In the Eye of the Storm: A Biography of Gregory the Great by Sigrid Grabner

(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009/2020), 279

This biography of Gregory is thrilling and reads like a novel. He lived so long ago, and yet his life is full of lessons for us today, and it is interesting seeing how certain themes of his time relate to our times today.

The challenges Gregory faced—plague, barbarian invasions, the moral and political degradation as the Roman Empire continued to disintegrate—help put into perspective the challenges we face today. And the way he faced these challenges remind us that there is always hope and we must always focus first on doing God's will.

We have inherited from Gregory much beauty: Gregorian Chant (though historians now do not attribute it to him, the name at least points to his love of beautiful liturgy), the papal title of "the servant of the servants of God", and the prayer "Deliver us, Lord, from every evil..." at the end of the Our Father all come to us through Gregory.

Notes


Contents


Introduction: An Encounter

  • Visit the church of San Gregorio Magno in Rome (9)
  • Fresco by Antonio Viviani depicting Gregory in the posture of a writer (16)
    • Oratory of Santa Barbara in the church of San Gregorio Magno in Rome: photo
  • "History is a mirror into which we can look and see ourselves." (17)

Chapter 1: Out into the World

Summary: Gregory's childhood, and his desire to be a good Christian and a good Roman in times that required practical skills: understand the world and act in it.

  • Visigoths sacked Rome in 410, then Pope Leo turns away Attila the Hun in 440, then the Vandals invaded in 455, then Ricimer in 472, Theodoric in 500 (22-23)
  • Gregory's Anicii family heritage included Boethius, who was imprisoned by Theodoric and wrote The Consolation of Philosophy (24)
  • Ignatius of Antioch: "I am the wheat of God; I must be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts to become the bread of Christ." (29)
  • Tertullian: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." (29, cf. Apologeticus bib)
  • Gregory on Education: "For in truth the words of those engaged in raising children will be either milk, if they are good, or poison, if they are bad." (30)
  • "The Psalter, a book that came from heaven, as true honey for the soul, I dived into it avidly, thirsting to examine it without pause, to steep myself in that salutary sweetness, having had enough of the countless disappointments of active life." (34, cf. Expositio in Psalterium PL 70:10 bib)
  • The wisdom of simple folk (i.e. Hobbits): "expresses its thoughts in its own words, loves the truth in things ,accomplishes the good without selfishness, and is more willing to endure evil than to do it." (34)
  • Property management (and incentives of property managers) is an age old challenge (ha) (35, 48)
  • "Against the backdrop of never-ending troubles, the little joys are all the more delightful." (37)
  • Gregory was cheerful but serious, as when he read Augustine's new Confessions (39)

Chapter 2: The Prefect

Summary: Gregory as the Prefect of Rome.

  • Gregory prayed for (and apparently received confirmation of) the salvation of Trajan (40)
  • #wishlist: read Gregory's biography of St. Benedict bib, which is is ultimately a self-portrait (58)
  • 380: Theodosius makes Christianity the state religion (59)

Chapter 3: The Monk

Summary: 574 a turning point in Gregory's life with the death of several close to him and his withdrawal to the monastic life.

  • Gregory read the Bible in Jerome's Latin (Vulgate) translation (76)
    • Anyone could find the answers to their questions in The Bible (77)
    • Reading scripture is like looking in a mirror
    • Gregory read the Song of Songs until he knew it by heart (77)
  • He also loved reading Augustine: "Late have I loved thee, O beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved thee!" (76, cf. Confessions bib)

Chapter 4: In Constantinople

Summary: Gregory is sent as apocrisiarius to Constantinople by Pope Pelagius.

  • Interesting that in Gregory's day the Councils of the Church that formulated and clarified church teaching were all called by emperors (105)
  • Leander, archbishop of Seville, was Gregory's closest friend (109)
    • Leander: "In defeat we learn how to trust God even more." (111)
  • Job: "While the suffering of the righteous remains an enigma, it challenges them consciously to choose their faith again and again, thus setting an example for the world." (112)
  • Leadership is best when involuntary: "When the shepherds perish [morally], the flocks inevitably follow them into perdition. They can only exercise their authority well if they do not seek it out, but rather fear it." (115)
    • "to be called to a position of leadership is a stroke of fate that is to be feared." (171)
  • #wishlist: read Gregory's commentary on Job, Moralia in Job bib, which he delivered while in Constantinople (116)
  • Gregory: "We need to resist the evil deeds of the invaders with all our strength, and at the same time win their hearts." (118)

Chapter 5: The Plague

  • Poverty: "Man needs a roof over his head, food to sustain his body, and clothing to cover his nakedness and protect him from the cold. Those who have these things are not poor.' "Poor is he," Gregory said, "who desires that which he lacks. And rich is he who does not wish to acquire that which he lacks. Poverty consists in a spiritual sense of having not, not in having more or less in one's possession. He who embraces poverty is not poor." (129)
  • Phrases to use: "When Jesus said 'My yoke is easy and my burden light,' he wasn't thinking about the Lombards." (131)
  • "Suffering is the highest form of action." (133)
  • "It was only in silence that one could hear the voice of God, and it was only from silence that one could draw strength for the sake of the world." (134)
  • Augustine: "Love, and do what you will." (136)
  • "True friendships are never easy to find, and they need to be cultivated—by exchanging notes and letters and offering help through all kinds of hardship." (136)
  • Feminism: "What say we bearded weaklings who are conquered by anger, inflated by pride, vexed by ambition, and defiled by lust, at the sight of maidens who go to heaven by the sword?" (136)
  • Today is similar to Gregory's day in some ways: "They were in the midst of a chaotic time, and people were in need of clear direction." (138)
  • The patriarch John of Constantinople assumed the title "Ecumenical Patriarch" as a means of claiming some form of primacy (141-142)
  • Plague struck Rome at the beginning of 590
  • "Fiat Voluntas Tua. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven—did these words not resound in Gregory's ears, penetrate his heart?" (147)

Chapter 6: Consul of God

Summary: In a time of crisis, Gregory is made bishop of Rome.

  • "An image of the Blessed Mary ever Virgin was carried in the procession. It is said that this image is still in the church of Saint Mary Major in Rome, and it was painted by Saint Luke, who was not only a physician but a distinguished painter." (152, cf The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine bib)
  • "In trying to keep the people's minds off of their fears, nothing was more effective than meaningful work." (153)
  • "If he wished to encourage them, he was going to have to demand something of them." (154, cf. The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours bib)
  • Gregory called the people to repentance and conversion in the face of the plague and announced a pilgrimage within Rome. (156)
  • God will provide: "The one who has ordained you for this task will also help you to accomplish it." (160)
  • According to The Golden Legend bib, Gregory tried to flee Rome to prevent the people making him Pope, but a beam of light from heaven illuminated where he was and he was taken back and consecrated bishop of Rome on September 3, 590 (161)
  • He called himself "servant of the servants of God", a title the Pope retains to this day (163)
  • "Indeed, may your minds be roused with anxiety at all times, and may this anxiety strengthen you in doing good works." (164, cf. Homiliae in evangelia bib)
  • The Romans of the sixth century were now paying the price for the selfish behavior of those who came before them. (165)
    • → how long until this is the case for us?
  • Gregory as Pope: "I have taken command of an old and grievously shattered ship." (168)
  • Gregory's humility in describing his own writing is also relevant to How I Choose What to Read: "It disappoints me that people bother with inferior texts when there are far better ones available." (172)
  • The most important mission in his pontificate was to strengthen priests and bishops spiritually.

Chapter 7: By the Power of the Spirit

Summary: Depictions of Gregory always show a dove whispering divine wisdom into his ear, as legend says he received his interpretation of the visions of Ezekiel.

  • Racked with pain once more, Gregory was in bed dictating his interpretation of the final vision of the prophet Ezekiel. A veil hung between him and the deacon Peter, his friend and secretary. Because the saint was very silent for a long interval the scribe pierced the veil with his stylus and, looking through the opening, saw a dove whiter than snow hovering over Gregory, which then placed its beak in his mouth. When the dove removed its beak from his mouth, the holy pontiff resumed speaking. Again the pope fell silent, and Peter observed him in prayer with his hands and eyes both uplifted toward heaven, until the dove returned. When Gregory became aware that he was being watched, he charged Peter never to speak of the mirade he had witnessed for as long as he lived. (173, cf Vita Gregori Magni by Paul the Deacon bib)
  • "Own the things of the earth without letting yourselves be possessed by them...Make use of temporal things, but attach your desire only to those that are eternal." (183, cf. Homiliae in evangelia bib)
  • Gregory's over 800 surviving letters (!) demonstrate his Humility: how he demonstrates both lowliness and supreme authority (184)
  • Gregory became strong when he placed himself in God's hands: "those who reach out to God grow beyond themselves." (187)

Chapter 8: Lombards at the Gate

Summary: Gregory brokered a fragile peace with the Lombards, mediation between them and Constantinople.

  • After his first meeting with King Ariulf, he bowed to Gregory and asked for his blessing (205)
  • Gregory to Agilulf: "Rome is not worth that much to them. But to me, it is worth more than my life. So take my life, her and now, and spare the city and its people." (209)

Chapter 9: Fisher of Men

  • The second book of Gregory's Dialogues is the life of St. Benedict: everything we know about him comes from Gregory (221)
  • Important for the progressive atheism of our day: "Not even an unbeliever lives without faith." (222, cf. Dialogues, bk. 4, ch. 2 bib)
  • "The virtue of patience they exemplify is, to my mind, greater than the power of working miracles." (223, cf. Dialogues, bk. 1, ch. 13 bib)
  • Gregory added the "Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen." to the end of the Lord's prayer (243)

Chapter 10: Man of Sorrows

  • Gregory maintained peace with the Lombards partially through his friendship with Queen Theodelinde (250)
  • "His knowledge of history and human nature made him rather pessimistic about the future." (251)
  • "If you wish to have your fill of delicious food, read the works of the blessed Augustine. After having such fine wheat you will no longer seek out our poor chaff." (255)
  • Augustine: in his final illness, he had the Penitential Psalms written out in big letters and hung on his wall so that he could see them from his bed (256)
  • re Wokeness today: "In every age, an effective means of getting rid of inconvenient people was to deny that they held the right beliefs or had the right convictions." (258)

Topic: St. Gregory the Great

Source: Madj, Christmas 2021

Bibliography

file:(2022-09-19-In the Eye of the Storm)

New Words

  • pederasty: The crime against nature; sodomy. (22)
  • latifundia: great landed estate with primitive agriculture and labor often in a state of partial servitude. (47)
  • effete: No longer capable of producing young, as an animal, or fruit, as the earth; barren; sterile. (85)
  • apocrisiarius: A delegate or deputy; especially, the pope's nuncio or legate at Constantinople. (92)
  • coregent: joint ruler or regent (101)
  • abstemiousness: The quality of being abstemious, temperate, or sparing in the use of food and strong drinks. It expresses a greater degree of abstinence than temperance. (263)

Resources

"In the Eye of the Storm": Bishop James Conley and Kevin Wells on St. Gregory the Great


Created: 2022-09-03-Sat
Updated: 2023-01-13-Fri