St. Gregory the Great was born c. 540, Rome —died March 12, 604 and was pope from 590 to 604. He was a reformer and excellent administrator, and has been considered to be the “founder” of the medieval papacy, which exercised both secular and spiritual power.
A year ago I spoke about his sending Augustine on the mission to Kent. I thought I would take a different route to celebrating Gregory today : that of music, so I looked up “ Gregorian” chant which is named in his honour. However scholars of music tell me that whatever Gregory sang or knew in his churches and Cathedrals was probably far from what we know as Gregorian chant, which was a later development, and while you see him in the cover picture along with music written in “neums”, in fact that way of writing down music only came into being in the 9th century in the West. In Gregory’s time it was largely a matter of an oral tradition.
So I thought I would try a different tack : Gregory as a writer. I was aware of his reputation but knew nothing of his work. He was responsible for two books of “dialogues,” about the saints of the region we call Italy. They are full of wonder-working and miracles – far too stuffed full for contemporary tastes. But then I looked at some writing of Gregory about the scriptures, and I found here something which interested me and which I will share with you this morning.
I found a passage from his commentary on the Book of Ezekiel.
In looking at Ezekiel chapter one, he develops a way of looking at the four living creatures of Ezekiel’s vision.
The four wheels which accompany each of these are identified by Gregory with the scriptures, and the creatures are identified with all those who are inspired by the life of the Spirit, and raised heavenwards. There is of course the ancient tradition which identifies the four creatures with the evangelists. But Gregory would identify them with all those who read the scriptures and are inspired or lifted up by them. He writes :
“The living creatures move when holy men recognize how they are to live morally. They are raised from the earth when they lift themselves in contemplation. And because to the degree that a holy person makes progress in Sacred Scripture, the same Sacred Scripture makes progress in him, it is rightly said, “And when the living creatures went, the wheels went alongside them; and when the living creatures were raised from the earth, the wheels rose at the same time.” For the divine Scriptures grow with the one reading them, and a person understands them more loftily the more loftily he devotes himself to them. The wheels are not raised if the living creatures are not raised, because unless the minds of readers make progress toward the heights, the Scriptures, not being understood, lie as if in the depths. If a word of Scripture seems lukewarm to some reader and does not stir his mind and there is no spark of understanding in his thinking, the wheel does not move and remains on earth because the living creature is not raised from the earth. But if the living creature goes, that is, if he seeks how to live properly and by the progress of his heart finds how to make progress in good works, then the wheels move too because you will find as much of an advance in the Scriptures as you advance in yourself. And if the winged living creature suspends itself in contemplation, the wheels are lifted from the earth, because things in the Scriptures which beforehand you thought were said with some earthly meaning you now understand are not earthly. You recognize the words of Scripture to be heavenly if on fire by the grace of contemplation you lift yourself to heavenly things. The wondrous and ineffable power of the Scriptures is recognized when the mind of the reader is penetrated by love from above. Surely all of us have had the experience of revisiting some work of literature, or philosophy, or even theology, and finding in it much that we never saw the first time we read it. The Scriptures grow with the one reading them…”
And so we give thanks for Gregory’s wisdom, shown in his writings and his gift for administration and in the achieving and sustaining of peace in the world around him. And we remember his word of self-definition, when speaking of the bishop of Rome :
“I am the servant of the servants of God.”
Thanks be to God.