Is virtue an action or an attitude? – Gregory the Great on the contemplative life

Is virtue an action or an attitude? – Gregory the Great on the contemplative life

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Gregory the Great, of gregorian chant fame, was pope in the 6th century. Born of noble family and classically educated, Gregory opened monasteries, sent a bishop-led mission to newly discovered England, and is one of the four recognized “doctors of the Latin church.”

The selection included in The Great Tradition is not about education per se, not about educating the young, at least. Rather, it is about the right kind of life to pursue. It is a pure life of the mind or a life of active service in the world? Which is to be chosen and why? In education terms, the question is towards what end are we educating? What kind of life are we preparing ourselves and our students for?

Gregory weighs in on this in the midst of a commentary on Ezekiel.

How to attain a foretaste of inward peace

First, Gregory establishes the categories.

When he speaks of an active life, he means activity, doing, but not worldly productivity for selfish aims. Here are some of the things he says are of the active life:

  • “give bread to the hungry”
  • “teach the ignorant”
  • “set aright the lost”
  • “care for the weak”

Whereas in the contemplative life we

  • “hold fast with the whole mind”
  • “cleave to the sole desire for God”
  • “burn to see the face of the Creator”
  • “to seek to be…among the Angels”

Both of these lives are to be desired and pursued. Each has their place. Yet it is the contemplative life that fuels the active life. Because we cannot attain perfect contemplation or the aim of contemplation (heaven) in this life, we must be propelled by it to activity in this life that bears fruit and produces disciples and converts. But a busy life of good works with no contemplation is not rightly ordered and cannot be maintained, for contemplation grows our desire for and love of God.

Like a wall that has both width and height, so is a life lived rightly:

Therefore the breadth pertains to charity for our neighbor and the height to understanding our Maker….each soul will be as wide in love for its neighbor as it is high in knowledge of God.

A life given entirely to contemplation is a dissatisfied life, for

placed in this life, we taste the mere beginnings of inward contemplation.

but we must partake of it some to grow that taste for what will be perfected in glory:

the contemplative is begun here that it may be perfected in the Heavenly Kingdom.

Pulling several biblical analogies (most oddly analogical, but Mary and Martha feature), he shows that we are to strive for balance between the two orientations of our energy, outward and upward:

a good order of life is to strive from the active to the contemplative…so that the active life may be lived the more perfectly because the contemplative has kindled the mind.

Even in the midst of learning, praying, and worshipping, “the laborious life of good works is not to be wholly abandoned.”

Rather than being opposed, these two modes feed each other and build a virtuous circle.


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