Gregory the Great & his Pastoral Rule
by: Prof. Mehari Zemelak
Moral asceticism, knowledge of the Scripture and good discernment, I think, can be considered the major colors Gregory used to ‘paint the ideal’ pastor, as he tries ‘to point others to the shore of perfection’, as a good Spiritual Father (Part IV).
Perhaps because of his monastic origins, like Ambrose’s or Chrysostom’s description of the good qualities of the clergy, Gregory also emphasizes the necessity of moral asceticism for the pastor. However, Gregory’s pastor seems to be a little different from the clergy of Ambrose or the priest of John Chrysostom. While for Ambrose and John the clergy or the priest is the ascetic leader who leads the church in her liturgy and charitable works. He is a preacher of the Christian doctrine. Gregory’s pastor is also an ascetic leader. But, he is also a Spiritual Father.
It is likely that this comes from Gregory’s Benedictine experience where a spiritual father is in charge for the spiritual perfection of his spiritual children. Gregory’s pastor is in charge of the spiritual growth of his flock. He is the ‘humble companion’ who goes out ‘into the woods’ with the flock holding the ‘iron axe’ of sacred admonishment ‘extracting vice’ away from their lives (Part II, 10). Pastoral work is not just power and authority the spiritual man needs to flee from for the sake of sanctity but also a spiritual responsibility to be accepted for the sake of humility, and above all love for neighbor and obedience. For a baptized Christian doesn’t live for himself but for God. Hence, Gregory found ‘listing and cataloguing this collection of traits’ necessary. He believed this will show the pastor ‘the methods of advising each trait’ differently for the same gentle hissing that calms a horse can throw a puppy into excitement (Part III, Prologue-I).
Therefore Gregory finds ascetic life to be an indispensable quality of the pastor. Through an allegorical interpretation of the Prohibitive rule in the Leviticus (21: 17- 21), Gregory affirms that the Scriptures still invalidate any person who doesn’t lead a morally upright and God centered life. A person who is ‘blinded, paralyzed’ by the darkness of the earthly life, or ‘hunchbacked’ by the weight of a disordered attachment to the present age, or ‘bleary eyed’ whose evil habits and arrogance have blurred their vision of living according to ‘the light of the heavenly knowledge’ have no place in the leadership of the flock. Even during temptations the pastor should be clean from ‘continual rash’ of acting out his temptations. Instead, his self-control is never to be compromised (Part I, 11). He is also required to fortify his virtuous ascetic pastoral life in humility. He is to know himself before God as just another sinner ‘who is tossed back and forth by the waves of sin’ (Part IV). This is only possible, Gregory warns, if the pastor ‘meditates daily on the precepts of the sacred Word’ (part II, 11). As the gold covered bars of the Ark of the Covenant were never to be removed from the four rings of the Ark where the words of the Lord were, so is the pastor to be immersed in the Scriptures, the pastor’s ‘spiritual homeland’ (Part II, 11).
Such a pastor will have the ‘nose’ that discerns between external good and evil actions. Further, ‘he goes in’ to ‘the heart of the laity’ where he sees hidden vices of many virtuous acts. Through spiritual direction he uproots these vices from the hearts of the faithful using kind discipline and disciplined kindness. ‘For discipline is never rigid, nor [is] kindness lax’ (Part II, 6). It seems that Gregory saw himself as someone who strives in this way of perfection and perfecting others as the spiritual father who is concerned.