25 March 2009

'The Ideal Western Man'—St Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome

Today, 12 March on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Gregory the Dialogist (c. 540-604), also known as ‘St Gregory the Great’, Pope of Rome. In Book I, Chapt. 23 of his Ecclesiastical History, the Venerable Bede writes, ‘In the tenth year of his reign [i.e., that of the Emperor Maurice], Gregory, a man eminent in learning and in affairs, was elected pontiff of the apostolic see of Rome; he ruled for thirteen years, six months, and ten days’ (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Bertram Colgrave, ed. Judith McClure and Roger Collins [Oxford: Oxford U, 1994], p. 37). Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna gives the following estimate in his introduction to The Homilies of St Gregory the Great On the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, trans. Theodosia Gray, ed. Presbytera Juliana Cownie (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1990), p. 9:

St Gregory was a man of great culture, known for his gentle nature and distinguished for his courage in confessing the Christian truth. A visionary with deep insight into the mysteries of Scripture, he represents, perhaps, the ideal Western man—steeped in the learning of the Roman society in which he lived and formed by the universal values and supreme wisdom bequeathed to that society by the Greek world.

I personally have a double veneration for St Gregory. First, I esteem him as the wise pastor who sent the first missionaries to the English, so that, as St Bede says—

We can and should by rights call him our apostle, for though he held the most important see in the whole world and was head of Churches which had long been converted to the true faith, yet he made our nation, till then enslaved to idols, into a Church of Christ, so that we may use the apostle’s words about him, ‘If he is not an apostle to others yet at least he is to us, for we are the seal of his apostleship in the Lord.’ (EH II.1, p. 65)

We may in fact attribute the remarkably peaceful conversion of the English to St Gregory’s careful guidance of the mission, which St Bede details in Bk. I, including the texts of several of St Gregory’s letters. This holy Pope had every right to take the credit when he wrote:

Lo, the mouth of Britain, which once only knew how to gnash its barbarous teeth, has long since learned to sing the praises of God with the alleluia of the Hebrews. See how the proud Ocean has become a servant, lying low now before the feet of the saints, and those barbarous motions, which earthly princes could not subdue with the sword, are now, through the fear of God, repressed with a simple word form the lips of priests; and he who, as an unbeliever, did not flinch before troops of warriors, now, as a believer, fears the words of the humble. (qtd. in St Bede, p. 69)

So great was St Gregory’s rôle as the apostle of the English, that he continued to play this rôle after his death. Thus, the righteous King Alfred the Great out of zeal for ‘wisdom and instruction’ translated St Gregory’s Pastoral Care into Old English and sent a copy, along with a fancy bookmark, ‘to every bishopric in my kingdom’ (‘Preface to St Gregory’s Pastoral Care’, The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, trans. and ed. Kevin Crossley-Holland [Oxford: Oxford U, 1984], pp. 218, 220). It is not surprising that the earliest Life of St Gregory was written in England, at St Hilda’s monastery in Whitby.

But, as a sheep in the flock of St Benedict (to whom our parish is dedicated), I also venerate St Gregory as the man who recorded the life of this great Father of Western monasticism, and, it would seem, directly or indirectly encouraged the use of his Rule in monasteries. The first Pope to have been chosen from the monks, St Bede tells us of St Gregory—

He promptly renounced his secular habit and entered a monastery, in which he proceeded to live with such grace and perfection—as he used afterwards to declare with tears—that his soul was then above all transitory things; and that he rose superior to all things subject to change. He used to think nothing but thoughts of heaven, so that, event hough still imprisoned in the body, he was able to pass in contemplation beyond the barriers of the flesh. He loved death, which in the eyes of almost everybody is a punishment, because he held it to be the entrance to life and the reward of his labours. (p. 65)

Leonard von Matt and Dom Stephan Hilpisch mention St Gregory’s efforts as Pope on behalf of monasteries and his encouragement of monasticism, but they add, ‘But his most important work for monachism is his biography of St Benedict, whom he held in the highest esteem and veneration. . . . St Gregory’s biography of St Benedict has been of incalculable benefit to Benedictine monachism. No other Pope has excercised so profound an influence in the spiritual and ascetical sphere as this pontiff’ (Saint Benedict, trans. Dom Ernest Graf [London: Burnes & Oates, 1961], pp. 143, 144). Interestingly, it is for the Dialogues, of which the Life of St Benedict forms the second Book, that St Gregory is primarily known in the East. The complete Dialogues were translated into Greek by Pope St Zachary in the 8th century, and the Pope thus became commonly known in the Byzantine world as ‘St Gregory the Dialogist’. They can be read here, at Roger Pearse’s wondeful site, while his letters are in the NPNF series, available online here.

St Gregory’s monastery of St Andrew, founded at his family’s villa on the Caelian Hill in Rome, is now known as San Gregorio Magno al Celio. It still stands, having undergone many additions and restorations, and is now in the hands of the Camaldolese, an order founded by St Romuald of Ravenna to follow strictly St Benedict’s Rule in both eremitical and a coenobitic life.

St Bede tells us that the following epitaph was inscribed on St Gregory’s tomb:

Earth, take this corse—’tis dust of thine own dust:
When God shall give new life, restore thy trust.
Star-bound his soul: for Death’s writ does not run
Where grave’s but gateway to life new-begun.
A great high-priest this sepulchre inherits,
Who lives for ever by uncounted merits;
Hunger with meat, witner with clothes he ended,
Souls with sound learning from the foe defended;
Whate’er he taught, himself fulfilled in act—
Mystic his words, but his example fact.
Anglia to Christ at piety’s dictation
He turned, won thousands from an unknown nation.
Thus that great shepherd laboured, thus he wrought;
To increase his Master’s flock was all his thought.
Take thy reward in triumph and in joy,
Who in God’s council sit’st eternally! (p. 70)

I shall close with a brief passage from St Gregory’s Homilies on the Prophet Ezekiel (Homily X.21, Ezek. 40:44-47):

But others, free from worldly vices or already safe through long weeping, take fire with the flame of love in tears of compunction, place the rewards of the Heavenly Kingdom before the eyes of their heart, and yearn already to be among the citizens above. The servitude and length of their pilgrimage appear hard to them. They long to see the King in His glory and cease not to weep daily through love for Him. What are they if not the gold altar, they in whose hearts spices are kindled because the virtues glow? (Gray, p. 285)

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