Lights From The Past

Lights From The Past

Symeon the New Theologian (949 CE -1022 CE)

MAR 06

How to integrate theology and spirituality

“The Holy Spirit regenerates you, it changes you from corruptible to incorruptible, from mortal to immortal, from sons of men into Sons of God and gods by adoption and grace.” (Discourse XXXIII)

What is Theology?  Is it an abstract, philosophical speculation or a mystical and intense personal experience?  The tension between these two tendencies would characterize the life and times of Symeon the New Theologian, a monk from Asia Minor.  The period he lived saw, on the one hand, the emergence of ‘scholastic’ theology—a theology strongly influenced by philosophical categories and encouraged by Stephen of Nicomedia—as against an integrated experience of theology and actual spiritual life as seen in the mystical theology promoted by Symeon the New Theologian.

Symeon was born in Galatia (Asia Minor) and belonged to the Byzantine nobility.  He studied basic Greek in school until he was eleven years old and pursued higher studies in the court.  At the age of fourteen, he met his spiritual father Symeon of Studite, a very holy monk.  Though the young Symeon wanted to join the monastery without any delay, the senior Symeon made him wait until he reached the age of twenty-seven years.  During this period, he served the emperor as a diplomat and a senator.  Despite a hectic life, his interior life was one of vigils, prayers and austerities.  His first years as a zealous monk did not go well with other monks, who had fallen into decadence and in a short time he was forced to move to the monastery of Saint Mamas.  Here he received the tonsure, was ordained a priest and elected abbot over the monks.  He would spend twenty-five years at this monastery and make it truly an outstanding place.  However, he faced opposition from Archbishop Stephen who ensured that Symeon was sent into exile in 1009.  There he lived a life of simplicity and solitude in a small chapel dedicated to Saint Marina.  Patriarch Sergios revoked the exile and offered him the ecclesiastical office of archbishop.  He refused this invitation and continued to write and be a spiritual guide to others until his death in 1022.  His important works include the Discourses, Theological Treatise, Hymns of Divine Love and various Letters.

Symeon was convinced of the primacy of personal experience and stressed that grace or the indwelling of the Trinity could be experienced by all persons.  In keeping with tradition, he also believed that non-ordained persons could forgive sins.  The ecclesiastical authorities did not fully approve of these views.  But, going beyond the conflicts, we find two important spiritual themes recurring in his writings.  The first relates to the need of asceticism and penance in spiritual life.  This was uncomfortable for monks who had entered a life of comfort and decadence.  He emphasized repentance, detachment, sorrow, works of mercy, charity, the practice of the commandments and so on.  However, what sets him apart from others is the pre-eminent position given to the Holy Spirit in the life of a person.  All Christians need to go through a second Baptism, which Symeon calls a baptism of the Holy Spirit.  One who has experienced repentance and undergone a conversion will have a growing conscious awareness of Christ as one’s Lord and Saviour.  In Discourse XXXIV he explains that the indwelling of the Trinity is possible and should be sought after by every Christian as the true goal of life.  One is invited to go beyond an intellectual knowledge of the Holy Spirit to actually be ‘consciously aware’ of this presence through continual conversion.  Unfortunately, the efforts of Symeon would not stop the separation between theology (understood strictly as a science) and spirituality.  Centuries would go by and only in the 20th century would there be any serious attempt at re-integrating theology and spirituality.


Fr Francis Pudhicherry SJ

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Lights From The Past

John Scotus Eriugena

Feb 04

For everything that is understood and sensed is nothing else but the appearance of what is nonapparent, the manifestation of the hidden, the affirmation of the negated, the comprehension of the incomprehensible (Periphyseon, Bk.3)

Scotus Eriugena was as his name suggests born in Ireland.  However, he would become famous in France where he found favor with Charles the Bald and would be deeply involved in the theological debates of the day.  When John was made the Master of the Frankish Palace School in 846 he was already a well accomplished person.  His breath of learning was immense and he knew Greek, Latin, medicine, liberal arts and astronomy.  Though he belonged to the Western tradition, he was able to integrate the insights of the Western tradition based upon Augustine and Ambrose along with Eastern writers such as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius and Maximus the Confessor.  A major focus of his writings dealt with the relationship between God and the cosmos wherein he pointed out that though the visible cosmos reveals to us the hidden God, God will always remain the incomprehensible and transcendent mystery.

The initial works of John Scotus were translations of Dionysius and other Eastern classics by Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus.  His major work would be the Periphyseon considered to be his Summa and is in the form of dialogues.  This work was later called De Divisione Naturae and contains two contradictions which are held in tension.  On the one hand there is the ineffability of God – i.e, the mystery of God as being too great to be expressed or described in words.  Affirmations, even affirmations of God’s love can only be made metaphorically or analogically.  This point of view relates to the apophatic tradition – a view that God can only be known through negations.  But on the other hand, John Scotus also underlined the view that God is present (though not identified) in created reality.  God ‘descends’ into created reality so that the visible manifestation or revelation of God takes place.  This point of view relates to the cataphatic tradition – a view that approaches the reality of God through affirmation.  John Scotus is one of the few spiritual writers in the early centuries who is able to speak of God using a language which fuses and transcends both affirmation and negation.

The spirituality of John Scotus responds to two important questions: a) what is the purpose of creation? and b) how does the progressive movement of salvation history take place? The purpose of creation is the manifestation of the Divine where God is simultaneously experienced as illumination (light) and darkness.  Both, light and darkness simultaneously coexist in human experience and find an echo in the human experience of the Divine.  It needs to be recalled that within all created reality, the human person has a special place because of the possibility of participating with the Divine or Creative Wisdom.  Regarding the second question John Scotus affirmed that the death and Resurrection of Christ takes forward the history of salvation.  History is a circular movement where the starting point is oneness and harmony.  Sin has resulted in fragmentation, disharmony, illusion and ignorance and can only be overcome through the Creative Wisdom in the person of Jesus Christ.  The process of reconciliation has begun and all reality is now moving towards a new point of fullness and glory.  The stages of purification, illumination and union are interpreted historically with the cosmos being progressively ‘purged of all ignorance, illuminated by all wisdom and perfected by all deification’ (Commentary on the Celestial Hierarchy, 10).  John Scotus Eriugena draws upon the best wisdom from both the East and West and offers a method of progressive union with the Divine – a union which is already being experienced in the here and now and will be fully accomplished in the time to come.


Fr Francis Pudhicherry SJ

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Lights From The Past

Pseudo-Macarius

Dec 14

“Just as these eyes sensibly see and recognize the face of a friend or a loved one, so also the eyes of the worthy and faithful person, being spiritually enlightened by the divine light, see and recognize the true Friend—the Lord, since the soul is completely illuminated by the adorable Spirit.” (Homily XXVIII/5)

Pseudo-Macarius was an early proponent of ‘light’ or ‘Tabor’ mysticism that emphasized the transformation and enlightenment of a person through the ineffable light of the Holy Spirit.  His spiritual insights can be found in a collection of texts, principal among which are the Fifty Homilies.  The identity of this spiritual classic’s author has been problematic.  During the early centuries there were two important persons by the name Macarius – one from Alexandria and another from Scete.  The second Macarius was a very great spiritual master and until the 19th century these writings were attributed to him.  However, modern research reveals that this second Macarius was not the author and therefore the writer of the Homilies is now referred as Pseudo-Macarius.  Based on an analysis of the text, it is presumed that this person was a Syrian monk and came from an educated and cultured background.  He was a citizen of the Roman Empire and comparisons from the political, military and economic world reveal that he was probably part of the army or involved in imperial administration. Two salient features of his ‘light’ spirituality are: a) unceasing prayer and b) a growing ability to discern one’s thoughts.

Unceasing Prayer: Pseudo Macarius exhorted all to pray unceasingly.  He emphasized the basic goodness of the human person (Homily 15) and stated that in creation God willingly shared God’s beauty and nature with the human person.  As against this, the Messalian heresy, which also spoke of unceasing prayer, believed that the human person was intrinsically sinful and even baptism was not sufficient to free a person from original sin.  The only way out was unceasing prayer – where prayer was understood as a life of intense ascetical practices, avoidance of manual labor, negation of sacraments and rejection of church structures.  Pseudo-Macarius accepted that goodness had been lost by sin, but it has been restored by the Risen Lord.  To pray unceasingly did not consist so much in self-centered ascetical practices, as the Messalians said, but by constantly living in the presence of God.  Such a person realized one’s total dependence on God and through the virtue of humility grew in an ardent longing for God.  An authentic life in the Spirit allowed the Divine light to transform a person leading to growing spiritual enlightenment.

Discerning One’s Thoughts:  Pseudo-Macarius pointed out that there was no short cut towards enlightenment but that it involved a prolonged process of growing in virtues and overcoming one’s passions.  Both sin and grace co-exist in a person and the perfection of baptism grows slowly within a person.  In the spiritual combat between good and evil there may be momentary peace and joy, but one needs to be vigilant at all times.  Of special importance was the need to discern one’s thoughts because deceptions entered through evil thoughts or more subtly through seemingly good thoughts.  Hence it was very important to know the source of the thoughts – whether they came from God, from the false spirit or oneself.  Spiritual enlightenment thus consisted in continual prayer and discernment leading to greater co-operation with grace, openness to the Holy Spirit and participation in Divine life. 

The spiritual wisdom of Pseudo-Macarius has had tremendous influence on Christian spirituality.  Groups as diverse as Greeks, Syrians, Russians, Franciscans, Jesuits, Pietists, Methodists and neo-Pentecostals have been influenced by it.  In our age of frenzied activity, the insights of Pseudo-Macarius regarding ‘unceasing prayer’ enlighten us towards greater discernment of our inner movements, help us remain focused on Christ and thus realize the Kingdom within and around ourselves.


Fr Francis Pudhicherry SJ

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Lights From The Past

Maximus Confessor (580 – 662 CE)

NOV 06

“The one who through asceticism and contemplation has known how to dig in himself the wells of virtue and knowledge as did the patriarchs will find Christ within as the spring of life.  Wisdom bids us to drink from it, saying, “Drink waters from your own vessels and from your own springs.”  If we do this, we shall discover that His treasures are present within us.”

(Chapters on Knowledge, Second Century, 40)

The honorific ‘Confessor’ could lead one to believe that Maximus was a confessor par excellence with multitudes flocking to him for confession in the manner they flocked to the Curé d’Ars.  Maximus, however, did not get this honorific because of his work at the confessional, but due to his confession of faith in the face of severe persecution.  The emperor was disappointed that Maximus did not give in to his diktats and, after the farce of a trial, banished him into exile.  Even exile did not silence Maximus. He continued to speak and write in defense of the faith.  Finally, he was given the incredibly cruel “Persian punishment,” i.e., his tongue and hand—which were used to confess the faith—were cut off.  This sacrifice led him to receive the honorific ‘Confessor.’

Maximus was born in 580 CE into a Christian family that belonged to the elite of the city.  He received the best education of the day and was appointed the proto-secretary of the then emperor Heraclius at an early age.  However, three years later, he entered monastic life and remained a monk in what is modern day Turkey until the spring of 626 when the Persians, Slavs and Avars were attacking Constantinople.  He departed for North Africa, where he remained for a quarter of a century.  During this period he strongly opposed Monothelitism (Christ having one will) and Monoenergism (one energy).  Though it seems a trivial and speculative debate, Maximus realized that this position seriously compromised the humanity of Christ.  During a famous theological debate in 645, he demolished Pyrrhus, the deposed Patriarch of Constantinople and a leading proponent of Monothelitism.  In 646 he went to Rome and was close to Pope Martin I.  Emperor Constans II tried to placate differing political groups by diluting the orthodox faith. This was what Maximus opposed. He was put on trial and the proceedings have been recorded in The Trial of Maximus.  Though he was exiled, he refused to be silenced and was brutally tortured for refusing to sign a compromise statement of doctrine.  The mutilation and tortures finally led to his death on the 13th of August, 662.

Maximus was an eminent figure for the Eastern and Western churches because he combined the profound speculation of the East and the historical salvific perspective of the West.  His life reveals to us an integration of the orthodoxy of faith and authentic Christian living.  His spirituality primarily revolved around the theme of divinization, which spoke of the human person truly becoming the image and likeness of God.  The process of divinization would be rooted in the mystery of the Incarnation where God became incarnate so that we might ‘become partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1: 4).  For him divinization was not an abstract theme but a genuine transformation of not just the human person but all of creation so as to participate in Divine life.  Though divinization was only possible through the grace of God, it also involved an act of free will.  Only when the human person lets go of one’s self-love and surrenders totally to God does the grace of God transform and divinize the person.  Maximus Confessor’ courageous response to the trials of his time was the result of his inner transformation – his progressive divinization.  His life challenges us to discover our true selves and live lives of greater authenticity and radical discipleship.


 

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Lights From The Past

Isaac of Nineveh (d. 700 CE)

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Practical guidelines on our journey to God.

The sum of the entire ascetic course consists in these three things—repentance, purity and perfection.  What is repentance? Desisting from former sins, and feeling pain at them.  What is purity, in a nutshell? A heart which has compassion on every natural thing in creation. What is perfection? Profound humility, which consists in the abandoning of everything visible and invisible—visible meaning everything involved with the senses; invisible meaning all thinking about them. (Discourse LXXIV)

Qatar was until the 7th century an important centre of Christianity and produced important spiritual writers.  Isaac of Nineveh was one among them and his treatise on monastic life had a tremendous impact on religious life within the Eastern church.  The information regarding his life is scarce and we know very little of his early childhood.  It is believed that he became a monk and teacher in his home country and may have moved away during a schism between the Patriarchate and bishops of Qatar.  However, when the Patriarch George I visited the area in 676, the schism was healed and Isaac was ordained a bishop of Nineveh (Mosul).  Within five months he abdicated his episcopacy and retired to the mountains to lead a solitary life.  It was during this period that he would write his treatise on spiritual life offering invaluable spiritual and psychological insights that would leave an imprint on Eastern Christian Spirituality.

Isaac was a brilliant writer and belonged to the tradition of East Syriac writers who lived in what is today Iraq, Iran, Kuwait and Qatar.  Most of his writings were based on his personal spiritual experience and written during his old age.  Such was its impact that within less than 100 years it was translated into Greek and became popular within both Byzantine and Western Christianity.  It is believed that Isaac wrote five volumes of instructions for monks of which much has been lost.  Two parts of his work have survived to this date and its first English translation appeared in the year 1923.   He primarily dealt with the theme of spiritual growth and prayer and, like Evagrius Ponticus, spoke of a three-stage ascent to God.

Three-Stage Ascent to God

The first phase consists in asceticism, where a person engages in ascetical practices, such as fasting, vigils and the like.  There is no short cut to growth in spiritual life. Without going through this phase a person cannot experience inner peace and serenity.  During the second phase there is growth in self/control and reverential fear of the Lord.  The person has an understanding of the transitory nature of the world and an awareness of its delusions/deceptions.  Along with this enlightenment regarding the world, a person also begins to experience God more and more as loving and providential.  This sets the stage for another level of the spiritual journey wherein there is a growing abandonment of self leading to greater insights into the reality of God and creation.  A person experiences growing harmony in one’s life and prayer progressively elevates the person towards God.

 No-Prayer as the Highest Form

Isaac firmly believed that time, place and posture played an important role in prayer and would elaborate it in Texts on Prayer and Outward Posture.  A unique contribution of Isaac was the concept of ‘no-prayer’ as the highest form of prayer.  It is a state where a person goes beyond conventional prayer and experiences extraordinary stillness, serenity, silence and equanimity.  This state may be fleeting or transitory but is a foretaste of eternal life.  In his treatise on prayer he underlined its intrinsic relationship with the Eucharist, psalms and liturgy.  His suggestions on dealing with distractions in ‘Pure Prayer’ are as relevant today as they were centuries ago.  In today’s world of frenzied activity, Isaac of Ninveh’s insights on spiritual life come across as a refreshing pointer towards authentic peace and harmony.

 

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Lights From The Past

John Chrysostom

Sep 06

“It behooves the priest to be as pure as if he stood in heaven…  Picture Elias and the immense multitude standing, while the prophet prays and fire descends…  In the sacrifice which is now offered the priest brings down not fire, but the Holy Spirit and prays that that grace may descend and inflame the souls of all.”

(On the Priesthood 3.4-6)

John (349-407 CE) received the honorific of ‘Chrysostom’ or ‘golden mouth’ because of his extraordinary oratorical gifts.  Only one more person, the bishop of Ravenna Peter Chrysologus (380-450) had this unique distinction; he was referred to as ‘golden word.”  John Chrysostom was brilliant, outspoken, direct and many of his sermons have survived to this day.

John was born into a well-to-do family in Antakya (Antioch) in Southern Turkey.  His father died when John was very young and his mother Anthusa, a devout woman, instilled in him a deep Christian faith and ensured he received an excellent education under the rhetorician Libanus, a non-Christian.  The exact year of his baptism is disputed (368 or 372).  After his baptism he studied Antiochene exegesis and later spent six years as a hermit.  His severe asceticism ruined his health and he had to return to the city.  On his return he was first made a deacon and later a priest in 386.  He was an extraordinary preacher and crowds flocked to hear his sermons.  After a difficult first year he had a serene period of intense pastoral work from 387 to 397.  In the year 397 he was made bishop of Constantinople and zealously worked for the people, especially the poor.  His life challenged the political class, the clergy and monks who had succumbed to laxity.  The so-called Synod of Oak dismissed him in 403 and the king decreed that he be exiled.  This was not carried out because of an accident in the imperial palace.  He continued to preach fearlessly.  However, in 404 the emperor signed a decree definitively exiling him to Armenia.  In 407 his opponents, who did not want him to have any contact with his friends, persuaded the emperor to send him farther away. During an extremely brutal deportation he died of exhaustion in Pontic Comana on the 14th of September.

John Chrysostom is one of the most prolific Church Fathers with his most fruitful years being the years of his priestly ministry in Antioch.  He produced 67 homilies on Genesis, 59 on the Psalms, 88 on the Gospel of John, 90 on Mathew and smaller collections on other biblical books.  However, his specialty was St. Paul, on whom he gave more than 200 sermons.  Other works included seventeen treatises and two hundred and forty-one letters.  One of his best-known works is a treatise on The Priesthood which is arranged in six books and presented in the form of a dialogue with a certain Basil.  Books three to six offer an excellent picture of a priest’s tasks.  It underlines the pastoral duties of a priest—the protection of widows and virgins, righteousness, proclamation of the word of God, responsibility towards others, defending the faith and so on.  In the treatise John develops the spirituality of a priest, pointing out that, unlike a monk who takes care of his own salvation, the priest is accountable for his entire community. Thanks to the years of pastoral engagement, John Chrysostom’s spirituality evolved.  It moved from a rigid asceticism of his earlier days towards one which was more understanding, inclusive and other-centered.  Even today the life of John Chrysostom offers us the image of an exemplary priest and bishop – a courageous, zealous and committed person who went through various persecutions, sufferings and eventual martyrdom.  His golden words shone forth in his life as he bore witness to the Good News until the very end.

 

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Lights From The Past

Benedict of Nursia:

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Tips on Leadership and Spiritual Growth

(480-547 CE)

“The Abbot should use prudence and avoid extremes…  He should prune faults with prudence and love as he sees best for each individual.  Let him strive to be loved rather than feared.”  (Rule of St. Benedict, Ch. 64,12.14-15)

The entire Rule of St. Benedict stands out for its spirit of discernment.  Chapter 64, where the qualities of an Abbot are outlined, emphasizes the need of ‘prudence’ (repeated twice) and juxtaposes it with the age-old philosophical principal of ‘avoiding extremes.’  The chapter, which is a synthesis of the Christian ideal and profound humanism, is indeed a must read for anyone who has to elect a superior or has been appointed as one.

Though monastic life existed for many centuries in western Europe, Benedict is considered the Father of Western monasticism. He was born in Nursia, Northeast of Rome. After experiencing a religious conversion, he decided to renounce the world.  He first lived with a group of ascetics in Affile, east of Rome, and then spent three years in total solitude in Subiaco. He had a bitter experience as head of a group of decadent monks, following which he returned to Subiaco and founded twelve monasteries.  From there he went to Mount Cassino, where he founded a fully cenobitic community – a community which would be autonomous and confer the abbot with a great deal of authority. His Rule would go on to become the foundation of monastic spirituality. On various occasions, when monasticism was in crisis, groups of monks would return to the original spirit of the Rule of St. Benedict.

Benedict’s life was popularized by the Dialogues of Pope Gregory the Great, who presented him as a Vir Dei, i.e., a man of God.  In keeping with the literary style of the day, Benedict is presented as a great prophet, miracle worker…

 

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Lights From The Past

Tips on Leadership and Spiritual Growth

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Benedict of Nursia: (480-547 CE)

“The Abbot should use prudence and avoid extremes…  He should prune faults with prudence and love as he sees best for each individual.  Let him strive to be loved rather than feared.”  (Rule of St. Benedict, Ch. 64,12.14-15)

The entire Rule of St. Benedict stands out for its spirit of discernment.  Chapter 64, where the qualities of an Abbot are outlined, emphasizes the need of ‘prudence’ (repeated twice) and juxtaposes it with the age-old philosophical principal of ‘avoiding extremes.’  The chapter, which is a synthesis of the Christian ideal and profound humanism, is indeed a must read for anyone who has to elect a superior or has been appointed as one.

Though monastic life existed for many centuries in western Europe, Benedict is considered the Father of Western monasticism. He was born in Nursia, Northeast of Rome. After experiencing a religious conversion, he decided to renounce the world.  He first lived with a group of ascetics in Affile, east of Rome, and then spent three years in total solitude in Subiaco. He had a bitter experience as head of a group of decadent monks, following which he returned to Subiaco and founded twelve monasteries.  From there he went to Mount Cassino, where he founded a fully cenobitic community – a community which would be autonomous and confer the abbot with a great deal of authority. His Rule would go on to become the foundation of monastic spirituality. On various occasions, when monasticism was in crisis, groups of monks would return to the original spirit of the Rule of St. Benedict.

Benedict’s life was popularized by the Dialogues of Pope Gregory the Great, who presented him as a Vir Dei, i.e., a man of God.  In keeping with the literary style of the day, Benedict is presented as a great prophet, miracle worker, combatant against the demonic powers and performer of extraordinary feats which are proper of a Father of the Desert.  However, the essence of Benedict’s life consists in offering a method that helps us move towards greater union with God…

 

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Lights From The Past

Ambrose of Milan

AUGUST 11

(339-397 CE)

“The Emperor is within the Church, not above it…  I say this with all humility, so also, I state it with firmness.  Some threaten us with fire, sword, exile; we have learnt as servants of Christ not to fear.”

 (Letter XXI, no. 37—Sermon against Auxentius)

Ambrose of Milan is well known for his role in the conversion of Augustine.  At the same time, a close reading of his life reveals a political spirituality which offers us insights for dealing with modern day situations.  The above-mentioned quote forms part of a sermon opposing the attempt by emperor Valentinian to take over the Portian Basilica in Milan.  The emperor was only fourteen years old; real power lay with his mother Justina, who was an Arian.  She sought to strengthen Arianism in Milan by bringing the Arian bishop Auxentius and wanted to offer him the Portian Basilica—a Basilica used by the Catholics.  After three unsuccessful attempts to usurp the basilica, the emperor and his mother gave up their efforts.  This and other incidents from Ambrose’s life led to the emergence of a spirituality of political engagement which demarcated the domains of both, the church and the state.

Ambrose was born into a political family in the year 339. His father was the praefectus praetorio in Gaul.  They had been Christians for generations and among their ancestors was the martyr Soteris.  However, in keeping with tradition, Ambrose delayed his baptism until he was an adult.  A good education in philosophy, rhetoric and literature prepared him for the juridical service of the state. By 370 he was the governor of a province which had Milan as its capital.  In 374, while exercising his duties in enforcing order during the election of a new bishop, he himself was unanimously elected as the bishop by the different factions of the city.

 


 

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Lights From The Past

Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 CE)

MAY 8

Christ set forth in Himself patterns of both lives, that is, the active and the contemplative, united together. Our Redeemer, by coming Incarnate, united both in Himself. For when He wrought miracles in the city, and yet continued all night in prayer on the mountain, He gave His faithful ones an example not to neglect, through love of contemplation, the care of their neighbours, nor again to abandon contemplative pursuits, from being too immoderately engaged in the care of their neighbours.

(Morals on the Book of Job, Bk. 28,13)

Pope Gregory was born in 540 CE. At the young age of thirty, became the prefect of Rome and presided over the senate. Despite his extraordinary political success, he believed he had a vocation to become a monk. In 574, soon after the death of his father, he sold his family property and transformed his Roman estate into a monastery. Later Pope Pelagius II ordained him a deacon and appointed him the papal representative in Constantinople. In 585 he returned to Rome, became an abbot at St. Andrew’s and was made the pope’s personal counsellor. Despite his attempts to avoid election, he was made Pope in 590. His papacy was dynamic and influential, coinciding with the invasion of the Lombards, tensions with Imperial powers, corruption within the church and other disasters, such as floods, famines, and diseases. He responded to these challenges and proved to be an able administrator, a deft diplomat, a deeply spiritual person and, above all, an exemplary Pastor. Despite his political, religious and ecclesiastical responsibilities, he paid attention to the poor of Rome and fed them daily. Along with Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine, he is considered to be one of the four doctors of the Latin Church.

Gregory was a prolific writer. His various writings on Scripture include his homilies on the Gospels and Ezekiel, as well as thirty-five volumes on the book of Job. He was an accomplished spiritual writer who affirmed that all of us are created in order to ‘contemplate God’s beauty and dwell in His love.’ He outlined the spiritual journey as consisting in three stages: a) recollection, where a person becomes aware of oneself as a fragmented being; b) introversion, by which there is self-contemplation and an awareness of one’s true nature; and finally c) contemplation, where a person transcends oneself and contemplates the Maker. Only a meditative study of scriptures makes contemplation possible. His Book of Pastoral Rule written to his fellow Bishop John presents the vocation to be a bishop as that of a true shepherd combining both contemplative love of God and active charity. It is divided into four parts: a) the qualities necessary for spiritual leadership, b) the life of a Pastor, c) manner of teaching, advising and guiding the laity and d) the need to return to oneself after doing one’s duty.

The importance of both contemplative and active life was stressed in Morals in the Book of Job. Gregory believed that a life of contemplation was favored and necessary for an authentic active life. However, both forms of life had their place within the call to follow Christ, because Christ Himself lived a life of contemplation and action. Affirming the role of both Martha and Mary, he said, “Martha’s concern is not reproved, but that of Mary is commended” (Morals… Bk.6,61). Today we find, within the Church, a variety of vocations with a variety of charisms that include both the active and contemplative vocations. The spiritual wisdom of Pope Gregory the Great helps us fruitfully live our unique call by guiding us towards an integration of both profound contemplation and loving action.


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