How to follow Christ at the end of a civilization
By the year 604 Gregory the Great was a spent man. For the previous 14 years, he had served the bishop of Rome, but for the last six he was mostly confined to bed. "I am … exceedingly worn down by perpetual pain," he wrote to a friend in August 599. Yet despite this burden of illness Gregory worked tirelessly, as he always had, on behalf of the Church and his society.
Over his lifetime Gregory had seen his beloved Italy, home to a classical and Christian civilization, ravaged by war. Repeated sieges of Rome left famine and disease in their wake. Large areas of the city were destroyed by fire. The games ceased, organized education stopped, the provision of grain ended, and the Senate no longer functioned.
The most famous buildings in the eternal city were deserted and decaying, and the pattern was now one of recurring cycles of fever, flooding, drought and famine. Something like a third of the population was wiped out by plague. "I have taken charge of an old and grievously shattered ship," said Gregory when he became bishop in 590.
Now he was dying in pain, unable even to walk. The peace he had tried to secure for Rome was crumbling. The city was in the grip of a terrible famine again, and the population was turning on him as a scapegoat. When he finally died on March 12, a mob converged to burn his books. I wonder what thoughts went through his mind as he lay dying. Did it seem all his work and suffering had been for naught?
As a young man Gregory sold his property, gave the money to the poor and became a monk. He was soon called out of this quiet life back into public service on behalf of the Church. He stepped into the vacuum left by the collapse of civic life and ran affairs himself. He negotiated with the Lombards, organized the administration of the city and provided for its military defence. Sometimes you find your calling when there is no one else to do the job but you.
One of Gregory’s greatest successes was the mission he established to England led by a missionary named Augustine and some 40 companions. Gregory was a missional bishop and believed in a missional Church.
He wrote important works of a practical and devotional nature. Given his lifelong illness it is astonishing he wrote anything at all. He wrote a classic book called Pastoral Care for the clergy. He wrote eloquently of what it was to balance a life of active service with a life of prayer. Coming from Gregory this teaching was no ivory tower theorizing.
There were other achievements. He made changes in the liturgy, wrote prayers and fostered the development of church music. From the perspective of later generations, Gregory was seen to be, well, great. But in 604 when he lay dying, he couldn’t have known any of this.
In Rome there would be almost complete silence about Gregory for three long centuries. Imagine someone today who was the combination of Winston Churchill, Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, Lesslie Newbigin, Tom Wright and John Tavener – and is then forgotten until 2300.
As he lay dying, he could have had no idea Christian civilization would revive centuries later north of the Alps, and that his legacy would inspire and shape this new Christian civilization. As it turned out it was Gregory, most of all, who summed up the inheritance of the Patristic Age and passed this on to the European world. He planted seeds that yielded a great harvest.
There are lessons for us today. If in the late modern West we are tempted to lament the demise of Christian influence in our society, Gregory reminds us we are called, as Jeremiah said to the exiles, to build houses, plant gardens and pray for the prosperity of the city. Moreover, we should have our faces turned toward the future in the optimism of Christian mission, rather than clinging to the past with melancholy regret. And most of all, the Church must focus on the imperative of holiness now and for the long haul.
Gregory teaches us how to live at the end of a civilization. We need faithful citizenship, confident mission and deep spirituality. The rest is up to God.
Bruce Hindmarsh is the James M. Houston professor of spiritual theology, Regent College, and author of The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2017). Read more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/HistoryLesson.