On March 12, 604 Pope St. Gregory the Great died. As his honorary title proclaims, he was a great man and a great pope. But his greatness was his not because he made the papacy great again. St. Gregory was called great because he was good — the servant of the servants of God, as he challenged himself to be. His greatness was achieved in a spirit of humble hesitancy to be great: a spirit of holy meekness. In fact, greatness was the very thing Gregory himself did not desire, and it was in that that he achieved greatness together with his great desire for God — a desire that gave Gregory an even greater title than “the Great:” namely, the Doctor of Desire.
St. Gregory was a man who lived in an age that was as turbulent and as troubled as the current age. In his own day, St. Gregory was convinced that he was living in the end times. But the world is always coming to an end. There may not be marauding Lombards at the gates, but the fragments of modern civilization are under attack by a new breed of barbarians. Given that cultural crisis is common to both eras, the story of St. Gregory’s life has direct applicability to what is transpiring in the world today.
Gregory’s Italy was tottering under the failed conquests of the late Emperor Justinian, and reeling with famine, disease, bureaucratic corruption, and devalued education. Gregory prepared for his role in his ravaged, burnt-out world through the Liberal Arts and a thorough course in religious studies. His classical education and promising political life as a Prefect of Rome led him, by their contrast, to a Benedictine monastery, where he rejoiced in the simplicity, order, and rigor of the monastic life.
But Gregory could not hide from the world. Renowned for his wisdom and learning, Pope Benedict I compelled the happy monk to become a distracted deacon of Rome. Next, Pope Pelagius II sent the distracted deacon to Constantinople to be a flustered papal emissary. When the flustered emissary tried to slip back into his abbey to be a happy monk again, he was made into an overwrought papal secretary. When Pope Pelagius died, the overwrought secretary was pressed to become a reluctant pope.
Though Gregory tried to avoid the holy office, appealing to the Byzantine Emperor and even fleeing Rome, Gregory could not escape. The people would not allow it—and neither would God. Gregory became pope, and though unwilling, he proved one of history’s most active, most influential, and most powerful popes and political leaders. Though disinclined to do great works, Pope Gregory’s unwavering devotion to do good works won him greatness. From dining with beggars every day to his famous appellation of lowly captives as angels, Gregory was a man and a pope who knew what it means to love. Though he was hesitant to rise the occasion of worldly opportunity, he never hesitated to rise to the occasion of heavenly charity.
In fact, St. Gregory’s reluctance to be great is a mystery at the heart of his grudging yet accepting rise to papal power. It is a mystery to be embraced in following the standard of St. Gregory—and the teachings of Christ, for that matter. Blessed are the meek; for they shall possess the land. The reluctance to be great is a measure of sanctity, sanity, and charity, and it is therefore a cause for greatness through the virtue of meekness. Meekness is not weakness. It is the noble desire to sit at the lowest place out of love for neighbor. It is strength. Though the meek do not resist evil with force, they overcome it with patient and enduring goodness. The meek are those whose reason guides impulse, restraining anger and passion. They are not free from anger or without passions but have the will to control and master them. In this lies strength, virtue, and greatness. St. Gregory the Great’s greatness was rooted in this reluctance to be great and his dedication to self-discipline, humility, and meekness.
For people of faith, greatness should not be the stated goal. Greatness is the result of a very different goal, and that goal is love. Gregory was a saint of great love for things good, true, and beautiful. St. Gregory was positively animated by a dynamic love that all can only hope to imitate—a love that was focused entirely on the desire for God. Jean Leclerq, a Benedictine monk and theologian, once called St. Gregory the “Doctor of Desire:” a surprising title for a saint and a pope. One could even propose, the Doctor of Love, or even the Love Doctor. Why would someone refer to St. Gregory with this surprising title? By it, Leclerq refers to Gregory’s philosophy that asceticism was a preparation for the desire for God: a training, or cultivation, of desire.
Through prayerful meditation on Sacred Scripture, desire for God is sown in the heart under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit inspires mankind’s best thoughts, brings understanding, and enkindles and guides the deepest and most inward longings. At the touch of the Holy Spirit the heart leaps up in yearning for God. Gregory speaks of this experience as a colloquy or a conversation between God and man; a conversation that begins with God’s word inflaming the desire of the heart, a gentle word that one must wait for, listen for. “The greatness of contemplation,” St. Gregory wrote, “can be given to none but those who love.”
There is a passage in the Book of Job that echoes Elijah’s famous experience where he searches for the Lord in a hurricane, in an earthquake, and in a fire, but only finds him in a gentle breeze. Job reads, “There stood one whose countenance I knew not, an image before my eyes, and I heard the voice, as it were, of a gentle wind.” In this, this murmur, this hidden word, Gregory hears the opening of a lovers’ dialogue. “This inspiration touches the human mind,” he writes, “and by touching lifts it up and represses temporal thoughts, inflaming it with eternal desires… so that to hear the hidden word is to conceive the speech of the Holy Spirit in the heart.”
The cultivation of desire, or the cultivation of the virtues of the heart, that St. Gregory speaks of is the very essence of the human vocation. Generally speaking, people will only do well if they have a will—a wanting, a desire—to do the thing at hand. Consequently, a life that does not engage the heart fails. True devotion, even devotion to God, is a type of passionate endeavor; an attempt to awaken desire and the longing for ultimate consummation. If wisdom is a beautiful woman, as we learn from Proverbs, then love must not only play a part, it must lead the way in guiding men to their proper fulfillment. St. Gregory was a priest and a pope, but he was a lover first and foremost, for, in his words, “Where love exists, it works great things.”
St. Gregory the Great, pray for us.