St. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) was Bishop of Rome from 590-604. The son of St. Silvia and Gordianus, a Roman patrician, he was appointed urban prefect of Rome in 573 and entered monastic life the following year. Upon his father’s death, he converted the family’s Roman villa on the Caelian Hill into the Monastery of St. Andrew, where today there is still a monastery and the Church of St. Gregory on the Caelian Hill. At that same monastery he set the precedent for the Gregorian series of Masses: the practice of having thirty Masses offered for a deceased person. In 579, Pope Pelagius II made him a deacon and sent him as papal ambassador to the imperial court in Constantinople. In 590, a few years after his return to Rome, Gregory was elected Pope. One of his most important actions as Bishop of Rome was to appoint the prior of the Monastery of St. Andrew, Augustine of Canterbury, as the head of a mission to convert the English. Through his writings, he exerted an immense influence of spirituality and ministry in the Latin Church throughout the Middle Ages and was recognised as a Doctor of the Church.
In part one of this interview, Dr. Thomas Humphries explained his pick of the five best books by St. Gregory the Great. In this second part, he looks at the best biographies of the saint and discusses his own work.
Dr. Thomas Humphries, a native of Arkansas, is Professor in the College of Arts and Science at Saint Leo University, Florida. a native of Arkansas and a life-long Roman Catholic. He holds a mandatum from the diocese of St. Petersburg and enjoys giving regular theological reflections outside of the classroom with student faith communities, parishes, and monasteries. He also volunteers with the local fire department as Chaplain and holds the rank of District Chief. He is a licensed Florida EMT and NREMT. He is the author ofAscetic Pneumatology from John Cassian to Gregory the Great (Oxford University Press) and Who is Chosen?(Wipf and Stock).
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What led you to study the Church Fathers in general and St. Gregory the Great in particular? I was at Catholic University of America, studying for a masters and a PhD. There were so many things that I wanted to study. In a systematics class, we were studying theological anthropology: grace, free will, predestination, union with God, and so on. I was also reading some theologians from this century and the last. What I noticed is that all the good modern theologians were arguing about what the ancient theologians meant. In other words, we are not the first generation to ask these profound questions about the Trinity or what it means to be created in the image of God. I realised that if I wanted to engage contemporary theologians meaningfully and deeply, then I needed to learn the Fathers. They set the terms of the conversation. I wanted to study them to answer the questions that were burning in my own heart and still are.
I also encountered my own limits. I thought that I could do this right away. It turns out that you can't. You need to study a lot of languages, history, and philosophy. It took me a long time to do that. So, I devoted five years of my life to being formed as a historical theologian, specialising in the early centuries. Now you cannot do it equally well in all languages. I chose Latin, a language that I had started learning in high school and which, as a Roman Catholic, is in many this a native language. That is how I got specifically into Latin patristics and Gregory.
A little bit of God leaves you wanting more.
You have written on St. Gregory in your book Aesthetic Pneumatology. In brief, what are the theme and main findings of your study? Part of writing a dissertation and your first book is showing that you belong to the academic community. You need to find something to sink into. I was very interested in desire, its meaning, how it manifests itself in our own lives, and its connection to God. Gregory is one of the theologians who has thought a lot about desire.
A helpful observation that often shows up in the Moralia in Iob—and probably in the Gospel Homilies too—is that there are different kinds of desire. Some desires are over when you get what you want. Take the desire for a drink. You are thirsty, drink, and then you are not thirsty anymore. But there are other desires, where a little leads to wanting more and more. Now, some of those desires are problematic. Take my desire for doughnuts and bacon. If I eat one piece of bacon, I want all the bacon in the house. If I eat one doughnut, I need to eat the rest of them. These problematic physical desires point toward spiritual desire and our desire for God. The desire for God can never be sated. You are never full. A little bit of God leaves you wanting more. So, you just fall headlong in love, and you just keep falling and going after God. That is an experience, Gregory says, of ecstasy: of standing outside yourself. You move outside yourself and get away from your problems, hangups, sins, your limitations, and you exceed them. For a Catholic, whenever you exceed yourself or go outside yourself, then God says, “Come, stand inside me. Come, belong to me. Be my adopted son or daughter. Belong to my family.” So, there is this process of transformation. This does not mean that that all my desires are bad. It means that many of them are misunderstood and that we need a school of desire. I has read some of what Bernard of Clairvaux says about that question, and thought that I would maybe write the dissertation on him. But a lot of that work has been done and done quite well. So, I kept kind of circling around. Gregory. I had also been trained in Augustine by my advisor, Lewis Ayres, and, because I had been around Benedictine monasteries, in Cassian. I started doing the work of a historian and realised that, as a monk, Gregory combines a lot of Cassian and of Augustine, a different kind of monk and a bishop. That demarcated a period. Cassian and Augustine are contemporaries. They are at the beginning of that cycle. Gregory is at the end. Every one of them agrees that the process of transformation, the movement from fear to love, from vice to virtue, from this life to the next, is premised fundamentally on the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. To study that that transformation in virtue, that ascetical practice, is to study Trinitarian theology, the work of God in our lives.
As for additional readings, you recommend three biographies on St. Gregory the Great: Dudden’s was published at the beginning of the 20th century; those of R.A Markus and Carol Straw were written towards its end. What is the respective strength of each one? Dudden is the foundation. Markus and Straw both say in their own way that they are not trying to redo his work. Maybe, it is something that cannot be redone. It is a comprehensive, large work that walks you through every point in Gregory's life. For people who like history, modern biographies of ancient figures, and detailed surveys of the intellectual controversies, this is the place to go.
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