St. Gregory 1 the Great and the beginnings of Medieval Christian spirituality
At the historical point where medieval spirituality begins to unfold we find a Pope who seems more like a figure from the patristic era - the earliest centuries of Christianity. Gregory 1, called “the Great” because of the scope and distinction of his pastoral achievements during the wars between the Lombards and the Byzantine Empire, was born into a noble Roman family, the Anicii. He is the pope who proposed and promoted the conversion of the English and the Lombards, this latter through his influence on the Catholic queen Theodolinda and the Lombard king Agilulfo. Numbered among the Latin (Western) Fathers, in fact in his mentality and spirituality he is already entirely medieval. His most famous work is his Pastoral Rule (Liber Regulae Pastoralis). He marks out the high road of medieval spirituality, concentrating on the contemplative life. He distinguished three ‘orders’ - the laity, the ‘secular’ clergy (i.e. those not living under a monastic Rule, but out in the world) and the ‘regular’ monks. In his Moralia he argued for the sanctified life as a means by which humankind could return to God – a life that could be achieved by pursuing either a contemplative or an active life (Via Contemplativa or Via Activa). His Biblical examples are ones which definitively characterise the whole current of medieval spiritual life until at least the life and work of St. Bernard of Clairvaux; Martha and Mary, Leah and Rachel, for example. The primacy given by Gregory to the Contemplative Life, together with the life and Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia, give us between them sources of the greatest importance for the understanding of the spirit, and the spiritual life, of medieval Man. Man is seen as capable of a direct apprehension – a ‘touching’ of God, and the monastic life is seen as the culmination of Christian perfection. St. Gregory’s spiritual doctrine is based on psychological reflection and mystical experience. He placed more stress on reaching a vision of God through knowledge and understanding, rather than solely on the attainment of that experience through a rapt and entirely mystical union. In this he is, effectively, already medieval. Moreover, he placed relatively little emphasis on extraordinary or supernormal aspects of contemplation, rejecting as he did the idea of a faith based only on ‘mystical’ experiences that might be illusory and self-deceiving.
In Gregory all the spiritual currents of the primitive Church meet. He sums them up and makes them available to the new, pagan and ‘barbarian’ peoples who had taken the place of the Romans of Antiquity. His simplicity, the absence in his writings of over-complicated speculation, his practicality and his ability to take on and renew the inheritance of the past make him the spiritual father of the Latin Middle Ages. His experience gained as an official at the imperial Byzantine court helped him to become the most able administrator of the Roman Church’s patrimony, and his particular responsiveness to the Contemplative Life derives from his knowledge of the Eastern Fathers. He carried through fully reform of the Liturgy, with the establishment of the Roman Canon and of Liturgical (Gregorian) chant. He is the first pope to proclaim himself ‘Servant of the Servants of God’ (servus servorum Dei), a title which today is still proper to the (Western) Pope, as it has been in all the centuries between. Down these centuries it is an identifying addition to the signatures of all his successors on documents deposited in the Papal Chancellery.
Anne Marshall, www.paintedchurch.org
St. Gregory the Great
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