Saturday, November 17, 2007

Gregory the Great and Patience

Gregory had a "lock" on patience and struggling. He was a brilliant, pious, and humble catholic. Gregory the Great isn't a part of the "Early Church." He is really Medeival, but sometimes he reminds me of the early Patristic scholars because of his method and the content of his sermons.

This may be due, in part, to Gregory's love for his brethren in the church catholic in the Eastern part of the world. Early on in his life, Gregory spent Seven years living in Constantinople. He lived in a Latin district of the city with other Italian monks. Gregory served as Abbot of the monastery there. It was there that he learned pastoral supervision. He also spent a great deal of time in personal study.

Gregory had made a lot of friends with those theologians of the East. He learned their culture, he grew to understand ritual and piety of the Eastern church. The Eastern churches did not "evolve" like the Western churches, so it had more the aire of the Early Church. Perhaps this is why the sermons of Gregory remind me of Early Patristic preaching.

Gregory had strengths in Exegetical treatments of the scriptures, but his greatest contribution would be in his pastoral theology. Pastoral theology is not simply trying to help somebody with their immediate issue. A pastoral theologian understands the soul and how it behaves. A pastoral theologian is not a "counselor" but a man who understands sin, grace and how the soul "banters" back and forth in between sin and grace.

Gregory was such a man. He is best known for his book "The Pastoral Rule," which was the only book written by a Latin theologian in the medeival period to be translated into Greek during his own lifetime by the Eastern church. Gregory knew how to get to the heart of the issue. When we think we are being pious or humble or forgiving in the midst of difficulties, he takes it one more step and exposes our hidden "agendas" our political maneuverings, our quiet submission which is only used for revenge later.

Perhaps this is why I was struck by a sermon of his last night. I quote Gregory at length:

"True patience consists in bearing calmly the evils done us by another, and in not being consumed by resentments against the person who inflicts them. A person who bears the evils done him by his neighbor, so that he suffers them in silence, while looking for a time for suitable revenge, is not practicing patience but only displaying it."

A few lines later, Gregory adds:

"But we should know that often we appear patient because we are unable to repay evils. A person who does not repay an evil becauses he can't is not patient, as I have said. We are not looking for a patience on the surface but in the heart. The vice of impatience destroys teaching, which is the nurse of virtues. It is written: 'The teaching of a man is known by his patience'[Prov. 19:11]. Each person shows himself to be less learned the more he proves to be less patient. He cannot truly impart good by his teaching if he does not know how to bear calmly with the evils done him by another. It is Solomon again who discloses how high patience is ont he scale of virtues: 'Better a patient man than a brave one, a man master of himself than one who takes cities'[Prov. 16:32]. Taking cities is a smaller victory because the places we conquer are outside of ourselves; a greater one is won by patience, because a person overcomes himself, and subjects himself to himself, when patience brings him low in bearing with others in humility."

Then, Gregory nails all hidden hearts, including my own at times.

"But we must be aware that it often happens to the patient that at the time they suffer opposition or hear insults they feel no distress and they practice patience, taking care also to guard their innocence of heart. But after a little while they call to mind the things they have endured, and blaze up in violent resentment. They seek ways of revenge, and lose the gentleness they had when they were willing to bear with others. They pass judgment on themselves by their change of heart."

The wisdom of Gregory regarding the soul's ways is quite profound. Perhaps this is why Jesus tells us to give our enemies the other cheek when they strike the first. Perhaps this is also the reason that Jesus stresses to us to love our enemies, because if we cannot love our enemies then we cannot live in this world in godly wisdom, humility, and in pious devotion.

The problem? None of us are able to love our enemies on our own. The scenario that Gregory describes in his sermon is a picture of us all. "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"(Romans 7:24-25)

If we want to be wise in the godly way, if we want to be humble and loving our enemies, then we must reside in Christ and learn from Him. We are to rest in His merits, for in His cross alone are we to be saved. Then, as God uses us, we will face our own struggles and hardships which will require prayer to our Lord seeking His mercy--and His mercy in the long run may be that you learn to love those who persecute you without the inner need to get revenge.

Above all things, remain at the cross and covered with the blood of Jesus. He paid for your sins and will guide you on this this Christian road. Thanks be to God for the wisdom given to Gregory through his own struggles in this life.

+Fr. Chadius
Citations are from "Forty Gospel Homilies" by Gregory the Great
Translated by Dom David Hurst, Cistercian Publications
Kalamazoo, MI, 1990