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Reflection: Saint Gregory Pope of Rome, Guide for Spiritual Leadership

by Hieromonk Innocent of St. John Monastery, Manton

Soon, our Church will enter the great season of the Fast. As we empty the meat and dairy sections of our refrigerators, we may be a little apprehensive of the long weeks of Lent that lie before us. How easy it is to forget all the good things that happen to our souls as we set aside our many cares, quiet down and focus a little more on God. The service of the Presanctified Gifts embodies what is good and deep and meaningful about this season of repentance. Candles flickering in the dim light, the chanting of the Psalms, the journey through Genesis and Proverbs, the choir singing “Let My Prayer Arise”, and the hunger pangs of our fasting all blend together to humble us, to slow us down. We can be thankful that a fifth-century Pope of Rome developed and instituted this evening liturgy as a way to strengthen us and spur us on to the repentance and spiritual growth that we seek during these forty days. Yet St Gregory has given us more than this beautiful, lenten liturgy. He also wrote The Book of Pastoral Rule to inspire spiritual leadership and raise shepherds for his flock.

In 6th century Rome, Pope Gregory faced a problem. Candidates for bishops and parish priests were scarce, yet there were many ascetics who were qualified, yet reluctant to leave their seclusion. To address this pressing issue, Gregory wrote The Book of Pastoral Rule. In his wonderful book, he details the stringent requirements of the spiritual director, yet invites the ascetic not to hide his talent but to step up to the task of leading Christ's flock. Gregory graciously shares his experience with this would-be pastor by providing an encyclopedic description of nearly every conceivable human situation and personality-type and how best to advise and treat each condition. Compassion and discernment shines through this unprecedented sixth century work as the pontiff brings a wealth of experience to beginner spiritual fathers as they follow the Chief Shepherd and endeavor to feed and guide His rational flock.

Book One of Pastoral Rule stresses that the inexperienced should not venture to come to a position of authority. One should not seek this position for the glory of it. His cryptic statement, “the afflictions of the mind are more hidden than the wounds of the body” applies not only to those under the care of the spiritual father, but to the spiritual father himself. Any hidden wounds in his heart will be manifest when he is placed in a position of authority.

The crucible of leadership reveals many faults. Gregory invites the candidate to discover what is from his past, and so test his worthiness for the task. For example, if one has been unable to refrain from pride while in subjection, he will certainly not acquire humility while in a position of authority. Those who grasp at authority are sometimes eager to showcase what they have learned through study, and not, as they should, by practice. The mind of the leader is unable to handle a single task, because it is confused and divided by many things. Such a one becomes a stranger to the all-essential practice of self-examination. Finally, the perverse leader can do much harm to the Church, because no layperson is pluck enough to rebuke him.

The spiritual father must remain connected to the Chief Shepherd. It lamentable that the Truth (St Gregory aptly uses this title of our Lord) is unknown to the pastor. The true shepherd must be practiced in prayer. He must be able to obtain from the Lord whatever He requests—this especially so when he prays on behalf of his spiritual children.

Although caring for the flock requires much energy and attention, the pastor should not so exhaust himself as to neglect his own interior life. The example of Moses from the Old Testament teaches us about this. Although he was quite busy with all the concerns of the Children of Israel, he would always return to the Tabernacle to consult with the Lord before the Ark of the Covenant. For those who wrongly desire leadership, a moment of silence will be more wearisome than the pleasure of being exhausted by activity. Much vigilance is needed to avoid getting caught up in external affairs and so be drawn away from concern for the interior life.

The dangers that the spiritual director faces are many. The mind of the priest can be seduced by praise. If he listens to what people are saying about him, he can become exalted inordinately. Internally, he can lose the sense of the truth. St Peter gives us the example of one who saw himself as equal with other humans. When the centurian Cornelius bowed before him, he stopped him with these words: “I am also a man.” On the other hand, Eli's sons, who strayed into sacrilege and fornication, serve as an example of what happens when too much equality is exercised by the leader.

The work of a spiritual father requires much discernment and the ability to speak well. As is outlined in great detail in Book Three, the director needs to discern the difference between virtues and vices. Some things should be gently amended, while others sternly rebuked. He must study how to be endearing, so that he may be heard. He must be ever meditating on sacred Scripture, so he can always be ready to give an answer. Like the contents of the Ark, he must have the rod of restraint together with the manna of sweetness ever in his heart.

There are many types of people, many personalities, and many walks of life. One and the same exhortation is not appropriate for everyone. In Book Three, Saint Gregory seems to address every possible personality and situation. Indeed, before any advice can be offered, one must take care to differentiate between different types of people and personality extremes.

This compendium of personalities is presented as a study in opposites. The bold have one set of traits, the timid another. The healthy have their own hazards, while the sick face another kind of danger. The obstinate may be cleansed by rebuke, when such an admonition brings them to acknowledge the haughtiness of their thoughts, while the fickle must be encouraged to strengthen their minds with seriousness.

Many traits requiring specific advice would seem, on the surface, as virtues. The abstinent, the peaceful, the humble, and the meek, for example, all receive specific guidance from this wise instructor of pastors. It follows that even virtues, when exercised wrongly, can become vices. In some cases of abstinence, humility is “put on show”. To bring this act into balance, focus must be shifted from self to the Lord. The peaceful must not be complacent, the humble should be encouraged, and the meek warned against idleness and sloth. Saint Gregory reveals to his readers the pitfalls of every situation and state. He thereby encourages discernment in the spiritual father and vigilance in all of us who truly strive for the virtues.

Readers of this article may not be called to pastoral duties, but every Orthodox Christian is called to be a leader. As St Gregory makes clear, we lead others by our very way of life. Perhaps it may not fall to us to lead a mission or a parish or a monastery, but each of us (if we think about it) have our own “flock” that we care for. This may be our children in our family or our colleagues at work or our particular group of ministry within the parish. Each one of us has influence on each other, and each one of us is called to relate to others with discernment and love.

As we enter Great Lent and commemorate the Feast of St. Gregory the Dialogist, Pope of Rome on March 12th, let us be grateful for his legacy: his quiet, beautiful evening liturgy and his wonderful book of guidance for the spiritual shepherd.

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