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St. Gregory the Great is not popular among modern Christians, nor do I think he is bound to be anytime soon.  Some of the fathers – and I here think particularly of St. Augustine – are attractive to modern Christians on account of their brilliance, innovation, and superb writing style; they are eminently quotable.  Gregory the Great is not one of these saints.

Perhaps this is because all he wanted to be was a contemplative monastic.  He certainly didn’t want to be Pope, though he took it up as the sort of sacrifice one makes for the Church, the Body of Christ.  And perhaps his books do not have as many one-liners as a writer like Augustine because his writing was defined by his ecclesial responsibilities, determined by occasional and pastoral matters rather than by a desire to be particularly memorable.  He is the silent middle-man, handing off the riches of Late Antiquity‘s theology to the later Middle Ages.  It is remarkable how little of himself one finds in his work, or at least the particular one I work on, the Moralia in Job.

Of his books, the Moralia is the least likely to become popular anytime soon.  It was last translated into English in the mid-Nineteenth Century, and it is a dense thicket of Biblical interpretation, encompassing the historical, moral, and allegorical senses (though when given the chance he will drop the historical and allegorical in favor of the moral).  The work was begun, not of his own volition, but as a set of lectures requested by fellow monks who accompanied on a trip to Constantinople before he became Pope.  The best way to make it sound appealing to a modern readership is to describe it as a creative exercise in free association where the scope of this exercise is the entire Bible and the tradition it accrued, and the basic skeleton is the narrative of Job.

So why do I like him?  And what does he have to do with John Donne?  I like him precisely because he was willing to bear the burden of the Church even when he would have been more comfortable praying in a monastic cell.  Particularly, he does not confine himself to a rarified spirituality inaccessible to the masses, but rather takes pains to care for the many little details that others might overlook.  We see this in his Dialogue with Peter, when he suggests that the Ecclesiast takes on the voices of a variety of positions so as to lead the holders of those positions to the truth; he would not have anyone left behind in the church, and this meant being patient with the questions of the simple and the connivings of the clever.  This unwillingness to leave even the smallest thing or person behind is perhaps even more evident in the Moralia; rather than giving a straightforward or plain interpretation of the text, he leaves no stone unturned in tradition or the rest of Scripture lest he should inadvertently misconstrue it – from a modern perspective this probably looks like madness, but I see in it the pastoral care of words and ideas.

I think by now it should be clear how Gregory is similar to John Donne in Satire I.  Like the narrator, Gregory no doubt would have loved to lock himself up in private with books and permission to pray; he had the heart of a contemplative and felt most at home in a contemplative capacity.  What I like about him is that, even so, he was willing to sacrifice this comfort for the sake of both dealing with the often more petty matters of church administration, and silently handing off to the Medieval world the riches of even the most obscure aspects of the Scriptural tradition developed in Late Antiquity.  He sacrificed his own preferred form of personal development to tend to the care of others, whether these others were the multiplicity of the Church or the words and ideas that must not be lost.  There is a line in the Donne poem where the narrator describes himself as a shepherd looking after the sheep that is his humorist friend.  This is where Donne and Gregory converge; both prefer the care of lost sheep over narcissistic pretension to self-development.

And it seems to me that what Donne and Gregory get at here is of the utmost importance at present.  We are in a culture that highly prizes self-development, the buzz of personal spirituality and the like.  Many Christian churches have even bought into this.  In the meantime, there are people for whom no one cares, and words of wisdom from the past that no one bothers about, even if we ostensibly have more access to them through technology.  It seems to me that one of the most Christian things we can do in the present time is to follow Donne and Gregory in their willingness to sacrifice their own personal developments and spiritualities in order to love God and our neighbour – and the words of those neighbours who have died before us.

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