Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection

Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection

Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection

Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection


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.


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.”

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 it is with enticements of demons, those who escape are never wholly comfortable about the fate of those left behind, imperiled and perhaps lost. Even in its most ascetic expression, late antique Christianity is never a flat rejection of the world. The gnawing recollection of Christ’s lament cannot be dispelled, “O, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that murders the prophets and stones the messengers sent to her! How often have I longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings; but you would not let me. Look, look, there is your temple forsaken by God” (Mt 23:37–38).

To see this temple forsaken and destroyed is to witness God’s justice, but one testifies to God’s terrible vengeance with grief for those lost, for the suffering of people and the decline of cities once great. Apocalypticism is woven of bereavement as well as anticipation. Is there more one

1. Hier. vita Pauli 10 (PL 23, 25).

2. Cf. Ep. 3.29 (CCL 140, 175); Ep. 3.61 (CCL 140, 209–11); Ep. 11.37 (CCL 140A, 931– 32). For Gregory’s apocalypticism see Claude Dagens, “La Fin des temps et l’église selon saint Grégoire le Grand,” RecSR 58 (1970): 273–88, and Saint Grégoire le Grand (Paris, 1977), 345–430; René Wasselynck, “L’Orientation eschatologique de la vie chrétienne d’après saint Grégoire le Grand,” in Assemblées du Seigneur 2 (1962): 66–80. See two articles by Raoul Manselli, “Escatologismo di Gregorio Magno,” in Atti del Primo Congresso Internazionale di Studi

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