Monday, November 28

Medieval Humility

Gregory the Great served as the pastor of the city church in Rome from 590-604. Tomorrow morning I will be lecturing on this remarkable man and his remarkable heritage. He was of vital importance in the development of Christendom precisely because he forged the Roman bishop’s see into the formidable force of the Medieval papacy--indeed, before Gregory the pastors there were not yet called “popes” nor did their jurisdiction extend much beyond the city itself. There is much to admire in this man. And perhaps just as much to disdain. Like all men, he was a tangle of complexity and his legacy is not so easily summarized as most historians suppose.

Though I have studied his life and legacy a good bit in the past (at least in survey), I had never read much of his writing. In fact, he left behind a substantial and varied literary heritage. His most ambitious work and one of the most popular works of Scriptural exegesis during the Medieval Age was the Moralia in Job. A vast and sprawling commentary on the book of Job in 35 books, it runs to over half a million words. The piety and humility of the work is quite profound--as this sample from the highly confessional last page of the text illustrates:

Now that I have finished this work, I see that I must return to myself. For our mind is much fragmented and scattered beyond itself, even when it tries to speak rightly. While we think of words and how to bring them out, those very words diminish the soul's integrity by plundering it from inside. So I must return from the forum of speech to the senate house of the heart, to call together the thoughts of the mind for a kind of council to deliberate how best I may watch over myself, to see to it that in my heart I speak no heedless evil nor speak poorly any good. For the good is well spoken when the speaker seeks with his words to please only the one from whom he has received the good he has. And indeed even if I do not find for sure that have spoken any evil, still I will not claim that I have spoken no evil at all.

But if I have received some good from God and spoken it, I freely admit that I have spoken it less well than I should (through my own fault, to be sure). For when I turn inward to myself, pushing aside the leafy verbiage, pushing aside the branching arguments, and examine my intentions at the very root, I know it really was my intention to please God, but some little appetite for the praise of men crept in, I know not how, and intruded on my simple desire to please God. And when later, too much later, I realize this, I find that I have in fact done other than what I know I set out to do.

It is often thus, that when we begin with good intentions in the eyes of God, a secret tagalong yen for the praise of our fellow men comes along, taking hold of our intentions from the side of the road. We take food, for example, out of necessity, but while we are eating, a gluttonous spirit creeps in and we begin to take delight in the eating for its own sake; so often it happens that what began as nourishment to protect our health ends by becoming a pretext for our pleasures. We must admit therefore that our intention, which seeks to please God alone, is sometimes treacherously accompanied by a less-righteous intention that seeks to please other men by exploiting the gifts of God. But if we are examined strictly by God in these matters, what refuge will remain in the midst of all this? For we see that our evil is always evil pure and simple, but the good that we think we have cannot be really good, pure and simple.

But I think it worthwhile for me to reveal unhesitatingly here to the ears of my brothers everything I secretly revile in myself. As commentator, I have not hidden what I felt, and as confessor, I have not hidden what I suffer. In my commentary I reveal the gifts of God, and in my confession I uncover my wounds. In this vast human race there are always little ones who need to be instructed by my words, and there are always great ones who can take pity on my weakness once they know of it: thus with commentary and confession I offer my help to some of my brethren (as much as I can), and I seek the help of others. To the first I speak to explain what they should do, to the others I open my heart to admit what they should forgive. I have not withheld medicine from the ones, but I have not hidden my wounds and lacerations from the others.

So I ask that whoever reads this should pour out the consolation of prayer before the strict judge for me, so that he may wash away with tears every sordid thing he finds in me. When I balance the power of my commentary and the power of prayer, I see that my reader will have more than paid me back if for what he hears from me, he offers his tears for me.

Sobering insights indeed for ministry, for writing, for life.

1 comment:

Nate Shurden said...

It is interesting you should mention Gregory the Great, for I've dipped in and out of his "Pastor's Rule" of recent, a treatise that became an ideal in the medieval church. It is a text which, in my estimation, helps explain that "tangled complexity" you highlighted in the blog, a complexity that persisted in varying forms throughout all of the middle ages.