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Gregory the Great

Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection

CAROLE STRAW
Copyright Date: 1988
Pages: 309
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnfj8
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  • Book Info
    Gregory the Great
    Book Description:

    Gregory I (590-604) is often considered the first medieval pope and the first exponent of a truly medieval spirituality. Carole Straw places Gregory in his historical context and considers the many facets of his personality—monk, preacher, and pope—in order to elucidate the structure of his thought and present a unified, thematic interpretation of his spiritual concerns.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-90987-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. LIST OF FIGURES
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. NOTE ON SOURCES AND ABBREVIATIONS
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-27)

    On meeting St. Anthony, the old hermit Paul recalls the world, and for all his years of isolation in the desert he cannot quite forsake the fortunes of cities and empires: “Because true love embraces all things, please tell me how the human race is getting along: whether new roofs rise in the ancient cities, whose empire now rules the world, and whether any still exist, snared in the error of demons.”¹

    The life of perfection includes charity for others; indeed, it is nothing without such charity. Though a thousand reasons bid the monk to leave the world, polluted as...

  7. I MICROCOSM AND MEDIATOR
    (pp. 28-46)

    “[I]f we look carefully at exterior things, they call us back to interior things, for the marvelous works of visible creation are surely the footsteps of our Creator.”¹ The universe is filled with traces of God, hint by hint disclosing deeper truths. Ever the preacher and teacher, Gregory wishes his audience to learn the wisdom the universe teaches, particularly the lessons of humility and fear of God.² But more than this, from the vast, busy world outside man learns about himself.³ By studying the workings of the visible cosmos, the Christian, like the Stoic sage, begins slowly to discern the...

  8. II A SACRAMENTAL VISION
    (pp. 47-65)

    Gregory’s world is full of surprises, not all of them pleasant. A bear honors a saint,¹ and the sea bellows with God’s anger.² Such engaging incidents illustrate how this world can embody the spiritual realities of the next. Yet a darker side exists. In theDialogues, Gregory describes the dismal passing of a monk in his own community. As the physician Justus lies dying, he confesses to hoarding three gold pieces among his various medicines. With ferocious zeal, Gregory forces the monk to die friendless and alone, then throws his body and coins on a manure heap to rot with...

  9. III THE SAINT AND THE SOCIAL MEANING OF STABILITY
    (pp. 66-89)

    The righteous are like stars “enlightening the darkness of the present life,” Gregory writes in his preface to theMoralia. “Look, what shining stars we see in the sky that we may walk along the pilgrimage of our night without stumbling.”¹ Rome had long been showered with such “stars” in the saints and martyrs buried in her shrines and cemeteries, and in the late sixth and early seventh centuries, Rome became a center for pilgrims zealous in pursuit of the holy. Relics proliferated. Gregory was fond of sending filings of St. Peter’s chains to select correspondents, or golden keys to...

  10. IV SOLIDITAS CARITATIS
    (pp. 90-106)

    In a letter to Adeodatus, bishop of Numidia, Gregory reflects upon the power of love to unify men: “[S]ince our mind is one with you, and yours is one with us, we are present to one another through all things, while we see each other in a mind made one through love.”¹ The body of Christ is bound so intimately that each member responds to the joys and pains of the others, a sensitivity recalling the intricate connection of body and soul in man himself, or even the mysterious sympathy between the natural world and man.

    Through this disparity in...

  11. V LUBRICA MUTABILITAS
    (pp. 107-127)

    “And like a flower, he springs forth and is cut down; he flees like a shadow, and never remains in the same state” (Jb 14:2).¹ Human life is fragile and precarious, beset by a troubling instability. The flesh blooms and decays; life is fleeting and chilled by the shade of sin. Battered to and fro, man is subject to alien forces. Demons buffet him with alternating temptations, like the cloud blown by the winds of an unclean spirit in Job 36:28. “[H]ither and thither he pushes them and calls them back, as often as his temptations in their hearts alternate...

  12. VI THE LOGIC OF ASCETICISM
    (pp. 128-146)

    To snare a lioness, Gregory tells us, one digs a pit and baits it with a sheep.¹ Then one tunnels further, joining the first pit to a second with a hidden cage. Tempted by food, the lioness will leap into the first pit; then, seeking security from terrors above her, she will follow the tunnel to hide away. But alas, she finds herself trapped in the cage. Soon she will be lifted out of the pit, her violent temper contained by the bars of her prison. And so it is with man. Craving to feed the desires of his flesh,...

  13. VII THE MEDIATOR OF GOD AND MAN
    (pp. 147-161)

    The theological disputes of late antiquity had a sharp and bitter edge. Partisan camps marred the Church’s tranquillity with their contentious zeal and unsavory tactics. Much was at stake, for, just as today, theological positions could encapsulate a world view and a political outlook. Yet the extent and the intensity of engagement in these debates is surprising, if the anecdote told by Gregory of Nyssa is an accurate reflection of the times. He could scarcely buy bread or visit the baths without being lectured on theological niceties by eager shopkeepers and attendants.¹

    By the sixth century the theological climate was...

  14. VIII THE GOD-MAN AND THE NEW DISPENSATION
    (pp. 162-178)

    Christ is the grain of wheat, of whom John wrote: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it will remain alone” (Jn 12:24). Christ dies to “sanctify” us, and yet his flesh is also the “food” for those hungry for eternal knowledge.¹ As Redeemer, Christ dies to atone for man’s sins and restore a disordered universe. But even the example of his life on earth illuminates man, teaching him righteousness and virtue. This duality of Christ’s mission, redeeming and teaching,² is reflected in the duality and reciprocity of his two natures. Christ’s power to save comes...

  15. IX THE SACRIFICE OF A CONTRITE HEART
    (pp. 179-193)

    Sacrifice is the core of Gregory’s moral theology. Through sacrifice, adversity and suffering yield to triumph, as the “infirmities of [Christ’s] Passion were changed into the glory of his Resurrection.”¹ So for man, to accept a life of earthly adversity and sacrifice is to anticipate the glorious new life of the Resurrection. In part, Gregory’s focus on sacrifice and on the Mass simply reflects general historical trends. Both Augustine and Leo wrote several sermons on Easter that emphasize the sacrifice of Christ. Easter is, of course, the climax of the liturgical year. Christmas, Epiphany, and other celebrations are subordinate to...

  16. X REFORM AND THE PREACHER
    (pp. 194-212)

    God does not easily forsake his own creation. Sinners may lie hardened in their torpid indifference, but God reaches out to convert his elect: “now he terrifies them with threats, now with beatings, now with revelations, so that those hardened in deadly security may be softened with healthful fear, so that they may return, even if late, and at least blush with shame that they have been so long awaited.”¹

    These ominous threats, beatings, and revelations suggest the fearsome difficulty of reform. Battling himself and the devil in the dull campaigns of daily life, the sinner labors all his life...

  17. XI THE JUST PENITENT
    (pp. 213-235)

    Adversity shakes the sinner to his senses. “The dart of terror pierces and recalls us to our sense of righteousness,” Gregory remarks.¹ In Gregory’s program of reform, fear serves as the first stage and the very foundation of change, for often only fear of God’s judgment repels the Christian from worldly involvement, teaching him “what he should avoid in the world,” and “severing him from pleasures of the flesh.”² Reason returns,³ and fear gives man seriousness and discipline so that he might restrain his dissolute thoughts.⁴ “In fear of the Lord there is strong confidence” because when shaken by tribulation,...

  18. XII CONSTANTIA MENTIS
    (pp. 236-256)

    Discretion dispels the gloomy mist of sin, for it points out the narrow road charted between virtue and vice. Life can be transformed through such discernment and self-control. No external evil need affect the Christian, for “if the heart is in God, the bitter will be sweet.”¹ The world no longer looks so menacing when one is so well apprised of its dangers; aware of the soft vulnerabilities hidden in the heart, one more easily constructs strong defenses. When so perfected and refined, discretion allows not only man’s withdrawal from the world but also his active involvement in it. Internally...

  19. CONCLUSION
    (pp. 257-260)

    The continuity Gregory perceives between spiritual and carnal realms yields different degrees and intensities of complementarity. We can diagram the continuities and polarities of spiritual and carnal by imagining a line of creation unfolding from God downward and then bending this line at midpoint (Figure 4). The original polarity of spirit and flesh is thereby displaced and duplicated, so that the carnal and spiritual axes are mirror images of each other, and each axis has a harsh and soft aspect. The intensities of the complementary oppositions vary, from radical opposition at the bottom of the diagram to identity and unity...

  20. BIBLIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY
    (pp. 261-266)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 267-295)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 296-296)