The Summit of Spiritual Perfection in the Messiness of Worldly Affairs – By John Moorhead

John Moorhead on George Demacopoulos’s Gregory the Great

George E. Demacopoulos, Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome, University of Notre Dame Press, 2015, 236pp., $28
George E. Demacopoulos, Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome, University of Notre Dame Press, 2015, 236pp., $28
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Pope Gregory the Great was one of those people who found himself pulled in very different directions. The first monk to become a pope, he was a person whose deep interior life and love of contemplation was expressed in an intense yearning (desiderium; the usual translation, “desire,” does not quite work) for God. He also stood within a long tradition in ancient philosophy that encouraged examination of conscience, and when he considered his inner state Gregory found much that was not as it should have been. Pride was a particular problem; a keen writer and public speaker, he found it impossible to escape the twinge of self-satisfaction at having completed a task well and at the good opinion this won him.

Yet despite his readiness to look inward, Gregory was a committed and highly competent administrator. By the time he became pope in 590 the church of Rome had developed into a complex organism whose economic and political interests gave it a stake in the existing structures of society. The sixth century had been a difficult time for the church, and when Gregory became pope much of Italy was occupied by Lombards, members of a Germanic group who had been causing havoc for several decades. One can imagine someone of Gregory’s temperament recoiling from such issues, but the flurry of activity that immediately followed his assuming office shows that he was more than ready to get his hands dirty. He moved quickly to change some of the ways in which the church carried out its business, appointed trusted men to key posts, and micro-managed such things as the administration of the estates from which the church drew much of its income. As the years passed unforeseen obstacles and disappointments called for strategic withdrawals and repositionings, but during his fourteen years as pope Gregory’s energies scarcely flagged.

The Dag Hammarskjöld of his day, Gregory was a man with important and demanding public duties who had a deeply personal inner life. How could his inner and outer lives be reconciled? The standard interpretation has been to see them as having been in tension, and Gregory as having experienced frustration as he was pulled away from higher things to deal with the lower. Such an interpretation seems to be supported by his own writings, for Gregory often expressed displeasure over the way his life had turned out. He imagined himself as a sailor tossed on the mighty waves of a stormy sea who could just barely make out the distant peaceful shore. But George Demacopoulos strikes out in a new direction. He argues that Gregory had developed an ascetic and pastoral theology which placed serving the interests of others, whether as a shepherd or a teacher, at its center. Seeing service to others as the fruit of an ascetic life, Gregory would not have found administration unwelcome but something to be accepted as an essential part of spiritual leadership. Hence, rather than seeing Gregory as being frustrated at being pulled away from a life of contemplation, his oversight of the creaky wheels of papal bureaucracy allowed him to express his vision of a truly ascetic life that, far from being marked by tension, would have been well integrated.

This is a most welcome insight that helps us see its subject in a new light. It clarifies many aspects of Gregory’s thought, such as his relationship with the theology of Augustine. Gregory softens his predecessor’s pessimistic view of the Fall, rarely using the term “original sin” that Augustine came to employ often. His theology of salvation was what Demacopoulos calls “participationist,” that is, one that allotted a role to freely chosen human initiative as well as God’s grace, and so allowed him to place more weight than Augustine on ascetic commitment. Gregory’s treatment of the saints reveals a surprising interest in their weaknesses that can be accounted for by his own sense of struggle. The praise he bestowed on the monk Benedict for his preparedness to forgo his own spiritual joys for the sake of others makes perfect sense; that the interpretation of Benedict Gregory offers in the second book of his Dialogues points in a different direction to what is suggested by Benedict’s Rule may be a matter of different genres rather than of different views. Here and elsewhere, Demacopoulos convincingly demonstrates the coherence of Gregory’s thought.

But thought is not everything, and some things which it may be tempting to explain with reference to the way in which Gregory thought can be otherwise accounted for. The relationship he enjoyed with the imperial authorities in Constantinople, for example, was more than a reflection of the way in which he thought of Rome, for it was also a function of how things stood just then between the churches of the two cities. It is certainly true that, a century before Gregory, Pope Gelasius had had an acrimonious relationship with an emperor, but this arose from issues that had rumbled on after the Council of Chalcedon which, by the time of Gelasius, had brought about the first schism between the churches of Rome and Constantinople. It was Gregory’s good fortune to be pope during a period when hostilities had been temporarily suspended. Though Gregory sometimes found dealing with the East an exasperating business, and towards the end of a fraught letter to the emperor Maurice he resorted to the climactic language he used at the end of his great commentary on Job, at least serious matters of doctrine were not a current issue between East and West. Perhaps it is because his period as pope was marked by what turned out to have been a lull in controversy on major issues that Gregory occupies a modest place in studies of Christian doctrine, for doctrinal developments have usually taken place in an attempt to clarify positions then thought to be under attack. Another area where too much weight may be attributed to Gregory’s theology is the attributing to it of an unprecedented blurring between civic and ecclesial leadership, for such a tendency had been going on for quite a while, and the many churchmen in late antiquity who expanded their sphere of influence by assuming civic functions were, in part, filling a gap created by a weakening in the power of the state.

One puts this book down thinking about its subject in a new way, for Demacopoulos has been able to use the structure of Gregory’s thought to make sense of its author. Softening as he does the caesura of Gregory’s exchanging secular for religious life, Demacopoulos allows us to see his life as having been less disjointed than it has hitherto seemed to be, for the skills he had exercised in his early days as prefect of the city would be useful when he became pope. While we need not believe that Gregory relished the daily grind of pastoral care, we can now see that it did not cut across his ascetic agenda but was part of it, for “the summit of spiritual perfection [was] located in the messiness of worldly affairs.” And so we can see the life of Gregory, whose self-evaluation tended towards being gloomy, as having in reality been a success.