Gregory the Great: Servum Servorum

Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam, Prior

For a tiny little congregation of monks we sure do lay claim to a lot of great saints. Of course Pope Saint Gregory the Great was not a monk in the Romualdian tradition, but we did inherit some very nice property from him––San Andrea on the Caelian Hill is now the Camaldolese monastery of San Gregorio Magno. Gregory the Great (540–604) was the son of a Roman senator. He himself served for a time as prefect of the city of Rome, but eventually sold his vast property and gave the money to the poor. He founded seven monasteries, six in Sicily and one in Rome, which he joined himself. After some years of monastic life, the Pope forced him out to be one of the seven deacons of the city of Rome and then to be the apocrisiarius at the Imperial Court of Constantinople. He got to back to his monastery in Rome only to serve as abbot there for a short while before he was elevated to the papacy. And then went on to have an astounding career as a statesman, pastor, teacher, writer and reformer.

I often like to tell people that in my work and study in interreligious dialogue one of the criticisms I ran into all the time is that Christians are too focused on our “cult of the dark night” and all our Sturm und Drang, as opposed to other mystical traditions that seem to be bursting with light and serenity. I’ve even read criticism of a master of the spiritual life such as Gregory the Great, for dwelling too much on the pain and effort involved in the approach to God, and focusing too much on how the soul has to fight its way out of the darkness that is its natural element. Maybe that’s true––historically Christians have often fallen into the trap of getting caught up in Good Friday and forgetting about Easter Sunday––but it’s only true up to a point. We have to remember, for instance, that St. John of the Cross wrote his mystical verses about the dark night while he was trapped in a prison cell, and put there by his own brothers, for instance; and that Gregory the Great was forced into the papacy while the Roman Empire was collapsing, the Emperor had abdicated, Rome was infected with famine and pestilence, floods and earthquakes, the Greeks and the barbarians were invading, and he had to take over, when all he wanted to do was be a simple monk. There actually was a lot of “storm and stress,” a lot of darkness. The amazing thing is that either of them continued to hope at all. It’s easy for us to talk about light and serenity while we sit sleek and well fed in hot tubs and air-conditioning––what I call the “spirituality of prosperity”––when the lot of many in our world is great darkness, innocent, unmerited suffering and abject poverty. What’s remarkable is that someone like Gregory in spite of all that could still say that “we must not allow obstacles to turn us aside from the joy of the heavenly feast. Those who are determined to reach their destination are not deterred by the roughness of the road that leads to it.”

What’s notable is that in the readings that the Church chooses to honor Gregory––the first one from Ezekiel 34 (11-16), I myself will pasture my sheep, I myself will give them rest and John 10 (11-16), I am the good shepherd, I know my flock and they know me––is that while we are honoring a pope saint, in the Ezekiel reading it is actually the LORD GOD who is speaking through the prophet, so this is God as the shepherd; and of course Jesus is referring to himself as shepherd. I couldn’t help but think of what Ronald Rolheiser said over and over again during the retreat that he gave us: “If you act like God you get to feel like God!” But the thing about shepherds is, who’s really in charge? It seems to me that a shepherd is totally indentured to the sheep! You can’t turn your back for a second! Your life is not your own! And sometimes you have to lay your very life down for the sake of the sheep! So who is the master? And who is the servant? That’s why the shepherd is such a good image of Christian leadership. In some way it’s like being a parent: from what I have seen from my young married friends, your life is not your own anymore! One of my friends used to have as a signature on his e-mails something like this: “I must hurry and catch up with my people / for they are far ahead of me / and I am their leader.” There are many reasons why Gregory could be called the Great––his brilliant theological writings, his reform of the liturgy, his wise and prudent guidance of the church and secular Rome itself during the Barbarian invasions and all those other calamities, for instance. But I think that the main reason that Gregory was “Great” was the reason that Jesus gives for someone being great: the greatest among you must be the one who serves, the first one among you must meet the needs of all. It was Gregory who coined the phrase for popes – servum servorum––the servant of servants, the slave of the slaves. But that’s what God is like, and that’s what Jesus is like, and if you act like God you get to feel like God––God the servant, God the humble, God the shepherd. And, as we read in his beautiful Homilies on Ezekiel, Saint Gregory knew that it wasn’t he that ultimately was doing the work. He complains that he no longer had his former recollection as he had once had in the monastery, but no matter: God has said, I myself will pasture my sheep. Gregory knew himself to be only a vessel, an instrument, like the famous image of the Holy Spirit singing the so-called “Gregorian” chants into his ear and a scribe on the side behind a curtain writing them down. “The omnipotent Creator and Redeemer can give me, unworthy though I am, lofty inspirations and an effective tongue.”

What does all this have to say to us, living our tranquil life far removed from the Sturm und Drang of “the world”? Classically monasticism is usually marked by a certain separation from the world, as ours is; and that is what Gregory wanted, separation from the world, after years serving as a government official, now to be a monk instead. But that separation from the world wasn’t an end for him, not unlike our silence or solitude, which shouldn’t be an end for us. At first we might think that we shouldn’t have to do this or that because it’s so-called “worldly,” or “un-monastic.” But at some point ascetical withdrawal is supposed to light the whole world up with an inner glow so that nothing is not-holy. I suppose that’s why Saint Benedict could say that the tools of the monastery should be treated with the same respect as the vessels of the altar. Nothing is not holy when seen in right relationship, because ours is an incarnational religion, and to the extent that classical monasticism as an anthropological phenomenon is anti-world then it’s not Christian, and Christianity can provide that corrective. It is not less holy to feed the poor, negotiate with the invading tribes, and find a cure for the plague, nor less holy to reform the liturgy, just as it’s not un-monastic to wash the dishes and or un-contemplative to take care of one of my brothers who is ill. At first I might think to myself, “Man, I am so tired of all this trivia!” But then I have to think, “Nothing is trivial when seen in the right light.” We are supposed to raise all things from the trivial status to sacramental status, like the bread and the wine become Eucharist, until we discover the “sacramentality of the world,” as our Emanuele Bargellini put it; or like the famous story recounted by Bede the Venerable of Pope St. Gregory encountering Anglo-Saxon slaves in the market place and saying about them, Non Angli, sed angeli––a pun that works even in English––”I don’t see Angles; I see angels.”

Just as Rome and the Lombards came crashing in on the cloister walls of Saint Andrew’s monastery, so every day the world comes crashing in on our peaceful lives here, in the form of guests who are to be treated as Christ, in the form of the duties we are asked to perform for the common good, in the form of relatives and friends who are sick and dying, in the form of sarin gas attacks in Syria and wildfires in California.

You see, the other thing about this notion of servum servorum––”servant of the servants” is this: Gregory does not only see the pope as a servant; he sees himself as the servant of the servants, the slave put in charge of the other slaves. We are all servants by virtue of being followers of Jesus; the leader is only prima intra pares––the first among equals, leading by example, as Jesus did at the Last Supper––so you also must do. As Paul says, Imitate me as I imitate Christ. So let’s pray that we may imitate Gregory who imitated Jesus who was the ikon of God, God the humble, God the servant, God the shepherd.

The other option for our first reading today could have been this section from the letter to the Colossians. Let me end my reflection with that, because I think it could be one of those readings (like Romans 12) that could supply for a monastic rule. It’s all there:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
let’s clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness,
humility, meekness, and patience.
Let’s bear with one another and,
if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other;
just as the Lord has forgiven us, so we also must forgive.
Above all, let’s clothe ourselves with love,
which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

And let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts,
to which indeed we were called in the one body.
And let us be thankful!

May the word of Christ dwell in us richly;
may we teach and admonish one another in all wisdom;
and with gratitude in our hearts
sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.

And whatever we do, in word or deed,
may it be in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through him.

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