not just on our time but also on our desires, Gregory often observes.[vi] But though “earthly desires” are a factor, but it is the disquieting of the mind that most concerns Gregory in thinking about the active life. “If we wish to contemplate things within, let us rest from outward engagements. The voice of God is heard when, with minds at ease, we rest from the bustle of this world, and the divine precepts are pondered by us in the deep silence of the mind.” (ibid. xxiii.37, Butler, 263)

It is the “distraction and busyness” (thesis 1) more than the “stain” of the outward, social life – the worldly city with all its conflicts and distractions (thesis 3) that the tradition seems so far to be most reacting against. This, as opposed to the mere fact that economic activities are, well economic, involving money.

BUT none of these potential problems were enough that Gregory would speak categorically against engagement in the active life. His final word was that “It is by an active life perfectly carried out that one passes to the freedom of the contemplative life.” (Hom in Ezech, I.iii.2.12, Butler, 263)

How then are we to describe what Gregory contributed on this subject of the two lives, beyond Augustine’s contribution? Basically, Augustine was much more nervous about everyday, material life than Gregory. Gregory opened the door for a new way of thinking about human flourishing, that viewed our material and social life (the “active life”) more positively, though still suspiciously. And this opening of the door continued to influence medieval understandings of the active, material, social life as important to human flourishing, and as not inherently damaging to the spiritual life.


[i] Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 44.

[ii] For example: “In the sight of the internal judge our charity should be coloured with the love both of God and of our neighbor, that the converted soul may neither so delight in repose for the sake of the love of God, as to put aside the care and service of our neighbor; nor, busying itself for the love of our neighbor, be so wedded thereto that, entirely forsaking quiet, it extinguish in itself the fire of love of the Most High.” Moralia, vi. 56, in Butler, 254)

[iii] “[T]here are some who undertake the charge of a flock, but are so desirous of leisure for themselves for spiritual exercises, that they are not engaged in outward things at all. And since they utterly neglect to take care for bodily things, they are far from meeting the wants of those who are under them. And no wonder their preaching is generally looked down upon; for while they reprove the deeds of transgressors, but yet do not furnish them with things needful for this present life, they are not heard with any willingness; for the word of doctrine maketh no way into the soul of a man in want, if the hand of mercy commend it not to his mind. . . . (Reg. Past. ii.7, in Butler, 257). Cf. “. . . [W]hen those are wanting who might fitly minister to the exterior needs of their neighbours, those too who are full of spiritual Gifts ought to condescend to their weakness, and as far as they may . . . be able, lend themselves with the condescension of charity to the earthly necessities of others.” (Mor xix.45, in Butler, 259-60)

[iv] “Anger that comes of evil blinds the eye, but anger that come of zeal disturbs it. . .  . For zeal for the cause of virtue in itself, in that it fills the mind with disquietude and agitation, presently bedims the eye thereof, so that in its troubled state it can no longer see those objects far up above which it aforetime clearly beheld in a state of tranquility. To perturbation contemplation is never joined . . . (Mor. v.82).” (262) cf: “Often we wax angry in correcting faults and perturb our tranquility of mind. Only a tranquil mind is able to hold itself aloft in the light of contemplation. While we pursue faults in anger we are necessarily thrown into confusion and disturbed from the contemplation of things on high (Gregory’s Letter answering the questions put him by Augustine, Question viii. toward the end; preserved in Ven. Bede’s Eccl. Hist. i.27,” in Butler, 262).

[v] “The married, though they do well and desire to see God, yet are occupied by domestic cares and are divided in mind. The continent are remote from the affairs of this world and restrain carnal pleasure even from lawful wedlock; they are implicated in no care of wife and children and no troublesome and difficult thoughts of providing for a family.” (Hom in Ezech, II.iv.6, Butler, 265)

[vi] “For she is never led on to contemplate internal things, unless she be heedfully withdrawn from those which entwine themselves about her without . . . Inward knowledge is not cognizable unless there is a cessation from outward embarrassments [another nice phrase], and our mind is never caught up to the force of inward contemplation, unless it be first carefully lulled to rest from all agitation of earthly desires (Mor. v.55, in Butler, 263)

One response to “Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part VII

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

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