What Made Gregory Great?

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Mar 05, 2009 by Howard Baker | 0 Comments

Assignments, work, family responsibilities, household duties, and ministry involvement are all challenges to our desire to maintain a life of prayer. The active life seems to crowd out the contemplative life for most of us. Gregory the Great (540-604), the first practicing monk to be elected pope was called great because he learned to integrate his inner life of prayer with his active ministry that entailed being the spiritual as well as political leader of Rome in the midst of famine, war, and plague. Here's how he did it:

Pastors, insisted Gregory, must live a higher life, one that combines both action and contemplation. If we want to know why, we need only to look at the life of Jesus: he ate and drank with sinners by day, performed miracles of healing and fed the multitudes. But throughout the night, he prayed on a mountain.

To Gregory, the lesson was clear: service and prayer are the two essential sides of a redemptive and productive ministry. By living an active life, full of works of neighbor-love; expressing the virtues of faith, hope, and charity; growing in the fruit of the Spirit, one arrives at more intense and joyful contemplation.

The question remains: How do we achieve true contemplation in the midst of busyness? Gregory recommended a number of specific practices:

Read and study Scripture.

Cultivate humility and other virtues, such as discernment.

Recognize your own sinfulness and God's holiness-and allow yourself to experience the resulting "fear of the Lord."

And step away from your busyness at times, withdrawing from exterior distractions into interior contemplation.

This was always the most important spiritual discipline for Gregory. You must "turn away from the distractions of knowing about things to the serious, even frightening, task of reflection on the inner self."

But never, of course, should you remove yourself from the life of active charity to others. That was Gregory's temptation as a newly elected pope, yearning for the old peace of the cloister. But through a papacy remarkable for its intensive activity (his over 800 extant letters deal with every imaginable sort of administrative matter), he came to disagree with his culture's elevation of the monastic life above all others.

--Excerpted from Chris Armstrong, "When Details Get You Down," Leadership Journal, February, 2009.

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