Tag Archives: active life

Christian vocation in a “secular” world – part 2 – Gregory the Great


[This is the second in a series; the first part is here.]

Here’s the first question that may be nagging us as we seek a sense of vocation in our work:

  1. Does time dedicated to working in the secular world endanger our souls? Is there an inherent tension or contradiction between the “worldliness” of work and the “spirituality” of faith?

A century or two before the opening of the Middle Ages, the theologian whose influence would become definitive for the next thousand years, Augustine of Hippo, distinguished two spheres of human endeavor: the “active life”—our work in the world—and the “contemplative life”—our private worship and prayer. The active life could be good, but the contemplative life, such as that enjoyed by monks and nuns, was much better—and indeed safer for our souls.

Augustine’s view has persisted in some circles right up to this day – but it was quickly challenged by the man some consider the spiritual father of the medieval church, as Augustine was its theological father.

Born into a wealthy family and educated in grammar, rhetoric, law, and letters, young Gregory—who would become Pope Gregory the Great (540-604)—rose by age 33 to the exalted position of Roman prefect, in charge of the city’s police force, food supply, and finances.

Gregory found in Augustine’s distinction between the active and contemplative life a frightening challenge to his spiritual life. He worried that all the ordinary, daily, and challenging work of the prefecture might be endangering his very soul. Where in all the busyness could he find God?

Agonized, Gregory left his wealth and power, taking on the monastic vows of obedience, poverty, and celibacy, and the monastic life of daily disciplines, prayer, and Bible reading. He expected to live out his years safely ensconced in the contemplative routines of the cloister.

But his holy seclusion was not to last. Just three years later, in 578, Pope Benedict I called Gregory out of his monastery to become one of the seven deacons of Rome, an office carrying heavy administrative duties. And when Pope Pelagius II died of plague twelve years later, Gregory was unanimously chosen succeed him as pope. Continue reading

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. Continue reading