The Worker Monk

I like the fact that we read today’s section of the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict, which envisages God looking for a worker among the multitude of peoples (vv 14–20), on the same day that we celebrate the feast of St Gregory the Great. Gregory was the first monk to become pope, an admirer of St Benedict (who is the subject of Book II of Gregory’s Dialogues) and responsible for sending St Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons. On previous occasions I have written about the enormous contribution he made to liturgy and papal administration — and the enigmatic nature of his personality, insofar as we can know it from his writings. Today I would like to emphasize just one trait. Gregory had a huge appetite for work and is widely credited with having shaped the medieval papacy. He was a worker monk, if you like, always longing for the cloister but always busy about many things. Today’s section of the Prologue could have been written just for him.

My saying that will probably surprise many. Certainly, Gregory was not always an obvious seeker after peace (cf RB Prol 17). His dealings with the Church in the East, for instance, were made more complicated by the fact that he never learned Greek, while his attempts to engage his clergy in providing charitable relief to the poor were often marked by a severity that Benedict would not have countenanced. Gregory was no Benedictine. But — and it is an important ‘but’ — Gregory had a profound sense of what it meant to be the servant of God. His energy, his zeal, and his ability were all placed at the service of God and the Church. He understood what was implied in seeking to find God, and because he himself responded fully to God’s invitation, he was able to draw others to respond, too.

St Benedict speaks of God looking for his worker (singular). It is the individual who is called to respond to the invitation God offers; it is the individual’s fidelity that will lead to his finding the way of life (cf RB Prol 20). We know that Benedict will go on to map out how this individual response is to be lived in community, but here, at the beginning, there is just one person listening and responding, one person who must take upon his/her shoulders the yoke of obedience, living by the commandments and the precepts of the gospel. In an age when numbers are often taken to be a sign of success, even in the Church, it is good to be reminded of the significance of the individual, of the difference one person can make if they truly wish to serve God.

History has recorded many of St Gregory’s achievements. Most of us will never know in this life whether we have achieved anything of importance to God or anyone else. But we trust, and we go on, knowing that what matters is that we try to be pleasing to God. The promise of finding the way of life, of finding God himself, draws us on. All we have to do is . . . work at it.

This post was scheduled for publication at 6.30 a.m. while I was on my way to Oxford. For some reason, it didn’t get published then.

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St Gregory the Great, Apostle of the English

St Gregory the Great

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have always loved this image of St Gregory the Great, Apostle of the English. The Holy Spirit whispering into his ear may be a rather hackneyed artistic convention, but I think it is also a reminder of the huge difference between writers then and now. The Romantics taught us to see the writer as a demi-god, a creative whose ‘one talent it was death to hide’. We think of dark and moody geniuses, starving to death in cold attics or roaming the Ligurian coast; or, if our idea of the writer has moved on a bit, we think of celebrity authors tapping out their regular 3,000 words a day, with a literary agent to handle the PR and constant appearances in the media to nurse their image. Not so with Gregory, or with the Late Antique or early medieval writers generally. Neither their words nor their ends were entirely their own. They were not masters but servants.

I think that waiting upon the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the hours of preparation by way of reading and prayer, may be the secret of Gregory’s brevity and acuity. His letters, for example, are, for the most part, deceptively short, but what a wealth of content they display! Greek friends may be less vocal in their admiration (for even a holy pope may have his shortcomings, and Gregory certainly did), but he wrote sensibly and compassionately about conversion, marriage, women and many other topics. He was a monk, so perhaps it was the monastic habit of thinking much and saying little that enabled him, even as pope, to avoid that shipwreck of the soul he so much feared. The weak joke ascribed to him, Non Angli, sed angeli, (‘Not Angles, but angels’) may be apocryphal but it, too, reminds us of another important truth. A self-centred charity is no charity at all. If we really believe what we profess, we’ll want to share the Good News with others, and that is the most charitable thing we can do. Something to ponder on St Gregory’s day or any day.

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St Gregory the Great and the Art of Brevity

St Gregory the Great

It is not difficult to find a thousand appreciations of St Gregory the Great, most of them concentrating on one or other aspect of his life and work, according to the author’s personal preferences. Today, I will mention just one which happens to resonate with me: Gregory’s gift for writing simply and clearly about complex and difficult issues. His letters are much less well-known than many of his other works, but they a model of concision and clarity and provide an insight not only into his mind but into the way in which he understood the Church and its calling. I have often wished that papal or episcopal exhortations of our own day could be written in similarly limpid prose. Gregory doesn’t waste words: it is clear that he thinks before he writes, and prays before he thinks. Bloggers, please take note.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail