On loving God in the active life – wisdom from Pope Saint Gregory the Great
Before he was chosen as Pope, Saint Gregory was a monk (under the Rule of Saint Benedict), and a deacon (yea, go deacons!!). He had a monastic contemplative life, based around his monastic schedule – Liturgy of the Hours, lectio divina, meditative prayer, and silence of tongue, mind, and opinion. When he became Pope, he complained bitterly about the loss of this schedule and this spiritual routine. He feared greatly the damage this lack of contemplation could do to him, and through him to the souls in his care.
But in the course of his pontificate, Saint Gregory came to understand another path of contemplative prayer, suitable for those in the active life. Here in very schematic form are the six steps he sketches out on this path.
1. The pursuit of natural virtue in one’s duties in the world. The four cardinal virtues – prudence, fortitude, justice, and temperance – are part of the natural law, and we know about them, and what makes them good, from our ordinary experience in this world. No one in the active life can deny that to pursue these virtues is a good thing in itself. Those who strive for these virtues are “better” people, and they are more admired and respected, in general. The more systematic and self-disciplined the pursuit of these virtues, the more admirable the person.
2. Humility. Saint Benedict says that humility is the root of all virtue, and the self-disciplined pursuit of even natural virtues tends to humility. But humility creates in us the capacity to love the other more than one loves oneself. Humility perfects natural virtue, and, if we’re looking in that direction, leads us to Christ.
3. Obedience. Obedience is another fruit of growing in natural virtue. “Obedience” here doesn’t mean taking orders from someone else; it means choosing to put the good of someone else reasonably high in our priorities. For example, husbands and wives practice this obedience to each other daily, when they choose to do household chores out of love. Employees practice this obedience when they choose honesty rather than lying or stealing from their employer. And so forth. In a larger sense, what we’re doing when we obey in this way is choosing the good more effectively. We’re submitting ourselves more wholeheartedly to the demands of that vision of the good, through the practice of natural virtue perfected in humility. Already at this level there is a degree of joy which draws us further along this active path. As the saying goes, "Virtue is its own reward."
4. Unity and peace, then, are the practical fruit of natural virtue, humility, and obedience in one’s state in life. It is the lack or the imperfection of virtue that separates us from each other, and that breaks our peace with each other, for example in anger. But, looked at from the other direction, unity and peace are also the means of encountering the true unity and true peace of the Mystical Body of Christ. That is, natural unity and peace are the historical expression of supernatural unity and peace in Christ. So again, natural virtue leads us to Christ. The more our growth in virtue orients us to the good of others, the harder it is to maintain a vision of the good separate from the good which is Christ.
5. In the Church, the submission of one’s judgment to the reign of Christ is purified. The fruit of unity and peace in the Church, the mystical Body, is an encounter with Christ the Head. We therefore begin to apply the humility and obedience to the Church, also. We come to love God’s providential will in the Church. We submit ourselves more and more to her wisdom in doctrine; we look more and more to her moral guidance in daily matters; we find increasing happiness in fulfilling her precepts. The joy of loving Christ, and of loving like Christ, begins to make our attraction to merely created goods less compelling.
6. Loving the Church, we can finally envision love for God Himself as perfect Love. We find, in the depths of our most basic motive for meeting our duties in the active life, the eye of our heart gazing upon God’s divinity. To put it simply, we live the divine praises.
The attractive object of contemplation for those in the active life -- what draws our attention and our attraction out of the created order and toward God -- is, then, the providential will of God. By learning to love the will of God, starting at the most general level of natural virtue and working “up” to the most personal level of my vocation and what God wills me to do, right now, today, in order to serve in that vocation, we come to love God Himself – which is, of course, what we are created and baptized for.
I stress that following this path doesn’t happen automatically. We still sin. Even without sinning, we choose contradictory and retrograde goods every day. God doesn’t deprive us of the good of our will. We must choose to love him, at every moment. But what this path showed to Saint Gregory was that he need not regret leaving the monastery. It is possible to be a perfect imitator of the perfect love of Christ, even in the midst of active life in the world – in the world, that is, but not of the world. This path, finally, is one of interior conversion -- a different path of interior conversion than the monastic vocation, but that’s precisely why we who aren’t monks need it.