Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule
Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007.
I have in my head a list of books that I know I should have read. My list is probably different from actual cultured people, but in my own nerdy, idiosyncratic way I’m happy with it. Instead of great works of literature—Dickens, Tolstoy, Hemingway, or Gogol—I have often-forgotten tomes, sometimes read only for bragging rights. (One evidence for this is that I just googled “World’s Best Works of Literature” just to help me remember a few good authors.) I have finally made another step toward becoming a respectable Patristics enthusiast and read Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule.
Gregory the Great is known as one of the “best” popes of all time. He served from 590-604 CE and produced a couple of other great works, but none as popular or important as his Book of Pastoral Rule. This book is for “spiritual leaders” (bishops, priests, monks, and other religious) but actually functions as sketches of an outline of spirituality.
The book is divided into four parts. The first concerns the qualifications of anyone who wants to become a leader. The second one concerns the way a spiritual leader should live their lives. Both of these chapters, especially when read by a minister, will make you want to cry, then quit, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar. Gregory takes the task of ministry seriously, and like today, there are many who enter into ministry unreflectively and therefore allow it to serve them as much if not more than it serves the Church.
The next part concerns how a spiritual leader can and should minister to his Church specifically in regards to each persons particular vices. This part is organized by pairs of complimentary vices: men/women, young/old, rich/poor, etc. The last part, which is really just a couple of pages, as opposed to the 120 pages the previous part took up, again addresses how the minister should make sure his ego is in check.
What makes this book more than just a helpful manual for ministers is the way in which Gregory masterfully negotiates the workings of the inner life. He is not just giving interesting tips and techniques for a vocational specialty, he is peering into the inner life of human beings, in all their various guises and characteristics. What appears as pastoral advice really is a sketch of the spiritual life, and the way into God. For people unfamiliar with the world and language of late antiquity, the introductory essay by George Demacopoulos is an especially helpful guide for understanding the spiritual vision that Gregory casts.
Two things really stood out to me from Gregory’s Rule. The first concerns his rhetorical style, in which he uses these drawn out analogies from, usually obscure, biblical texts. I’m not unfamiliar with this; it’s just that Gregory seems to do it more and better than anyone I’ve read. Random texts from Ezekiel become patterns for understanding the soul, its troubles, and its ascent to God. It is worth reading the book for a great example of this hermeneutic common to Patristic writers.
The second is the huge emphasis he places on the minister not sucking (for lack of a better phrase). In a world where Mark Driscolls abound, where so many ministers fall so quickly and easily into the alluring void of ego-satisfying ministry, Gregory’s Rule is what we need to help the rest of us, whether minister or not, to live humbly into God’s coming kingdom.
Now, so that no one may believe that these burdens [of spiritual leadership/ministry] are light, I write the present book to express my opinion of the severity of their weight so that he who is free of these burdens might not recklessly pursue them and he who has already attained them might tremble for having done so. (27)
No one does more harm in the Church than he who has the title or rank of holiness and acts perversely. (32)
In his contemplation, he transcends heaven, yet in his constant concern for those in his care he does not desert the couch of the carnal, because being joined in charity to the highest and lowest things at once , he is content, in his piety, to be weak for the weak. (59)
And so it is necessary that when the wound of sin in a layperson is mitigated by correction, even the restraint should be carefully moderated so that the exercise of just discipline should not come at the expense of loving-kindness. (67)
Therefore, consolation is to be offered to those who are tried by the “furnace of poverty,” while fear is to be instilled in those who exalt in the consolation of temporal glory. The first are to learn that they possess riches that they do not see, and the latter are to know that they cannot truly possess the riches that they behold. (91)
For it is a virtue before men to endure adversaries, but it is a virtue before God to love them. Because the only sacrifice that god accepts before his eyes on the altar of good works is the flame kindled by charity. (105)
The healthy should be advised that they exercise the health of the body for the benefit of the health of the soul. (113)
They should be advised that if they desire to be truly free of evils, they should dread eternal punishments, not living in continuous fear of them but growing in the grace of love by nurturing charity. For it is written: “Perfect charity casts out fear.” (118)
It is necessary that those who must confront [the easily provoked] do so not with anger, but with all possible calmness, and let them suggest a reproof subtly, as if offering a side-jab to their frenzied soul. (130)
Therefore, it should be said to the humble that whenever they lower themselves, they ascend to the likeness of God. At the same time, it should be said to the proud that whenever they take pride in themselves, they fall into imitation of that apostate angel. And what could be worse than pride, which by holding itself above everything so unwinds itself from the stature of true greatness? And what is more sublime than humility, which by lowering itself unites with the Creator, who is above all things? (132)
For one “gives bread and wine to sinners” if he gives assistance to the wicked, precisely because they are wicked…The one, however, who gives his bread to an indigent sinner (not because he is a sinner but because he is a human_ gives aid to a righteous beggar, because it is not the sin that the giver loves but the humanity. (143)
For those who do not steal [wealth] but do not give of their own should be advised that they learn carefully that the earth from which they come is common to all and produces nourishment for all in equal proportion. Therefore, it is foolish for them to suppose themselves innocent who proclaim that he common gift of God belongs to their own private stocks. For those who do not distribute what they have received loiter in the midst of the slaughter of their neighbors, because they are daily responsible for the poor who die who might have been aided by the provisions they keep to themselves. For when we minister what is necessary to the indigent, we bestow not what is ours, but what rightly belongs to them. In fact, we pay a debt of justice, not an act of mercy. (146)
Alas I am like a poor painter who tries to pain the ideal man. I am trying to point others to the shore of perfection, as I am tossed back and forth by the waves of sin. But in the shipwreck of this life, I beg you to sustain me with the plank of your prayers, so that your merit-filled hands might lift me up, since my own weight causes me to sink. (212)
I was so distressed after reading the first two chapters I had to contact a mentor who knew something about Gregory in order to be sure I should still be doing what I’m doing. What he pointed out to me was how Gregory’s writing contains an oasis of grace along the vast desert, which occurs every now and again. Gregory is intense, often severe, but these moments of grace that pop up work to reassure the reader that this is not intended to burden us with an insurmountable law, but to guide us by a trustworthy rule—and to let God’s grace be sufficient for all of us, no matter how unworthy of our task we are.
This book is a classic for a reason, and I recommend it to anyone. If anyone is dumb enough to let me have a say in seminary curriculum in the future this will definitely be required reading somewhere along the line. If you’re a minister you need to read this. If you’re not a minister you need to read this—not just for a good guide to your inner life, but also to help keep your minister in check.